The Life & Work of Louis Althusser

His Life

Louis Althusser was born on October 16, 1918, in Bir Mourad Raïs, a suburb of Algiers in France-controlled Algeria, to a French army lieutenant and a schoolteacher, both French citizens who had chosen to reside in the French colony. From relatively modest beginnings, Althusser became one of the most prominent Marxist class philosophers of the 20th century; his ideas on the manner in which class and ideology interact within the Marxist doctrine sparked worldwide debate and discussions, moving Marxism forward as a whole. Unfortunately, Althusser was also a very tortured man; towards the end of his life, in a fit of what was described as “melancholic depression,” he strangled his wife to death, landing him in an insane asylum for three years.

 A large portion of information regarding Althusser’s early life comes from his autobiography penned while in the Sainte-Anne Psychiatric Hospital, titled L’avenir dure longtemps, or roughly, “The Future Lasts Forever.” As previously stated, Althusser was born in France-controlled Algeria in 1918 to two European-born parents, becoming what was known as a pied-noir, a person of French descent born in Algeria. He spent all of his early years there, enjoying a relatively comfortable life. In 1930, he and his family moved to the southern French city of Marseille, followed by a move in 1936 to Lyon to join the Lycée du Parc. In 1937, Althusser became a member of the Jeunesse Etudiante Chrétienne, a French Catholic youth movement, which some argue influenced the way in which he read and interpreted Marx. Althusser’s first experience with higher education came at the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris but was delayed due to his drafting into the French Army to serve in World War II. In 1940, he was held in a German prisoner-of-war camp in which he first understood Marx’s conception of communism. Althusser stated that “It was in prison camp that I first heard Marxism discussed by a Parisian lawyer in transit—and that I actually met a communist” (Roudinesco). This led to his joining of the Parti communiste français in 1948, marking his official entrance into Marxist thought.

His Work

Althusser quickly gained prominence for his structuralist interpretation and criticism of Marxist theory, proposing an “epistemological break” between early Marx and later Marx. In the period in which Althusser began to publish essays, there was a prevalent belief amongst Marxists that Marxism was humanistic: that human history is determined by humans themselves rather than by outside forces. Althusser attempted to refute this, arguing for a structuralist interpretation of Marx: that history is not moved forward by human actions, but rather by objective societal structures that shape individuals according to its standards. Althusser’s arguments led to a major shift to structuralist thought within Marxism in the 1970s and 80s. However, perhaps Althusser’s most noteworthy contribution to Marxist thought was his understanding of how ideology functions within capitalist society, culminating in perhaps his most well-known work: the essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation)” found within the larger work On the Reproduction of Capitalism which this paper will focus on for the following two paragraphs.

In “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” Althusser first and foremost expanded and further clarified Marx’s theory of base and superstructure. For Marx, the base was the economic system of a particular society- for example socialism, capitalism, or feudalism while the superstructure was the cultural institutions the result from it, including education, religion, and government. Furthermore, Marx believed that this particular social structure served to maintain and further the interests and power of the ruling class, via the state apparatus. Althusser did not disagree with this model, but rather sought to specify and clarify it. For Althusser, the state apparatus should be divided into two specific sects- the Repressive State Apparatus (RSA) and the Ideological State Apparatus (ISA). According to Althusser, the RSA consists primarily of the police, the army, the prison system, and other forms of power that are by nature violent. In his essay, Althusser states “Repressive suggests that the State Apparatus in question ‘functions by violence’ – at least ultimately since repression…may take non-physical forms.” (Althusser). Therefore, the RSA keeps the economic system in place and society as it “should be,” with the ruling class in power. Meanwhile, the ISA is more insidious in a way- it uses cultural institutions, such as school and education, as well as organized religion and politics to keep the ruling class in power. In other words, the ISA works through cultural institutions to disseminate the ideology that keeps the ruling class in power: it creates a society in which ideology opposed to the ruling class is inherently ostracized and pushed to the margins.

For Althusser, the most effective branch of the Ideological State Apparatus in modern society is education. In his essay, he states “What the bourgeoisie has installed as its number-one i.e., as its dominant Ideological State Apparatus, is the educational apparatus, which has in fact replaced in its functions the previously dominant Ideological State Apparatus, the Church.” He goes on to explain that the education system takes children from every class at a very young age and for years drills into them “a certain amount of ‘know-how’ wrapped in the ruling ideology. Furthermore, each individual child (for the most part) is ejected, to use Althusser’s term, from the educational apparatus into the workforce at a point that is suitable for their class. Children of a working-class background are ejected from the educational apparatus early on, around the age of sixteen, to become laborers. Children of a middle-class background persist further, some pursuing higher education, ending up generally as white-collar workers, or in Althusser’s terms, “petty bourgeoisie.” Finally, children of a higher-class background generally end at the summit, in effect becoming the agents of exploitation, fulfilling their class destiny. In summary, via education each group is provided and imbued with the ideology that is needed to reproduce the system in which the ruling class remains in power.

His Mental Illness

Throughout his life, Althusser dealt with significant mental illness, first being psychiatrically hospitalized after receiving a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Althusser also suffered from bipolar disorder and depression, culminating in the strangulation of his wife, Helene Rytmann, in 1980 in what was determined “an iatrogenic (which is to say, any injury or illness that occurs as a result of medical care) hallucinatory episode complicated by melancholic depression.” Perhaps the strangest element of the murder, however, is that Althusser carried it out without even realizing what he was doing, stating in his autobiography “I had certainly seen corpses before, but I had never seen the face of a strangled woman in my life. And yet I know this is a strangled woman. What is happening? I stand up and scream: I’ve strangled Helene!” (Althusser). According to Althusser and various colleagues and friends, such as a former professor named Jean Guitton and a former student named Regis Debray, however, the murder was an act of love. According to his autobiography, meant to be the defense in court he never had, Althusser stated that Rytmann “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” (Althusser). Whatever the truth of the matter, the murder was effectively the end of Althusser’s life as well. From that moment until the end of his life, Althusser moved from clinic to clinic, occasionally mentally sound enough to continue his work, but nothing significant came from this time. Eventually, during the summer of 1990 in a psychiatric institution just southwest of Paris Althusser contracted pneumonia and died on October 22, 1990. Althusser was a complicated individual, producing some of the most influential philosophical texts on class of the 20th century, but also severely mentally ill, and to some, simply a murderer. To be sure, however, his influence will not fade from memory easily.

Roudinesco, Élisabeth (2008). “Louis Althusser: The Murder Scene”. Philosophy in Turbulent Times: Canguilhem, Sartre, Foucault, Althusser, Deleuze, Derrida

Image via Wikimedia Commons

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