Text published in Critique communiste (review of the Ligue communiste révolutionnaire), n°178, December 2005, pp.154-156.

CORCUFF, Philippe. On Jacques Langlois’ book, Agir avec Proudhon (Lyon, Éditions Chronique Sociale, 2005)

Transl. by Jesse COHN

PROUDHON, Pierre-Joseph (1809-1865)DELEUZE, GillesCOLSON, DanielLANGLOIS, JacquesCORCUFF, Philippe (Oran, Algeria 4/15/1960 - )

The libertarian socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) is little read today among the radical left, whereas his thought had a great repercussion on the French labour movement in the 19th century as well as at the beginning of the 20th century.<

It should be said that this reading suffers from the sexist and anti-semitic stereotypes which one finds here and there in his writings. Without denying this conservative side of the man, it is necessary for us to rediscover his libertarian aspects, which were by far the most developed and which are still provocative today. In this, we are encouraged by the work of Jacques Langlois.
If Proudhon’s name is known on the left, his work still appears to be widely ignored at the beginning of the 21st century. Only the anarchist milieux have kept the flame lit, in particular by editorially maintaining the accessibility of his texts. Recently, thus, the sociologist and libertarian militant Daniel Colson proposed an original approach to him, in a rereading of the anarchist tradition taking Gilles Deleuze as a starting point [1]. In this context, the double project of Jacques Langlois’ book is useful: 1.) to offer a presentation, the principal dimensions of which are pedagogical in aim, of a plentiful body of work, and 2.) to demonstrate its currency for the political questions with which we are presently occupied. To accompany Langlois in this course, it is necessary however to draw aside the hasty judgements of Marx the bourgeois on Proudhon the prole [2], monotonously recited by generations of Marxists: “a bourgeois man, tossed between capital and labor” . . . On the other hand, Langlois would have facilitated the task of the Marxist or marxian reader if he had not given such a simplistic image of Marx, precisely that which is held by the most superficial and economistic Marxisms.
“The balancing of opposites” against “the fanatics of unity”
There is a particularly heuristic thread which traverses Proudhon’s reflections, and of which Langlois renders a fine account: a triple pluralism, both philosophical, sociological and political. From the point of view of methods of thought, Proudhon comes to criticize certain features of the Hegelian dialectic. This is little known, and where it is acknowledged, the Proudhonian critique is often accorded a weak intellectual legitimacy. This ostracism frequently has bad social reasons, and in particular a claim of the academic intellectuals to hold the monopoly of legitimate intellectuality. “How could a prole have seriously embarassed one of the masters of academic philosophy?” one hears implied in certain class judgements disguised as judgements of competences.
Placing these social prejudices to one side, let us examine more closely the criticisms Proudhon addressed to Hegel. They do not concern the complexity of Hegel’s work as much as a schematic vision of his dialectic, particularly the triad thesis-antithesis-synthesis. This is what Maurice Merleau-Ponty called “the Hegel of the handbooks”, centered on “the announcement and guarantee of a final synthesis” [3]. Other readings of Hegel could be proposed, like the recent one of Jean-Luc Nancy ( [4], stressing the work of the negative in history rather than the prospect for the positive advent of a final synthesis (“the end of history”). Still, however, let us note that the triad thesis-antithesis-synthesis, like the correlative idea of a “surpassing” of contradictions in a synthesis which includes them, played an important part among the mental tools of a number of militant progressives up until our time. The dialectical method of Proudhon, Langlois explains, endeavours to balance “thesis and antithesis, without presupposing a synthesis” (p.14). The dynamic of antinomies would be infinite, without necessarily being capable of being surpassed in a higher synthesis which would include the terms of the contradiction, but would produce continual displacements, balances and imbalances. The movements of history would even have losses: not all would be recuperated in a succession of “stages,” each higher than the last until the illusory total synthesis.
This philosophy of “the balancing of opposites” has consequences for Proudhonian sociology. It sees in society a diversity of feelings, interests, logics of action, forms of domination, powers, in partial and unstable equilibriums, in a perpetual dynamic which is not fixed around any single axis (as a “final instance”) which would ensure its coherence. The pluralism of values and social forces would thus be constitutive of human societies, while taking on varied and changing forms. “Effervescent pluralism and complexity are the two bases of Proudhonian sociology”, summarizes Langlois (p.70).
Social pluralism should be preserved and even enriched in a emancipated society: “What justice, indeed, if not an equilibrium between forces?”, asks Proudhon in Théorie de la propriété (published posthumously in 1866). From which comes the recourse to federalism as a privileged political instrument – the Proudhonian federalism which the Paris Commune will be inspired by and which Marx will borrow in The Civil War in France (1871). “The fanatics of unity” are targeted by Proudhon, then, because they carry the seeds of a repression of the Multiple for the benefit of the One. “Absolutism” and “governmentalism” are two of the names of this danger, the incarnation of which can be seen in the modern world particularly in the State, as “a power of concentration”. A lucid vision, in view of the totalitarianisms of the 20th century, or simply of the bureaucratic and conformist tendencies of official institutions today. But beginning with Proudhon, one could undoubtedly go further here than Proudhon did in thinking the unstable balance of forces, interests, capacities and values which one calls “the State” in a far too reductive manner.
Towards a more libertarian reading of Proudhon
In spite of its illuminating aspects for the newcomer to Proudhonian thought, Langlois’ work is not immune to criticism. It attests, for example, too systematic a vision, too coherent, too uniformly positive, of the disparate writings of this Franc-Comtois. Why also not explore, in the manner of a Michel Foucault [5] , the flaws, the unconscious contents, the contradictions, the heterogeneous threads with which the work is woven?
Thus, as did many Marxists with Marx for such a long time, Langlois adopts a reading which is too reverential, insufficiently libertarian, even too little Proudhonian, finally, in its method. As if the object of the book (Proudhonian pluralism) and its method (the temptation to unify Proudhon’s work) were at odds with one another. This disjunction is particularly visible when Langlois endeavours to relativize the sexist discourses and the traces of anti-semitism in Proudhon. He is certainly right to place the stereotypes that Proudhon inherited from his time in their context. But why not interpret such ineptitudes, more frankly, as marks of the weaknesses of any human mind, even the most lucid and moral? Does one still need pedestals (even libertarian ones!), or simply human thoughts, in their very fragilities and shortcomings? It is perhaps a certain fidelity to Proudhon’s anti-dogmatism (for example, in the warning he gave to Marx in his letter of May 17, 1846: “Having demolished all dogmatisms a priori, let us not think in our turn to indoctrinate the people [ . . . ] Let us welcome, let us encourage all the protests, dispense with all exclusions, all mystifications; let us never regard a question as exhausted”) which recommends itself to us.
It is in its contributions as well as in its weaknesses that Jacques Langlois’ book constitutes an invitation to reflection and action.
Philippe Corcuff
Wednesday February 22 2006

[1In Petit lexique philosophique de l’anarchisme - De Proudhon à Deleuze, Le Livre de Poche, 2001

[2For a fine analysis of the social implications of work in the rivalry between Marx and Proudhon, to see Jean-Louis Lacascade, “Bévue de Proudhon et/ou traquenard de Marx - Lecture symptomale de leur unique correspondance”, revue Genèses (éditions Belin), n°46, March 2002.

[3In Sens et non sens (1st ed.: 1948), Gallimard, 1996, p.100.

[4In Hegel - L’inquiétude du négatif, Hachette, 1997.

[5See, for example, “What Is An Author?” (1969 lecture), included in Dits et Écrits I, 1954-1975, Gallimard, coll. “Quarto”, 2001.