Louis Althusser Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Combining linguistic structuralism and concepts from Freudian psychoanalysis, Althusser formulated a modern version of scientific and antihumanist Marxism in which structures and process take precedence over individual subjects in accounting for history.

Early Life

Louis Althusser was born in Algeria to a banker and his wife. Althusser’s mother married his father after the death of her true love, his father’s brother, in World War I. Althusser attended French secondary schools whose faculty and students for the most part embraced monarchistic and religious views, and he also held conservative opinions. In 1937, he became involved with the youth movement of the Catholic Church. During World War II, he was captured by the Germans and spent the duration of the conflict in a prisoner-of-war camp. After the war, Althusser became associated with the left-wing worker-priest movement. In 1946, he became involved with Hélène Rytman, a longtime anti-Nazi communist activist who was eight years older than he. He lost his Catholic faith, and in 1948, at the beginning of the Cold War, he joined the French Communist Party (PCF) but continued his connection with the worker-priest movement until it was dissolved by the pope. His relation with Rytman, who was his companion for thirty-five years, was difficult because she had been expelled from the PCF for alleged treason and Althusser was ordered by the party not to have contact with her, an order he disobeyed.

Althusser attended the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. He was particularly influenced by the philosophers of science Gaston Bachelard, Jean Cavailles, and Jules Canguileme. He wrote a thesis on Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel under Bachelard and received a second place in the agrégation de philosophie, a difficult postgraduate examination for teaching positions at lycées and universities in France, in 1948. He became a tutor and spent the rest of his academic career at the university where he had studied.

Life’s Work

Althusser published relatively little during the 1950’s. At the end of the decade, he published Politics and History, a work on the eighteenth century social philosopher Montesquieu. In this work, Althusser formulated his notion of historical process without either a goal or a subject. In the early 1960’s, he wrote a series of articles concerning the early works of Karl Marx, which appeared in 1965 as For Marx. He also collaborated with several others to write a much longer book, Reading Capital. These works had immense influence, but he fell into a severe depression and was hospitalized soon after they appeared.

In For Marx, Althusser argues that Marx’s early, humanist works are not truly Marxist and that Marx did not develop the concepts specific to Marxism until the publication of Die deutsche Ideologie (1845-1846; The German ideology, 1938). Althusser considers Marx’s works between 1845 and 1857 to be transitional, and the works thereafter to be mature. His opinion is much like the orthodox view of the Socialist and Soviet Communist Parties. However, Marxist humanists, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Erich Fromm, and Herbert Marcuse, claim that Marx is part of the humanist tradition, given the existentialist and Hegelian language of Marx’s Jungendschriften (1844; Early Manuscripts, 1959). Althusser argues that Marx’s method rejected the humanism of German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach and the idealism of Hegel for a new analysis of history. At one point, Althusser claims that Marx did not fully free himself from humanism until the publication of Randglossen zu Adolph Wagner (1879; Notes on Wagner, 1974).

Althusser claims that the individual is not the center of Marx’s philosophy and that history is a process without a subject. Using Bachelard’s concept of an epistemological break (similar to American philosopher Thomas S. Kuhn’s notion of paradigm shift and scientific revolution that appeared decades later), Althusser claims that Marx created a new science and approach to history. He follows German socialist Friedrich Engels in comparing the shift from the concept of profit in the classic economics of English economist David Ricardo to the concept of surplus value in Marx to the shift from chemistry of the imaginary substance phlogiston to the chemistry of oxygen as an element.

In Reading Capital, Althusser “symptomatically” reads Marx’s Das Kapital (1867, 1885, 1894; Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1886, 1907, 1909), noting significant lapses and absences in much the same way that a psychoanalyst would interpret a patient’s words. He argues that Marx’s philosophy has to be extracted from his economic writings and is not revealed in his explicit philosophical remarks. According to Althusser, Marx’s conception of history was not purposive in that it was not structured by a goal. He denies that Marx was an historicist—an individual who claims all concepts and structures are in process and that history is goal-oriented or teleological. Marx’s Das Kapital is not a historical narrative but rather an analysis of the structures of capitalist society. These structures are not themselves in process but account for process. Borrowing the notion of overdetermination from psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, Althusser claims that historical events are overdetermined, that they are intersections of causes working at a number of different levels. Societies—slave, feudalistic, capitalist, and socialist—are organized according to the modes of production, which can appear in various social formations. Although various structures can appear in a given society, there is a dominant structure, the primary determining structure of that type of society. Although the political, legal, and ideological superstructures have relative autonomy from the economic base, they are eventually determined by it.

In the title essay of Lenin and...

(The entire section is 2493 words.)