Marx and Bourdieu embark from similar criticisms of philosophers as suffering from the illusion that ideas make history—what Marx calls ideology and what Bourdieu calls scholastic reason. Marx and Bourdieu both identify the source of this fallacy in the failure of philosophers (and other intellectuals or academics) to recognize the peculiar conditions under which they produce their knowledge. Accordingly both Marx and Bourdieu turn from the logic of theory to the logic of practice: in the one case to the practical relations of productions and in the other case to bodily practices. However, where Marx sees the relations of production as leading to class struggle and eventually revolution, Bourdieu sees bodily practice as instilling symbolic domination through habitus. The dominated suffer from an almost irreversible misrecognition—an inability to comprehend their subjugation. So Bourdieu turns away from the dominated as a source of social change and back to intellectuals and the realpolitik of reason which calls on the state and law to realize their claims to universality. Similarly, the failure of working-class revolution leads Marx to return to the logic of theory—the theory of the self-destruction of the capitalist mode of production and alternative paths to the future—whereas the state’s failure to realize the project of universalization leads Bourdieu to turn back to the logic of practice—the mobilization of the dominated into social movements. These paradoxical moves lead Marx and Bourdieu to adopt divergent views of history; divergent approaches to social change; divergent roots of symbolic domination; and divergent perspectives on contentious politics. If the followers of Marx, especially Western Marxism, seek to explain the quiescence of the working class by developing powerful theories of cultural hegemony, will the followers of Bourdieu build a research programme that focuses on the internal contradictions and external anomalies of Bourdieu’s theory of symbolic domination? Or will they see Bourdieu’s writings as a final form of infallible knowledge?
Economic conditions first transformed the mass of the people of the country into workers. The combination of capital has created for this mass a common situation, common interests. This mass is thus already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself. In the struggle, of which we have noted only a few phases, this mass becomes united, and constitutes as a class for itself. The interests it defends become class interests. But the struggle of class against class is a political struggle
—(Karl Marx, Poverty of Philosophy, 1847)
The historical success of Marxist theory, the first social theory to claim scientific status that has so completely realized its potential in the social world, thus contributes to ensuring that the theory of the social world which is the least capable of integrating the theory effect—that it, more than any other, has created—is doubtless, today, the most powerful obstacle to the progress of the adequate theory of the social world to which it has, in times gone by, more than any other contributed
—(Pierre Bourdieu, Social Spaces and the Genesis of “Classes,” 1984)
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Indeed, some, such as Perry Anderson (1976), regarded Western Marxism as an idealistic betrayal of classical Marxism.
Throughout this essay I will be referring to Marx except where he is a joint author with Engels. This is not to belittle the contribution of Engels but to reflect Bourdieu’s focus on Marx whenever he is not making blanket statements about Marxism.
Here is how Marx and Engels berate Feuerbach: “Thus if millions of proletarians feel by no means contented with their living conditions, if their ‘existence’ does not in the least correspond to their ‘essence’ then … this is an unavoidable misfortune, which must be borne quietly. The millions of proletarians and communists, however, think differently and will prove this in time, when they bring their ‘existence’ into harmony with their ‘essence’ in a practical way, by means of revolution” (Tucker 1978: 168).
As Jacques Bidet (2008) emphasizes the dynamics of Bourdieu’s fields relies on the struggle and competition among its agents rather than an underlying structure equivalent to the interaction of the forces and relations of production.
While Talcott Parsons and Pierre Bourdieu share a commitment to a general theory of action, Parsons develops four analytical subsystems (analogous to fields) whose functions—adaptive, goal attainment, integrative and latency—contribute to society as a whole and whose interdependence is orchestrated through universal media of interchange (money, power, influence and value commitment) that are parallel to Bourdieu’s “capitals.” From here Parsons develops a theory of history as differentiation, governed by evolutionary universals. Bourdieu makes no attempt to advance such a grand account of history and totality. Indeed, he recoils from any such project. He systematically refuses systematicity.
There is a curious parallel between Bourdieu’s conception of “habitus” and Marx’s conception of “forces of production.” Both are durable, transposable and irreversible—the one a measure of the development of the individual, the other of society. Both come into conflict with wider structures within which they develop. For Marx, however, the structures (relations of production) ultimately give way to the expansion of the forces of production, whereas for Bourdieu, it is the opposite, habitus tends to give way to structures.
In writing about Algeria, however, Bourdieu (1979: 62–63) argues that it is the relative stability and the “privilege” of experiencing “permanent, rational exploitation” that gives the working class revolutionary potential, very different from the dispossessed peasantry and subproletariat who live from hand to mouth and are, therefore, unable to plan for an alternative future. It is the distinction between a genuine “revolutionary force” and a spontaneous “force for revolution.” This is a very different portrait that the one of the French working class weighed down by necessity, accepting the legitimacy of the dominant classes. While Bourdieu makes no effort to reconcile these opposed visions of the working class, he might argue that it revolves around the symbolic violence in France and the physical violence of colonialism. Alternatively, these may be strategic positions taken up in two different political fields: against the FLN who favoured the peasantry as a revolutionary class in Algeria, and against the Marxists who regarded the working class as inherently revolutionary in France.
They are what Alvin Gouldner (1979) calls a flawed universal class, only he was more realistic about the corporatism of intellectuals. Antonio Gramsci would see Bourdieu’s intellectuals as a traditional, and the defence of their autonomy as serving their role in presenting the interests of the dominant class as the interests of all, as the universal interests.
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Burawoy, M. (2022). The Poverty of Philosophy: Marx Meets Bourdieu. In: Paolucci, G. (eds) Bourdieu and Marx. Marx, Engels, and Marxisms. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-06289-6_5
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