Social Space and Political Protest

‘There is a politics of space because space is political.’ This statement was written by Henri Lefebvre in 1970. It came in the wake of the student protests of May 1968, and a few years before the publication of The Production of Space (1974/91), the book that would later gain him posthumous fame.152 The organisation, design and use of space – especially public space – is undoubtedly a matter of political significance. It is thus intensely political. Questions of spatial organisation, co-produced through historically evolving ‘modes of production’ (Karl Marx), conceptions of architecture and planning, as well as place-making practices, tend to be fiercely contested. Who has access to public space? Who, or what, decides where people live? Whose (hi)stories are represented? Which relations to ‘broader political imaginaries’ are made visible? Who ‘owns’ the city? These and similar questions have been the subject of debate for decades. Interventions range from Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), Lefebvre’s The Right to the City (1968) and David Harvey’s Social Justice and the City (1973), to more recent publications such as Dolores Hayden’s The Power of Place (1995) and David Featherstone’s Resistance, Space and Political Identities (2008).153

The broad contours of Lefebvre’s triadic approach to space are outlined in the introduction to Doing Spatial History, and need not be rehashed here. That said, it is important to note Lefebvre’s emphasis on both a critique of modern urbanism, and on the utopia of dialectically produced spaces of resistance, difference, and liberation.154 More specifically, the main focus for this section of the guide is Lefebvre’s insight into space as ‘the ultimate locus and medium of struggle,’ as Stuart Elden has put it.155 This insight, like Lefebvre’s work more generally, has proven inspirational to many scholars working on social space and political protest.

An early example of a work steeped in Lefebvrean thought is The Emergence of Social Space (1988), an imaginative study of French poet Arthur Rimbaud and the 1871 Paris Commune written by literary scholar Kristin Ross.156 When writing this book, Ross was also influenced by Fredric Jameson’s spatial ventures, some of which are surveyed in the introduction to Doing Spatial History. Jameson’s work had resulted in the extension of an invitation to Lefebvre to spend time as a scholar in residence at the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1983. Ross was teaching at this institution at precisely this point in time. She took the opportunity to conduct an interview with Lefebvre, which focused on the topic of former Situationists.157 Ross was thus thoroughly inspired by various ‘afterlives’ of May 1968.158 Her study offers numerous suggestive readings of Rimbaud’s poetry by placing it, via a ‘synchronic history,’ in a variety of historical contexts. These range from the subversive place-making strategies of Paris Communards to the formation of the discipline of geography, as well as its anarchist Communard dissident Élisée Reclus, to the colonial spaces of the French empire.159

For example, Ross interprets the Communards’ toppling of the Vendôme Column, symbol of the exploits of Napoleon’s army, as a spatially performative act of ‘horizontalizing’ social hierarchies. Through this and other acts of transgression, the Communards – among them many women – reshaped both physical and social space. They fought over questions of ownership and the everyday use of streets, squares, and neighbourhoods, opposing the ‘social classification and policing of everyday life’ by gendarme, concierge and other regulating forces of social control.

Crucially, Ross sees the spontaneously eruptive actions of the Communards as evidence of the fact that they were agreeably ‘out of sync’ with any notions of a ‘unilinear’ teleological ‘Highway of History’ – Marxist or otherwise. She also detects, in Rimbaud’s oppositional vernacular language, an anti-narrative, anti-progressivist, vagabondage-like spatiality. Ross contends that both Rimbaud and the Communards drew on ‘the elements or terrain of the dominant social order to one’s own ends, for a transformed purpose.’ This epitomises what Lefebvre called ‘lived space,’ and his fellow Situationists referred to as détournement.160

In recent decades, political protest and popular radicalism have been the subject of much spatially attuned research in modern British history.161 Laura Forster, for example, has traced exiled Communards to London. She has carefully examined the exchange of political ideas that occurred there through a mapping of the meeting places of London’s radical and exile communities. These ranged from pubs and shops to clubs and reading rooms. ‘It matters,’ she states, ‘where people meet and where discussions take place,’ not least because they ‘respond to the subtle atmospheres that make a place variously inviting, hostile, affecting, stirring, or fearsome. Generating spaces of intellectual kinship, comradery, and intimacy, therefore, is shaped by both people and place.’162

Similarly, Christina Parolin has focused on sites of popular radicalism in London during the early nineteenth century, placing particular emphasis on prisons, taverns, and the radical theatre ‘Rotunda.’ This last location was also used by female activists to shape radical political culture. The Crown and Anchor tavern had been a liberal-Whig headquarters. However, it was gradually transformed into a ‘radical space’ – a process which is captured in Parolin’s book through both social practice and visual representation (caricature and graphic satire).163

Parolin primarily follows in the footsteps here of James Epstein. In 1999, Epstein published a stimulating article in Social History titled ‘Spatial Practices/Democratic Vistas.’ This contribution sought to incorporate analytical insights from spatially attentive work into the historiography on British popular radicalism. Epstein drew on Henri Lefebvre, Kristin Ross and Paul Carter, as well as Brenda Yeoh’s Contesting Space and Mary Poovey’s Lefebvrean analysis of ‘abstract space’ and ‘social body’ in early- and mid-nineteenth-century British social discourse. ‘In large part,’ Epstein argued, ‘the history of popular radicalism can […] be written as a contest to gain access to and to appropriate sites of assembly and expression, to produce, at least potentially, a “plebeian counter-public sphere”.’164

In this vein, the past two decades have seen the publication of myriad studies on radicalism and protest, both urban and rural, which have drawn inspiration from Lefebvre or other variants of spatial theory. These range from work on social protest in the Scottish Highlands and contestations of public space in modern Belfast to studies on German anarchists in turn-of-the-century New York, as well as squatters in 1980s Berlin. They also encompass explorations of the 1919 student protest at Peking University, the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, and the anti-Vietnam war protests in Tokyo at Shinjuku Station’s underground ‘plaza’ in 1968. These contributions bear out what William H. Sewell described, in 2001, as the ‘importance of spatial structure in shaping protest’ and the significance of spatial agency in producing ‘new spatial structures, meanings, and routines.’165

Protest and the Politics of Space and Place

Social space and political protest are also at the heart of Katrina Navickas’ exemplary study on English radicalism from the late eighteenth to the mid nineteenth centuries. It is not an exaggeration to describe this book as the spatial history equivalent of E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963). Navickas – a member of the Centre for Regional and Local History at the University of Hertfordshire – examines the contestation of public space through the streetscapes of the industrial North. This is, she writes at the outset of her book, ‘a narrative of the closing down of public space’ to people who were fighting for democracy.166 In the book’s three sections, she focuses on urban ‘spaces of exclusion,’ ‘spaces of the body politic,’ and rural spaces of protest.

Navickas’ study throws into sharp relief the importance of place and space for the manifestation of political protest. It vividly illustrates how radicalism both shaped and was shaped by the restricted spaces available. It also shows how, in and through those spaces, political demands and aspirations were articulated via speech and song, but also through silence (as in repurposed funeral processions). Navickas illustrates the process by which reformist groups first shifted their activities from private dwellings to the pub – until they were ostracized by loyalist elites. This forced them to switch to urban scrubland, warehouse backrooms, abandoned factory attics, as well as the moorlands as ‘spaces of making do.’ These groups mixed ‘the everyday with the political,’ transforming the sites they used into new spaces, imbued with popular political associations.167

Navickas also follows radicals in their contestations of conventional practices within spaces of established authority, from workhouses to hospitals and parish vestries. These become attempts to obtain representation in the local body politic. Her book depicts members of the Chartist movement during the 1830s and 1840s constructing their own political spaces, such as halls of science. These served a range of educational, recreational, economic and political purposes. Particularly illuminating, moreover, is a vignette-style case study comparing processions of protest in two hubs of Northern radicalism. In Leeds, protesters aimed to undermine the intended symbolic meanings of civic and patriotic processions of the official calendar by reappropriating their routes. In Manchester, meanwhile, they carved out their own processional geographies, traversing the ‘martyred ground’ of St Peter’s Field, the site of the infamous ‘Peterloo massacre’ of 1819. Indeed, protesters pointedly passed through working-class districts that loyalists avoided at all costs.168

In venturing out to rural spaces of protest, Navickas also engages with radicalism in the countryside. This was grounded in ‘a deep attachment to the land and its customs and connections,’ and it combined urban romanticisations of the rural idyll with the more down-to-earth ‘taskscape’ of agricultural labourers.169 The book gives particular prominence to the moorlands, which played host to a wide variety of political spectacles, from military manoeuvres and Chartist ‘monster meetings’ to torchlit processions. A fascinating concluding chapter charts a battle for spatial supremacy in the narrow cobbled streets of small ‘neighbourhood’ towns and villages, where local radicals used their superior ‘street wisdom’ to outwit the military forces sent to suppress them. This created an ‘urban battlefield,’ where the weapons of war were, ironically enough, the very same cobblestones introduced by the authorities to ‘improve’ urban streetscapes.170 Nothing could more starkly demonstrate the fact that these urban and rural spaces were much more than merely passive backdrops for political powerplay. Certainly, these conflicts were closely connected to the symbolic appropriations of the places where they occurred. More than this, however, these conflicts depended on the ascribed physical qualities and the very materiality of these places.

  1. Henri Lefebvre, ‘Reflections on the Politics of Space’ (1970), in id., State, Space, World: Selected Essays, eds. Neil Brenner and Stuart Elden, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009, pp. 167-84, here p. 174.↩︎

  2. Jacobs, Great American Cities; Henri Lefebvre, Writings on Cities, trans. Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas, Oxford: Blackwell, 1996; Harvey, Social Justice and the City; Dolores Hayden, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History, Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT Press, 1995; David Featherstone, Resistance, Space and Political Identities: The Making of Counter-Global Networks, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008. For the quote ‘broader political imaginaries’ see David Featherstone, ‘Towards the Relational Construction of Militant Particularisms: Or Why the Geographies of Past Struggles Matter for Resistance to Neoliberal Globalisation,’ Antipode 37, 2005, 250-71, here 252.↩︎

  3. Henri Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003, French 1970.↩︎

  4. Stuart Elden, ‘There is a Politics of Space because Space is Political: Henri Lefebvre and the Production of Space,’ Radical Philosophy Review 10, 2007, 101-16, here 107; see also Neil Brenner and Stuart Elden, ‘State, Space, World: Lefebvre and the Survival of Capitalism,’ in Lefebvre, State, Space, World, pp. 1-48, here esp. pp. 32-3.↩︎

  5. Kristin Ross, The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and the Paris Commune, London: Verso, 1988.↩︎

  6. Kristin Ross, ‘Lefebvre on Situationists: An Interview,’ October 79, Winter 1997, 69-83.↩︎

  7. This source of inspiration is explicitly acknowledged in Ross, Emergence of Social Space, pp. 8-9, and has also become the subject of one of her later books: Kristin Ross, May ’68 and Its Afterlives, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2002.↩︎

  8. Ross, Emergence of Social Space, p. 10 (‘synchronic history’). As Terry Eagleton puts it in his foreword to the book, Ross sees ‘the very language of the poems alive with electric currents and shocking conjunctures that spring from a more-than-literary source.’ ‘Political history inscribes itself in the very force fields of [Rimbaud’s] texts, between the lines and within the rhythms.’ Terry Eagleton, ‘Foreword,’ in Ross, Emergence of Social Space, pp. vi-xiv, here pp. x-xi. On Reclus, see now also Federico Ferretti, ‘“They Have the Right to Throw us Out”: Élisée Reclus’ Nouvelle Géographie Universelle’, Antipode 45, 2013, 1337-55; Pascale Siegrist, ‘Cosmopolis and Community: Élisée Reclus and Pëtr Kropotkin on Spatial and Moral Unity, 1870s to 1900s,’ Global Intellectual History, September 2020.↩︎

  9. Ross, Emergence of Social Space, pp. 22, 25, 42; see also Kristin Ross, Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune, London and New York: Verso, 2015; as well as Harvey, Paris, Capital of Modernity; Peter Starr, Commemorating Trauma: The Paris Commune and Its Cultural Aftermath, New York: Fordham University Press, 2006. To capture the ‘proliferation of geographic names’ in Rimbaud’s later poetry, she uses, with no explicit recourse to Paul Carter, the term ‘spatial history.’ Ibid., pp. 75, 88. For an example of a later study in literary history that explicitly draws on the methodology of both Kristin Ross and Paul Carter, see Andrew Thacker, Moving through Modernity: Space and Geography in Modernism, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003, here esp. p. 5; see also, in this context, Phillip E. Wegner, Imaginary Communities: Utopia, the Nation, and the Spatial Histories of Modernity, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.↩︎

  10. For a recent overview see Hannah Awcock, ‘New Protest History: Exploring the Historical Geographies and Geographical Histories of Resistance through Gender, Practice, and Materiality,’ Geography Compass 14/6, 2020, 1-10.↩︎

  11. Laura C. Forster, ‘The Paris Commune in London and the Spatial History of Ideas, 1871-1900,’ The Historical Journal 62, 2019, 1021-44, here p. 1026 (original emphasis).↩︎

  12. Christina Parolin, Radical Spaces: Venues of Popular Politics in London, 1790-c.1845, Canberra: ANU Press, 2010, p. 175; see also, in this context, Hannah Awcock, ‘The Geographies of Protest and Public Space in Mid-Nineteenth-Century London: The Hyde Park Railings Affair,’ Historical Geography 47, 2019, 194-217; as well as the ‘space syntax’-based analysis by Sam Griffiths and Katrina Navickas, ‘The Micro-Geography of Political Meeting Places in Manchester and Sheffield, c.1780-1850,’ in Alida Clemente, Dag Lindström and Jon Stobart (eds.), Micro-Geographies of the Western City, c.1750-1900, London: Routledge, 2020, pp. 181-202; see also the chapter by Kate Ferris in Bavaj, Lawson and Struck (eds.), Doing Spatial History.↩︎

  13. James Epstein, ‘Spatial Practices/Democratic Vistas,’ Social History 24, 1999, 294-310, here 301 (a slightly revised version of this article has been published in id., In Practice: Studies in the Language and Culture of Popular Politics in Modern Britain, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003, pp. 106-25); see also Mary Poovey, Making a Social Body: British Cultural Formation, 1830-1864, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1995, pp. 25-54 (‘The Production of Abstract Space’).↩︎

  14. William H. Sewell, Jr., ‘Space in Contentious Politics,’ in Ronald R. Aminzade et al. (eds.), Silence and Voice in the Study of Contentious Politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp. 51-88, here pp. 71, 88; see, for example, Iain J.M. Robertson, Landscapes of Protest in the Scottish Highlands after 1914, London: Routledge, 2013, esp. pp. 195-216; Dominic Bryan and S.J. Connolly (with John Nagle), Civic Identity and Public Space. Belfast since 1870, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019, esp. pp. 10-13; Georgina Laragy, Olwen Purdue and Jonathan Jeffrey Wright (eds.), Urban Spaces in Nineteenth-Century Ireland, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2018, esp. the introduction by Olwen Purdue and Jonathan Jeffrey Wright, pp. 1-12, here pp. 4-6; Tom Goyens, ‘Social Space and the Practice of Anarchist History,’ Rethinking History 13, 2009, 439-57; Alexander Vasudevan, Metropolitan Preoccupations: The Spatial Politics of Squatting in Berlin, Malden, Mass.: John Wiley & Sons, 2015; Fabio Lanza, Behind the Gate: Inventing Students in Beijing, New York: Columbia University Press, 2010; Wu Hung, Remaking Beijing: Tiananmen Square and the Creation of a Political Space, London: Reaktion, 2005; Jordan Sand, Tokyo Vernacular: Common Spaces, Local Histories, Found Objects, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013, esp. chapter 1; see also Timothy Scott Brown, West Germany and the Global Sixties: The Anti-Authoritarian Revolt, 1962-1978, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015, pp. 21-78 (‘Space’); Simon Gunn and Robert J. Morris (eds.), Identities in Space: Contested Terrains in the Western City since 1850, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001; Mark Jones, ‘The Crowd in the German November Revolution 1918,’ in Klaus Weinhauer, Anthony McElligott and Kirsten Heinsohn (eds.), Germany 1916-23: A Revolution in Context, Bielefeld: transcript, 2015, pp. 37-57; Molly Loberg, The Struggle for the Streets of Berlin: Politics, Consumption, and Urban Space, 1914-1945, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.↩︎

  15. Katrina Navickas, Protest and the Politics of Space and Place, 1789-1848, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016, p. 14.↩︎

  16. Ibid., p. 59.↩︎

  17. Ibid., p. 180.↩︎

  18. Ibid., pp. 224, 248.↩︎

  19. Ibid., pp. 285-6.↩︎