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Definition: Althusser, Louis from Chambers Biographical Dictionary


French philosopher

Born in Birmandreis, Algeria, he was educated in Algiers and in France, and imprisoned in concentration camps during World War II. From 1948 he taught in Paris, and joined the Communist Party. He wrote influential works on the interpretation of Marxist theory, including Pour Marx (1965, "For Marx") and Lénin et la philosophie (1969, "Lenin and Philosophy"). In 1980 he murdered his wife, following which he was confined in an asylum.

  • Boutang, Yann Moulier Louis Althusser: une biographie (1992).

Summary Article: Althusser, Louis from The Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory
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Image from: Karl Marx. The full beard was a virtual... in Propaganda and Mass Persuasion: A Historical Encyclopedia, 1500 to the Present

Louis Althusser (1918-90) was a Marxist philosopher whose work exercised an enormous influence on the evolution of French Marxism and on the course of literary theory. Althusser always thought of his work as providing Marxism with a philosophy. For this reason, with the exception of his late work on “aleatory materialism,” almost all of Althusser's theoretical writings take the form of a commentary on Marx.

Althusser's two central works - Reading Capital and For Marx - identify, describe, and draw the consequences of an “epistemological break” in Marx's work. Marx's “scientific discovery,” according to Althusser, lies in his break with humanism. The “early Marx” was still caught up in the problems of humanism. He still believed, for example, that “only the essence of man makes history, and [that] this essence is freedom and reason” (2005: 224). To understand history and to understand the state one must first understand human nature and its potentials. In an early essay, Marx himself wrote that the ideal state would be the one in which “the individual citizen, when he obeys the State's laws, is only obeying the natural laws of his own reason, of human reason” (224).

Althusser argues that in 1845, the year of Marx's The German Ideology and the Theses on Feuerbach, “Marx broke radically with every theory that based history and politics on an essence of man. … This rupture with every philosophical anthropology or humanism is no secondary detail; it is Marx's scientific discovery” (2005: 227). Marxism can no longer be founded on a philosophy of the concrete subject, materialist or idealist, from this point on. The individual subject simply cannot function as its starting point. Rather than finding a middle ground between Locke and Kant, Althusser will argue that Marx staked out an entirely new vantage point with a new set of concepts, a “new way of asking questions about the world, new principles, and a new method” (227).

These new concepts are those of the “mature Marx.” Althusser lists the following: “the concepts of social formation, productive forces, relations of productions, superstructure, ideologies, determination in the last instance by the economy, specific determination of the other levels, etc.” (2005: 227). In other words, Althusser has in mind the entire conceptual apparatus supporting Marx's theory of “social formation” that we know from Capital. In what has become his most well-known work, “Ideology and ideological state apparatuses: Notes toward an investigation,” Althusser goes to the foundation of this new set of nonhumanist concepts by submitting Marx's theory to the “ultimate condition of production”: “the reproduction of the conditions of production” (2001: 85). Most of Marx's concepts can be easily reconciled with this ultimate condition. Althusser has relatively little trouble accounting for the reproduction of the “means of production” (the raw materials and tools of production). The reproduction of “forces of production” (the workers who use the tools) is settled through a mix of wages, biological reproduction, and education (spiritual, technical, or otherwise). What Althusser cannot immediately account for is the reproduction of the “relations of production” or those social structures which organize production.

In “classic Marxism” this role was given to the “state apparatus,” the set of institutions which regulate social order: the police, the courts, the army, and so on. Althusser's innovation was to complicate this notion of the state apparatus by dividing it into two forms (which were already there in practice, he argues): the “State Repressive Apparatus” and the “State Ideological Apparatus.” The repressive state apparatuses (RSAs or SAs) are those which act by force (the police and the army) but also by “mere administrative commands and interdictions” and even by “tacit censorship.” As the name suggests, their function is primarily repressive. Althusser's main interest is in the “ideological state apparatuses” (ISAs) of which he provides a long list including the family, churches, radio programs, television shows, literature, trade unions, and, the most influential of them all, the educational system. It is these apparatuses that ultimately secure the reproduction of the relations of production. The only question is how.

This raises the prior question however of ideology - a concept whose meaning is not at all clear and has been the subject of considerable debate. This is in part because what we know about Althusser's conception of ideology is drawn from diverse sources, several of the most important of which are qualified by the appendage “notes.” “Very schematically,” Althusser writes, “an ideology is a system (with its own logic and rigor) of representations (images, myths, ideas, or concepts, depending on the case) endowed with a historical existence and role within a given society” (2005: 231). This system of representations is not optional. It is not a false consciousness that criticism can break through. It is an essential component of society in general. Human societies “secrete ideology as the very element and atmosphere indispensable to their respiration and life…. historical materialism cannot conceive that even a communist country could ever do without ideology” (2005: 232; emphasis original). As he puts it somewhat provocatively in Lenin and Philosophy, “ideology has no history” (2001: 107).

This system of representations is not floating out there in an imagined heaven of ideas. Nor is it something created and controlled by a “group of individuals (Priests or Despots) who are the authors of the great ideological mystification” (2001: 112). Althusser confronts these two conspiracy theory interpretations of ideology with two theses of his own. First, ideology is “material.” By this Althusser means that it lives not in our heads but in the everyday actions of subjects: “the ‘ideas’ of a human subject exist in his actions” (114). Althusser quotes Pascal to make this point rather dramatically: “Kneel down, move your lips in prayer, and you will believe” (114). Second, there is no hidden operator of the system. It works only in and through the “ideological state apparatuses,” those rituals or structured activities in which we engage every day at the dinner table, at school, in telephone conversations with our friends. Thus Althusser's statement that “[t]he subject acts insofar as he is acted” (114) contains both theses in condensed form. Ideology, then, is the set of those institutional structures, or apparatuses, however mundane or serious, which structure or “govern” our everyday actions. As he puts it in For Marx, the “representations” that constitute the system of ideology “are usually images and occasionally concepts, but it is above all as structures that they impose themselves on the vast majority of men” (2005: 233).

We become incorporated into these structures through a process Althusser calls “interpellation” or “hailing.” He gives a famous example of the police shouting, “Hey! You there!” In this situation “the hailed individual will turn around. By this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he becomes a subject” (2001: 118). This example clarifies, first of all, the material nature of ideology. In the act of turning around, the individual is immediately incorporated into the structure of a particular ritual or ISA. The very structure of this apparatus instantly defines and even “governs” the subject's possible actions. What I can do is determined by the particular apparatus in which I find myself engaged. Second, it shows in a concrete way how the hailing or interpellation works. Interpellation is an address to individuals which incorporates them into a ritual in which they will take up a determinate subject position. In this case, the act of hailing is particularly flagrant and the subject position is well defined, but there are many other ways to interpellate, from the overly vigorous handshake of a “type-A” business exec to a birthday card from your mother. Each of these acts brings us into a structure in which we occupy a more or less determinate subject position, whether that be “suspect” or “mom's little boy.” Interpellation, then, is the act that welcomes us into the various “rituals” or ISAs which govern our everyday actions and thus ensures the reproduction of the relations of production.

An examination of the various subject positions created in interpellation gave rise to one of the more interesting applications of Althusser's thought in the late 1970s and early 1980s. One of the ISAs Althusser listed in his essay was literature. Althusser himself, however, did not develop the way in which literature functioned in the structure of ideology. Several literary critics, such as Catherine Belsey and Colin McCabe, thus developed Althusser's claims by describing the subject positions created by the “classic realist text” and the modernist text. After this brief Golden Age Althusser's thought slowly receded from the public eye. Recently, however, there have been several calls for a return to Althusser. These calls are inspired primarily by the recent appearance of an entire corpus of late writings by Althusser in which he outlines the fundamental premises of his philosophy which he now describes as an “aleatory materialism” or a “philosophy of the encounter.” In these writings Althusser emphasizes the role of pure chance in conjunctures and the radically undetermined nature of change.

SEE ALSO: Ideology; Marx, Karl; Marxism

  • Althusser, L. (1975). Reading Capital (trans. Brewster, B. ). New Left Books London.
  • Althusser, L. (1999). Writings on Psychoanalysis: Freud and Lacan (trans. Mehlmen, J. ). Columbia University Press New York.
  • Althusser, L. (2001). Lenin and Philosophy, and Other Essays (trans. Brewster, B. ). Monthly Review Press New York.
  • Althusser, L. (2005). For Marx (trans. Brewster, B. ). Verso New York.
  • Althusser, L. (2006). Philosophy of the Encounter: Later Writings, 1978-1987 (trans. Goshgarian, G. M. ). Verso New York.
  • Anderson, P. (1983). In the Tracks of Historical Materialism. Verso London.
  • Belsey, C. (1980). Critical Practice. Methuen London.
  • Eagleton, T. (2006). Criticism and Ideology: A Study in Marxist Literary Theory. Verso London.
  • Elliot, G. (1983). Althusser: The Detour of Theory. Verso New York.
  • MacCabe, C. (1989). James Joyce and the Revolution of the Word. Macmillan London.
  • Montag, W. (2003). Louis Althusser. Macmillan New York.
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