Louis Althusser

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Louis Althusser
Born16 October 1918
Bir Mourad Raïs, Algeria
Died22 October 1990
Paris, France
Known forTheory of ideology
Concept of the social formation
For Marx (1965)
Reading Capital (1965)

Louis Althusser (20 October 1918 – 22 October 1990) was a French Marxist-Leninist philosopher known for his anti-humanism and defense of "orthodox" Marxism-Leninism against the extreme revisionist trends of his time.

He is most well-known for his contributions to the Marxist theory of ideology, wherein he reinterpreted the dialectical relationship between base and superstructure as a more complex model where, similar to Antonio Gramsci, he identified both physical repression and ideological reproduction as fundamental tools by which the ruling class maintains its hold on class society.

Personal life[edit | edit source]

Althusser suffered from various extreme mental illnesses throughout his life, including depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. In a bout of hallucinatory melancholy, he killed his wife by strangulation in 1980, which he subsequently described as "the greatest crime" committed "during crisis of mental confusion". Althusser subsequently spent the last 10 years of his life institutionalized in various psychiatric hospitals until he eventually died of pneumonia in 1990.

Notable works[edit | edit source]

Althusser's works include For Marx (1965) and Reading Capital (1965), both of which sought to revitalise Marxist theory at a time when it was under critique from various revisionist currents. Althusser took specific issue with the so-called 'humanist' interpretations of Marx, arguing that they stripped Marx's theory of its scientific, rational core. Althusser's writings served as a bulwark against revisionist tendencies of his era, notably those that downplayed the role of class struggle, and/or denied the necessity of the vanguard party and dictatorship of the proletariat. He particularly took issue with the trend of Eurocommunism, which sought to distance itself from the Soviet Union and the core principles of Marxism-Leninism.

Key contributions[edit | edit source]

Althusser's theoretical contributions are primarily centered around a theory of ideology and ideological state apparatuses.[1] Althusser posited that ideology is a 'material' force insofar as it is embodied in institutions and practices that reproduce the conditions of production. His concept of interpellation describes how individuals are constituted as subjects through ideological practices and thus influenced by the ideological state apparatus.

His idea of overdetermination challenged the unidirectional base-superstructure model, suggesting instead that various instances (economic, political, ideological) within a social formation are interconnected and mutually influencing. While he stated that the base was dominant over the superstructure "in the final instance", his work provided the insight that in smaller ways, the superstructure and its ideological institutions may also influence the base.[2]

References[edit | edit source]