On the Left-Wing Critique of Stalinism (1976)

Natural History of Multiplication (Alighiero Boetti, 1975)

Editorial Introduction: We publish this text by Christine Buci-Glucksmann, from a 1976 double issue of Dialectiques dedicated to the work of Louis Althusser, as an appendix of sorts to the “Crisis of Marxism” dossier. It reveals her profound engagement with Althusser on the question of a Marxist practice of philosophy and its position in political struggle. She examines Althusser’s “left-wing critique of Stalinism,” his ongoing effort to produce an adequate analysis which could register the material effects and distortions of the “theoretical form” and historical legacy of Stalinism, but would also avoid the traps of humanism and economism. Although earlier articulations of this critique had been advanced across various essays in For Marx – often in an indirect, cryptic fashion, and with a philosophical deployment of Maoist concepts – in the following decade Althusser developed it further in two texts: his 1972 “Reply to John Lewis” and his 1976 introduction to Dominique Lecourt’s Proletarian Science?: The Case of Lysenko, “Unfinished History,” whose English title misses the the Freudian reference in the original (“Histoire terminée, histoire interminable,” or “History Terminable and Interminable”). 1 In these pieces, Althusser argues that any rigorous account of Stalinism and its consequences must undertake “serious research into its basic historical causes,” including the “superstructure, relations of production, and therefore the state of class relations and the class struggle in the U.S.S.R.” In a rebuke to the French Communist Party leadership’s approach to de-Stalinization in the wake of 1956, Althusser stressed that dealing with the aftershocks of Stalinism also meant confronting the fact that “the class struggle is necessarily a history full of errors, sometimes dramatic or tragic,” with no purely objective, correct path to fall back upon. 

Buci-Glucksmann pushes these indications in a specific direction by asking about the “conception of socialism that accompanied Stalinist politics.” She examines the modifications of the 1936 USSR “Stalin constitution,” which declared the end of the dictatorship of the proletariat, codified an economistic stagism, and fundamentally rearranged the conceptual apparatus of communist strategy – evading questions about political struggle under socialism, the terrain of socialist construction, the role and function of the state, and the need for political power and relations of a new type. In her view, this conjuncture is rich in lessons for a “political theory of socialism,” especially since the PCF made similar moves of jettisoning the cornerstones of the Marxist analysis of the state politics for a short-sighted pragmatism. For Buci-Glucksmann, the questions a theory sets out to explain can have feedback in practice; considering this complex, refractory chain of effects is one step towards a “materialist history of Marxist theory.”

Artistic freedom? Philosophical freedom? Socialist freedom? Brecht has already offered a retort to all these questions haunting our contemporary moment, with his usual dialectical casualness and provocative mischief: “that freedom cannot be given you which you do not take yourself.” 2 That freedom: of art, of the people, but also of the Marxist philosopher. And it’s true: to be free is to occupy a terrain, to build power, change a relation of force, to cast off oppression. In a word, no real freedom without a materialist understanding of the conditions, mechanisms, and stakes of struggle. 

This struggle, this risk assumed by “thinking in extremes” – partisanship in contemporary idealist and Marxist philosophies, in politics – is vindicated by Althusser. The communist philosopher has a right to “do politics,” to think the conditions and effects of politics in theory and vice versa. The right to not justify the latest political decisions of the day, and to contribute in a critical, revolutionary manner to the collective analysis of concrete theoretical and political conjunctures and the class struggle. But this right calls for another, one that is more decisive and profound: the right to demand that the Party, as a “collective intellectual,” has a scientific, Marxist understanding of the history of the workers’ movement, its specific history – its deviations, failures, and errors. Because these deviations still bear on the present moment, and the past remains a decisive element of political relations of force and their transformation. 

In other words, the permanent research of Marxist theory, the development of its critical and scientific radicality as a comprehensive theory of revolution, is of a piece with the position which everyday proves to be more determinant. The critique of Stalinist dogmatism from “the left-wing position of theoretical antihumanism” challenges a form of Marxist theory which supports, guarantees, and illustrates a certain view and practice of class struggle, a certain vision of socialism. Because this critique of theoretical and political Stalinism is not one more jewel to add to the crown of the various figures taking advantage of the gulags – those who frame Marx and 18th century rationalism as responsible for the mass repression and the camps, in order to better lead into the obscure arbitrariness of a faith miraculously “revealed” in particular historical events. Against these right-leaning positions, this reborn neo-spiritualism, the critique of Stalinism conditions a non-economistic approach to socialism. Because it provides space for the necessary elaboration of the political theory of Marxism, it opens directly onto current problems of democracy and working class hegemony in the transition to socialism. 

While socialism obviously cannot be realized in France (or elsewhere) against or in opposition to forms of freedom, the social and political dialectic connecting democracy, class struggles, and the masses has not yet been clarified, in its political and syndicalist forms, but also its new forms: all the experiences of “grassroots” democracy in Western capitalism, such as the factory councils or the Italian neighborhood councils. If this continues to be the case, we strongly risk remaining prisoner to a juridical formalism and short-sighted parliamentarianism. The entire range of implications from this initial rejection – neither bourgeois democracy nor Stalinism – are thus open to be explored in a determinate manner, in a political theory of socialism that, in part, is yet to be elaborated. 

To this end, Marxist theory and politics must indeed closely analyze the conception of socialism that accompanied Stalinist politics, and which the 20th Congress of the CPSU could not radically challenge for deep-seated political reasons. Things need to be told as they are: how and why Stalin was led in 1936 to abandon the dictatorship of the proletariat as a state process of a new type, with the withering away of the state as its goal. And since the 22nd Congress of the PCF, under completely different circumstances, proposed to abandon the dictatorship of the proletariat and take its distance from “socialist democracy” such as it exists in the Soviet Union, opening a new field of research and debates to communists, it would be useful to reflect on this major historical and theoretical paradox of our present: what does it mean to abandon a theoretical concept, a political practice the workers’ movement had already abandoned in its own way? Related question: is there a continuity or discontinuity between the dictatorship of the proletariat as conceived by Marx and Lenin, and how it was practiced by Stalin? To think, as I do, that there exists a break or discontinuity is to delimit the strategic challenges of 1976. We can provisionally say that the “theoretical form” of Stalinism runs through the elaboration of a conception of socialism as a “mode of production,” which obscures or hides the dialectic between economics/politics, or masses/state, throughout the entire transitory historical phase separating capitalism from communism. At the center of this economistic conception of socialism, as criticized by Gramsci, is the exclusion of contradiction as the driving force of socialism, the institutional and instituted break between political economy as a “technical science” of management (following a positivist rationality), and historical materialism as a conception of class struggle – the radical elimination (in a material sense) of mass movements and class struggles “from below” in favor of political leadership from above and through the state. 

In these conditions, the elaboration of a political theory of socialism cannot sidestep the necessary reclamation of politics as a mass democratic dimension, investing or affecting all the sites of hegemony: from the factories to the ideological state apparatuses. In this direction, the left-wing critique of Stalinism undertaken by Althusser touches upon the pivotal theoretico-political points of our present: the status of the state, the ideological apparatuses as apparatuses of power, the role of political economy under socialism, that of the intellectuals. This is why no serious Marxist analysis of Stalinism or post-Stalinism can avoid it and act as if it didn’t exist. The aim of such an analysis is to derive some lessons regarding the hegemonic function of the working class in a transitional process different from that of 1917. 

Through a ruse of history that is in no way Hegelian, Althusser initially approached the Marxism of the Stalinist period as a philosopher – in and through philosophy – in order to better recast the tasks and difficulties of theoretical work. It would be possible to remain stuck there, trapped, lost in the structuralist flirtations of a pervasive theoreticism. A debate limited to a corporatist or elitist field where the “categories” of Marxist philosophy, or indeed, the concepts from before or after the “epistemological break,” are endlessly discussed – this did happen. 

And yet, something else took place too: the status of Marxist philosophy challenged the coherence [intelligence] of theoretical Stalinism, a certain relation to politics (neither Messianic nor pragmatist), and redefined the tasks of the working class and intellectuals. The materialist dialectic no longer held an intra-philosophical relation to its own internal history; in a new way, it opened onto its true objects, those of Marx, Lenin, Gramsci, or Mao, and different social practices (from scientific experimentation to class struggle), by avoiding any idealist or empiricist reduction of specific practices to Practice. This reduction is possible on the basis of a linear and evolutionary concept of history, dominated by classic “materialist monism” and the infamous uninterrupted progress of the productive forces. Did not Althusser, however indirectly, indicate a new political task for the working class: hegemony (in the Gramscian sense) as the dialectical articulation of practices, as the research into a new relation between economics and politics, as the involvement of the uneven processes of capitalist development, as the unification of principal contradiction and secondary contradictions? The very same practices that exploded in May ‘68 and its aftermath: student struggles, university struggles, feminist struggles…

If the Marxist contradiction – as opposed to the idealist contradiction of Hegel – proves to be structurally uneven, riven by relations of force and power across all levels of society, subject to under- or overdetermination, then the political unity of a concrete social formation culminates in the political theory of the “current moment.” This kind of thinking of and under the conjuncture runs from Machiavelli to Marx and Lenin. The reassessment of the qualitative moment in history (crises, revolutionary ruptures or failures), uneven development against the famous “economic law of the correspondence between the relations of production and the productive forces” that dominated the Stalinist practice of socialist construction, the insistence on the specific effectivity of the state and the ideological state apparatuses in the class struggle: these are so many theoretical links that profoundly and definitively break with any form of pragmatism or ”democratic adventurism.” In short, an extensive historical task is affixed to the communist workers’ movement: to refound Marxist theory on an anti-Stalinist, even non-Stalinist, basis. This demands – and always demands – that the writing and practice of its own history be carried out in a self-critical and revolutionary manner, against all those who are satisfied with sanctifying the past in order to avoiding debating the problems of the present. 

At a first level, the most obvious but not the most important, is the critique of the theory of the two sciences (bourgeois and proletarian) and the philosophical and epistemological impasses of dialectical materialism. Breaking (from 1962-63 on) with the reigning version of Marxist philosophy as instituted within the Third International at the onset of the 1930s, Althusser refuses to reduce the critical and revolutionary materialist dialectic to an ideological and conservative dialectical materialism. He definitively rejects the permanent oscillation between an ontological interpretation of the dialectic (Marxist philosophy espouses so-called “scientific” laws to be applied) and a restrictive “epistemological voluntarism” (according to Dominique Lecourt’s expression, in his book on Lysenko), which finds a highly visible manifestation in the theoretical monstrosity of the two sciences (the Lysenko affair). Against every ontology of substance, against all Ancient and Renaissance forms of Aristotelian gnoseology that “Marxism” rotely reproduces in its ever-ineffective attempts to apply “philosophical categories” to the natural sciences, Althusser calmly retorts: “The application of the ‘laws’ of the dialectic to such and such a result of physics, for example, makes not one iota of difference to the structure or development of the theoretical practice of physics.” 3 Words to be heeded!

For an entire generation of “young intellectuals” that entered politics via the Algerian War – intellectuals who still ultimately identified with the Sartrean figure of the critical, engaged, and anti-Stalinist intellectual – Althusser represented a break and an historical opening, or the merger of both: a liberation that allowed for a rethinking of Marxism. His work on Marx, the materialist dialectic (most notably the well-known concept of overdetermination), his critique of a speculative, expressive (historicist/humanist) relationship of theory to the workers’ movement, paved the way for a theoretical recasting of the first order, away from the false French alternative between the critical-engaged intellectual (of the non-communist left) and the pedagogical intellectual, the ideologue who simply internalized the theoretico-political ideology and norms of the Party. Both fed off the bad conscience of having not been born a worker. Because Marx’s philosophy was “still largely to be constituted,” and because it opened up a historically incomplete and theoretically innovative work (theoretical practice), one could not rest content with reproducing the political ideological of the party as/within philosophical/practical ideology. In other words, no “official philosophy” of or within the Party, but an ongoing dialectical adjustment of theory and practice, of “philosophy” and politics. 

In this direction, Althusser offers the initial markers for a future history of intellectuals and the working class wherein both can be situated. This is the famous “French misery” that he discusses in For Marx: the absence of a true theoretical culture in the French workers’ movement, the power of the bourgeoisie and the dominant culture, the hegemony of a petit-bourgeoisie of the Jacobin type which discovered its materialization in the school and its identity of ethico-political intellectual critique (which goes back to the Dreyfus affair and the even the philosophy of the Enlightenment), the workerist tradition, to the dominant policies of the French Communist Party, the weakness of philosophical development in France at the beginning of the 20th century, completed absorbed by its own institutional apparatus. Our provincialism. A new relation is sketched of theory to the workers’ movement, of intellectuals to the working class, at the very moment when a quantitative and qualitative change in the status of intellectuals in France (and other capitalist countries) was taking place, which transformed working class hegemony and announced the explosion of May ‘68.

Indeed, the 1960s (and more specifically, 1962-65) triggered a twofold – historical and political – process within the French social formation. First, there was a transition from the traditional humanist intellectual (with the historical expression and model being the “great intellectuals” of the Sartre and Aragon type) to the “modern” intellectual: intellectuals of production, specialists in the human sciences or the authors of the “new novel” [nouveau roman]. But there was also the transition from political-ideological intellectual who is engaged (Sartre), or who individually identified with the “positions of the working class” (PCF), to the mass intellectual, who identified more and more as a political subject (and thus less and less as a simple object of politics) starting from their own sociological position, from their location in the institutions (spaces and stakes of power), from their social function in different state ideological apparatuses. A paid employee, sure, but also a producer of knowledges – a hegemonic agent through their own practice. 

The source of all these transformations lay in the development of the technological and human productive forces, the appearance of new forms in the division between intellectual and manual labor (whence the strengthening of internal differentiations in the working class: the development of the “specialized worker,” and, on the other side, a more “skilled” or “qualified” layer), institutional changes created by the Gaullist state (transformation of relations between the masses and the state, because of the formation of a bourgeois party from above but not lacking in popular influence or presence), the increased incorporation of hegemonic apparatuses by the state. Do these new relations between intellectuals and society not subsequently force us to break with any understanding of the intellectual as cultural mediator between Marx and classical philosophy (see in this direction the critique of Hegelianism in Marxism developed by Althusser), as the engaged referee in ongoing class struggles, as the protagonist of a cultural or ideological unification of society, or the working class (Lukács)? In short, the crisis of the traditional model of the intellectual affects the bourgeois, practico-ideological division: on the one hand, the artist as autonomous creator to whom everything is potentially permitted (the accursed or even avant-garde artist); on the other hand the technical (later technocratic) efficacy of the specialist. 

But doesn’t such a crisis of social-ideological identity lead to, above all, a crisis of the models and practices of the workers’ movement? Since the Seventh Comintern Congress (and the Popular Front), the ideology of the “great intellectual” had practically served as the “cement,” the rallying point for the political activity of cultural workers in major national and popular struggles (the antifascist struggle, the Resistance, the peace movement). After being politically shaken by the Cold War and the Stalinism of the 1950s, this historical model did not put into question the social being or position of intellectuals as such: alliance was identified with political support. In these conditions, the historical (and irreversible) appearance of “mass” intellectuals necessarily undermined the objective basis for the intellectual as simply an ideologue, as simply a specialist, as simply a creator, potentially separated from production, from social relations, from the culture industry, from the state. 

In order to overcome these divergent figures common to the separated intellectual [intellectuel séparé], dear to humanism and liberalism, the relations between the working class and intellectuals, between theory and politics, needed – and still need – to be problematized. The emergence of new forms of anti-capitalist consciousness, endogeneous to the crisis of capitalist institutions (the same forms encountered in the student ultra-leftism [gauchisme] of May ‘68 and their language of mass spontaneity), goes back to objective changes in developed capitalism and the state, which a purely economistic/humanist understanding of crisis proves to be incapable of grasping. 

But doesn’t an understanding of intellectuals solely through either the complementary figures of genius/creator (to be recognized) and the specialist (to be put to use) overlook or evade a political and organic relation, against or opposed any intellectual paternalism or populist workerism, in favor of a simplified juridico-liberal relation, more or less subject to changes or a guiding statement? In my view, this kind of relation ultimately leaves traditional or antiquated relationships between theory and politics intact, in their place in an insurmountable division of labor: on the one hand the organized working class, on the other hand the intellectuals as a separate, compartmentalized, and cordoned-off sphere. Moreover, it obscures certain contemporary transformations in the state, which Althusser registered through the theoretical argument that the ideological state apparatuses are sites of class struggle of primary importance. “Salaried employees,” “legal subjects,” “depositories/dispensers of knowledge,” intellectuals avoid or escape from the institutional and ideological effects of the monopoly capitalist state’s penetration into civil society, and the capital accumulation. In truth, this is hardly a materialist standpoint. 

Legalism can never be equated with democracy, because it always avoids or ignores the self-organization and self-activity of the masses (their “self-rule”) qua historical experimentation. And for a simple reason: Legalism (which must not be confused or equated with the historical and political struggles for rights) presupposes the separation of of the economic from the political, the evasion of their reciprocal dialectic, the untranslatability of class struggles at the level of political and ideological institutions. But this critique of the lack of reciprocal interaction between economics and politics (from Marx, Lenin, or Gramsci) is precisely at the center of Althusser’s work, from the a-Hegelian reformulation of the materialist dialectic (For Marx) to the political interpretation of the Marxist theory of of modes of production (Reading Capital), up through the latest developments that inscribe, in an even more explicit way, class struggle and the theory of revolution in Capital (Positions). So many steps – with their errors, rectifications, and incomplete character – in the construction of a theoretical alternative to Stalinism, “that humanist/economistic deviation of Marxism,” which calls for concrete analyses and verifications. 

Stalinism was economistic. We should clarify that economism is fused [se confondre avec] here with a form of theory, in its articulations and functions, inseparable from political practice, and which in actuality opposed the dictatorship of the proletariat as a repressive/statist reinforcement of power to the absent hegemony (in the Gramscian sense) of the same proletariat. This dictatorship without hegemony – repressive and not expansive – did not emerge solely from the superstructural sphere, isolated and isolable from social relations; as if the mode of production remained socialist in essence. The separation between economics and politics had consequences: the primacy of technical knowledge and cadres over politics and the masses defined the form of Stalinist theory as it was elaborated in the years from 1936-1939. 

In 1939 (at the 18th Party Congress), after the mass party purges of 1937-1938, this process resulted in the revision of the Marxist and Leninist theories of the state, by abandoning the core of the dictatorship of the proletariat: its character as a state process of a new type, one that is democratic and oriented towards the withering away of the state in communism. Stalin certainly gave every Marxist excuse and guarantee to justify this abandonment. But shouldn’t Marxism be creative, ready to seize upon the new realities of social practice? Now: “the forms of our state are changing and will continue to change in line with the development of our country.” 4 In a historical phase where “exploitation had been abolished,” where “there was no one to suppress,” where the state becomes that of the “whole people,” since “in the main, we have already achieved the first phase of Communism, Socialism,” Stalin was able to excise, in a historicist manner, the famous Engelsian and Leninist argument of the withering away of the state as the final aim of communism. 5 This took place in the name of “Leninism” and at the cost of a considerable but understood distortion: the confusion of the withering away of the state as the aim of a new practice of politics based upon the self-government of the masses and the weakening of the state. 

It is indeed in order to justify this abandonment of theory in favor of a political pragmatism that Stalin criticizes the “underestimation of the role and significance of the mechanism of our socialist state,” and the “army, penal organs, and intelligence services” required for the defense of socialist countries “against external enemies.” 6 Put otherwise, the abandonment of the withering away of the state, justified (and justifiable) by the aggressive aims of imperialist encirclement, conceals a whole other abrogation, directed towards internal political ends: that of the class struggle during the period of socialist construction (declared in 1936, repeated in 1939, but abandoned in the meantime). But in this case, to declare class struggle abandoned is not enough to repress it. 

The canceling of social and political contradictions under socialism, the absence of a dialectic between party, unions, and soviets, not only leads to bureaucratic centralism, but also to the absorption of civil society in and through the party-state. During the 1930s, it will not suffice to mobilize the moralism of family values toward the goals of developing production, (and thus destroying the gains concerning women’s emancipation in the first years of the Revolution). It will not suffice to declare in 1936 one of the most most progressive constitutions in the world, to laud a “consistent and thoroughgoing democratism” guaranteeing the individual and political rights of the liberal tradition and classical democracy, and instituting, for the first time, a series of new social rights: the right to work, the right to rest and leisure, the right to education…In practice, the recourse to a particular familial-productivist moralism, to legalism, would only be “humanist supplements” hiding the darker and more tragic truth: repression, the trials, the camps of 1937-38 (and after). 

We need to go further and interrogate the mode of theorizing which accompanies and conceals such practices and forms the theoretico-ideological orthodoxy of Stalinism. From this point of view, there is an intimate link between Stalin’s theses on the state and the analysis of history as the history of modes of production developed in Dialectical and Historical Materialism (1938). By rectifying the Leninist (and Marxist) theory of the withering away of the state, Stalin draws attention to two fundamental aspects of the dictatorship of the proletariat in its Leninist version. He also put forth two relatively new arguments: 

  1. The dictatorship of the proletariat is not, in the first instance, a power of a new type (soviets, autonomous mass organization). It becomes a state which reproduces the classic – and at base anti-democratic – separation found in all states: between leaders and led. 
  2. Socialism is no longer a long term, transitional historical phase before classless society (communism). It is already a society without class struggle, a “harmonious society”: a mode of production.

The first thesis directly ushers in an instrumental understanding and practice of the state, seen as an ensemble of apparatuses, transmission belts (parties, unions, soviets, komsomols, and the network of mass organizations) tightly controlled by an increasingly “militarized” and bureaucratic party. This incorporation of pluralist organizations within civil society (including cultural and ideological apparatuses) into the state transforms them into “ideological state apparatuses” in the strict sense. As Togliatti argued in 1956, in his “Interview with Nuovo argomenti,” the system was deprived of any kind of internal dialectic or pluralist political expression of its contradictions. 7 But such an instrumental practice/understanding of the state is utterly unthinkable if the superstructure is isolated from the “base.” The apparent extraterritoriality of the state as a “bureaucracy” in fact expresses the scission between economics and politics which finds its real foundation in an economistic understanding or conception of the economy. This is what Stalin establishes in his 1938 text and points towards his Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR in 1952 and the 19th Party Congress. 

In many regards, the 19th Congress actually completed in 1952 for the economy and its theorization what the 18th Congress in 1939 had started at the level of the state. Beginning in 1938, Stalin defined socialism as a mode of production that followed from other basic modes of production: the primitive commune, slavery, feudalism, and capitalism. Like every mode of production, the socialist mode of production is characterized by the regime of property, social relations, and relations of distribution. But it exhibits two remarkable features: 

  1. It is a mode of production without class struggle: “The basis of the relations of production under the socialist system, which so far has been established only in the U.S.S.R., is the social ownership of the means of production. Here there are no longer exploiters and exploited…the mutual relations of people in the process of production are marked by comradely cooperation[.]” 8
  2. This is a mode of production that does not include any uneven development of contradiction: “the relations of production fully correspond to the state of productive forces.” 9

From this point derives the “economistic evolutionism of the productive forces” (Althusser) that unilaterally replace for the real contradictions of socialist construction: “the productive forces are not only the most mobile and revolutionary element in production, but are also the determining element in the development of production.” 10 Clearly, in these conditions, the intensification of class struggle throughout 1937-38 could only be understood and practiced through a displacement of internal contradictions onto external contradictions: every citizen is potentially a saboteur, an “enemy of the people.”

From 1938 on, the theory of history as the history of modes of production hangs over the superstructures and removes all forms of class contradiction from the definition of socialism, any political dialectic of the masses – in short, any “political theory of socialism.” Henceforth, politics assumes a positivist (voluntarist) form: the “party of the proletariat” is “scientific” due to its relation to the “economy,” its acquisition of the science of “the laws of economic development of society.” It is thus only in and through the party-state that we find politics and economics reunited previously separated. Henceforth, the relation of economics to politics indeed remains an expressive relationship, a relation of “necessary correspondence” that bypasses or short-circuits the entire specific efficacy of the superstructures, any kind of institutional, pluralist translation of the social and economic contradictions of socialist construction. 

In this way, we can see why Althusser gave primacy – quite paradoxically, and over the elaboration of Marx’s materialist dialectic – to a prior critique of the Hegelian dialectic as an expressive idealist dialectic, which excludes all uneven development, any “overdetermination” of the economic within the political. It was not a matter of either outdoing the well-known anti-Hegelianism of Stalin and Zhadnov, or subjecting the development of the materialist dialectic to a reinjection of Hegelianism (Sartre’s solution). Between 1962 and 1963, at the moment when the PCF was holding a major debate on “The Tasks of Communist Philosophers and the Critique of Stalin’s Philosophical Errors” (published as a supplement in the August-July 1962 issue of Cahiers du Communisme), a debate moderated by Thorez and introduced by Garaudy, Althusser did not share one of Garaudy’s arguments: that the Stalinist impoverishment of the dialectic was connected to the excision of the “negation of the negation” or reciprocal action. Its symptom was a positivist conception of science, a mutilation of Marxism, a “downplaying of the Hegelian legacy.” Of course, Garaudy reproached in turn the “deductivism” and “class subjectivism” inherent in the Lysenko affair. What’s more, he attacked the divorce between theory and practice introduced by the “cult of personality.” Although the critiques of Stalin’s philosophical errors indeed have political repercussions (a critique of the intensification of class conflicts under socialism, critique of the inevitability of war), they never touch upon, if only horizontally, the theoretical conception of historical materialism (state, mode of production, the status of classes, contradiction under socialism). They no longer question the function of dialectical materialism as a philosophical science which aims to establish laws. Stalin’s principal fault: to have excellent principles (philosophy as science) but contradict them in practice (erroneous relation between philosophy/science, leaning towards “deductivism”).

Rereading Althusser’s earlier analyses today, in light of his recent interventions (his preface to Dominique Lecourt’s excellent book on the Lysenko Affair), we can better situate the theoretical differences and their political stakes. “Philosophical” Stalinism cannot be left behind by a return to Hegel, because Stalinism, as a unilateral deformation of Marxism, is already a form of Hegelianism in substance. What is stagist economism if not a “poor man’s Hegelianism” Philosophy as the materialist dialectic, as research of the laws and categories which govern the concrete sciences – what is this if not the resurgence of an older speculative project: philosophy as the “totality produced by thought,” as an “organic whole,” as system? Against this, the “task of communist philosophers” consists in developing the scientific dialectic of Marx and Lenin, providing a materialist history of Marxist theory. 

This history passes today through the critique of all expressive/instrumental forms of the relation between the economic and political, relations of production and the state, and through the critique of a particular conception of political economy that Stalin developed at the 19th Congress of the CPSU (Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR).

What we find there, in effect, is a systematic development of the status of socialist political economy as a separate – and separable – object, which develops in conformity to the “the economic law of the obligatory correspondence between the relations of production and the productive forces.” This law of harmonious development corresponds to the “state of the whole people.” It of course has to be admitted that the workers and the peasantry “do represent two classes”; but these classes can exist without class struggle, since “this difference does not weaken their friendship in any way.” 11 Because there are no longer classes under socialism as a mode of production, the aims of communism – the abolition of classes and the division between manual and intellectual labor, the withering away of the state and categories of value – no longer have any revolutionary meaning. Moreover, the opposition between manual and intellectual labor, linked to class exploitation, is resolved under socialism through an internal difference: the cooperation between manual workers and managerial personnel. Here again, the same harmonious economic law of the socialist mode of production can resolve potential contradictions, otherwise nonexistent…Are not manual workers and party cadre “cemented” or “bound” by the same ideology of economic progress? In brief: “Today, the physical workers and the managerial personnel are not enemies, but comrades and friends, members of a single collective body of producers who are vitally interested in the progress and improvement of production.” 12

Again, the economic law of an economistic socialism reverts to its humanist contrary/supplement, as Stalin states very well: the fundamental economic law of socialism consists in the “the securing of the maximum satisfaction of the constantly rising material and cultural requirements of the whole of society.” 13

We are far from believing socialism does not need to satisfy the historical and social needs of the masses, or from falling into this romanticism of the anti-development of the productive forces and zero growth that has flourished in the crisis-ridden West. But what if the “fundamental need” of the masses is to make history, and even make their own history? And what if in order to do so, the scission between the economic and political needs to be constantly reexamined, as a form of the relation between the masses and the state? This is a form that turns the economic into an object capable of being separated from the socio-political dialectic between classes, confined to technocratically effective specialists, on the one hand; and on the other, politics as a an activity of leadership from above, through a kind of deformed and charismatic Jacobinism. Between the two, the mass democratic theory and practice of socialism is left behind. We now know that the critique of the “cult of personality,” the still-necessary denunciation of violations of socialist legality, the apparent return to a more collective leadership, do not suffice to resolve the basic problems of “democratic socialism.” This is because such a critique can be restricted to the juridico-liberal sphere, and the juridical is only ever a (necessary) codification of political relations of force, of the dialectic – or rather the absence of a dialectic – between economics and politics, the masses, their specific experience, and the state. 

It is imperative today to “reread Stalin” by forcing an encounter between the form of theory and form of socialism, in order to understand what gets left behind when we abandon the dictatorship of the proletariat, such as it has been “realized” and deformed in the USSR. In my view, this form of theory supports and obscures a particular economistic vision of socialism: mode of production without class struggle, state of the whole people, a productivist ideology, the revival of a certain state-centered nationalism, the reduction of social problems to mainly technical problems, the removal of contradictions and pluralism from civil society – these are so many signposts for future work focusing on the political theory of socialism. 

A political theory of socialism in the present and about the present – our present. It should be said that the European communist movement is not starting from nowhere on this road. The affirmation and development of the historically necessary character of the freedoms won by the people, the abandonment of the principle of a party-state managing the socialist mode of production, the reinvention of forms of internationalism in our contemporary moment, the envisioning of a transition to socialism capable of strengthening the hegemony of the working class (by distinguishing between pluralist state leadership and the political leadership of the masses) – this involves exploring a new path to socialism, one different from October 1917. These are the stakes of the “Revolution in the West” which Gramsci proposed in 1930 (the “war of position), and should not be forgotten. 14

More specifically: this road concerns, with renewed vigor, the dialectical relations between democracy and class struggle. If, as we have tried to show, legalism can function as a guarantee of the separation between the economic and the political, the masses and power, and if Stalin’s economistic vision of socialism depends on its classification as a mode of production, then one must derive from it all its theoretical and political consequences. This would doubtless allow for an understanding of the real basis of our critiques of “democratic socialism” as it exists in the USSR. Above all, this would make it possible to deepen the question of democracy: the dialectical links (repressed by Stalinism) between institutional representative democracy and what we can call “democracy from below.” This is the ultimate importance of a left-wing critique of Stalinism. The construction of a mass line – with the broadest possible masses, workers as well as intellectuals – involves uniting, synthesizing (and thus leading) the ensemble of principal and secondary contradictions that emerge within the global crisis of capitalism, from the factories to state, by passing through those hegemonic apparatuses (among others) which include the family and the school. Uniting these apparatuses in order to better develop a new practice of politics, and not undervaluing or circumventing them – this is the primacy of politics Gramsci termed hegemony. It is what will render this quote from Pablo Neruda possible: “The revolution is life; precepts search for their own grave.”

– Translated by Patrick King

This text originally appeared in Dialectiques 15-16 (Fall 1976), 25-36.

This article is part of a dossier entitled “The Crisis of Marxism.”


1 See the essays “On the Young Marx,” “Contradiction and Overdetermination,” “Marxism and Humanism,” and “On the Materialist Dialectic.” For other views of Althusser’s complicated relation to Stalinism, see Valentino Gerrantana, “Althusser and Stalinism,” New Left Review I/101-102 (January-April 1977), and his “Stalin, Lenin, and ‘Leninism,’ ” New Left Review I/103 (May-June 1977); see also Etienne Balibar, “Althusser et Mao,” Revue Période, 2015.
2 Translator’s Note: The German text reads: “Freiheit der Kunst: Jene Freiheit kann ihr nicht gegeben werden, die sie sich nicht nimmt…” See Bertolt Brecht, “Freiheit der Kunst,” Gesammelte Werke, Vol. 20: Schriften zur Politik und Gesellschaft (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1967). ed. Elisabeth Hauptmann, pgs. 54-55. The French translation which Buci-Glucksmann uses slightly alters the meaning: “Liberté de l’art: On ne peut lui donner que la liberté qu’il prend,” from Bertolt Brecht, Écrits sur la politique et la société, ed. and trans. Paul Dehem and Philippe Ivernel (Paris: L’Arche, 1971). Thanks to Bali Sahota for his help in parsing the original German passage.
3 Louis Althusser, “On the Materialist Dialectic,” in For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster (London: NLB, 1970).
4 J.V. Stalin, “Report on the Work of the Central Committee to the Eighteenth Congress of the C.P.S.U.(B.),” 1939.
5 J.V. Stalin, “On the Draft Constitution of the U.S.S.R: Report Delivered at the Extraordinary Eighth Congress of Soviets of the U.S.S.R.,” 1936.
6 Stalin, “Report on the Work of the Central Committee to the Eighteenth Congress of the C.P.S.U.(B.).”
7 Palmiro Togliatti, “Interview with Nuovo argomenti,” in On Gramsci and Other Writings, ed. and trans. Donald Sassoon (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1979), 122-123.
8 Stalin, Dialectical Materialism and Historical Materialism, 1938.
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid.
11 J.V. Stalin, Economic Problems of the USSR, 1951, chapter 5.
12 Ibid.
13 Ibid., chapter 8.
14 See Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 238.

Author of the article

is a French philosopher and professor emerita at University of Paris-VIII. She is the author of Gramsci and the State (1975) and Baroque Reason: The Aesthetics of Modernity (1984).