Reading Guides

Marxism, Space and a Few Urban Questions: A Rough Guide to the English Language Literature

(Originally published in French: )

Stefan Kipfer


Starting in the late 1960s, ‘radical geography’ became a crucial avenue of intellectual innovation in contemporary Marxism. For a generation, its basic orientation was two-fold: (1) politicise ‘space’ by challenging the stranglehold of specialists (architects, urban planners, designers, military planners, regional and development officials) in the spatial disciplines, and (2) insist, simultaneously, on the importance of spatial questions within the various currents of the left. While the first goal yielded a critique of spatial determinism (the idea that space or the environment one-sidedly determines social life), the second warned radicals and revolutionaries against treating spatial organisation, planning and architecture as epiphenomenal (a habit that tends to accept, inadvertently, bourgeois habits in these fields).

I am simplifying of course. Debate over these issues has been heated, as one can tell from the volumes on the subject published between the late 1970s and the late 1980s (for example: Derek Gregory and John Urry eds, Social Relations and Spatial Structures, 1985). In this period, strands of Marxism exercised a decisive influence over the direction of ‘radical’ geography. They did so through debates within and in relationship to anti-imperial, anti-racist, autonomist, feminist, and left-Weberian currents. In this, radical geographies were always multiple. Why? They refracted the long period of mobilisation marked by ‘1968’ and the new left.

Reflecting the imperial status of the Anglo-American university, ‘radical geography’ is still often identified with the English-speaking academy (from the USA and Britain to Canada and Australia). This identification is not wrong but partial: it hides the fact that English-speakers have appropriated insights written elsewhere and in other languages. Among these broader influences, we can mention debates emerging from the South (Latin American and African debates on imperialism, dependency, and neo-colonialism, for example) and other parts of the imperial North (French debates about space, state and the urban, Italian debates about autonomy, German work on state and critical theory, to name just a few).

For Francophones in the hexagone, this means that ‘radical geography’ is another case of ‘French theory’[1] returning ‘home’, as it were. Since 2000, some English-speaking radical thinkers have had some of their works translated into French, most prominently David Harvey, Mike Davis, and Kristin Ross. In turn, collected volumes now provide overviews of the state of English-speaking debates in French.[2] With these translations, French-language contributions by, for example, Henri Lefebvre, Manuel Castells, and Jacques Rancière, get reinserted into French debates after one, sometimes even more rounds of English-speaking engagements.

This ‘return’ of French theory fragments forces metropolitan Francophones to sort out the intellectual trajectories of these thinkers at least twice (once in English, once in French), if not more so even given the presence of these authors in still other languages from Spanish and Portuguese to Japanese. Confronting this challenge has become a necessity not merely for historical reasons, but also in order to (re-) appropriate key concepts (the right to the city, gentrification, multiculturalism, environmental justice) with a sense of context and comparative specificity.[3]

Beginnings 1: Classic, and very current issues

The initial force of Anglophone radical geography was rooted in its confrontation with the academic (and political) mainstream of the time: modernisation theory (in development studies), the Chicago school of urban ecology (in urban studies), and neo-classical economics (in regional science, for example). For the purpose of these critiques, radical geographers mobilised much older debates, however, so it makes sense to revisit some of these, if only briefly.

A quick return to Marx and Engels allows us to detect a basic paradox in Marxian treatments of (the) urban question(s). On the one hand, Marx and Engels (as well as some of their anarchist contemporaries) looked at urban questions broadly, in relationship to peoples’ daily lives as well as larger contours of world history and various aspects of capitalist development. On the other hand, some of their early interventions already indicate that the subjects in question (city and country) are not static and historically uniform but subject to redefinition by the modern capitalist dynamics that are responsible for what Henri Lefebvre would later, in the Urban Revolution, 1970, call a generalised urbanisation of society.

In the first instance, Marx and Engels discussed the city in relationship to larger divisions of labour. In the German Ideology, the Communist Manifesto and in various parts of Capital, they repeatedly discussed the relationship between city and country, industry and agriculture. Their discussion was partly motivated by an interest in the history of capitalism. While some of their early formulations presented an ‘urban’ narrative of the rise of capitalism (one rooted in the commercial cities of the late Middle Ages and the role of merchant capital), Marx also emphasised (in the chapter on Original Accumulation in Capital 1) the role of agricultural change and colonisation in de- and restructuring precapitalist relations.

Taken as a whole and read next to Marx’s shifting views about the role of communal forms of social organisation in the transition to socialism (in his Letters to Vera Zasulich, for example), Marx’s and Engels’s treatment of urban matters, non-systematised as it is, differs in quality from its main theoretical competitors, both of which are basically ‘urbanist’ in their view of history and capitalism. This is true for the classical political economic current embodied by Adam Smith (which treated capitalism as an outgrowth of urban-commercial practices rooted in late medieval European trading cities) and the Weberian tradition (where urban questions are tied to the search for bourgeois rationalities as well as overlapping ideal-typical distinctions between modernity and tradition, and between Europe and the rest).

Needless to say, Marxian debates about city, country and the origins and ends of capitalism are ongoing. That is also true for the relationship between industrial and agrarian concerns. Marx’s discussion of metabolism (in Capital) has underlined the degree to which the expenditure of labour-power is related to geographically uneven, interregional and imperial, processes of biophysical transformation and energy transfer. This insight has been formative to Marxist ecology, and, more specifically, a whole current of Marxist-influenced urban research called urban political ecology (see below). In turn, Marx’s discussion of land rent, while focused in agriculture and the role of pre-capitalist rentiers in the distribution of surplus value, has been taken up by David Harvey and the work of his students Neil Smith and Richard Walker on the role of land rent differentials in explaining on dynamics of gentrification and suburbanisation.

These discussions show that there is much more going on in modern capitalism than the domination of city over country. As we learn from Marx’s analysis of Napoleon III (The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte) and the Commune (Civil War in France), both are crucial for the ruling classes’ ability to rule, and, in turn, the capacity of revolutionary forces to build a social force broad enough to avoid being outflanked, encircled, and crushed. While the 18th Brumaire continued to shape Marxist debates about theories of politics, state and society, debates over the Commune (in Paris and other places, including Mexico and China) continued to influence debates about revolutionary strategy and their spatial characteristics.

Henri Lefebvre’s provocative suggestion, that the Commune represented an ‘urban revolution’ because it was irreducibly bound up with territorial relations in and beyond revolutionary Paris (La Proclamation de la Commune, 1965), was a landmark in the formation of an urban(ised) Marxism, as was Kristin Ross’s book on Rimbaud, which developed various Lefebvrean themes (The Emergence of Social Space, 1988). In turn, Ross’s recent contribution (Communal Luxury, 2015) reminds us that the anarcho-communist dimensions of the Commune radiated much beyond the spatial confines of the (Parisian) Commune itself.

Within the bounds of our Marx-oriented discussion, Ross’s resurrection of her most important interlocutors (Elysée Reclus, Peter Kropotkin and William Morris) and their relationship to the Commune reminds us of the interdependencies of Marxian and anarchist traditions in the First International and beyond. Engels, of course, developed his The Housing Question not only against bourgeois housing reformers but also against another, then highly influential anarchist: Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Engels’s conclusion – that under capitalist conditions, housing problems can only be moved around, not solved – remains a vital reference point for Marxian analyses of housing questions, including critiques of the current (re-)commodification and financialisation of housing (David Madden and Peter Marcuse, In Defense of Housing, 2016). More broadly, it should factor in all attempts to conceive the relationship between spatial experimentation and revolution in dialectical fashion.

Engels’s Housing Question returns us to his early Conditions of the English Working Class. Pioneering but experimental in its methods, Conditions is more ambitious than many current tomes of urban research. Broadly speaking, Conditions does two things. Many years before Georg Simmel and Walter Benjamin, Engels’s contrast between London and Manchester suggests that analyses of modern urban life be comparative, situating the solvent qualities of life in the imperial metropole (London) in relation to the sturdier social geographies of Manchester. Second, his discussion of Great Towns indicates that industrial urbanisation (and what geographers would later call forces of agglomeration) do much more than just enlarge existing towns. They create novel landscapes that are not easily legible through inherited distinctions between city and country in British history.

Engels’s Conditions also insists that urban considerations matter to class formation. The book analyses class relations integrally, by relating sites of (paid) production (workplaces) to spaces of reproduction (neighbourhoods), whether or not these sites and spaces are geographically distinct. This approach allowed Engels to underline that capitalist urbanisation has contradictory implications for subaltern collective action: it is defined not only by the spatial unification of working class life but also a countervailing tendency towards residential separation along occupational and ethnic lines. Ira Katznelson, who redeployed Engels to understand the weaknesses of US-American socialism in the face of City Trenches (1981), Chris Ealham, in his book on Barcelona (Anarchism and the City, 2010), and Elizabeth Perry, in her study on Shanghai on Strike (1993) did not mince words: class politics needs to be analysed with respect to its capacity, or, failure, to appropriate space across the social segmentations and spatial divides between workplace and neighbourhood that developed with the second industrial revolution.

Of course, Engels’s analysis of Manchester (which comes with questionable formulations about Irish workers and does not, or perhaps could not elaborate enough on the segregating qualities of land rent) is not by any means a sufficient starting point for analyses of social segregation. In this respect, one might do well to compare Conditions to Philadelphia Negro, W.E.B. Du Bois’s painstaking investigation of the African-American condition in that city, which was published shortly after Engels’s death. One person to have worked with Du Bois (but not Engels) is Carl Nightingale. His Segregation (2012) sheds light on the world-historical relationship between racism, segregation, and private property (but, and here is a missed opportunity, neither class nor capitalism more broadly speaking).

Beginnings 2: The Era of Revolution and Radical Experimentation

If radical geography developed out of the global moment of revolt that was ‘1968’, it also garnered some of its insights through a rediscovery of older revolutionary histories and their relationships to geography and spatial intervention broadly conceived. While it is now well known that Marx’s conception of time was too complex to fit linear and developmental notions of history, Marxian sensibilities about the multiple and contradictory character of time were brought into the sharpest relief by the Russian, Chinese and Cuban revolutions and their ways of interrupting developmental-evolutionary conceptions of radical change.

The theories of revolutionary strategy that were developed in the course of these revolutions (Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution, Lenin’s and Gramsci’s versions of the United Front, Mao’s conceptions of the peasant revolution, Che’s foco approach to guerrilla warfare) had decisive impacts on conceptions of space, too. Developing one side of Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development, Neil Smith’s Uneven Development (1984), a key text in Marxian geography, would have been simply impossible without these revolutionary references. In turn, the rise of peasant and agrarian questions to the centre of revolutionary theory made it clear that Marxists had no choice but to link The Country and the City (to cite Raymond Williams’ famous statement about English literature published in 1973) and, then relate both to broader dynamics of urbanisation as well as the imperial contours of world order.

‘1917’, ‘1949’ and ‘1959’ (and other revolutionary or proto-revolutionary moments in between) also rattled the worlds of spatial expertise. Instead of asking how architecture and planning can make the social order cohere (and, in the process, guard the integrity of the spatial professions themselves), which was common among many who helped institutionalise spatial planning in the early 20th century, the radical irruptions caused by revolution forced different questions onto the agenda: what is the relationship between spatial organisation and social revolution, and, more specifically, what is the a role for specialists (and other avant-gardes) in the spatial reorganisation of life during revolutionary change (if there is to be a place for such specialists and avant-gardes at all)?

Stimulated first by Russia’s 1917, these questions radiated much beyond the Soviet Union. Also because they shaped socialist initiatives elsewhere (in Amsterdam, Vienna, and Frankfurt, for example), they permeated the major debates about modernism in art, architecture and planning from the 1910s to the 1930s. In the postwar period, the Chinese and Cuban revolutions (as well as subsequent developments in Vietnam, Tanzania, and Nicaragua) made the one imperialist path of Development look less inevitable: they indicated that (neo-) colonial city-country relations (including rural-to-urban migration patterns leading to the growth of metropolitan hydrocephaluses) could be tackled with socialist national planning strategies, transformed property relations, and ‘dialectical’ (participatory) technologies of building and design (to use Cuban terminology).

Ideas from these revolutionary periods have been important to the radical turn in geography and urban studies. In France, Anatole Kopp’s Town and Revolution: Soviet Architecture and City Planning (1967) and his later Quand le moderne n’était pas un style mais une cause (1988) were part of this turn. While his colleagues Henri Lefebvre and Jean-Pierre Garnier developed a critique of the anti-urban nostrums governing Havana (Garnier, Une ville, une révolution, 1973) or suggested that both urban-industrial and rural-agrarian conceptions of revolution had reached an impasse (Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution, 1970), Kopp rescued the most promising aspects of early Soviet history (including Moishe Ginzburg’s constructivist proposal to ‘condense’ the revolution through spatial intervention) not only from the subsequent Stalinist deadly conformisms but also the anti-modernist common sense that ruled 1970s and 1980s urbanism in Euro-America.

Initially, these insights registered in the Anglo-American world as little as Henri Lefebvre’s collaborative entry to a competition to re-plan New Belgrade, which tried to rescue elements of self-management in late state socialist Yugoslavia (Concours International pour la Restructuration de Novi Belgrade, 1986). However, in 2000, Susan Buck-Morss (who had become well known with her brilliant exposition of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project (The Dialectics of Seeing, 1989)) posed some of the same questions as Kopp: what is there to be rescued from the Soviet visual culture of mass utopia (Dreamworld and Catastrophe)? Keeping to the scale of architecture, Owen Hatherley discusses similar problems in his wide-ranging discussion of Landscapes of Communism (2015). Buck-Morss’s and Hatherley’s respective contributions bookended a period when critical (not necessarily Marxist) researchers developed a significant body of work on the state-socialist city (in the East Bloc) and the dramatic socio-spatial transformations of post-Maoist China.

In Italy, constructivist Moscow and Austro-Marxist Vienna were equally crucial for those who tried to deploy autonomist Marxism for purposes of urban praxis (and, in addition, the search for alternatives to the PCI’s municipal socialist initiatives in places like Bologna). Most well known in this current are Manfredo Tafuri’s expansive tomes (Modern Architecture and the American City) as well as his sharp Architecture and Utopia (1976). Tafuri’s pessimistic, and occasionally functionalist take on the Social Democratic and Soviet modernists (and the most ambitious non-Soviet experiment: Red Vienna) has been subject to debate in Anglo-American cultural Marxism, and a lively reply in the urban field: Eve Blau’s comprehensive The Architecture of Red Vienna (1999). Today, younger authors once again push these historical concerns into a strategic direction, towards a Project of Autonomy (Pier Vittorio Aureli, 2008) that attempts to excavate radical autonomist promise from within the social factory that is metropolitan life.

Urban Marxists and radical geographers have learned from revolution in still another way, developing a sharper sense of how and to what extent histories of modern planning and city-building are implicated in counterrevolution. In this respect, they also walk in their predecessors’ footsteps. In the 1920s and 1930s, Walter Benjamin’s Arcades project (including the text collage On the Concept of History) had already placed ‘Haussmann’ in an explosive mix together with the Commune, fascism and the daily life of the commodity (thus transfiguring Engels’s critique of the Baron into modernist form). Others continued this line of argumentation about the counterrevolutionary character of urbanism by highlighting the constitutive role of planning and architecture in the rise of Americanism and Fordism (Antonio Gramsci), generalised alienation and separation in postwar Euro-America (Guy Debord and Henri Lefebvre) as well as racialised compartmentalisation in the late colonial order (Frantz Fanon).

Crucial to critique (of counterrevolution) and aspiration (to a socialised, egalitarian and democratic future) have been feminist attempts to learn from the era of revolution. Instructive here is Dolores Hayden, one of the most important historians of suburbanisation in the USA. While not a Marxist, Hayden suggested that planning and urban development under US Fordism constituted a veritable counterrevolution: a domestication of life through spatial decentralisation, the generalisation the property form and household debt, and a patriarchal and technocratic administration of interior design. In a chapter of her Grand Domestic Revolution (1981) entitled “Madame Kollontai and Mrs. Consumer”, she grasped the specificity of Ford’s project by comparing it not only to its social-democratic equivalent (symbolised by the Frankfurt kitchen) but also to Alexandra Kollontai’s communist vision of women’s liberation to be achieved through a socialisation of domestic work/space and a reorganisation of sexuality and gender relations.

The Radical Spatial Turn: Some Signposts

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, many of these historical concerns were condensed and redirected by the sensibilities and strategic concerns of ‘1968’ as well as the comparative specificities of spatial development and urbanisation in the postwar period. Concentrated in research groups and journals (such as Espaces et Sociétés in French (1970), Antipode (1969), International Journal of Urban and Regional Research (1977) and Society and Space (1983) in English), these debates were never only about the multiple determinations of urbanisation and the role of critical agency therein. Attesting to the slippery character of urban questions in a boundary-shifting capitalist world, debates repeatedly struggled to conceptualise and redefine their subjects of research: space, city, urbanisation.

The 1970s and 1980s

Given the world-wide character of ‘1968’, a political moment that ‘brought together’ Paris with Algiers, Chicago with Saigon, and Prague with Mexico-City, it is not surprising that world-wide concerns about imperialism and neocolonialism also found their way into the radical spatial turn, albeit unevenly. A key text in English-speaking radical geography, Edward Soja’s Postmodern Geographies (1989) clearly emphasised the combination of anti-imperial and metropolitan Marxist currents that shaped this turn in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet not everyone remembers this fact today. While some retrospective treatments of Marxist urban theory (for example Andy Merrifield’s otherwise elegant and very instructive Metromarxism (2000)) all but erased it from their surveys, the spatial translations of deconstructive postcolonial theory since the mid-1990s have retained only tenuous links to earlier, Marxist-inspired historical geographies of the world.

Global Formulations

The 1960s and 1970s witnessed a new round of Marxist debate on imperialism. In contexts shaped by the transformation of non-revolutionary post-independence regimes into pillars of neocolonialism, much early debate focused on the implication of dependency and world system theory for urban research. As summarised in the collection edited by Michael Timberlake (Urbanization in the World Economy, 1985), world-system and dependency traditions conceptualised cities in two ways: as sites whose morphologies, socio-economic structures and relationships to the non-urban world related to their place and function in world-wide divisions of labour framed by imperial surplus transfer and political domination; and as hierarchies of cities interlinked by a myriad of networks (of trade, investment, technologies, corporate organisation, migration, transportation and so on).

World-system and dependency traditions were important (but by no means exclusive) influences in the research focused on particular types of cities and urbanisation processes. Researchers insisted that key features of Third World cities/urbanisation (extreme disparities within and between cities, a lack of capacity to absorb rural-urban migration) were due not to a lack of Development but to the peripheralising consequences of the world system (David Drakakis-Smith, Third World Cities, 1987). One historical cause of this peripheralisation had to do with the legacy of colonisation and the uneven capacity (or willingness) of post-independence regimes to tackle these. Research on colonial cities (Robert Ross and Gerard Telkamp, Colonial Cities, 1985) unearthed basic patterns of urbanisation in colonial Africa, Asia and Latin America while also insisting on the variegated relationships between pre-colonial history and colonial urbanisation. Some insisted that these relationships be analysed as part and parcel of wider transformations of modes of production (Aidan Southall, The City in Time and Space, 1998).

In the course of the 1970s and 1980s, the complexity of peripheral urbanisation was on the order of the day also for contemporary reasons. As Warwick Armstrong and Terry McGee highlighted (in Theatres of Accumulation, 1985), debates about the New International Division of Labour forced researchers to conceptualise the diversification of Third World urbanisation. One avenue to do this was to pay greater attention to class formation, notably with respect to the new, transnationally connected industrial urbanisation dynamics reshaping some Cities of the South (Jeremy Seabrook, 1996). Another research path was to study linkages between Foreign Direct Investment and gendered class formation in new manufacturing zones in places like Mexico and Eastern Asia, on the one hand, and, new migration patterns from these zones to the central places where FDI flows were coordinated, on the other (Saskia Sassen, The Mobility of Labour and Capital, 1988).

One result of these new, more loosely world-systemic debates about the transnational links between investment and migration was research on world or global cities such as London, New York, Tokyo, Paris, Hong Kong and Singapore (Paul Knox and Peter Taylor, World Cities in a World System, 1995). Over the last ten years, global city research has been attacked for reducing urban research to an exercise in typologising cities or, worse, extrapolating from global cities to the study of global urbanisation in general. What these critiques forget were those researchers who wanted to focus on global cities in all their rarity, not in order treat them as paradigmatic cases (let alone to promote them) but, in order to think about the political leverage to be gained from understanding the geographical concentration of global finance and corporate control, the role of these geographies in global capitalism, and the local-regional conditions under which global city space is co-produced (Robert Ross and Kent Trachte, Global Capitalism, 1990).

For a brief period, global city research also served as a reminder about the larger and longer historical links between colonial, Third World and imperial urbanisation. Indeed, the life work of scholars like Janet Abu-Lughod (Rabat, 1980; New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, 1999) and Anthony King (Global Cities and Urbanism, Colonialism, and the World Economy, both 1990) made it clear that global city formation (typically focused on the period since the 1960s) was incomprehensible without a precise grasp of previous rounds of world urban history and the imprint these rounds left in many seemingly banal things (like the history of the bungalow, in King’s case). The work of King and Abu-Lughod thus provided an empirical and theoretically historical materialist reference point for the subsequent postcolonial turn in urban research, within which Marxist and world-systemic concerns were pushed to the margins but did not die (see Bill Freund, The African City, 2007).

Other research that incorporated global geographies into analyses of Euro-American space was also built upon Marxist lineages that have all too frequently been left behind by contemporary researchers. One such strand built on all the militant analyses in the 1960s and 1970s (from the Black Panthers and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers to British Black, that is anti-imperial, politics), seeking to establish analytical linkages between anticolonial liberation politics in the Third World and Black politics in the imperial core (see John Rex, Race, Colonialism and the City, 1973). Somewhat later, cultural geographers influenced by the Birmingham School and the work of Stuart Hall (Peter Jackson, Maps of Meaning, 1989) also insisted on the centrality of race, empire and nationalism in Euro-America in metropolitan heartlands and its migratory linkages to global peripheries.

Euro-American formulations

Considerations of world-systemic inequality and its colonial roots also found their way into the work of the most well-known exponents of Marxist geography and urban research. However, these researchers focused the bulk of their energies on Euro-American developments.

Henri Lefebvre’s urban interests emerged from his work on everyday life, revolution and rural sociology. While his agrarian concerns made him attentive to the state-led urbanisation of France (Du rural à l’urbain, 1970), his interest in the everyday and revolution alerted him to the role of urban strategies (including architecture, planning) in reorganising life and the possibilities these strategies may create for radical rupture (L’Irruption de Nanterre au sommet, Le Droit à la ville, both 1968). In the Urban Revolution (1970), Lefebvre referred to a world-wide tableau of struggles (from Paris to the Latin American barrio) to conceptualise the urban not as the city or the urban region but as fleeting form (centrality-difference) within an generalised process of urbanisation that refracts relationships between central and peripheral spaces at multiple scales. Lefebvre’s partial shift to the global reflects the weight of theories of dependency and imperialism in the 1970s. In the end, Lefebvre’s urban turn resulted in a so far unrivalled proposal: that urban research focus not on objects in space but the multiple and contradictory processes that produce space (The Production of Space, 1974).

Close to Henri Lefebvre in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Guy Debord’s critique of the spectacle (a hyperdeveloped version of the commodity fetish) cast a wide comparative net. It captured most lucidly Fordism, dwelled at length on state socialism, but discussed the Third World only fleetingly. This is also true for his reflections on planning as a “technique of separation” in The Society of the Spectacle (1967). Like Lefebvre, Debord’s critique of the ‘colonisation of everyday life’ used colonialism as an analogy to understand the commodification and bureaucratic administration of life in Euro-America. But, in Debord, we also find glimpses of a more structurally differentiated understanding of spectacular capitalism. In ‘The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy” (1966), he argues that the 1965 Watts uprising event was a revolt against the spectacle-commodity insofar as the latter, while universalising, is founded on hierarchies structured by class and racism. The form of the revolt—looting—thus expressed the particular relationship ghettoised looters had to the spectacle. Therein one could detect its universally radical promise.

As one can follow from the Urban Question (1972) to the more supple City, Class and Power (1978), Manuel Castells’s Marxist theoretical claim to the urban question redirected structuralist Marxist concerns for purposes of urban sociology (and offered a brief, rather misleading critique of Lefebvre in the process). Castells’s work was overwhelmingly focused on the role of the state and collective action in structuring collective consumption and reproducing labour power in the metropolitan regions of advanced capitalism. It emerged from ambitious empirical research projects on urban social movements and had a major influence on English-speaking structuralist urban Marxism in the 1970s; today, it remains crucial for researchers on urban social movements. When putting his work on collective consumption in comparative context, Castells’s elaborated on ‘dependent urbanisation’ in the Third World. These broader themes, Castells took up in his post-Marxist work on urban movements (The City and the Grassrooots, 1983), where Latin American squatter movements serve as a crucial reference.

David Harvey’s interest in imperialism is as old as his move from liberal to socialist formulations of urban theory, which he outlined in his Social Justice in the City (1973). In this book and subsequent work, Harvey made selective use of Lefebvre’s Urban Revolution to reconsider geography and urban questions through a rereading of Marx’s magnum opus: Capital. At this level of theory, Harvey treated imperialism and the urban process (investment in the built environment mediated by land rent) as moments in the metamorphosis of capital. In the Limits of Capital (1982), he described both as spatial fixes: temporary geographical embodiments of capital shaped by capital’s periodic, crisis-driven search for ways to invest surplus capital. Before his more recent analyses, his interest in imperialism remained separate from his urban research, however. In the Urban Experience (1989) and the Paris: Capital of Modernity (2003), two books that best capture his work in the 1970s and 1980s, Harvey brilliantly uses analyses of land-rent and the built environment as entry points to studying the broader constellations of production and reproduction that define urban regions such as Paris. At that time, these analyses were undertaken with little regard for colonial and imperial history.

A British contemporary of Harvey, Doreen Massey’s work in the 1970s focused on the role of Spatial Divisions of Labour (1984) in the dynamics of (dis-) investment and geographies of growth and decline. Running parallel to debates on the New International Division of Labour, her research on uneven industrial development provided powerful arguments against environmentally determinist and supply-side oriented economic explanations of regional decline (and the relationship between North and South in Britain). Part of a generation of feminists close to the left-Labour circles that were decisive in experiments like the Greater London Council in 1980s, Massey also provided a most important socialist feminist conceptualisations of space, time and place, partly through a critique of Harvey (on gender) and Ernesto Laclau (for treating time and space in dualistic fashion) (Space, Place and Gender (1994). One of her most memorable texts proposed ‘A Global Sense of Place’ (1991): the idea that places (including global cities like London) must be understood through the manifold relations that tie them to other parts of the planet.

Neil Smith, an early student of David Harvey, expanded directly from Harvey’s Marxist geography. In his conceptualisation of Uneven Development (1984) as a dialectic of spatial differentiation and spatial equalisation as well as a process of constructing scale and producing nature, imperialism appears as a key driving force. Even though they appear at distinct scales of social reality, as in Harvey, imperialism and the urban are more frequently brought into contact by Smith. In his work on gentrification (The New Urban Frontier, 1996) he shows that colonial imaginaries (like US American frontier myths) can play a role in urban strategies. Later, Smith’s interest in imperialism focused also on geography as an imperial discipline and the role of geographers like Isaiah Bowman in giving intellectual shape to the transition from the ‘geo-political’ geographies of European colonial empires to the territorially more complex ‘geo-economic’ geographies of American Empire (2003).

Parallel to Harvey, Marshall Berman explored the problematic of modernity through literary and cultural theory. His romantic urban Marxism emerged from Rousseau and Goethe before finding its home in the streets of 19th century Paris and New York, and the texts of Baudelaire, Benjamin and Jane Jacobs. As he says in All That is Solid Melts into Air (1982), modernity is not to be confused with modernisation (capitalist development) or claims to Western supremacy. It represents an experience of time (as rupture and discontinuity, loss and uncertainty) that is endemic to the capitalist world and that can produce contradictory responses, ranging from conservative (yet quintessentially modern) rejections of modernity to multiple modernisms: theories of political and artistic revolution as well as rationalist ideologies of progress and Development. If, for Berman, modernity is a universal experience, it takes very different forms. He suggested that the conditions of (capitalist) underdevelopment in Tsarist Russia gave rise to a particularly sharp experience (‘modernity without modernisation’) that also helped explain the anti-urban overtones of early Soviet modernism.

Berman’s neo-Benjaminian insistence on the global pertinence of modernity as an experience of temporal rupture in a drastically unequal world can be pushed much further. Susan Buck-Morss did so along lines of gender by exploring the figure of the Prostitute in Benjamin’s Arcades Project (“The Flaneur, the Sandwichman and the Whore”, 1986). In turn, Paul Gilroy confronted Berman with Du Bois to unearth the ambiguous meaning of modernity in a world of slavery and radical Black modernism (The Black Atlantic (1993)). More firmly on the terrain of urban research, Elizabeth Wilson’s The Sphinx in the City redirects Berman’s urban Marxism along socialist-feminist lines. Also borrowing from Benjamin and Jacobs, The Sphinx is a wide-ranging survey of the gendered, sexualised contradictions of modernity. Explicating these contradictions takes Wilson on an intellectual journey from Victorian London and Haussmann’s Paris to turn-of-the century Vienna, Berlin, Prague, Chicago and New York and mid-century New York City. Much more than Berman, however, Wilson makes it clear that Euro-American metropolitan life has been infused with imperial culture and is co-defined by the world-wide experience of planning colonial and Third World cities such as Delhi, Lusaka and Sao Paulo.

Next to Marshall Berman, Mike Davis is the most well-known US American urban Marxist. His oeuvre is arguably the most consistent within metropolitan urban Marxism in linking class and race in US American cities to questions of imperialism and global urbanisation. His works all insist that, in imperial America, class formation, urban politics and ecology cannot be understood apart from deep racialised divides and long traditions of anti-immigrant nativism. This is most famously true for his study on the American labour movement (Prisoners of the American Dream (1986)) and what is perhaps the most ambitious study about urban politics still today: his magisterial tome on Los Angeles, City of Quartz (1990). After pathbreaking work on urban ecology (Ecology of Fear, 1998), Davis turned his attention to the role of colonial famines in the 19th century in producing the Third World (Late Victorian Holocausts, 2001), and, laying the foundation for today’s Planet of Slums (2006). Davis makes it clear that studying our conflict-ravaged, unevenly informalised urban world today is impossible without taking into account the intertwined legacies of colonisation, post-independence nationalism and subsequent rounds of neo-liberal and neo-imperial structural adjustment.

Since the 1990s: intellectual explosions

In the English-speaking academy, the fall of the Berlin Wall found its equivalent in the preoccupation with postmodernism. Whether understood as an eclectic discourse celebrating the contingency of the world or whether defined, awkwardly, as a loose theoretical current (‘post-structuralism’) based on the ‘French theories’ of Derrida, Lyotard, Deleuze and Foucault, many tried to trace ‘the postmodern’ to its conditions of existence in the broader world (capitalist restructuring, crises of the left, the commodification of everything) as well as in the university itself (persistent academic hierarchies combined with intensifying academic labour market competition). For some, the postmodern turn was critical (for being useful to challenge academic authority); others saw it as ideological (for constructing a ‘grand narrative’ that dismisses as authoritarian, or totalitarian ‘grand narratives’ all ambitious projects of radical change and all intellectual attempts to develop “cognitive maps” of totality, as Fredric Jameson had it (Postmodernism, 1991).

In the course of the early postmodern debates (between proponents and a first generation of often defensive critics like David Harvey, see Condition of Postmodernity, 1989), a dubious distinction emerged between political economy and class analysis, on the one hand, and culture and identity politics, on the other. Since then, a major challenge for Marxist and socialist researchers has been to refuse this distinction and continue to develop, through painstaking work, the historically real if also tension-filled relationships between Marxism, feminism, ecology, anti-colonialism, Black radicalism and gay liberation. Some of these efforts also involved interpretive work to show that many older Marxist-influenced bodies of work escape the terms of debate set by the postmodern debates.[4] Whether they have accepted this challenge or not, Marxist and socialist radical geographers continued to develop new insights, either independently or within broader, heterodox research fields. Here are some thematically organised examples.

In the late 1980s, debates in regulation and state theory started to have an impact on urban research, too. While some of this work was rooted in the movement-oriented regulation theory in Germany (see the work of Margit Mayer, Roger Keil, Christian Schmid), Anglo-American urban regulationists tended to link Harvey’s urban Marxism to neo-Poulantzian state theory (Simon Duncan and Mark Goodwin, The Local State and Uneven Development, 1988). Resulting from this fusion of Marxist theoretical strands (where Lefebvre’s insights about state, space and the urban reappeared, too) were debates about city politics, neoliberalism, and theories of state and scale. Whether with an emphasis on regional and urban policy in neoliberalising Euro-America (Neil Brenner, New State Spaces, 2004) or a focus on the role of imperial/colonial states in producing national social space in (post-) colonies like India (Manu Goswami, Producing India, 2004) the thrust of these interventions was to show that the international, national, regional, local scales of state power are historical products and thus subject to change and challenge.

Needless to say, this complex of regulation and state theory was debated. While political Marxists objected on their own state theoretical grounds, feminists insisted that debates about scale and neoliberalism pay attention to social reproduction and the body. Next to issues of place, space, urbanity, and the new international division of labour, considerations of social reproduction had already been central to the socialist-feminist current that helped shape radical geography since the 1970s. New studies in this field focused on the reorganisation of gendered relationships of (re-)production in the new, after-Fordist capitalism. While some focused on the dependence of neoliberalism on the ‘subsidies’ generated by the selective re-privatisation of social reproduction (Katharyne Mitchell, Sally Marston and Cindy Katz, Life’s Work, 2004), others emphasised how this privatisation was itself resocialised, as it were, through the care work performed by non-white and migrant women (see for example Geraldine Pratt, Working Feminism, 2004).

Overlapping with some these debates about neoliberalism was the next round of debate about gentrification. These continued to be strongly shaped by Neil Smith’s ‘supply-side’ explanation of gentrification as a process driven by land-rent mediated investment flows, and, as Smith and his collaborators insisted increasingly, state-led development. A crucial new development was to link gentrification to ‘revanchist’ forms of urban politics, as Neil Smith called it in the case of Rudy Giuliani’s New York City. In the course of this work, gentrification research was brought into debates about the regulation and privatisation of public space (Don Mitchell, The Right to the City, 2003) as well as the role of policing in the production of space. In the latter case, the emphasis was on the emergence of ‘zero tolerance’ criminology doctrines and the growing presence of paramilitary tactics in regular police forces. In the US, this research became part of a broader research strand that was influenced by Marxist and black radical critiques of the Prison-Industrial Complex to study the linkages between segregated social spaces, schools and the criminal (in)justice system (Ruth Wilson Gilmore, The Golden Gulag, 2007).

A new field where Marxist influence was strong, but not at all exclusive, has been urban political ecology. Shaped notably by Neil Smith’s thesis about the role of capital in producing nature (as well as Mike Davis’ trenchant treatments of disaster in Los Angeles), urban political ecology represents a crucial contribution to Marxist ecology since the mid-1990s. It has tried to show, through innovative research on, for example, water flows, transportation infrastructure, metropolitan parks and domestic space how the urban mediates human-natural metabolisms and thus helps shape the experience of modernity itself (see Nick Heynen, Maria Kaika and Erik Swyngedouw eds. In the Nature of Cities, 2006).

Urban political ecology is a highly heterodox field (that now also includes researchers drawing on queer theory, which, in the field of geography and urban research at least has not so far developed strong links to queer Marxism). It was shaped from the beginning not only by Marxist geography but also researchers who translated the environmental justice struggles of indigenous groups, people of colour, workers and women into a (heavily North American) field of geographical and urban research. These researchers showed how human bodies relate to environmental degradation (such as pollution, automobility, food insecurity) in class-based, gendered and racialised ways. Laura Pulido, for example, has demonstrated how uneven economic development combines with institutionalised white domination to produce complex geographical tapestries of socio-ecological inequality (“Rethinking Environmental Racism”, 2000)

Laura Pulido and Ruth Gilmore are perhaps the two most well-known critical geographers to have linked Marxist strands to anti-racist lineages. Laura Pulido is also known for showing how Third World struggles in places like Los Angeles were shaped by variegated dynamics of racialisation (Black, Brown, Yellow and Left, 2006). Pulido’s and Gilmore’s respective work overlaps with what is now sometimes called Black Geographies (Clyde Woods and Katherine McKittrick, 2007), a body of research that mobilises insights from radical black traditions for the purpose of spatial and urban research. Two examples shall suffice here: Woods’s research on traditions of resistance in the Mississippi Delta (‘Blues Geographies’) and McKittrick’s excavations of Sylvia Winter’s radical humanist social theory (Sylvia Winter, on Being Human as Praxis, 2015). Like research on environmental justice, this work makes it clear that claims to the right to the city, and other demands, must be related to the racialised processes through which space is produced.

As urban ecological debates indicate, concerns with social movements and collective action permeate a range of research fields. Intended by some as an immanent critique of David Harvey’s capitalo-centric political economy, research on Labour Geographies (Andrew Herod, 2001) has been a source of important research on labour movements and their always uncertain capacities to link workplace struggles with broader social geographies, mostly in Euro-America. So far, there have been only punctual links between this strand of research and older labour-focused socialist feminist work (see Linda McDowell, Working Bodies, 2009). This second current has inspired cutting-edge work on complexly gendered, racialised and sexualised class relations in and beyond workplaces, from Dubai to British Columbia (Michelle Buckley, “Locating Neoliberalism in Dubai”, 2013; Mike Ekers, “Pounding Dirt all Day”, 2013).

In the new millennium, this preoccupation with struggle was in some sense shared by researchers who sought to emphasise the empirical and theoretical specificity of politics as a space-shaping practice. A first complex of authors translated current philosophical debates about politics into geographical research. Mustafa Dikeç, for example spatialised Jacques Rancière’s understanding of politics, the political and the police to analyse French urban policy in regards to the banlieues (Badlands of the Republic, 2007). A second group of researchers mobilised Antonio Gramsci as well as the latest Gramsci scholarship, to shed new light on the key themes in radical geography, from the production of space, scale and nature to the articulation of multiple social relations. Here, too, politics appears as a transitive force, a possibly transformative moment within the relations of force that permeate state and society (Ekers, Hart, Kipfer and Loftus eds., Gramsci: Nature, Space, Politics, 2013).

The postcolonial turn

Research on politics, labour and other urban struggles now also deal with the implications of precarity and informalisation (of work, housing, state, infrastructure) for collective action. This is true, particularly, but not exclusively, in the cities of the global South. While some researchers stress the relationship between the informalisation of class relations and fundamentalism and right-wing populism (Mike Davis), or take the problem of informality to emphasise the difficulty of linking everyday resistance to revolution and revolutionary organisation (Asef Bayat, Life as Politics, 2013), others have been more optimistic about the radical possibilities offered by some informalised contexts. As in other fields, Latin American developments have been crucial here, whether in regard to municipal or nation-wide socialist experiments (in Venezuela, Bolivia and Brazil) or, as Bruno Bosteels reminded us on the occasion of the 2006 uprising in Oaxaca (‘The Mexican Commune’, 2013), efforts to renew with homegrown but globally connected ‘communard’ traditions of insurrection and autonomy (in Mexico).

Today, the problematic of informality is often read through the lens of postcolonial theory. For Ananya Roy (“Slumdog Cities”, 2011), informality is less as a problem for socialist strategy than an opportunity to destabilise the distinction between formality and informality that for some defines the difference between global North and global South. One can say that, since the 1990s, the postcolonial turn has been the most durable current in what is now often called critical, not radical geography. This turn has produced a significant and empirically detailed body of work on the colonial dimensions of, for example planning and architectural practice, both in former colonial cities (from Dublin to Jakarta) and their imperial counterparts (from London to Amsterdam). Today, the main focus of postcolonial theory is on the methodological challenge of developing concepts of urban research without reproducing Eurocentric schemata of comparative research. Jennifer Robinson, for example, has confronted that challenge by bending Benjamin’s notion of modernity in light of research on African urbanisation (Ordinary Cities, 2006).

While often eclectic in tone and spirit, the postcolonial turn has developed without integral reference to Marxian and world-systemic traditions but through much contact with Michel Foucault and Homi Bhabha, and, more recently, Dipesh Chakrabarty (and thus also, indirectly, Martin Heidegger). Given its emphasis on specifically colonial discursive practices, past and present, this research has connected only punctually with resurgent debates about the new (not necessarily colonial) imperialism. One exception was Derek Gregory’s mobilisation of Edward Saïd’s notion of imaginative geography to analyse war in Iraq and Palestine (The Colonial Present, 2004), which yielded parallel work on military intervention as urban strategy (Stephen Graham, Cities under Siege, 2010). Also stimulated by the US response to the bombing of the World Trade Centre, Marxian debates about the new imperialism have been concerned about the link between capitalist crisis and the future of world order, thus connecting with debates in global political economy. In so doing, these debates also turned our attention to original accumulation as a persistent feature of capitalism (Harvey, The New Imperialism, 2003)

At the margins of postcolonial debates, there did develop specifically Marxist-oriented research on post-colonial questions. Some critical geographers redirected Gayatri Spivak’s work to propose a new fusion of Marxist and deconstructive traditions in and for the terrain of empirical research on, for example, labour and waste in India (Vinay Gidwani, Capital, Interrupted, 2008). Other approaches developed in rough parallel to Marxist interventions in comparative literature, which showed how robust critiques of Eurocentrism as ideology can be developed on the basis of left anticolonial currents that preceded the postmodern turn of the 1980s and escape the current emphasis on civilisational divides between ‘the West and the rest’ (Crystal Bartolovich and Neil Lazarus, Marxism, Modernity and the Postcolonial Condition, 2002). The focus in this second current is on connections between Marxist and anti-colonial traditions (and people like Henri Lefebvre, Frantz Fanon, and Antonio Gramsci), the neocolonial or racialised dimensions of neoliberal urban strategies, comparative method, and the rise of populist and fascist politics.[5]

Today, planetary urbanisation and settler colonialism are at the forefront of debates about comparative urban research. The idea of planetary urbanisation derives from Henri Lefebvre’s basic proposition that relationships between city and country must be understood as ambiguous components of an uneven but world-wide urban field that includes both agglomerations (towns and metropoles) as well as extensive geographies defined by transportation networks, mining districts and energy supply lines. While straightforward, these insights have major implications for city-centred approaches to urban research even as they renew with earlier worldwide research perspectives (Neil Brenner ed., Implosions and Explosions, 2014). As a result of postcolonial critiques (and the latest debate on the legacy of the subaltern studies school which these take up), this approach is being sharpened and reformulated to take into account the relationship between the particular and the universal in comparative urban research and to study urban question in sustained relationship to agrarian restructuring as well as the presence of (non-)urban political imaginaries within and beyond urban processes.

In the context of these debates, research on settler colonialism offers important insights. Rejecting metaphorical uses of the term colonial in some postcolonial work, researchers have emphasised that the distinction between colonial and postcolonial makes little sense in white settler colonies like the US, Australia and Canada. They also propose that settler geographies be understood in empirically rich and broadly material ways that may be heterodox but open to historical materialist influences (see Cole Harris, Making Native Space, 2002). Researchers in this field insist on the qualitative specificities of settler colonial urbanisation, thus levelling a critique at earlier research on colonial cities that had left white-dominated settler colonies off their radar screen (David Hugill, “What is a settler colonial city?” 2017). Finally, research on settler colonial geographies picks up on insights about time and space developed by a new generation of indigenous scholars: philosophers of indigenous resurgence like Leanne Simpson (Dancing on the Turtle’s Back, 2011) and indigenous communists like Glen Coulthard (Red Skin, White Masks, 2014). These theoretical undercurrents promise renewed interest in what is, particularly in the Americas, a long-standing, if often subterranean meeting point of anticolonial and Marxist praxis: indigenous liberation.


[1] Cusset, François (2005) French Theory: Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze et Cie. et les mutations de la vie intellectuelle aux États-Unis (Paris: La Découverte)

[2] Cécile Gintrac et Matthieu Giroud, Villes contestées: pour une géographie critique de l’urbain (Les prairies ordinaires, 2014).

[3] On the relevance of ‘gentrification’ in the French context, see Anne Clerval, Paris sans le peuple (La Découverte, 2013)

[4] For Henri Lefebvre, see Christian Schmid, City, Space, and Society: Henri Lefebvre and the Theory of the Production of Space (London: Verso, forthcoming (2005)); Kanishka Goonewardena, Stefan Kipfer, Richard Milgrom, Christian Schmid eds. Space, Difference, Everyday Life: Reading Henri Lefebvre (New York: Routledge, 2008).

[5] Kanishka Goonewardena, “Postcolonialism and Diaspora,” University of Toronto Quarterly, 2004; Stefan Kipfer, ‘Fanon and Space’, Society and Space, 2007; Stefan Kipfer and Kanishka Goonewardena, “Urban Marxism and the Postcolonial Question”, Historical Materialism, 2013; Gillian Hart, “Denaturalizing Dispossession: Critical Ethnography in the Age of Resurgent Imperialism,” Antipode, 2006; Hart, Rethinking the South African Crisis, (Athens GA: Georgia University Press, 2014).


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