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Louis Althusser (1918-1990)


French philosopher, whose two collections of essays, Pour Marx (1965) and Lire de Capital (1965), deeply influenced Marxist thought in the West. When Marx's early writings inspired a number of New Left thinkers – especially his analysis of alienation in capitalist society – Althusser focused on the mature Marx. Althusser's career virtually ended in 1980 after he murdered his wife. He was declared unfit to stand trial and institutionalized until 1983. During the last, tragic period of his life, Althusser wrote two versions of his autobiography, Les Faits (1992) and L'Avenir diure Longtemps (1992).

"To be more precise, I should say, that Marx 'opened up' for scientific knowledge a new 'continent', that of history – just as Thales opened up the 'continent' of mathematics for scientific knowledge, and Galileo opened up the 'continent' of physical nature for scientific knowledge." (from For Marx)

Louis Althusser was born in Birmandries, near Algiers, Algeria, the son of Charles Althusser and Lucienne Berger. His father was a bank manager, whom Althusser saw as an authoritative, distant figure, whose nightmares and shrieks and occasional violent outbursts terrified him. Althusser was a Catholic. The monastic life fascinated him in his youth, and he remained a believer until somewhere about 1947.

Althusser was educated at Algiers, Marseilles, and Lyons. In 1939 he was admitted to the Ecole Normale Supérieure, but the war interrupted his studies, and he was called up in September. Althusser did not see action in the early days of World War II. In 1940 Germans occupied northern and eastern France. Althusser spent five years in a German concentration camp, mostly in Schleswig, Stalag XA. Later he said, that he found life easy because he enjoyed the comradeship of men and behind barbed wires he felt well protected. After the war Althusser started his studies the Ecole Normale Supérieure, where, with his sense of coming from a 'different world', he felt of being a complete stranger.

During this period Althusser met Hélène Rytman, who become his companion and later his wife. From the beginning, they were kindred spirits, both lonely and anguished. Althusser has said, that after making love with Hélène for the first time, he fell in depression. He was admitted to Saint-Anne's Hospital, where he was given shock treatment. This pattern remained basically unchanged – depression, therapy and shock treatment, and periods of active writing and working. Hélène stayed with him through the following decades, even though he was openly unfaithful. "But what moved me more than anything were her hands, which never changed. They had been fashioned by work and bore the marks of hard labour, yet her touch had a wonderful tenderness which betrayed her heartbreak and helplessness. They were the hands of a poor, wretched old woman who had nothing and no one to turn to, yet who found it in her heart to go on giving. I was filled with such sorrow at the suffering engraved on them. I have often wept into these hands and they have often made me weep, though I never told her why. I feared it would cause her pain. – Hélène, my Hélène..." (from The Future Lasts Forever) Hélène Légotien, or Rytman, was Jewish. She had joined the French Communist Party in the 1930s and fought in the Resistance.

Althusser completed a master's thesis in 1948 on the German philosopher G.W. Hegel – he had learned German while he was a prisoner. He passed the difficult agrégation in philosophy and was appointed to teach. In 1948 he joined the Communist Party, remaining its life-long member. His relations with the secretary general, Georges Marchais, and other members of the leadership, were never easy. Due to his leanings toward Maoism, he was nearly dispelled in 1966 in a dispute over China's Cultural Revolution. Althusser mentions in his book of memoir, L'Avenir diure Longtemps, that Mao had granted him an interview, but he dropped it, fearing the political reaction against him. In 1978 he launched an attack on the Communist Party in Le Monde. Just before his tragic collapse, Althusser sought in 1979 an audience with the Pope, John Paul II.

Althusser was a relatively unknown political philosopher until 1965. In fact, he had the reputation of being a recluse. Althusser had published a study on Montesquieu and a selection from Feuerbach. Pour Marx and Lire de Capital, a collection of papers written for a seminar on Das Kapital at the École Normale Supérieure in 1965, changed the situation. These books represented intellectually hard-line Marxism, but not dogmatism. By reading Marx "to the letter" Althusser challenged contemporary softer interpretations of Marx's work. During Marx's lifetime, only the first volume was published of his magnum opus, which runs to approximately 3000 printed pages. Marx supervised the preparation of a French edition of volume 1, translated by Joseph Roy and published by Maurice La Châtre in 1872. Although Althusser refers to the German edition, Roy's translation was the principal text that was used in Reading Capital.

After the rise of the student movement in 1968, Althusser's influence in France faded. Moreover, there never was an "Althusserian school" in France, but his work had a massive influence on British and American literary and cultural critics in the 1970s. The Marxist critic Terry Eagleton said, "The appeal of Althusser's work, generally speaking, was that while it seemed on the one hand in its concerns with ideology and and the 'relative autonomy' of superstructures to offer a key theoretical concepts to those engaged in the socialist analysis of culture, it presented itself simultaneously, in its rehabilition of the 'scientific' Marx, Leninism and its  vigorous anti-humanis, as in some sense politically revolutionary."

During the turbulent events in May 1968, Althusser was in a sanatorium, recuperating from depression – Althusser himself once counted that he suffered at least fifteen depressions from 1947 to 1980. For the disappointment of the students, he supported the official party line and did not consider the situation basically revolutionary. Later his view changed, and he held that there was real atmosphere of fraternity on the streets and Party had lost touch with the student masses in revolt.

On November 6, 1980 Althusser killed his wife. In L'Avenir diure Longtemps Althusser tells that he used to massage Hélène's neck, but this time he massaged the front of her neck. "Yet I knew she had been strangled. But how? I stood up and screamed: 'I've strangled Hélène!'" In medical examination, the skin on her neck bore no external marks of strangulation. Althusser avoided prison – for the fustration of the media and Althusser himself, he was denied the whole procedure of a public court appearance. Althusser stayed in hospital until 1983. He in the north of Paris, isolated from all but a few friends. Althusser died of a heart attack on October 22, 1990.

Althusser sought to reread Marx, rescue him from Soviet dogmatism, and humanistic interpretations, and reestablish their pace in class struggle. In much similar way, Althusser viewed Machiavelli, writing that he represented a beginning, and asking: "For how are we to understand that this beginning has lasted down to the present, and still endures for us?" His first major articles on Marx, published in La Pen and La Nouvelle Critique, were collected in Pour Marx, which is regarded as the founding text of the school of 'structuralist' Marxism. Marxism was not for Althusser an ideology or world-view but a revolutionary science, ultimately the science of society. "I should add that, just as the foundation of mathematics by Thales 'induced' the birth of the Platonic philosophy, just as the foundation of physics by Galileo 'induced' the birth of Cartesian philosophy, etc., so the foundation of the science of history by Marx has 'induced' the birth of a new, theoretically and practically revolutionary philosophy, Marxist philosophy or dialectical materialism."

According to Althusser, the "epistemological rupture" (coupure épistémologique) around 1845-45, marked Marx's coming of age as a 'scientific' theorist – he abandoned his earlier humanism derived from Feuerbach and Hegel. "Antihumanism" in this connection means that Marx downgraded the role of human agency in history and developed a theory of history as a "process without a subject." From structuralists, and partly from Freud, Althusser borrowed his method of "symptomatic reading", an analysis of deep structures beneath the surface of the text. Also he adopted some of the psychoanalytic concepts of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, his friend, whose ideas he examined in the essay 'Freud and Lacan' (1994). In his analysis of the development of science Althusser came close to Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). When Althusser speaks of problématique, "the particular unity of a theoretical formation" or the underlying structure of thought, Kuhn used the word "paradign," a term that relates closely to 'normal science' (before the inevitable SNAFU).

Marx's debt to Hegel is a well-known fact, but Althusser tried to show that Marx's thought was fundamentally anti-Hegelian – the basic structures of the Hegelian and Marxist dialectic were essentially different. In Hegel's idealist philosophy the world is the realization of Absolute Spirit. In Marxist analysis, the economic base and superstructure (political and ideological practice) form a complex social whole, but the economic structure is determinant in the last instance. Althusser himself emphasized the relative autonomy of the politico-ideological superstructure. Thus he could explain, that the 'cult of personality', by which he refers to Stalin, belonged to the domain of the superstructure and the socialist infrastructure was able to develop in the Soviet Union without essential damage during the reign of Stalin.

Althusser wrote mostly on political theory, but in 'A Letter on Art in Reply to André Daspere' (1966) he investigated the effect of ideology on artworks. He thesis was that "ideology represents imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence." All ideological State appratuses – family, education, religion, sport, press, radio, etc. – reflect bourgeois ideology. Althusser himself denied being a structuralist, and called Structuralism "structuralist ideology". Althusser did not rank real art among the ideologies. Art does not give us knowledge like science does, but it makes us to see the ideology from which it is born. Althusser's theory of ideology has influenced the literary critics Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson.

With his confession, The Future Lasts Forever, Althusser wanted the break the wall of silence around him. Its material must have pleased his psychoanalysts - he claims that he had an Oidipal attachment to his mother, he did not lern to masturbate until at the age of twenty-seven, he practiced shoplifting one month in Brittany, and he was obsessed with thought that his writings would expose him as a trickster and deceiver, a "philosopher who knew almost nothing about the history of philosophy or about Marx..." Althusser admits that his memoirs includes also hallucinations between true accounts. One imaginary detail in The Facts deals with President De Gaulle. Althusser meets him on a street. De Gaulle has a cigarrette dangling from his mouth and he asks Althusser for a light. They have a brief discussion. A week later De Gaulle invites Althusser to dinner and the discussions continue.

For further reading: D'une sainte famille à l'autre by R. Aron (1969); Political Power and Social Classes by N. Poulantzas (1973); Structuralist Analysis in Contemporary Thought by Miriam Glucksmann (1974); Althusser's Marxism by A. Callinicos (1976); The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays by E.P. Thompson (1978); One-Dimensional Marxism by Simon Clarke (1980); Jameson, Althusser, Marx by William C. Dowling (1984); Reading Althusser: An Essay on Structural Marxism by Steven B. Smith (1984); Althusser: The Detour of Theory by Gregory Elliott (1987); Althusser and Feminism by Alison Assiter (1990); Louis Althusser: Une Biographie, tome 1, by Yann Moulier Boutang (1992); Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory by Robert Paul Resch (1992); Althusser: A Critical Reader, ed. by Gregory Elliott (1994); The Althusserian Legacy, ed. by E. Ann Kaplan and Michael Sprinkler (1994); Why Althusser Killed His Wife: Essays on Discourse and Violence by Geraldine Finn (1996); Reading Knowledge: An Introduction to Barthes, Foucault, and Althusser by Michael Payne (1997); Structuralism Vs. Humanism in the Formation of the Political Self: The Philosophy of Politics of Jean-Paul Sartre and Louis Althusser by Lee M. Rademacher (2002); A Future for Marxism?: Althusser, the Analytical Turn and Revival of Socialist Theory by Andrew Levine (2003); Louis Althusser by Warren Montag (2003); Louis Althusser by Luke Ferretter (2006) 

Selected works:

  • Montesquieu: La politique l'histoire, 1959
    - 'Mostesquieu: Politics and History' (in Politics and History: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Hegel and Marx, translated by Ben Brewster, 1972)
  • Pour Marx, 1965
    - For Marx (translated by Ben Brewster, 1969)
  • Lire le Capital, 1965
    - Reading Capital (2 vols., with E. Balibar and others, translated by Ben Brewster, 1970)
  • Lénine et la philosophie, 1969
    - Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (translated by Ben Brewster, 1971)
  • Réponse à John Lewis, 1972
  • Eléments d'autocritique, 1974
    - 'Elements of Self-Criticism' (in Essays in Self-Criticism, translated by Grahame Lock, 1976)
  • Philosophie et philosophie spontanée des savants, 1974
    - Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists and Other Essays (translated by Ben Brewster et al., 1990)
  • Positions, 1976
  • Essays on Ideology, 1984 (translated by B. Brewster and G. Lock)
  • L'Avenir Dure Longtemps, suivi de Les faits, 1992
    - The Future Lasts Forever: A Memoir (includes Les faits, ed. by Olivier Corpet and Yann Moulier, translated by Richard Veasey, 1993)
  • Journal de captivité: Stalag XA 1940-1945, 1992
  • Sur la philosophie, 1994 (edited by François Matheron and Oliver Corpet)
    - Philosophy of the Encounter: Later Writings, 1978-87 (translated by G.M. Goshgarian, 2006)
  • Écrits sur la psychanalyse: Freud et Lacan, 1993 (edited by Olivier Corpet and François Matheron)
    - Writings on Psychoanalysis: Freud and Lacan (translated and with a preface by Jeffrey Mehlman, 1996)
  • Écrits philosophiques et politiques, vol. 1, 1994 (edited by François Matheron)
    - The Spectre of Hegel: Early Writings (translated by G.M. Goshgarian, 1997)
  • Écrits philosophiques et politiques, vol. 2, 1995 (edited by F. Matheron)
  • Sur la reproduction, 1995 (introduction by Jacques Bidet)
  • Lettres à Franca, 1961-1973, 1998 (edited by François Matheron and Yann Moulier Boutang)
  • Solitude de Machiavel, et autres texts, 1998 (edited byY. Sintomer)
    - 'Machiavelli's Solitude (in Machiavelli and Us, edited by Francois Matheron, translated by Gregory Elliott, 2001)
  • The Humanist Controversy and Other Texts, 2003 (translated by G. M. Goshgarian)
  • Politique et histoire, de Machiavel à Marx: cours à l’École normale supérieure de 1955 à 1972 (edited by François Matheron)
  • Lettres à Hélène: 1947-1980, 2011 (edited by Olivier Corpet; foreword by Bernard-Henri Lévy)

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