Louis Althusser

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Louis Pierre Althusser (16 October 1918 - 23 October 1990)

An Algerian-born Marxist philosopher, Althusser in 1937 joined the Catholic youth movement Jeunesse Etudiante Chrétienne and did well in school. However, he became one of many French soldiers who were interned in a German prisoner of war (POW) camp. It was while a prisoner that he met Jacques Martin and became interested in communism. To his later regret, he said he should have joined other of his contemporaries who escaped to fight again whereas he remained content as a prisoner.

In 1947, following the war, he was in poor health, mentally and physically, and received electroconvulsive therapy, after which he suffered from periodic mental illness for the rest of his life. The Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS), where he studied and at which he later became a professor of philosophy, was sympathetic, 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.

A proponent of the French Communist Party, which he joined in 1948, he developed views about the influence of empiricism and how that was influencing Marxist economics as well as sociology.

Developing His Outlook

Termed a structural Marxist by some, he tried reconciling Marxism with structuralism and has been called the foremost advocate of modern structuralism and the main proponent of the idea that the “mature Marx” made a fundamental break with the romantic “humanism” of the “young Marx.”

As a party member who aligned himself with the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR), he joined such other intellectuals as Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist who had fought in the Resistance, and his associate in Les Temps Moderne, the former phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

In 1945 the French Communist Party, Parti Communiste Français (PCF), won some 25 percent of the vote in the first post-War election, and in 1946 took part in the Fourth Republic’s first government. After May 1947, when the PCF was dismissed from the Cabinet as the “Cold War” got under way, the PCF did not participate in any administration, though it won up to one-third and on average a quarter of the vote till 1968.

The post-war mood that lent existentialism its appeal faded when economic recovery set in, and in the boom-period of the 1960s it was replaced by a new vogue called structuralism, the scientific pretensions of which better suited a technological age. Structuralism became an intellectual fashion in the 1960s in France, Roman Jakobson’s linguistic structuralism, Roland Barthes’ structuralist literary criticism, and Lévi-Strauss’s anthropological structuralism enjoyed widespread interest.

Althusser and his student Michel Foucault were also regarded as representatives of this current. The structuralists stressed the persistence of "deep structures" that underlie all human cultures, leaving little room for either historical change or human initiative.

Starting from Marx’s criticism of empiricism, Althusser rejected the positive content of empirical knowledge entirely. Althusser asserted that Essence is not to be found in Appearance but must be discovered through "theoretical practice" - "history features in [Marx’s] Capital as an object of theory, not as a real object, as an "abstract" (conceptual) object and not as a real-concrete object".

Thus, as in Kant, the "real" history lies in a "beyond," behind the "theory of history," which is the only true object of knowledge. Althusser further rejects the concept of contradiction in Marx and Hegel, which he sees in structuralist terms as "over-determination."

Althusser saw the early chapters of Marx’s Capital not as a key, but a barrier to understanding Marx’s view of capitalist society, advising readers to begin Capital with Part II. Althusser thus arrives not at a revision, but at a complete negation of Marx. On Marx is the earliest work in which his criticism of Marx is put forward. His most influential works include For Marx (1965) and Lenin and Philosophy (1969), including his article on “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.”

Marx’s humanism he viewed as a temporary, Feuerbachian phase, surpassed by commitment to the scientific observation of the structure of bourgeois society.

At the same time, "Eurocommunism" became the trend among European communist parties during the 1970s and ’80s, moving toward independence from Soviet Communist Party, basing policies instead on social forces within their own country. This tendency was encouraged by the decline in support Stalinist Parties commanded from the 1950s, the continued failure of Stalin’s regime to resolve the problems of the USSR, the repression of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 alienated many communists in the Western countries and was encouraged by the example of Tito’s Yugoslavia from 1948 on.

The term Eurocommunism was coined in the mid-1970s and received wide publicity after the publication of Eurocommunism and the State (1977) by the Spanish Stalinist leader Santiago Carrillo.

By the 1970s structuralism began to give way to a cluster of doctrines loosely labeled "post-structuralist," each variety identified with its own master-thinker: Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan.


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 both of Marxism's growing academic respectability and of a push toward emphasising Marx's legacy as a philosopher rather than as an economist.

Althusser has had broad influence in the areas of Marxist philosophy and post-structuralism [[1]] : Interpellation has been popularised and adapted by the feminist philosopher and critic Judith Butler; the concept of Ideological State Apparatuses has been of interest to Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek; 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 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, as did the pre-eminent Lacanian psychoanalyst Jacques-Alain Miller.

Dr. Sam Vaknin, in Althusser - A Critique: Competing Interpellations and the Third Text, states that with the exception of Nietzsche, no other madman has contributed so much to human sanity as has Louis Althusser. Vaknin received his doctorate, majoring in the philosophy of physics, at Pacific Western University in California.

Althusser's accout of Marx's concept of the problematic and its insistence on the relative autonomy of the sciences, helped as an antidote to extreme forms of Hegelian Marxism, but according to the University of Kent's David McLellan in Canterbury, contains severe weaknesses

  • which have been re-emphasized by the superficiality of his approach revealed in his autobiography. Its status as an interpretation of what Marx actually said is dubious; since any recourse to a real object is ruled out, it is difficult to see what the criterion of scientificity could be; and, finally, since the science of dialectical materialism is cut off from the social formation, Althusser can offer no satifactory account of the relation of theory to practice OCP.

(See G. Elliott's Althusser: The Detour of Theory (1987); and E. P. Thompson's The Poverty of Theory (1978).

Final Days

Althusser, remembered for his anti-humanist interpretation of Marx, murdered his wife by strangling her in 1980 and was confined to an asylum until his death in 1990. Curtis White, in The Future Lasts Forever, attempts to explain, clinically, why the manic depressive Althusser killed Helene, his wife.