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.

Nevertheless, the radical originality of the project was no guarantee either of its success or of the clarity of its results. Althusser realized this himself after he had elaborated in For Marx and Reading Capital a complex machinery of theses and formulae that would have allowed any decent traditional philosopher to live quietly on the proceeds. The weakness of this machinery—which Althusser later attributed to a ‘theoreticist deviation’—emerged with particular clarity in its effective avoidance of the confrontation with Stalinism. The legitimate concern to rethink the conceptual structures of Marxist philosophy had been situated within the quest for a positive alternative to Stalinist dogmatism; but in the end, political problems were separated off from philosophical ones and left in the background unexamined. It is this ‘theoreticism’ (that is to say, ‘one-sided insistence on theory’ or ‘speculative rationalism’) which explains the strange indulgence initially shown by Althusser to the historical-materialist content of Stalin’s ‘political science’. It is true that he deplored Stalin’s ‘contagious and implacable system of government and thought’, but it is as if this crust of dogmatism need only be scraped away, and the errors and crimes placed between brackets, in order to rediscover the pure gold of a healthy political practice. Thus one can find in For Marx a characterization of Stalin’s famous Foundations of Leninism as a faithful and ‘particularly lucid’ summary of Lenin’s thought (even if formal reservations are expressed on its ‘pedagogical dryness’).footnote2 In this way, one of the principal aspects of the problem of Stalinism was evaded, or rather completely ignored: namely, its relationship on the one hand to the real theoretico-political elaboration of Lenin, and on the other to the consecrated mythology of so-called ‘Marxism-Leninism’.

Paradoxically, this same ‘theoreticist deviation’ made possible even a revaluation of Stalin as a philosopher, author of ‘Dialectical Materialism and Historical Materialism’, the well-known chapter of the Short Course History of the CPSU. Althusser did not hesitate to recognize ‘a real theoretical discernment’ in Stalin’s expulsion of the Hegelian category of ‘the negation of the negation’ from the field of the Marxist dialectic.footnote3 The ‘theoreticism’ here lay in the attachment of inordinate significance to the presence or absence of a philosophical formula, independently of the real presuppositions underlying its absence or presence. ‘Theoretical discernment’ requires sufficient knowledge to make a conscious evaluation of what is accepted or rejected; but there is no reason to believe that Stalin ever had more than the most superficial, dilettante acquaintance with Hegel, based on a few elliptic ideas hastily acquired at second or third hand. In ‘Dialectical Materialism and Historical Materialism’, Stalin does not actually reject the Hegelian category of ‘the negation of the negation’, he simply ignores it; just as he had done in a text of his youth written in 1906–7 (‘Anarchy or Socialism?’), where he maintained that Hegel’s dialectical method was ‘from beginning to end scientific and revolutionary’, and that consequently there is a perfect identity between the dialectic of Marx and that of Hegel.footnote4