Henri Lefebvre on Praxis

The concept of praxis is and is not present in Hegel. For in his philosophico‑political system the divine, providential state creates its own conditions, and these only count as materials for the juridical and political structure. Because Hegel views these elements or conditions merely as "moments," stages in the development of the higher reality of the state, without any substance of their own, he treats them as secondary.

In Marx's Manuscripts of 1844, the Theses on Feuerbach, The Holy Family and The German Ideology (written in collaboration with Engels in 1845/46), the concept of praxis is clarified.

The Manuscripts of 1844 criticize and reject the basic categories and concepts of philosophy, including the concepts of "materialism" and "idealism." What is "substance" in the philosophical sense of the term? It is nature in metaphysical disguise, arbitrarily separated from man. Similarly, consciousness is the human mind in metaphysical disguise arbitrarily separated from nature.

Both materialism and idealism are interpretations of the world, and both are untenable in the face of revolutionary praxis. They are no longer opposed and hence neither is valid. The specificity of Marxism, its revolutionary character, and hence its class character, do not derive from any option for materialist assumptions, but from its practical character, from the fact that it goes beyond speculation, and hence beyond philosophy—beyond materialism and idealism alike. There had been interpretations of the world in earlier thought, eighteenth-century bourgeois thought, most notably. Although it is true that materialism, generally speaking, has been the philosophy of oppressed and revolutionary classes, including the middle classes, the function of the working class  is a radically new one. By clearly stressing praxis (society's actual doing and making, based on industry, which makes it possible to become conscious of all human practice in history), this class leaves behind and rejects once and for all earlier interpretations of life which correspond to obsolete stages in the class struggle.

Consequently, Marxism (which theoretically clarifies the situation of the working class and gives it class consciousness at the level of theory) is not a materialist philosophy because it is not a philosophy. It is neither idealist nor materialist because it is profoundly historical. It makes explicit the historicity of knowledge; it elaborates the socio‑economic formation of mankind in all its historicity.

Philosophy explains nothing; it is itself explained by historical materialism. Philosophy, a contemplative attitude, accepts the existing. It does not transform the world, but only interpretations of the world. The contemplative attitude, one of the remoter consequences of the division of labor, is a mutilated, a fragmentary activity. Now, the true is the whole. Philosophy cannot lay claim to being the supreme, the total activity. The results achieved by this contemplative activity are inconsistent with empirically observed facts. There are no immobile absolutes, there is no such thing as a spiritual beyond. Every absolute is a mask justifying man's exploitation by man. Philosophical abstractions in themselves have no value, no precise meaning. The true is also the concrete. The propositions of philosophia perennis either are tautologies without content, or receive concrete meaning from some historical, empirically verifiable content. To rise above the world by pure reflection is in reality to remain imprisoned in pure reflection. This position does not imply nominalist consequences; the universals are grounded in praxis, which is itself objective.

Marx denies the existence of several qualitatively different types of knowledge, such as philosophical knowledge on the one hand, scientific knowledge on the other. Abstract philosophical thought is justified only as abstraction from particular scientific insights, more accurately, for summing up the most general results obtained from the study of historical development.

Historical materialism is justified by the aim of restoring to human thought its active strength—a strength it had "in the beginning," prior to the division of labor, when it was directly linked to practice. But it is also justified by the "philosophical" decision not to be taken in by the illusions of the epoch and to create a truly universal doctrine.

This triple requirement (that thought should be efficacious, true, and universally human) at once writes finis to philosophy and yet represents its continuation, can still be regarded as a philosophical requirement. It is not fully developed in The German Ideology and The Holy Family, but we find it at the heart of the subjects treated, the polemics, and the criticisms contained in texts written later.

The concept of praxis comes to the fore in Marx's so-called "philosophical" texts. As we have just said, praxis is defined by being opposed to philosophy and to the philosopher's speculative attitude. Feuerbach, who rejected Hegelian philosophy in the name of a materialist anthropology, did not succeed in getting beyond the philosophical attitude. Although he emphasizes the world of sense, he overlooks the subjective aspect of sensory perception: the activity that fashions the object, that recognizes it, and itself in it. Feuerbach does not see that the object of perception is the product (or the work) of a creative activity, at once sensory and social. Because he neglects the practical‑sensory activity, he all the more neglects the practical‑critical, i.e., revolutionary activity. [11] In opposition to a philosophical materialism which did not take praxis into account, idealism developed the subjective aspect of human thought, but only abstractly, ignoring sensuous activity (Theses on Feuerbach, I). Feuerbach himself saw only the grimy workaday aspect of praxis. However, philosophical materialism has even more serious consequences. It attributes changes in mankind to changed circumstances and the effects of education, forgetting that it is men alone who change their circumstances and that educators themselves have to be educated. Hence the materialist theory tends to divide society into two parts, one of which is raised above the other. Consequently, just like idealism, materialist philosophy justifies the state, not on the pretext of organization but that of education (Theses on Feuerbach, III).

"The question whether human thought can arrive at objective truth is not a theoretical but a practical question. It is in praxis that man must prove the truth, that is, the reality, the exactness, the power of his thinking. The dispute over the reality or non‑reality of thinking isolated from praxis is a purely scholastic question" (Theses on Feuerbach, II).

The various branches of knowledge find their scope and meaning in the way they are bound up with practical activity. The "problem of knowledge" as speculative philosophers treat of it, is a false problem. Abstract logical consistency, theory divorced from social activity and practical verification, have no value whatever. The essence of man is social, and the essence of society is praxis—acts, courses of action, interaction. Separated from praxis, theory vainly comes to grips with falsely formulated or insoluble problems, bogs down in mysticism and mystification (Theses on Feuerbach, VIII).

In these early works praxis is defined chiefly in negative terms: as that which philosophy ignores or discards, as that which philosophy is not. This is a polemical determination, although the negative serves to bring out what is essential and positive for dialectical thought. Still, the new concept is not fully elaborated. Marx has not as yet clarified it well enough to forestall certain confusions. The criterion of practice, formulated in the second of the Theses on Feuerbach, will later be interpreted as a total rejection of theory in favor of practicality, as adherence to empiricism and the cult of efficiency, as a kind of pragmatism. In the name of the critique of philosophy, the importance of philosophy will be lost sight of, as will also the fact that for Marx praxis involves going beyond philosophy.

Some writers hold that the social sciences (the human or behavioral sciences, among which sociology stands in the forefront) are an adequate substitute for a philosophy on its last legs. According to them, the symbols, visions, and concepts of philosophy (which they treat as equivalent) will be supplanted by formulations of empirical fact in the fields of sociology, anthropology, cultural history, etc. These thinkers will find themselves at a loss, sooner or later, when confronted by findings specific enough but fragmentary, limited in their import, such as can take on depth and range only by a return to some sort of "philosophizing" (whether admitted as such or not). Or else—it comes to the same thing—the fragmentary techniques of the specialists will promptly impel philosophers to step in and give speculative unity to the formless mass of facts, techniques, results. There will be a tug of war between positivism and philosophism, the objective and the subjective, empiricism and voluntarism.

Others maintain that Marx discovered praxis all right, and his discovery makes philosophy useless while at the same time clearing the way for realization of the philosophers' dreams. Actually the concept of praxis is more complex than that. We have noted that it involves differences, levels, polarizations, contradictions. To analyze and expound its creative power, we must take our point of departure from the universal concepts that philosophy has elaborated.

If the discovery of praxis is interpreted as the rejection of philosophy purely and simply, are we not moving toward a philosophy of praxis, pragmatism or something like it, i.e., just another philosophy, derivative of or substitute for philosophy in the old sense?

All these tendencies are to be discerned in the contemporary Marxist movement higgledy‑piggledy, without elucidation of the hypotheses or their implications. Actually, for all practical purposes, official Marxism takes an empiricist, positivist attitude, under cover of a philosophical phraseology. Its full confidence goes to the sciences and technologies (the natural or physical sciences rather than the historical and social sciences). In this way, under cover of an ideologized Marxism, it comes close to endorsing a technocratic praxis. As for the philosophy of praxis formulated by A. Gramsci, it turns into the justification of one particular practice—that of the Party, the modern prince. In other words, it becomes a philosophy of Machiavellianism, bestowing the cachet of philosophy on political pragmatism.

As for G. Lukács, in his History and Class Consciousness, the proletariat's class consciousness replaces classical philosophy. The proletariat represents "totality"—the apprehension of reality past, present, and to come—the domain of possibility—in radical negation of existing reality.

Unfortunately no such historical consciousness is to be found in the working class anywhere in the world today—in no real individual, in no real group. It is a purely speculative construction on the part of a philosopher unacquainted with the working class. Thus it is subject to the general criticism which distinguishes between spontaneous (uncertain, primitive) consciousness and political consciousness (resulting from the fusion in action between the conceptual knowledge of scientists and scholars—i.e., intellectuals—and the spontaneous consciousness). Lukács substitutes a philosophy of the proletariat for classical philosophy. His philosophy delegates philosophical authority, the power of representing and systematizing reality, to one thinker. This perpetuates the risks and dangers of classical systematization even—and more than ever—when the thinker becomes the collective thinker! Lukács' theory of class consciousness has the same defect as the philosophy of praxis elaborated by Antonio Gramsci. Both Marxist theoreticians have conceived the end of philosophy without its realization—a very widespread error.

The discovery of praxis does away with autonomous philosophy, with speculative metaphysics. But it progresses toward the realization of philosophy only to the extent that an efficacious (revolutionary) praxis relegates to the past, along with the division of labor and the state, the opposition between the world of philosophy (the world of truth) and the nonphilosophical world (the world of reality).

For a number of reasons, some of which were present in Marx's lifetime and some of which have emerged since, but all of which are connected with the contradictory development of Marxism in our time, we believe it indispensable to provide an explication of the concept of praxis. To do this it is not enough to group together excerpts or quotations from Marx and Engels; we have also to clarify the concept in the light of modern man's experience and ordeals. Only a full exposition of the concept, of what it implies as well as of what it makes explicit, will show that it contains many sociological elements—a sociology of needs, of objects, of knowledge, of everyday life, of political life, etc.

In the reading of Marx we propose, the successive steps are gradually integrated in an ever broader and closer conception of practical (political) action. Marx never went back on his criticism of philosophy or on his concept of praxis. To the very end of his life he intended to write an exposition of the dialectical method, but he died without having carried out this project. Not only is Marx's work unfinished, even its most developed portions are insufficiently elaborated. This has contributed to no small extent to later misunderstandings of it.

An exhaustive study of the concept of praxis in Marx, assuming that such a study is possible, would involve the comparative analysis of a considerable number of texts. We are leaving this task to others, as also the task of redefining the relations between Hegel and Marx, and many other unsettled questions. Our sole purpose is to make certain confusions less likely, if not to prevent them entirely, and to show how Marx's concept of praxis leaves room for sociology in the most modern sense of the term.

a. The concept of praxis presupposes the rehabilitation of the world of sense, restoration of the practical-sensuous as called attention to above. As Feuerbach had seen, the sensuous is the foundation of all knowledge because it the foundation of Being. The sensuous is not merely rich in meaning; it is a human creation. The human world has been created by men and women in the course of their history, starting from an originary nature which is given to us already transformed by our own efforts—tools, language, concepts, signs. Wealth at once graspable and inexhaustible, the practical‑sensuous shows us what praxis is. It is one continuous revelation, a disclosure so unmistakable that we need only open our eyes to perceive the enormous scope of praxis in this human creation which encompasses landscapes, cities, objects of common use, and rare objects (works of art). The unity of the sensuous and the intellectual, of nature and culture, confronts us everywhere. Our senses become our theoreticians, as Marx put it, and the immediate discloses the mediations it involves. The sensuous leads us to the concept of praxis, and this concept unfolds the richness of the sensuous.

Relations between human beings are part of this world of sense now rediscovered, revealed, recognized. For before becoming another consciousness for the conscious subject, a living being is merely an object. Precisely as a sensuous object, it enters into more or less rich and complex social relations, which reveal it as "subject," and allow it to exercise its subjective powers—activity, reflection, desire.

b. Man, the human being, is first of all a creature of need. He "is" this to a greater extent than animals are, for nearly all of them from birth onward possess means of survival in their own bodies and their immediate environment. Failing this, they simply die, individuals and species alike. In all human activities, need in general (generically) asserts itself as a condition of human life. There is nothing in human life that does not correspond to some need or does not create a need, even in the most remote reaches of culture and technology, let alone in economic life. In addition to individual needs (which are satisfied only socially), there are social needs proper and political needs, immediate needs and cultivated needs, natural needs and artificial needs. Recognition of the subjectivity of other human beings does become a human—that is, a social—fact until the point is reached where the recognition of the others' needs becomes itself a conscious need. Finally, reason, rationality at the individual and social level, does not emerge until the development of needs has progressed to the point where human communities have need of reason in their activities.

[Point b continues, and points c, d, and e follow. The concept of poeisis is introduced.]

Such a sociology [Marxian] would accentuate the critical aspect of Marxian thought. The structures generated by the process, the forms created by the contents, tend to immobilize the latter. Radical criticism of structures and forms is thus inherent in knowledge, not just the imposition of a value judgment upon sociology (as a value judgment may be imposed on a statement of fact). The results of praxis alienate human beings, not because they "objectify" human capacities, but because they immobilize creative powers and impede progress to a higher stage. Consequently the concept of alienation does not lose its original force, dwindling to a vague designation of the relations between man and his works, but becomes an integral part of a sociology of structures and forms, of the disintegration of forms and the dissolution of structures.

One last observation on praxis. "Thought and Being are distinct, but at the same time they form a unity," Marx, inspired by Parmenides, wrote in Manuscripts of 1844. According to him, philosophy could not restore the unity of thought and being, because it took its point of departure in their difference and stayed within the difference. "The solution of theoretical riddles is a practical task." True praxis is the condition of a real theory. The only true praxis is the revolutionary praxis, which goes beyond the repetitive and the mimetic varieties. "The resolution of theoretical antitheses is possible only in a practical way, by virtue of man's practical energy." Their resolution is by no means a purely conceptual task, but a vital real task which philosophy could not perform precisely because philosophy conceived of it as a purely theoretical task. These philosophical antinomies include subjectivism vs. objectivism, spiritualism vs. materialism, activity vs. passivity (taken abstractly). [21]

Marx's thesis that philosophy must be transcended thus takes on a deeper meaning. Through praxis thought is re‑united with being, consciousness with sensuous or physical nature, the mind with spontaneity. Our emphasis upon praxis sanctions neither the pragmatist interpretation, nor the elaboration of a new philosophy, not even a philosophy of praxis. It calls for the analytical study and exposition of praxis itself. This thesis does not relegate philosophy to "the dustbin of history," but situates it in the dialectical movement of consciousness and being, forms and contents. Philosophy was a form distinct (too distinct, too detached) from contents in the course of human development. This development is not thereby endowed with some ontologically specially privileged status, such as would promulgate historical time as explaining man in terms of causality or finality. "Man" retains an ontological foundation. Where? In "nature." Anthropology has a domain of its own, and man can be defined as sapiens, faber, ludens, etc. Such definition never justifies separating man from his material foundation, or dissociating culture from nature, or what is acquired from what is spontaneously given. Like the other sciences, sociology carves out a halfway house somewhere between nothingness and the whole of reality. It has no right to set itself up as a total science, claiming to encompass the totality of praxis. [22]


11 We hardly need point out that this applies to the theory of the "pratico-inerte" in J. P. Sartre, Critique de la raison dialectique. Sartre misunderstands Marx's criticism of philosophy, ignores how it restores the sensuous, and represents a regression to Feuerbach's anthropology.

21 MEGA, v. III, p. 121.

22 Georges Gurvitch has pointed out several times, particularly in his mimeographed course of Sorbonne lectures, Marx’s importance as a sociologist. He has argued his views against philosophical, economic, and historical dogmatisms. The position taken here differs somewhat from his. We do not believe do that Marx's sociology is to be found almost exclusively in his early works. We think it is possible to discern a sociological aspect in Capital. Nor do we believe that Marx's sociology is primarily of retrospective interest, etc.

SOURCE: Lefebvre, Henri. The Sociology of Marx, translated by Norbert Guterman (New York: Vintage Books, 1969), pp. 30-40, 57-58, 202-203.

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