Louis Althusser Essay - Critical Essays

Althusser, Louis


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."

Principal Works

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


Susan James (essay date 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 8285 words.)

Mark Lilla (review date 25 September 1992)

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...

(The entire section is 3051 words.)

Morton G. Wenger (review date Summer 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 1379 words.)

Martin Bright (review date 10 December 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 814 words.)

Philip Goldstein (essay date Winter 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 3279 words.)

Chip Rhodes (essay date Winter 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 6176 words.)

George Steiner (review date 21 February 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 2596 words.)

Scott McLemee (review date March 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 1681 words.)

Tony Judt (review date 7 March 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 3584 words.)

Alice Kaplan (review date 13 March 1994)

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 entire section is 1422 words.)

Paul Mattick Jr. (review date 25 May 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 1893 words.)

Edith Kurzweil (review date Summer 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 1734 words.)

Richard Block (essay date Spring 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 8520 words.)

Further Reading


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....

(The entire section is 109 words.)