Book review: Urban Revolutions: Urbanisation and (Neo-)Colonialism in Transatlantic Context

reviewed by Laam Hae

3 Jan 2024, 9:31 a.m.

Urban Revolutions book cover

Stefan Kipfer, Urban Revolutions: Urbanisation and (Neo-)Colonialism in Transatlantic Context, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2022; 324 pp.: ISBN: 9789004524903, £112.00 (hbk)


Urban Revolutions: Urbanisation and (Neo-) Colonialism in Transatlantic Context is the culmination of the anti–colonial, historical-geographical materialist scholarship that Stefan Kipfer has developed over many years. The book examines how Marxist and revolutionary anti-colonial currents can be fused and brought to bear on urban problematics, starting with Henri Lefebvre and Frantz Fanon. What Kipfer terms the ‘Lefebvre–Fanon lineage’ (p. 100) is then brought into different time–space contexts, where it meets ideas and praxes developed by subalterns in their respective struggles against (neo-) colonial capitalism. In an intellectual voyage that traverses Algeria, the Antilles, France and Canada, Kipfer pieces together a wide range of intellectual currents with an admirable depth and mastery. These currents complicate the Lefebvre–Fanon lineage through which Kipfer charts the distinct yet entangled terrains of struggle. In particular, Kipfer prioritises historical materialist thinkers outside of Euro-America to reveal the rich tradition of anti-colonial (urban) Marxism there.

My discussion of the book pivots on what I consider the four key interventions that it offers, although readers may find this narrowing does a disservice to the incredible intellectual scope of the book.

First, Kipfer critically examines Marxist (urban) theories. Not only have some lines of Marxist thought sidelined colonial questions, but they have also advanced Eurocentric diffusionism and teleology. Maintaining that ‘liberat[ing] Marxist traditions from all Eurocentric straightjackets [is] both possible and necessary’ (p. 5), Kipfer deplores how anti-colonial sources that were formative in Marxist urban thought have been muted. For example, Lefebvre’s urban epistemic was informed by revolutionary anti-colonial praxes (e.g. Algerian independence struggles), although this has not been widely recognised. Kipfer adds, however, that Lefebvre’s insights on colonialism are still limited, so Lefebvre needs to be read together with other counter-colonial theorists, which is what Kipfer does throughout the book.

Second, the book investigates how space played a special role in Fanon’s theorisation of colonial dehumanisation and liberation. Fanon’s work unravelled how colonial hegemonies are constituted as and through spatial strategies, such as segregation and uneven territorial relations. Likewise, the path toward a new revolutionary humanism, for Fanon, required spatial transformation (p. 91). His argument that national liberation should be a ‘stepping stone’ to international and human emancipation (p. 98) also reveals his multi-scalar sensitivity, and what prompted Sekyi-Otu (1996) to define Fanon’s philosophy as being about the ‘partisan universal’. Fanon’s spatiality, however, is limited by his bifurcated optic of the city and countryside in his position on political strategies, to which Kipfer argues Lefebvre can be a corrective. Lefebvre’s notion of urban revolution underscores the dialectical connections that unsettle the binary between city and countryside.

Through these reflections on Fanon and Lefebvre read against each other, Kipfer proposes the Lefebvre–Fanon lineage as a tool for opening the analysis of (neo-)colonial and anti-colonial politics across places. From here comes the third point of the book’s contribution and strength, which is its fascinating comparative sensibility. In Chapter 3, Kipfer examines an ambivalent political promise of creole urbanism. He engages with numerous creole intellectuals in the French Antilles, specifically Martinique, who endorsed creole specificities somewhat against Fanon’s frame of revolutionary decolonisation, and strategically positioned themselves in negotiation with French colonialism. Kipfer then analyses the novel, Texaco, by Martinican writer Patrick Chamoiseau, which portrays urban Martinique as a place of creolisation, informality and multi-temporalities haunted by fragments of the past – for example, pre-colonial cyclical times, plantations, maroonage and slave resistance. This is akin to Lefebvre’s theorisation of the urban as plurality and coevality of multi-rhythms. Kipfer contends that urban Martinique, despite its elusiveness that some may view as an expression of ‘rhizomatic ontologies’ (pp. 155–156), cannot be captured by them, as the structural violence of (neo-)colonial capitalism and struggles against it continue to define creole urbanism.

In Chapter 4, Kipfer’s lens shifts to Indigenous movements in Canada. Indigenous resistance there has been what Indigenous feminist Leanne Simpson (2017) called ‘generative refusal’, at the heart of which lie ‘relational ontologies’ (p. 194) opposite to the capitalist/colonial linear teleology and approach to land. Kipfer contends that Indigenous struggles have produced new nodes and networks of ‘centralities/differences’ (Lefebvre’s idioms) – ‘a product of an encounter, a convergence and mutual transformation of multiple mobilisations’ (p. 174) – across cities and reserves and along infrastructural corridors (as is shown in the struggles over pipelines). Kipfer argues that Indigenous thought and praxis compel urbanists to revise their approaches. For example, its lesson for the neo-Lefebvrian theory of planetary urbanisation is that the theory should foreground ‘politics’, and conceptualise (settler) colonialism as ‘co-constitution’ rather than a ‘variation’ of larger processes (p. 170).

Drawing on Glen Coulthard and other Indigenous thinkers, Kipfer further shows how Indigenous struggles for autonomy and sovereignty have allied with third-world liberation movements, and also (often critically) engaged with socialist currents elsewhere. Indigenous thought is ‘locally rooted internationalism’ (p. 190), and it should be taken as ‘central [rather than residual] to historical materialism and revolutionary strategy’ (p. 181).

The question of autonomy and solidarity resurfaces in Chapter 5, where Kipfer analyses the French urban policy of social mixing. French urban developments have historically been enmeshed with the rise of French colonialism and warfare against colonised subalterns, and Kipfer shows how housing projects in places like the banlieues, where people from colonies live, have also been subject to the state’s counterinsurgency. As cities have recently gone through neoliberalisation, social mixing policies have tried to facilitate the gentrification of these areas, simultaneously serving as a means of neocolonial disciplining by destroying spaces of subaltern collective politics. From this, Kipfer argues that colonial forces, as well as political economic ones, should be central concerns of critical urban studies.

Asking whether ‘desegregation [can] still promise emancipation on the terms of the segregated, as both Lefebvre and Fanon thought it would’ (p. 235), Kipfer also charts the dialectics of mixity and autonomy, as the ‘political anti-racist current’ in France has mobilised it as a strategy. Birthed in conversation with African and Caribbean anti-colonial politics and with banlieues and quartiers populaires being its spatial and representational anchors, the current has carved out its own space for autonomy in alliance, or tension, with the broader French left, and Kipfer discusses the transformative implications of such strategies.

What ties these three chapters together is ‘relational comparison’ (Hart, 2002) as a method, which reveals the structural, strategic and prefigurative entanglements of different time–space zones, while still valorising situated differences and projecting the vision of urban revolutions in the plural, unlike Lefebvre’s original term. This comparison further offers insights into the ‘partisan universal’, the universal in dynamic forms emerging from and anchored in particulars, and ‘an argumentative, ethical and political starting point embedded within everyday life’ for emancipatory politics (p. 6). For Kipfer, comparison is a method of ‘a political imperative’ (p. 244).

The fourth contribution of the book (which emerges from the third point) is its deconstruction of the colonial capitalist dichotomy of city and countryside. Subaltern struggles in Canada, Martinique, France and Algeria have defied this dichotomy and attempts to privilege one side of this binary as the ground of revolution. Kipfer contends that revolutionary reworlding is not only carried out by peasants and factory workers, but also by people in cities, peri-urban areas, infrastructural corridors and postwar suburbs. In other words, urban revolutions under neocolonial capitalism have spawned new centralities and differences.

The four points discussed above by no means exhaust the insights of Kipfer’s text. The book explores many other subjects, and although gender questions are not prominent in various sub-headings of the book, how they factor into colonial and anti-colonial constellations, and ideas put forward by indigenous, creole, political anti-racist and other feminist intellectuals, are closely woven into the book’s bracing intellectual journey. Some may question the ‘plausibility’ of pairing Lefebvre and Fanon – as each is moored in two different time-spaces as well as intellectual and political traditions. Kipfer seems aware of this possible questioning (p. 99) and explains in detail why the rendezvous of these two can kickstart a productive beginning for anti-colonial, anti-capitalist urban inquiries. As Kipfer unpacks Lefebvre–Fanon in different places, moreover, this lineage is not imposed as an overarching universal schema, but is proffered as a starting point for relational comparison and open-ended urban research sensitive to interpretations from elsewhere. Indeed, the book can be suggested as a model for such urban research. It will also be a paradigm-setting text for those who are keen to approach (anti-)colonial questions from the comparative historical–geographical materialist standpoint.



Hart G (2002) Disabling Globalisation: Places of Power in Post-Apartheid South Africa. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Google Scholar

Sekyi-Otu A (1996) Fanon’s Dialectic of Experience. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Crossref | Google Scholar

Simpson LB (2017) As We Have Always Done. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. Crossref | Google Scholar


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If you enjoyed this review, the following articles published in Urban Studies might also be of interest:

Comparison and political strategy: Internationalism, colonial rule and urban research after Fanon by Stefan Kipfer

'How do political strategies produce comparative perspectives?' Open access special issue paper from Stefan Kipfer deals with the political implications of comparative projects by looking at internationalism, colonial rule and urban research after Franz Fanon.


Introduction: Generating concepts of ‘the urban’ through comparative practice by Jennifer Robinson

Robinson outlines the basis for a reformatted comparative method inspired by the complex spatialities of the urban world, in her introduction to this special issue.


Read more book reviews on the Urban Studies blog.



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