Louis Althusser

Louis Althusser was born in town of Birmendreis, near Algiers, in French Algeria, on 16 October 1918. Althusser was named after his uncle who was killed during World War I. In his autobiographies he alleges that his mother named him after the uncle, as she was due to marry him before his death, and only later married his brother, Althusser's father. He felt his mother treated him as a replacement for his dead uncle and this, he said, caused him great psychological damage.

After the death of his father, Althusser moved to Marseille, in France, along with his mother and younger sister. In 1937 he joined Jeunesse Etudiante Chretienne, a Roman Catholic youth movement. Due to his excellent performance at school he was accepted to the prestigious Ecole normale superieure in Paris. However, on the eve of World War II he was drafted into the French army. France was quickly defeated by the Germans and along with the majority of French soldiers he was held in a German prisoner of war camp. In the camp he was first introduced to communist ideology which would inform most of his philosophical work in the years to come. His time in the prisoner of war camps unfortunately had a negative impact on his mental health and led to his lifelong battle with mental instability.

After the war Althusser was able to take his place at Ecole normale superieure but his time in the prisoner of war camp meant that he was suffering from both physical and mental health problems. In 1947 he was treated with electroconvulsive therapy that only had the effect of causing his mental problems to continually relapse for the remainder of his life.

In 1948 he linked himself with the French Communist Party, going against a tide of people leaving the party. In the same year he became a tutor at Ecole normale superieure, and apart from his time in hospital he spent the rest of this life there.

In 1980 he murdered his wife Helene (nee Rytman) by strangling her. There were no witnesses and there is some controversy over whether it was accidental or deliberate. Althusser claimed that he was massaging her neck at the time and did not remember the incident clearly. Althusser was not tried under the French judicial process and he was diagnosed as suffering from diminished responsibility; instead he was committed to the Sainte-Anne psychiatric hospital, where he remained for three years. After his release he became a recluse in northern Paris and spent the time until his death writing. His works written during this time were published after his death apart from his autobiography L'Avenir dure longtemps. He died of a heart attack 22 October 1990.

Althusser, although having a tumultuous personal history, is best known for being a philosopher, specifically a structural Marxist. He is acknowledged as reconciling traditional Marxist philosophy with structuralism.

In the 1960s structuralism became one of the philosophies in vogue within the French intellectual elite. Structuralism replaced existentialism in the post-war boom period as new technology replaced the austerity of the post-war years.

Althusser, together with one of his students Michel Foucault, were two of the foremost figures in this field. Structuralist ideology stresses the permanence of deep structures that are at the foundation of all human cultures. These structures leave little room for human initiative or historical change. Althusser also controversially recommends ignoring the first chapter of Marx's Capital as he sees this as a hindrance to understanding Marx's view on capitalism rather than as being helpful. He tells his followers to start instead with the second chapter. His works criticizing Marx included For Marx published in 1965 and Lenin and Philosophy which was published in 1969. One criticism of Althusser's work is his belief that scientific progress is autonomous as this key argument is normally found to be flawed.

By the 1970s post-structuralist ideology surpassed structuralist theories, led mainly by Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida and Althusser's own student Michel Foucault.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Mapping Ideology
Slavoj Žižek.
Verso, 1994
Librarian’s tip: "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" by Louis Althusser begins on p. 100
Existential Marxism in Postwar France: From Sartre to Althusser
Mark Poster.
Princeton University Press, 1975
Librarian’s tip: "Althusser's Revolution without Rebels" begins on p. 340
Culture and Critique: An Introduction to the Critical Discourses of Cultural Studies
Jere Paul Surber.
Westview Press, 1998
Librarian’s tip: "Louis Althusser: Structural Marxism" begins on p. 88
Reclaiming Truth: Contribution to a Critique of Cultural Relativism
Christopher Norris.
Lawrence & Wishart, 1996
Librarian’s tip: "Spinoza, Marx, Althusser: 'Structural Marxism' Twenty Years On" begins on p.127
After Poststructuralism: Reading, Stories and Theory
Colin Davis.
Routledge, 2003
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "After Hope: Althusser on Reading and Self-Reading"
Naming the Multiple: Poststructuralism and Education
Michael Peters.
Bergin & Garvey, 1998
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 "Louis Althusser: Poststructural Materialist"
The Feminist Standpoint Revisited and Other Essays
Nancy C. M. Hartsock.
Westview Press, 1998
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Seven "Louis Althusser's Structuralist Marxism: Political Clarity and Theoretical Distortions"
Reconfigurations: Critical Theory and General Economy
Arkady Plotnitsky.
University Press of Florida, 1993
Librarian’s tip: "The Parts and Their Wholes: Althusser's Reading [of] Capital and History in General Economy" begins on p. 273
Marxism and Science: Analysis of An Obsession
Gavin Kitching.
Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994
Librarian’s tip: "Marxist Science Reborn: Louis Althusser and Althusserianism" begins on p. 62
Rousseau's Legacy: Emergence and Eclipse of the Writer in France
Dennis Porter.
Oxford University Press, 1995
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "Epilogue: From Althusser's Theory of a Murder to Foucault's Aesthetics of Existence"
Modernist Radicalism and Its Aftermath: Foundationalism and Anti-Foundationalism in Radical Social Theory
Stephen Crook.
Routledge, 1991
Librarian’s tip: "Althusser: The Trojan Horse of Postmodernism?" begins on p. 135
Philosophy and the Maternal Body: Reading Silence
Michelle Boulous Walker.
Routledge, 1998
Librarian’s tip: "Louis Althusser: A World without Women" begins on p. 38 and "Althusser's Problematic: Silencing and Exclusion" begins on p. 47
White Mythologies: Writing History and the West
Robert J. C. Young.
Routledge, 2004 (2nd edition)
Librarian’s tip: "History and Differences in Mao and Althusser" begins on p. 15 and "Althusser and the Science of History" begins on p. 88
Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production
Barry Hindess; Paul Q. Hirst.
Routledge and K. Paul, 1975
Librarian’s tip: "Althusser's Proposal for a 'Science of History'" begins on p. 313
Philosophy and Methodology in the Social Sciences
Barry Hindess.
Harvester Press, 1977
Librarian’s tip: "The 'Althusserian' Critique of Empiricism" begins on p. 196
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