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.

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