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Louis Althusser

Louis Althusser

Aligned with the French Communist Party, philosopher Louis Althusser (1918-1990) strove to explain contemporary developments by reinterpreting the doctrines of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

Louis Althusser was born at Birmandreis, Algeria (then a colony of France), October 16, 1918. He was briefly imprisoned in concentration camps in World War II. In 1948 he took his degree in philosophy from the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris and taught there for the next 32 years. In 1980 he strangled his wife and lived most of the next ten years, until his death in 1990, confined to mental asylums.

Intellectual Revolutionary

Prior to and through World War II, 1939-1945, Althusser was involved in the Roman Catholic youth movement and advocated some of the church's more conservative teachings. During the Nazi occupation of France his thinking underwent a radical transformation, as he along with many others embraced Marxist ideologies. During this time he found himself involved with the French Resistance and attracted to one of its more prominent activists, Helene Legotier, eight years his senior and a member of the French Communist Party (PCF). In 1948 Althusser also joined the party. After the war Legotier continued her activism, while Althusser spent most of his time in academia. His lectures and writings became very influential and he was seen by many to be the party's most outstanding intellectual.

Althusser attempted to reconcile the views of French structuralism with those of Marxism by denying the primary role of the individual subject in the face of historically unfolding social structures. His most important works are For Marx (1965), Lenin and Philosophy (1969), and his contributions to a book of essays called Reading Capital, all of which were popular with student revolutionaries during the decade of social upheaval in the 1960s.

While many Marxists were looking for a more "humane" alternative to the totalitarianism unfolding in the Soviet Union and a way to resolve the split caused by the Chinese revolution, Althusser, taking the opposite tack, proposed a purely scientific approach, one he ascribed to the maturing Marx himself in For Marx, (1970). In Reading Capital and in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (1971) he aimed at an objective account of how the total society works from its technological top down, generating the classes that run and do the work of a society. In the latter collection he described how such a structure operates through the languages we speak in common. These, he said, tend to instill in people their sense of reality and of themselves and their social roles, all in the interest of perpetuating the order of the given society: this is the thought-controlling use of language called "ideology."

Structuralist Analysis

Althusser sketched the underlying fabric of a society with the help of French "structuralist" theory. This led to the development of a comprehensive and intricate Marxist model for society as a whole, although access to the model is made difficult by Althusser's style and terminology.

In the structuralist view society cannot be understood through the subjective experience of individuals seen as in some way differentiated from the unfolding processes in which they are enmeshed. A society functions as a single organism in a manner determined by its technology and its modes of production. Every individual action is solely determined by its role in relation to that technology. Althusser's critique was partly in reaction to prevailing individualistic philosophies, as well as the increasingly embarrassing historical degenerations of the Marxist system under Stalin. Critics of Altusser's thinking largely objected to the extreme austerity of a system which denies the primacy of the subjective experience, insisting that a system which so entirely subordinates the individual to the "total" structure can never hope to sustain itself in any realm other than the theoretical.

The Chinese experience reminded Marxists that "contradictions" were the essence of their world view; unity is achieved only through the play of opposites, and all "wholes" contain and even consist of the struggles internal to them. As an organism breaks down food to build up nourishment, the state takes life to protect itself. Later disciples of Althusser would point out that both language and personality reveal inherent tensions in the makeup of the self. These as oppositions can be counted on to result in change and progress as they are products of the internalization of "idealistic" structures in the society as a whole. Marxists who preferred to see change as brought on from "the bottom up" (the oppressed, the working class) criticized Althusser for this scheme of resistance from "the inside out" (the repressed inside any group, body, or system: in the economic system, workers). Others found this to be one of his most fruitful new turns of thought.

Madness and Obscurity

Althusser long suffered as a manic depressive, Legotier acting as his nurse. In 1976 they were married, but in November of 1980 the philosopher strangled his wife to death and was committed to a Paris hospital for the insane. He spent the last ten years of his life in and out of various institutions. During this time he continued to write essays, attempting to explain his homicidal action in the light of a wider social analysis. A posthumous autobiography of collected memoirs, The Future Lasts Forever, was published in 1992.

Further Reading

A great deal has been written on Louis Althusser and his theories. The best source of information on Althusser's philosophy is his own published works, including Essays in Self-Criticism (London, 1976), For Marx (1970), Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (1971), Politics and History (London, 1972), Reading Capital (with Etienne Balibar) (London, 1970), and his posthumous Politics and History (New York, 1993). Books discussing Althusser and his theories include the first volume of a biography by his friend Yann Moulier Boutang, Louis Althusser: une biographie, Volume 1: La formation du mythe 1918-1956, Althusser: A Critical Reader (Cambridge, Mass., 1994); Gregory Eliot, ed., The Althusserian Legacy (New York, 1993); E. Ann Kaplan and Michael Sprinker, eds., and Robert Paul Resch, Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory (Berkeley, 1992). In addition, the following works include discussions of Althusser and his contributions: Perry Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism (London, 1976); Richard and Fernande de George, eds., The Structuralists from Marx to Levi-Strauss (1972); Margaret A. Majumdar, Althusser and the End of Leninism (1995); Steven Smith, Reading Althusser: An Essay on Structural Marxism (Cornell, 1984); Gregory Elliott, Althusser: A Critical Reader (1994); Michael Payne, Reading Knowledge: An Introduction to Barthes, Foucault, and Althusser (1997); and Ted Benton, The Rise and Fall of Structural Marxism: Althusser and His Influence (Theoretical Traditions in the Social Sciences) (1984). Essays on Althusser include John B. Davis, "Althusser's View of the Place of Ethics in Marx's Thought" in Social Science Journal (1990, Vol. 27), and Ned Jackson, "The First Death of Louis Althusser or Totality's Revenge," in History & Theory (Feb. 1996). □

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Althusser, Louis

Althusser, Louis (1918–90) One of the most original and influential of twentieth-century Marxist social philosophers, Louis Althusser provoked a spectacular, but deeply controversial renewal of Marxist scholarship across a whole range of humanities and social science disciplines. His most important work, and the height of his influence, spanned the decades of the 1960s and 1970s. Viewed in political terms, his project was to provide an analysis and critique of the Stalinist distortion of Marxism. But Althusser differed sharply from many contemporary Marxist critics of Stalinism in refusing to employ the rhetoric (as he saw it) of merely humanist moral condemnation. Instead, a ‘rigorously scientific’ analysis of the causes and consequences of Stalinism was seen to be a necessity, if political opposition to it was to be effective.

The quest for a scientific approach to the understanding of history took Althusser in two directions: first, to a rereading of the classic texts of the Marxian tradition; and, second, to a philosophical consideration of the nature of science, and how to distinguish it from other forms of knowledge or discourse (ideology). Althusser's view of science was an ambitious attempt to recognize science as a social practice in which knowledge is produced, and so as a part of the history of those societies within which it is conducted. At the same time, Althusser retained from the materialist tradition of Marxism the insistence that the real world exists prior to, and independently of, our historically and socially produced knowledge of it. Ideology also alludes to this independently existing reality, but does so, according to Althusser, in a way quite different from science. In ideology, individual ‘subjects’ are provided with a way of recognizing themselves and their relation to the society in which they are situated. This mode of recognition—or misrecognition—serves primarily to orient practical conduct. In the case of the dominant ideology, it does so in ways which tend to reproduce and preserve the prevailing system of social domination.

Althusser's view of science was put to work in his rereading of the classic Marxian texts. The most famously controversial outcome of this process was the proclaimed ‘epistemological break’ between the earlier (pre-1845) and mature writings of Marx. The philosophical humanism of the early Marx, according to which history was to be understood as a process of progressive human self-realization, was rejected as a pre-scientific ‘theoretical ideology’. Only after Marx's ‘settling of accounts’ with his earlier philosophical position did the beginnings of a new and scientific approach to the understanding of human history emerge in his writings. This new approach—historical materialism—did not arise fully formed, and Althusser and his associates employed a method of ‘symptomatic reading’ to recover the basic structure of concepts (‘problematic’) definitive of Marx's science of history. During the 1960s Althusser and his close colleagues produced a series of texts (For Marx, Reading Capital, and Lenin and Philosophy were probably the most influential) in which rigorous definitions and applications of these concepts were attempted. In part, this was a matter of reworking already well-established Marxian concepts: the ideas of forces and relations of production, the typology of modes of production, the concepts of ideology, the state, and social formation (all of which are treated separately in this dictionary).

But, amidst this reworking of established concepts, Althusser was addressing long-standing lacunae and failings in Marxist theory. First, there is the question of economic determinism (or ‘economism’). Drawing on indications in texts by Marx and Engels themselves, together with currently influential structuralist ideas, Althusser advanced a view of social wholes as ‘decentered structures in dominance’. Societies are ordered combinations of economic, ideological, and political practices, none of which is reducible to any of the others, and each of which has its own specific weight in the shaping of the whole (‘structural causality’).

The view of history as a linear sequence of epochs or stages (the succession of modes of production) through which humankind passes en route to communist self-realization had become identified with Marxist orthodoxy. Althusser rejected this as a historicist ideology, and claimed to uncover an anti-historicist view of history as a ‘process without a subject’ in Marx's later writings. For Althusser, the major historical transitions are always contingent, always exceptional outcomes of the over-determination or ‘condensation’ of a multiplicity of contradictions affecting a social order. Accordingly, the quasi-religious certainty that ‘history is on our side’ should have no place in a Marxist understanding of history.

But Althusser's most controversial position was his stand against ‘theoretical humanism’: his view of the relation between subjects and society. Not only is the view of history as a process of human self-realization to be rejected, but so also is any notion of autonomous individual agency, as the source or basis of social life. Individuals are ‘bearers’ of social relations, their sense of self an outcome of the social process of ‘interpellation’ (or ‘hailing’), which is itself the modus operandi of the dominant ideology. Althusser's apparent denial of individual autonomy outraged humanist Marxists and non-Marxist social theorists alike; but, paradoxically, still more extreme anti-humanist views than Althusser's own have come to be very influential in post-structuralist cultural theory.

So influential were the ideas of the Althusserians in fields as diverse as literary and film criticism, political sociology, anthropology, feminist social theory, epistemology, cultural studies, and sociology of development that, for a moment, it appeared that a new orthodoxy was in the making. But already Althusser was busily changing the rules. From 1967 onwards came a spate of self-critical writings, many bearing the imprint of the radical student movement of the time. Now Althusser appeared to retract his earlier commitment to a theory of the nature of science, viewing philosophy rather as a practice of mediating between science and politics. Along with this went a deepening of his scepticism concerning the scientific status even of much in the mature writings of Marx himself. This story is told in full in Ted Benton , The Rise and Fall of Structural Marxism (1984)

As his autobiography reveals, Althusser had always been psychologically unstable. A period of deep depression in 1980 resulted in his killing his wife Hélène, and he spent the final decade of his life in obscurity, most of it in a Paris mental hospital.

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Althusser, Louis

Althusser, Louis 1918-1990


Born in Algeria, the troubled and reclusive French philosopher Louis Althusser revolutionized Marxist philosophy with his radical theses on Karl Marxs oeuvre and influenced several generations of students at the École Normale Supérieure, including Michel Foucault, Étienne Balibar, Jacques Ranciere, and Régis Debray. Many of Althussers arguments, often theoretical interventions in French Communist Party (of which he was a member) and international Left debates, were published in socialist journals or articulated in public lectures and seminars (and subsequently compiled as volumes) in keeping with his determination to intervene as much in politics as in philosophy, alone against the world (Althusser 1993, p. 173).

Arguing that socialism was scientific and humanism ideological, Althusser challenged Hegelian and humanistic readings of Marxs work as a coherent whole, by marking an epistemological rupture between Marxs early (pre-1845), humanistic writings and his subsequent mature, scientific works such as Reading Capital. The problématique (theoretical framework that encapsulates both presence and absence of concepts) of Marxs mature work was described as historical materialism, a science of history that provided a revolutionary conceptualization of social formation and change. This History Continent discovered by Marx, was original and unprecedented and induced the birth of a new, theoretically and practically revolutionary philosophydialectical materialismdistinct from historical materialism (1970a, p. 14).

Althussers symptomatic reading performed the dual function of revealing the unconscious of Marxs texts and illuminating their underlying deep structures, while demonstrating the methodology mobilized by Marx himself in reading classical political economy. Contrary to the prevalent economically deterministic readings of Capital, Althusser identified a wider range of pratique (processes of production or transformation) that constituted a social whole or structure in dominance that had no essence or center. Each economic, political, ideological structure existed in its effects, and was asymmetrically related but autonomous, the economic determining in the last instance which element was to be dominant. This dominance was not fixed but varied according to the overdetermination of the contradictions in social formation and their uneven development (1970b, p. 188).

While Althusser was influenced by his teachers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Georges Canguilhem, his indebtedness to psychoanalysis was profound and particularly evident in his expositions on ideology. He distinguished between Ideology (eternal, omni-historical and structural, like Freuds notion of the unconscious) and ideologies (particular, sociohistorical). Ideology is a representation of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their lived conditions and has a material existence in practices and apparatuses. Of these, Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) such as religion, schools, and family are significant as they interpellate or hail subjects to accept their role within the system of production relations by misrecognizing their subjecthood as agency. Thus, an individual is simultaneously subject (of) and subject (to) ideology (1971, pp. 160-170).

Althusser consistently refuted accusations that his omni-historical, structuralist formulations disenabled revolutionary practice by insisting that he was never a structuralist but rather a Spinozist; structuralism was an accidental by-product of his antihumanist, theoreticist deviation via Spinozas notion of structural causality. Further, his Marxism could never be structuralism because it affirmed the primacy of class struggle and thus rests on revolutionary class theoretical positions (1976, p. 130).

Althusser battled unbearable sadness and mental instability for much of his adult life. Althussers murder of his wife, Helene Rytman, with whom he shared an extremely intense emotional and intellectual relationship, and his subsequent efforts to answer charges in his memoirs, The Future Lasts Forever (1993), are respectively horrific and poignant examples of the fragile balance between madness and reason upon which he constantly teetered while nevertheless always being aware of the powerful role that violent organizations had played in his life.

SEE ALSO Lenin, Vladimir Ilitch; Leninism; Marx, Karl; Marxism; Structuralism



Althusser, Louis. 1970a. For Marx. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Vintage Books. (Orig. pub. 1969).

Althusser, Louis. 1970b. Reading Capital. With Étienne Balibar. Trans. Ben Brewster. London: New Left Books.

Althusser, Louis. 1971. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. London: New Left Books.

Althusser, Louis. 1976. Essays in Self-Criticism. Trans. Grahame Locke. London: New Left Books.

Althusser, Louis. 1993. The Future Lasts Forever. Trans. Richard Veasey. Ed. Olivier Corpet and Yann Moulier Boutang. New York: New Press.

Malathi de Alwis

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Althusser, Louis (1918-1990)

ALTHUSSER, LOUIS (1918-1990)

Louis Althusser, a French philosopher, was born in Birmandreïs, Algeria, on October 16, 1918, and died in Le Mesnil-Saint-Denis, Yvelines, France, on October 22, 1990. Born into a family of practicing Catholics, Althusser's secondary schooling took place at the Lycée Saint-Charles in Marseille. He prepared for the entrance competition to theÉcole Normale Supérieure (ENS) at the Lycée du Parc in Lyon, where he was a student of Jean Guitton, then of Jean Lacroix. He was accepted for admission in 1939 but was mobilized in September and became a prisoner of war. He didn't begin his studies at the ENS until October 1945. It was in the prison camp that he learned about communism. Meetings at the ENS, primarily with Jean-Toussaint Desanti and Tran Duc Thao, gave him a better understanding of Marxist thought. Althusser taught philosophy at the ENS until 1980. There he met Jacques Lacan during the years when Lacan brought his seminar to the school.

Althusser is known as a chief theoretician of ideology. In Reading "Capital" (1979) he introduced a new reading of Marx, a "symptomal" reading, which, through a constructed discourse, is able to redefine the operating concepts and formal structure of his thought. This work led him to postulate a break between the works of the young Marx, where theoretical humanism is still present, and the mature works, which display a "theoretical antihumanism."

He criticized the spontaneous ideology that infiltrated so-called scientific discourse and set forth the foundations of a critical epistemology. One of his most important texts is "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" (2001). In it he demonstrates the doubling of the subject and the specular structure of every ideology. Althusser returned to Ludwig Feuerbach's theory of the specular relation, Hegel's theory of recognition, and a theory of guarantees whose origins can be traced back to Spinoza, but gave them a new interpretation. He also made use of psychoanalytic ideas: the question of identification and the Lacanian themes of the split (or barred) subject and alienation from the Big Other in the specular relation. Althusser used this theoretical approach to address psychoanalysis. In his work he also attempted to articulate psychic and social processes outside the conventional patterns of Freudian and Marxist thought.

In addition, Althusser had direct experience of psychotherapy with a psychoanalyst. Althusser suffered from serious psychiatric problems, which required his hospitalization on several occasions. In 1980, in a moment of dementia, he killed his wife, Hélène. In The Future Lasts Forever (1993), most of which was written in 1985, Althusser acknowledges his painful efforts at understanding carried out after this tragic event.

Althusser trained an entire generation of scholars to be rigorous and critical in their reading of philosophy. Throughout the 1970s his influence was considerable and international in scope.

MichÈle Bertrand

See also: France; Ideology; Marxism and psychoanalysis; Structuralism and psychoanalysis.


Althusser, Louis. (1966). Freud and Lacan. In his Writings on psychoanalysis: Freud and Lacan (Jeffrey Mehlman, Trans.). New York: Columbia University Press. (Original work published 1964)

. (1993). The future lasts forever: A memoir (Richard Veasey, trans.). New York: New Press.

. (2001). Ideology and ideological state apparatuses. In his Lenin and philosophy and other essays. New York: Monthly Review Press. (Original work published 1970)

, and Balibar,Étienne. (1979). Reading "Capital" (Ben Brewster, Trans.). New York: Schocken Books. (Original work published 1965)

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