The purpose of the following article and its sequel (which will appear in nlr 103) is simply to add a further exploratory contribution, once again partial and full of gaps, to my long-standing research on the genesis of contemporary Marxism.footnote Apart from obvious personal limitations, which naturally play some role, this adoption of a ‘multilateral’ approach rather than a systematic form of research may be justified by the fact that the method I have chosen is to some extent dictated by the very character of the investigation. I have in mind the difficulties that must be taken into consideration when one tackles a subject like the relationship between Stalinism and Leninism. We are here faced not with two clearly definable categories, between which a systematic opposition may be established, but with a complex of inter-related and mutually conditioning problems, which resist simplistic attempts to draw precise lines of demarcation. The fact that Leninism was transmitted and consolidated through the mediation of Stalinism is not something that can be erased by a simple sponge-stroke of intellectual reasoning. Even when it is thought to have been refuted and discarded, this ‘mediation’ continues to operate indirectly in mental categories and structures which have taken such deep root in habits of thought that it is often not possible to recognize their origin. For this reason, the method of exploratory soundings seemed preferable to more ambitious, but perhaps still premature endeavours; their function is to prepare the ground for the recomposition of a homogeneous conceptual apparatus lacking in contemporary Marxism.

In the first article, the sounding is designed to test the validity or weakness of Althusser’s various attempts to grapple with the theoretical problems posed by Stalinism and its crisis. In the second, I look more directly at the relationship between Stalinism and Leninism—which, it seems to me, Althusser essentially evades. I attempt to examine the possible modes of recuperation of Lenin’s thought and work, if one rejects that myth of ‘Leninism’ which served as an ideological prop in the construction of the Stalinist system of power.


The problem of Stalinism has been ever-present in all Althusser’s theoretical work, perhaps qualified but never marginal. In fact, all his philosophical contributions—from the collection of essays For Marx to his recent preface to Lecourt’s book on Lysenko—may be regarded as attempts to answer the burning questions raised by the Twentieth Congress of the cpsu and the ensuing crisis in the international Communist movement. By stressing this point in his polemic with John Lewis, Althusser seems himself to have indicated the vantage-ground from which the central axis of his developing thought can best be viewed. Althusser justifiably claims that he has never given in to the ‘rightist wave’ that was released among most Marxist intellectuals by the Twentieth Congress. Moreover, he did not confine himself to a dogged assertion of defensive positions, as happened in other cases. On the contrary, he threw all his energies into the search for a positive answer to the problems left unresolved by the denunciation of the ‘personality cult’. In the first stage, stretching from For Marx to Reading Capital, he concentrated almost exclusively on the need to open up the path of Marxist philosophy left blocked by Stalinist dogmatism. To be sure, this task was held in common with other Marxist philosophers, including those who had been blown to the right by the violent shock-waves of the Twentieth Congress. But whereas the latter were taking the easier road of a return to the philosophy of the young Marx, where it was possible to meet up comfortably with the humanistic traditions of bourgeois ideology, Althusser chose the directly opposite course—one which was at once more difficult and more radical and original.

In the preface to For Marx (1965), Althusser has himself described the difficulties of this first period, when he was still groping his way along. The principal conclusion he reached was that, in order fully to settle accounts with Stalinism and produce a positive alternative to it, it was not enough to free Marxism from the grip of Stalinist dogmatism: it was necessary to draw up a Marxist balance sheet of Marxism itself—of its far-from-linear history and its largely unexplored potential for further development. The main stress was on the philosophical aspects of the undertaking. The end of Stalinist dogmatism had not set Marxist philosophy free, since ‘after all, it is never possible to liberate, even from dogmatism, more than already exists’; and what then existed of Marxist philosophy was only a bud, a beginning, a still ‘meagrely elaborated’ suggestion.footnote1 The task then was to nurture this bud, to construct that edifice of Marxist philosophy of which Marx had left only the foundations.