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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 Communist Party of France 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.


Althusser is most widely known as a theorist of ideology, and his best-known essay is Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Some notes toward an investigation (available in several English volumes including Lenin and Ideology). The essay extends the Marxist theory of ideology to include ideology's material existence in the form of "ideological state apparatuses" including the family, the Church, and the school (which, the essay concludes, is now the dominant ISA). Since ideology is realized in material practice, and since it represents "a lived relation to the real," this essay contradicts the simpler economic determinism of a more "orthodox" Marxist theory of ideology, and grants decisive political importance to the realm of ideas (even if ideologies are, in Althusser's phrase, "in the last instance" determined by economic conditions).

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 Etienne 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 which 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."

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

Biographical information

On November 16, 1980, Althusser murdered his wife, and confessed openly. Diagnosed as suffering from diminished responsibility, he was not tried for the offence but instead committed to the Sainte-Anne psychiatric hospital. The murder was chronicled by Althusser himself in his memoirs, including the autobiographical La future dure longtemps, which is available in an English volume titled The Future Lasts Forever.