Louis Althusser (1918-90) - Key Figures in Literary Theory

The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory - Gregory Castle 2007

Louis Althusser (1918-90)
Key Figures in Literary Theory

Louis Althusser was born in Algeria and studied at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris. During the Second World War, he was involved in Catholic youth groups and became radicalized during the Nazi occupation of France. After a short time spent in a German concentration camp for his activities on behalf of the French Communist Party, he took his degree in 1948 and began teaching at the Ecole, where he remained until 1980. One of his students in the early years of his tenure at the Ecole was Michel Foucault, who was inspired by (if not converted to) Marxism under Althusser's tutelage. Althusser's form of “structuralist Marxism” was very much a product of the intellectual environment of France in

the 1950s and early '60s. Rejecting the humanism of so much Marxist theory, but not its empiricism, Althusser insisted on the importance of IDEOLOGY and ideology critique. In For Marx (1965), he revised the idea of dialectical contradiction, stressing the condition of OVERDETERMINATION, an intensification of class contradictions at moments of social and economic crisis that leads to either “historical inhibition” or “revolutionary rupture.” With Etienne Balibar, Althusser wrote Reading “Capital” (1968), a critique of classical economics and a close analysis of Marx's political economy. In this work, Althusser and Balibar reject the theory that Marxism is a species of historicism and put forward a scientific theory of Marx's thought.

The attempt to transform Marxism into a more rigorous science dedicated to the structuralist analysis of ideology is continued in Althusser’s most famous and most influential work, the collection of essays, Lenin and Philosophy (1971). In “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” Althusser argues that ideology “interpellates” or conscripts SUBJECTS into ideological discourses. Subjects are subjects precisely because of this interpellation. Also in Lenin and Philosophy, Althusser reflects on the importance of Freudian and Lacanian Psychoanalysis for a Marxist analysis of capitalism. Althusser continued to publish essays throughout the 1970s, but met with an infamous end to his career in 1980. In that year, Althusser murdered his wife and, after confessing to the crime, was committed to a psychiatric hospital where he spent the last ten years of his life. He told the story of the murder in his memoirs, The Future Lasts a Long Time.


Althusser, Louis. Althusser: A Critical Reader. Ed. Gregory Elliott. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1994.

---- . For Marx. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Pantheon, 1969.

---- . Lenin and Philosophy, and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. London: New Left Books, 1971.

---- and Etienne Balibar. Reading “Capital.” Trans. Ben Brewster. 1968. London, NLB, 1970.