Gramsci and Bordieu on the critique of power

Similarities and differences of the critiques of power by Gramsci and Bourdieu

The following text deals with similarities and differences in the thinking of Gramsci and another eminent analyst: the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who died ten years ago, on January 23, 2002.

Antonio Gramsci and Pierre Bordieu
Antonio Gramsci and Pierre Bordieu

“If Gramsci was too optimistic about questioning domination,” writes American sociologist Michael Burawoy, “Bourdieu was too pessimistic.” [1] Antonio Gramsci did not pay enough attention to cultural mystifications that advanced capitalism was Guarantee continued. Pierre Bourdieu, on the other hand, considered habitual recognition to be too fundamental and universal, in which capitalist relations were reproduced.
This assessment, which Burawoy justifies in a recent essay, is based on another one: that the Italian party communist and the French sociologist have something in common. Burawoy is not the only one who supports this view. The fact that the approaches of the two theoreticians were systematically related to each other has, however, been astonishingly rare.

Optimistic Gramsci, pessimistic Bourdieu

The fact that Bourdieu refers in his major sociological work “The subtle differences” only once on Gramsci, had already noticed the Mexican cultural scientist Néstor García Canclini. He had attributed this to the assumption that Bourdieu did not want to contaminate his social science work – in the politicized atmosphere of the 1970s – by being too close to Marxism. This also seems to be a plausible assumption for the receptionists: The fact that Gramsci and Bourdieu have been thought up so little so far depends above all on the academic and political resentment of the respective followers.

Bourdieu has often been accused by the Marxist side of saying goodbye to political economy and being too “functionalist”, ie only explaining how things work, not how to change them. In contrast, the Bourdieu School still sees Gramsci as merely an ideology theorist. And Bourdieu had left the concept of ideology behind him and replaced it with the concept of habitus that went further in his conception.

In both terms, however, ideology and habitus, could also recognize the question that García Canclini had already described in 1984 as a common and Buroway now playing again as Gramsci and Bourdieu connecting: Why is rule so stable? Also in answering this question, both have some pretty similar ideas. To formulate it to this day can still be seen as pointing the way ahead: it is not violence and repression alone, as widely accepted in anarchistic and Marxist analyzes, that guarantee the maintenance of domination. In addition, there are more subtle forms of exercising power that function through unquestioned everyday practices, participation and privilege. Gramsci therefore spoke of “cultural hegemony,” the predominance of certain ways of thinking and behaving, Bourdieu called these not always recognizable modes of reproduction “symbolic power”.

On the one hand, both of them aim in their analyzes of dominance for culture in the broader sense: [3] Not only the compulsion to sell the workforce and the repressive devices military and police contribute to the stability of the conditions. The ways of thinking and the everyday practices, even the tastes, have their share in the reproduction of the existing. Culture in this sense should not be understood, according to Gramsci, as “encyclopaedic knowledge”, that man would be instilled into a “vessel”.

According to Gramsci, the special significance of the dominance of certain ideas and behaviors arises only from the fact that culture is to be understood as a matter of self-employment and practical appropriation. It is not for nothing that Gramsci called Marxism, which was supposed to help understand these practices, a “philosophy of practice”.

Class structure and cultural consumption
Also Bourdieu’s approach is – for the same reason – referred to as practice theory. He wanted to point out the connection between every allegedly personal taste judgment and the respective affiliation to a social class. The “consumption of cultural goods” (Bourdieu), ie the different ways of dealing with all sorts of art and everyday objects, finally became the focus of both analytical and political interest.

On the other Gramsci like Bourdieu dedicated themselves to culture in the narrower sense. So they asked about the role that books and artistic productions, from dime novels to opera visits, have in the maintenance of domination. Both taste and class have something to do with each other. Bourdieu has shown in empirical studies that of all the products consumers can choose from, “the legitimate works of art are the most classifying and class-giving” [4]. Brand sneaker and ringtone, subway reading and evening: One shows about the handling of cultural works is not only to which social class one belongs, but renewed and consolidates this affiliation also.

Bourdieu assumed that predominantly the prevailing class structure is reproduced in cultural consumption, and especially by the lower classes, which are oriented towards the upper classes. This is the pessimistic implication that Bourdieu draws from his studies, as mentioned by Burawoy. Gramsci, on the other hand, was more positive. The handling of works and ideas can thus develop a transformative effect. Just as in the story “the bayonets of the Napoleonic army […] had already paved the way for an invisible army of books and pamphlets,” [5] Gramsci saw also future upheavals prepared by manifest thoughts.

On the question of resistance, the theoretically and politically significant differences become apparent. Theoretically, Bourdieu – unlike most Marxist cultural theories – inserted into the idea that books and works of art changed political realities, or even a level of mediation. The effects of such artistic productions are always broken, meaning that Gramsci’s “Books and Brochures” had to be enforced only in certain circles and contexts – in Bourdieu’s words in the “intellectual field” – before they could (and can) produce broader effects. ,

For example, Oliver Marchart paradigmatically illustrated in his book “Hegemony in the Art Field” the example of the world’s most important contemporary art exhibition, the documenta held every five years in Kassel, in which the connection between art and politics must first be understood within the field of art. here there have been various shifts between the Documentas dX (1997), D11 (2002) and d12 (2007) towards increasing depolitization. Only then can it be understood how and through which the field of art is produced and constantly rebuilt as an “important terrain […] on which ideological alliances” [6], has effects on society as a whole. With the word “Biennalisation” in the subtitle, Marchart points to the increasing event character and the economization of art. So he uses Bourdieu and Gramsci at the same time to show that art analysis must also mean to conduct power analysis. [7]

The fact that the focus must be on ever-changing alliances means three things: Firstly, very specific constellations of a field are to be observed (which hype is taking place in sports, is relatively irrelevant to art), and secondly, these alliances go well beyond Field of art (and are integrated into sponsoring by banks for their image-building). The fact that alliances – against and for this art, for or against sponsoring etc. – must be made and rebuilt means that they do not understand each other by themselves. So they are not given from the point of view in the production process. “The struggle of and for classifications”, that is, how things are assigned to individuals and to people (including a class), “is a fundamental dimension of the class struggle.” [8]

These allocations and allocations are not fixed and are not self-explanatory, but they are always contested. This is also the transition to the political difference between Gramsci and Bourdieu.

Politically, for Gramsci as a Marxist-Leninist, it is clear that it is the proletariat that makes history. But unlike many of his comrades, Gramsci supplemented this conviction with an analysis of the need for covenants: Since the seizure of power by the working class is not necessarily produced either by nature or history, different strategies would have to be considered, including the formation of broad alliances Gramsci’s words of a “historical block”.

Books and pamphlets, but also labor disputes and, of course, party work, provided the necessary means for this. “Cultural hegemony” was to be achieved and was henceforth regarded as an important prerequisite for social and economic upheavals. Gramsci says it has to be fought for the tastes. In any case, he was confident about the possibility of “combating the melodramatic taste of the little man in Italy.” [9] Gramsci therefore not only put culture of great theoretical value, but also put his political hope in it.

Taste issues and cultural hegemony
Bourdieu, however, derived no emancipatory hopes from the cultural consumption of the lower classes. On the contrary, he saw the preferences and desires always oriented to the upper classes and thus predominantly “sovereign effects” prevail. For a long time he could not and did not want to recognize stubborn, even resistant cultural practices of the lower classes, which were subordinate to Gramsci. The argument, in his studies of the Algerian rural population in the final phase of colonialism, was very similar to what he applied in the 1990s to those who saw themselves exposed to the increasing precariousness of working and living conditions in neoliberalism: who did not even have the trace of power over them owns your own present, how should the one or the other also develop their own future visions?

After all, this structural pessimism has also brought him much criticism, both from the Marxist side and from cultural studies. The already mentioned Néstor García Canclini, for example, did embrace Bourdieu’s constructivism, ie he did not accept social classifications as a given (but also as socially constructed). But he argued – using the example of Latin American societies – that the populare, that is tastes and behaviors in the lower classes, develops from inequalities. However, there would be quite independent and also resistant forms of practice. García Canclini distinguishes between “practices” that reproduce the prevailing patterns and structures and “practice” that transforms them. [10] Similarly, the Gramsci expert and editor of the social-philosophical journal Das Argument, Wolfgang Fritz Haug, has tried to save forms of thinking and acting against the assumption of merely permanent restoration of the existing.

In contrast to Bourdieu, Haug distinguishes between “cultural distinction” and “cultural distinction”: the former, as Bourdieu has described, contributes by means of prestige and subtlety to everything that remains as it is, the second form simply “gives concrete form” Something preferred to something else. “[11] With Bourdieu – and ultimately with Gramsci – however, it would be doubtful whether such innocent selection practices can exist in a socially and culturally highly unequal world.


A version of this  text was first published in ak – analyze und kritik, no. 573, Hamburg, June 2012, p. 23. Written by Jens Kastner and translated into english by Geronimo Cristobal


[1] Michael Burawoy: “The Roots of Domination: Beyond Bourdieu and Gramsci.” In: Sociology 46 (2), pp. 187-206, here p. 189. (

[2] Néstor García Canclini: “Gramsci con Bourdieu, Hegemonía, consumo y nueva formas de organización popular.” In: Nueva Sociedad, No. 71, March-April 1984, pp. 69-78.

Gramsci’s most important art and cultural theoretical writings have recently been reopened in German in a collective form: Antonio Gramsci: Literature and Culture. Gramsci Reader. Eds. on behalf of the Institute for Critical Theory of Ingo Lauggas.Hamburg: Argument 2012.

[4] Pierre Bourdieu: The subtle differences. To the critique of social judgment. Frankfurt a. M .: Suhrkamp 1987, p. 36.

[5] Antonio Gramsci: “Socialism and Culture.” In: like: Philosophy of practice. A selection. Eds. by Christian Riechers. Frankfurt a.M .: Fischer 1967, pp. 20-23, here p. 22.

[6] Oliver Marchart: Hegemony in the art field. The documenta exhibitions dX, D11, d12 and the politics of biennialisation.Cologne: Bookstore Walther König 2008, p. 13.

[7] See ibid., P. 94.

[8] Pierre Bourdieu: “Social Space and Symbolic Power.” In: like: Speech and Answer. Frankfurt aM: Suhrkamp 1992, pp. 135-154, here p. 153.

[9] Antonio Gramsci: Literature and Culture. Gramsci Reader. Eds. on behalf of the Institute for Critical Theory of Ingo Lauggas.Hamburg: Argument 2012, p. 48.

[10] Néstor García Canclini, p. 176.

[11] WFHaug: The cultural distinction. Hamburg: Argument 2011, p. 56.

The Buru Quartet (Pramoedya Ananta Toer 1980-1988)

“The Buru Quartet” by Penguin Books (1990)
“The Buru Quartet” by Penguin Books (1990)

The Buru Quartet refers to the the volumes Bumi Manusia (“This Earth of Mankind”, 1980) , Anak Semua Bangsa (“Child of All Nations”, 1980), Jejak Langkah (“Footsteps”, 1985) and Rumah Kaca (“Glass House “, 1988). The books were banned by the regime of long time Indonesian president Suharto and his successor B.J. Habibie. The ban was lifted in 2000.

The Quartet establishes Pramoedya as a leading figure in Southeast Asian literature and showcases his mastery of the classical historical realism. The carefully constructed narrative structure and detailed rich descriptions provide a broad overview of the cultural and ethnic diversity of colonial society.

The books tackle the nature of power and how it is balanced by social classes throughout history. They also provide an insight into the relationships between groups identified in the book and guide the reader’s attention on the world outside the former Dutch colony. Pramoedya has shown an deep understanding of the events and developments in the Philippines, Japan, China and the Netherlands, the motherland of the caste of colonial masters. This outlook is remarkable since the book was the result of stories originally told from the prison cell and gathered from memory.

The tension in the novel comes from the inherent conflicts between families, a complex love affair, as well as elements fit for a detective novel. The works primarily trace the life story of the Javanese nobleman Minke between 1898 and 1918. This is told through a first-person narrative in the form of revised diary notes and memoir writing. This technique gives us a peek into the process of political awakening by the protagonists. Minke’s experiences are extraordinary in his time. His radical rejection of colonialism, his aspiration for freedom, equality, and brotherhood, his insistence on self-determination and his commitment for nationalism, appear credible in the novel as the only correct answer the social conditions besetting the colony at the turn of a new century.

This unique place occupied by Minke, makes him, according to the formulation of Australian literary scholar K. Foulcher in the Anthology Culture and Politics in New Order Indonesia (1993) , as a “prototype of the Indonesian intellectual.” Minke is midway between tradition and modernity as well as between individual self-realization and social responsibility. On the way to becoming a revolutionary, Minke meets journalists and initiators of the early nationalist organizations and learns about the experiences of various social groups inside and outside the colony.

The novel’s exposition of the intellectual’s role model function as a journalistic, social reformist and its account of the political activities of the minorities (mestizos, Chinese, Arabs) are diametrically opposed to the common view of Indonesian history. It is very surprising for the reader then when the narrator shifts  in the fourth volume: We are presented with Pangemanann as a first-person narrator. Pangemanann is the only indigenous police commissioner in the colony and is Minke’s main antagonist.

This opens up to the reader a look inside the colonial security service:The fourth and final novel of the series, House of Glass is narrated by Pangemanann, the police commissioner who arranged for Minke’s exile and who has constantly monitored Minke during his time in Ambon. The plot revolves around Pangemanann’s moral conundrum—fulfill his responsibility to identify and imprison rebel leaders, or to join the growing independence movement. Pangemanann becomes obsessed with Minke, who has returned to Indonesia from his exile, after reading three novels that Minke wrote during his isolation—paralleling Pramoedya’s own experiences. Eventually Minke is poisoned by younger revolutionaries, who regard Minke as an ineffective remnant of a past age, and Pangemanann loses his position due to changing political circumstances. Pangemanann cannot, however, the voice of his complete supress the voice of his own conscience. His personal decline, the failure in his marriage and in his non-professional life show him that his victory is hollow, and he is sure that Minkes idealism and historical mission will be continued by others.

Minke does not fail primarily due to the cunning superiority of Pangemanann and the repressive apparatus he represents. A much bigger setback for Minke and his goals is the emergence of Budi Utomo, a Javanese ethnic group aligned and soon dominated by the aristocracy.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer illustrated in his novels the interdependence of colonial power and Javanese nobility.  These are the roots from where the conservative tendencies had sprung and are now the face of the independent Indonesia: a social conservatism, the traditional hierarchies which are yet to be radically challenged, and a tradition-bound concept Nation, which focused on the indigenous people and excluded all other minority.

Pramoedya’s Buru Quarter is thus not just a story about the emergence of a national movement, but at the same time the story of a missed historical opportunity.

Budi Utomo appears as the broader context of Pramoedya’s thoughts. It embodies the sinister link that contributes to the continuation of the pattern of colonial mentality  that have seeped into nationalist circles. The scope of this message becomes clear when one recalls that in the semi-official historiography of the founding of Budi Utomo, it is considered the beginning of the first national movement after which, all pre-existing organizations and movements became marginalized.

Nationalism, democracy and humanity are of paramount importance in Pramoedya’s entire oeuvre. In the 50 years of his career as a write, Pramoedya always abided by these ideals which has placed him in conflict with the changes and developments in the colony,  circumstances which later on became more accepted.

In one of the letters from Buru he says: “Shut up, my heart, do not be sorry to have had dreams, and not to be satisfied with the existing one “. In the 14 years of imprisonment and 19 years of house arrest, Pramoedya has guarded this aspiration. Before his death, Pramoedya has helped in a small private foundation for investigation into the 1965 massacres and other human rights violations, and contributing in small steps to the strengthening of the rule of law and Indonesian democracy.

Literate Gangsters

“BY NIGHT IN CHILE” is another novel discovery by the great Chilean author Roberto Bolaño

By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño,  Chris Andrews (Translator) Paperback, 118 pages Published December 1st 2005 by New Directions (first published November 2000)
By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño, Chris Andrews (Translator) Paperback, 118 pages Published December 1st 2005 by New Directions (first published November 2000)

A mediocre Chilean poet, far more famous as a literary critic and priest, is dying. All his life he had been alone, Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix writes. He then proceeds to a monolithic paragraph of his laborious justification, in which it is unclear what the reproaches are and whom they are raised against. These are just some of the things that would instantly hit you in this dark Chilean noir piece.

The flow of the speech of the narrator produces digressions from digressions and meandering anecdotes, which seem to omit what really happened and are only implied by hints and unreliable narrations. This opens the door to the harsh conjectures: What about the libido of the priest, does he refer to the direct advances of the criticism paper Farewell? What happens when he spends “unforgettable hours” with another clergyman?

Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix is a windmill. Though it is so rough in his life, he will always be haunted by crises, fiasco feelings, and great dreamy misfortune without being able to name reasons.

And the real disaster is not far. The secret center of his eloquence is not the prohibited desire of the priest, but the aestheticist existence of the art critics and artist in politically highly troubled times. During the demonstrations against Salvador Allende, as a shortage and inflation spread, he reads Greek tragedies. When the military putsch is there and killed Allende, he pauses briefly, “a finger between the pages of the book that I read, and thought: What a peace.” And what does the Church do? She sends him to Europe during one of his unexplained crises to investigate how church buildings are damaged by pigeons. And that while Chile is burning.

It is about the obscenity of an existence based purely on art under dictatorship, about the relationship between art (enterprise) and violence, including church and violence. This obscenity culminates in a party of the “Literatengesindelsel”, when a guest finds in the cellar of the Privathaus in the search for the toilet a half-dead tortured: “And the avant-garde theorist quietly closed the door without making noise.”

Even the narrator himself is entangled in the regime as if he were only reading through the clause: upon request, as a fully educated man (and in no case a Marxist), he gave the putschists around General Pinochet tutoring lessons in Marxism-so that they could better understand the enemy.

The path of the author Roberto Bolaño was opposite to his figure. The literary late-only perceived, who barely experienced his international success through his early death in 2003, wanted to help build socialism under Allende, for which he was imprisoned under Pinochet for a short time. Then he left Chile forever, most of the time he lived in Spain. He had to pay the price of the exile.

His books, however, are far from being “engaged” in a pedagogical sense. Bolaño shows reality as surrealistically inspired monstrosity. “Chilean Nightmare” neither uses literature nor denounces it, the novel is the celebration and parody of art at the same time.

Bolaño’s irony sometimes works with strong breaks, but often it is hard to grasp. When the narrator meets Pablo Neruda at a young age, the portrayal of this scene combines his pathos with the author’s irony to a sort of tender mockery of enchantingly slate poetry. The great poet muttered in a deep voice words for no one I could not tell what happened, I was not there, where Neruda, a few yards away, was standing in the middle of the night, in the middle of the night Moon, surrounded by the equestrian statue, the plants, and the shrubbery of Chile, surrounded by the dark dignity of the fatherland. ”

In this friction lies also the art of convincing an ego-narrator as a mediocre poet, and at the same time to have written a glittering book on the highest floors. Over the narrator, in the second paragraph of the book, which consists of a single line, “the hurricane of shit” breaks, the one which he has tried to restrain for 156 pages. Great.


By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño, Chris Andrews (Translator) Paperback, 118 pages Published December 1st 2005 by New Directions (first published November 2000)


Sister Stella L. (Mike De Leon, 1984)

Enlightenment is not a badge, but a wound. Mike De Leon tells of the transformation of a charity worker nun into a politically active front-line soldier.

Mike De Leon is next to Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal in the line of master directors of the second golden age of Filipino cinema. Compared to his colleagues, his filmography is manageable: where those – due to their early death in a narrower period – cranked down dozens of films, often several in a year, De Leon has only completed nine feature films since his debut. This may have something to do with the characteristical disposition of the passionate loner (“I just want to be alone, I’m no longer a director and I’m no longer a public property” – with these words he had rejected a prize this year, another reason should be sought in the films themselves: While in the work of his colleagues, a tension between the formulas of commercial genre cinema and the political-aesthetic use of the author filmmaker remains (and not only between the films, so between the many commissioned works and the few heart projects, but also within the films), seems to be unequivocal at De Leon: Batch ’81 is precisely the ultimate allegory of the Marcos dictatorship, because the film as claustrophobic thriller works wonderfully; and Sister Stella L. is therefore a poignant and clairvoyant testimony of the resistance against this very dictatorship, because De Leon is at the same time a gifted melodramatic.

Stella in the monastery, Stella in the streets

It starts with a split: twice Sister Stella . The one, older (Laurice Guillen), surnamed Bautista, sees her place outside the convent, on the streets, among the slum dwellers, who she enlightens about her political rights, including the striking workers who stand in front of the sweeping carriages of the bosses throw on the concrete. A great traveling star in the film: Stella B. walks through a slum with Nick Fajardo, a journalist, the camera slides in front of the speakers and casually captures the life around which the nun reports: playing children, Street dogs, even the poor house facades are suddenly no longer a backdrop, but receive subject status.

The younger Stella (Vilma Santos), surnamed Legaspi, that Stella L., who gives the film its name, used to be with Nick Fajardo before she went to the convent. It is not yet as far as Stella B., it still wavers between the white costumes of the convent’s living, charitable and therefore only subsequently helping, pain relieving nuns and the blue divide of the politically active women in the front. A young woman, who seeks help after an abortion in the Convention, accuses her of having not suffered herself and therefore could not understand her.

The nuns’ gown as an open visor

In the course of the film, the younger Sister Stella will inherit the older – a key scene shows the staff handing over: both Stella faces side by side in a split screen setting. In this central aspect, Sister Stella L. is a straightforward didactic cinema: the hesitant becomes the resolute, the spectator the actor. And even the nuns’ gait soon no longer has the same meaning, no longer stands for renunciation and self-denial, but on the contrary for an open visor: Framed by the hood looks the face that has left all self-protection, all adjustment behind, not more, as in the first shot of the film, transfigured to God, but free and open to the world: At the very end Stella holds a speech directly into the camera, directly into the audience, a secularized sermon, the same ethical-moral self-positioning and call for Fight is. Nonnentracht and framing together isolate the face, which seems to become a permeable membrane that creates a link between cinema and the world.

Sister Stella L. was created in 1984, during the last years of the Marcos regime, at a time when censorship seemed to be losing control of the cinema: De Leon’s film, after its completion, had to contend with performance bans, but the mere The fact that suddenly in the middle of the industry – Sister Stella L. and also Lino Brocka’s a year later Bayan Ko – My Country was produced by Lily Monteverde, the grande dame of commercial Filipino cinema – openly made political cinema possible on the creeping loss of authority of the regime. And indeed, Sister Stella L is . a film that not only speaks of oppression but also outlines the fundamentals of a new, pluralistically organized polity.

Fight the external and internal resistances

As in the two years before Batch ’81 , the relationship between the individual and the institution is at stake. This time, however, there is not one alternative institution, which provides all the freedom and which, once it has licked blood, one devours with skin and hair. Instead, there are several competing institutions: church, newspaper, union; and individuals not only have the choice between them, but also within the chosen, in themselves pluralistic, institution of creative freedom. However, this scope is realized only in the fight against resistance; and the political use of the film consists precisely in demonstrating that these resistances are not only external in nature (police, censorship, strikebreakers, rules of the order), but also settle in the individuals themselves, in the form of traditions, religious dogmas, false assumptions, short-sighted self-interest.

Sometimes the moral rigor of the film (which is not always very far from the totality of terror that Batch ’81 demonstrates) can scare you: is there really a Stella B in each one of us, just waiting to catch up? successful self-discipline qua self-education to break path? The great thing about the film, however, is that it tells the cognitive process that Stella L. goes through, not as a sober essay, but as an emotional melodrama (culminating in two deaths and also communicating in the melancholic guitar sounds that replace the harpsichord chase from Batch ’81 ): Stella L. becomes a mature revolutionary subject through empathy with pain, enlightenment is not a badge, but a wound.