Was Althusser a Marxist?
This is a strange question to ask but it might help us get closer to Althusser's understanding of Marxism. For all of the radical spring offs from Althusser's thought, when reading him one gets the overall impression of an overriding attempt at fidelity to Marx, often at the expense of where Althusser's own thought appears to be heading. Althusser was an interpreter of and a believer in Marx, and yet this emphasis - this religious committment (Althusser most certainly could not have done without Marx) - is slightly at odds with how many Marxisms would like to see their system, that is to say as a method that can access the truth about historical realities. Althusser attempts to use Marxist tools (i.e. the critical appreciation of mode and relations of production) to analyse the production of Marxian knowledge and its distinctiveness from other philosophical systems.
What Althusser sets out to do is give Marxism the credibility of a science: modernising its philosophical language and concepts and severing its ties from idealist (Hegelian) and materialist (young Feuerbachian) philosophies. And yet how can this be done alongside the committment to production as the substantive ontological core of social life. In order to do this Althusser turns his attention to the mode of production of concepts, he analyses general scientific practices of the production of knowledge and texts like Marx's Das Kapital that exercise this production in an exemplary way
Because of this, and not because of his adherence to the truth of Marx, Althusser can be said to be a Marxist because he looks at philosophical consciousness, and tries to show that what is ideological is material and historical. Indeed, the somewhat counter-intuitive idea of theoretical anti-humanism aims at questioning the idea of historical progress as if it were the unfolding of an idea, or understood as the man becoming his own idea, realising his essence in historical destiny. No doubt this is counter to certain Marxist ideologies of history, but it is far from clear whether his critique does not itself rest upon equally questionable ideological certainties.
Clearly, the initial question, 'was Atlhusser a Marxist?' is a question for our conjuncture rather than his. The answer is perhaps that Althusser played a major part in both broadening out what we now understand as Marxism and also of focusing in on particular distinguishing qualities within that broad practice. As a critical-political articulation....