Louis Althusser 1918–1990
French Marxist philosopher.
The following entry presents an overview of Althusser's career.
Louis Althusser was a French Marxist philosopher who had a strong following as a serious and intellectual interpreter of Marxism. A troubled personal life overshadowed his intellectual achievements, however, when he was committed to a psychiatric hospital after he murdered his wife. Since then his abilities and accomplishments have been much reviewed and debated, with his place and importance to Marxist philosophy left unclear.
Althusser was born in Algeria on October 16, 1918. He was named after his father's brother, with whom his mother had been in love. After his uncle was killed in World War I, his mother married Althusser's father. Althusser always felt inadequate in the shadow of his uncle's memory. Details about his early childhood are unclear and come mostly from his autobiography written after his wife's murder. His parents were Catholics and Althusser felt a strong attachment to Catholicism, an attachment which continued even after he joined the Communist Party. His family moved to Marseilles in 1930 and then to Lyons in 1936. Althusser entered a provincial school which enabled him to prepare for study at the Ecole Normale Superieure, but he was called to military service in World War II. By the spring of 1940 Althusser was captured by the Germans and remained in a prison camp until 1945. When Althusser returned to Paris he entered the Ecole, where he was trained as a philosopher. Althusser spent most of his life at the Ecole Normale Superieure, first as a student and then as an instructor. In 1948 he joined the Communist Party, and communism became the subject of his intellectual interest. Althusser's outspoken ideas about Marxism often conflicted with the French Communist Party. His involvement with Hélène Legotien, a former activist in the Resistance during the war who was denied admittance in the French Communist Party, further complicated his relationship with the Party. Althusser's relationship with Legotien was also a complicated one. She was older than him and dominating. Throughout their marriage their relations became increasingly volatile. In addition to his troubled marriage, Althusser suffered from severe bouts of depression throughout his adult life. His followers and employers at the Ecole tried to hide his troubles, but in November 1980 Althusser's psychological problems became public. Althusser strangled his wife and was committed to a psychiatric hospital after being judged mentally unfit to stand trial for her murder. He remained in the asylum until 1984 when he wrote his memoirs, L'avenir dure longtemps (1992) in an attempt to answer for his crime, an opportunity he never had in court. He died in Paris in 1990.
Althusser's two major works were his collection of essays entitled Pour Marx (For Marx; 1965) and a collaborative effort with his students Lire "Le Capital" (Reading "Capital"; 1965). Althusser asserted that it was necessary to clear away what people thought of as Marxism and start fresh by re-examining the writings of Karl Marx, the German political philosopher who inspired twentieth-century communism. It was Althusser's contention that Marx discovered historical materialism and dialectical materialism. Althusser also rejected the idea of a Marxist humanism which had become popular after the 1953 death of Joseph Stalin. Instead of focusing on the individual worker, Althusser's work examines the overall structure of society. Humanism asserts that humans, or subjects, are the initiators of change, but the structuralism Althusser expounded presumed that humans are actually shaped by societal structures. Althusser's For Marx and Reading "Capital" assert that Marx himself abandoned the idea of humanism found in his early works and turned instead to what Althusser called a "science of history" to explain societal change. Humanistic concerns over individuals suffering from alienation became less important to Marx than understanding the structure that caused this alienation. The resulting science of history, according to Althusser, consisted of tracing the causes of social phenomena to economic, political, ideological, and theoretical factors that often act independently of one another. In addition, structural change is rooted in an "overdetermination"—a term Althusser borrowed from Sigmund Freud—of events from these four factors. Specifically, change occurs through an "overdetermination of contradiction," which means that when a society's structural components include opposing forces, the contradiction is resolved through a change in the structure. Hence, change arises not from individual achievement but from large-scale struggle and contradiction, an idea Althusser derived in part from Marx's concept of history as class struggle.
Critical reception of Althusser's work has been mixed and has changed over the years. Initial response to his ideas was favorable. He offered a fresh approach to Marxist philosophy which was gratefully embraced by a generation of young communists. Humanist Marxists, however, have always taken exception with Althusser's lack of concern with the individual and question the validity of Althusser's approach. One major criticism of Althusserianism referred to what Althusser called his "symptomatic reading" of Marx. Tony Judt complained that a symptomatic reading meant "they took from him what they needed and ignored the rest." Criticism and discussion addressing Althusser's work since the murder of his wife has concentrated on the value of studying the work of a madman rather than the specifics of his philosophy. Most of this discussion has arisen out of Althusser's confession in his autobiography that he was a fraud and did not even read all of Marx's original writings. Paul Mattick, Jr. states that "Of course, the truth is more complex: Althusser was neither a genius nor just a nut." Other critics try to avert attention from Althusser the man and point to what his work has contributed to Marxist philosophy. Susan James asserts that "his views have moulded the character of much recent social theory and changed the direction of current debate. His startling claims about the emergence of Marx's ideas have provoked a rejuvenating, hermeneutic interest in Marx's own texts."
Montesquieu: La Politique et l'histoire ["Montesquieu: Politics and History"] (essays) 1959
Pour Marx [For Marx] (essays) 1965
Lire "Le Capital." 2 Volumes. [with Jacques Ranciere and Pierre Macherey in Volume I; with Etiene Balibar and Roger Establet in Volume II] [Reading "Capital"] (essays) 1965
Lenine et la philosophie [Lenin and Philosophy, and Other Essays] (essays) 1969
L'Eglise aujourd'hui [As L. Althusser, with J. M. Domenach, M.D., M. D. Chenu, M. Marechal, and others] (essays) 1969
Response a John Lewis (essay) 1973
Elements d'autocritique ["Elements of Self-Criticism"] (essays) 1974
Philosophie et philosophie spontanee des savants, 1967 [Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists, and Other Essays] (essays) 1974
Positions, 1964–1975 (essays) 1976
Vingt-deuxieme Congres (essays) 1977
Ce qui ne peut plus durer dans le Parti communiste (articles) 1978
Essays on Ideology (essays) 1984
L'avenir dure longtemps [The Future Lasts Forever] (autobiography) 1992
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SOURCE: "Althusserian Materialism in England," in Studies in Anglo-French Relations: Imagining France, edited by Ceri Crossley and Ian Small, London: MacMillan Press, 1988, pp. 187-209.
[In the following essay, James discusses the influence Althusser's conception of materialism has had on other thinkers and points out some of the problems with his arguments.]
Hearing that I was about to write this essay, a friend recently remarked to me that he no longer felt ashamed at not knowing about the work of Louis Althusser—a reaction which has become, I think, quite common among English and American philosophers and social scientists. During the 1970s, when Althusser was a star of the kind that shines only from Paris, many intellectuals were excited by his brilliance, and ignorance was a source, if not of shame, at least of regret. Some people studied his views and others did not; but for all of them his reputation stood high, and he was acknowledged as the author of a serious and important contribution to the interpretation of Marxism. Now that the star has waned, however, the name of Althusser is no longer one to conjure with. In France and elsewhere his claims have been criticised on both philosophical and political grounds, so that his period of popular fame is sometimes represented as nothing but a season's fancy, without lasting consequences for either the theory or the practice of Marxism....
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SOURCE: "Marx and murder: Althusser's demon and the flight from subjectivity," in TLS, No. 4669, September 25, 1992, pp. 3-4.
[In the following review, Lilla discusses the implications that details from Althusser's life have on his work.]
On a grey November morning in 1980, the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser strangled his wife Hélène in their apartment at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. Within hours he was whisked away by ambulance to a psychiatric hospital, where he was subsequently confined by court order after having been judged mentally unfit to stand trial for an act he said he could not remember. At the time, many in Paris suspected a plot by former normaliens to protect their former teacher and exculpate him. But soon it became known that Althusser had spent much of his adult life in states of severe depression and had divided his time almost equally between the École and various psychiatric clinics. This revelation ensured that the case did not become an "affair", and it soon fell from public attention. At most, the Althusser murder was remembered along with Nicos Poulantzas's suicidal leap from the Tour Montparnasse and Michel Foucault's death from AIDS as another morbid episode in the dénouement of la pensée 68.
For all intents and purposes, Althusser's act was a murdersuicide. He took no part in public or professional life after the...
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SOURCE: A review of Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists and Other Essays, in Science and Society, Vol. 57, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 240-43.
[In the following review, Wenger asserts that "If the reader follows the unfolding of Althusser's logic with care, it is evident that while he is not correct about everything he analyzes, most of what he says is powerful and compelling."]
An important set of questions might now be asked about Louis Althusser by current theorists of "what is left of the Left," with the least interesting being the empirical matter of the extent and character of his contemporary readership, and the more significant being: who should now read Louis Althusser, if anyone, and why? This collection, with Gregory Elliott's excellent introduction, is probably sufficient grounds to reach conclusions regarding the ongoing salience of Althusser in the current period of socialist retreat and theoretical disarray.
The various writings presented in this book in chronological order were either previously untranslated, had become unavailable in English, or were incomplete in their earlier versions. Thus, this assemblage of many of Althusser's explicitly "philosophical" arguments, that is, those done as an overt intervention in philosophical discourse, is of interest to "Althusserologists" (such as may currently exist), historians of ideas, and...
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SOURCE: "Invisible man," in New Statesman and Society, December 10, 1993, pp. 38-9.
[In the following review, Bright discusses Althusser's The Future Lasts a Long Time and asserts that "it is when he writes about his dreadful upbringing that he is at his most passionate."]
When the French Marxist philosopher, Louis Althusser, wrote his autobiography in 1985, he knew that it would not be published in his lifetime. Five years earlier, he had strangled his wife Hélène during a severe bout of depression. His state of mind at the time meant that he was never tried for the murder. Instead he was granted a non-lieu, a special dispensation for someone who is deemed unfit to stand trial. In return, all his civil liberties were removed.
So for ten years Althusser lived in total obscurity, mostly in the Sainte-Anne psychiatric hospital in Paris, unable to sign his own name on official documents and forbidden from publishing any of his writings. To all intents and purposes, Althusser ceased to exist after the murder, though in fact he did not die until 1990.
Perhaps this sounds like a good deal. But as Althusser points out at the beginning of The Future Lasts a Long Time, he did not even have the basic rights of a "normal" criminal. He was not allowed to repay his debt to society by serving a prison sentence, and until the publication of this book he was not...
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SOURCE: "Althusserian Theory: From Scientific Truth to Institutional History," in Studies in Twentieth-Century Literature, Vol. 18, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 15-26.
[In the following essay, Goldstein asserts that "[Tony] Bennett's account of literary studies gives Althusserian theory the Foucaldian history that its postmodern opponents deny it."]
The spectacular collapse of the USSR and other Communist states has only exacerbated the hostile relationship of Marxism and postmodern theory. On the one hand, Marxists complain that postmodern theorists refuse to see society as a whole or to preserve culture's autonomous ideals. On the other hand, postmodern theorists fear that Marxism cannot overcome its totalitarian nature or answer its poststructuralist opponents. Even the innovative theory of Louis Althusser suffers from this debilitating opposition. Scientific realists praise the Althusser who fears that liberal humanist beliefs destroy the objectivity of Marxist theory; theoretical rationalists esteem the Althusser who defends the autonomous norms of formal thought, but postmodern theorists complain that Althusser, along with the Marxist tradition, cannot assimilate the twentieth century world of discourse, media, and high-tech communications. I mean to show that, in addition to the scientific and the rationalist stance, Althusserian theory develops a postmodern stance that resists the totalitarian...
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SOURCE: "Ideology Takes a Day Off: Althusser and Mass Culture," in Studies in Twentieth-Century Literature, Vol. 18, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 39-54.
[In the following essay, Rhodes discusses Althusser's work on ideology and the aesthetic as it applies specifically to mass culture. In addition he analyzes the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off in relation to an Althusserian approach to mass culture.]
In the move within cultural studies toward the effacement of the distinction between high and low culture, the Althusserian theory of ideology has become something that one moves beyond. In this theory's implications many critics have detected the creeping specter of the culture industry's conception of popular texts, with its supposed vision of the masses as lambs led unwittingly to the slaughter. In its place, a variety of modes of "reading the popular" (in John Fiske's phrase) have gained popularity that focus on empowerment, use value, and utopian bribes and seek to bring what Fredric Jameson calls "dialectical criticism" into the study of mass culture.
It will be the argument of this paper that these two recognizable poles of cultural criticism—the conspiracy theories of massive interpellation of an essentially docile public, and the populist theories of a more savvy public that picks and chooses according to its needs and desires—represent a false choice between structuralism...
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SOURCE: "Stranglehold," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXX, No. 1, February 21, 1994, pp. 115-19.
[In the following review, Steiner asserts that the scandal surrounding Althusser's life has overshadowed his work.]
There are moments when bad taste is the last refuge of common sense. Let me be in bad taste. Perhaps philosophers should strangle their wives. The name of Socrates' wife has passed into the language as that of an ignorant shrew. Philosophy is an unworldly, abstruse, often egomaniacal obsession. The body is an enemy to absolute logic or metaphysical speculation. The thinker inhabits fictions of purity, of reasoned propositions as sharp as white light. Marriage is about roughage, bills, garbage disposal, and noise. There is something vulgar, almost absurd, in the notion of a Mrs. Plato or a Mme. Descartes, or of Wittgenstein on a honeymoon. Perhaps Louis Althusser was enacting a necessary axiom or logical proof when, on the morning of November 16, 1980, he throttled his wife.
But the master ironist, the joker, is life itself. It is likely that Althusser's writings on Hegel and Marx are already fading into cold dust. Paradoxically, what has vitality in his work is only his collapse into murder and derangement. It is this hideous coda which continues to fascinate, to inspire biography, and to motivate the publication—and, now, the translation into English—of Althusser's...
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SOURCE: "Breathless: Louis Althusser Loses His Grip," in Voice Literary Supplement, No. 123, March, 1994, p. 15.
[In the following review, McLemee discusses the implications of Althusser's memoir, The Future Lasts Forever, on the reading of his work.]
Marxism is dead, as everybody knows; so is Louis Althusser. And not for the first time, in either case. In 1978, after nearly two decades as the most provocative thinker in the French Communist Party, Althusser told a friend: "My universe of thought has been abolished. I can't think anymore." (No fate closer to death than that, for a philosopher.) The mind exhausted, his body lived on until 1990—collapsing sometime between the Berlin Wall and the Gorbachev regime.
In the interim, Althusser practically disappeared from public life. A popular book on "la pensée '68" relegated his ideas to the status of yesteryear's fad: Althusser's Marxism "irresistibly recalled a recent but evolved past, like the Beatles' music or the early films of Godard." The market in theoretical commodities was finished with him. And then, too, there had been that embarrassing incident, late in 1980, when Althusser strangled his wife to death.
Of the murder itself, Althusser remembered nothing. In The Future Lasts Forever, his memoir of the killing and its aftermath, he describes awakening from a blackout to find his fingers massaging...
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SOURCE: "The Paris Strangler," in The New Republic, Vol. 210, No. 10, March 7, 1994, pp. 33-7.
[In the following review, Judt states that in Althusser's The Future Lasts Forever "We are presented not only with a man who is on the edge of insanity, obsessed with sexual imagery … dreams of grandeur and his own psychoanalytical history, but also with a man who is quite remarkably ignorant."]
I was brought up a Marxist. Nowadays that is not much of a boast, but it had its advantages. Parents and grandparents were imbued with all of the assumptions and some of the faith that shaped the European Socialist movement in its heyday. Coming from that branch of East European Jewry that had embraced Social Democracy and the Bund (the Jewish Labor organization of early twentieth-century Russia and Poland), my own family was viscerally anti-Communist. In its eyes, Bolshevism was not only a dictatorship, it was also—and this, too, was a serious charge—a travesty of Marxism. By the time I went to university, I had been thoroughly inoculated with all the classical nineteenth-century texts; and as a result I was immune to the wide-eyed enthusiasm with which Marxist revelations were greeted by those of my freshmen peers who were discovering them for the first time.
Thus, when I arrived in Paris as a graduate student in the late '60s, I was skeptically curious to see and to hear Louis...
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SOURCE: "A Living Death," in The Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 13, 1994, pp. 4, 8.
[In the following review, Kaplan asserts that "The lucidity of a man condemned by his madness to a living death is perhaps what gives [The Future Lasts Forever] its chilling edge."]
On Nov. 16, 1980, Louis Althusser, the leading philosophical and political theorist of French Marxism, strangled his wife, Hélène Rytman, in their suite at the Ecole Normale Superieure, an elite institute for the training of the French professoriate where he had lived, first as a student, then as a professor, for 34 years.
Many received the news of his crime as a symbol of the demise of European communism. Those who knew Althusser understood that whatever fit of madness induced him to strangle Hélène was not brought on by the world of politics. The elegant theorist, the man who redefined the concept of "ideology" as "our imaginary relationship to real conditions of existence" and who fought against a purely economistic interpretation of the works of Marx, had shuttled back and forth between the Ecole Normale and the psychiatric Hospital Sainte Anne at regular intervals for many, many years.
As a result of the murder of his wife, Louis Althusser was declared unfit to stand trial by reason of insanity—in French, this is called a non-lieu. This verdict preceded and pre-empted a trial....
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SOURCE: "Murder, He Wrote," in The Nation, Vol. 258, No. 16, May 25, 1994, pp. 566-68.
[In the following review, Mattick analyzes Althusser's attempt to understand his murder of his wife, but asserts that "Unfortunately, the book must be judged a failure as an effort at self-understanding."]
The publication of the English translation of Louis Althusser's memoir has provoked a lively response among the local intelligentsia. People are talking about it, and it has been widely reviewed. This interest is no doubt traceable in part at least to the sensational aspect of the French philosopher's story: his 1980 strangling of his wife, Hélène, in their apartment in the École Normale, the elite university where he had taught and lived since getting his degree there soon after World War II. This was not a matter of some unknown academic beating a prostitute to death with a hammer (as a Tufts professor did some years ago, inspiring interest mostly among true-crime devotees) but the burning fall of a world-class intellectual. It is not so often that someone moves like a comet from the Parisian heights of Theory into the tabloid domain of the Bobbitts and the Menendez brothers, and this is bound to excite.
Most commentary, however, has not stressed the lurid angle. Writing in The New Yorker, George Steiner suggested a high-toned defense, weirdly wondering whether all philosophers...
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SOURCE: "Althusser's Madness: Theory or Practice?" in Partisan Review, Vol. LXI, No. 3, Summer, 1994, pp. 514-17.
[In the following review, Kurzweil discusses Althusser's focus on his personal past as opposed to his philosophy in his The Future Lasts Forever.]
From this lucid and gripping memoir the average American reader would not realize that Louis Althusser, "the world-renowned French philosopher" who murdered his wife on November 16, 1980, was the preeminent theoretician of the Communist Party in the 1960s and 1970s, or that he incited the French student revolts of 1968. Nor would anyone familiar with his distinctive and heavy theoretical prose have thought him capable of producing such a lyrical and allusive account of his lonely life. His allusions begin with the title, L'avenir dure longtemps, correctly translated as lasting "a long time" rather than "forever." Is he referring to his future without Hélène Rytman, the life-long companion he had killed, or to the ideal future he foresaw and that took so long in arriving—the dream of freedom in the communist world he had dedicated his life to bring about? (The book consists of the autobiography featured in the title  and another one, The Facts , both written before the disintegration of the Soviet Union.) Or has the fact that being declared insane saved him from the murder trial which might well have become a take-off...
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SOURCE: "Second Reads: Althusser Reading Marx Reading Hegel (After 1989)," in Boundary 2, Vol. 22, No. 1, Spring, 1995, pp. 211-33.
[In the following essay, Block analyzes the relationships between the works of Althusser, Marx, and Hegel.]
The English translation of Louis Althusser's Le future dure longtemps presents a curiosity. Longtemps, for the most part, has been rendered as forever, as if, after 1989, the promise of Althusserian Marxism had been displaced into an irretrievable or unrealizable future. One need only refer to the many recent dismissive reviews of the book to note how such judgments extend to Althusser's thought in general. Martin Bright, for example, writes that "in the present political atmosphere it is hard to imagine the excitement that was once generated by books with titles such as For Marx and Reading Capital." George Steiner remarks that "it is likely that Althusser's writings on Hegel and Marx are already fading into cold dust." Similarly, Paul Mattick, Jr., notes that "Marxism-Leninism, even in its obscure Althusserian form, had to go." And Tony Judt summarizes these sentiments most succinctly when he describes Althusser's work as "abstruse apologetics for Communism."
In light of these reviews, it is perhaps time to revisit Althusser's instructions for reading Capital in the opening pages of Reading Capital, and to...
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Easthope, Antony. "Text and Subject Position after Althusser." Studies in Twentieth-Century Literature 18, No. 1 (Winter 1994): 83-96.
Presents a new reading of Althusser's work and provides reasons for the importance of reexamining his work.
Lock, Graham. Review of Schriften Vol. 1 and 2, by Louis Althusser. Ethics 99, No. 1 (October 1988): 197.
Asserts that "Political theorists should find many points of interest in this volume."
Ricoeur, Paul. "Althusser." In his Lectures on Ideology and Utopia, pp. 103-58. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.
Discusses the main changes in Marxist theory in relation to ideology and science.
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