Everything Is Just Dandy!

Pierre Ansart – The presence of Proudhonism in contemporary sociologies

The Anarchist Library

Author: Pierre Ansart
Title: The presence of Proudhonism in contemporary sociologies
Date: 1992
Notes: Translated from the French by Shaun Murdock.
Source: Retrieved on 21st April 2022 from www.persee.fr

It would certainly be misleading to imagine the continuation of a direct ‘influence’ of Proudhon’s work in today’s social sciences. Such a contested theoretical system, rejected by academia, could not constitute a faithfully conveyed legacy some 130 years later.

On the contrary, social sciences, and especially sociology, have been reshaped by transformations that were also apparent rejections of the Proudhonian problematic. The transformation initiated by Durkheim, who was so important for the history of sociology throughout the first half of the 20th century, took place against social philosophies and their excessive ambitions. By implication, Durkheim’s severe criticisms of Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer also reached the philosophies of history and the social philosophies of which Proudhon could be suspected. Furthermore, the transformation in research methods which occurred at the end of the 20th century, calling for restricted, fragmented research, discouraged intellectual bravery which was henceforth rejected in the field of political ideas. Finally, the wide spread of Marxism exerted strong pressure to fight against Proudhon’s theories.

Similarly, contemporary French sociologists have hardly been inclined to count Proudhon among their leading thinkers, despite the efforts of Célestin Bouglé and then Georges Gurvitch. Among the authors of the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was mainly the works of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim that fulfilled this role. Proudhon, like Tocqueville and Le Play, was largely absent in sociologists’ education, but for diametrically opposite reasons.

In contemporary sociologies, there is a peculiar paradox. While there are few explicit references to Proudhon’s work, it is striking to see the appearance of themes, questions, and answers that bear the hallmarks of a resurgence of themes and questions expressed in Proudhon’s writings. But these revivals are in no way identical among today’s various sociologies, as if the theories of the anarchist from Besançon were still implicitly being debated, approved and rejected.

Two questions therefore arise that we would like to deal with in turn. First, which sociologies revive questions or topics addressed by Proudhon or his theories? This question will lead us to examine four contemporary paradigms: genetic structuralism, dynamic sociology, the strategic approach, and methodological individualism.[1] We will then outline to what extent these different paradigms are opposed in the accounts that we can reconstruct with Proudhon’s work.

The answer to the second question will be much more difficult. To the extent that we will have highlighted the presence of Proudhonian themes in some contemporary work in sociology, how can we explain these continuations or ‘returns’? How can we explain the presence of the forgotten? On this matter, we can probably only suggest hypotheses.

Genetic structuralism

Without seeking to make an exhaustive list of points of reconciliation and separation between Pierre Bourdieu’s works and Proudhon’s writings, it must be emphasised that Bourdieu’s analyses lead him, like Proudhon, to highlight the division of society into social classes. This point distinguishes them from the other three schools that we will discuss. Bourdieu’s work combines investigations into cultural practices,[2] inequalities in the educational system,[3] and distinction strategies[4] to explore, in all their consequences, the effects that this class division of society and individuals’ membership of one of these classes have on behaviour and representation.

Moreover, regardless of the distance between the authors’ conceptions of class, it must be emphasised that Proudhon’s ternary scheme, which distinguishes the bourgeois class, the middle class and the working classes,[5] is reproduced at the end of Pierre Bourdieu’s investigations, which led him to distinguish the grande bourgeoisie, the petite bourgeoisie and the popular classes.[6]

This reconciliation, despite the differences and divergences, has serious consequences, and places Proudhon and P. Bourdieu in a certain sociological tradition whose originality is underlined by the lively debates surrounding it today. This tradition, which may be called ‘class-based’ in the sense that it stresses the existence of classes as social realities, assumes that a certain knowledge of the social totality is accessible and that a ‘science’ can be established based on this reality. This fundamental intuition is found across the work of Proudhon, who does not doubt that this knowledge may be accessed, and that of P. Bourdieu, who adopts this premise. And this totality can be known through its main divisions, through the ‘war’ which puts proprietors and non-proprietors in conflict[7] and through the struggles for distinction among the various social classes.[8] Broadly, it can be said that the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu and his collaborators is part of the great class-based tradition inaugurated by Saint-Simon, Proudhon and Marx, understanding society as a system of antagonistic classes and as a totality that can be known through this interpretative framework.