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Louis Althusser

Louis Althusser (October 19, 1918 - October 23, 1990) was a Marxist philosopher. He was born in Algeria and studied at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, where eventually he became Professor of Philosophy. He was a leading academic proponent of the French Communist Party and his arguments were a response to multiple threats to the ideological foundations of that socialist project. These included both the threat from an empiricism which was beginning to invade Marxist sociology and economics, and a threat from humanistic and democratic socialist orientations which were beginning to corrode the purity of the European Communist Parties. Althusser is commonly referred to as a structuralist Marxist, although his relationship to other schools of French structuralism is not a simple affiliation.


Biographical information

Early Life

Althusser wrote two autobiographies, L'Avenir dure longtemps, or "The Future Lasts a Long Time," which is published in America as "The Future Lasts Forever," which is published in a single volume with Althusser's other, shorter, earlier autobiography, "The Facts." These documents provide most of the information we know about his life, although, as with all autobiographies, the information they provide is somewhat suspect.

Althusser was born in French Algeria to ethnically French parents. He was named for his paternal uncle who had been killed in the First World War. Althusser alleged that it was this man for whom his mother was intended and that she had married his father only because of the brother's demise, and that his mother treated his namesake, her son, as a substitute, to which he also attributes deep psychological damage.

In childhood, following the death of his father, Althusser relocated with his mother and younger sister to rural metropolitan France, and he spent the rest of his childhood here. Althusser began to perform brilliantly at school in later years.

Althusser was accepted to the elite École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris. However, he found himself enlisted in the run-up to World War Two. Like most French soldiers, following the Fall of France, Althusser was interned in a German POW camp. He found himself relatively content there, and remained there for the rest of the war, in contrast to many of his contemporaries who escaped to fight again - for this, Althusser later had reason to chastise himself.


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


In 1946, Althusser met Hélène Rytman, a revolutionary of Lithuanian-Jewish ethnic origin, eight years older than him , who was to remain his companion until her death.

Formerly a devout, if left-wing, Roman Catholic, in this period, Althusser made the signature decision of his life by devoting himself to Communism, joining the French Communist Party (PCF). Althusser over time became one of the, if not the, leading ideologue of the PCF.

Althusser passed the agrégation in philosophy in 1948, which allowed him to become a tutor at the ENS.

Fall from Grace

On November 16, 1980, Althusser murdered his wife. This had been preceded by a period of intense mental instability. Diagnosed as suffering from diminished responsibility, he was not tried for the offence but instead committed to the Sainte-Anne psychiatric hospital.

Althusser remained in hospital until 1983. Upon release, he moved to Northern Paris and lived reclusively, seeing few people and no longer working, except for producing his autobiography. He died of a heart attack on October 22nd 1990 at the age of 72.


Althusser is most widely known as a theorist of ideology, and his best-known essay is Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Toward an Investigation (available in several English volumes including Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays). The essay establishes the concept of ideology, which is related to Antonio Gramsci's concept of hegemony. Whereas hegemony is ultimately determined entirely by political forces, ideology draws on Freud's and Lacan's concepts of the unconscious and mirror-phase respectively, and describes the structures and systems that allow us to meaningfully have a concept of the self. These structures, for Althusser, are both agents of repression and inevitable - it is impossible to escape ideology.

The most memorable section of this essay comes when he discusses the concept of interpellation . He uses the example of a police officer walking down the street and, seeing someone suspicious, shouting, "Hey, you!" This is hailing. Althusser discusses the process by which the person being hailed recognizes themselves as the subject of the hail, and knows to respond. This recognition stems from the interpellation of the external ideology into consciousness. That is to say, our concept of who we are is ordered by ideology, and we are able to identify ourselves as the object of the policeman's words. Interpellation has been popularised and adapted by the feminist philosopher and critic Judith Butler.

But Althusser's influence on Marxist philosophy and also post-structuralism is much broader than this single essay's contribution.

His earlier works include the influential volume Reading Capital, which collects the work of Althusser and his students on an intensive philosophical re-reading of Marx's Capital. The book reflects on the philosophical status of Marxist theory as "critique of political economy," and on its object. The current English edition of this work includes only the essays of Althusser and Étienne Balibar, while the original French edition contains additional contributions from Jacques Ranciere and Pierre Macherey, among others. The project was approximately analogous, within Marxism, to the contemporary psychoanalytic return to Freud undertaken by Jacques Lacan, with whom Althusser was also involved. (Althusser's personal and professional relationship with Lacan was complex; the two were at times great friends and correspondents, at times enemies.)

Several of Althusser's theoretical positions have remained very influential in Marxist philosophy, though he sometimes overstated his arguments deliberately in order to provoke controversy. Althusser's essay On the Young Marx proposes that there is a great "epistemological break" between Marx's early, Hegelian writings and his later, properly Marxist texts. His essay "Marxism and Humanism" is a strong statement of anti-humanism in Marxist theory, condemning ideas like "human potential" and "species-being," which are often put forth by Marxists, as outgrowths of a bourgeois ideology of "humanity." His essay "Contradiction and Overdetermination" borrows the concept of overdetermination 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).

Several of Althusser's students became eminent intellectuals in the 1980s and 1990s: Étienne Balibar in philosophy, Jacques Ranciere in history and the philosophy of history, and Pierre Macherey in literary criticism.

See also

Ferdinand de Saussure
Claude Lévi-Strauss
Roland Barthes
Slavoj Zizek
Baruch de Spinoza
Niccolò Machiavelli
Nicos Poulantzas


  • Althusser, Louis. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays.
    • Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists.
    • For Marx.
    • Reading Capital (with Étienne Balibar).
    • The Spectre of Hegel: Early Writings.
    • Machiavelli and Us.
    • The Humanist Controversy and Other Texts.
    • Writings on Psychoanalysis.
    • The Future Lasts Forever: A Memoir.
    • Althusser: A Critical Reader (ed. Gregory Elliott).
  • Waters, Malcolm, Modern Sociological Theory, 1994, page 116.

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