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Louis Althusser (1918-1990)


French philosopher, whose two collections of essays, Pour Marx (1965, For Marx) and Lire de Capital (1965, Reading Capital), 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 – Louis 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, The Future Lasts Forever).

"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, translated by Ben Brewster, 1969)

Louis Althusser was born in Birmandries, near Algiers, Algeria, the son of Charles Althusser, a bank manager, and Lucienne Berger. Outwardly, the marriage appeared stable. However, Lucienne had been engaged to Charles's brother Louis, before he was killed when his plane was shot down at Verdun in 1917. Following an ancient biblical custom, Charles, an older and unmarried brother, took Lucienne as his wife. It has been claimed that he had no particular love or concern for his son. Moreover, Charles' nightmares and shrieks and occasional violent outbursts terrified him. Althusser grew into an insecure, inhibited young man, claiming later not to have masturbated until age 27. (Having A Life: Self Pathology after Lacan by Lewis A. Kirshner, 2004, p. 128) Althusser wrote that he had no father; philosophically he became his own father.

Althusser was brought up a Roman Catholic. At Lyon in 1937 he  joined the Jeunesse Etudiante Chrétienne, a Catholic youth movement. Also the monastic life fascinated him. The main influential figures for him were the Catholic philosopher and theologian Jean Guitton, his teacher at the prestigious Lycée du Parc in Lyon, and the philosopher Jean Lacroix. Althusse remained a believer until somewhere about 1947.

After being educated at Algiers, Marseilles, and Lyon, Althusser was  admitted to the Ecole Normale Supérieure in 1939. He was a brilliant student, who enjoyed athletic pursuits and  was a talented violinist. 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. "It was in prison camp that I first heard of Marxism discussed by a Parisian lawyer in transit – and that I actually met a communist, a single one." (Philosophy in Turbulent Times: Canguilhem, Sartre, Foucault, Althusser, Deleuze, Derrida by Elisabeth Roudinesco, 2008, p. 106) Althusser found life easy in captivity because he enjoyed the comradeship of men and behind barbed wires he felt well protected. After the war Althusser restarted his studies at the ENS in Paris, 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. Rytman was also known as Hélène Legotien in the French Resistance. Althusser wrote that she was "a frizzy-haired little Jewess, whose Jewish nose was recognisable at a hundred yards." (Radical French Thought and the Return of the "Jewish Question" by Eric Marty, 2015, p. 75)

From the beginning, the two 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. Noteworthy, Althusser had one younger sister, Georgette, who also suffered severe depressions. 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..." (The Future Lasts Forever by Louis Althusser, translated by Richard Veasey, 1993, p. 159) 

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 French Communist Party (PCF), remaining its life-long member. Althusser was one of the major theoreticians of the party, but he took part in practical political action only sporadically. Much of his time was spent in lecturing at the the Ecole Normale Supérieure when not hospitalized. Both inside and outside France, Althusser's structural Marxism stirred much debate. Especially Althusser was criticized for schematism and subordinating the human element to structures and concepts, which provided too little scope for the actions of individual human beings. His relations with the head of the party, Georges Marchais, and other members of the leadership were never easy. Besides believing that Althusser's philosophy undermined the de-Stalinisation of the PCF, Louis Aragon has the credit of repeating the famous accusation of "corrupting the youth" (i.e. encouraging Maoist students), originally thrown at Socrates. ('Editorial Introduction to Louis Althusser’s 'Letter to the Central Committee of the PCF, 18 March 1966'' by William S. Lewis, in Historical Materialism 15, 2007)

Due to his leanings toward Maoism, Althusser was nearly expelled from the PCF 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 Party in Le Monde. Just before his tragic collapse, Althusser sought in 1979 an audience with the Pope, John Paul II.

Until 1965, Althusser was a relatively unknown political philosopher (in fact, he had the reputation of being a recluse) – he 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 without orthodoxy. For some years, Lire de Capital was an indispensable handbook for revolutionary students in Nanterre and across Paris.

By reading Marx "to the letter" Althusser challenged contemporary 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.

Following the vaning of the student movement, Althusser was no longer an influence. "Althusser à rien [Althusser is useless]" was scrawled on the walls of the occupied Sorbonne. 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-humanism, as in some sense politically revolutionary." (Louis Althusser by Luke Ferretter, 2006, p. 124)

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.

When Sartre was the only established philosopher invited to address the students at the Sorbonne, it made clear the antagonism between Althusser and his students and participants of the political carnival of May 1968. Later Althusser's 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!'" (The Future Lasts a Long Time and The Facts by Louis Althusser, 1993, p. 16) 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. The court appointed three psychiatrists to review the case. They concluded that he was in a state of dementia at the time of the killing. Hélène Rytmann was buried in the cemetery of Bagneux, in the section reserved for Jews. Althusser stayed in hospital until 1983. His final years he spent in the north of Paris, isolated from all but a few friends, and writing among others the figures of Spinoza and Machiavelli. Althusser died of a heart attack on October 22, 1990.

Althusser sought to reread Marx, rescue him from Soviet dogmatism, and humanistic traditions of bourgeois ideology. With a much similar critical perspective, Althusser reexamined Machiavelli, stating that he represents a beginning: "What begins with him? A 'true understanding' of history, of rulers, of the art of governing and making war – in short, everything traditionally designed as the foundation of a positive science, the science of politics." (Machiavelli and U by Louis Althusser, edited by François Matheron, translated with and Introduction by Gregory Elliott, 1999, p. 7) 'Machiavel et nous' (Machiavelly and Us) appeared in a 1995 collection of his writings.

Marxism was not for Althusser an ideology or world-view but a revolutionary science, ultimately the science of society. He did not like the expression "Marxism-Leninism" – it was too "crude" to correspond to reality. Althusser's 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.

According to Althusser, the "epistemological rupture" (coupure épistémologique) around 1845-45, marked Marx's coming of age as 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 historical events and processes 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. Moreover, 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).

Althusser's analysis of the development of science 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".

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" (Althusser spoke of "the Stalinian Deviation") 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. However, partly because of the totalizing aspects of his own interpretation of Marx, Althusser was criticized as maintaining old Stalinist tradition, even referring favourably to Stalin's Foundations of Leninism: "Despite their "pedagogical" dryness, these pieces are in many ways excellent." (For Marx, 1969, p. 97)

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. In this psychoanalytic self-portrait Althusser claimed 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); 'Editorial Introduction to Louis Althusser’s 'Letter to the Central Committee of the PCF, 18 March 1966'' by William S. Lewis, in Historical Materialism 15 (2007); Althusser and Art by Jonathan Fardy (2020); A Philosophy for Communism: Rethinking Althusser by Panagiotis Sotiris (2020); For Theory: Althusser and the Politics of Time by Natalia Romé; foreword by Warren Montag (2021) Concrete Critical Theory: Althusser's Marxism by William S. Lewis (2022); Power and Resistance: Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, Althusser by Yoshiyuki Sato (2022) 

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, edited by Olivier Corpet and Yann Moulier Boutang, 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)
  • Machiavelli and Us, 1999 (edited by François Matheron, translated with an Introduction by Gregory Elliott; first published as Écrits philosophiques et politiques.Tome II, 1995)
  • 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)
  • Cours sur Rousseau, 2012
    - Lessons on Rousseau, 2019 (edited with an introduction by Yves Vargas; translated by G. M. Goshgarian)
  • Initiation à la philosophie pour les non-philosophes, 2014
    - Philosophy for Non-philosophers (translated by G. M. Goshgarian; with an introduction by Warren Montag, 2017)
  • Être marxiste en philosophie, 2015
    - How to Be a Marxist in Philosophy (translated and edited by G.M. Goshgarian, 2017)
  • Que faire?, 2018 (texte établi et annoté par G.M. Goshgarian)
  • Correspondance (1949-1987) / Louis Althusser, Lucien Sève, 2018 (postface de Roger Martelli. Suivi de, Notes explicatives à loyale relecture / par Lucien Sève)
  • Écrits sur l'histoire (1963-1986), 2018
    - History and Imperialism: Writings, 1963–1986, 2020 (translated and edited by G.M. Goshgarian)
  • Socialisme idéologique et socialisme scientifique: et autres écrits, 2022 (texte établi et annoté par G.M. Goshgarian; préface de Fabio Bruschi)

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