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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2493

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.

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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 Philosophy and Other Essays, Althusser shifts his position on the role of philosophy. To Althusser, philosophy had previously been a “theory of theoretical practice” (he considered theory to be a kind of practice) and a guarantor of the objectivity of science, but because philosophy is unable to give absolute justifications, he came to regard it as a locus of the struggle between classes. The extreme rationalism of his earlier works gives way to a limited role for philosophy in persuasion and in giving plausible accounts, not ultimate justifications. Althusser criticizes his earlier works as guilty of “theoreticism,” a term that his critics applied to all of his work.

In “Idéologie et appareils idéologiques d’état” (1970; “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” in Lenin and Philosophy), Althusser moves away from Marx’s view of ideology as false, inverted ideas and toward a notion of ideology as the medium through which people find meaning in everyday life. Althusser delineates the institutions (such as school, church, and state) that maintain and propagate ideology for the self-reproduction of society. In his “Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists,” Althusser takes the sharply dichotomized relation between science and ideology set forth in Reading Capital and renders it subtler. He recognizes that science is awash in ideology and that it is influenced by ideological conceptions such as religion, politics, and philosophy. Althusser attempts to reconcile the objectivity of science with a historical and contingent account of the way in which scientific theory is generated, a problem not only for Marxists but also for science studies in general in the late twentieth century.

Althusser’s own theory of knowledge somewhat resembles that of German philosopher Immanuel Kant. For Althusser, knowledge is not extracted from given facts or sense experiences. Experience itself is already structured by ideology and theories. Theoretical work involves the processing of the deliverances of experience (Knowledge I) by the methods and techniques of theorizing (Knowledge II) to produce genuine theoretical concepts (Knowledge III). Although Althusser believes in the objectivity of knowledge, he does not believe that people have direct access to reality; people experience reality only as something mediated through concepts.

One of the traditional philosophers whose views greatly influenced Althusser was the seventeenth century rationalist Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza, like the early Althusser, identifies logical consequence with causality and holds that the universe is completely deterministic. Althusser likens Spinoza’s pantheist God (who is an immanent cause of the universe, not a separate creator) to Althusser’s own notion of structures as immanent causes of society. Althusser rejects empiricism and claims that the correct theory corresponds to real structures. Spinoza’s notion that all knowledge is true to some extent (insofar as it represents, even if confusedly, some reality) is used by Althusser to account for his claim that knowledge is objective but is not a direct revelation of reality.

In addition to structuralist linguistics and the French philosophers of scientific change, one of the major influences on Althusser was psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Althusser claimed that he set out to read Marx the way that Lacan had read the works of Sigmund Freud. Lacan and Althusser rejected Freud’s hydraulic and energy flow imagery from nineteenth century physics in favor of a linguistic model. Lacan claimed that the unconscious is timeless and is structured like language. Althusser similarly claimed that social structures are timeless and that implicitly they are structured like language. Althusser wrote several essays comparing Marx and Freud as well as Marx and Lacan. He also corresponded with Lacan. These writings are collected in Writings on Psychoanalysis: Freud and Lacan. Althusser’s lifelong series of bipolar swings from manic to depressive states, mental breakdowns, and experience with various kinds of psychiatry were not described by him until his posthumously published autobiographical work, but these collected writings show that his involvement with the concepts of psychoanalysis was not merely theoretical.

Althusser’s academic career abruptly ended in 1980 when he reported to police that he had strangled Hélène Rytman, his wife of four years and companion of thirty-five years. He was placed in a mental institution and released some eighteen months later. He lived in retirement for eight years and continued to write on the Italian Renaissance political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli and on ancient Greek atomists such as Democritus and Epicurus. He would occasionally surprise Paris passersby by loudly proclaiming that he was indeed the great Althusser. He wrote The Future Lasts Forever to explain his crime and mental illness. It was published after his death in 1990. Many of the unpublished writings from the last decade of his life later were collected and published.

Influence

Althusser’s influence is wide, varied, and often unacknowledged. His intransigent Marxism-Leninism (he claimed that Soviet political leader Joseph Stalin was too humanistic) offended many people of other political persuasions. After he strangled his wife, his name was anathema to many feminists who had earlier used his ideas. During the 1960’s, he influenced a number of leftist sociologists, economists, and political theorists in France, including anthropologist Emmanuel Terray and political sociologist Nikos Poulantzas. Though Poulantzas committed suicide and many others renounced Marxism to become “new philosophers,” Althusser’s influence lingered. Pierre Bourdieux, though critical of Althusser, imported his methods into the study of sociology. Swedish scholar Gören Therborn developed an Althusserian analysis of politics. By the 1970’s, his influence on British leftist social science and philosophy was considerable. In the United States, the concept of the reproduction of society through education has had a great impact on the sociology of education, though the concept is generally used without reference to Althusser. In literary studies, Althusser’s view of writing as a kind of production permeated the work of Pierre Macherey and the journal Tel Quel in France as well as the Birmingham Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies and the journal Screen in Britain.

After Althusser’s incarceration and the decline of communist and socialist movements during the 1980’s, explicit Althusserianism all but disappeared, and many ex-Althusserians became postmodernists. Postmodernists (who, unlike Althusser, reject scientific objectivity and rationality) often use Althusserian formulations of decentered totality and process without a subject but attribute the notions to philosophers Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, or Jacques Lacan. Althusser once taught Foucault, who before 1970 was quite structuralist. American Foucaultians emphasize the roots of Foucault’s views in Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy but suppress the Althusserian aspect. Postmodernists sometimes denounced Althusser in the classroom and at conferences but mined his texts for ideas useful in their own research.

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. 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.

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.

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.

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Critical Essays