Louis Althusser (1918- 1990)

Major work:

'Reading Capital'; 'For Marx'

Keywords: Structuralism, dialectics, de-centred totality, causality, overdetermination, interpellation, aleatory materialism
Key and related figure/ critics: Marx, Hegel, Spinoza, Mao,Bachelard, C Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Lenin ' contests: Sartre/ Lukacs/ Gramsci / Garaudy
G.Deleuze, Rethinking Marxism, E. Balibar, Resch, P.Macherery, J Ranciere, Regis Debray, Montag et al., E.P.Thompson, Lyotard, Laclau and Mouffe,
Associations: PCF (French communist Party), Intellectual at the Rule D'Ecole, Maoist tendencies, wayward stalinist/ orthodox marxist,

Best known perhaps for his anti-humanist interpretation of Marx, Louis Althusser's predominant legacy is the critique of Hegelian Marxism, and infamous analysis that the early writings of Marx are trapped within either Hegelian or Feuerbachian outlooks. Althusser was a life long member of the PCF in France and though attacking its humanism in the 1960s remained pretty much obedient to its demands which crystallised in 1966 requiring him to stay out of discussion of issues that involved questions of strategy.

In academic terms, Althusser's legacy has been predominantly interpreted as a scientism and stalinism, but this misses on some troubled yet essential intellectual formulations that have arisen out of his work. Often, especially amongst the British left, Althusser is seen as an elitist and irrelevant academic, but Althusser's attempt to think marxism with philosophy have implications for many an ideology.

Althusser remains surprisingly popular as an introduction to Marx. His works like Pour Marx and the essays on over-determination and humanism, emphasise the systemic dimension of Marx's work, and its scientific rendering of categories to comprehend the work of the structure piercing through the spontaneous bourgeois interface of surface appearances. The argumentative structure of these interpretations mostly revolves around a challenge to the idea that Marx's dialectic was an inversion of Hegel's idealist one. Althusser maintains that the uniqueness of thought as content in Hegel, essentially the unity of content and form, means that the dialectic retains a fundamental simplicity. Whilst this dialectic is possible in the realm of the self-development of spirit or the absolute, it can not be translated as a materialist method because the content of the material world is always over-determined, that is, a combination of different and contradictory elements. According to Althusser this complex concrete totality is always presupposed by Marx and his method can not be understood as original development from the simple to the complex.

That this purging of the Hegelian dialectic, coincided with more political attacks on existentialism and humanism is well documented. The ensuing controversy too involves the role of history in Marx and Marxism which Althusser opportunistically presented as in essence anti-historicist. The general intellectual environment here is the deconstruction of the subject; its existence as posited by the structure, or bearer of social relations above it ' and in general terms the link with post-structuralism is easy to perceive.


on this site:

on other sites:

Read essay

How to read Marx's Capital - Louis Althusser

Recent Italian translations of Althusserian texts on aleatory materialism - Augusto Illuminati

Althusser's late thinking about materialism (pdf) - Wal Suchting

Althusser et le Jeune Marx ' Pierre Macherey


Ideological Inversion - Althusser on Feuerbach, Marx and Garaudy and the inversion of an ideological form

Portrait of a materialist philsopher - L.A. (1982)

We must change in the Party - L. A.

Notes on Lenin and Philosophy

Notes on The Theoretical Conjuncture and Marxist theoretical research (june 1966)

Notes on Reply to John Lewis

Notes on E.P. Thompson's The Poverty of Theory (EE)

Functionalism and Althusser (EE)

Is Althusser a marxist? (EE)

For Althusser - (poke around to find texts in English and French)

Essays in Self Criticism - whole text online
Ideology and Ideological state apparatus - some excerpts
1993 issue of Futur Anterior 'sur Althusser' (reproduced on multitudes in French) Containing L.A. -Lettre à Merab; L.A - Sur la pensée marxiste; Denis Berger - La folie, la théorie, la politique; Toni Negri - Pour Althusser: notes sur l'évolution de la pensée du dernier Althusser; Jean Marie Vincent - La lecture symptomale chez Althusser; J.M.V.- Note complémentaire à « la lecture symptomale chez Louis Althusser » ; Nicole-Edith Thévenin -« On naît toujours quelque part »; Bruno Karsenti - A propos de Politique et philosophie dans l'oeuvre de Louis Althusser
Existential Marxism in Post-war France: from Sartre to Althusser - M. Poster - Whole text online


Bibliography of Althusser - (useful to cross check English and French versions)