Althusser, Louis (1918–1990)

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ALTHUSSER, LOUIS (1918–1990)


French Marxist and social theorist.

Louis Althusser was perhaps the most influential Marxist thinker of his time, and during the 1960s and 1970s one of the most influential European thinkers in any tradition of social thought. Born in Algeria in 1918, Althusser moved with his parents to France in 1930. He spent much of the war in a German POW camp, where he was greatly impressed by a communist fellow prisoner. He joined the French Communist Party soon after the war, but, as an independent-minded intellectual, soon fell out with the party leadership. His most important achievements were to bring Marxist thought into creative dialogue with other traditions, and to revitalize Marxism as an open-ended research program that influenced philosophy, sociology, literary criticism, psychoanalysis, political science, anthropology, and gender and cultural studies. Above all, he was concerned to develop distinctively Marxist ways of analyzing cultural and political processes as a counterweight to widespread misreadings of Marxism as a form of economic determinism. His life ended in tragedy, and most of his last decade was spent in a psychiatric hospital.

Collections of essays that Althusser first published in the early 1960s were deeply controversial—partly because of his provocative declaration that he was an "anti-humanist." To understand what he meant by this, and why it was so shocking, one needs to know something of the context. By the 1950s it was clear to many on the political left that the great attempt at human liberation inaugurated by the revolution of October 1917 in Russia had been transformed into an oppressive bureaucratic dictatorship. Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971) had briefly denounced the crimes of Joseph Stalin (1879–1953), but when Soviet tanks rolled in to suppress the reform movement in Hungary in 1956 it was clear that little had really changed. Marxist critics of the Soviet regime turned to early writings by Karl Marx as the basis for an outright moral condemnation of what had been done in the name of Marx. They found in those early writings a vision of human history as a long struggle toward an eventual realization of full human potential in a future socialist society. The Soviet state had become a living denial of that very vision, with its continued exploitation of an "alienated" population. Views such as this were developed by independent intellectuals, of whom the best known were Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961), but they were also very influential within the French Communist Party itself. It was this "humanist" moral criticism of the Soviet "Stalinist" system that Althusser rejected, thus laying himself open to the charge that he was a closet Stalinist. In fact, his rejection of the humanist critique was motivated by his recognition of the need for a much deeper analysis and critique of what had gone so terribly wrong in the history of the communist movement. The moral critique, though fully justified, was not enough: it was necessary to rethink the whole Marxist legacy to try and explain why this had happened. To do this Althusser drew on two important traditions of thought that had developed independently of Marxism: structuralism and a distinctively French approach to understanding the history of science. The historians of science (notably Georges Canguilhem [1904–1995] and Gaston Bachelard [1884–1962]) had shown that scientific ideas form an interconnected network, or "problematic" that shapes the questions that are asked in each discipline. Scientific innovation thus involves wholesale transformations of problematics—scientific revolutions, in which older questions and patterns of thought are replaced by new ones. Althusser applied these ideas to Marx's own intellectual life history, proposing that the earlier "humanist" view of history was prescientific. In Althusser's account, Marx soon came to see the limitations of his earlier philosophical narrative of human history, and proceeded to develop a new "scientific" conception based on empirical study. Major transformations in society should not be seen as inevitable outcomes of some underlying "telos" of history, but, rather, were the outcome of complex combinations of contingent circumstances and causes.

But if the idea of history as the unfolding of human potential had to be abandoned, what alternative view of history could be discerned in Marx's later writings? Althusser and his students read Marx's great economic work, Capital, for inspiration (and, in the process, set off a fashion for Capital reading groups all over Europe). However, the way they read Capital was very much shaped by the ideas and methods of the structuralists: anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (b. 1908), linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913), and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901–1981). While denying that he was a structuralist, Althusser shared much with them: looking for deep structures by a practice of "symptomatic" reading, understanding human consciousness and agency as the outcome of underlying sociocultural and psychological conditions, and seeing society itself as a complex set of structures, producing its effects independently of the will of human agents. The result of the study of Capital was a new and more rigorous definition of key Marxist ideas for thinking about economic life: the forces of production (raw materials, machinery, the division of labor and so on), and the social relations of production (relations of property and command) making up the "mode of production." But more significant was a new way of thinking about the place of economic activity within the wider society: here Althusser decisively rejected economic determinism in favor of a view of society as made up of a series of distinct "practices," including ideological (cultural), intellectual, and political practices as well as economic. Though the economy had great causal weight, the other practices had their own "relative autonomy," each playing its own part in producing the flow of historical events.

This notion of the relative autonomy of those noneconomic activities that had been assigned to the "superstructures" in classical Marxism was Althusser's way of addressing the key problem of twentieth-century European Marxism: how to understand the role of ideas and politics, of consciousness and agency in history. Marx had left a powerful legacy of economic theory, but only sketchy indications about these other topics: hence the widespread misrepresentation of Marxism as a kind of economic reductionism. In an essay written in 1968, the year of the "events" in Paris, Althusser developed his ideas further: ideology was to be understood in terms of the formation of individuals as "subjects" through their participation in social practices. The social locations of these practices were the "ideological state apparatuses" (ISAs): the schools, the family, trade unions, political parties, churches, and voluntary associations. These function by engaging individuals in practices that shape their sense of who they are in conformity to their destiny in society: as workers, mothers, professionals, obedient citizens. In other words, the ISAs play their part in reproducing the structure of social relations, and fitting human agents to their place in that structure. In this respect they complement by other means the disciplining and normalizing role of the central coercive institutions of the state (the "repressive state apparatuses": RSAs).

Although Althusser had, through these and other ideas, sparked off a huge renewal of Marxist thinking, his innovations were received much less enthusiastically by the student radicals of 1968. In seeming to deny a role for human agents in changing society, he had divorced theory from the urgent demands of practice. Althusser then embarked on a series of self-critical revisions of his ideas, never quite recapturing the originality of his earlier work. His insistence on recognizing the "relative autonomy" of cultural processes was taken further by poststructuralist students and followers such as Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) and Michel Foucault (1926–1984), who came to detach the analysis of cultural or "discursive" processes entirely from their economic underpinnings.

See alsoDerrida, Jacques; Foucault, Michel; Merleau-Ponty, Maurice; Sartre, Jean-Paul.


Althusser, Louis. For Marx. Translated by Ben Brewster. London, 1969.

——. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Translated by Ben Brewster. London, 1971.

Benton, Ted. The Rise and Fall of Structural Marxism. New York, 1984.

Callinicos, Alex. Althusser's Marxism. London, 1976.

Elliott, Gregory. Althusser: The Detour of Theory. London, 1987.

Elliott, Gregory, ed. Althusser: A Critical Reader. Oxford, U.K., 1994.

Resch, Robert Paul. Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory. Berkeley, Calif., 1992.

Ted Benton