Louis Althusser Introduction - Essay


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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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

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."