1 Vudozahn

Althusser Lenin And Philosophy And Other Essays About Love

by Kevin B. Anderson

The French philosopher Louis Althusser’s structuralist Marxism remains a point of reference for many contemporary schools of radical thought, even for some of those that have moved away from Marxism completely.  Moreover, as radical thought has experienced a partial return to Marx after several decades of Nietzschean post-structuralism, the legacy of Althusser lies in wait, offering version of Marxism that offers an all-too-comfortable transition from the more recent forms of philosophical radicalism. This is because one can embrace Althusser while still rejecting subjectivity, humanism, and even the dialectic.

The possibility of subjectivity in the sense of critique, resistance, or revolt on the part of the subjugated, is closed off almost completely in the work of Althusser.  This stance mars his well-known essay on “ideological superstructures,” which was indeed a serious attempt to go beyond reductionist arguments concerning ideology’s relationship to its material base, and to theorize its place in late twentieth century capitalist society in terms of institutions outside value production like religion and education.

In Althusser’s 1969 essay on “Ideology and Ideological Superstructures,” almost any notion of subjectivity is illusory, or suspect. As Althusser sees it, that illusion props up the dominant political form developed under modern capitalism, liberal democracy.  In short, if one validates the possibility of human creativity and self-movement within — or even in struggle against — existing society, one is at best an idealist dupe, and at worst a propagandist for the capitalist system, part of what Althusser terms the “ideological state apparatuses.”  These apparatuses, which include, among others, religious and educational institutions, create and maintain the ideologies through which the system maintains itself in power.

The fact that these apparatuses interact with individual members of society by engaging in “the interpellation[1] of these ‘individuals’ as subjects” is simply part of these individuals’ “subjection to the Subject” with a capital “S,” i.e. the capitalist system.  This interpellation is part of the system’s “rituals” of domination[1]: “They must be obedient to God, to their conscience, to the priest, to de Gaulle, to the boss, to the engineer, that ‘thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,’ etc.”.[2]  Playing on the ambiguity in the term “subject,” wherein it can refer to either a “free subject” or a “subjected being,” Althusser forces these two into a single totality, wherein: “The individual is interpellated as a (free) subject in order that he shall submit freely to the commandments of the Subject, i.e., in order that he shall (freely) accept his subjection”[3]

Althusser confines his discussion largely to individual rather than collective subjectivities, ignoring the varying forms of collective self-consciousness and resultant collective action for self-liberation that emerges again and again on the part of oppressed classes, genders, nations, ethno-racial groups, and sexual minorities. This is a most problematic omission indeed for a Marxist.  But even if one remains on Althusser’s ground, that of the individual subject who is a mere subject of domination, isn’t he creating a false totality here?  Where is the possibility of contradictions between these individual subjects and their subjugation? Althusser acknowledges that such a situation may occur, but passes this off as a “bad” subject who is then dealt with by the openly “repressive” state apparatus, i.e., police, prisons, etc.[4][2]

But what about a rebellious individual subject whose rebellion touches off wide support within an entire subjected group?  Consider Rosa Parks getting herself arrested for violating the racial segregation laws on that bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, for example.  Parks’s actions, taken in connection with a large support network, which grew rapidly in the days following her arrest, touched off a decade of radical change today termed the Civil Rights Movement. When such an occurrence comes at the right moment, when historical circumstances are aligned toward liberation, and when the organization of both emancipatory ideas and the means to implement them are present, we have what Dunayevskaya called a “subjectivity which has absorbed objectivity, that is to say through its struggle for freedom it gets to know and cope with the objectively real”.[5]

Another problem with Althusser’s ideological superstructures is that they seem to float above the economic structures of society.  Here, his surprising, albeit muted, affinity to Maoism is important to note, something that is often missed because Althusser remained a member of the pro-Moscow French Communist Party.[3]  Such a focus on culture and ideology as opposed to economic base was also a hallmark of Mao’s theory of contradiction, as well as the underpinning for his “Cultural Revolution” of the late 1960s. That “revolution” was in reality more of a top-down affair in which Mao used Red Guards recruited from among the student youth – supported by one bureaucracy he did not shake up at this time, the military – in order to dislodge some of his fellow leaders, whom he deemed too close to Russia, among other sins.  The Maoist Red Guard attacks on forms of “Western culture,” like classical European music or books, supposedly constituted a challenge to global imperialism,[4] this at the very time when Mao was refusing to give much in the way of material aid to Vietnam in its struggle against U.S. imperialism. The whole process ended, not as Mao’s international followers had hoped, in the establishment of a new International to the left of the pro-Moscow Communist parties, but instead with a rapprochement with the United States under Richard Nixon, the butcher of Vietnam.

Another problematic feature of Althusser’s superstructures like religion, and to an extent, education, is that they are not new or unique to capitalism. Despite this, Althusser does not analyze their specifically capitalist character very much.  In this sense, his ideological superstructures lack historical development or grounding.  More problematically still, his focus on the cultural and superstructural realm obviates any real discussion of the working class, the human subject that is both subjected to and at the same time, in the form of a revolutionary subject, able to resist or even revolt against capital. Althusser implies that real changes have to begin at the level of superstructure, of ideology.  This ignores the fact that real changes in consciousness often result when changes in the economic structure of society wrench people out of their customary modes of existence, plunging them into new forms of production and property relations.

Althusser also famously attacked both Hegelianism and humanism as bourgeois, if not reactionary.  This was a departure even from orthodox, Engelsian Marxism. Although Engels had conceptualized idealism and materialism as a general dividing line between progressive and reactionary forms of philosophy, he made an exception for Hegel’s idealism, which he regarded as definitely revolutionary.  Thus, Engels had always acknowledged Hegel as an important antecedent of Marx’s thought.[5] Nor had Engels explicitly repudiated humanism, although he did not make a core category out of it either.

For his part, Althussser, reacting against both Marxist and existentialist humanism, went on the attack, writing of the “phantom” or “shade of Hegel.”  He called upon Marxists, as if exorcising a vampire, “to drive this phantom back into the night”[6].  Althusser was to continue this theme unabated throughout his intellectual career, rallying more orthodox Marxists against the threats posed by Hegelian and humanist versions of Marxism. He carried the debate into Lenin’s work as well, attempting to separate Lenin from Hegel, despite clear evidence to the contrary in Lenin’s 1914-15 Hegel notebooks.[6]

Althusser also attracted not a few younger intellectuals to an anti-humanist Marxism that, at least on the surface, did not mark a return to the earlier scientistic and quasi-positivist philosophical orientation of many earlier Marxists. This earlier scientistic orientation, attractive in an age when “progressive” science fought against religion, had been severely undermined during the post-World War II period, when various forms of radical humanism assailed the ravages that had taken place through the use of modern science, most notably the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.  But by the time Althusser came onto the scene, in the 1960s, some at least were ripe for an antihumanist counterattack, a sentiment that only grew larger in the wake of the defeats of the revolutionary movements of the 1960s. This was especially the case in France, where the near revolution of 1968 had first raised and then dashed hopes for a profoundly radical revolution inside an industrially developed capitalist society.

Beginning in the early 1960s, Althusser famously dismissed the writings of the early Marx as pre-Marxist, imbued with what he saw as liberal and Hegelian notions of alienation and humanism.  These writings were simply not Marxist, he held, because they were humanist. Althusser “knew” what was true Marxism, even when confronted with writings by Marx that did not cooperate with his form of knowing, and any attempt to widen the circle was simply a deviation: “Since the 1930s Marx’s Early Works have been a war-horse for petty bourgeois intellectuals in their struggle against Marxism…. Marx, Engels, and Lenin, to refer only to them, ceaselessly struggled against ideological interpretations of an idealist, humanist type that threatened Marxist theory”[7].

Althusser goes further, however, placing antihumanism at the core of Marx’s thought despite the lack of textual evidence on this point: “One can and must speak openly of Marx’s theoretical anti-humanism”[8] The term “speak openly” may have been intended to imply that “real” Marxists “knew” this, but had de-emphasized it in order to gain broader appeal.

The French Hegel scholar Jacques d’Hondt, who, unlike Althusser, was to resign from the French Communist Party in 1968 to protest the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, noted at the time that for generations, Marxists had been at great pains to answer attacks from liberal humanists, who had claimed that Marxism reduced the human being, in dehumanized fashion, to a set of economic categories and forces.  Therefore, wrote d’Hondt, the Althusserian attack on humanism amounted to “a type of provocation” that served to delink Marxism from the democratic and anti-fascist traditions to which it had often been allied. As against Althusser’s rejection of the term “man” or “human being” as a liberal illusion, d’Hondt noted that Marx had used this term when he wrote that the human being “makes history”.[9] Moreover, d’Hondt wrote, “One runs the risk of undermining Marxist methodology if its human basis is ignored.”  From a Marxist standpoint, he added, “the point is [human] liberation”.[10]

Althusser’s key Marxological notion, pursued more virulently than others who had only hinted at such a thesis, was that Marx made an “epistemological break” in 1845 with his earlier writings, especially the 1844 Manuscripts .[11]  Thus, the German Ideology of 1846, co-authored with Engels, was Marxist, but Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts was not.

Initially, Althusser dismissed attempts to tie Capital to Marx’s early writings via the psychoanalytic concept of projection: “The whole, fashionable theory of ‘reification’[7] depends upon a projection of the theory of alienation found in the early texts, particularly the 1844 Manuscripts, onto the theory of ‘fetishism’ in Capital”.[12]

He also distorts what are often held to be the most important pages in Capital. Ignoring Marx’s own language in the fetishism section to the effect that under capitalism, the “social relation” between human beings takes on “the fantastic form of a relation between things”[13], Althusser declares peremptorily: “In Capital the only social relation that is presented in the form of a thing (this piece of metal) is money”[14].

A few years later, in his preface to a widely circulated paperback edition of Capital, published in French in 1969, Althusser complains that the entire first part of Capital is marked by “a method of presentation” imbued with “Hegelian prejudice”[15]. For these and other reasons, Althusser advises the reader to “leave Part I (Commodities and Money) deliberately on one side in a first reading”[16].[8]

By now, Althusser had modified his earlier notion of an 1845 “epistemological break” with Hegel on Marx’s part. Here in 1969, he laments “survivals in Marx’s language and even in his thought of the influence of Hegel’s thought” in Capital itself.[17]  Marx, it seems, did not become fully “Marxist” until nearly a decade after he first published Capital, with “Critique of the Gotha Program (1875) as well as the Marginal Notes on Wagner” of 1881, texts that were finally free of the supposed taint of Hegel and humanism.[18]  In other words, Marx was not really a Marxist until eight years before his death!

At this juncture, Althusser’s argument flirted with an open anti-Marxism, and in no small way anticipated the poststructuralist rejection by Michel Foucault and others of Marx tout court, as an Hegelian humanist whose thought was supposedly marked by the concept of a fixed human essence.



Ben Brewster, trans. Louis Althusser. For Marx. . (New York: Vintage [1965] 1969).

Ben Brewster, trans. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays.  (New York: Monthly Review Press: 1971).

Anderson, Kevin. Lenin, Hegel, and Western Marxism: A Critical Study. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press: 1995.

Dunayevskaya, Raya.  Marxism and Freedom: From 1776 Until Today. (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books[1958] 2000).

Philosophy and RevolutionFrom Hegel to Sartre and from Marx to Mao. With a Preface by Erich Fromm and a Preface by Louis Dupré. (New York: Columbia University Press[1973] 1989).

Hondt, Jacques d’. De Hegel à Marx. (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France 1972).

Ben Fowkes, trans. Karl Marx. Capital. [1867-75]  Capital. Vol. I.  (New York: Vintage 1976).


Additional Links

[1] Both the French word interpellation, spelled the same as its English equivalent, and that equivalent carry the meaning of posing a question to a government minister in a parliamentary system in such a way as to provoke a vote of no confidence in that minister. However, the French term (and not the English one) also refers – here in a more sinister and repressive sense – to the common practice of the French police to interpeller [interpellate] a suspect for a number of days without a formal arrest, this in a legal system that lacks the notion of habeas corpus.

[2] He also mentions class struggle briefly in a postscript, but without much concretization.

[3] Many of Althusser’s students did become Maoists, however.  And it should also be noted, with regard to Althusser’s virulent rejection of the young Marx’s humanist writings (to be discussed below), that here too, Maoism was more in sync with Althusser than the Soviet Marxism of the early 1960s, which had begun to use the term “humanism” on occasion, to its own advantage.  Similarly to Althusser, however, the man who was then the leading philosopher in Maoist China, Zhou [Chou] Yang, wrote in 1963 that the young “Marx and Engels were, indeed, somewhat influenced by Humanist ideas,” but once they had “formulated the materialist concept of history and discovered the class struggle is the motive force of social development, they got rid of this bourgeois influence” (cited in Dunayevskaya [1973] 1989, p. 182).  Subsequently, Zhou was purged and abused during the Cultural Revolution and by the 1980s was himself writing in a Marxist humanist vein.

[4] We find foreshadowed here a whole series of events that also attacked “Western” culture in the name of anti-imperialism, and over time, cultural “purity.”  These ranged from Ayatollah Khomeini’s draconian restrictions on women in the first months after the Iranian revolution of 1979, to the Taliban’s dynamiting of Buddhist statues in Afghanistan in early 2001.

[5] Jacques d’Hondt (1972) emphasizes this point in his critique of Althusser.

[6] On this point, see my earlier book (Anderson 1995).

[7] Here Althusser ignored the fact that the concept of reification in Marx was brought to the fore by Georg Lukács in 1923 in History and Class Consciousness, a text that mentioned neither alienation nor humanism.  Lukács’s book appeared several years before Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts, including the essay on “Alienated Labor,” had been unearthed from the archives and then first published in Russian (1927) and German (1932).

[8] This injunction seems incongruous today, given the increased recognition of the importance of commodity fetishism and value theory.


[1] Ben Brewster, trans.Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays.  (New York: Monthly Review Press:1971) 181.

[2] Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays 181.

[3] Ibid, 182.

[4] Ibid, 181

[5]Dunayevskaya, Raya.  Marxism and Freedom: From 1776 Until Today. (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books[1958] 2000) 327.

[6]  Ben Brewster, trans. Louis, Althusser. For Marx.  (New York: Vintage [1965] 1969. ) 116.

[7] For Marx. 10-11.

[8] Ibid, 229.

[9] Hondt, Jacques d’. De Hegel à Marx. (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France 1972) 225.

[10] De Hegel à Marx, 228.

[11]  Ben Brewster, trans. Louis  Althusser. For Marx.  (New York: Vintage [1965] 1969) 33.

[12] For Marx, 230.

[13] Ben Fowkes, trans. Karl Marx. Capital. [1867-75]  Capital. Vol. I.  (New York: Vintage 1976) 165.

[14] Ben Brewster, trans. Louis Althusser. For Marx.  (New York: Vintage [1965] 1969) 230.

[15] Ben Brewster, trans.Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays.  (New York: Monthly Review Press:1971) 90.

[16] Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, 88.

[17] Ibid, 93.

[18] Ibid, 93-94.


Louis Pierre Althusser (French: [altysɛʁ]; 16 October 1918 – 22 October 1990) was a French Marxist philosopher. He was born in Algeria and studied at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, where he eventually became Professor of Philosophy.

Althusser was a longtime member—although sometimes a strong critic—of the French Communist Party. His arguments and theses were set against the threats that he saw attacking the theoretical foundations of Marxism. These included both the influence of empiricism on Marxist theory, and humanist and reformist socialist orientations which manifested as divisions in the European communist parties, as well as the problem of the "cult of personality" and of ideology.

Althusser is commonly referred to as a structural Marxist, although his relationship to other schools of French structuralism is not a simple affiliation and he was critical of many aspects of structuralism.

Althusser's life was marked by periods of intense mental illness. In 1980, he killed his wife, the sociologist Hélène Rytmann, by strangling her. He was declared unfit to stand trial due to insanity and was committed to a psychiatric hospital for three years. He did little further academic work, dying in 1990.

Early life: 1918–1948[edit]

Althusser was born in French Algeria in the town of Birmendreïs, near Algiers, to a pied-noirpetit-bourgeois family from Alsace, France. His father, Charles-Joseph Althusser, was a lieutenant officer in the French army and a bank clerk, while his mother, Lucienne Marthe Berger, a devout Roman Catholic, worked as a school teacher. According to his own memoirs, his Algerian childhood was prosperous; historian Martin Jay stated that Althusser, as well as Albert Camus and Jacques Derrida, was "a product of the French colonial culture in Northern Africa." In 1930, his family moved to the French city of Marseille as his father was to be the director of the Compagnie algérienne de banque (Algerian Banking Company) branch in the city. There, Althusser spent the rest of his childhood, excelling in his studies at the Lycée Saint-Charles (fr) and joining a scout group. A second displacement occurred in 1936; settled in Lyon, Althusser was a student at the Lycée du Parc, where he studied to be later accepted by the highly regarded higher-education establishment (grande école) École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris. While in Lycée du Parc, Althusser was influenced by Catholic professors,[b] joined the Catholic youth movement Jeunesse Étudiante Chrétienne, and wanted to be a Trappist. His interest in Catholicism even coexisted with his communist ideology, and some critics appointed that his early Catholic introduction affected the way he interpreted Marx.

After a two-year period of preparation (Khâgne) under Jean Guitton at the Lycée du Parc, Althusser was admitted into the ENS in July 1939. His attendance, however, was deferred by many years, because he was drafted to the French Army in September of that year for the run-up to World War II and, like most French soldiers following the Fall of France, was captured by the Germans. Seized in Vannes in June 1940, he was cloistered in a prisoner-of-war camp in Schleswig-Holstein, in the Northern Germany, during all the five remaining years of the war. In the camp, he was drafted to hard labour but was reassigned to work in the infirmary after falling ill—this second occupation allowed him to read philosophy and literature. In his memoirs, Althusser described the experiences of solidarity, political action, and community in the camp as the moment he first understand the idea of communism. Althusser recalled: "It was in prison camp that I first heard Marxism discussed by a Parisian lawyer in transit—and that I actually met a communist". In contrast, his living in the camp was also decisive on his lifelong bouts of mental instability, which was reflected in constant depression that lasted until the end of life. Nevertheless, psychoanalyst Élisabeth Roudinesco said the absurd war experience was essential for Althusser's philosophical thought.

Althusser resumed his studies at the ENS in 1945 to prepare himself for the agrégation, an exame to teach philosophy in secondary schools. In 1946, Althusser met sociologist Hélène Rytmann,[c] a Jewish former resistance member, with whom he would began a lifelong relationship. That same year, he started a close friendly relationship with Jacques Martin, a G. W. F. Hegel and Herman Hesse translator, who later committed suicide and to whom Althusser dedicated his first book. Martin was decisive on Althusser's interest on reading the bibliography of Jean Cavaillès, Georges Canguilhem and Hegel. At the same time, Althusser remained a Catholic but become more associated with left-wing groups; he joined the "worker priests" movement, and embraced a synthesis of Christian and Marxist thought. This combination may have led him to adopt German Idealism and Hegelian thought, as did Martin's influence and a renewed interest on Hegel in the 1930s and 1940s in France. In consonance, Althusser's master thesis to obtain his diplôme d'études supèrieures was "On Content in the Thought of G.W.F. Hegel" ("Du contenu dans la pensée de G. W. F. Hegel", 1947). Based on The Phenomenology of Spirit, and under Gaston Bachelard's supervision, Althusser disserted on how Karl Marx's philosophy refused to withdraw from the Hegelian master–slave dialectic. According to the researcher Gregory Elliott, Althusser was a Hegelian at that time but it would be for a short period.

Academic life and Communist Party affiliation: 1948–1959[edit]

In 1948, he was approved to teach in secondary schools but instead was made a tutor at the ENS to help students prepare for their own agrégation. His performance on the exam—he was the best ranked on the writing part and the second placed on the oral module—guaranteed this change on his occupation. He was responsible for offering special courses and tutorials on particular topics and on particular figures from the history of philosophy. In 1954, he became secrétaire de l'école litteraire (secretary of the literary school), assuming responsibilities for management and direction of the school. Althusser was deeply influential at the ENS because of the lectures and conferences he organized with participation of leading French philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Lacan. He also impacted a generation of French philosophers and French philosophy in general—among his students, there were Derrida, Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Foucault, and Michel Serres. In total, Althusser spent thirty-five years in the ENS, working there until November 1980.

Parallel to his academic life, Althusser joined the French Communist Party (Parti communiste français, PCF) in October 1948. In the early post-war years, the PCF was one of the most influential political forces and many French intellectuals have entered into it. Althusser himself declared, "Communism was in the air in 1945, after the German defeat, the victory at Stalingrad, and the hopes and lessons of the Resistance." Althusser was primarily active on the "Peace Movement" section and kept for a few years his Catholic beliefs. For example, in 1949 he published in the L'Évangile captif (The captive gospel), the tenth book of the Jeunesse de l'Église (the youth wing of Church), an article on the historic situation of Catholicism in response to the question: "Is the good news preached to the men today?". On it, he wrote about the relationship between the Catholic Church and the labour movement, advocating at the same time for social emancipation and the Church "religious reconquest". However, there was a mutual hostility between these two organizations—in the early 1950s, the Vatican prohibited Catholics from membership in the worker priests and left-wing movements and it certainly affected Althusser's life since he firmly believed on this combination.

Initially afraid of joining the party because of ENS' opposition to communists, Althusser did so when he was made a tutor—then it was improbable to be bypassed because of his membership—and he even created there the Cercle Politzer, a Marxist study group. Althusser also introduced colleagues and students to the party and worked closely with the communist cell of the ENS. However, his professionalism made him avoiding Marxism and Communism in his classes; instead, he helped students depending on the demands of their agrégation. In the early 1950s, Althusser distanced himself from his youthful political and philosophical ideals and from Hegel, whose teachings he considered a "bourgeois" philosophy. Starting from 1948, he studied history of philosophy and gave lectures on it; the first was about Plato in 1949. In 1949–1950, he gave a lecture about René Descartes,[d] and wrote a thesis titled "Politics and Philosophy in the Eighteenth Century" and a small study on Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "Second Discourse". He presented the thesis to Jean Hyppolite and Vladimir Jankélévitch in 1950 but it was rejected. These studies were nonetheless valuable because Althusser later used they to write his book about Montesquieu's philosophy and an essay on Rousseau's The Social Contract. Indeed, his first and the only book-length study published during his lifetime was Montesquieu, la politique et l'histoire ("Montesquieu: Politics and History") in 1959. He also lectured on Rousseau from 1950 to 1955, and changed a little his focus to philosophy of history, also studying Voltaire, Condorcet, and Helvétius, which resulted on a 1955–1956 lecture on "Les problèmes de la philosophie de l'histoire". This course along with others on Machiavelli (1962), 17th and 18th political philosophy (1965–1966), Locke (1971), and Hobbes (1971–1972) were later edited and released as a book by François Matheron in 2006. From 1953 to 1960, Althusser basically did not publish on Marxist themes, which in turn gave him time to focus on his teaching activities and establish himself as a reputable philosopher and researcher.

Major works, For Marx and Reading Capital: 1960–1968[edit]

Althusser resumed his Marxist-related publications in 1960 as he translated, edited, and published a collection directed by Hyppolite about Ludwig Feuerbach's works. The objective of this endeavour was to precise Feuerbach's influence on Marx early writings, contrasting it with the absence of his thought on Marx's mature works. This work influenced him on writing "On the Young Marx: Theoretical Questions" ("Sur le jeune Marx – Questions de théorie", 1961). Published in the journal La Pensée, it was the first in a series of articles about Marx that were later grouped on his most famous book For Marx. He inflamed the French debate on Marx and Marxist philosophy, and gained a considerable amount of supporters. Inspired by this recognition, he started to publish more articles on Marxist thought. For example, in 1964, Althusser published an article titled "Freud and Lacan" in the journal La Nouvelle Critique, which greatly impacted the Freudo-Marxism thought. At the same time, he invited Lacan to a lecture on Baruch Spinoza and the fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis. The impact of the articles led Althusser to change his teaching style at the ENS, and he started to minister a series of seminars on the following topics: "On the Young Marx" (1961–1962), "The Origins of Structuralism" (1962–1963; it versed on Foucault's History of Madness, which Althusser highly appreciated), "Lacan and Psychoanalysis" (1963–1964), and Reading Capital (1964–1965). These seminars aimed for a "return to Marx" and were attended by a new generation of students.[e]

For Marx (a collection of works published between 1961 and 1965) and Reading Capital (in collaboration with some of his students), both published in 1965, brought international fame to Althusser. Despite being widely criticized, these books made Althusser a sensation in French intellectual circles and one of the leading theoreticians of the PCF. He supported a structuralist view on Marx's work, influenced by Cavaillès and Canguilhem, affirming that Marx left the "cornerstones" of a new science, incomparable to all non-Marxist thought, of which, from 1960–1966, he expoused the fundamental principles. Critics were done to Stalin's cult of personality and Althusser defended what he called "theoretical anti-humanism", as an alternative to Stalinism and the Marxist humanism—both popular at the time. At mid-decade, his popularity grew to the point that it was virtually impossible to have an intellectual debate about politicis or ideology theoretical questions without mentioning his name. Althusser's ideas were influential enough to arouse the creation of a young militants group to dispute the power within the PCF. Nevertheless, the official position of the party was still Stalinist Marxism, which was criticized both from Maoist and humanist groups. Althusser was initially careful not to identify with Maoism but progressively agreed with its critic of Stalinism. In the end of 1966, Althusser even published an unsigned article titled "On the Cultural Revolution", in which he considered the beginning of the Chinese Cultural Revolution as "a historical fact without precedent" and of "enormous theoretical interest". Althusser mainly praised the non-bureaucratic, non-party, mass organizations in which, in his opinion, the "Marxist principles regarding the nature of the ideological' were fully applied.

Key events in the theoretical struggle took place in 1966. In January, there was a conference of communist philosophers in Choisy-le-Roi; Althusser was absent but Roger Garaudy, the official philosopher of the party, read an indictment that opposed the "theoretical anti-humanism". The controversy was the pinnacle of a long conflict between the supporters of Althusser and Garaudy. In March, in Argenteuil, the thesis of Garaudy and Althusser were formally confronted by the PCF Central Committee, chaired by Louis Aragon. The Party decided to keep Garaudy's position as the official one, and even Lucien Sève (fr)—who was a student of Althusser at the beginning of his teaching at the ENS—supported it, becoming the closest philosopher to the PCF leadership. General secretary of the party, Waldeck Rochet said that "Communism without humanism would not be Communism". Even if he was not publicly censured nor expelled from the PCF, as were 600 Maiost students, the support of Garaudy resulted in a further reduction of Althusser's influence in the party.

Still in 1966, Althusser published in the Cahiers pour l'Analyse the article "On the 'Social Contract'" ("Sur le 'Contrat Social'"), a course about Rousseau he had given at the ENS, and "Cremonini, Painter of the Abstract" ("Cremonini, peintre de l'abstrait") about Italian painter Leonardo Cremonini. In the following year, he wrote a long article titled "The Historical Task of Marxist Philosophy" ("La tâche historique de la philosophie marxiste") that was submitted to the Soviet journal Voprossi Filosofii; it was not accepted but was published a year later in a Hungarian journal. In 1967–1968, Althusser and his students organized an ENS course titled "Philosophy Course for Scientists" ("Cours de philosophie pour scientifiques") that would be interrupted by May 1968 events. Some of the material of the course was reused in his 1974 book Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists (Philosophie et philosophie spontanée des savants). Another Althusser's significant work from this period was "Lenin and Philosophy", a lecture first presented in February 1968 at the French Society of Philosophy (fr).

May 1968, Eurocommunism debates, and auto-critique: 1968–1978[edit]

During the events of May 1968, Althusser was hospitalized because of a depressive breakdown and was absent in the Latin Quarter. Many of his students have participated in the events, and Régis Debray in particular became an international celebrity revolutionary. His initial silence was met with criticism by the protesters, who wrote on walls: "Of what use is Althusser?" ("A quoi sert Althusser?"). Later, Althusser was ambivalent about it; on the one hand, he was not supportive of the movement and he criticized the movement as an "ideological revolt of the mass", adopting the PCF official argument that an "infantile disorder" of anarchistic utopianism that had infiltrated the student movement. On the other hand, he called it "the most significant event in Western history since the Resistance and the victory over Nazism" and wanted to reconcile the students and the PCF. Nevertheless, the Maoist journal La Cause du peuple called him a revisionist, and he was condemned by former students, mainly by Jacques Rancière. After it, Althusser went through a phase of "self-criticism" that resulted in the book Essays in Self-criticism (Éléments d'autocritique, 1974) in which he revisited some of his old position, including his support of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

In 1969, Althusser started an unfinished work[f] that was only released in 1995 as Sur la reproduction ("On the Reproduction"). However, from these early manuscript, he developed "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses", which was published in the journal La Pensée in 1970, and became very influential on ideology discussions. In the same year, Althusser wrote "Marxism and Class Struggle" ("Marxisme et lutte de classe") that would be the foreword to the book The Basic Concepts of Historical Materialism of his former student, the Chilean Marxist sociologist Marta Harnecker. By this time, Althusser was very popular in Latin America: some leftist activists and intellectuals seemed him almost as a new Marx, although his work has been the subject of heated debates and sharp criticism. As an example of this popularity, some of his works were first translated to Spanish than into English, and others were released in book format first in Spanish than in French.[g] At the turn from the 1960s to the 1970s, Althusser major works were translated into English—For Marx, in 1969, and Reading Capital in 1970—disseminating his ideas among the English-speaking Marxists.

In the early 1970s, the PCF was, as most of European Communist parties, in a period of internal conflicts on strategic orientation that occurred against the backdrop of the emergence of Eurocommunism. In this context, Althusserian structuralist Marxism was one of the more or less defined strategic lines. Althusser participated in various public events of the PCF, most notably the public debate "Communists, Intellectuals and Culture" ("Les communistes, les intellectuels et la culture") in 1973. He and his supporters contested the party's leadership over its decision to abandon the notion of the "dictatorship of the proletariat" during its twenty-second congress in 1976. The PCF considered that in European condition it was possible to have a peaceful transition to socialism, which Althusser saw as "a new opportunistic version of Marxist Humanism". In a lecture given to the Union of Communist Students in the same year, he criticized above all the form in which this decision was taken. According to Althusser—echoing his notion of "French misery" exposed on For Marx—the party demonstrated a contempt for the materialist theory when it suppressed a "scientific concept". This struggle ultimately resulted in the debacle of the fraction "Union of the Left" and an open letter written by Althusser and five other intellectuals in which they asked for "a real political discussion in the PCF". That same year Althusser also published a series of articles in the newspaper Le Monde under the title of "What Must Change in the Party". Published between 25 and 28 April, they were expanded and reprinted in May 1978 by François Maspero as the book Ce qui ne peut plus durer dans le parti communiste. Between 1977 and 1978, Althusser mainly elaborated texts criticizing Eurocommunism and the PCF. "Marx in his Limits" ("Marx dans ses limits"), an abandoned manuscript wrote in 1978, argued that there was no Marxist theory of the state and it was only published in 1994 in the Écrits philosophiques et politiques I. The Italian Communist newspaper Il manifesto allowed Althusser to develop new ideas on a conference held in Venice about "Power and Opposition in Post-Revolutionary Societies" in 1977. His speeches resulted into the articles "The Crisis of Marxism" ("La crisi del marxismo") and "Marxism as a 'finite' theory" in which he stressed "something vital and alive can be liberated by this crisis": the perception of Marxism as a theory that originally only reflected Marx's time and then needed to be completed by a state theory. The former was published as "Marxism Today" ("Marxismo oggi") in the 1978 Italian Enciclopedia Europea. The latter text was included in a book published in Italy, Discutere lo Stato, and he criticized the notion of "government party" and defended the notion of a revolutionary party "out of state".

During the 1970s, Althusser's institutional roles at the ENS increased but he still edited and published his and other works in the series Théorie, with François Maspero. Among the essays published, there was "Response to John Lewis", a 1973 reply of an English Communist's defense of Marxist Humanism. Two years later, he concluded his Doctorat d'État (State doctorate) in the University of Picardie Jules Verne and acquired the right to direct research on the basis of his previously published work. Some time after this recognition, Althusser married Hélène Rytmann. In 1976, he compilled several of his essays written between 1964 and 1975 to publish Positions. These years would be a period in which his work is very intermittent; he gave a conference titled "The Transformation of Philosophy" ("La transformation de la philosophie") in two Spanish cities, first Granada and then in Madrid, in March 1976. The same year he gave a lecture in Catalonia titled "Quelques questions de la crise de la théorie marxiste et du mouvement communiste international" ("Some Questions on the Crisis of Marxist Theory and the International Communist Movement") in which Althusser outlined empiricism as the main enemy of class struggle. He also started a rereading of Machiavelli that would influence his later work; he worked between 1975–1976 on "Machiavel et nous" ("Machiavelli and Us"), a draft, only published posthumously, based on a 1972 lecture, and also wrote for the National Foundation of Political Science a piece titled "Machiavelli's Solitude" ("Solitude de Machiavel", 1977). In Spring 1976, requested by Léon Chertok to write for the International Symposium on the Unconscious at Tbilisi, he drafted a presentation titled "The Discovery of Dr. Freud" ("La découverte du docteur Freud"). After sending it to Chertok and some friends, he was unsettled by the requested criticism he received by Jacques Nassif and Roudinesco, and then, by December, he wrote a new essay, "On Marx and Freud". He could not attend the event in 1979 and asked Chertok to replace the texts, but Chertok published the first without his consent. This would become a public "affair" in 1984 when Althusser finally noticed it by the time Chertok republished it in a book titled Dialogue franco-soviétique, sur la psychanalyse.

Hélène's murder and late years: 1978–1990[edit]

After the PCF and the left were defeated in the French legislative elections of 1978, Atlhusser's bouts of depression became more severe and frequent. For example, in March 1980, Althusser interrupted the dissolution session of the École Freudienne de Paris, and, "in the name of the analysts," called Lacan "beautiful and pitiful harlequin." Later, he went through a hiatal hernia-removal surgery as he had difficulties breathing while eating. According to Althusser himself, the operation deteriorated his physical and mental state; in particular, he developed a persecution complex and suicidal thoughts. He would recall later:

I wanted not only to destroy myself physically but to wipe out all trace of my time on earth: in particular, to destroy every last one of my books and all my notes, and burn the École Normale, and also, "if possible," suppress Hélène herself while I still could.

After the surgery, in May, he was hospitalized for most of the summer in a Parisian clinic. His condition did not improve, but in early October he was sent home. Upon returning, he wanted to get away from ENS and even proposed to buy Roudinesco's house. He and Hélène were also convinced about the "human decline", and so he tried to talk to the Pope John Paul II through his former professor Jean Guitton. Most of the time, however, he and his wife spent locked on their ENS apartment. In the fall of 1980, Althusser's psychiatrist René Diatkine (fr), who by now was also treating Althusser's wife Hélène, recommended that Althusser be hospitalized, but the couple refused.

Before me: Hélène lying on her back, also wearing a dressing gown. ... Kneeling beside her, leaning over her body, I am engaged in massaging her neck. ... I press my two thumbs into the hollow of flesh that borders the top of the sternum, and, applying force, I slowly reach, one thumb toward the right, one thumb toward the left at an angle, the firmer area below the ears. ... Hélène's face is immobile and serene, her open eyes are fixed on the ceiling. And suddenly I am struck with terror: her eyes are interminably fixed, and above all here is the tip of her tongue lying, unusually and peacefully, between her teeth and her lips. I had certainly seen corpses before, but I had never seen the face of a strangled woman in my life. And yet I know that this is a strangled woman. What is happening? I stand up and scream: I've strangled Hélène!
— Althusser, L'avenir dure longtemps

On 16 November 1980, Althusser strangled Hélène in their ENS room. He himself reported the murder to the doctor in residence who contacted psychiatric institutions. Even before the police arrival, the doctor and the director of ENS decided to hospitalize him in the Sainte-Anne hospital and a psychiatric examination was conducted on him. Due to his mental state, Althusser did not understand the charges or the process to which he was to be submitted, so he was left at the hospital. The psychiatric analysis concluded he should not be criminally charged, based on article 64 of the French Penal Code, which stated that "there is neither crime nor delict where the suspect was in a state of dementia at the time of the action". The report said Althusser killed Hélène in the course of an acute crisis of melancholy, without even realizing it, and that the "wife-murder by manual strangulation was committed without any additional violence, in the course of [an] iatrogenic hallucinatory episode complicated by melancholic depression." As a result, he lost his civil rights, entrusted to a representative of the law, and he was forbidden to sign any documents. In February 1981, the court ruled Althusser as having been mentally irresponsible when he committed the murder, therefore he could not be prosecuted and was not charged. Nonetheless, a warrant of confinement was subsequendy issued by the Paris police prefecture; the Ministry of National Education mandated his retirement from the ENS; and the ENS requested his family and friends to clear out his apartment. In June, he was transferred to the L'Eau-Vive clinc at Soisy-sur-Seine.

The murder of Hélène attracted much media attention, and there were several requests to treat Althusser as an ordinary criminal. The newspaper Minute, journalist Dominique Jamet (fr) and Minister of Justice Alain Peyrefitte were among those who accused Althusser of having "privileges" because of the fact he was Communist. From this point of view, Roudinesco wrote, Althusser was three times a criminal. First, the philosopher had legitimated the current of thought judged responsible for the Gulag; second, he praised the Chinese Cultural Revolution as an alternative to both capitalism and Stalinism; and finally because he had, it was said, corrupted the elite of French youth by introducing the cult of a criminal ideology into the heart of one of the best French institutions. Philosopher Pierre-André Taguieff went further on claiming Althusser taught his students to perceive crimes positively, as akin to a revolution. Five years after the murder, a critic by Le Monde's Claude Sarraute would have a great impact on Althusser. She compared his case to the situation of Issei Sagawa, who killed and cannibalized a woman in France, but whose psychiatric diagnostic absolved him. Sarraute criticized the fact that, when prestigious names are involved, a lot is written about them and that nothing tends to be told in the media about the victim. Althusser's friends persuaded him to speak in his defense, and the philosopher wrote an autobiography in 1985. He showed the result, L'avenir dure longtemps,[h] to some of his friends and considered to publish it, but he never sent it to a publisher and locked it in his desk drawer, and the book was only published posthumously in 1992.

Despite the critics, some of his friends, such as Guitton and Debray, went to defend him, saying it was an act of love—as Althusser argued too. Hélène had bouts of melancholy and self-medicated herself because of this. Guitton said, "I sincerely think that he killed his wife out of love of her. It was a crime of mystical love". Debray compared it to an altruistic suicide: "He suffocated her under a pillow to save her from the anguish that was suffocating him. A beautiful proof of love .. . that one can save one's skin while sacrificing oneself for the other, only to take upon oneself all the pain of living". In his autobiography, wrote to be the public explanation he could not provide in court, Althusser stated that "she matter-of-factly asked me to kill her myself, and this word, unthinkable and intolerable in its horror, caused my whole body to tremble for a long time. It still makes me tremble.... We were living shut up in the cloister of our hell, both of us."

I killed a woman who was everything to me during a crisis of mental confusion, she who loved me to the point of wanting only to die because she could not continue living. And no doubt in my confusion and unconsciousness I 'did her this service,' which she did not try to prevent, but from which she died.
— Althusser, L'avenir dure longtemps

The crime seriously tarnished Althusser's reputation. As Roudinesco wrote, since 1980, he lived his life as a "specter, a dead man walking". Althusser forcibly lived in various public and private clinics until 1983, when he became a voluntary patient. He was able to start an untitled manuscript during this time, in 1982; it was later published as "The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter" ("Le courant souterrain du matérialisme de la rencontre"). From 1984 to 1986, he stayed at an apartment in the north of Paris, where he remained confined most of his time, but he also received visits from some friends, such as philosopher and theologian Stanislas Breton, who was also a prisoner in the German stalags; from Guitton, who converted him into "mystic monk" in Roudinesco's words; and from Mexican philosopher Fernanda Navarro during six months, starting from the winter of 1984. Althusser and Navarro exchanged letters until February 1987, and he also wrote a preface in July 1986 for the resulting book, Filosofía y marxismo, a collection of her interviews with Althusser that was released in Mexico in 1988. These interviews and correspondence were collected and published in France in 1994 as Sur la philosophie. In this period he formulated his "materialism of the encounter" or "aleatory materialism", talking to Breton and Navarro about it, that first appeared in Écrits philosophiques et politiques I (1994) and later in the 2006 Verso book Philosophy of the Encounter. In 1987, after Althusser went through an emergency operation because of the obstruction of the esophagus, he developed a new clinical picture of depression. First brought to the Soisy-sur-Seine clinic, he was transferred to the psychiatric institution MGEN in La Verrière. There, following a pneumonia contracted during the summer, he died of a heart attack on 22 October 1990.

Personal life[edit]

Romantic life[edit]

Althusser was such a homely person that biographer William S. Lewis affirmed, "Althusser had known only home, school, and P.O.W. camp" by the time he met his future wife. In contrast, when he first met Hélène in 1946, she was a former member of the French resistance and a Communist activist. After fighting along with Jean Beaufret in the group "Service Périclès", she joined the PCF. However, she was expelled from the party accused of being a double agent for Gestapo, for "Trotskyist deviation" and "crimes", which probably referred to the execution of former Nazi collaborators. Although high-ranking party officials instructed him to sever relations with Hélène, Althusser tried to restore her reputation in the PCF for a long time by making inquiries into her wartime activities. Although he did not succeeded to reinsert her into the party, his relationship with Hélène nonetheless deepened during this period. Their relationship "was traumatic from the outset, so Althusser claims", wrote Elliott; among the reasons, was his almost total inexperience with women and by the fact she was eight years older than him.

I had never embraced a woman, and above all I had never been embraced by a woman (at age thirty!). Desire mounted in me, we made love on the bed, it was new, exciting, exalting, and violent. When she (Hélène) had left, an abysm of anguish opened up in me, never again to close.
— Althusser, L'avenir dure longtemps

His feelings toward her were contradictory from the very beginning; the strong emotional impact she caused on him led him to deep depression. Roudinesco wrote that, for Althusser, Hélène represented the opposite of himself: she had been in the Resistance while he was remote from the anti-Nazi combat; she was a Jew who carried the stamp of the Holocaust, whereas he, despite his conversion to Marxism, never escaped the formative effect of Catholicism; she suffered from the Stalinism at the very moment when he was joining the party; and, in opposition to his petit-bourgeois background, her childhood was not prosperous — at the age of 13 she became a sexual abuse victim by a family doctor who, in addition, instructed her to give her terminally ill parents a dose of morphine. According to Roudinesco, she embodied for Althusser his "displaced conscience", "pitiless superego", "damned part", "black animality".

Althusser considered that Hélène gave him "a world of solidarity and struggle, a world of reasoned action, ... a world of courage". According to him, they performed an indispensable maternal and paternal function for one another: "She loved me as a mother loves a child... and at the same time like a good father in that she introduced me ... to the real world, that vast arena I had never been able to enter. ... Through her desire for me she also initiated me ... into my role as a man, into my masculinity. She loved me as a woman loves a man!" Roudinesco argued that Hélène represented for him "the sublimated figure of his own hated mother to whom he remained attached all his life". In his autobiography, he wrote: "If I was dazzled by Hélène's love and the miraculous privilege of knowing her and having her in my life, I tried to give that back to her in my own way, intensely and, if I may put it this way, as a religious offering, as I had done for my mother."

Although Althusser was really in love with Hélène, he also had affairs with other women. Roudinesco commented that "unlike Hélène, the other women loved by Louis Althusser were generally of great physical beauty and sometimes exceptionally sensitive to intellectual dialogue". She gives as an example of the latter case a woman named Claire Z., with whom he had a long relationship until he was forty-two. They break up when he met Franca Madonia, a philosopher, translator, and playwright from a well-off Italian bourgeois family from Romagna. Madonia was married to Mino, whose sister Giovanna was married to the Communist painter Leonardo Cremonini. Every summer the two families gathered in a residence in the village of Bertinoro, and, according to Roudinesco, "It was in this magical setting ... that Louis Althusser fell in love with Franca, discovering through her everything he had missed in his own childhood and that he lacked in Paris: a real family, an art of living, a new manner of thinking, speaking, desiring". She influenced him to appreciate modern theater (Luigi Pirandello, Bertolt Brecht, Samuel Beckett), and, Roudinesco wrote, also on his detachment of Stalinism and "his finest texts (For Marx especially) but also his most important concepts". In her company in Italy in 1961, as Elliott affirmed, was also when he "truly discovered" Machiavelli. Between 1961 and 1965, they exchanged letters and telephone calls, and they also went on trips together, in which they talk about the current events, politics, and theory, as well made confidences on the happinesses and unhappinesses of daily life. However, Madonia had an explosive reaction when Althusser tried to make her Hélène's friend, and seek to bring Mino into their meetings. They nevertheless continued to exchange letters until 1973; these were published in 1998 into an 800-page book Lettres à Franca.

Mental condition[edit]

Althusser suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and because of it he had frequent bouts of depression that started in 1938 and became regular after his five-year stay in German captivity. From the 1950s onward, he was under constant medical supervision, often undergoing, in Lewis' words, "the most aggressive treatments post-war French psychiatry had to offer", which included electroconvulsive therapy, narco-analysis, and psychoanalysis. Althusser did not limit himself to prescribed medications and practiced self-medication. The disease affected his academic productivity: for example, in 1962, the philosopher began to write a book about Machiavelli during a depressive exacerbation but was interrupted by a three-months stay in a clinic. The main psychoanalist he attended was the anti-Lacanian René Diatkine, starting from 1964, after he had a dream about killing his own sister.

The Lycée du Parc, where Althusser studied for two years and was influenced by Catholic professors
The main entrance to the École Normale Supérieure on Rue d'Ulm, where Althusser established himself as well-known intellectual

While Althusser was criticized in France by his former students, such as Jacques Rancière (right), his influence in Latin America grew, as exemplified by Marta Harnecker.

Leave a Comment


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *