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Although most of Louis Althusser’s works are impersonal and academic, this work is personal and autobiographical. Althusser describes how he strangled his wife and his life before the murder. To avoid his being tried as a murderer, his friends and doctor prevented Althusser from testifying at his trial. Althusser wrote the main part of this work to give his own account of what happened and to counter the various theories that were presented in the press and in philosophical literature, linking his Marxism, his structuralism, and even his philosophy as a whole with the killing of his spouse.

Althusser notes that the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau is a model for this type of self-examination and mentions the diary of a parent-murderer edited by Michel Foucault. Althusser mixes autobiographical reminiscences with psychoanalytical reflections and accounts of his own intellectual development and works. Structuralism is often claimed to be totally nonexperiential and abstract, lacking reference to concrete human experience. This work mixes poignant stories of various human experiences with accounts of intellectual work. Althusser was intellectually involved with Lacanian psychoanalysis in addition to being a psychiatric patient undergoing a variety of treatments from psychoanalysis to electric shock therapy. He used concepts from psychoanalysis in his account of social theory. In this work, he uses psychoanalytic theory to examine his own life and reflects on his relationship with the psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan.

Althusser’s memoir opens powerfully with his sudden realization that while giving his spouse a neck massage, he had unwittingly or unconsciously strangled her to death. He rushes out of his university apartment to get a nearby psychiatrist and other colleagues. Before the police arrive, he is spirited away to a mental institution.

The Formative Years

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Althusser describes his earliest childhood. His mother’s true love was killed in World War I, and she married his brother, who became Althusser’s father. She named her son Louis after her dead lover, and Althusser feels that his mother maintained a relationship with the original Louis through her son. His father was highly intelligent and knowledgeable about world politics and economics, but he was a cold person and played no role in raising the children. When challenged, he would leave the house in a rage. Althusser’s mother was highly neurotic and considered herself a martyr. Althusser loved his grandfather, a forester who spoke with him as an equal and taught him botany. Althusser was born at his grandfather’s Algerian forestry house and felt more loved by his grandfather than by his parents.

Althusser attended secondary school in Marseilles and Lyons in France. The atmosphere of the schools was highly conservative. Although Althusser was not unhappy at school and had friends, he was slow to establish relations with women. Althusser claims to have been a virgin until his late twenties.

Althusser joined the French army at the beginning of World War II and was soon captured by the Germans. He spent the entire war in a prisoner-of-war camp where he actually felt secure and met several men who became models for him. These men, natural leaders, organized the prisoners and deceived or manipulated the Nazi guards in various ways. One camp incident seemed particularly symbolic to Althusser. He knew that escapees were quickly captured as warnings were sent to neighboring regions. He and some friends attempted to deceive the Nazis into thinking that they had escaped by hiding within the camp. When the Nazis thought they were long gone, they planned to run away. To Althusser, this unsuccessful ruse came to symbolize his later relations with social organizations.

Althusser and Rytman

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After the war, released from the camp, Althusser was disoriented and at a loss. During this period, he met and fell in love with Hélène Rytman, who had been involved in the anti-Nazi resistance. Their relationship was extremely difficult because both were neurotic and had had very bad relationships with their parents. Althusser experienced his first severe depression after making love to her. Through Rytman, a member of the French Communist Party (PCF), Althusser learned of the struggles of the workers and of political activism and organizing. Althusser lost his Roman Catholic faith and soon joined the PCF. Rytman had kept a Nazi prisoner alive in order to extract information from him but was accused of having betrayed the party and was expelled. Althusser was ordered not to associate with her but disobeyed, leading to many difficulties.

Marxism vs. Althusserianism

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Althusser believed that the point of philosophy was to aid in the struggle of workers against the state and the capitalists. Marx had said that philosophers had tried only to understand the world rather than to change it. Althusser agreed that the point was to change the world for the better, but he felt that Marx was wrong about philosophers. Philosophers of the past—including Plato, Niccolò Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, Baruch Spinoza, and Immanuel Kant—had developed their theories with an eye to either changing or preserving the social order in which they lived.

Althusser originally defined philosophy as the “theory of theoretical practice” (considering theory itself to be a kind of practice), but he later claimed that philosophy was a class struggle in the realm of theory. Althusser states that philosophy sets forth viewpoints and theses that cannot be decisively proved. It supplies the outlook and framework for political action and scientific theories that can be evaluated by their consequences. According to Althusser, philosophy has no history because it replays the same oppositions, such as the one and the many, over the centuries. Thus, it can be termed “perennial philosophy,” which does not mean it expresses eternal truths but rather that it plays out the struggle between the oppressors and oppressed. Philosophy has no history, just as ideology has no history for Marx because it simply reflects the real social and economic developments of history. For Althusser, the struggle between idealism and materialism in philosophy expresses in theory the struggle between rulers and the ruled in social life.

Althusser believes that science, unlike philosophy, does not express the struggle between the ruling class and the oppressed. Science, he believes, can achieve genuine representation of reality, even if always only approximate and partial. Although the problematic aspects of science are influenced by religion and politics, the activity of science transforms the raw material of observations and facts into genuine theoretical knowledge. For this reason, Althusser always rejected the theory of the “two sciences” that was held by the Communists under Joseph Stalin. Under this theory, science is divided into bourgeois (capitalist) science and socialist science. Althusser recalls with disgust how one party official berated a leading biologist and party member, claiming that even “two plus two equals four” was true only from a bourgeois standpoint. This sort of view led to Soviet support for agriculturally harmful biology.

Althusser rejects the attempt by Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (whom he considers the better philosopher) to ground Marxism on a phenomenological intuition or description of direct experience. He criticizes the phenomenological philosophy for taking for granted as intuitively self-evident certain experiences of everyday life. For Althusser, these experiences are distorted by unconscious repression of individual psychology and social oppression of structures of force and authority. These distorted experiences cannot serve as a foundation for philosophy. One must use science to pass from appearance to an essence that is different from appearance (Marx) or to structures (Althusser). Marxist social analysis is necessary to break through the delusions and distortions of everyday beliefs and everyday experiences.

Machiavelli and Spinoza

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Two philosophers whom Althusser discusses favorably in this work are Niccolò Machiavelli and Baruch Spinoza. Machiavelli, according to Althusser, developed a theory of political activity rather than a justification for political rule. Machiavelli’s theory of actual political strategy has not developed since his time. Marx had only fragments of such a theory, and, consequently, though he had a detailed economic theory of social development, he really lacked a theory of political strategy apart from rules of thumb. Machiavelli wrote before the parliamentary state and did not develop a theory of the social contract. Unlike the later social contract theorists, such as John Locke, Machiavelli did not justify the legitimacy of the state in terms of an imaginary citizens’ agreement but described the actual strategies by which the ruler imposes his will as force and deceit. For this reason, he is far more realistic than the social contract theorists.

Of all the traditional philosophers, Spinoza garners the most praise from Althusser. Althusser sees Spinoza as developing a brilliant analysis of how ideologies are generated in his discussion of the Hebrew prophets. Althusser also foresees much of Sigmund Freud’s theory of personality and drives in Spinoza’s theory of conatus and theory of emotions. Furthermore, Spinoza rightly treats thought as a bodily process, not a separate activity of a spiritual nature. Spinoza’s third kind of knowledge, which grasps a singular case that is also universal rather than a general law of correlated qualities or events, is for Althusser the sort of knowledge one finds in Machiavelli and Marx. According to Althusser, Spinoza’s rationalist monism (doctrine of the universe as a single substance) was made idealistic or spiritual by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel but was then again made material by Marx, who was perhaps Spinoza’s only true follower in his economic theory if not in his explicit philosophy.

Conflict, Isolation, and Death

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Although Althusser disagreed with the PCF’s earlier Stalinist doctrine of the two sciences, the party’s later support of Marxist humanism, its bureaucratic manipulation of the workers’ movement, and its refusal to give support to the students’ and workers’ uprisings of 1968, he remained a member of the party. He justifies this by arguing that if an individual is committed to the workers’ movement and to social change in France, that person has to be part of the PCF in order to have any effect. He claimed that a Communist is never alone, but that those leftist intellectuals who broke with or stayed outside the party were isolated and had no real influence on the workers and mass movements. Althusser openly criticized the PCF and hoped to influence it to change.

By the late 1970’s, communist and socialist movements were on the retreat in most parts of the world. Althusser finally openly rejected the PCF in several speeches and articles. This was an extremely difficult time for him and his longtime companion, Hélène Rytman, whom he married in the late 1970’s. She threatened suicide, and he fell into depression. They isolated themselves from their friends and colleagues, and not long after, Althusser inadvertently or unconsciously strangled Rytman.

By the time The Future Lasts Forever appeared, Althusser’s theories seemed dated to many because they had been associated with the revolts of 1968 and Marxism, Maoism, and other movements that had declined during the privatization of the capitalist countries during the 1980’s and the collapse of the Eastern Bloc communist governments in the early 1990’s. His strangling of his spouse and subsequent incarceration in a mental institution discredited him in the eyes of many followers and gave further ammunition to those who already opposed his Marxism and structuralism. However, this work made many readers more sympathetic with Althusser the man and revived interest in his theories. Despite the horror of his crime, Althusser’s narration put a human face on a man whose “theoreticism” and abstraction had been notorious. His decades-long struggles with depression and mental illness were unknown to most readers. French reviewers seemed more upset with him for his continued allegiance to materialism and his rejection of relativism than they were with his murdering his companion. American reviewers for the most part used the book to reiterate already held opinions concerning the evils of French theory, Marxism, and even philosophy. Nevertheless, the work led readers to return to Althusser’s theoretical treatises and to see his work not just as a product of political struggles within the PCF and French intellectual fads but in relation to philosophers of the past.


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Additional Reading

Callari, Antonio, and David F. Ruccio. Postmodern Materialism and the Future of Marxist Theory: Essays in the Althusserian Tradition. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1996. Contains several insightful essays, some by European students and contemporaries of Louis Althusser such as Étienne Balibar, Emmanuel Terray, and Antonio Negri, and some by American economists.

Callinicos, Alex. Althusser’s Marxism. London: Pluto Press, 1976. A helpful, brief, sympathetic introductory overview of Althusser’s earlier work by a philosopher.

Elliot, Gregory, ed. Althusser: A Critical Reader. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1994. The best selection of articles on Althusser, including several by eminent European philosophers Paul Ricoeur and Axel Honneth and historians Eric Hobsbawm and Pierre Vilar.

Elliot, Gregory. Althusser: The Detour of Theory. New York: Verso, 1987. Excellent coverage of the relation of French leftist politics to Althusser’s theoretical positions by the author of the best available biographical essay on Althusser, which appears in both the Callari and Ruccio and the Elliott anthologies cited in this bibliography.

Ferry, Luc, and Alain Renaut. French Philosophy of the Sixties: An Essay on Antihumanism. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990. This attack on postmodernism by two French neoliberals partly attributes the course of French philosophy and sociology after May, 1968, to the baneful, indirect influence of Althusser.

Payne, Michael. Reading Knowledge: An Introduction to Barthes, Foucault, and Althusser. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1997. This work contains two brief but lucid chapters on Althusser as well as a section on his discussion of art.

Resch, Robert Paul. Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. An excellent and extensive wholly sympathetic treatment of Althusser’s philosophy and theory of history and politics as well as treatments of a number of other structuralist Marxists and students of Althusser. Contains much information on Althusser’s philosophy of science and his philosophical predecessors.

Schaff, Adam. Structuralism and Marxism. New York: Pergamon, 1978. A readable criticism of Althusser and structuralism by a Polish Marxist who moved from orthodoxy to humanism.

Schmidt, Alfred. History and Structure: An Essay on the Hegelian Marxist and Structuralist Theories of History. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1981. A member of the Frankfurt School of critical theory compares Althusser’s structuralism with “historicist” and humanist approaches to history and attempts a rapprochement between the two, although he is much more sympathetic to the historicist-humanist approach.

Smith, Stephen. Reading Althusser. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985. A clear exposition and criticism focusing on the earlier Althusser. Smith claims Althusser is led into relativism and nihilism in a reading influenced by the conservative political theorist Leo Strauss.

Spinker, M., ed. The Althusserian Legacy. London: Verso, 1993. This collection of essays features an interview with Jacques Derrida on Marxism and Althusser and also contains the speech Derrida gave at Althusser’s grave.

Thompson, Edward P. The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978. The title essay is an attack against Althusser’s abstraction and “theoreticism” by a leading British social historian.