Louis Althusser

From New World Encyclopedia

Western Philosophy
twentieth-century philosophy
Name: Louis Althusser
Birth: October 16, 1918 (Birmendreïs, Algeria)
Death: October 23, 1990 (Paris, France)
School/tradition: Marxism, Structuralism
Main interests
Politics, Economics, Ideology
Notable ideas
The 'Epistemological Break', Problematic, Overdetermination, Ideological State Apparatuses, Interpellation
Influences Influenced
Karl Marx, V. I. Lenin, Mao Zedong, Antonio Gramsci, Baruch de Spinoza, Georges Canguilhem, Gaston Bachelard, Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan Michel Foucault, Alain Badiou, Étienne Balibar, Judith Butler, Anthony Giddens, Perry Anderson

Louis Pierre Althusser (Pronunciation: altuˡseʁ) (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 its ideological foundations, including the influence of empiricism and a growing interest in humanistic and democratic socialist orientations. Althusser is commonly referred to as a Structural Marxist, although his relationship to other schools of French structuralism is not a simple affiliation.

Althusser believed that Marx’s theories had been incorrectly interpreted because they had been viewed as a single body of work, when in fact Marx had experienced an “epistemological break” which separated his later work from his earlier humanism. He declared that Marx had developed a ground-breaking historical theory which regarded the individual as a product of society, culture and “ideology.” He claimed that Marx analyzed society in terms of social and political units called “practices” rather than in terms of the individual. His ideas influenced a number of twenty-first century thinkers, including Jacques Derrida, G. A. Cohen, Anthony Giddens, Judith Butler, and Slavoj Žižek, and several of his students became eminent intellectuals.


Early Life

Most of the information about Althusser’s life comes from his two autobiographies, L'Avenir dure longtemps ("The Future Lasts a Long Time") published in America as "The Future Lasts Forever," in a single volume with Althusser's other, shorter, earlier autobiography, "The Facts."

Althusser was born October 16, 1918 in French Algeria in the town of Birmendreïs, to a pied-noirs (European-Algerian) family. He was named after his paternal uncle who had been killed in the First World War. According to Althusser, his mother had intended to marry this uncle, and married his father only because of the brother's demise. Althusser claimed that he suffered deep psychological damage because his mother treated him as a substitute for his deceased uncle.

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 during the run-up to World War Two, and like most French soldiers following the Fall of France, Althusser was interned in a German prisoner of war camp. Here, he came into contact with Jacques Martin, and became interested in Communism. 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; a circumstance which Althusser later regretted.


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

In 1946, Althusser met Hélène Rytman, a Lithuanian-Jewish revolutionary eight years older than him, who remained his companion until her murder, by Althusser, in 1980.

Formerly a devout, if left-wing, Roman Catholic, 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.

In 1956, at the Twentieth Party Congress, Nikita Khrushchev began the process of "de-Stalinization." 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, sympathizing instead with the criticisms made by the Communist Party of China, although 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 taking another path, which eventually led him to "random materialism" (matérialisme aléatoire), but this did not stop him from aggressively promoting orthodox Marxist thought to supposed "heretics," as he did in his 1973 answer to John Lewis.

Despite the involvement of many of his students in the protests and strikes of May 1968, which bought down the DeGaulle government in France, Althusser initially greeted these developments with silence. Later he followed the official French Communist Party line in describing the students as victims of "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 his later works demonstrated a significant shift in emphasis.


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

Thought and Works

Althusser's earlier works include the influential volume Reading Capital, a collection of the work of Althusser and his students on an intensive philosophical re-reading of Karl 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 somewhat 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 (the idea that a single observed effect is determined by multiple causes at once) from psychoanalysis, in order to replace the idea of "contradiction" with a more complex model of multiple causality in political situations. This idea is closely related to Antonio Gramsci's concept of hegemony). According to Gramsci, hegemony consists of socio-political power that flows from enabling the "spontaneous consent" of the populace through intellectual and moral leadership or authority, as employed by the subalterns of the State.

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 [1]. 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 have a meaningful concept of the self. These structures, for Althusser, are both agents of repression and inevitable, it is impossible not to be subjected to ideology.

The 'epistemological break'

It was Althusser's view that Marx's thought had been fundamentally misunderstood and underestimated. He fiercely condemned various interpretations of Marx’s works - historicism, idealism, economism - on the grounds that they had failed to realize that with the "science of history," historical materialism, Marx had constructed a revolutionary view of social change. Althusser believed that these misinterpretations resulted from the mistaken notion that Marx's entire body of work could be understood as a coherent whole. Instead, Althusser held that the work of Marx contains a radical "epistemological break." Though the early works are bound by the categories of German philosophy and classical political economy, The German Ideology (written in 1845) is a sudden and unprecedented departure which paves the way for Marx's later works.

The misunderstanding 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 in Marx’s thought can only be revealed by a careful and sensitive "symptomatic reading" of his works. It was Althusser's project to help the world 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." He compared Marx’s ideas on history to the contributions of Thales to mathematics, Galileo to physics or, Freud to psychoanalysis, claiming that the structure of his theory was unlike anything posited by his predecessors.

Althusser believed that underlying Marx's discovery was a ground-breaking epistemology centered on the rejection of the dichotomy between subject and object, which made his work incompatible with its antecedents. At the root of Marx’s “epistemological break” was a rejection of the idea, held by classical economists, that the needs of individuals could be treated as a fact or 'given,' independent of any form of economic organization, and could therefore serve as a premise for a theory explaining the character of a mode of production, and as an independent starting-point for a theory about society. According to Althusser, Marx did not simply argue that people's needs are largely created by their social environment and thus vary with time and place. Instead, Marx abandoned the very idea that there could be a theory about the essential nature of human beings that preceded any theory about how they come to be that way.

Althusser also believed that Marx's theory was built on concepts, such as forces and relations of production, that had no counterpart in classical political economy. Even when existing terms were 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 was significantly different from their conventional usage. Apart from its unique structure, the historical materialism had an explanatory power 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 and their roles in a structured whole. Althusser concluded that Capital provided 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 that Marx’s “epistemological break” existed, he later acknowledged that the occurrence of Marx’s turning point around 1845 was not clearly defined, because traces of humanism, historicism and Hegelianism were to be found in Capital. He noted that only Marx's Critique of the Gotha Programme [1] and some notes on a book by Adolph Wagner [2] were completely free from humanist ideology. 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 splits. They were scissional sciences because their objects, "class struggle" and the human unconscious mind, were themselves split and divided.


Because of Marx's belief in the close relation between the individual and society, Althusser believed it was pointless to try to build a social theory on a prior conception of the individual. The subject to be observed was not individual human elements, but rather 'structure.' According to Althusser, Marx did not explain society by appealing to one factor (individuals), but broke it up into related units called ‘practices.’ Althusser defended Marx’s historical materialism against the charge that it crudely posited a base and superstructure and then attempted to explain all aspects of the superstructure by appealing to features of the base, saying it was a mistake to attribute this view, based on economic determinism, to Marx. Just as Marx criticized the idea that a social theory can be founded on an historical conception of human needs, he dismissed 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 are dependent on the whole. The advantage of using practices over individuals as a starting point for analysis is that, although each practice is only a part of a complex whole of society, a practice is a whole in itself, consisting of various different kinds of parts; economic practice, for example, contained raw materials, tools, individual persons, and management policies, all united in a process of production. Althusser conceived of society as an interconnected collection of these wholes, economic practice, ideological practice and politico-legal practice, which together made up one complex whole. In his view, all practices are dependent on each other. For example, among the relations of production are the buying and selling of labor 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 that the reverse is also true.

Contradiction and overdetermination

An analysis in terms of interdependent practices helps us to conceive of how society is organized, but also allows us to comprehend social change and thus provides a theory of history. Althusser explained the reproduction of the relations of production by reference to aspects of ideological and political practice; conversely, the emergence of new production relations could be explained by the failure of these mechanisms. Marx’s theory seemed to posit a system in which an imbalance between two parts could lead to compensatory adjustments at other levels, or sometimes to a major reorganization of the whole. To develop this idea, Althusser relied on the concepts of “contradiction” and “non-contradiction,” which he claimed were 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 elaborated on these concepts by referring to Lenin’s analysis of the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Lenin posited that in spite of widespread discontent throughout Europe in the early twentieth 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 was explained in relation to two groups of circumstances: first, the existence within Russia of large-scale exploitation in cities, mining districts, disparity between urban industrialization and medieval conditions in the countryside, and lack of unity among the ruling class; second, 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 was 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. The differences between events in Russia and Western Europe showed that a contradiction between forces and relations of production may be necessary, but is not sufficient, to bring about revolution. The circumstances that produced revolution in Russia, were heterogeneous, and could not be regarded as aspects of one large contradiction. Each was a contradiction within a particular social totality. From this, Althusser drew the conclusion that Marx’s concept of contradiction was inseparable from the concept of a social whole. In order to emphasize that changes in social structure relate to numerous contradictions, Althusser described these changes as "overdetermined," taking a term which Sigmund Freud used to describe a situation in which a single observed effect is determined by multiple causes, any one of which might be able to account for the effect on its own. This interpretation accounts for how many different circumstances may play a part in the course of events, and explains how these states of affairs may combine to produce unexpected social changes, or ‘ruptures’.

However, Althusser did not give all the events that determine social changes the same causal status. While a part of a complex whole, economic practice was, in his view, a structure in dominance: it played a major part in determining the relations between other spheres, and had more effect on them than they had on it. The most prominent aspect of society (the religious aspect in feudal formations and the economic aspect in capitalist ones) was called the 'dominant instance', and was in turn determined 'in the last instance' by the economy. Althusser believed that the economic practice of a society determined which other aspect of it would dominate 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 himself or herself in this way is not innate, but acquired within the structure of established social practices, which imposes on individuals the role (forme) of a subject. Social practices both determine the characteristics of the individual and provide an idea of the range of properties they can have, and of the limits of each social practice. Althusser argued 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. Althusser proposed that human values, desires and preferences are inculcated 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 organizations and the education system, as well as the received ideas they propagate [2] There is, however, no one ISA that 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.

Despite its many institutional forms, the function and structure of ideology is unchanging and present throughout history; as Althusser's first thesis on ideology states, "ideology has no history." All ideologies constitute a subject, even though he or she may differ according to each particular ideology; each person’s idea of who he or she is, 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 on 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. [3]

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. In order for that person to identify herself as a Christian, she must first already be a subject of the “material ideology” of Christianity. People acquire their identities by seeing themselves and their social roles mirrored in material ideologies.


Although Althusser's theories were developed in an attempt to defend Communist orthodoxy, his endeavor to present Marxism as a form of structuralism reflected a move away from the intellectual isolation of the Stalinist era, and was symptomatic of Marxism's growing academic respectability and of a movement to emphasize 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: Interpellation has been popularized 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 attracted Jacques Derrida; historical materialism was defended as a coherent doctrine from the standpoint of analytic philosophy by Gerald A. Cohen; the interest in structure and agency sparked by Althusser played 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. [4]

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.

See also


  1. Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Toward an Investigation is available in several English volumes including Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays
  2. The concept may be found in the text Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, published in English in: Louis Althusser. 1972. Lenin and philosophy, and other essays. (New York: Monthly Review Press).
  3. Louis Althusser. 1972. Lenin and philosophy, and other essays. (New York: Monthly Review Press), 169-170
  4. E.P. Thompson. The Poverty of Theory and other Essays.(New York: Monthy Review Press, 1979.)

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Althusser, Louis. 1972. Lenin and philosophy, and other essays. New York: Monthly Review Press. ISBN 085345213X
  • Althusser, Louis, Olivier Corpet, and François Matheron. 1996. Writings on psychoanalysis Freud and Lacan. European perspectives. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0585041474
  • F erretter, Luke. 2006. Louis Althusser. (Routledge critical thinkers.) London: Routledge. ISBN 0415327318
  • Hansom, Paul. 2001. Twentieth-century European cultural theorists, First series. Dictionary of literary biography, v. 242. Detroit, MI: Gale Group. ISBN 0787646598
  • Kurzweil, Edith. 1980. The age of structuralism Lévi-Strauss to Foucault. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 023104920X
  • Lewis, William S. 2005. Louis Althusser and the traditions of French Marxism. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books. ISBN 0739109839
  • Montag, Warren. 2003. Louis Althusser. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0333918983
  • Thompson, E.P. The Poverty of Theory and other Essays. New York: Monthy Review Press. ISBN 0853454892

External links

All links retrieved November 3, 2022.

General Philosophy Sources


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