Louis Pierre Althusser (Pronunciation: altuˡseʁ) (October 16, 1918 – October 22, 1990) was a 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 lifelong member and sometimes strong critic of the French Communist Party. 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 itself.
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 is critical of many aspects of structuralism.
Althusser was born in French Algeria in the town of Birmendreïs, near Algiers, to a pied-noirs family. He was named after his paternal uncle who had been killed in the First World War. Althusser alleged that his mother had intended to marry his uncle and married his father only because of the brother's demise. Althusser also alleges that his mother treated him as a substitute for his deceased uncle, to which he attributed deep psychological damage.
Following the death of his father, Althusser moved from Algiers with his mother and younger sister to Marseilles, where he spent the rest of his childhood. He joined the Catholic youth movement Jeunesse Etudiante Chrétienne in 1937. Althusser performed brilliantly at school at the Lycée du Parc in Lyon and was accepted to the elite École normale supérieure (ENS) in Paris. However, he found himself enlisted in the run-up to World War II, and like most French soldiers following the Fall of France Althusser was interned in a German POW camp. Here, his move towards Communism was to begin. He was relatively content as a prisoner, and remained in the camp for the rest of the war, unlike many of his contemporaries who escaped to fight again—for this, Althusser later had reason to chastise himself.
Formerly a devout, if left-wing, Roman Catholic, Althusser joined the French Communist Party (PCF) in 1948, a time when others such as Merleau-Ponty were losing sympathy for the party. That same year, Althusser passed the agrégation in philosophy with a dissertation on Hegel, which allowed him to become a tutor at the ENS.
Despite the involvement of many of his students in the events of May 1968, Althusser initially greeted these developments with silence. He was later to parallel the official PCF line in describing the students as victim to "infantile" leftism. As a result, Althusser was attacked by many former supporters. In response to these criticisms, he revised some of his positions, claiming that his earlier writings contained mistakes, and a significant shift in emphasis was seen in his later works.
Several of Althusser's theoretical positions have remained very influential in Marxist philosophy. The introduction to his collection For Marx 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 hegemony).
Althusser is also widely known as a theorist of ideology, and his best-known essay is Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Toward an Investigation. The essay establishes the concept of ideology. Althusser's theory of ideology, as well as Marx, draws on Freud's and Lacan's concepts of the unconscious and mirror-phase respectively, and describes the structures and systems that enable the concept of the self. These structures, for Althusser, are both agents of repression and inevitable - it is impossible to escape ideology; to not be subjected to it.
It should be noted that Althusser's thought went through an evolution in his lifetime, and has been the subject of argument and debate, especially within Marxism and specifically concerning his theory of knowledge (epistemology).
It was Althusser's contention that Marx's thought had been fundamentally misunderstood and underestimated. He fiercely condemned various interpretations of his works - historicism idealism, economism - on the grounds that they had failed to realise that with the "science of history", historical materialism, Marx had constructed a revolutionary view of social change. These errors, he believed, resulted from the notion that Marx's entire body of work could be understood as a coherent whole. Rather, Althusser held, it contains a radical "epistemological break". Though the works of the young Marx are bound by the categories of German philosophy and classical political economy, with The German Ideology (written in 1845) there is a sudden and unprecedented departure, which represents a shift to a fundamentally different "problematic", i.e. a different theoretical framework, set of questions posed and central propositions. The problem (according to Althusser) is compounded by the fact that even Marx himself did not fully comprehend the significance of his own work, being only able to communicate it obliquely and tentatively. The shift can only be revealed by way of a careful and sensitive "symptomatic reading. Thus, it is Althusser's project to help us fully grasp the originality and power of Marx's extraordinary theory, giving as much attention to what is not said as to the explicit. He held that Marx had discovered a "continent of knowledge", History, analogous to the contributions of Thales to mathematics, Galileo to physics or, better, Freud's psychoanalysis, in that the structure of his theory is unlike anything posited by his predecessors.
Althusser believed that underlying Marx's discovery was a ground-breaking epistemology centred on the rejection of the distinction between subject and object, which makes Marx's work incompatible with its antecedents. In opposition to empiricism, Althusser claims that Marx's philosophy, dialectical materialism, countered 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.. This theoretical practice produces knowledge by means 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; III, the finished product of a transformed theoretical entity, concrete knowledge. On this view, the validity of knowledge is not guaranteed by its correspondence to something external to itself; because Marx's historical materialism is a science, it contains its own internal methods of proof. It is therefore not governed by interests of society, class, ideology or politics, and is distinct from the economic 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 - such as the combination of David Ricardo's notions of rent, profit and interest through the theory of surplus value - their meaning and relation to other concepts in the theory is significantly different. Furthermore, historical materialism's explanatory power is unlike that of classical political economy; whereas political economy explained economic systems as a response to individual needs, Marx's analysis accounted for a wider range of social phenomena in terms of the parts they play in a structured whole. Consequently, Marx's Capital provides both a model of the economy and a description of the structure and development of a whole society. More fundamental to Marx's 'break', however, 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 organisation, 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. In Althusser's view, Marx did not simply argue that people's needs are largely created by their social environment and thus vary with time and place; rather, he abandoned the very idea that there could be a theory about what people are like which was prior to any theory about how they come to be that way.
Though Althusser steadfastly held onto the claim of its existence, he later asserted that the turning point's occurrence around 1845 was not so clearly defined, as traces of humanism, historicism and Hegelianism were to be found in Capital. He even went so far as to state that only Marx's Critique of the Gotha Programme and some marginal notes on a book by Adolph Wagner were fully free from humanist ideology. In line with this, Althusser replaced his earlier defintion of Marx's philosophy as the "theory of theoretical practice" with a new belief in the existence of "politics in the field of history and "class stuggle in theory. Althusser considered the epistemological break to be a process instead of a clearly defined event, the product of incessant struggle against ideology. The distinction between ideology and science or philosophy is thus not assured once and for all by the epistemological break.
An analysis understood in terms of interdependent levels and practices helps us to conceive of how society is organised, but also allows us to comprehend social change and thus provides a theory of history. Althusser explains the reproduction of the relations of production by reference to aspects of ideological and political practice; conversely, the emergence of new production relations can be explained by the failure of these mechanisms. Marx’s theory seems to posit a system in which an imbalance in two parts could lead to compensatory adjustments at other levels, or sometimes to a major reorganisation of the whole. To develop this idea Althusser relies on the concepts of contradiction and non-contradiction, which he claims are illuminated by their relation to a complex structured whole. Practices are contradictory when they "grate" on one another and non-contradictory when they support one another. Althusser elaborates on these concepts by reference to Lenin’s analysis of the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Lenin posited that in spite of widespread discontent throughout Europe in the early 20th century, Russia was the country in which revolution occurred because it contained all the contradictions possible within a single state at the time. It was, in his words, the "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., disparity between urban industrialisation and medieval conditions in the countryside, and lack of unity amongst the ruling class; secondly, a foreign policy which played into the hands of revolutionaries, such as the elites who had been exiled by the Tsar and had become sophisticated socialists.
For Althusser, this example reinforces his claim that Marx's explanation of social change is more complex than to see it as 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, mentioned above, were heterogeneous, and cannot be seen to be aspects of one large contradiction. Each was a contradiction within a particular social totality, at a different structural level of social practice. From this, Althusser draws the conclusion that Marx’s concept of contradiction is inseparable from the concept of a complex structured social whole. In order to emphasise that changes in social structure relate to numerous contradictions, Althusser describes these changes as "overdetermined", using a term taken from Sigmund Freud. This interpretation allows us to account for how many different circumstances may play a part in the course of events, and furthermore permits us to grasp how these states of affairs may combine to produce unexpected social changes, or "ruptures".
However, Althusser does not mean to say that the events that determine social changes all have the same causal status. While a part of a complex whole, economic practice is, in his view, a "structure in dominance": it plays a major part in determining the relations between other spheres, and has more effect on them than they have on it. The most prominent aspect of society (the religious aspect in feudal formations and the economic aspect in capitalist ones) is called the "dominant instance", and is in turn determined "in the last instance" by the economy. For Althusser, the economic practice of a society determines which other aspect of it dominates the society as a whole.
Althusser's arguably more complex and materialist (than other Marxisms) understanding of contradiction in terms of the dialectic attempts to rid Marxism of the influence/vestiges of Hegelian (idealist) dialectics, and is a component part of his general anti-humanist position.
Because Althusser held that our desires, choices, intentions, preferences, judgements and so forth are the consequences 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 endowed with the property of being a self-conscious 'responsible' agent. For Althusser, however, a person’s capacity for perceiving himself in this way is not innately given. 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 him an idea of the range of properties he 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 organisations and, most importantly, the education system, as well as the received ideas they propagate. There is, however, no single ISA that 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 uses the example of an individual walking in a street: upon hearing a policeman shout "Hey you there!", the individual reponds by turning around and in this simple movement of his body he is transformed into a subject. The person being hailed recognizes himself as the subject of the hail, and knows to respond. Even though there was nothing suspicious about his walking in the street, he recognizes it is indeed he himself that is being hailed. This recognition is a mis-recognition (méconnaissance) in that it is working retroactively: a material individual is always-already an ideological subject, even before he is born. The "transformation" of an individual into a subject has always-already happened; Althusser acknowledges here a debt toward 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 his 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 himself as a Christian, he must first already be a subject; that is to say, by repsonding to God's call, by following His rules, he is affirming himself as a free agent, the author of the acts for which he assumes repsonsibility. For Althusser, we acquire our identities by seeing ourselves mirrored in ideologies, and it is by subjecting ourselves that we become subjects.
Further to the above, Althusser advances two theses on ideology: I, "Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence; II, "Ideology has a material existence. The first thesis tenders the familiar Marxist contention that ideologies have the function of masking the exploitative arrangements on which class societies are based.
The second thesis posits that ideology does not exist in the form of "ideas" or conscious "representations" in the "minds" of individuals. Rather, ideology consists of the actions and behaviours of bodies governed by their disposition within material apparatuses. Central to the view of individuals as responsible subjects is the notion of an explanatory link between belief and action, that
every 'subject' endowed with a 'conciousness' and believing in the 'ideas' that his 'consciousnes' inspires in him and freely accepts, must ' act according to his ideas', must therefore inscribe his own practice as a free subject in the actions of his material practice.
For Althusser, this is yet another effect of social practice:
I shall therefore say that, where only a single subject (such and such individual) is concerned, the existence of the ideas of his belief is material in that his ideas are his material actions inserted into his material practices governed by material rituals which are themselves defined by the material ideological apparatus from which we derive the ideas of that subject...Ideas have disappeared as such (insofar as they are endowed with an ideal or spiritual existence), to the precise extent that it has emerged that their existence is inscribed in the actions of practices governed by rituals defined in the last instance by an ideological apparatus. It therefore appears that the subject acts insofar as he is acted by the following system (set out in the order of its real determination): ideology existing in a material ideological apparatus, describing material practices governed by a material ritual, which practices exist in the material actions of a subject acting in all consciousness according to his belief.''
Althusser also recognized the role played by what he termed "Repressive State Apparatuses". At times when individuals and groups pose a threat to the dominant order the state invokes Repressive State Apparatuses. The most benign of the RSAs are the systems of law and courts where putatively public contractual language is invoked in order to govern individual and collective behavior. As threats to the dominant order mount, the state turns to increasingly physical and severe measures: incarceration, police force and ultimately military intervention are used in response.
Althusser has had broad influence in the areas of Marxist philosophy and post-structuralism: Interpellation has been popularised and adapted by the feminist philosopher and critic Judith Butler; the 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 his book The Poverty of Theory. As well as this, several of Althusser's students became eminent intellectuals in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s: Alain Badiou, Étienne Balibar and Jacques Ranciere 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, noted philosopher Michel Foucault, and the pre-eminent Lacanian psychoanalyst Jacques-Alain Miller.