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Louis Pierre Althusser - Biography

Louis (Pierre) Althusser was a famous French philosopher, especially influential for his re-invention of Marxism. He became was of the most important Marxist philosophers of the last century and he basically owes his international popular reputation to the publication of two books in 1965, For Marx, and Reading Capital, which departed from key aspects of traditional interpretations of Marxism. He, for instance, rejected economic determinism in favor instead of a study of the rules of ideology, which he showed is really what influences both our social structures and individual consciousness. This is not to say that economic factors do not play any role, they do, but they are a part of all the structures and rules of ideology that must be considered as a whole. He spoke of "ideological state apparatuses" that overwhelmingly contribute to perpetuating a certain ideology. His theory of ideology, which he gets from his re-reading of Marx is the theoretical kernel he contributed that is proving to have lasting influence and thus has provided a basis for a lot of "post-Marxist" thought in today’s research in fields as varied as literary studies, political philosophy, history, economics, sociology etc.

Althusser taught philosophy for thirty-two years. Born in Algeria at Birmandreis on October 16 1918, he died of a heart attack at the mental hospital in the Paris region at La Verrière on October 22 1990 after having led a professionally successful life. Yet his work became less influential after he accidentally murdered his wife, Hélène Rytmann, by strangling her in 1980. However, his work on, for instance, ideology persisted through that of his arguably most notable student: Michel Foucault. Althusser is considered to have been a major figure of the "structuralist" movement of the 1960s, together with Roland Barthes, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan and Michel Foucault as well. He even encouraged this one to become a member of the Communist Party, which he did but not for very long or with any strong passion as his mentor did. Althusser himself had studied philosophy with the famous French Academic Jean Guitton, whom as a student he would go see secretly late at night during the May 1968 revolts.

After having been accepted in 1939 to study at l’École normale supérieure d’Ulm (ENS), which is the most prestigious French school for humanities studies, he was drafted for the war against Germany and was soon to be imprisoned in 1940. He would spend the rest of the war in a Stalag in the region of Schleswig in Northern Germany very near Denmark. This is where he first started to have psychological problems. He would finally make if back to the ENS in 1945 where he studied until 1948, getting second place for his agrégation in philosophy (French University high-level competitive examination for the recruitment of professors and often the gateway to PhD studies) for the oral section and first for the written portion. It is at that point that he became a Marxist and joined the Communist Party the same year and that for the rest of his life. However, the nature of his relationship with the French Communist Party would be conflictual, finding himself often in disagreement with its central committee and with Roger Garaudi, the party’s official philosopher at that time.

Starting in the beginning of the 1960s Althusser writes unorthodox and indeed nonconformist articles and gets them published in Marxist journals such as "La Pensée" (The Thought) and later in "La Nouvelle Critique" (The New Critique). In 1962 he is criticized and accused by the senator and director of "La Pensée" Georges Cogniot for being pro chinese. He will also get heat from other French intellectuals such as Communist politician Roland Leroy and Marxist philosopher Lucien Sève who are other official Marxist figures of the party. They consider structuralism to be a "philosophy of despair" (Leroy) and advocate instead a "humanist Marxism". To which both Althusser and Foucault would respond critically in kind, particularly because of the individualistic and subject-centered nature of the critique and approach. In 1978 Althusser will also harshly criticize his own party in a "Ce qui ne peut durer dans le PCF" (What cannot continue in the French Communist Party). Althusser would also be a hard critic of Stalinism by both intervening politically and in the very conception of his own philosophy as well. In this way, he will in 1986 describe Stalinism as the form found, although unpremeditated, by imperialism as the way to exploit population from within the socialist world.

While working at ENS where he was first director of studies before becoming the equivalent of Dean of the Literary College, he makes it possible for his fellow structuralist Lacan to be invited and speak there, but he would do the same thing for people of different philosophical persuasions such as Alexandre Matheron who too was a Marxist but coming from a Spinoza background, with which he would become deeply interested in until giving it up partly at the end of his life. Althusser would even invite Gilles Deleuze, another important reader of Spinoza.

Althusser’s dedicated and prolific research has had, however, to often have been interrupted by stays in psychiatric hospitals. In 1962, for example, he begins work on Niccolò Machiavelli in the middle of a serious depressive episode, which would go as far as making him be hospitalized for three months that same year. For Althusser, Niccolò Machiavelli is a genius in that he was a political practitioner who did not idealistically treat political reality in favor of theory and thus managed to bridge the two brilliantly and effectively in such a way that they can inform one another.

In 1967 he managed to present a doctoral thesis, two years after having published Reading Capital, a revolutionary interpretation of Marxism with Etienne Balibar, Roger Establet, Pierre Macherey and Jacques Rancière . The latter would years later teach at the European Graduate School (EGS). In this book Althusser develops the concept of "lecture symptômale" (symptomatic reading) as a way to explain, for example, Adam Smith’s erroneous reading of Marxism, showing that Smith or Ricardo had to miss a few key things in Marx not because of their lack of intelligence but because of the kind of problematization that they brought with them, which prevented them from seeing certain things. Althusser demonstrates how Marx’s analysis of production, by showing its underlying structures, can be a foundation for a new science. Balibar also, for example, in this volume builds on Althusser’s analytical innovations such as "social formation" and "overdetermination", presenting Marx’s Capital in a completely new and refreshing light. Indeed, the problem should not be that of an individual perspective, instead the issue is that of structural conditions, which Smith missed. Also in 1967 he creates at the ENS the "Spinoza Group", which Alain Badiou, also a European Graduate School (EGS) professor, would participate in.

On November 16, 1980 Althusser strangles his wife, Hélène Rytmann, in their ENS apartment. Right after the terrible events he let the the doctor in residence know what had just happened. The latter immediately contacted psychiatric authorities. In February 1981, a court ruled Althusser as having been insane at the time of his very unfortunate actionsand thus according to French laws at the time, he cannot be prosecuted and is not charged with anything. In the March 14 1985 issue of the famous journal "Le Monde" Althusser reads an article by Claude Sarraute about the success of a book by the Japanese author Issei Sagawa who tells how he murdered and ate a young Dutch woman after having briefly been in a psychiatric hospital in France, returning to his country after his case had been dismissed. Sarraute writes critically that in such cases as with Althusser and other prestigious names, a lot is written about them and that nothing tends to be told in the media about the victim. That therefore a star is made of the murderer. Friends of Althusser then encourage him to protest, which prompts him to write a biography as a way to explain his unforgivable action towards his wife. He will title the book The Future Lasts A Long Time and will there attempt to explain what he considered he would have been forced to to do a long time ago if his case had not been dismissed based on his temporary insanity. He wrote the book in 1985 but it was published posthumously in 1992. In 2006 a French play called "Le Caïman" (The Caiman) dramatizes the murder in question here and treats the reasons behind this one as ambiguous.

Philosophically, Althusser is incredibly famous for having theorized what he referred to as the "epistemological break" in Marx and for having strongly asserted that "l’histoire est un processus sans sujet" - history is a processus without a subject, which in some sense can be traced back to his reading of Spinoza who argued that texts and authors are the products of their times. In this way, Althusser breaks away with traditional interpretations of Marxism that make either the economy or the proletariat or the subject of history, as in Georg Lukacs, for example, and others. For Althusser history has no goal, and thus communism of human freedom are themselves alienating ideals labelled onto history. To explain all of this, Althusser sees "an epistemological break" between the young Marx of The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 who was both still clearly a humanist and Hegelian, and the Marx of Das Kapital who elaborates dialectical materialism and creates the science of Historical Materialism, thus pointing out how any philosophical system is detached from the practical reality to which it is contemporary of. Marx’s own grave, after all, is inscribed with the following: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it." Thus, social formations are structurally determined beyond current political and ideological reappropriations and must be understood beyond philosophical ideology; in a Marxist sense, scientifically. This is not to say that philosophy does not have a role to play in this new science, according to Althusser it most certainly does, but it should be a kind of philosophy that is not ideological and allows the political in and engages with it critically.

One of the most important contributions Althusser made to the theory of ideology is that of "ideological interpellation." He does so in 1970 in an essay called "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses", which itself is from a longer text where he explains the nature of the state and the reason behind his belief that the Communist Party must not let go of the idea that a dictatorship of the proletariat is necessary for a transition to something else like say Communism. In this shorter text he goes into how human beings become self-conscious subjects. His analysis explains subjectification in order to make the bigger argument that states are able to keep control through the reproduction of subjects who are brainwashed to believe that their role within the social structure is natural. More precisely, what we believe to be normal or natural, which include socio- economic structures, require ideologies. These are perpetuated by institutions or what Althusser names, as we saw earlier, "Ideological State Apparatuses." That includes family, schools, church and so on, which give the developing individual categories in which they can recognize themselves. To the extent that an individual does so and thus accepts the practices associated with such institutions, they have been powerfully "interpellated."

Althusser will have had a big influence on all, Marxist philosophy, structuralism and post-structuralism. His concept of "interpellation" was taken up and effectively re-formulated by the influential critic and feminist philosopher Judith Butler. "Ideological State Apparatuses," the analytical concept that goes with "interpellation," was powerfully engaged with by Slavoj Zizek, a contemporary critical thinker, philosopher and cultural theorist. Father of Deconstruction, Jacques Derrida, was sympathetic to the attempt to think history as a process without a subject. And even some analytical philosophers such as G.A. Cohen have come out in favor of Althusser’s rendition of historical materialism and more.

Towards the end of his career, after the tragic death of his wife, in spite of spending most his time in mental hospitals, he still continued to work as hard as possible on his critiques of traditional Marxism and made another important theoretical contribution with "matérialisme aléatoire" (aleatory materialism) which focused on criticizing the theological character of orthodox Marxism.

Louis Pierre Althusser was a French Philosopher.