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Louis Althusser
Louis Pierre Althusser

(1918-10-16)16 October 1918
Birmendreïs, French Algeria
Died 22 October 1990(1990-10-22) (aged 72)
Paris, France
Alma mater
Notable work
  • For Marx (1965)
  • Reading Capital (1965)
  • "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" (1970)
Spouse(s) Hélène Rytmann (m. c. 1975; d. 1980)
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Western Marxism
Structural Marxism
Institutions École Normale Supérieure
Notable students
  • Jean-Luc Marion
Main interests
Notable ideas

Louis Pierre Althusser (UK: /ˌæltʊˈsɛər/, US: /ˌɑːltˈsɛər/; French: [altysɛʁ]; 16 October 1918 – 22 October 1990) was a French Marxist philosopher. He was born in Algeria and studied at the École normale supérieure in Paris, where he eventually became Professor of Philosophy.

Althusser was a long-time member and sometimes a strong critic of the French Communist Party (Parti communiste français, PCF). His arguments and theses were set against the threats that he saw attacking the theoretical foundations of Marxism. These included both the influence of empiricism on Marxist theory, and humanist and reformist socialist orientations which manifested as divisions in the European communist parties, as well as the problem of the cult of personality and of ideology. Althusser is commonly referred to as a structural Marxist, although his relationship to other schools of French structuralism is not a simple affiliation and he was critical of many aspects of structuralism.

Althusser's life was marked by periods of intense mental illness. In 1980, he killed his wife, the sociologist Hélène Rytmann. He was declared unfit to stand trial due to insanity and committed to a psychiatric hospital for three years. He did little further academic work, dying in 1990.


Early life: 1918–1948

Althusser was born in French Algeria in the town of Birmendreïs, near Algiers, to a pied-noir petit-bourgeois family from Alsace, France. His father, Charles-Joseph Althusser, was a lieutenant in the French army and a bank clerk, while his mother, Lucienne Marthe Berger, a devout Roman Catholic, worked as a schoolteacher. According to his own memoirs, his Algerian childhood was prosperous; historian Martin Jay said that Althusser, along with Albert Camus and Jacques Derrida, was "a product of the French colonial culture in Northern Africa." In 1930, his family moved to the French city of Marseille as his father was to be the director of the Compagnie Algérienne (Algerian Banking Company) branch in the city. Althusser spent the rest of his childhood there, excelling in his studies at the Lycée Saint-Charles [fr] and joining a scout group. A second displacement occurred in 1936 when Althusser settled in Lyon as a student at the Lycée du Parc. Later he was accepted by the highly regarded higher-education establishment (grande école) École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris. At the Lycée du Parc, Althusser was influenced by Catholic professors, joined the Catholic youth movement Jeunesse Étudiante Chrétienne, and wanted to be a Trappist. His interest in Catholicism coexisted with his communist ideology, and some critics argued that his early Catholic introduction affected the way he interpreted Karl Marx.

The Lycée du Parc, where Althusser studied for two years and was influenced by Catholic professors

After a two-year period of preparation (Khâgne) under Jean Guitton at the Lycée du Parc, Althusser was admitted into the ENS in July 1939. But his attendance was deferred by many years because he was drafted into the French Army in September of that year in the run-up to World War II and, like most French soldiers following the Fall of France, was captured by the Germans. Seized in Vannes in June 1940, he was held in a prisoner-of-war camp in Schleswig-Holstein, in Northern Germany, for the five remaining years of the war. In the camp, he was at first drafted to hard labour but ultimately reassigned to work in the infirmary after falling ill. This second occupation allowed him to read philosophy and literature. In his memoirs, Althusser described the experiences of solidarity, political action, and community in the camp as the moment he first understood the idea of communism. Althusser recalled: "It was in prison camp that I first heard Marxism discussed by a Parisian lawyer in transit—and that I actually met a communist". His experience in the camp also affected his lifelong bouts of mental instability, reflected in constant depression that lasted until the end of life. Psychoanalyst Élisabeth Roudinesco has argued that the absurd war experience was essential for Althusser's philosophical thought.

Althusser resumed his studies at the ENS in 1945 to prepare himself for the agrégation, an exam to teach philosophy in secondary schools. In 1946, Althusser met sociologist Hélène Rytmann, a Jewish former French Resistance member with whom he was in a relationship until he killed her in 1980. That same year, he started a close friendly relationship with Jacques Martin, a translator of G. W. F. Hegel and Herman Hesse. Martin, to whom Althusser dedicated his first book, would later die. Martin was influential on Althusser's interest on reading the bibliography of Jean Cavaillès, Georges Canguilhem and Hegel. Although Althusser remained a Catholic, he became more associated with left-wing groups, joining the "worker priests" movement and embracing a synthesis of Christian and Marxist thought. This combination may have led him to adopt German Idealism and Hegelian thought, as did Martin's influence and a renewed interest in Hegel in the 1930s and 1940s in France. In consonance, Althusser's master thesis to obtain his diplôme d'études supèrieures was "On Content in the Thought of G. W. F. Hegel" ("Du contenu dans la pensée de G. W. F. Hegel", 1947). Based on The Phenomenology of Spirit, and under Gaston Bachelard's supervision, Althusser wrote a dissertation on how Marx's philosophy refused to withdraw from the Hegelian master–slave dialectic. According to the researcher Gregory Elliott, Althusser was a Hegelian at that time but only for a short period.

Academic life and Communist Party affiliation: 1948–1959

Façade de l'École normale supérieure
The main entrance to the École Normale Supérieure on Rue d'Ulm, where Althusser established himself as well-known intellectual

In 1948, he was approved to teach in secondary schools but instead made a tutor at the ENS to help students prepare for their own agrégation. His performance on the exam—he was the best ranked on the writing part and second on the oral module—guaranteed this change on his occupation. He was responsible for offering special courses and tutorials on particular topics and on particular figures from the history of philosophy. In 1954, he became secrétaire de l'école litteraire (secretary of the literary school), assuming responsibilities for management and direction of the school. Althusser was deeply influential at the ENS because of the lectures and conferences he organized with participation of leading French philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Lacan. He also influenced a generation of French philosophers and French philosophy in general—among his students were Derrida, Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Foucault, and Michel Serres. In total, Althusser spent 35 years in the ENS, working there until November 1980.

Parallel to his academic life, Althusser joined the French Communist Party (Parti communiste français, PCF) in October 1948. In the early postwar years, the PCF was one of the most influential political forces and many French intellectuals joined it. Althusser himself declared, "Communism was in the air in 1945, after the German defeat, the victory at Stalingrad, and the hopes and lessons of the Resistance." Althusser was primarily active on the "Peace Movement" section and kept for a few years his Catholic beliefs; in 1949, he published in the L'Évangile captif (The captive gospel), the tenth book of the Jeunesse de l'Église (the youth wing of Church), an article on the historic situation of Catholicism in response to the question: "Is the good news preached to the men today?" In it, he wrote about the relationship between the Catholic Church and the labour movement, advocating at the same time for social emancipation and the Church "religious reconquest". There was mutual hostility between these two organizations—in the early 1950s, the Vatican prohibited Catholics from membership in the worker priests and left-wing movements—and it certainly affected Althusser since he firmly believed in this combination.

Initially afraid of joining the party because of ENS's opposition to communists, Althusser did so when he was made a tutor—when membership became less likely to affect his employment—and he even created at ENA the Cercle Politzer, a Marxist study group. Althusser also introduced colleagues and students to the party and worked closely with the communist cell of the ENS. But his professionalism made him avoid Marxism and Communism in his classes; instead, he helped students depending on the demands of their agrégation. In the early 1950s, Althusser distanced himself from his youthful political and philosophical ideals and from Hegel, whose teachings he considered a "bourgeois" philosophy. Starting from 1948, he studied history of philosophy and gave lectures on it; the first was about Plato in 1949. In 1949–1950, he gave a lecture about René Descartes, and wrote a thesis titled "Politics and Philosophy in the Eighteenth Century" and a small study on Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "Second Discourse". He presented the thesis to Jean Hyppolite and Vladimir Jankélévitch in 1950 but it was rejected. These studies were nonetheless valuable because Althusser later used them to write his book about Montesquieu's philosophy and an essay on Rousseau's The Social Contract. Indeed, his first and the only book-length study published during his lifetime was Montesquieu, la politique et l'histoire ("Montesquieu: Politics and History") in 1959. He also lectured on Rousseau from 1950 to 1955, and changed his focus to philosophy of history, also studying Voltaire, Condorcet, and Helvétius, which resulted in a 1955–1956 lecture on "Les problèmes de la philosophie de l'histoire". This course along with others on Machiavelli (1962), 17th- and 18th-century political philosophy (1965–1966), Locke (1971), and Hobbes (1971–1972) were later edited and released as a book by François Matheron in 2006. From 1953 to 1960, Althusser basically did not publish on Marxist themes, which in turn gave him time to focus on his teaching activities and establish himself as a reputable philosopher and researcher.

Major works, For Marx and Reading Capital: 1960–1968

Althusser resumed his Marxist-related publications in 1960 as he translated, edited, and published a collection directed by Hyppolite about Ludwig Feuerbach's works. The objective of this endeavour was to identify Feuerbach's influence on Marx's early writings, contrasting it with the absence of his thought on Marx's mature works. This work spurred him to write "On the Young Marx: Theoretical Questions" ("Sur le jeune Marx – Questions de théorie", 1961). Published in the journal La Pensée, it was the first in a series of articles about Marx that were later collected in his most famous book For Marx. He inflamed the French debate on Marx and Marxist philosophy, and gained a considerable number of supporters. Inspired by this recognition, he started to publish more articles on Marxist thought; in 1964, Althusser published an article titled "Freud and Lacan" in the journal La Nouvelle Critique, which greatly influenced the Freudo-Marxism thought. At the same time, he invited Lacan to a lecture on Baruch Spinoza and the fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis. The impact of the articles led Althusser to change his teaching style at the ENS, and he started to minister a series of seminars on the following topics: "On the Young Marx" (1961–1962), "The Origins of Structuralism" (1962–1963; it versed on Foucault's History of Madness, which Althusser highly appreciated), "Lacan and Psychoanalysis" (1963–1964), and Reading Capital (1964–1965). These seminars aimed for a "return to Marx" and were attended by a new generation of students.

For Marx (a collection of works published between 1961 and 1965) and Reading Capital (in collaboration with some of his students), both published in 1965, brought international fame to Althusser. Despite being criticized widely, these books made Althusser a sensation in French intellectual circles and one of the leading theoreticians of the PCF. He supported a structuralist view of Marx's work, influenced by Cavaillès and Canguilhem, affirming that Marx laid the "cornerstones" of a new science, incomparable to all non-Marxist thought, of which, from 1960 to 1966, he espoused the fundamental principles. Critiques were done to Stalin's cult of personality and Althusser defended what he called "theoretical anti-humanism", as an alternative to Stalinism and the Marxist humanism—both popular at the time. At mid-decade, his popularity grew to the point that it was virtually impossible to have an intellectual debate about political or ideological theoretical questions without mentioning his name. Althusser's ideas were influential enough to arouse the creation of a young militants group to dispute the power within the PCF. Nevertheless, the official position of the party was still Stalinist Marxism, which was criticized both from Maoist and humanist groups. Althusser was initially careful not to identify with Maoism but progressively agreed with its critique of Stalinism. At the end of 1966, Althusser even published an unsigned article titled "On the Cultural Revolution", in which he considered the beginning of the Chinese Cultural Revolution as "a historical fact without precedent" and of "enormous theoretical interest". Althusser mainly praised the non-bureaucratic, non-party, mass organizations in which, in his opinion, the "Marxist principles regarding the nature of the ideological' were fully applied.

Key events in the theoretical struggle took place in 1966. In January, there was a conference of communist philosophers in Choisy-le-Roi; Althusser was absent but Roger Garaudy, the official philosopher of the party, read an indictment that opposed the "theoretical anti-humanism". The controversy was the pinnacle of a long conflict between the supporters of Althusser and Garaudy. In March, in Argenteuil, the theses of Garaudy and Althusser were formally confronted by the PCF Central Committee, chaired by Louis Aragon. The Party decided to keep Garaudy's position as the official one, and even Lucien Sève—who was a student of Althusser at the beginning of his teaching at the ENS—supported it, becoming the closest philosopher to the PCF leadership. General secretary of the party, Waldeck Rochet said that "Communism without humanism would not be Communism". Even if he was not publicly censured nor expelled from the PCF, as were 600 Maoist students, the support of Garaudy resulted in a further reduction of Althusser's influence in the party.

Still in 1966, Althusser published in the Cahiers pour l'Analyse the article "On the 'Social Contract'" ("Sur le 'Contrat Social'"), a course about Rousseau he had given at the ENS, and "Cremonini, Painter of the Abstract" ("Cremonini, peintre de l'abstrait") about Italian painter Leonardo Cremonini. In the following year, he wrote a long article titled "The Historical Task of Marxist Philosophy" ("La tâche historique de la philosophie marxiste") that was submitted to the Soviet journal Voprossi Filosofii; it was not accepted but was published a year later in a Hungarian journal. In 1967–1968, Althusser and his students organized an ENS course titled "Philosophy Course for Scientists" ("Cours de philosophie pour scientifiques") that would be interrupted by May 1968 events. Some of the material of the course was reused in his 1974 book Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists (Philosophie et philosophie spontanée des savants). Another Althusser's significant work from this period was "Lenin and Philosophy", a lecture first presented in February 1968 at the French Society of Philosophy [fr].

May 1968, Eurocommunism debates, and auto-critique: 1968–1978

During May 68, the tumultuous events of May 1968 in France, Althusser was hospitalized because of a depressive breakdown and was absent from the Latin Quarter. Many of his students participated in the events, and Régis Debray in particular became an international celebrity revolutionary. Althusser's initial silence was met with criticism by the protesters, who wrote on walls: "Of what use is Althusser?" ("A quoi sert Althusser?"). Later, Althusser was ambivalent about it; on the one hand, he was not supportive of the movement and he criticized the movement as an "ideological revolt of the mass", adopting the PCF official argument that an "infantile disorder" of anarchistic utopianism that had infiltrated the student movement. On the other hand, he called it "the most significant event in Western history since the Resistance and the victory over Nazism" and wanted to reconcile the students and the PCF. Nevertheless, the Maoist journal La Cause du peuple called him a revisionist, and he was condemned by former students, mainly by Jacques Rancière. After it, Althusser went through a phase of "self-criticism" that resulted in the book Essays in Self-criticism (Éléments d'autocritique, 1974) in which he revisited some of his old positions, including his support of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

While Althusser was criticized in France by his former students, such as Jacques Rancière (right), his influence in Latin America grew, as exemplified by Marta Harnecker (left).

In 1969, Althusser started an unfinished work that was only released in 1995 as Sur la reproduction ("On the Reproduction"). However, from these early manuscripts, he developed "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses", which was published in the journal La Pensée in 1970, and became very influential on ideology discussions. In the same year, Althusser wrote "Marxism and Class Struggle" ("Marxisme et lutte de classe") that would be the foreword to the book The Basic Concepts of Historical Materialism of his former student, the Chilean Marxist sociologist Marta Harnecker. By this time, Althusser was very popular in Latin America: some leftist activists and intellectuals saw him almost as a new Marx, although his work has been the subject of heated debates and sharp criticism. As an example of this popularity, some of his works were first translated to Spanish than into English, and others were released in book format first in Spanish and then in French. At the turn from the 1960s to the 1970s, Althusser's major works were translated into English—For Marx, in 1969, and Reading Capital in 1970—disseminating his ideas among the English-speaking Marxists.

In the early 1970s, the PCF was, as most of European Communist parties, in a period of internal conflicts on strategic orientation that occurred against the backdrop of the emergence of Eurocommunism. In this context, Althusserian structuralist Marxism was one of the more or less defined strategic lines. Althusser participated in various public events of the PCF, most notably the public debate "Communists, Intellectuals and Culture" ("Les communistes, les intellectuels et la culture") in 1973. He and his supporters contested the party's leadership over its decision to abandon the notion of the "dictatorship of the proletariat" during its twenty-second congress in 1976. The PCF considered that in European condition it was possible to have a peaceful transition to socialism, which Althusser saw as "a new opportunistic version of Marxist Humanism". In a lecture given to the Union of Communist Students in the same year, he criticized above all the form in which this decision was taken. According to Althusser—echoing his notion of "French misery" exposed on For Marx—the party demonstrated a contempt for the materialist theory when it suppressed a "scientific concept". This struggle ultimately resulted in the debacle of the fraction "Union of the Left" and an open letter written by Althusser and five other intellectuals in which they asked for "a real political discussion in the PCF". That same year, Althusser also published a series of articles in the newspaper Le Monde under the title of "What Must Change in the Party". Published between 25 and 28 April, they were expanded and reprinted in May 1978 by François Maspero as the book Ce qui ne peut plus durer dans le parti communiste. Between 1977 and 1978, Althusser mainly elaborated texts criticizing Eurocommunism and the PCF. "Marx in his Limits" ("Marx dans ses limits"), an abandoned manuscript written in 1978, argued that there was no Marxist theory of the state; it was only published in 1994 in the Écrits philosophiques et politiques I. The Italian Communist newspaper Il manifesto allowed Althusser to develop new ideas on a conference held in Venice about "Power and Opposition in Post-Revolutionary Societies" in 1977. His speeches resulted into the articles "The Crisis of Marxism" ("La crisi del marxismo") and "Marxism as a 'finite' theory" in which he stressed "something vital and alive can be liberated by this crisis": the perception of Marxism as a theory that originally only reflected Marx's time and then needed to be completed by a state theory. The former was published as "Marxism Today" ("Marxismo oggi") in the 1978 Italian Enciclopedia Europea. The latter text was included in a book published in Italy, Discutere lo Stato, and he criticized the notion of "government party" and defended the notion of a revolutionary party "out of state".

During the 1970s, Althusser's institutional roles at the ENS increased but he still edited and published his and other works in the series Théorie, with François Maspero. Among the essays published, there was "Response to John Lewis", a 1973 reply of an English Communist's defence of Marxist Humanism. Two years later, he concluded his Doctorat d'État (State doctorate) in the University of Picardie Jules Verne and acquired the right to direct research on the basis of his previously published work. Some time after this recognition, Althusser married Hélène Rytmann. In 1976, he compiled several of his essays written between 1964 and 1975 to publish Positions. These years would be a period in which his work was very intermittent; he gave a conference titled "The Transformation of Philosophy" ("La transformation de la philosophie") in two Spanish cities, first Granada and then in Madrid, in March 1976. The same year he gave a lecture in Catalonia titled "Quelques questions de la crise de la théorie marxiste et du mouvement communiste international" ("Some Questions on the Crisis of Marxist Theory and the International Communist Movement") in which Althusser outlined empiricism as the main enemy of class struggle. He also started a rereading of Machiavelli that would influence his later work; he worked between 1975 and 1976 on "Machiavel et nous" ("Machiavelli and Us"), a draft, only published posthumously, based on a 1972 lecture, and also wrote for the National Foundation of Political Science a piece titled "Machiavelli's Solitude" ("Solitude de Machiavel", 1977). In Spring 1976, requested by Léon Chertok to write for the International Symposium on the Unconscious at Tbilisi, he drafted a presentation titled "The Discovery of Dr. Freud" ("La découverte du docteur Freud"). After sending it to Chertok and some friends, he was unsettled by the requested criticism he received by Jacques Nassif and Roudinesco, and then, by December, he wrote a new essay, "On Marx and Freud". He could not attend the event in 1979 and asked Chertok to replace the texts, but Chertok published the first without his consent. This would become a public "affair" in 1984 when Althusser finally noticed it by the time Chertok republished it in a book titled Dialogue franco-soviétique, sur la psychanalyse.

Killing of Rytmann and late years: 1978–1990

After the PCF and the left were defeated in the French legislative elections of 1978, Althusser's bouts of depression became more severe and frequent. In March 1980, Althusser interrupted the dissolution session of the École Freudienne de Paris, and, "in the name of the analysts", called Lacan a "beautiful and pitiful harlequin." Later, he went through a hiatal hernia-removal surgery as he had difficulties breathing while eating. According to Althusser himself, the operation caused his physical and mental state to deteriorate; in particular, he developed a persecution complex.

After the surgery, in May, he was hospitalized for most of the summer in a Parisian clinic. His condition did not improve, but in early October he was sent home. Upon returning, he wanted to get away from ENS and even proposed to buy Roudinesco's house. He and Rytmann were also convinced about the "human decline", and so he tried to talk to the Pope John Paul II through his former professor Jean Guitton. Most of the time, however, he and his wife spent locked in their ENS apartment. In the fall of 1980, Althusser's psychiatrist René Diatkine [fr], who by now was also treating Althusser's wife Hélène Rytmann, recommended that Althusser be hospitalized, but the couple refused.

On 16 November 1980, Althusser killed Rytmann in their ENS room. He himself reported the murder to the doctor in residence who contacted psychiatric institutions. Even before the police arrival, the doctor and the director of ENS decided to hospitalize him in the Sainte-Anne hospital and a psychiatric examination was conducted on him. Due to his mental state, Althusser was deemed to not understand the charges or the process to which he was to be submitted, so he remained at the hospital. The psychiatric assessment concluded he should not be criminally charged, based on article 64 of the French Penal Code, which stated that "there is neither crime nor delict where the suspect was in a state of dementia at the time of the action". The report said Althusser killed Rytmann in the course of an acute crisis of melancholy, without even realizing it. As a result, he lost his civil rights, entrusted to a representative of the law, and he was forbidden to sign any documents. In February 1981, the court ruled Althusser as having been mentally irresponsible when he committed the murder, therefore he could not be prosecuted and was not charged. Nonetheless, a warrant of confinement was subsequently issued by the Paris police prefecture; the Ministry of National Education mandated his retirement from the ENS; and the ENS requested his family and friends to clear out his apartment. In June, he was transferred to the L'Eau-Vive clinic at Soisy-sur-Seine.

The crime seriously tarnished Althusser's reputation. As Roudinesco wrote, from 1980, he lived his life as a "specter, a dead man walking". Althusser was forced to live in various public and private clinics until 1983, when he became a voluntary patient. He was able to start an untitled manuscript during this time, in 1982; it was later published as "The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter" ("Le courant souterrain du matérialisme de la rencontre"). From 1984 to 1986, he stayed at an apartment in the north of Paris, where he remained confined most of his time, but he also received visits from some friends, such as philosopher and theologian Stanislas Breton, who had also been a prisoner in the German stalags; from Guitton, who converted him into a "mystic monk" in Roudinesco's words; and from Mexican philosopher Fernanda Navarro during six months, starting from the winter of 1984. Althusser and Navarro exchanged letters until February 1987, and he also wrote a preface in July 1986 for the resulting book, Filosofía y marxismo, a collection of her interviews with Althusser that was released in Mexico in 1988. These interviews and correspondence were collected and published in France in 1994 as Sur la philosophie. In this period he formulated his "materialism of the encounter" or "aleatory materialism", talking to Breton and Navarro about it, that first appeared in Écrits philosophiques et politiques I (1994) and later in the 2006 Verso book Philosophy of the Encounter. In 1987, after Althusser underwent an emergency operation because of the obstruction of the esophagus, he developed a new clinical case of depression. First brought to the Soisy-sur-Seine clinic, he was transferred to the psychiatric institution MGEN in La Verrière. There, following a pneumonia contracted during the summer, he died of a heart attack on 22 October 1990.

Personal life

Mental condition

Althusser underwent psychiatric hospitalisations throughout his life, the first time after receiving a diagnosis of schizophrenia. He suffered from bipolar disorder, and because of it he had frequent bouts of depression that started in 1938 and became regular after his five-year stay in German captivity. From the 1950s onward, he was under constant medical supervision, often undergoing, in Lewis' words, "the most aggressive treatments post-war French psychiatry had to offer". Althusser did not limit himself to prescribed medications and practised self-medication. The disease affected his academic productivity; in 1962, he began to write a book about Machiavelli during a depressive exacerbation but was interrupted by a three-months stay in a clinic. The main psychoanalyst he attended was the anti-Lacanian René Diatkine, starting from 1964, after he had a dream about killing his own sister. The sessions became more frequent in January 1965, and the real work of exploring the unconscious was launched in June. Soon Althusser recognized the positive side of non-Lacanian psychoanalysis; although sometimes tried to ridicule Diatkine giving him lessons in Lacanianism, by July 1966, he considered the treatment was producing "spectacular results". In 1976, Althusser estimated that he had spent fifteen of the previous thirty years in hospitals and psychiatric clinics.

Althusser analysed the prerequisites of his illness with the help of psychoanalysis and found them in complex relationships with his family (he devoted to this topic half of the autobiography). Althusser believed that he did not have a genuine "I", which was caused by the absence of real maternal love and the fact that his father was emotionally reserved and virtually absent for his son. Althusser deduced the family situation from the events before his birth, as told to him by his aunt: Lucienne Berger, his mother, was to marry his father's brother, Louis Althusser, who died in World War I near Verdun, while Charles, his father, was engaged with Lucienne's sister, Juliette. Both families followed the old custom of the levirate, which obliged an older, still unmarried, brother to wed the widow of a deceased younger brother. Lucienne then married Charles, and the son was named after the deceased Louis. In Althusser's memoirs, this marriage was "madness", not so much because of the tradition itself, but because of the excessive submission, as Charles was not forced to marry Lucienne since his younger brother had not yet married her. As a result, Althusser concluded, his mother did not love him, but loved the long-dead Louis. His "feeling of fathomless solitude" could only be mitigated by communicating with his mother's parents who lived in Morvan. His relationship with his mother and the desire to deserve her love, in his memoirs, largely determined his adult life and career, including his admission to the ENS and his desire to become a "well-known intellectual". According to his autobiography, ENS was for Althusser a kind of refuge of intellectual "purity" from the big "dirty" world that his mother was so afraid of.

The facts of his autobiography have been critically evaluated by researchers. According to its own editors, L'avenir dure longtemps is "an inextricable tangle of 'facts' and 'phantasies'". His friend and biographer Yann Moulier-Boutang [fr], after a careful analysis of the early period of Althusser's life, concluded that the autobiography was "a re-writing of a life through the prism of its wreckage". Moulier-Boutang believed that it was Rytmann who played a key role in creating a "fatalistic" account of the history of the Althusser family, largely shaping his vision in a 1964 letter. According to Elliott, the autobiography produces primarily an impression of "destructiveness and self-destructiveness". Althusser, most likely, postdated the beginning of his depression to a later period (post-war), having not mentioned earlier manifestations of the disease in school and in the concentration camp. According to Moulier-Boutang, Althusser had a close psychological connection with Georgette from an early age, and although he did not often mention it in his autobiography, her "nervous illness" may have tracked his own. His sister also had depression, and despite their living separately from each other for almost their entire adult lives, their depression often coincided in time. Also, Althusser focused on describing family circumstances, not considering, for example, the influence of ENS on his personality. Moulier-Boutang connected the depression not only with events in his personal life, but also with political disappointments.


Althusser's earlier works include the influential volume Reading Capital (1965), which collects the work of Althusser and his students in an intensive philosophical rereading of Marx's Capital. The book reflects on the philosophical status of Marxist theory as a "critique of political economy", and on its object. Althusser would later acknowledge that many of the innovations in this interpretation of Marx attempt to assimilate concepts derived from Baruch Spinoza into Marxism. The original English translation of this work includes only the essays of Althusser and Étienne Balibar, while the original French edition contains additional contributions from Jacques Rancière, Pierre Macherey, and Roger Establet. A full translation was published in 2016.

Several of Althusser's theoretical positions have remained influential in Marxist philosophy. His essay "On the Materialist Dialectic" proposes a great "epistemological break" between Marx's early writings (1840–45) and his later, properly Marxist texts, borrowing a term from the philosopher of science Gaston Bachelard. 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 cultural hegemony).

Althusser is also widely known as a theorist of ideology. His best-known essay, "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Toward an Investigation", establishes the concept of ideology. Althusser's theory of ideology draws on Marx and Gramsci, but also on Freud's and Lacan's psychological concepts of the unconscious and mirror-phase respectively, and describes the structures and systems that enable the concept of self. For Althusser, these structures are both agents of repression and inevitable: it is impossible to escape ideology and avoid being subjected to it. On the other hand, the collection of essays from which "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" is drawn contains other essays which confirm that Althusser's concept of ideology is broadly consistent with the classic Marxist theory of class struggle.

Althusser's thought evolved during his lifetime. It has been the subject of argument and debate, especially within Marxism and specifically concerning his theory of knowledge (epistemology).

Epistemological break

Althusser argues that Marx's thought has been fundamentally misunderstood and underestimated. He fiercely condemns various interpretations of Marx's works—historicism, idealism and economism—on grounds that they fail to realize that with the "science of history", historical materialism, Marx has constructed a revolutionary view of social change. Althusser believes these errors result from the notion that Marx's entire body of work can be understood as a coherent whole. Rather, Marx's thought contains a radical "epistemological break". Although the works of the young Marx are bound by the categories of German philosophy and classical political economy, The German Ideology (written in 1845) makes a sudden and unprecedented departure. This break represents a shift in Marx's work to a fundamentally different "problematic", i.e., a different set of central propositions and questions posed, a different theoretical framework. Althusser believes that Marx himself did not fully comprehend the significance of his own work, and was able to express it only obliquely and tentatively. The shift can be revealed only by a careful and sensitive "symptomatic reading". Thus, Althusser's project is to help readers fully grasp the originality and power of Marx's extraordinary theory, giving as much attention to what is not said as to the explicit. Althusser holds that Marx has discovered a "continent of knowledge", History, analogous to the contributions of Thales to mathematics or Galileo to physics, in that the structure of his theory is unlike anything posited by his predecessors.

Althusser believes that Marx's work is fundamentally incompatible with its antecedents because it is built on a groundbreaking epistemology (theory of knowledge) that rejects the distinction between subject and object. In opposition to empiricism, Althusser claims that Marx's philosophy, dialectical materialism, counters the theory of knowledge as vision with a theory of knowledge as production. On the empiricist view, a knowing subject encounters a real object and uncovers its essence by means of abstraction. On the assumption that thought has a direct engagement with reality, or an unmediated vision of a "real" object, the empiricist believes that the truth of knowledge lies in the correspondence of a subject's thought to an object that is external to thought itself. By contrast, Althusser claims to find latent in Marx's work a view of knowledge as "theoretical practice". For Althusser, theoretical practice takes place entirely within the realm of thought, working upon theoretical objects and never coming into direct contact with the real object that it aims to know. Knowledge is not discovered, but rather produced by way of three "Generalities": (I) the "raw material" of pre-scientific ideas, abstractions and facts; (II) a conceptual framework (or "problematic") brought to bear upon these; and (III) the finished product of a transformed theoretical entity, concrete knowledge. In this view, the validity of knowledge does not lie in its correspondence to something external to itself. Marx's historical materialism is a science with its own internal methods of proof. It is therefore not governed by interests of society, class, ideology, or politics, and is distinct from the superstructure.

In addition to its unique epistemology, 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—for example, the theory of surplus value, which combines David Ricardo's concepts of rent, profit, and interest—their meaning and relation to other concepts in the theory is significantly different. However, more fundamental to Marx's "break" is a rejection of homo economicus, or the idea held by the classical economists that the needs of individuals can be treated as a fact or "given" independent of any economic organization. For the classical economists, individual needs can 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. Where classical political economy explains economic systems as a response to individual needs, Marx's analysis accounts for a wider range of social phenomena in terms of the parts they play in a structured whole. Consequently, Marx's Capital has greater explanatory power than does political economy because it provides both a model of the economy and a description of the structure and development of a whole society. In Althusser's view, Marx does not merely argue that human needs are largely created by their social environment and thus vary with time and place; rather, he abandons the very idea that there can be a theory about what people are like that is prior to any theory about how they come to be that way.

Although Althusser insists that there was an epistemological break, he later states that its occurrence around 1845 is not clearly defined, as traces of humanism, historicism, and Hegelianism are found in Capital. He states that only Marx's Critique of the Gotha Programme and some marginal notes on a book by Adolph Wagner are fully free from humanist ideology. In line with this, Althusser replaces his earlier definition of Marx's philosophy as the "theory of theoretical practice" with a new belief in "politics in the field of history" and "class struggle in theory". Althusser considers the epistemological break to be a process instead of a clearly defined event — the product of incessant struggle against ideology. Thus, the distinction between ideology and science or philosophy is not assured once and for all by the epistemological break.


Because of Marx's belief that the individual is a product of society, Althusser holds that it is 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 sees it, Marx does not explain society by appealing to the properties of individual persons—their beliefs, desires, preferences, and judgements. Rather, Marx defines society as a set of fixed "practices". Individuals are not actors who make their own history, but are instead the "supports" (Träger) of these practices.

Althusser uses this analysis to defend Marx's historical materialism against the charge that it crudely posits a base (economic level) and superstructure (culture/politics) "rising upon it" and then attempts to explain all aspects of the superstructure by appealing to features of the (economic) base (the well known architectural metaphor). For Althusser, it is a mistake to attribute this economic determinist view to Marx. Just as Althusser criticises the idea that a social theory can be founded on an historical conception of human needs, so does he reject the idea that economic practice can be used in isolation to explain other aspects of society. Althusser believes that the base and the superstructure are interdependent, although he keeps to the classic Marxist materialist understanding of the determination of the base "in the last instance" (albeit with some extension and revision). The advantage of practices over human 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 a number of 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. Although each practice has a degree of relative autonomy, together they make up one complex, structured whole (social formation). In his view, all practices are dependent on each other. For example, among the relations of production of capitalist societies are the buying and selling of labour power by capitalists and workers respectively. 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. For him this was the moment of reproduction and constituted the important role of the superstructure.

Contradiction and overdetermination

An analysis understood in terms of interdependent practices helps us to conceive of how society is organized, but also permits 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 reorganization 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 despite 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. In his words, it was the "weakest link in a chain of imperialist states". He explained the revolution in relation to two groups of circumstances: firstly, the existence within Russia of large-scale exploitation in cities, mining districts, etc., a disparity between urban industrialization and medieval conditions in the countryside, and a 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.

For Althusser, this example reinforces his claim that Marx's explanation of social change is more complex than the result of a single contradiction between the forces and the relations of production. 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 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 concludes that Marx's concept of contradiction is inseparable from the concept of a complex structured social whole. To emphasize that changes in social structures relate to numerous contradictions, Althusser describes these changes as "overdetermined", using a term taken from Sigmund Freud. This interpretation allows us to account for the way in which many different circumstances may play a part in the course of events, and how these circumstances may combine to produce unexpected social changes or "ruptures".

However, Althusser does not mean to say that the events that determine social changes all have the same causal status. While a part of a complex whole, economic practice is 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 formations) 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 formation of that society dominates the society as a whole.

Althusser's understanding of contradiction in terms of the dialectic attempts to rid Marxism of the influence and vestiges of Hegelian (idealist) dialectics, and is a component part of his general anti-humanist position. In his reading, the Marxist understanding of social totality is not to be confused with the Hegelian. Where Hegel sees the different features of each historical epoch – its art, politics, religion, etc. – as expressions of a single essence, Althusser believes each social formation to be "decentred", i.e., that it cannot be reduced or simplified to a unique central point.

Ideological state apparatuses

Because Althusser held that a person's desires, choices, intentions, preferences, judgements, and so forth are the effects of social practices, he believed it necessary to conceive of how society makes the individual in its own image. Within capitalist societies, the human individual is generally regarded as a subject—a self-conscious, "responsible" agent whose actions can be explained by their beliefs and thoughts. For Althusser, a person's capacity to perceive themselves 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 them an idea of the range of properties they can have, and of the limits of each individual. 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. Ideological practice consists of an assortment of institutions called "ideological state apparatuses" (ISAs), which include the family, the media, religious organizations, and most importantly in capitalist societies, the education system, as well as the received ideas that they propagate. No single ISA produces in us the belief that we are self-conscious agents. Instead, we derive 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 states, "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 "hailing" or "interpellation". He compares ideology to a policeman shouting "Hey you there!" toward a person walking on the street. Upon hearing this call, the person responds by turning around and in doing so, is transformed into a subject. The person being hailed recognizes themselves as the subject of the hail, and knows to respond. Althusser calls this recognition a "mis-recognition" (méconnaissance), because it works retroactively: a material individual is always already an ideological subject, even before he or she is born. The "transformation" of an individual into a subject has always already happened; Althusser here acknowledges a debt to Spinoza's theory of immanence.

To highlight this, Althusser offers the example of Christian religious ideology, embodied in the Voice of God, instructing a person on what their place in the world is and what he must do to be reconciled with Christ. From this, Althusser draws the point that in order for that person to identify as a Christian, he must first already be a subject; that is, by responding to God's call and following His rules, he affirms himself as a free agent, the author of the acts for which he assumes responsibility. We cannot recognize ourselves outside ideology, and in fact, our very actions reach out to this overarching structure. Althusser's theory draws heavily from Jacques Lacan and his concept of the Mirror Stage—we acquire our identities by seeing ourselves mirrored in ideologies.

Aleatory materialism

In various short papers drafted from 1982 to 1986 and published posthumously, Althusser is critical of the relation of Marxist science to the philosophy of dialectical materialism and materialist philosophy in general. Althusser rejects dialectical materialism and introduces a new concept: the Philosophy of the Encounter, renamed Aleatory Materialism in 1986. To develop this idea, Althusser holds that there exists an “underground” or barely recognized philosophical current of Aleatory Materialism, articulated by Marx, Democritus, Epicurus, Lucretius, Machiavelli, Spinoza, Hobbes, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Derrida.

He argues that it was an idealist and teleological mistake to think that there are general laws of history and that social relations are determined in the same manner as physical relations. Emphasising the role of contingency in history over laws of development he states that reconstructed historical materialism has as its object complex historical singularities or conjunctures, The conjuncture is the pivotal point, where political practice may intervene, and Aleatory Materialism is a materialist philosophy to understand this conjuncture.


Since his death, the reassessment of Althusser's work and influence has been ongoing. The first wave of retrospective critiques and interventions ("drawing up a balance sheet") began outside of Althusser's own country, France, because, as Étienne Balibar pointed out in 1988, "there is an absolute taboo now suppressing the name of this man and the meaning of his writings." Balibar's remarks were made at the "Althusserian Legacy" Conference organized at Stony Brook University by Michael Sprinker. The proceedings of this conference were published in September 1992 as the Althusserian Legacy and included contributions from Balibar, Alex Callinicos, Michele Barrett, Alain Lipietz, Warren Montag, and Gregory Elliott, among others. It also included an obituary and an extensive interview with Derrida.

Eventually, a colloquium was organized in France at the University of Paris VIII by Sylvain Lazarus on May 27, 1992. The general title was Politique et philosophie dans l'oeuvre de Louis Althusser, the proceedings of which were published in 1993.

In retrospect, Althusser's continuing influence can be seen through his students. A dramatic example of this points to the editors and contributors of the 1960s journal Cahiers pour l'Analyse: "In many ways, the 'Cahiers' can be read as the critical development of Althusser's own intellectual itinerary when it was at its most robust." This influence continues to guide much philosophical work, as many of these same students became eminent intellectuals in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s: Alain Badiou, Étienne Balibar and Jacques Rancière in philosophy, Pierre Macherey in literary criticism and Nicos Poulantzas in sociology. The prominent Guevarist Régis Debray also studied under Althusser, as did the aforementioned Derrida (with whom he at one time shared an office at the ENS), noted philosopher Michel Foucault, and the pre-eminent Lacanian psychoanalyst Jacques-Alain Miller.

Badiou has lectured and spoken on Althusser on several occasions in France, Brazil, and Austria since Althusser's death. Badiou has written many studies, including "Althusser: Subjectivity without a Subject", published in his book Metapolitics in 2005. Most recently, Althusser's work has been given prominence again through the interventions of Warren Montag and his circle; see for example the special issue of borderlands e-journal edited by David McInerney (Althusser & Us) and "Décalages: An Althusser Studies Journal", edited by Montag. (See "External links" below for access to both of these journals.)

In 2011 Althusser continued to spark controversy and debate with the publication in August of that year of Jacques Rancière's first book, Althusser's Lesson (1974). It marked the first time this groundbreaking work was to appear in its entirety in an English translation. In 2014, On the Reproduction of Capitalism was published, which is an English translation of the full text of the work from which the ISAs text was drawn.

The publication of Althusser's posthumous memoir cast some doubt on his own scholarly practices. For example, although he owned thousands of books, Althusser revealed that he knew very little about Kant, Spinoza, and Hegel. While he was familiar with Marx's early works, he had not read Capital when he wrote his own most important Marxist texts. Additionally, Althusser had "contrived to impress his first teacher, the Catholic theologian Jean Guitton, with a paper whose guiding principles he had simply filched from Guitton's own corrections of a fellow student's essay," and "he concocted fake quotations in the thesis he wrote for another major contemporary philosopher, Gaston Bachelard."

See also

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