Althusser was in general unforthcoming on biographical matters—personal questions about his history encountering a wary, although not blank response. The two main experiences of his youth were Catholicism, with its then interest in ‘the social question’ (one of them, he commented ironically), and five years of imprisonment in Germany during the war. His education was broken by the war, in the way that those of Williams or Hobsbawm were, resuming again in 1945. He received little philosophical training, attending some lectures by Merleau-Ponty at best. His decision to join the party in 1948 was not motivated by the advances of the Chinese revolution, or by the Czech crisis, but seems to have been the product of a gradual evolution from 1945 onwards (effects of Spanish Civil War also), precipitated by personal factors (his encounter with his wife, of whom he did not speak?—a surmise).
Asked how he reacted to the 20th Party Congress of the cpsu, he made the most important remark about his own development. I mistakenly thought that it represented the great danger for Marxism, he said. That was my whole political idea at the time and afterwards, when writing the essays in the sixties. Now, however, I understand that the real danger to Marxism went much further back—to the thirties, to Stalinism. In effect, Stalinism was the crisis within Marxism, masking it in the form of a petrified stasis or non-crisis. The very stillness of Stalinist ideology was the worst symptom of that crisis, which Khrushchevism merely rendered mobile and visible.
Today, Fernando Claudín can be praised for having seen the depth of the crisis for Marxist theory so much earlier—although without having dealt with it philosophically. That historical situation did indeed produce a kind of pessimism in his thought (an allusion to Considerations on Western Marxism, a chapter of which he had read in translation), common to that of others too. After the publication of his recent pamphlet on the 22nd Congress of the pcf (see below), he is now working on a polemical article on Gramsci for Rinascita in a direction not unlike the text in nlr (critique of idea of hegemony), but philosophical rather than historical. He hinted that he may eventually renounce publication of it, as too acerbic to be well-advised. Otherwise, he would like to write a short, compact book on the capitalist state now, for mass diffusion.
Asked about life in the pcf, he emphasized the complete transformation in the membership of the party in the past five years. The mass of new, young recruits now lack any serious Marxist formation whatever—they have merely joined in the context of the Common Programme. They form an absolute contrast with those who had lived through the Third Period, the Popular Front, the Nazi–Soviet Pact, the Resistance and the Cold War—experiences whose intensity and variety had obliged militants of that epoch to think for themselves, and to think seriously. Very few cadres of that time now survive in the party. The oldest are mostly of his generation—like his political contemporary Georges Marchais.
For the leaders, he had scant respect. Marchais was selected by a process of elimination after Waldeck Rochet, as the least controversial or junior. Now possessing a certain authority in the party because of his candour and directness, with a certain aplomb on television, he is very limited. Roland Leroy, who is abler, was ill. Paul Laurent and René-Émile Piquet were too young to succeed. He reported, as if it were an impropriety, that Laurent had remarked the other day that he was five when the Spanish Civil War broke out. The pcf leaders, he claimed, are arrantly anti-Soviet in private, revealing chauvinist contempt for the ‘backward’ Russians as muzhiks, vaunting the ability of the pcf to perform far better in France than the cpsu in Russia had done, and generally regarding the ussr as a tiresome embarrassment for them. Questioned about the degree of their knowledge of the Soviet Union, he stated that every member of the French Central Committee had the right to take a free holiday in the ussr every four years, and members of the Political Bureau every year—so that they were well-acquainted with life in Russia. Yet there was no serious reflection among them on the historical experience of Soviet society.