Louis Althusser

…the teeming fish of the unconscious, which men call dumb because it speaks even when they sleep.” Althusser, in: Freud and Lacan.


(Quoted from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

“Louis Althusser was born on October 16th, 1918 in Birmandreis, a suburb of Algiers. Hailing from Alsace on his father’s side of the family, his grandparents were pieds noirs, or French citizens who had chosen to settle in Algeria. At the time of his birth, Althusser’s father was a lieutenant in the French Military. After this service was up, his father returned to Algiers and to his work as a banker. By all accounts save for the retrospective ones contained in his autobiographies, Althusser’s early childhood in North Africa was a contented one. There he enjoyed the comforts of the Mediterranean environment as well as those provided by an extended and stable petite-bourgeois family.

In 1930, his father’s work moved the family to Marseille. Always a good pupil, Althusser excelled in his studies and became active in the Scouts. In 1936, the family moved again, this time to Lyons. There, Althusser was enrolled in the prestigious Lycée de Parc. At the Lycée, he began taking classes in order to prepare for the competitive entrance exams to France’s grands écoles. Raised in an observant family, Althusser was particularly influenced by professors of a distinctly Catholic tendency. These included the philosophers Jean Guitton and Jean Lacroix as well as the historian Joseph Hours. In 1937, while still at the Lycée, Althusser joined the Catholic youth group Jeunesse étudiantes chrêtiennes. This interest in Catholicism and his participation in Catholic organizations would continue even after Althusser joined the Communist Party in 1948. The simultaneous enthusiasm that Althusser showed in Lyons for Royalist politics did not last the war.

In 1939, Althusser performed well enough on the national entrance examinations to be admitted to the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris. However, before the school year began, he was mobilized into the army. Soon thereafter, he was captured in Vannes along with the rest of his artillery regiment. He spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner of war at a camp in Northern Germany. In his autobiographical writings, Althusser credits the experiences of solidarity, political action, and community that he found in the camp as opening him up to the idea of communism. Indeed, his prison writings collected as Journal de captivité, Stalag XA 1940–1945 evidence these experiences. They also provide evidence of the cycles of deep depression that began for Althusser in 1938 and that would mark him for the rest of his life.

At the end of the war and following his release from the P.O.W. camp in 1945, Althusser took his place at the ENS. Now 27 years old, he began the program of study that was to prepare him for the agrégation, the competitive examination which qualifies one to teach philosophy in French secondary schools and that is often the gateway to doctoral study and university employment. Perhaps not surprisingly for a young man who had just spent half a decade in a prison camp, much happened during the three years he spent preparing for the exam and working on his Master’s thesis. Though still involved in Catholic groups and still seeing himself as a Christian, the movements that Althusser associated with after the war were leftist in their politics and, intellectually, he made a move to embrace and synthesize Christian and Marxist thought. This synthesis and his first published works were informed by a reading of 19th Century German idealist philosophy, especially Hegel and Marx, as well as by progressive Christian thinkers associated with the group Jeunesse de l’Église. Indeed, it was 19th Century German Idealism with which he was most engaged during his period of study at the ENS. In line with this interest (one shared with many other French intellectuals at the time), Althusser obtained his diplôme d’études supèrieures in 1947 for a work directed by Gaston Bachelard and titled “On Content in the Thought of G.W.F. Hegel.” In 1948, he passed his agrégation, coming in first on the written portion of the exam and second on the oral. After this showing, Althusser was offered and accepted the post of agrégé répétiteur (director of studies) at the ENS whose responsibility it was to help students prepare for their own agrégations. In this capacity, he began offering courses and tutorials on particular topics in philosophy and on particular figures from the history of philosophy. As he retained this responsibility for more than thirty years and worked with some of the brightest thinkers that France produced during this time (including Alain Badiou, Pierre Bourdieu, and Michel Foucault), through his teaching Althusser left a deep and lasting impression on a generation of French philosophers and on French philosophy.

In addition to inaugurating his extended association with the ENS, the first few years spent in Paris after the war saw Althusser begin three other long-lasting relationships. The first of these was with the French Communist Party, the second with his companion and eventual wife, Helène Rytman, and the third with French psychiatry. Begun to treat recurrent bouts of depression, this last affiliation continued for the rest of his life and included frequent hospitalization as well as the most aggressive treatments post-war French psychiatry had to offer such as electroconvulsive therapy, narco-analysis, and psychoanalysis.

The second relationship begun by Althusser was little happier and no less dependent than the first. At its outset, Althusser’s bond with Helène Rytman was complicated by his almost total inexperience with women and by her being ten years older than him. It was also made difficult by the vast differences in their experience of the world and by her relationship with the Communist Party. Whereas Althusser had known only home, school, and P.O.W. camp, Rytman had traveled widely and had long been active in literary and radical circles. At the time the two met, she was also embroiled in a dispute with the Party over her role in the resistance during World War II.

Though Althusser was not yet a Party member, like many of his generation, he emerged from the War deeply sympathetic to its moral aims. His interest in Party politics and involvement with Party members grew during his time as a student at the ENS. However, the ENS’ suspicion of communists as well as Helène Rytman’s troubles with the Party complicated Althusser’s relationship with each of these institutions. Nonetheless, shortly after being offered the post of agrégé répétiteur (and thus safe from being bypassed for the position due to his membership), Althusser joined the Communist Party. For the next few years, Althusser tried to advance the aims of the Communist Party as well as the goal of getting Rytman accepted back into it. He did so by being a good militant (going to cell meetings, distributing tracts, etc), by re-starting a Marxist study group at the ENS (the Cercle Politzer), and by making inquiries into Rytman’s wartime activities in the hopes of clearing her name. By his own account, he made a terrible activist and he also failed to rehabilitate Rytman’s reputation. Nonetheless, his relationship with the Party and with Rytman deepened during this period.

During the 1950s, Althusser lived two lives that were only somewhat inter-related: one was that of a successful, if somewhat obscure academic philosopher and pedagogue and the other that of a loyal Communist Party Member. This is not to say that Althusser was politically inactive at the school or that his communism did not influence his philosophical work. On the contrary, Althusser recruited colleagues and students to the Party and worked closely with the communist cell based at the ENS. In addition, at mid-decade, he published a few introductions to Marxist philosophy. However, in his teaching and advising, he mostly avoided bringing in Marxist philosophy and Communist politics. Instead, he catered to student interest and to the demands of each new agrégation by engaging closely with classic philosophical texts and with contemporary philosophy and social science. Further, the bulk of his scholarship was on 18th Century political philosophy. Indeed, the only book-length study Althusser published during his lifetime was a work on Montesquieu, which appeared at the end of the decade. At the ENS, Althusser’s professionalism as well as his ability to think institutionally was rewarded in 1954 with a promotion to secrétaire de l’école litteraire, a post where he had some responsibility for the management and direction of the school.

It would have surprised no one if Althusser had continued to influence French political and philosophical life subtly, through the students that he mentored, through his scholarship on the history of political philosophy, through the colloquia among philosophers, scientists, and historians that he organized, and through his routine work as a Party member. However, in 1961, with an essay titled “On the Young Marx,” Althusser aggressively entered into a heated debate about the continuity of Marx’s oeuvre and about what constitutes the core of Marxist philosophy. Appearing at a time of crisis in the French Communist Party’s direction and seeming to offer a “scientific” alternative to Stalinism and to the humanist revisions of Marxism then being proffered, the theoretical viewpoint offered by Althusser gained adherents. Invigorated by this recognition and by the possibility that theoretical work might actually change Communist Party practice, Althusser began to publish regularly on Marxist philosophy. These essays occasioned much public discussion and philosophical activity both in France and abroad. At the same time as these essays began creating a stir, Althusser changed his teaching style at the ENS and began to offer collaborative seminars where he and his students attempted a “return to Marx” and to Marx’s original texts. In 1965, the fruit of one of these seminars was published as Reading Capital. That same year, the essays on Marxist theory that had made such a sensation were collected and published in the volume For Marx. Amplifying these books’ collective impact well beyond the realm of intra-party discussion was the general trend in literary and social scientific theory labeled “structuralism” and with which Althusser’s re-reading of Marx was identified.

At mid-decade, Althusser seized on these works’ popularity and the fact that his arguments had created a faction within the French Communist Party composed mostly of young intelligentsia to try and force change within the Party. This gambit to have the Party directed by theorists rather than by a Central Committee whose Stalinism remained entrenched and who believed in the organic wisdom of the worker met with little success. At the most, he succeeded in carving out some autonomy for theoretical reflection within the Party. Even though it is his most well known intervention, this was not the first attempt by Althusser to try and influence the Party (he had tried once before during the mid 1950s from his position as cell leader at the ENS) and it would not be his last. While he lost much of the student support that his work had created when he remained silent during the “revolutionary” events of May 1968 (he was in a psychiatric hospital at the time and later judged these events to be counter-revolutionary and bourgeois), he campaigned once more to influence the Party during the mid 1970s. This intervention occurred in response to the French Communist Party’s decision to abandon traditional Marxist-Leninist aspects of its platform so as to better ally itself with the Socialist Party. Though Althusser’s position was well publicized and found its supporters, in the end, his arguments were unable to motivate the Party’s rank-and-file such that its leadership would reconsider its decision.

During the decades in which he became internationally known for his re-thinking of Marxist philosophy, Althusser continued in his post at the ENS. There he took on increasing institutional responsibility while continuing to edit and, with François Maspero, to publish his own work and that of others in the series Théorie. In 1975, Althusser acquired the right to direct research on the basis of his previously published work. Shortly after this recognition, he married his longtime companion, Helène Rytman.

Following the French Left’s and the Communist Party’s electoral defeats in the 1978 elections, Althusser’s bouts of depression became more severe and more frequent. In November 1980, after a painful surgery and a particularly long bout of mental illness, which saw him hospitalized for most of the summer and whose symptoms continued after his return to the ENS in the fall, Althusser strangled his wife. Before he could be arrested for the murder, he was sent to a mental hospital. Later, when an examining magistrate came to inform him of the crime of which he was accused, Althusser was in so fragile a mental state that he could not understand the charges or the process to which he was to be submitted and he was left at the hospital. After an examination, a panel of psychiatrists concluded that Althusser was suffering at the time of the murder from severe depression and iatrogenic hallucinations. Citing a French law (since changed), which states that “there is neither crime nor delict where the suspect was in a state of dementia at the time of the action,” the magistrate in charge of Althusser’s case decided that there were no grounds on which to pursue prosecution.

The last ten years of Althusser’s life were spent in and out of mental hospitals and at the apartment in Paris’ 20th arrondissement where he had planned to retire. During this period, he was visited by a few loyal friends and kept up some correspondences. Given his mental state, his frequent institutionalizations, his anomie, and the drugs he was prescribed, these were not very productive years. However, at mid-decade, he did find the energy to re-visit some of his old work and to attempt to construct from it an explicit metaphysics. He also managed to write an autobiography, a text he averred was intended to provide the explanation for the murder of his wife that he was never able to provide in court. Both texts only appeared posthumously. When his mental and physical health deteriorated again in 1987, Althusser went to live at a psychiatric hospital in La Verrière, a village to the west of Paris. There, on the 22nd of October, 1990, he died of a heart attack.”


The State

“The Marxist tradition is strict, here: in the Communist Manifesto and the Eighteenth Brumaire (and in all the later classical texts, above all in Marx’s writings on the Paris Commune and Lenin’s on State and Revolution), the State is explicitly conceived as a repressive apparatus. The State is a ‘machine’ of repression, which enables the ruling classes (in the nineteenth century the bourgeois class and the ‘class’ of big landowners) to ensure their domination over the working class, thus enabling the former to subject the latter to the process of surplus-value extortion (i.e. to capitalist exploitation).

The State is thus first of all what the Marxist classics have called the State Apparatus. This term means: not only the specialized apparatus (in the narrow sense) whose existence and necessity I have recognized in relation to the requirements of legal practice, i.e. the police, the courts, the prisons; but also the army, which (the proletariat has paid for this experience with its blood) intervenes directly as a supplementary repressive force in the last instance, when the police and its specialized auxiliary corps are ‘outrun by events’; and above this ensemble, the head of State, the government and the administration.

Presented in this form, the Marxist-Leninist ‘theory’ of the State has its finger on the essential point, and not for one moment can there be any question of rejecting the fact that this really is the essential point. The State Apparatus, which defines the State as a force of repressive execution and intervention ‘in the interests of the ruling classes’ in the class struggle conducted by the bourgeoisie and its allies against the proletariat, is quite certainly the State, and quite certainly defines its basic ‘function’.”


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