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International Socialism, Spring 2002


Jim Wolfreys

Pierre Bourdieu: voice of resistance


From International Socialism 2:94, Spring 2002.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The death of Pierre Bourdieu in January is a setback for the left both in France and internationally. A leading figure in French sociology since the 1960s, during the past decade Bourdieu played a major role in the backlash against the neo-liberal consensus among French intellectuals, firstly with the monumental collective work The Weight of the World, a collection of essays and interviews which exposed for a mass audience the brutal consequences of the unfettered market, and secondly as the active champion of the various groups and associations to emerge in the wake of the great public sector strike wave of December 1995. The Weight of the World was published in 1993 in the twilight years of the Mitterrand era. The intensification of social inequality and the various effects of job insecurity, unemployment and the flexibilisation of labour meant that for the first time since the war a generation had emerged whose conditions of work were inferior to those of its parents. The book laid bare, with an understated power, the way in which these changes shaped the everyday acts of individuals forced to count the cost in terms of fading hopes and shrunken lives. But if the failure of the Socialist Party to deliver social reform during the 1980s had bred confusion and despondency, by the early 1990s activists had begun to find ways of operating independently of the social democratic and trade union bureaucracy. The Weight of the World therefore chimed with people’s experience, but also served as a justification for protest. Typical of the response it generated was that of a young teacher who, in a 1998 article for Le Monde about the strike he was involved in, wrote that those who affected not to understand the situation faced by those in deprived areas should go back and read Bourdieu’s book. [1]

When unemployment hit the 3 million mark in the early 1990s, the full extent of social deprivation in France began to hit home, and small but significant groups of workers and students began to take action. As Robert Castel has noted, the protests of those affected were motivated not so much by the demand for ‘always more’ as the fear of ‘always less’. [2] The burgeoning reaction against neo-liberalism eventually exploded in the form of three heady weeks of strikes and demonstrations against Gaullist plans to reform the social security system in November and December 1995. The most startling repercussions were political – within 18 months the mainstream right’s utter dominance in parliament had crumbled, and by 1998 the fascist Front National had split. [3] But there was also a shift in the balance of power among French intellectuals. Since the mid-1970s a concerted attack had been waged not just on Marxist ideas but also on the relevance of any kind of political engagement by intellectuals, or indeed anyone. Once the prominent role of individuals who engaged with the Marxist tradition, like Sartre, Althusser and the historian Albert Soboul, had faded, French intellectual life in the 1980s was increasingly peopled by media-friendly figures like the historian Francois Furet, the sociologists Alain Touraine and Pierre Rosanvallon, and the journalist-philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy. All shared a previous engagement with the left and a new-found desire to embrace moderation and consensus. Magazines like Le Point and Le Nouvel Observateur, along with journals like L’Esprit and Le Débat, gave them a platform, and influential think-tanks like the Fondation Saint-Simon were formed to propagate their ideas. ‘Non-engagement’, claimed the editor of Le Débat, ‘was our flag.’ [4] The slogan of the 1995 protests, ‘Tous ensemble!’ (‘All together!’), appeared to confound the consensus underpinning the new orthodoxy. When those linked to L’Esprit published a petition saluting the courage of Nicole Notat, the leader of the CFDT trade union federation whose craven attitude towards government cuts in social security had lost her the respect of a sizeable part of her own membership, Bourdieu stepped into the fray. He produced the final draft of a petition of intellectuals expressing support for the strikes. According to a colleague, Bourdieu felt that ‘with the railway workers, he was defending a civilisation’. [5] A week later he addressed a public meeting of strikers, and condemned those intellectuals who were unable to understand the movement. ‘This crisis,’ he argued, ‘is a historic opportunity for France and all those who refuse the new alternative – liberalism or barbarism.’ [6]

Commentators frequently distinguish between Bourdieu the sociologist and Bourdieu the activist. Often this is to enable his opponents to bury the latter while praising the former. There is nevertheless a common thread which links his academic output and political activity, which is a preoccupation with how mechanisms of domination are reproduced. His first work on Algeria in the early 1960s, which examined the effect of colonisation and modernisation on traditional society and culture, looked at how individuals adapt to forms of domination, becoming acquiescent, if involuntary, participants in their own subjugation. The same applied to his subsequent influential analyses of the French education system. The book he produced with Jean-Claude Passeron, The Inheritors, crystallised many of the concerns with which Bourdieu would wrestle for the best part of the next four decades. In it he demonstrated how education, supposedly the means par excellence of social mobility, instead reproduced social inequality. Moreover, the individuals who ran the system were labouring under the illusion that they were overcoming the constraints of class or gender, while all the time conforming to attitudes and behaviour which perpetuated such divisions. How could the discrepancy between the apparent function of the education system and its role in maintaining inequality be overcome? Bourdieu and Passeron concluded that there was no alternative but to take the stated purpose of the system at face value if there was to be any hope that the actual function of education in society might eventually be displaced.

In subsequent works Bourdieu further developed his analysis of how those in power preserve their domination by means other than direct repression. Central to this process was the way in which inequalities of wealth and income appear in society to be not so much the products of economic injustice, as the natural consequence of disparities of ability, judgement or lifestyle. Domination was not imposed by one group of individuals on another but maintained indirectly, via institutions and practices which function with the complicity of the dominated. The key conceptual tool developed by Bourdieu to explain this complicity was the ‘habitus’, which mediates the relationship between human actors and society, producing patterns of behaviour whose limits are shaped by society’s norms and implicitly, if unwittingly, accepted by individuals. As with the earlier work on education, then, the question remained – what solution could be offered? If individuals reproduced the structures of domination which enslaved them, how were they to break the circle? Although a similar question might be asked of Marxism – how is self emancipation possible if the dominant ideas in society are those of our rulers? – Bourdieu dismissed Marx’s emphasis on workers’ ability to consciously take control of their lives through the lived experience of class conflict as both voluntaristic, placing too much reliance on subjective consciousness, and deterministic, anticipating the ‘maturing’ of objective conditions. [7] While the prospect of liberation may have remained distant in Bourdieu’s work, he did provide a series of impressive analyses which deployed the various conceptual tools he had developed over the years in rigorous and detailed explorations of his chosen fields of study, whether artistic production (The Rules of Art), education (Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture, with J-C Passeron), intellectual production (Homo Academicus, Pascalian Meditations) or, in perhaps his finest book, cultural consumption (Distinction).

In practical terms, although Bourdieu remained true to an essentially reformist outlook, the abandonment of reformism by French social democracy at a time when the welfare state was under attack led him to adopt a more radical stance. As chair of sociology at the prestigious Collège de France, Bourdieu’s reputation and authority guaranteed maximum publicity for his interventions. Publications like Acts of Resistance demonstrate his commitment to polarising debate and bringing it to as wide an audience as possible. In this way he played a major role in ensuring that the technocratic ‘experts’ of the mainstream were not let off the hook. One of the constant themes of Bourdieu’s work was the need for intellectuals (and their audience) to recognise the fact that they are social actors as well as observers. In Reproduction Bourdieu had criticised ‘the infantry of all the avant-gardes, constantly scouring the horizon of modernity through fear of missing out on an ideological or theoretical revolution, ready to discern the latest addition to the "new classes", "new alienations" or "new contradictions".’ [8] After 1995 many such figures, in particular those whose fame derived from their role as theoreticians of ‘social movements’, found they had been overtaken by the movement itself. Bourdieu did not let them forget it. In his speeches he lambasted the ‘lackeys’ of the establishment, while in a recent documentary he referred to sociologists who put themselves at the service of the state as ‘scabs’. [9] The publishing house he had helped set up, Liber – Raisons d’Agir, produced a series of cheap, accessible books for the movement including Les Nouveaux Chiens de Garde (The New Watchdogs), a coruscating attack by Serge Halimi on the complicity between the media and the status quo, which addressed many of the themes taken up by Bourdieu himself in his 1996 book Sur la Télévision. Meanwhile, as a series of heterodox think-tanks, reviews and journals began to emerge, popular publications like the TV guide Télérama and the music and arts magazine Les Incrockuptibles started giving space over to Bourdieu and his collaborators, as did the more highbrow Le Monde diplomatique, which recast itself as an anti-globalisation publication with spectacular success. The discomfiture of those in the firing line was epitomised by the attempt of Alain Touraine to claw back some credibility by travelling to Chiapas to attend a forum with Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatistas. [10] But the cosy certainties of their world had been severely shaken. Some of the signatories to the Esprit petition later tried to recant. In 1999 the Fondation Saint-Simon, the think-tank which spawned a thousand revisions, from Furet’s distortions of the French Revolution to the report on France’s ‘social fracture’ which gave Chirac his 1995 election slogan, folded.

’I was an angry young man,’ Bourdieu told a conference organised last summer to discuss his work. ‘I am an angry old man.’ [11] His recent stance did not represent a break with his previous convictions, but the form in which they were expressed did become more direct and polemical. This was partly due to the manner in which the stakes were raised by the events of December 1995, but partly also due to the space opened up by the decline of social democracy for critical intellectuals, associations like ATTAC, independent trade unions, the far left and all the other components of the so called ‘social movement’. The bitter sarcasm of a slogan painted on the walls of an Argentinian city during the recent wave of protests – ‘No more reality. We want promises’ – underlines the extent to which mainstream politics across the globe are increasingly being reduced to the alternative, rejected by Bourdieu, of neo-liberalism or barbarism. After December 1995 Bourdieu gave his backing to a number of struggles, from the protests organised by immigrants denied residence papers to the wave of occupations by unemployed workers which swept France in 1997-1998 and, of course, the growing anti-capitalist movement in France and elsewhere. His own attempt to organise an ‘Estates General of the European Social Movement’, although it never really built up momentum, was part of an ongoing search for an alternative to existing social democratic parties which in France has found its most significant expression in the form of ATTAC, an organisation somewhere between an association and a political party. Those who fought alongside him as part of the anti-capitalist movement responded to the news of his death by stressing his unpretentious approach to activity, the fact that he could also be tough and critical with his support, and his contribution as a thinker and polemicist: ‘He knew how to find the words for our fight.’ [12] Some of his political opponents were predictably graceless in their comments, damning him with faint praise or choosing to attack the ‘sectarianism’ of his collaborators. Such reactions reflect a polarisation which Bourdieu had helped intensify, and the contours of a political struggle in which his contribution will be missed.


1. Le Monde, 28 March 1998.

2. R. Castel, Les Métamorphoses de la Question Sociale (Paris 1999), pp. 717.

3. See J. Wolfreys, Class Struggles in France, International Socialism 84 (Autumn 1999).

4. P. Nora, cited in J. Duval, C. Gaubert, F. Lebaron, D. Marchetti and F. Pavis, Le Décembre des Intellectuels Français (Paris 1998), pp. 47–48.

5. L. Wacquant, Le Monde, 25 January 2002.

6. Le Monde, 14 December 1995.

7. For further comments on Bourdieu’s relationship to Marxism see J. Wolfreys, In Perspective: Pierre Bourdieu, International Socialism 87 (Summer 2000). For an excellent account of the development of his ideas see J. Lane, Pierre Bourdieu: A Critical Introduction (London 2000). On Bourdieu and the role of the engaged intellectual, see A. Callinicos, Anthony Giddens or Pierre Bourdieu?, New Left Review 236 (July/August 1999).

8. P. Bourdieu and J.-C. Passeron, La Reproduction: Éléments Pour une Théorie du Système d’Enseignement (Paris 1970), p. 228.

9. P. Carles (dir.), La Sociologie est un Sport Combat (2001).

10. J. Duval et al., op. cit., p. 107.

11. Le Temps, 26 January 2002.

12. E. Toussaint, Le Nouvel Observateur, 31 January 2002.

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