Louis Althusser

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Louis Pierre Althusser (October 16, 1918 - October 23, 1990) was a Marxist philosopher. He was born in Algeria and studied at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris, where he eventually became Professor of Philosophy. He was a leading academic proponent of the French Communist Party and his arguments were a response to multiple threats to the ideological foundations of that socialist project. These included both the influence of empiricism which was beginning to influence Marxist sociology and economics, and growing interest in humanistic and democratic socialist orientations which were beginning to cause division in the European Communist Parties. Althusser is commonly referred to as a Structural Marxist, although his relationship to other schools of French structuralism is not a simple affiliation.

Biographical information

Early life

Althusser wrote two autobiographies, L'Avenir dure longtemps, or "The Future Lasts a Long Time," which is published in America as "The Future Lasts Forever," in a single volume with Althusser's other, shorter, earlier autobiography, "The Facts." These documents provide most of the information we know about his life, although, as with all autobiographies, the information they provide is somewhat suspect.

Althusser was born in French Algeria in the town of Birmendreïs, to a pied-noirs family. He was named after his paternal uncle who had been killed in the First World War. Althusser alleged that his mother had intended to marry his uncle and married his father only because of the brother's demise. Althusser also alleges that that his mother treated him as a substitute for his deceased uncle, to which he attributes deep psychological damage.

Following the death of his father, Althusser moved from Algiers with his mother and younger sister to Marseilles, where he spent the rest of his childhood. He joined the Catholic youth movement Jeunesse Etudiante Chrétienne in 1937. Althusser performed brilliantly at school and was accepted to the elite Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris. However, he found himself enlisted in the run-up to World War Two, and like most French soldiers following the Fall of France Althusser was interned in a German POW camp. Here, he came into contact with Jacques Martin, and his move towards Communism began. He was relatively content as a prisoner, and remained in the camp for the rest of the war, unlike many of his contemporaries who escaped to fight again—for this, Althusser later had reason to chastise himself.


After the war, Althusser was able finally to attend ENS. However, he was in poor health, both mentally and physically. In 1947, he received electroconvulsive therapy. Althusser was from this time to suffer from periodic mental illness for the rest of his life. The ENS was sympathetic however, allowing him to reside in his own room in the school infirmary. Althusser found himself living at the ENS in the Rue d'Ulm for decades, except for periods of hospitalization.


In 1946, Althusser met Hélène Rytman, a revolutionary of Lithuanian-Jewish ethnic origin, eight years older than him, who was to remain his companion until he killed her in 1980.

Formerly a devout, if left-wing, Roman Catholic, in this period, Althusser joined the French Communist Party (PCF) in 1948, at a time when others, such as Merleau-Ponty, were losing sympathy for it. That same year, Althusser passed the agrégation in philosophy with a dissertation on Hegel, which allowed him to become a tutor at the ENS.

With the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, Nikita Khrushchev began the process of "de-Stalinisation". For many Marxists, including the PCF's leading theoretician Roger Garaudy, this meant the recovery of the humanist roots of Marx's thought, such as the theory of alienation. Althusser, however, opposed this trend, sympathising instead with the criticisms made by the Chinese Communist Party, albeit cautiously. His stance during this period earned him notoriety within the PCF and he was attacked by its secretary-general Waldeck Rochet. As a philosopher, he was treading another path, which would later lead him to "random materialism" (matérialisme aléatoire); however, this didn't stop him from enforcing the marxist orthodox thought to supposed "heretics", such as during his 1973 answer to John Lewis.

Despite the involvement of many of his students in the events of May 1968, Althusser initially greeted these developments with silence. He was later to follow the official PCF line in describing the students as victim to "infantile" leftism. As a result, Althusser was attacked by many former supporters. In response to these criticisms, he revised some of his positions, claiming that his earlier writings contained mistakes, and a significant shift in emphasis was seen in his later works.


On November 16, 1980, Althusser strangled his wife to death. This had been preceded by a period of intense mental instability. The exact circumstances are debated, with some claiming it was deliberate, others accidental. Althusser himself claimed not to have a clear memory of the event. Since he was alone with his wife when she died, it is difficult to come to firm conclusions. Althusser was diagnosed as suffering from diminished responsibility, and he was not tried, but instead committed to the Sainte-Anne psychiatric hospital. Althusser remained in hospital until 1983. Upon release, he moved to Northern Paris and lived reclusively, seeing few people and no longer working, except for producing his autobiography. He died of a heart attack on October 22nd 1990 at the age of 72.


Althusser's earlier works include the influential volume Reading Capital, which collects the work of Althusser and his students on an intensive philosophical re-reading of Marx's Capital. The book reflects on the philosophical status of Marxist theory as "critique of political economy," and on its object. The current English edition of this work includes only the essays of Althusser and Étienne Balibar, while the original French edition contains additional contributions from Jacques Ranciere and Pierre Macherey, among others. The project was approximately analogous, within Marxism, to the contemporary psychoanalytic return to Freud undertaken by Jacques Lacan, with whom Althusser was also involved. (Althusser's personal and professional relationship with Lacan was complex; the two were at times great friends and correspondents, at times enemies.)

Several of Althusser's theoretical positions have remained very influential in Marxist philosophy, though he sometimes overstated his arguments deliberately in order to provoke controversy. Althusser's essay On the Young Marx draws a term from the philosopher of science Gaston Bachelard in proposing a great "epistemological break" between Marx's early, "Hegelian and Feuerbachian" writings and his later, properly Marxist texts. His essay Marxism and Humanism is a strong statement of anti-humanism in Marxist theory, condemning ideas like "human potential" and "species-being," which are often put forth by Marxists, as outgrowths of a bourgeois ideology of "humanity." His essay Contradiction and Overdetermination borrows the concept of overdetermination from psychoanalysis, in order to replace the idea of "contradiction" with a more complex model of multiple causality in political situations (an idea closely related to Antonio Gramsci's concept of hegemony).

Althusser is also widely known as a theorist of ideology, and his best-known essay is Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Toward an Investigation (available in several English volumes including Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays). The essay establishes the concept of ideology, also based on Gramsci's theory of hegemony. Whereas hegemony is ultimately determined entirely by political forces, ideology draws on Freud's and Lacan's concepts of the unconscious and mirror-phase respectively, and describes the structures and systems that allow us to meaningfully have a concept of the self. These structures, for Althusser, are both agents of repression and inevitable - it is impossible to escape ideology; to not be subjected to it. The distinction between ideology and science or philosophy is not assured once and for all by the epistemological break: this "break" is not a chronologically-determined event, but a process. Instead of an assured victory, there is a continuous struggle against ideology: "Ideology has no history".

The 'Epistemological Break'

It was Althusser's view that Marx's thought had been fundamentally misunderstood and underestimated. He fiercely condemned various interpretations of his works - historicism, idealism, economism - on the grounds that they had failed to realise that with the 'science of history', historical materialism, Marx had constructed a revolutionary view of social change. These errors, he believed, resulted from the notion that Marx's entire body of work could be understood as a coherent whole. Rather, Althusser held, it contains a radical 'epistemological break'. Though the early works are bound by the categories of German philosophy and classical political economy, with The German Ideology (written in 1845) there is a sudden and unprecedented departure which paves the way for Marx's later works. The problem is compounded by the fact that even Marx himself did not fully comprehend the significance of his own work, being only able to communicate it obliquely and tentatively. The shift can only be revealed by way of a careful and sensitive "symptomal reading". Thus, it is Althusser's project to help us fully grasp the originality and power of Marx's extraordinary theory, giving as much attention to what is not said as to the explicit. He held that Marx had discovered a 'continent of knowledge', History, analogous to the contributions of Thales to mathematics, Galileo to physics or, better, Freud's psychoanalysis, in that the structure of his theory is unlike anything posited by his predecessors.

Althusser believed that underlying Marx's discovery was a ground-breaking epistemology centred on the rejection of the dichotomy between subject and object, which makes Marx's work incompatible with its antecedents. At the root of the break is a rejection of the idea, held by the classical economists, that the needs of individuals can be treated as a fact or 'given' independent of any economic organisation, and could therefore serve as a premise for a theory explaining the character of a mode of production. In Althusser's view, Marx did not simply argue that people's needs are largely created by their social environment and thus vary with time and place; rather, he abandoned the very idea that there could be a theory about what people are like which was prior to any theory about how they came to be that way, and which could therefore serve as an independent starting-point for a theory about society. As well as this, Marx's theory is built on concepts - such as forces and relations of production - that have no counterpart in classical political economy. Even when existing terms are adopted - such as the combination of David Ricardo's notions of rent, profit and interests through the theory of surplus value - their meaning and relation to other concepts in the theory is significantly different. Furthermore, apart from its unique structure, historical materialism's explanatory power is unlike that of classical political economy; whereas political economy explained economic systems as a response to individual needs, Marx's analysis accounted for a wider range of social phenomena in terms of the parts they play in a structured whole. Resultantly, Capital provides both a model of the economy and a description of the structure and development of a whole society.

Though Althusser steadfastly held onto the claim of its existence, he later asserted that the turning point's occurrence around 1845 was not so clearly defined, as traces of humanism, historicism and Hegelianism were to be found in Capital. He even went so far as to state that only Marx's Critique of the Gotha Programme [1] and some notes on a book by Adolph Wagner [2] were fully free from humanist ideology. In fact, Althusser considered the epistemological break to be a process instead of a clearly defined event. He described Marxism and psychoanalysis as "scissional" sciences, which always had to struggle against ideology, thus explaining the succeeding ruptures and splittings. They are scissional sciences because their object ("class struggle" or the topic of the unconscious) is itself split and divided.


Because of Marx's belief in the close relation between the individual and society, it is, in Althusser’s view, pointless to try to build a social theory on a prior conception of the individual. The subject of observation is not individual human elements, but rather 'structure'. As he has it, Marx did not explain society by appealing to one factor (individuals), but broke it up into related units called ‘practices’. He uses this analysis to defend Marx’s historical materialism against the charge that it crudely posits a base and superstructure and then attempts to explain all aspects of the superstructure by appealing to features of the base. For Althusser, it was a mistake to attribute this view, based on economic determinism, to Marx: much as he criticises the idea that a social theory can be founded on an historical conception of human needs, so does he dismiss the idea that an independently defined notion of economic practice can be used to explain other aspects of society. Like Lukács, Althusser believed that both the base and the superstructure were dependent on the whole. The advantage of practices over individuals as a starting point is that although each practice is only a part of a complex whole of society, a practice is a whole in itself in that it consists of various different kinds of parts; economic practice, for example, contains raw materials, tools, individual persons, etc. all united in a process of production. Althusser conceives of society as an interconnected collection of these wholes – economic practice, ideological practice and politico-legal practice – which together make up one complex whole. In his view all practices are dependent on each other. For example, amongst the relations of production are the buying and selling of labour power by capitalists and workers. These relations are part of economic practice, but can only exist within the context of a legal system which establishes individual agents as buyers and sellers; furthermore, the arrangement must be maintained by political and ideological means. From this it can be seen that aspects of economic practice depend on the superstructure and vice versa.

Contradiction and Overdetermination

An analysis understood in terms of interdependent practices helps us to conceive of how society is organised, but also allows us to comprehend social change and thus provides a theory of history. Althusser explains the reproduction of the relations of production by reference to aspects of ideological and political practice; conversely, the emergence of new production relations can be explained by the failure of these mechanisms. Marx’s theory seems to posit a system in which an imbalance in two parts could lead to compensatory adjustments at other levels, or sometimes to a major reorganisation of the whole. To develop this idea Althusser relies on the concepts of contradiction and non-contradiction, which he claims are illuminated by their relation to a complex structured whole. Practices are contradictory when they grate on one another and non-contradictory when they support one another. Althusser elaborates on these concepts by reference to Lenin’s analysis of the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Lenin posited that in spite of widespread discontent throughout Europe in the early 20th century, Russia was the country in which revolution occurred because it contained all the contradictions possible within a single state at the time. It was, in his words, the ‘weak link’ in a ‘collection of imperialist states’. The revolution is explained in relation to two groups of circumstances: firstly, the existence within Russia of large-scale exploitation in cities, mining districts, etc., disparity between urban industrialisation and medieval conditions in the countryside, and lack of unity amongst the ruling class; secondly, a foreign policy which played into the hands of revolutionaries, such as the elites who had been exiled by the Tsar and had become sophisticated socialists.

This example is used by Althusser to reinforce his claim that Marx did not see social change as the result of a single contradiction between the forces and the relations of production, but rather held a more complex view of it. The differences between events in Russia and Western Europe highlight that a contradiction between forces and relations of production may be necessary, but not sufficient, to bring about revolution. The circumstances that produced revolution in Russia, mentioned above, were heterogeneous, and cannot be seen to be aspects of one large contradiction. Each was a contradiction within a particular social totality. From this, Althusser draws the conclusion that Marx’s concept of contradiction is inseparable from the concept of a social whole. In order to emphasise that changes in social structure relate to numerous contradictions, Althusser describes these changes as 'overdetermined', using a term taken from Sigmund Freud. This interpretation allows us to account for how many different circumstances may play a part in the course of events, and furthermore permits us to grasp how these states of affairs may combine to produce unexpected social changes, or ‘ruptures’.

However, Althusser does not mean to say that the events which determine social changes all have the same causal status. While a part of a complex whole, economic practice is, in his view, a structure in dominance: it plays a major part in determining the relations between other spheres, and has more effect on them than they have on it. The most prominent aspect of society (the religious aspect in feudal formations and the economic aspect in capitalist ones) is called the 'dominant instance', and is in turn determined 'in the last instance' by the economy. For Althusser, the economic practice of a society determines which other aspect of it dominates the society as a whole.

Ideological State Apparatuses

Althusser held that it was necessary to conceive of how society makes the individual in its own image. Within capitalist society, the human individual is generally regarded as a subject endowed with the property of being a self-conscious agent. For Althusser, however, a person’s capacity for perceiving herself in this way is not innate. Rather, it is acquired within the structure of established social practices, which impose on individuals the role (forme) of a subject. Social practices both determine the characteristics of the individual and give her an idea of the range of properties they can have, and of the limits of each social practice. Althusser argues that many of our roles and activities are given to us by social practice: for example, the production of steelworkers is a part of economic practice, while the production of lawyers is part of politico-legal practice. However, other characteristics of individuals, such as their beliefs about the good life or their metaphysical reflections on the nature of the self, do not easily fit into these categories. In Althusser’s view, our values, desires and preferences are inculcated in us by ideological practice, the sphere which has the defining property of constituting individuals as subjects through the process of interpellation. Ideological practice consists of an assortment of institutions called Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs), which include the family, the media, religious organisations and the education system, as well as the received ideas they propagate ==References==

. There is, however, no one ISA which produces in us the belief that we are self-conscious agents. Instead, we learn this belief in the course of learning what it is to be a daughter, a schoolchild, black, a steelworker, a councillor, and so forth.

First thesis of Althusser on ideology is that "Ideology has no history"; the second one is that "Ideology has a material existence". "Ideas are material", as he had already said, which explain why he decides to complexify the notion of ideology by the concept of Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA) .

Despite its many institutional forms, the function and structure of ideology is unchanging and present throughout history. The first of Althusser's thesis on ideology states that "ideology has no history". All ideologies constitute a subject, even though he or she may differ according to each particular ideology. Memorably, Althusser illustrates this with the concept of interpellation. He uses the example of an individual walking in a street: upon hearing a police whistle, or any other form of hailing, the individual turns round and in this simple movement of her body she is transformed into a (guilty) subject. Althusser discusses the process by which the person being hailed recognizes herself as the subject of the hail, and knows to respond. Even though there was nothing suspicious about her walking in the street, she recognizes it is indeed she herself that is being hailed. This recognition is a mis-recognition (méconnaissance) in that it is working retroactively: a material individual is always-already an ideological subject. The "transformation" of an individual into a subject has always-already happened; Althusser acknowledges here a debt toward Spinoza's theory of immanence. That is to say, our idea of who we are is delivered by ideology. The second of Althusser's theses is that "ideology has a material existence":

Ideas have disappeared as such (insofar as they are endowed with an ideal or spiritual existence), to the precise extent that it has emerged that their existence is inscribed in the actions of practices governed by rituals defined in the last instance by an ideological apparatus. It therefore appears that the subject acts insofar as he is acted by the following system (set out in the order of its real determination): ideology existing in a material ideological apparatus, describing material practices governed by a material ritual, which practices exist in the material actions of a subject acting in all consciousness according to his belief. ==References==

These material rituals may be compared with Bourdieu's concept of habitus, as the ISA may in a sense be approached with Foucault's disciplinary institutions. Althusser offers the example of the Voice of God - an embodiment of Christian religious ideology - instructing a person on what her place in the world is and what she must do to be reconciled with Christ. From this, Althusser draws the point that in order for that person to identify herself as a Christian, she must first already be a subject. We acquire our identities by seeing ourselves and our social roles mirrored in material ideologies.


Although Althusser's theories were born of an attempt to defend Communist orthodoxy, his endeavour to present Marxism as a form of structuralism reflected a move away from the intellectual isolation of the Stalinist era, and furthermore was symptomatic of a push towards emphasising Marx's place as a philosopher rather than as an economist.

Althusser has had broad influence in the areas of Marxist philosophy and post-structuralism. Interpellation has been popularised and adapted by the feminist philosopher and critic Judith Butler. The attempt to view history as a process without a subject garnered sympathy from Jacques Derrida. Historical materialism was defended as a coherent doctrine from the standpoint of analytic philosophy by G. A. Cohen. The interest in structure and agency sparked by Althusser was to play a role in Anthony Giddens's theory of structuration. Althusser was vehemently attacked by British historian E. P. Thompson in his book The Poverty of Theory. As well as this, several of Althusser's students became eminent intellectuals in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s: Alain Badiou and Étienne Balibar in philosophy, Jacques Ranciere in history and the philosophy of history, Pierre Macherey in literary criticism and Nicos Poulantzas in sociology. The prominent Guevarist Régis Debray also studied under Althusser.


  1. Template:Note The concept may be found in the text Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, published in English in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, available online here
  2. Template:Note Ibid., p.169-70


Althusser, Louis 3, 158-9

    ideological interpellation 141, 145,
       258, 260
    influence on others 127-8, 232
    overdetermination 102

See also


  • Althusser, Louis. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. (Online version)
  • Anderson, Perry, Considerations on Western Marxism
  • Callinicos, Alex (ed.), Althusser's Marxism (London: Pluto Press, 1976).
  • James, Susan, 'Louis Althusser' in Skinner, Q. (ed.) The Return of Grand Theory in the Human Sciences.
  • Waters, Malcolm, Modern Sociological Theory, 1994, page 116.
  • Lewis, William, "Louis Althusser and the Traditions of French Marxism." Lexington books, 2005. (link)

External links