Louis Althusser was born on October 16th, 1918 in Birmandreis, a suburb of Algiers. Hailing from Alsace on his father’s side of the family, his grandparents were pieds noirs, or French citizens who had chosen to settle in Algeria. At the time of his birth, Althusser’s father was a lieutenant in the French Military. After this service was up, his father returned to Algiers and to his work as a banker. By all accounts save for the retrospective ones contained in his autobiographies, Althusser’s early childhood in North Africa was a contented one. There he enjoyed the comforts of the Mediterranean environment as well as those provided by an extended and stable petit-bourgeois family.
In 1930, his father’s work moved the family to Marseille. Always a good pupil, Althusser excelled in his studies and became active in the Scouts. In 1936, the family moved again, this time to Lyon. There, Althusser was enrolled in the prestigious Lycée du Parc. At the Lycée, he began taking classes in order to prepare for the competitive entrance exams to France’s grandes écoles. Raised in an observant family, Althusser was particularly influenced by professors of a distinctly Catholic tendency. These included the philosophers Jean Guitton and Jean Lacroix as well as the historian Joseph Hours. In 1937, while still at the Lycée, Althusser joined the Catholic youth group Jeunesse étudiantes chrétiennes. This interest in Catholicism and his participation in Catholic organizations would continue even after Althusser joined the Communist Party in 1948. The simultaneous enthusiasm that Althusser showed in Lyon for Royalist politics did not last the war.
In 1939, Althusser performed well enough on the national entrance examinations to be admitted to the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris. However, before the school year began, he was mobilized into the army. Soon thereafter, he was captured in Vannes along with the rest of his artillery regiment. He spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner of war at a camp in Northern Germany. In his autobiographical writings, Althusser credits the experiences of solidarity, political action, and community that he found in the camp as opening him up to the idea of communism. Indeed, his prison writings collected as Journal de captivité, Stalag XA 1940–1945 evidence these experiences. They also provide evidence of the cycles of deep depression that began for Althusser in 1938 and that would mark him for the rest of his life.
At the end of the war and following his release from the P.O.W. camp in 1945, Althusser took his place at the ENS. Now 27 years old, he began the program of study that was to prepare him for the agrégation, the competitive examination which qualifies one to teach philosophy in French secondary schools and that is often the gateway to doctoral study and university employment. Perhaps not surprisingly for a young man who had just spent half a decade in a prison camp, much happened during the three years he spent preparing for the exam and working on his Master’s thesis. Though still involved in Catholic groups and still seeing himself as a Christian, the movements that Althusser associated with after the war were leftist in their politics and, intellectually, he made a move to embrace and synthesize Christian and Marxist thought. This synthesis and his first published works were informed by a reading of 19th Century German idealist philosophy, especially Hegel and Marx, as well as by progressive Christian thinkers associated with the group Jeunesse de l’Église. Indeed, it was 19th Century German Idealism with which he was most engaged during his period of study at the ENS. In line with this interest (one shared with many other French intellectuals at the time), Althusser obtained his diplôme d’études supérieures in 1947 for a work directed by Gaston Bachelard and titled “On Content in the Thought of G.W.F. Hegel.” In 1948, he passed his agrégation, coming in first on the written portion of the exam and second on the oral. After this showing, Althusser was offered and accepted the post of agrégé répétiteur (director of studies) at the ENS whose responsibility it was to help students prepare for their own agrégations. In this capacity, he began offering courses and tutorials on particular topics in philosophy and on particular figures from the history of philosophy. As he retained this responsibility for more than thirty years and worked with some of the brightest thinkers that France produced during this time (including Alain Badiou, Pierre Bourdieu, and Michel Foucault), through his teaching Althusser left a deep and lasting impression on a generation of French philosophers and on French philosophy.
In addition to inaugurating his extended association with the ENS, the first few years spent in Paris after the war saw Althusser begin three other long-lasting relationships. The first of these was with the French Communist Party, the second with his companion and eventual wife, Hélène Rytman, and the third with French psychiatry. Begun to treat recurrent bouts of depression, this last affiliation continued for the rest of his life and included frequent hospitalization as well as the most aggressive treatments post-war French psychiatry had to offer such as electroconvulsive therapy, narco-analysis, and psychoanalysis.
The second relationship begun by Althusser was little happier and no less dependent than the first. At its outset, Althusser’s bond with Hélène Rytman was complicated by his almost total inexperience with women and by her being eight years older than him. It was also made difficult by the vast differences in their experience of the world and by her relationship with the Communist Party. Whereas Althusser had known only home, school, and P.O.W. camp, Rytman had traveled widely and had long been active in literary and radical circles. At the time the two met, she was also embroiled in a dispute with the Party over her role in the resistance during World War II.
Though Althusser was not yet a Party member, like many of his generation, he emerged from the War deeply sympathetic to its moral aims. His interest in Party politics and involvement with Party members grew during his time as a student at the ENS. However, the ENS’ suspicion of communists as well as Hélène Rytman’s troubles with the Party complicated Althusser’s relationship with each of these institutions. Nonetheless, shortly after being offered the post of agrégé répétiteur (and thus safe from being bypassed for the position due to his membership), Althusser joined the Communist Party. For the next few years, Althusser tried to advance the aims of the Communist Party as well as the goal of getting Rytman accepted back into it. He did so by being a good militant (going to cell meetings, distributing tracts, etc), by re-starting a Marxist study group at the ENS (the Cercle Politzer), and by making inquiries into Rytman’s wartime activities in the hopes of clearing her name. By his own account, he made a terrible activist and he also failed to rehabilitate Rytman’s reputation. Nonetheless, his relationship with the Party and with Rytman deepened during this period.
During the 1950s, Althusser lived two lives that were only somewhat inter-related: one was that of a successful, if somewhat obscure academic philosopher and pedagogue and the other that of a loyal Communist Party Member. This is not to say that Althusser was politically inactive at the school or that his communism did not influence his philosophical work. On the contrary, Althusser recruited colleagues and students to the Party and worked closely with the communist cell based at the ENS. In addition, at mid-decade, he published a few introductions to Marxist philosophy. However, in his teaching and advising, he mostly avoided bringing in Marxist philosophy and Communist politics. Instead, he catered to student interest and to the demands of each new agrégation by engaging closely with classic philosophical texts and with contemporary philosophy and social science. Further, the bulk of his scholarship was on 18th Century political philosophy. Indeed, the only book-length study Althusser published during his lifetime was a work on Montesquieu, which appeared at the end of the decade. At the ENS, Althusser’s professionalism as well as his ability to think institutionally was rewarded in 1954 with a promotion to secrétaire de l’école littéraire, a post where he had some responsibility for the management and direction of the school.
It would have surprised no one if Althusser had continued to influence French political and philosophical life subtly, through the students that he mentored, through his scholarship on the history of political philosophy, through the colloquia among philosophers, scientists, and historians that he organized, and through his routine work as a Party member. However, in 1961, with an essay titled “On the Young Marx,” Althusser aggressively entered into a heated debate about the continuity of Marx’s oeuvre and about what constitutes the core of Marxist philosophy. Appearing at a time of crisis in the French Communist Party’s direction and seeming to offer a “scientific” alternative to Stalinism and to the humanist revisions of Marxism then being proffered, the theoretical viewpoint offered by Althusser gained adherents. Invigorated by this recognition and by the possibility that theoretical work might actually change Communist Party practice, Althusser began to publish regularly on Marxist philosophy. These essays occasioned much public discussion and philosophical activity both in France and abroad. At the same time as these essays began creating a stir, Althusser changed his teaching style at the ENS and began to offer collaborative seminars where he and his students attempted a “return to Marx” and to Marx’s original texts. In 1965, the fruit of one of these seminars was published as Reading Capital. That same year, the essays on Marxist theory that had made such a sensation were collected and published in the volume For Marx. Amplifying these books’ collective impact well beyond the realm of intra-party discussion was the general trend in literary and social scientific theory labeled “structuralism” and with which Althusser’s re-reading of Marx was identified.
At mid-decade, Althusser seized on these works’ popularity and the fact that his arguments had created a faction within the French Communist Party composed mostly of young intelligentsia to try and force change within the Party. This gambit to have the Party directed by theorists rather than by a Central Committee whose Stalinism remained entrenched and who believed in the organic wisdom of the worker met with little success. At the most, he succeeded in carving out some autonomy for theoretical reflection within the Party. Even though it is his most well known intervention, this was not the first attempt by Althusser to try and influence the Party (he had tried once before during the mid 1950s from his position as cell leader at the ENS) and it would not be his last. While he lost much of the student support that his work had created when he remained silent during the “revolutionary” events of May 1968 (he was in a psychiatric hospital at the time), he campaigned once more to influence the Party during the mid 1970s. This intervention occurred in response to the French Communist Party’s decision to abandon traditional Marxist-Leninist aspects of its platform so as to better ally itself with the Socialist Party. Though Althusser’s position was well publicized and found its supporters, in the end, his arguments were unable to motivate the Party’s rank-and-file such that its leadership would reconsider its decision.
During the decades in which he became internationally known for his re-thinking of Marxist philosophy, Althusser continued in his post at the ENS. There he took on increasing institutional responsibility while continuing to edit and, with François Maspero, to publish his own work and that of others in the series Théorie. In 1975, Althusser acquired the right to direct research on the basis of his previously published work. Shortly after this recognition, he married his longtime companion, Hélène Rytman.
Following the French Left’s and the Communist Party’s electoral defeats in the 1978 elections, Althusser’s bouts of depression became more severe and more frequent. In November 1980, after a painful surgery and another bout of mental illness, which saw him hospitalized for most of the summer and whose symptoms continued after his return to the ENS in the fall, Althusser strangled his wife. Before he could be arrested for the murder, he was sent to a mental hospital. Later, when an examining magistrate came to inform him of the crime of which he was accused, Althusser was in so fragile a mental state that he could not understand the charges or the process to which he was to be submitted and he was left at the hospital. After an examination, a panel of psychiatrists concluded that Althusser was suffering at the time of the murder from severe depression and iatrogenic hallucinations. Citing a French law (since changed), which states that “there is neither crime nor delict where the suspect was in a state of dementia at the time of the action,” the magistrate in charge of Althusser’s case decided that there were no grounds on which to pursue prosecution.
The last ten years of Althusser’s life were spent in and out of mental hospitals and at the apartment in Paris’ 20th arrondissement where he had planned to retire. During this period, he was visited by a few loyal friends and kept up some correspondences. Given his mental state, his frequent institutionalizations, his anomie, and the drugs he was prescribed, these were not very productive years. However, at mid-decade, he did find the energy to re-visit some of his old work and to attempt to construct from it an explicit metaphysics. He also managed to write an autobiography, a text he averred was intended to provide the explanation for the murder of his wife that he was never able to provide in court. Both texts only appeared posthumously. When his mental and physical health deteriorated again in 1987, Althusser went to live at a psychiatric hospital in La Verrière, a village to the west of Paris. There, on the 22nd of October, 1990, he died of a heart attack
2. Early Work (1946–60)
Despite its being anthologized and translated during the mid 1990s, there has until recently been relatively little critical attention paid to Althusser’s writings prior to 1961. Certainly, in terms of method, style, and inspiration, the Althusser found in these works differs significantly from the Althusser of For Marx and Reading Capital. In his writings from the 1940s, for instance, his method and conclusions resemble those of the Marxist Humanists of whom he would later be so critical, while texts from the 1950s deploy without irony the Stalinist shibboleths he would later subject to such castigation. Nonetheless, as these texts announce many of Althusser’s perennial themes and because some of the contradictions these works possess are shared with his classic texts and are repeated again in his late work, these early essays, books, and translations are worthy of examination
2.1 Christianity and Marxism
Althusser’s philosophical output between 1946 and 1961 can roughly be divided into four categories. The first category includes those essays, mostly written between 1946 and 1951, where Althusser explores possible rapports between Christianity and Marxism. In the first of these essays “The International of Decent Feelings,” Althusser argues from what he takes to be “the truth of Christianity” against the popular post-war view that the misery, guilt, and alienation of the human condition in the atomic age is equally experienced by all subjects. For him, this existentialist diagnosis is a type of idolatry: it replaces recognition of our equality before God with our equality before the fear of death. In that it does so, it is twice anti-Christian. For, in addition to the sin of idolatry (death equals God), it fails to acknowledge the existence of a particular class, the proletariat, for whom anguish is not its lot and who is actually capable of delivering the emancipation from fear by re-appropriating the products of human production, including the atomic bomb. A subsequent essay from 1947, “A Matter of Fact,” continues in this vein, suggesting the necessity of socialist means for realizing Christian ends. It also includes a Hegelian critique of the existing Catholic Church which suggests that the church is incapable of such an alliance without a theological revolution. Each of these essays includes the suggestion that critique and reform will occasion a better church and a truer Christianity. By 1949, however, Althusser was totally pessimistic about this possibility and, in a letter to his mentor Jean Lacroix, he argued that the sole possibility for realizing Christian values is through communist action. Though some critics have argued that Christian and Catholic values and modes of reasoning inform all of Althusser’s philosophy, any explicit consideration of a practical and theoretical reconciliation between the two was abandoned at this point in Althusser’s development.
2.2 Hegelian Marxism
The second category of Althusser’s early work, one closely related to the first, are those texts that deal with Hegel. Written primarily for an academic audience, they approach Hegel’s philosophy either critically, in terms of the history of its reception and use, or exegetically, in terms of examining what possibility Hegel’s metaphysics, logic, politics, epistemology, and understanding of subjectivity offer to those interested in understanding and encouraging societal transformation. Between 1946 and 1950, the results of Althusser’s exegeses were positive: Hegel indeed had something to offer. This judgment finds its most detailed explanation in Althusser’s 1947 thesis “On Content in the thought of G.W.F. Hegel.” In addition to detailing Hegel’s relation to Kant and criticizing the simplification of the dialectic by Hegel’s commentators, Althusser argues in this work that the dialectic “cannot be attacked for its form” (1947, 116). Instead, Hegel can only be critiqued for a failure of the contents of the form (as these contents are specified in Hegel’s historical and political works) to have actually fulfilled the absolute idea. Following the Young Hegelians, then, Althusser uses Hegel’s dialectic against itself to criticize claims like the one made in The Philosophy of Right that the Prussian state is the fulfillment of the dialectic. Though he uses Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right to make his points and though he is in agreement with Marx that the Hegelian concept, realized in thought, must now be realized in the world, Althusser does not suggest in his thesis that Marx’s philosophy leaves Hegel’s insights about, history, logic, and the subject behind. Instead, he contends that Marx is guilty of committing the same error as Hegel in mistaking historical content for the fulfillment of the dialectic. Because all knowledge is historical, Althusser argues, Marxists can only correct for this error by appeal to the idea of the dialectic and to its end in the absolute and the eternal, to a time “when the human totality will be reconciled with its own structure” (1947, 156). Something like this argument will appear again in his classical work as a critique of the empiricist tendency in Marxist philosophy.
2.3 Marx not Hegel
By the early 1950s, Althusser’s judgments that Marxism was, of necessity, Hegelian and that it aimed at human fulfillment had undergone revision. This transition to thinking about Marx as the originator of a philosophy totally distinct from Hegel’s was signaled in a review essay from 1950 which argued that the post-war mania for Hegel in France was only a bourgeois attempt to combat Marx. In two short essays from 1953 on Marxist philosophy, this switch is fully apparent. In these texts, Althusser aligns himself with the position advanced by Mehring and Lenin that, at a certain point in Marx’s development, Hegel is left behind and that, afterwards, Marx forged his own original concepts and methodology. In his description of what these concepts and methodology are, Althusser pretty much follows the Party line, insisting that Marx reversed the Hegelian dialectic, that historical materialism is a science, that the sciences verify dialectical materialism, and that the proletariat needs to be taught Marxist science from above. Though these essays repeat the Party philosophy as formulated by Lenin, Stalin, and Zhdanov, they also include recognizable Althusserian themes and show his thinking about these themes to be in transition. For instance, both essays retain the idea from Althusser’s 1947 thesis about the quasi-transcendental status of present scientific knowledge. Both also anticipate future concerns in their speculations about the ideological character of current scientific knowledge and in their incorporation of ideas from Mao about the relationship between theory and practice. Written as a response to Paul Ricoeur and representing the last example of this third category of Althusser’s early work, a text from 1955 argues for the objectivity of historical science. This is a theme to which he would return. Noticeably absent from this body of work, however, are the detailed and original claims Althusser would make in the early 1960s about Marx’s philosophy.
2.4 Historical Work: Montesquieu and Feuerbach
Two essays that Althusser wrote in the mid 1950s were the first to focus exclusively on Marxist philosophy and are interesting inasmuch as they evidence his rejection of Hegel and his embrace of the Party’s Marxism-Leninism. In addition, these texts suggest the need for a thorough study of Marx. This study, however, would wait until the beginning of the next decade. For the rest of the 1950s, most of Althusser’s published work involved the study of philosophical figures who preceded Marx. These figures included Montesquieu, on whose political philosophy and theory of history he wrote a book-length study, and Feuerbach, whose writings he translated and commented upon. The dual thesis of Althusser’s Montesquieu book: that, insofar as Montesquieu studies the “concrete behavior of men” he resists idealism and inaugurates the study of history as a science and that, insofar as Montesquieu accepts past and present political formations as delimiting the possibilities for political life, he remains an idealist, is one that will find echoes in Althusser’s study of Marx during the next decade. Similarly, inasmuch as he makes the argument in a commentary (1960) that part of his intention in translating Feuerbach is to show just what Marx owes in his early writings to the author of The Essence of Christianity so that these may be better seen as absent from Marx’s mature work, these studies of Feuerbach can also be seen as propaedeutic to the study of Marx which Althusser inaugurated in 1961 with his article “On the Young Marx”.
3. Classic Work (1961–1966)
With the perspective afforded by the mass of posthumous writings published since the 1990s, it has become clear that Althusser was perennially concerned with important issues in metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of science, historiography, hermeneutics, and political philosophy. However, it is also true that the primary medium Althusser employed for thinking through problems in these areas was Marxist philosophy. This is especially true of the period between 1961 and 1966 when the majority of his published and unpublished work concerned itself with how to read Marx, the definition of Marxist philosophy, and how to understand and apply Marxian concepts. In addition, if we are to take Althusser’s retrospective word for it, the pieces he published during this period were intended as political-theoretical acts, polemics meant to respond to contemporary opinions and policies and to shift the terms of these arguments as well as the actions which were their results. For these reasons, it is natural when discussing these texts to focus upon the contexts that engendered them and upon the positions within Marxist philosophy that Althusser stakes out by their means. Alternatively, as Althusser indicates in many of these pieces his debts to contemporaneous theorists and to philosophical predecessors such as Spinoza, there is the temptation to understand his thought as a combination of the insights contributed by these thinkers with Marxist philosophy. While each is a useful approach to understanding and explaining Althusser’s philosophy, when excessive attention is paid to one or another of them, one risks historicizing his contributions or suggesting that they are merely derivative. Seeking to avoid either result, even though the following discussion will note the context for Althusser’s work, its relation to Marxist philosophy, and the non-Marxist philosophical insights that contribute to its method and conclusions, this account will also suggest the uniqueness of his contributions to hermeneutics, metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of science, historiography, and political philosophy.
For multiple, overlapping, and complicated reasons of which the most relevant may be the discrediting of Stalin’s personage, policies, and version of Marxist philosophy that followed Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech,” Europe in the late 1950s saw a blossoming of political and philosophical alternatives to the version of Marxism-Leninism promulgated by the Soviet Union. This version of Marxist philosophy had dominated European leftist thought and action since the dawn of the Cold War in 1947 and, in France, was widely disseminated via Communist Party schools and literature. While political and philosophical change were slow to occur in the French Communist Party, by the late 1950s, many intellectuals associated with the Party began to ask questions about what constitutes the core of Marx’s philosophy and about how this philosophy guides, relates to, or allows for political action.
For many of these intellectuals, answering this question meant a return to Marx’s early work (those texts written before 1845) in the hopes of finding the “key” to his philosophy. In pieces like “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” (1844), and the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844), these thinkers found and championed a Marx obviously indebted to a Hegelian dialectical understanding of subjectivity and historical development and deeply concerned about ending human alienation. It is to this project—that of finding the true method, aim, and intent of Marx’s philosophy in his early work’s emphasis on the realization of full human freedom and potentials through dialectical historical change—that Althusser made the first of his public “interventions” into Marxist philosophy. He inaugurated this effort with the essay “On the Young Marx” (1961), which sought to demonstrate that this method of looking to Marx’s early work for the key to his philosophy was methodologically suspect and ideologically driven. Further, in this essay and in subsequent work, he developed an alternate method of investigation or “reading” that would allow Marx’s true philosophy to be revealed in its purity.
From the fruits of this new method of reading, Althusser argued that not only was Marx the originator of a new philosophy, Dialectical Materialism, that had nothing to do with its Hegelian and Feuerbachian predecessors, but that he also founded a new science, Historical Materialism, which broke with and superseded such ideological and pre-scientific precursors as the political economics of Smith and Ricardo. For the most part, the essays collected in For Marx (1965) and the seminar papers issued as Reading Capital (1965) develop and utilize this method of reading in order to justify and describe Marxist philosophy and Marxist science as well as to distinguish between these two theoretical activities. In so doing, Althusser says quite a bit about the nature of knowledge and the general relations between philosophy, science, politics, and ideology. Further, Althusser applies this hermeneutic method to argue against what he labeled “empiricist” understandings of Marx. These included the Humanist interpretations of Marx described above as well as variations on the orthodox Marxist-Leninist theory, which specified the strict determination of culture and history by the existing modes of economic exchange and resulting class struggles. The following paragraphs discuss this theory of reading, how it produces a different understanding of Marx’s philosophy than that which is derived from Humanist and Economist readings, and how it informs his epistemology, philosophy of science, historiography, and political philosophy.
3.1 Hermeneutic Theory
The label that Althusser gave to the method by which he approached Marx’s texts was that of a “symptomatic reading.” Instead of looking back at Marx’s early work in order to find the “essence” of his philosophy, one of whose expressions was Capital, and also instead of trying to build a true or consistent theory out of Marx’s oeuvre by explaining away contradictions within it and noting certain passages as key, Althusser argued that Marx’s true philosophy was largely absent from his work prior to 1845. Even in mature texts such as Capital, Althusser maintained that Marx’s philosophy remained largely implicit, as the background system of concepts which allowed the scientific work Marx was involved in generating to take place. The symptomatic method of reading was designed to make these concepts explicit and “to establish the indispensable minimum for the consistent existence of Marxist philosophy” (1965a , 35).
The three inspirations Althusser gave for this interpretive method were those provided by Spinoza, Freud by way of Lacan, and that provided by Marx himself. In addition, he added to these examples insights from the French tradition of historical epistemology about the way in which sciences come to be constituted. One of the ideas borrowed from Spinoza was the contention that texts and authors are the products of their times and that the thoughts authors set down on the page cannot help but be a part of, and be affected by, the ideological currents that accompany and allow for the satisfaction of needs in a specific era. So then, similar to the way in which Spinoza argued in the Theological Political-Treatise that by engaging in a materialist historical study of the Bible one could disentangle those prophetic laws and commands which were merely the result of temporal exigencies and the prophet’s imagination from those which represented the true word of God, so Althusser argued that one could disentangle those concepts which were merely ideological in Marx’s texts from those which comprised his true philosophy.
Though this theory was later to be complicated and revised, during this period, Althusser consistently argued that Marx’s work prior to 1845 was ideological and that it was saturated with non-Marxian concepts borrowed from Hegel’s and Feuerbach’s philosophical anthropologies. Althusser did recognize that some of Marx’s early work is marked by its rejection of idealist premises and concepts. However, inasmuch as this early work was seen to espouse a telic view of humanity in which the individual and society was said to undergo a necessary historico-dialectical development, Althusser identified it as fundamentally Hegelian. That there was a materialist correction to this basic narrative with Marx’s embrace of Feuerbach, Althusser also granted. However, the replacement by Marx of a speculative anthropology which saw the historical development of society as the self-fulfillment of human freedom with a materialist anthropology that cited the same logic of development but which specified that the motor of this development was human beings in their “sensuous life activity,” was seen by Althusser to represent little conceptual and no logical advance from Hegel.
This “theory of the break,” which held that Marx’s early work was Hegelian and ideological and that, after a decisive rupture in 1845 and then a long period of transition between 1845–1857, his work became recognizably Marxist and scientific, would seem to indicate that all one has to do to understand Marx’s philosophy is to read this mature work. However, the actual case is not so simple. While reading Capital and other late works is necessary for understanding Marx’s philosophy, it is not sufficient. It is not sufficient, Althusser argued, because, even in his post-1857 writings, Marx provides no systematic exposition of his epistemology or his ideas about social structure, history, and human nature, all of which were necessary for Marxist philosophy’s consistent and continuing existence.
Many interpreters of Marx, and not just those Althusser directly engaged with during the early 1960s, have maintained that such texts as the 1859 Preface and the 1844 Manuscripts provide keys to understanding Marx’s philosophy. However, Althusser made the case that these texts were contradictory and insufficient for this purpose. It is with this contention that the models provided by psychoanalysis and by Marx’s own critique of classical political economy come to inform Althusser’s overall hermeneutic strategy. Part of this strategy, Althusser maintains, is directly taken from Marx’s own method. Thus, in a way parallel to Marx pointing out in Capital V.II (1885) that Adam Smith needed the concept of the “value of labor” for his explanations of capitalist economic activity but could not fully generate it out of the systems of ideas available to him, Althusser argued that, though Marx was recognizably engaged in the work of Historical Materialism in Capital, the philosophical theory or background conceptual framework that allowed this investigation to proceed was not fully articulated.
The explicit project of Reading Capital and of many of the essays included in For Marx was to make these fundamental concepts explicit. It was to do so by paying attention to the theoretical “problematic,” or background ideological framework in which the work was generated, by analyzing those passages where a philosophical concept had to have been in use but was not made explicit, and by noting and explaining where and why one theoretical pronouncement is in contradiction with itself or with another passage. For Althusser, such areas of Marx’s text are “symptoms,” in the psychoanalytic sense of the word, of the necessary but unarticulated philosophical framework that underwrites and allows his scientific investigations. Of these frameworks, Marx was not fully conscious. However, they were what allowed him to investigate and describe such socio-economic events as the transformation of money into capital without recourse to Hegelian logic and concepts. Althusser argues that by paying attention to these passages in Marx’s text as well as by seeking out Marxist concepts as these were developed during the course of practical Marxist activity by theorists such as Lenin and Mao, an attentive reader can render explicit Marx’s philosophy.
That the concepts Althusser derived from his symptomatic reading of Marx, Lenin, and Mao were Marxist concepts was avowed. Nevertheless, Althusser also acknowledged that some of the concepts found latent in these texts were derived from and consistent with his philosophical and social scientific contemporaries as well as with those of Spinoza. Of course, this is not inconsistent with the theory of reading and authorship that underwrites a symptomatic reading of a text. Inasmuch as authors and readers are always said to think with concepts borrowed from or supplied by the problematic that they inhabit, there is no such thing as an innocent or objective reading: we understand things with and through the concepts available to us. Perhaps nowhere is this borrowing more evident than in Althusser’s ideas about how scientific and philosophic knowledge is generated. Though Althusser is very careful to back up his arguments about Marx’s epistemology with close analyses of Marx’s work, it is apparent that the model for knowledge acquisition that is developed in Reading Capital owes much to Spinoza and to the French tradition of historical epistemology.
3.2 Epistemology and Philosophy of Science
With his re-reading of Marx, Althusser wished to offer an alternative to the two then dominant understandings of Marx’s philosophy. Both understandings were charged with the same mistake. This mistake was, fundamentally, an epistemological one: each cast Marx as an empiricist. At first glance, this charge might seem ridiculous. This is especially the case as, according to Althusser’s own critique, both understandings of Marx offered variants of the Hegelian claim that there is a reason to history. For Althusser, however, both readings were “empiricist” inasmuch as each ascribed to Marx a theory of knowledge in which the subject, by means of a process of observation and abstraction, comes to know what an object really and truly is, according to its essence. This is a definition of empiricism meant to include philosophers as diverse as Locke, Kant, and Hegel and traditions as varied as British Empiricism, German Idealism, Positivism, and Pragmatism. In the case of Humanist Marxism, the object that comes to be known by its essence is the human subject in its full freedom. It does so by means of critique and by creatively overcoming that which is alien to it or “merely historical.” In the case of orthodox Marxism-Leninism, this object is the economy, the reality that underlies, causes, and can explain all historical structures and transformations. The economy comes to be known as it truly is only by the proletariat, by those whom the historical process has endowed with an objective gaze and who possess the ability to make this truth objective.
In opposition to the empiricist model of knowledge production, Althusser proposes that true or scientific knowledge is distinguished from ideology or opinion not by dint of an historical subject having abstracted the essence of an object from its appearances. Instead, this knowledge is understood to be produced by a process internal to scientific knowledge itself. Though this transformation takes place entirely in thought, Althusser does not maintain that scientific knowledge makes no use of facts. However, these facts or materials are never brute. Rather, specific sciences start with pre-existing concepts or genera such as “humors,” “unemployment,” “quasars,” or “irrational numbers.” These genera may be ideological in part or in whole. Science’s job is to render these concepts scientific. This labor is what Althusser terms “theoretical practice.” The result of this practice is scientific knowledge. Scientific knowledge is produced by means of applying to these genera the body of concepts or “theory” that the science possesses for understanding them. This body of concepts may be more or less unified and consistent and it may be more or less consciously articulated. Further, the sum of the individual concepts that this theory consists of delimits the possible ways in which the genera that a science begins with can be understood.
When applied, a science’s theory weeds out ideological notions associated with the original concept or genera. The result of this application of theory to genera is the transformation of the “ideological generality into a scientific generality” (1963b , 185). An example of such a process is the transformation in medical science of a concept like “phlegmatic humors” into the idea of blood-borne pathogens by dint of the theory of circulation and infectious disease. Once generated, such scientific concepts inform regular scientific practice, allowing specific research programs within an individual science to progress. Althusser himself gives examples of three such major transformations. The first is the founding of modern physics by Galileo, the other that of Greek mathematics, and the third, that of Marx’s founding of the science of Historical Materialism out of Classical Political Economy. Each of these foundings is marked by what Althusser terms an “epistemological break,” or a period when ideological concepts are replaced by scientific ones. Any similarity here to Kuhnian ideas about revolutionary and normal science is not surprising. Both Canguilhem and Bachelard, from whom Althusser drew inspiration for his theory, were part of a dialogue that took in the work of Alexander Koyré on scientific revolutions, a thinker from whom Kuhn, in turn, drew his inspiration.
Althusser’s debt to the tradition of French historical epistemology in this account of knowledge production and philosophy of science should now be evident. However, this epistemology’s Marxian and Spinozistic elements may be less pronounced. The vocabulary adopted above to express this theory, however, gestures to both influences. For Althusser, Marx’s founding of the science of history is crucial not only to politics (as will be addressed below) but also to understanding all of human activity, including scientific activity. That there is a circular logic to this epistemological theory, Althusser readily admits, for it is only the science of Historical Materialism that allows us to understand scientific practice in general. Althusser, though, is comfortable with this circularity. This is because, insofar as this understanding of scientific practice in general allows us to understand how individual sciences produce their knowledge, Historical Materialism is a science that functions like any other.
For Althusser, the concept that helps to produce this understanding of scientific practices is that of the “mode of production.” With it, he argues, Marx supplied theorists with an idea sufficient to comprehend the way in which we materially produce our selves, our environments, our knowledges, and our histories. Indeed, this concept makes it possible to analyze all of our activities in their specificity and to understand them in their relation to the totality of which they are a part. As it must be if we are to make sense of scientific practice as one aspect of the total mode of production, much more than the activity of economic production must be included in this totality of productive practices. Added by Althusser to these two aspects of the mode of production are those of ideological, political, and philosophical production, among others.
In each of the practices that together comprise, at any given time, a specific mode of production, some form or forms of labor uses the existing means of production to transform existing materials into new products. According to Althusser, this realization is Marx’s basic insight. In scientific production, for example, thinkers use existing theories to transform existing concepts into new, scientific concepts. However, and this is where Althusser’s Spinozism becomes apparent and also where he breaks with economistic understandings of Marx, it is not the case that the analysis of any one mode of production within the totality of productive practices is capable of generating an understanding of the way in which all rest of the productive processes are causally determined. Rather, and in line with the parallelism attributed by Leibniz to Spinoza, as each productive process transforms a unique material (concepts in science, goods in economics, social relations in politics), each process can only be understood in terms of its unique causal structure. In addition, and again also in a way similar to Spinoza’s account of substance as seen from different aspects, each productive process is understood to stand in relation to and play a part of a complexly structured whole, none of which is reducible to being the simple or essential cause of the others.
That Althusser regards most, if not all, human activity as consisting of material processes of production and reproduction can be used as a key to understanding other parts of his philosophy. These include his thoughts on the structure of the social and political world, the historical process, and philosophy. As philosophy is closely related to science and because it is charged with a task that allows the production of knowledge about the other socio-economic practices to be generated, it is probably best to start with Althusser’s understanding of philosophy as a material practice of production before proceeding to a discussion of how Althusser understands the other practices listed above.
3.3 The Role of Philosophy
According to Althusser, most activity labeled “philosophy” is really a type of ideological production. By this, he means to say that most philosophy reproduces, in highly abstract form, notions about the world whose effect is to sustain existing socio-economic relations. As such, philosophy merely reflects the background values, attitudes, and ideas that allow the socio-economic world to function. However, for Althusser, genuine philosophy functions as a “Theory of theoretical practice” (1965b). In this mode, it works to provide an aid to scientific practice by distinguishing between ideological concepts and scientific ones as well as by clarifying and rendering consistent the scientific concepts that enable a science to transforms existing ideas into scientific knowledge.
For Althusser, it is not necessary that this process of distinction and clarification be accomplished before a specific theoretical practice can generate scientific knowledge. In fact, scientific activity often proceeds without a clear understanding of the concepts that allow it to produce its knowledge. Indeed, Althusser maintained that this was Marx’s lot when he was writing Capital: scientific knowledge of the capitalist economic system was being produced, but Marx did not possess a full awareness of the concepts allowing this production. According to this definition of philosophy as the Theory of theoretical practice, Althusser’s re-reading of Capital and other texts was philosophical insofar as it was able to name and distinguish the concepts that allowed Marx’s scientific analysis of history to proceed.
3.4 Marxist Philosophy
The latent concepts rendered explicit by the practice of symptomatic reading were said by Althusser to constitute the theory of Dialectical Materialism, or what is the same thing, Marx’s philosophy. With these concepts made explicit, Althusser believed that Marxist science, or Historical Materialism, could employ them in order to achieve better analyses of specific modes of production and better understandings of the opportunities that specific modes of production presented for political change. Some of these concepts have already been articulated in the discussion of the mode of production above, but without being named. To label these concepts and then to add some more, the idea that each individual productive process or element stands in relation to and plays a part of a complexly structured whole, none of which is reducible to being the simple or essential cause of the others, is what Althusser terms the idea of “structural causality.” This concept, in turn, is closely related to the idea of “overdetermination” or the theory that every element in the total productive process constituting a historical moment is determined by all the others.
Another Marxist philosophical concept that allows the historical materialist scientist to understand the logic of a specific mode of production is that of “contradiction.” This is the idea that, at any given period, multiple, concrete and definite practices take place within a mode of production. Among and within these specific practices, there may or may not be tensions. To take an example from Marx’s chapter on “Primitive Accumulation” in Capital V.I, at the same time as peasants holdings were being expropriated in the late 15th and early 16th centuries by a nascent bourgeoisie, the church and the aristocracy were passing laws against this appropriation. Any isolable element of the total structure, be it a person, a social class, an institution, or the state, in some way reflects and embodies these practices and these antagonisms and as such each is said to be “overdetermined.” Further, Althusser specifies that the development of productive practices within a specific mode of production is often “uneven” in addition to possibly being antagonistic. This means, for instance, that some economic elements within a whole may be more or less capitalistic while others simultaneously operate according to socialist norms. Thus the development within a mode of production of the practices specific to it is not necessarily homogenous or linear.
Added to the Marxian concepts of structural causality, contradiction, uneven development, and overdetermination is that of the “structure in dominance.” This concept designates that major element in a structural whole that tends to organize all of the other practices. In much of the contemporary world and inasmuch as it tends to organize the production of moral values, scientific knowledge, the family, art, etc. this structure is the economic practice of commodity production and consumption. However, in another era and in other places, it may be the production and dissemination of religious beliefs and practices that dominates and organizes the socio-economic structure.
3.5 Social and Political Philosophy, Historiography
With this understanding of the elements that compose any socio-economic structure and their relations made explicit, something can now be said about the social and political philosophies that follow from it. First, with the idea that human individuals are merely one of the sites at which the contradictory productive forces that characterize an era are enacted, Althusser signals that the primary object of social philosophy is not the human individual. Second, with the idea that the state produced by political activity is merely one productive process among others, Althusser signals that the primary element in political philosophy is not the state. Though both states and individuals are important elements of the socio-economic whole, nothing philosophical is learned by examining the essence of the individual or the way in which justice is embodied by the state.
As Althusser understands them, whatever conceptions we have of the nature of human beings or about the proper function of the state are historically generated and serve to reproduce existing social relations. In other words, they are ideological. Apart from the necessity of human beings to engage in productive relations with other human beings and with their environment in order to produce their means of subsistence, there is no human nature or essence. This is the core of Althusser’s “anti-humanist” position. Further, though some order must exist in order to allow for the production and reproduction of social life, there is no essential or best form that this order must take. This is not to say that human beings do not conceive of or strive for the best order for social life or that they do not believe that they are essentially free or equal and deserving of rights. It also does not mean that all of our ideas are homogenous and that heterogeneous ideas about what is best cannot exist side by side in the same system without leading to conflict (though they sometimes do). However, the science of Historical Materialism has revealed the desire for such orders to be historically generated along with the ideas about human nature that justify them.
This account of the ideological role of our conceptions of human nature and of the best political arrangement shows Althusser to differ little from interpretations of Marx which hold that political ideologies are the product of and serve existing economic relations. However, and as was detailed above, Althusser rejects the simple understanding of causality offered by this model in which economic practices order consciousness and our cultural practices. He also rejects the philosophy of history that often accompanies this model. This philosophy has it that certain economic practices not only generate corresponding cultural practices, but that there is a pattern to economic development in which each economic order inexorably leads to its own demise and replacement by a different economic system. In this understanding of history, feudalism must lead to capitalism and capitalism to socialism. Althusser, however, argues against the idea that history has a subject (such as the economy or human agency) and that history has a goal (such as communism or human freedom). History, for Althusser, is a process without a subject. There are patterns and orders to historical life and there is historical change. However, there is no necessity to any of these transformations and history does not necessarily progress. Transformations do occur. However, they do so only when the contradictions and levels of development inherent in a mode of production allow for such change.
4. Revisions (1966–78)
From the time of its initial dissemination, Althusser’s re-reading of Marx was met by almost equal amounts of enthusiasm and castigation. For every reader who found in his prose an explanation of Marx’s philosophy and science that rendered Marx philosophically respectable and offered renewed hope for Marxist theory, there were critics who judged his work to be idealist, Stalinist, dogmatist, or excessively structuralist, among myriad other charges. Though many of the initial reactions were contradictory and evidenced misunderstandings of what Althusser was up to, compelling criticisms were also offered. One was that Althusser was only able to offer his reading by ignoring much of what Marx actually wrote about his logic and about the concepts important to his analysis. Another criticism, and one voiced to Althusser by leaders of the French Communist Party, was that Althusser’s reading of Marx offered little on the relationship between Marxist theory and Marxist political practice.
It took a long time before Althusser explicitly addressed the charge that he had ignored much of what Marx had to say about his own logic and concepts. However, buffeted by these criticisms and with a sense that there were idealist or “theoreticist” tendencies in his reading of Marx and that the relationship between theory and practice was indeed under-developed, Althusser set out during the late 1960s and 1970s to correct and revise his take on the relationships among philosophy, science, ideology, and politics. To some readers, these revisions represented a politically motivated betrayal of his theoretical accomplishments. For others, they simply revealed his project as a whole to be untenable and self-contradictory. Some recent critics, however, have argued that these revisions are consistent with and necessary to the development of what they view to be the overall goal of Althusser’s work: the development of a materialist political philosophy adequate for political practice.
4.1 The Relationship between Theory and Practice
Althusser’s initial revisions to his understanding of the social structure and knowledge production were informed by a renewed attention to the works of Lenin and by a seminar he convened at the ENS in 1967 for leading scientists and interested students. This course resulted in a series of papers, gathered together as Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists (1967a), in which Althusser began rethinking the relations among philosophy, science, ideology, and politics. Though this revision was later to be made more explicit, one of the most striking aspects of these papers was Althusser’s abandonment of the Spinozistic claim that the different levels of theoretical practice were autonomous. He now maintained that there was no criterion sufficient to demarcate scientific from ideological concepts and that all theoretical concepts are marked by ideology. This did not mean, however, that any concept was as good as any other. Scientists, through their work on the material real, tended to generate better understandings of things than were available intuitively. Further, he argued that philosophy still had a role to play in the clarification of scientific concepts. This is the case because, no matter how much work scientists do to understand the material real and to generate better concepts, they must always employ ideological concepts to frame their investigations and its results. Marxist philosophers, he maintained, could be useful to scientists by pointing out, from the standpoint of politics and by the method of historical critique, where and how some of the concepts scientists employed were ideological. The result of this intervention of philosophy into politics would not be “truer” concepts, but ideas that were more “correct” or “right” in both the normative and positive senses of these words.
Parallel to this move, and motivated by the need to provide the link between philosophical theory and political practice that was largely missing from his classic work, Althusser now argued that philosophy had a useful role to play between politics and science. Political practice, Althusser maintained, was mostly motivated by ideological understandings of what the good is and how to accomplish it. Though he did not argue that there was a way to leave ideology behind and to reveal the good in itself, he did maintain that science could help to correct ideological thinking about political means and ends. Social science in particular could do so by showing how certain goals were impossible or misguided given present socio-economic relations and by suggesting that, at a certain time and in a certain place, other means and other ends might be more fruitfully adopted and pursued. As scientific knowledge does not speak directly to the public or to politicians, Althusser assigned materialist philosophers the job of communicating scientific knowledge of the material real, its conditions, and its possibilities to politicians and the public. If this communication is successful, Althusser maintained, one should not expect all political activity to be successful. Instead, one should expect a modest shift from an idealist ideology to one that is materialist and more scientific and which has a better chance of realizing its goals.
4.2 Theory of Ideology
During the 1970s, Althusser continued the revisions begun in 1967 and elaborated other Marxian ideas he believed to be underdeveloped. Perhaps the best known of the new conceptual formulations resulting from these efforts is that of “ideological interpellation.” This account of how a human being becomes a self-conscious subject was published in an essay titled “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” (1970). It was excerpted from a larger essay essay titled “On the Reproduction of Capitalism.” This work analyzed the necessary relationship between state and subject such that a given economic mode of production might subsist. It includes not only an analysis of the state and its legal and educational systems but also of the psychological relationship which exists between subject and state as ideology. This narrative of subjectification was intended to help advance Althusser’s argument that regimes or states are able to maintain control by reproducing subjects who believe that their position within the social structure is a natural one. Ideology, or the background ideas that we possess about the way in which the world must function and of how we function within it is, in this account, understood to be always present. Specific socio-economic structures, however, require particular ideologies. These ideologies are instantiated by institutions or “Ideological State Apparatuses” like family, schools, church, etc., which provide the developing subject with categories in which she can recognize herself. Inasmuch as a person does so and embraces the practices associated with those institutions, she has been successfully “hailed” or “interpellated” and recognized herself as that subject who does those kinds of things. As the effect of these recognitions is to continue existing social relations, Althusser argued that a Dictatorship of the Proletariat is necessary so that Ideological State Apparatuses productive of the bourgeois subject can be replaced with those productive of proletarian or communist subjects.
4.3 Marx’s Philosophy Redux
In 1978 and as a response to what he saw, yet again, as the theoretical and political misdirection of the Communist movement, Althusser authored a piece, “Marx in his Limits,” which was intended to separate the good from the bad in Marx’s philosophy. In his classic work, Althusser had tried to accomplish this goal by separating out ideological concepts and by bringing forth the scientific ones. However, in “Marx in his Limits,” he now argued that such a method of separation cannot work because—within Marx’s writings and throughout his oeuvre—both good and bad, materialist and idealist concepts, are hopelessly intermixed and many are underdeveloped.
Inasmuch as Althusser admits in this piece that Marx never fully abandoned Hegel’s logic, the concept of human alienation, or the idea that history has a goal, the inventory Althusser offers can be seen as a positive response to the charge that he had ignored Marx’s explicit statements in order to imagine for Marx a consistent and “true” philosophy. Althusser does not give up on the task of articulating a better Marxist philosophy, however. Instead, he argues that there is another, “materialist” criterion that allows us to see the limits of Marx’s thinking and to recognize those points in his work where Marx was unable to transcend his bourgeois background and his education in German Idealism. This criterion is that of the practical success or failure of Marx’s concepts as each has been employed in the history of Marxist movements. When we have affected this inventory and grouped together the successful concepts, what we are left with is a materialist Marxism, a Marxism which endorses the scientific method as the best way for understanding ourselves and our potential but that also understands that this method is fallible. Remaining also is a Marxism which does not subscribe to any philosophy of history and which certainly does not maintain that capitalism will inevitably lead to communism. This Marxism has no system of interrelated concepts that guarantee a scientific analysis. Further, it possesses no worked out theory of the relations between economic structures and cultural structures but for that limited knowledge which scientific practice provides. Finally, this Marxism has given up the dream of analyzing the whole of culture and its movement from the outside; it realizes that one thinks inside and about the culture one inhabits in order to possibly effect and change that culture.
5. Late work (1980–1986): Aleatory Materialism
After being interrupted by ill health and by the events following from the murder of his wife, in 1982 Althusser returned to the question of what was essential to Marx’s philosophy and expanded the scope of this inquiry to include speculation about the metaphysics that must underlie it. Freed by his ignoble status from the task of influencing the direction of the Communist movement, the texts associated with this project and gathered together in the book Philosophy of the Encounter differ tremendously in subject matter, style, and method from his other writings. Whether these texts represent a continuation of, or even the key to his philosophy or whether they are an aberration is presently being debated in the secondary literature. However, as there is strong textural and archival evidence that many of the ideas explicitly expressed in these works had been gestating for a long time, the contention that these writings are of a piece with his earlier work seems to be gaining ground.
The principal thesis of Althusser’s last philosophical writings is that there exists an “underground” or little recognized tradition in the history of philosophy. Variously labeled a “materialism of the encounter” or “aleatory materialism,” the method which he uses to articulate this philosophy is to simply comment upon works by philosophers who exemplify this current and to point out where, how, and to what extent they do so. In addition to Marx, the philosophers that he cites as being part of this underground tradition include Democritus, Epicurus, Lucretius, Machiavelli, Spinoza, Hobbes, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein. From these readings in the history of philosophy, Althusser aims to suggest that this tradition exists and that it is both philosophically fecund and viable. He also wishes to return to and bolster the thesis he first ventured in the late 1960s that there are really only two positions in philosophy: materialism and idealism. As he understood it, the two tendencies are always in a war of opposition with the one functioning to reinforce the status quo and the other to possibly overcome it.
Perhaps because it functions in opposition to the idealist tendency in philosophy, aleatory materialism is marked almost as much by its rejections as it is by the positive claims it contains about the world and about history. As Marx is included within this tradition, it is not surprising that many of these rejections are also attributed to him during the course of Althusser’s earlier work. These include a dismissal of what Althusser calls “the principle of Reason,” or the idea that the universe or history has an origin or an end. With this prohibition, Althusser means to exclude from this tradition not only the usual suspects in the rationalist tradition, but also mechanical and dialectical materialisms with their logics of determination. Also dismissed, he maintains, is the myth that somehow philosophy and philosophers are autonomous, that they see the world from outside and objectively. Though there is an objective world, philosophy does not have knowledge of this world as its object for there is no way for it to ground itself and the material it thinks with and through arises historically. Philosophy is therefore not a science or the Science of sciences and it produces no universal Truth. Rather, the truths it produces are contingent and are offered in opposition to other competing truths. If philosophy does have an object, it is the void, or that which is not yet but which could be.
That the philosophy of the encounter lacks an object does not mean that it lacks positive propositions. However, given the epistemological status attributed to philosophy by Althusser, these metaphysical propositions or “theses” are true only insofar as they have explanatory or practical value. First among them, following Democritus, is the thesis that matter is all that exists. Second is the thesis that chance or the aleatory is at the origin of all worlds. That the patterns which constitute and define these worlds can be known, described, and predicted according to certain laws or reasons is also true. However, the fact that these worlds ever came to be organized in these patterns is aleatory and the patterns themselves can only ever be known immanently. Third, new worlds and new orders themselves arise out of chance encounters between pre-existing material elements. Whether or not such orders emerge is contingent: they do not have to occur. When material elements collide, they either “take” and a new order is founded, or they do not and the old world continues.
To Althusser, the propositions which have explanatory value at the level of ontology and cosmology also have value at the level of political philosophy. After first citing Rousseau and Hobbes as example of philosophers who recognized that the origin and continued existence of political orders is contingent, Althusser turns to Machiavelli and Marx for his principle examples of how aleatory materialism functions in the political realm. The anti-teleological, scientistic, and anti-humanist, Marxist philosophy developed by Althusser over the course of his career works well with the materialist metaphysics recounted above. In this understanding of Marxist philosophy, societies and subjects are seen as patterns of activity that behave in predictable ways. Though scientists may study and describe these orders in their specificity, it does not at first appear that philosophy can do much except to categorize these interactions at the most general level. However, citing Marx’s work again and taking inspiration from Machiavelli’s project of installing “a new prince in a new principality,” Althusser argues that the materialist philosopher may accomplish somewhat more than this with her descriptions, critiques, and predictions. This is because, by examining a political order not from the perspective of its necessity but with an awareness of its contingency, this philosopher may be able think the possibility of its transformation. If chance smiles on her, if someone listens and if effects occur, then elements might recombine and a new political might take hold. This is, to be sure, a very limited and unpredictable power attributed to the philosopher. However, it is also the only one that Althusser in his late works argues is adequate for political practice and that does not, like idealism, merely serve to reproduce existing relations.
The following list owes much to the comprehensive bibliography of Althusser’s work compiled by Gregory Elliott in Althusser: The Detour of Theory, New York: Verso, 2006 .
- (1940–45) Journal de captivité (Stalag XA 1940–45), (Paris: Stock/IMEC, 1992)
- (1946) “L’internationale des bons sentiments”, in Ecrits Philosophiques et Politiques I (Paris: Stock/IMEC 1994), 35–57; tr. as “The International of Decent Feelings,” by G.M. Goshgarian in The Spectre of Hegel: Early Writings (London, NY: Verso, 1997).
- (1947) “Du contenu dans la pensée de G.W.F. Hegel” in Ecrits Philosophiques et Politiques I (Paris: Stock/IMEC 1994), 59–238; tr. as “On Content in the Thought of G.W.F. Hegel,” by G.M. Goshgarian in The Spectre of Hegel: Early Writings (London, NY: Verso, 1997).
- (1950) “Le retour à Hegel. Dernier mot du révisionisme universitaire,” La Nouvelle Critique 20 (1950); tr. as “The Return of Hegel: The Latest Word in Academic Revisionism,” by G.M. Goshgarian in The Spectre of Hegel: Early Writings (London, NY: Verso, 1997).
- (1953a) “À propos du marxisme,” Revue de l’enseignement philosophique, 3:4 (1953): 15–19; tr. as “On Marxism,” by G.M. Goshgarian in The Spectre of Hegel: Early Writings (London, NY: Verso, 1997).
- (1953b) “Note sur le matérialisme dialectique,” Revue de l’enseignement philosophique, 3:5 (1953): 11–17; tr. as “On Marxism,” by G.M. Goshgarian in The Spectre of Hegel: Early Writings (London, NY: Verso, 1997).
- (1958) Montesquieu, la politique et l’histoire (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1959); tr. as “Montesquieu: Politics and History” by Ben Brewster, in Politics and History: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Marx, (London: Verso, 2007).
- (1960) “Les ‘Manifestes philosophiqes’ de Feuerbach,” La Nouvelle Critique 121 (1960): 32–38; tr. as “Feuerbach’s Philosophical Manifestoes” by Ben Brewster in Louis Althusser, For Marx (London: Verso, 2005).
- (1961) “Sur le jeune Marx (Questions de théorie),” La Pensée 96 (1961):3–26; tr. as “On the Young Marx: Theoretical Questions,” by Ben Brewster in For Marx (London: Verso 2005).
- (1962) “Contradiction et surdetermination (Notes pour un recherche),” La Pensée 106 (1962): 3–22; tr. as “Contradiction and Overdetermination: Notes for an Investigation” by Ben Brewster in For Marx (London: Verso 2005).
- (1963a) “Marxisme et humanisme” Cahiers de l’Institut des Sciences Économique Appliquées 20 (1964): 109–133; tr. as “Marxism and Humanism” by Ben Brewster in For Marx (London: Verso 2005).
- (1963b) “Sur la dialectique matérialiste (De l’inégalité des origines),” La Pensée 110 (1963): 5–46; tr. as “On the Materialist Dialectic: On the Unevenness of Origins,” by Ben Brewster in For Marx (London: Verso 2005).
- (1964) “Freud et Lacan,” La Nouvelle Critique 161–162 (1964–1965): 88–108; tr. as “Freud and Lacan” by Ben Brewster in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (New York: Monthly Review, 2002.
- (1965a) Lire le Capital, Tome 1 & 2, with Étienne Balibar, Roger Establet, Pierre Macherey, and Jacques Rancière (Paris: Maspero, coll. “Théorie”); tr. by Ben Brewster as Reading Capital with the contributions of Establet, Macherey, and Rancière omitted (London: Verso 2016)
- (1965b) “Theory, Theoretical Practice and Theoretical Formation” tr. by James Kavanaugh, in Gregory Elliott ed. Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists (London: Verso, 1990).
- (1966a) “Sur Lévi-Strauss,” in Écrits philosophiques et politiques, Tome 2 (Paris: Stock/IMEC, 1997), 417–432; tr. by G.M. Goshgarian in The Humanist Controversy and Other Writings (London: Verso 2003).
- (1966b) “Sur la genèse,” Décalages 1(2) (2013). J. Smith (trans.), 2012, “On Genesis”, Décalages 1 (2), available online.
- (1967a) Philosophie et philosophie spontanée des savants (1967), (Maspero, coll. “Théorie”, 1974); tr. Warren Montag as “Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists,” in Gregory Elliott ed. Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists (London: Verso, 1990).
- (1967b) “La tâche historique de la philosophie marxiste” tr. by G.M. Goshgarian as “The Historical Task of Marxist Philosophy” in in The Humanist Controversy and Other Writings (London: Verso 2003).
- (1968a) “Lenine et la Philosophie,” Bulleting de la Société de Philosophie 4 (1968): 127–181; tr. as “Lenin and Philosophy” by Ben Brewster in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (New York: Monthly Review 2002).
- (1968c) “Sur le rapport de Marx à Hegel,” in Jacques l’Hondt ed. Hegel et la pensée moderne (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1970), 85–111; tr. as “Marx’s Relation to Hegel” by Ben Brewster in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (New York: Monthly Review 2002).
- (1969b) Ideologie et appareils idéologiques d’État (notes pour une recherche)La Pensée 151 (1970): 3–38; tr. as “Ideology and Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Towards an Investigation” by Ben Brewster in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (New York: Monthly Review 2002).
- (1969c) On The Reproduction Of Capitalism: Ideology And Ideological State Apparatuses, tr. G. M. Goshgarian (London & New York: Verso 2013).
- (1972a) Élements d’autocritique (Paris: Hachette coll. “Analyse”, 1974); tr. as “Elements of Self-Criticism” by Grahame Lock in Essays in Self-Criticism (New Left Books, London, 1976).
- (1975) “Est-il simple d’être marxiste en philosophie? (Soutenance d’Amiens)” La Pensée 183 (1975): 3–31; tr. as “Is it Simple to be a Marxist in Philosophy?” by Grahame Locke in Essays in Self-Criticism (New Left Books, London, 1976).
- (1976a) 22éme Congrés (Paris: Maspero, 1977); tr. as “On the Twenty-Second Congress of the French Communist Party” by Ben Brewster in New Left Review 104 (1977): 3–22.
- (1976b) How to Be a Marxist in Philosophy, G. M. Goshgarian (trans.), London: Bloomsbury, 2017.
- (1976c) “La transformation de la philosophie,” Sur la philosophie (Paris: Gallimard, 1994), 139–178; tr. as “The Transformation of Philosophy” by Thomas E. Lewis in Gregory Elliott ed. Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists (London: Verso, 1990).
- (1977a) “Avant-propos du livre de G. Duménil, ‘Le concept de loi économique dans ‘Le Capital’”, in Solitude de Machiavel et autres textes, ed. Yves Sintomer (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1998), 245–266.
- (1977b) “Enfin la crise du marxisme!” in Pouvoir et opposition dans les sociétés post-révolutionnaires (Le Seuil, coll. “Combats”, 1978), 242–253.
- (1977c) “Solitude de Machiavel” in Solitude de Machiavel et autres texts (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1998), 311–324; tr. as “Machiavell’s Solitude” by Ben Brewster in Machiavelli and Us (London: Verso, 1999).
- (1977d) Les vâches noires: interview imaginaire (le malaise du XXIIe congrès) ce qui ne va pas camarades!, G. M. Goshgarian (ed. and trans.), Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2016.
- (1978a) “Ce qui ne peut plus durer dans le Parti Communiste,”(Paris: François Maspero 1978).
- (1978b) “Marx dans ses limites,” in Écrits philosophiques et politiques, Tome 1 (Paris: Stock/IMEC, 1994), 357–524.
- (1978b) “Le marxisme aujourd’hui,” in Solitude de Machiavel et autres texts (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1998), 292–310; tr. as “Marxism Today” by James H. Kavanaugh in Gregory Elliott ed. Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists (London: Verso, 1990).
- (1980) Philosophy for Non-Philosophers, G. M. Goshgarian (trans. and ed.), New York: Bloomsbury, 2017.
- (1982) “Sur la pensée Marxiste,” in Future anterieur, Sur Althusser. Passages (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1993), 11–29; and “Le courant souterrain du matérialisme de la rencontre,”in Écrits philosophiques et politiques, Tome 1 (Paris: Stock/IMEC, 1994), 583–594; and ‘Notes sur les Thèses sur Feuerbach,’ Magazine Littéraire, 324 (1994): 38–42; extracts translated as “The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter” by G.M. Goshgarian in Philosophy of the Encounter: Later Writings 1978–1987 (London: Verso, 2006).
- (1984–1987a) “Lettres de Louis Althusser à Fernanda Navarro,” (1984), Sur la philosophie (Paris: Gallimard, 1994), 89–138; tr. as “Letters from Louis Althusser to Fernanda Navarro” by G.M. Goshgarian in Philosophy of the Encounter: Later Writings 1978–1987 (London: Verso, 2006).
- (1984–1987a) “Philosophie et marxisme: entretiens avec Fernanda Navarra (1984–1987)” in Sur la philosophie (Paris: Gallimard, 1994), 13–79.
- (1985) “L’avenir dure longtemps,” in L’avenir dure longtemps, suivi de Les Faits (Paris: Stock/IMEC, 1992), 7–279; tr. as “The Future Lasts Forever” by Richard Veasey in The Future Lasts Forever: A Memoir (New York: New Press, 1993).
- Althusser, L., et al., 1993. Sur Althusser: Passages, Paris: Éditions l’Harmattan.
- Atkinson, D., 1984. “The Anatomy of Knowledge: Althusser’s Epistemology and its Consequences,” Philosophical Papers, 13: 1–19.
- Balibar, Étienne, 1974. “Sur la dialectique historique. Quelques remarques critiques à propos de Lire le Capital,” in: Cinq études du matérialisme historique, Paris: François Maspero: 203–245.
- Badiou, Alain, 2009. “Louis Althusser,” in Pocket Pantheon: figures of postwar philosophy (David Macey trans.), London: Verso: 54–90.
- –––, 2012. “The Recommencement of Dialectical Materialism”, in The Adventures of French Philosophy, Bruno Bosteels (trans.), London: Verso:
- Balibar, Étienne, 1991. Écrits pour Althusser, Paris: Éditions la Découverte.
- –––, 1994. “Althusser’s object,” Social Text, 39: 157–188.
- Baltas, Aristide, 1993. “Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists and Other Essays, by Louis Althusser,” Philosophy of Science, 60 (4): 647–658.
- Bargu, B., 2015. “Althusser’s Materialist Theater: Ideology and Its Aporias,” Differences, 26 (3): 81–106.
- Benton, Ted, 1984. The Rise and Fall of Structural Marxism: Althusser and his Influence, London: McMillan.
- Bidet, Jacques, 1997. “La Lecture du Capital par Louis Althusser,” in P. Raymond (ed.), Althusser Philosophe, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
- Boer, Roland, 2007. Criticism of Heaven: On Marxism and Theology (Historical Materialism Book Series), New York: Brill Academic.
- Bourdin, Jean-Claude, 2000. “The Uncertain Materialism of Louis Althusser,” Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal, 22 (1): 271–287.
- Bourgeois, Bernard, 1997. “Althusser et Hegel” in P. Raymond (ed.), Althusser Philosophe, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 87–104.
- Breton, Stanislas, 1997. “Althusser et la religion,” in P. Raymond (ed.), Althusser Philosophe, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 155–166.
- Callinicos, Alex, 1976. Althusser’s Marxism, London: Pluto Press.
- Cavazzini, A., 2015. “Althusser/Bachelard: Une Coupure et Ses Enjeux,” Revue Synthèse (Philosophie et mathématique), 136 (1-2): 117-33.
- Crezegut, A., 2016. “Althusser, Étrange Lecteur de Gramsci. Lire «Le Marxisme N’est Pas Un Historicisme»: 1965–2015,” Décalages, 2 (1), available online.
- Dupuis-Déri, F., 2015. “La banalité du mâle. Louis Althusser a tué sa conjointe, Hélène Rytmann-Legotien, qui voulait le quitter,” Nouvelles Questions Féministes, 34 (1): 84-101.
- Ekici, E., J. Nowak, and F. Wolf (eds.), 2015. Althusser – Die Reproduktion des Marxismus, Münster, Westf: Westfälisches Dampfboot.
- Elliot, Gregory, 2006 . Althusser: The Detour of Theory, New York: Verso.
- ––– (ed.), 1994. Althusser: A critical Reader, Oxford: Blackwell.
- Geerlandt, Robert, 1978. Garaudy et Althusser: le débate sur l’humanisme dans le Parti Communiste Français et son Enjeu, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
- Gillot, Pascale, 2009. Althusser et la psychanalyse, Paris: Presses universitaires de France.
- Goshgarian, G.M., 2003. “Introduction,” In The Humanist Controversy and Other Writings, London: Verso, xi-lxii.
- –––, 2006. “Translator’s Introduction,” in Louis Althusser: Philosophy of the Encounter (Later Writings 1978–1987), London: Verso, xiii–l
- –––, 2015a. “A Marxist in Philosophy,” Diacritics, 43 (2): 24-46.
- –––, 2015b. “Philosophie et révolution. Althusser sans le théoricisme ,” Période, February 19, 2015.
- Hardy, N., 2014. “Wolff, Althusser, and Hegel: Outlining an Aleatory Materialist Epistemology,” Rethinking Marxism, 26 (4): 454-71.
- Hamza, Agon, 2011, Louis Althusser, Kosovo: Kolektivi Materializmi Dialektik.
- Harnecker, Marta, 1994. “Althusser and the Theoretical Anti-Humanism of Marx,” Nature, Society, and Thought, 7 (3): 325–329.
- Kukla, Rebecca and Mark Lance, 2009. ‘Yo!’ and ‘Lo!’: The Pragmatic Topography of the Space of Reasons, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.
- Lazarus, Sylvain (ed.), 1993. Politique et Philosophie dans l’oeuvre de Louis Althusser, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
- Lewis, William S., 2005. Louis Althusser and the Traditions of French Marxism, Lanham, MD: Lexinton Books.
- –––, 2016. “Althusser’s Scientism and Aleatory Materialism,” Décalages, 2 (1), available online.
- Lindner, Kolja, 2007. “Lire le Capital: Althusser et l’impasse du tournant politiciste,” Contretemps, 20: 71–81.
- Lindner, Urs, 2011. “Repenser la «coupure épistémologigue» lire Marx avec et Contre Althusser,” Actuel Marx, 1 (49): 121–139
- Macey, David, 1994. “Thinking With Borrowed Concepts: Althusser and Lacan,” in Gregory Elliott (ed.), Althusser: a Critical Reader, Oxford: Blackwell, 142–158.
- Maesschalck, M., and F. Bruschi, 2015. “Law and Belief: A Pragmatist Interpretation of the Althusserian Conception of Legal Ideology,” Law and Critique, 26 (3): 281-303.
- Macherey, Pierre, 2002. “Althusser et le jeune Marx,” Actuel-Marx, 31: 159-175.
- –––, 2005. “Verum est factum: Les enjeux d’une philosophie de la praxis et le débat Althusser-Gramsci,” in E. Kouvelakis et al. (eds.), Sartre, Lukács, Althusser : des Marxistes en philosophie, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 143–155.
- Malabou, C., 2016. “Où va le matérialisme ? Althusser/Darwin,” Lignes, 51: 3-51.
- Matheron, François, 1998. “The Recurrence of the Void in Louis Althusser,” Rethinking Marxism, 10 (3): 22–27.
- Matheron, François, 2004. “Louis Althusser, or, the Impure Purity of the Concept,” Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal, 25 (1): 137–159.
- –––, 2005. “‘des problèmes qu’il faudra bien appeler d’un autre nom et peut-être politique’: Althusser et l’instabilité de la politique,” Multitudes, 22: 21–35.
- Montag, Warren, 1998. “Althusser’s Nominalism: Structure and Singularity (1962–66),” Rethinking Marxism, 10 (3): 64–73.
- –––, 2002. Louis Althusser, New York: Palgrave.
- –––, 2005a. “Politics: Transcendent or Immanent?: A response to Miguel Vatter’s ‘Machiavelli after Marx’,” Theory and Event, 7 (4); doi: 10.1353/tae.2005.0052
- –––, 2005b. “On the Function of the Concept of Origin: Althusser’s Reading of Locke,” in Stephen H. Daniel (ed.), Current Continental Theory and Modern Philosophy, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 148–162.
- –––, 2009. Althusser and His Contemporaries: Philosophy’s Perpetual War, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- Moreau, Pierre-François, 1997. “Althusser et Spinoza,” in P. Raymond (ed.), Althusser Philosophe, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 75–86.
the edifice (base and superstructure) is simultaneously that it reveals that questions of determination (or of index of effectivity) are crucial; that it reveals that it is the base which in the last instance determines the whole edifice; and that, as a consequence, it obliges us to pose the theoretical problem of the types of 'derivatory' effectivity peculiar to the superstructure, i.e. it obliges us to think what the Marxist tradition calls conjointly the relative autonomy of the superstructure and the reciprocal action of the superstructure on the base.
The greatest disadvantage of this representation of the structure of every society by the spatial metaphor of an edifice, is obviously the fact that it is metaphorical: i.e. it remains descriptive.
It now seems to me that it is possible and desirable to represent things differently. NB, I do not mean by this that I want to reject the classical metaphor, for that metaphor itself requires that we go beyond it. And I am not going beyond it in order to reject it as outworn. I simply want to attempt to think what it gives us in the form of a description.
I believe that it is possible and necessary to think what characterizes the essential of the existence and nature of the superstructure on the basis of reproduction. Once one takes the point of view of reproduction, many of the questions whose existence was indicated by the spatial metaphor of the edifice, but to which it could not give a conceptual answer, are immediately illuminated.
My basic thesis is that it is not possible to pose these questions (and therefore to answer them) except from the point of view of reproduction.
I shall give a short analysis of Law, the State and Ideology from this point of view. And I shall reveal what happens both from the point of view of practice and production on the one hand, and from that of reproduction on the other.
The Marxist tradition is strict, here: in the Communist Manifesto and the Eighteenth Brumaire (and in all the later classical texts, above all in Marx's writings on the Paris Commune and Lenin's on State and Revolution), the State is explicitly conceived as a repressive apparatus. The State is a 'machine' of repression, which enables the ruling classes (in the nineteenth century the bourgeois class and the 'class' of big landowners) to ensure their domination over the working class, thus enabling the former to subject the latter to the process of surplus-value extortion (i.e. to capitalist exploitation).
The State is thus first of all what the Marxist classics have called the State apparatus. This term means: not only the specialized apparatus (in the narrow sense) whose existence and necessity I have recognized in relation to the requirements of legal practice, i.e. the police, the courts, the prisons; but also the army, which (the proletariat has paid for this experience with its blood) intervenes directly as a supplementary repressive force in the last instance, when the police and its specialized auxiliary corps are 'outrun by events'; and above this ensemble, the head of State, the government and the administration.
Presented in this form, the Marxist-Leninist 'theory' of the State has its finger on the essential point, and not for one moment can there be any question of rejecting the fact that this really is the essential point. The State apparatus, which defines the State as a force of repressive execution and intervention 'in the interests of the ruling classes' in the class struggle conducted by the bourgeoisie and its allies against the proletariat, is quite certainly the State, and quite certainly defines its basic 'function'.
From Descriptive Theory to Theory as such
Nevertheless, here too, as I pointed out with respect to the metaphor of the edifice (infrastructure and superstructure), this presentation of the nature of the State is still partly descriptive.
As I shall often have occasion to use this adjective (descriptive), a word of explanation is necessary in order to remove any ambiguity.
Whenever, in speaking of the metaphor of the edifice or of the Marxist 'theory' of the State, I have said that these are descriptive conceptions or representations of their objects, I had no ulterior critical motives. On the contrary, I have every grounds to think that great scientific discoveries cannot help but pass through the phase of what I shall call descriptive 'theory '. This is the first phase of every theory, at least in the domain which concerns us (that of the science of social formations). As such, one might and in my opinion one must -- envisage this phase as a transitional one, necessary to the development of the theory. That it is transitional is inscribed in my expression: 'descriptive theory', which reveals in its conjunction of terms the equivalent of a kind of 'contradiction'. In fact, the term theory 'clashes' to some extent with the adjective 'descriptive' which I have attached to it. This means quite precisely: (1) that the 'descriptive theory' really is, without a shadow of a doubt, the irreversible beginning of the theory; but (2) that the 'descriptive' form in which the theory is presented requires, precisely as an effect of this 'contradiction', a development of the theory which goes beyond the form of 'description'.
Let me make this idea clearer by returning to our present object: the State.
When I say that the Marxist 'theory' of the State available to us is still partly 'descriptive', that means first and fore-
most that this descriptive 'theory' is without the shadow of a doubt precisely the beginning of the Marxist theory of the State, and that this beginning gives us the essential point, i.e. the decisive principle of every later development of the theory.
Indeed, I shall call the descriptive theory of the State correct, since it is perfectly possible to make the vast majority of the facts in the domain with which it is concerned correspond to the definition it gives of its object. Thus, the definition of the State as a class State, existing in the repressive State apparatus, casts a brilliant light on all the facts observable in the various orders of repression whatever their domains: from the massacres of June 1848 and of the Paris Commune, of Bloody Sunday, May 1905 in Petrograd, of the Resistance, of Charonne, etc., to the mere (and relatively anodyne) interventions of a 'censorship' which has banned Diderot's La Réligieuse or a play by Gatti on Franco; it casts light on all the direct or indirect forms of exploitation and extermination of the masses of the people (imperialist wars); it casts light on that subtle everyday domination beneath which can be glimpsed, in the forms of political democracy, for example, what Lenin, following Marx, called the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.
And yet the descriptive theory of the State represents a phase in the constitution of the theory which itself demands the 'supersession' of this phase. For it is clear that if the definition in question really does give us the means to identify and recognize the facts of oppression by relating them to the State, conceived as the repressive State apparatus, this 'interrelationship' gives rise to a very special kind of obviousness, about which I shall have something to say in a moment: 'Yes, that's how it is, that's really true!'
And the accumulation of facts within the definition of the State may multiply examples, but it does not really advance the definition of the State, i.e. the scientific theory of the State. Every descriptive theory thus runs the risk of 'blocking' the development of the theory, and yet that development is essential.
That is why I think that, in order to develop this descriptive theory into theory as such, i.e. in order to understand further the mechanisms of the State in its functioning, I think that it is indispensable to add something to the classical definition of the State as a State apparatus.
The Essentials of the Marxist Theory of the State
Let me first clarify one important point: the State (and its existence in its apparatus) has no meaning except as a function of State power. The whole of the political class struggle revolves around the State. By which I mean around the possession, i.e. the seizure and conservation of State power by a certain class or by an alliance between classes or class fractions. This first clarification obliges me to distinguish between State power (conservation of State power or seizure of State power), the objective of the political class struggle on the one hand, and the State apparatus on the other.
We know that the State apparatus may survive, as is proved by bourgeois 'revolutions' in nineteenth-century France (1830, 1848), by coups d'état (2 December, May 1958), by collapses of the State (the fall of the Empire in 1870, of the Third Republic in 1940), or by the political rise of the petty bourgeoisie (1890-95 in France), etc., without the State apparatus being affected or modified: it may survive political events which affect the possession of State power.
Even after a social revolution like that of 1917, a large part of the State apparatus survived after the seizure of State power by the alliance of the proletariat and the small peasantry: Lenin repeated the fact again and again.
It is possible to describe the distinction between State power and State apparatus as part of the 'Marxist theory' of the State, explicitly present since Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire and Class Struggles in France.
To summarize the 'Marxist theory of the State' on this point, it can be said that the Marxist classics have always claimed that (1) the State is the repressive State apparatus, (2) State power and State apparatus must be distinguished, (3) the objective of the class struggle concerns State power, and in consequence the use of the State apparatus by the classes (or alliance of classes or of fractions of classes) holding State power as a function of their class objectives, and (4) the proletariat must seize State power in order to destroy the existing bourgeois State apparatus and, in a first phase, replace it with a quite different, proletarian, State apparatus, then in later phases set in motion a radical process, that of the destruction of the State (the end of State power, the end of every State apparatus).
In this perspective, therefore, what I would propose to add to the 'Marxist theory' of the State is already there in so many words. But it seems to me that even with this supplement, this theory is still in part descriptive, although it does now contain complex and differential elements whose functioning and action cannot be understood without recourse to further supplementary theoretical development.
The State Ideological Apparatuses
Thus, what has to be added to the 'Marxist theory' of the State is something else.
Here we must advance cautiously in a terrain which, in fact, the Marxist classics entered long before us, but without having systematized in theoretical form the decisive advances implied by their experiences and procedures. Their experiences and procedures were indeed restricted in the main to the terrain of political practice.
In fact, i.e. in their political practice, the Marxist classics treated the State as a more complex reality than the definition of it given in the 'Marxist theory of the State', even when it has been supplemented as I have just suggested. They recognized this complexity in their practice, but they did not express it in a corresponding theory.
I should like to attempt a very schematic outline of this corresponding theory. To that end, I propose the following thesis.
In order to advance the theory of the State it is indispensable to take into account not only the distinction between State power and State apparatus, but also another reality which is clearly on the side of the (repressive) State apparatus, but must not be confused with it. I shall call this reality by its concept: the ideological State apparatuses.
What are the ideological State apparatuses (ISAs)?
They must not be confused with the (repressive) State apparatus. Remember that in Marxist theory, the State Apparatus (SA) contains: the Government, the Admin-
istration, the Army, the Police, the Courts, the Prisons, etc., which constitute what I shall in future call the Repressive State Apparatus. Repressive suggests that the State Apparatus in question 'functions by violence' -- at least ultimately (since repression, e.g. administrative repression, may take non-physical forms).
I shall call Ideological State Apparatuses a certain number of realities which present themselves to the immediate observer in the form of distinct and specialized institutions. I propose an empirical list of these which will obviously have to be examined in detail, tested, corrected and re-organized. With all the reservations implied by this requirement, we can for the moment regard the following institutions as Ideological State Apparatuses (the order in which I have listed them has no particular significance):
-- the religious ISA (the system of the different Churches),
-- the educational ISA (the system of the different public and
-- the family ISA,
-- the legal ISA,
-- the political ISA (the political system, including the
-- the trade-union ISA,
-- the communications ISA (press, radio and television, etc.),
-- the cultural ISA (Literature, the Arts, sports, etc.).
I have said that the ISAs must not be confused with the (Repressive) State Apparatus. What constitutes the difference?
As a first moment, it is clear that while there is one (Repressive) State Apparatus, there is a plurality of Ideological State Apparatuses. Even presupposing that it exists, the unity that constitutes this plurality of ISAs as a body is not immediately visible.
As a second moment, it is clear that whereas the unified -- (Repressive) State Apparatus belongs entirely to the public domain, much the larger part of the Ideological State Apparatuses (in their apparent dispersion) are part, on the contrary, of the private domain. Churches, Parties, Trade Unions, families, some schools, most newspapers, cultural ventures, etc., etc., are private.
We can ignore the first observation for the moment. But someone is bound to question the second, asking me by what right I regard as Ideological State Apparatuses, institutions which for the most part do not possess public status, but are quite simply private institutions. As a conscious Marxist, Gramsci already forestalled this objection in one sentence. The distinction between the public and the private is a distinction internal to bourgeois law, and valid in the (subordinate) domains in which bourgeois law exercises its 'authority'. The domain of the State escapes it because the latter is 'above the law': the State, which is the State of the ruling class, is neither public nor private; on the contrary, it is the precondition for any distinction between public and private. The same thing can be said from the starting-point of our State Ideological Apparatuses. It is unimportant whether the institutions in which they are realized are 'public' or 'private'. What matters is how they function. Private institutions can perfectly well 'function' as Ideological State Apparatuses. A reasonably thorough analysis of any one of the ISAs proves it.
But now for what is essential. What distinguishes the ISAs from the (Repressive) State Apparatus is the following
basic difference: the Repressive State Apparatus functions 'by violence', whereas the Ideological State Apparatuses' function 'by ideology '.
I can clarify matters by correcting this distinction. I shall say rather that every State Apparatus, whether Repressive or Ideological, 'functions' both by violence and by ideology, but with one very important distinction which makes it imperative not to confuse the Ideological State Apparatuses with the (Repressive) State Apparatus.
This is the fact that the (Repressive) State Apparatus functions massively and predominantly by repression (including physical repression), while functioning secondarily by ideology. (There is no such thing as a purely repressive apparatus.) For example, the Army and the Police also function by ideology both to ensure their own cohesion and reproduction, and in the 'values' they propound externally.
In the same way, but inversely, it is essential to say that for their part the Ideological State Apparatuses function massively and predominantly by ideology, but they also function secondarily by repression, even if ultimately, but only ultimately, this is very attenuated and concealed, even symbolic. (There is no such thing as a purely ideological apparatus.) Thus Schools and Churches use suitable methods of punishment, expulsion, selection, etc., to 'discipline' not only their shepherds, but also their flocks. The same is true of the Family. . . . The same is true of the cultural IS Apparatus (censorship, among other things), etc.
Is it necessary to add that this determination of the double 'functioning' (predominantly, secondarily) by repression and by ideology, according to whether it is a matter of the (Repressive) State Apparatus or the Ideological State Apparatuses, makes it clear that very subtle explicit or tacit combinations may be woven from the interplay of the (Re-
pressive) State Apparatus and the Ideological State Apparatuses? Everyday life provides us with innumerable examples of this, but they must be studied in detail if we are to go further than this mere observation.
Nevertheless, this remark leads us towards an understanding of what constitutes the unity of the apparently disparate body of the ISAs. If the ISAs 'function' massively and predominantly by ideology, what unifies their diversity is precisely this functioning, insofar as the ideology by which they function is always in fact unified, despite its diversity and its contradictions, beneath the ruling ideology, which is the ideology of 'the ruling class'. Given the fact that the 'ruling class' in principle holds State power (openly or more often by means of alliances between classes or class fractions), and therefore has at its disposal the (Repressive) State Apparatus, we can accept the fact that this same ruling class is active in the Ideological State Apparatuses insofar as it is ultimately the ruling ideology which is realized in the Ideological State Apparatuses, precisely in its contradictions. Of course, it is a quite different thing to act by laws and decrees in the (Repressive) State Apparatus and to 'act' through the intermediary of the ruling ideology in the Ideological State Apparatuses. We must go into the details of this difference -- but it cannot mask the reality of a profound identity. To my knowledge, no class can hold State power over a long period without at the same time exercising its hegemony over and in the State Ideological Apparatuses. I only need one example and proof of this: Lenin's anguished concern to revolutionize the educational Ideological State Apparatus (among others), simply to make it possible for the Soviet proletariat, who had seized State power, to secure the future of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the transition to socialism.
This last comment puts us in a position to understand that the Ideological State Apparatuses may be not only the stake, but also the site of class struggle, and often of bitter forms of class struggle. The class (or class alliance) in power cannot lay down the law in the ISAs as easily as it can in the (repressive) State apparatus, not only because the former ruling classes are able to retain strong positions there for a long time, but also because the resistance of the exploited classes is able to find means and occasions to express itself there, either by the utilization of their contradictions, or by conquering combat positions in them in struggle.
Let me run through my comments.
If the thesis I have proposed is well-founded, it leads me back to the classical Marxist theory of the State, while making it more precise in one point. I argue that it is necessary to distinguish between State power (and its possession by . . .) on the one hand, and the State Apparatus on the other. But I add that the State Apparatus contains
two bodies: the body of institutions which represent the Repressive State Apparatus on the one hand, and the body of institutions which represent the body of Ideological State Apparatuses on the other.
But if this is the case, the following question is bound to be asked, even in the very summary state of my suggestions: what exactly is the extent of the role of the Ideological State Apparatuses? What is their importance based on? In other words: to what does the 'function' of these Ideological State Apparatuses, which do not function by repression but by ideology, correspond? I can now answer the central question which I have left in suspense for many long pages: how is the reproduction of the relations of production secured?
In the topographical language (Infrastructure, Superstructure), I can say: for the most part, it is secured by the legal-political and ideological superstructure.
But as I have argued that it is essential to go beyond this still descriptive language, I shall say: for the most part, it is secured by the exercise of State power in the State Apparatuses, on the one hand the (Repressive) State Apparatus, on the other the Ideological State Apparatuses.
What I have just said must also be taken into account, and it can be assembled in the form of the following three features:
1. All the State Apparatuses function both by repression and by ideology, with the difference that the (Repressive) State Apparatus functions massively and predominantly by repression, whereas the Ideological State Apparatuses function massively and predominantly by ideology.
2. Whereas the (Repressive) State Apparatus constitutes an organized whole whose different parts are centralized beneath a commanding unity, that of the politics of class struggle applied by the political representatives of the ruling classes in possession of State power, the Ideological State Apparatuses are multiple, distinct, 'relatively autonomous' and capable of providing an objective field to contradictions which express, in forms which may be limited or extreme, the effects of the clashes between the capitalist class struggle and the proletarian class struggle, as well as their subordinate forms.
3. Whereas the unity of the (Repressive) State Apparatus is secured by its unified and centralized organization under the leadership of the representatives of the classes in power executing the politics of the class struggle of the classes in power, the unity of the different Ideological State Apparatuses is secured, usually in contradictory forms, by the ruling ideology, the ideology of the ruling class.
Taking these features into account, it is possible to represent the reproduction of the relations of production in the following way, according to a kind of 'division of labour'.
The role of the repressive State apparatus, insofar as it is a repressive apparatus, consists essentially in securing by force (physical or otherwise) the political conditions of the reproduction of relations of production which are in the
last resort relations of exploitation. Not only does the State apparatus contribute generously to its own reproduction (the capitalist State contains political dynasties, military dynasties, etc.), but also and above all, the State apparatus secures by repression (from the most brutal physical force, via mere administrative commands and interdictions, to open and tacit censorship) the political conditions for the action of the Ideological State Apparatuses.
In fact, it is the latter which largely secure the reproduction specifically of the relations of production, behind a 'shield' provided by the repressive State apparatus. It is here that the role of the ruling ideology is heavily concentrated, the ideology of the ruling class, which holds State power. It is the intermediation of the ruling ideology that ensures a (sometimes teeth-gritting) 'harmony' between the repressive State apparatus and the Ideological State Apparatuses, and between the different State Ideological Apparatuses.
We are thus led to envisage the following hypothesis, as a function precisely of the diversity of ideological State Apparatuses in their single, because shared, role of the reproduction of the relations of production.
Indeed we have listed a relatively large number of ideological State apparatuses in contemporary capitalist social formations: the educational apparatus, the religious apparatus, the family apparatus, the political apparatus, the trade-union apparatus, the communications apparatus, the 'cultural' apparatus, etc.
But in the social formations of that mode of production characterized by 'serfdom' (usually called the feudal mode of production), we observe that although there is a single repressive State apparatus which, since the earliest known Ancient States, let alone the Absolute Monarchies, has been formally very similar to the one we know today, the number of Ideological State Apparatuses is smaller and their
individual types are different. For example, we observe that during the Middle Ages, the Church (the religious ideological State apparatus) accumulated a number of functions which have today devolved on to several distinct ideological State apparatuses, new ones in relation to the past I am invoking, in particular educational and cultural functions. Alongside the Church there was the family Ideological State Apparatus, which played a considerable part, incommensurable with its role in capitalist social formations. Despite appearances, the Church and the Family were not the only Ideological State Apparatuses. There was also a political Ideological State Apparatus (the Estates General, the Parlement, the different political factions and Leagues, the ancestors or the modern political parties, and the whole political system of the free Communes and then of the Villes ). There was also a powerful 'proto-trade union' Ideological State Apparatus, if I may venture such an anachronistic term (the powerful merchants' and bankers' guilds and the journeymen's associations, etc.). Publishing and Communications, even, saw an indisputable development, as did the theatre; initially both were integral parts of the Church, then they became more and more independent of it.
In the pre-capitalist historical period which I have examined extremely broadly, it is absolutely clear that there was one dominant Ideological State Apparatus, the Church, which concentrated within it not only religious functions, but also educational ones, and a large proportion of the functions of communications and 'culture'. It is no accident that all ideological struggle, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, starting with the first shocks of the Reformation, was concentrated in an anti-clerical and anti-religious struggle; rather this is a function precisely of the dominant position of the religious ideological State apparatus.
The foremost objective and achievement of the French
Revolution was not just to transfer State power from the feudal aristocracy to the merchant-capitalist bourgeoisie, to break part of the former repressive State apparatus and replace it with a new one (e.g., the national popular Army) but also to attack the number-one Ideological State Apparatus: the Church. Hence the civil constitution of the clergy, the confiscation of ecclesiastical wealth, and the creation of new ideological State apparatuses to replace the religious ideological State apparatus in its dominant role.
Naturally, these things did not happen automatically: witness the Concordat, the Restoration and the long class struggle between the landed aristocracy and the industrial bourgeoisie throughout the nineteenth century for the establishment of bourgeois hegemony over the functions formerly fulfilled by the Church: above all by the Schools. It can be said that the bourgeoisie relied on the new political, parliamentary-democratic, ideological State apparatus, installed in the earliest years of the Revolution, then restored after long and violent struggles, for a few months in 1848 and for decades after the fall of the Second Empire, in order to conduct its struggle against the Church and wrest its ideological functions away from it, in other words, to ensure not only its own political hegemony, but also the ideological hegemony indispensable to the reproduction of capitalist relations of production.
That is why I believe that I am justified in advancing the following Thesis, however precarious it is. I believe that the ideological State apparatus which has been installed in the dominant position in mature capitalist social formations as a result of a violent political and ideological class struggle against the old dominant ideological State apparatus, is the educational ideological apparatus.
This thesis may seem paradoxical, given that for everyone, i.e. in the ideological representation that the bourgeoisie
has tried to give itself and the classes it exploits, it really seems that the dominant ideological State apparatus in capitalist social formations is not the Schools, but the political ideological State apparatus, i.e. the regime of parliamentary democracy combining universal suffrage and party struggle.
However, history, even recent history, shows that the bourgeoisie has been and still is able to accommodate itself to political ideological State apparatuses other than parliamentary democracy: the First and Second Empires, Constitutional Monarchy (Louis XVIII and Charles X), Parliamentary Monarchy (Louis-Philippe), Presidential Democracy (de Gaulle), to mention only France. In England this is even clearer. The Revolution was particularly 'successful' there from the bourgeois point of view, since unlike France, where the bourgeoisie, partly because of the stupidity of the petty aristocracy, had to agree to being carried to power by peasant and plebeian 'journées révolutionnaires ', something for which it had to pay a high price, the English bourgeoisie was able to 'compromise' with the aristocracy and 'share' State power and the use of the State apparatus with it for a long time (peace among all men of good will in the ruling classes!). In Germany it is even more striking, since it was behind a political ideological State apparatus in which the imperial Junkers (epitomized by Bismarck), their army and their police provided it with a shield and leading personnel, that the imperialist bourgeoisie made its shattering entry into history, before 'traversing' the Weimar Republic and entrusting itself to Nazism.
Hence I believe I have good reasons for thinking that behind the scenes of its political Ideological State Apparatus, which occupies the front of the stage, what the bourgeoisie has installed as its number-one, i.e. as its dominant ideological State apparatus, is the educational apparatus, which
has in fact replaced in its functions the previously dominant ideological State apparatus, the Church. One might even add: the School-Family couple has replaced the Church-Family couple.
Why is the educational apparatus in fact the dominant ideological State apparatus in capitalist social formations, and how does it function?
For the moment it must suffice to say:
1. All ideological State apparatuses, whatever they are, contribute to the same result: the reproduction of the relations of production, i.e. of capitalist relations of exploitation.
2. Each of them contributes towards this single result in the way proper to it. The political apparatus by subjecting individuals to the political State ideology, the 'indirect' (parliamentary) or 'direct' (plebiscitary or fascist) 'democratic' ideology. The communications apparatus by cramming every 'citizen' with daily doses of nationalism, chauvinism, liberalism, moralism, etc, by means of the press, the radio and television. The same goes for the cultural apparatus (the role of sport in chauvinism is of the first importance), etc. The religious apparatus by recalling in sermons and the other great ceremonies of Birth, Marriage and Death, that man is only ashes, unless he loves his neighbour to the extent of turning the other cheek to whoever strikes first. The family apparatus . . . but there is no need to go on.
3. This concert is dominated by a single score, occasionally disturbed by contradictions (those of the remnants of former ruling classes, those of the proletarians and their organizations): the score of the Ideology of the current ruling class which integrates into its music the great themes of the Humanism of the Great Forefathers, who produced the Greek Miracle even before Christianity, and afterwards
the Glory of Rome, the Eternal City, and the themes of Interest, particular and general, etc. nationalism, moralism and economism.
4. Nevertheless, in this concert, one ideological State apparatus certainly has the dominant role, although hardly anyone lends an ear to its music: it is so silent! This is the School.
It takes children from every class at infant-school age, and then for years, the years in which the child is most 'vulnerable', squeezed between the family State apparatus and the educational State apparatus, it drums into them, whether it uses new or old methods, a certain amount of 'know-how' wrapped in the ruling ideology (French, arithmetic, natural history, the sciences, literature) or simply the ruling ideology in its pure state (ethics, civic instruction, philosophy). Somewhere around the age of sixteen, a huge mass of children are ejected 'into production': these are the workers or small peasants. Another portion of scholastically adapted youth carries on: and, for better or worse, it goes somewhat further, until it falls by the wayside and fills the posts of small and middle technicians, white-collar workers, small and middle executives, petty bourgeois of all kinds. A last portion reaches the summit, either to fall into intellectual semi-employment, or to provide, as well as the 'intellectuals of the collective labourer', the agents of exploitation (capitalists, managers), the agents of repression (soldiers, policemen, politicians, administrators, etc.) and the professional ideologists (priests of all sorts, most of whom are convinced 'laymen').
Each mass ejected en route is practically provided with the ideology which suits the role it has to fulfil in class society: the role of the exploited (with a 'highly-developed' 'professional', 'ethical', 'civic', 'national' and a-political consciousness); the role of the agent of exploitation (ability to
give the workers orders and speak to them: 'human relations'), of the agent of repression (ability to give orders and enforce obedience 'without discussion', or ability to manipulate the demagogy of a political leader's rhetoric), or of the professional ideologist (ability to treat consciousnesses with the respect, i.e. with the contempt, blackmail, and demagogy they deserve, adapted to the accents of Morality, of Virtue, of 'Transcendence', of the Nation, of France's World Role, etc.).
Of course, many of these contrasting Virtues (modesty, resignation, submissiveness on the one hand, cynicism, contempt, arrogance, confidence, self-importance, even smooth talk and cunning on the other) are also taught in the Family, in the Church, in the Army, in Good Books, in films and even in the football stadium. But no other ideological State apparatus has the obligatory (and not least, free) audience of the totality of the children in the capitalist social formation, eight hours a day for five or six days out of seven.
But it is by an apprenticeship in a variety of know-how wrapped up in the massive inculcation of the ideology of the ruling class that the relations of production in a capitalist social formation, i.e. the relations of exploited to exploiters and exploiters to exploited, are largely reproduced. The mechanisms which produce this vital result for the capitalist regime are naturally covered up and concealed by a universally reigning ideology of the School, universally reigning because it is one of the essential forms of the ruling bourgeois ideology: an ideology which represents the School as a neutral environment purged of ideology (because it is . . .lay), where teachers respectful of the 'conscience' and 'freedom' of the children who are entrusted to them (in complete confidence) by their 'parents' (who are free, too,
i.e. the owners of their children) open up for them the path to the freedom, morality and responsibility of adults by their own example, by knowledge, literature and their 'liberating' virtues.
I ask the pardon of those teachers who, in dreadful conditions, attempt to turn the few weapons they can find in the history and learning they 'teach' against the ideology, the system and the practices in which they are trapped. They are a kind of hero. But they are rare and how many (the majority) do not even begin to suspect the 'work' the system (which is bigger than they are and crushes them) forces them to do, or worse, put all their heart and ingenuity into performing it with the most advanced awareness (the famous new methods!). So little do they suspect it that their own devotion contributes to the maintenance and nourishment of this ideological representation of the School, which makes the School today as 'natural', indispensable-useful and even beneficial for our contemporaries as the Church was 'natural', indispensable and generous for our ancestors a few centuries ago.
In fact, the Church has been replaced today in its role as the dominant Ideological State Apparatus by the School. It is coupled with the Family just as the Church was once coupled with the Family. We can now claim that the unprecedentedly deep crisis which is now shaking the education system of so many States across the globe, often in conjunction with a crisis (already proclaimed in the Communist Manifesto ) shaking the family system, takes on a political meaning, given that the School (and the School Family couple) constitutes the dominant Ideological State Apparatus, the Apparatus playing a determinant part in the reproduction of the relations of production of a mode of production threatened in its existence by the world class struggle.
When I put forward the concept of an Ideological State Apparatus, when I said that the ISAs 'function by ideology', I invoked a reality which needs a little discussion: ideology.
It is well known that the expression 'ideology' was invented by Cabanis, Destutt de Tracy and their friends, who assigned to it as an object the (genetic) theory of ideas. When Marx took up the term fifty years later, he gave it a quite different meaning, even in his Early Works. Here, ideology is the system of the ideas and representations which dominate the mind of a man or a social group. The ideologico-political struggle conducted by Marx as early as his articles in the Rheinische Zeitung inevitably and quickly brought him face to face with this reality and forced him to take his earliest intuitions further.
However, here we come upon a rather astonishing paradox. Everything seems to lead Marx to formulate a theory of ideology. In fact, The German Ideology does offer us, after the 1844 Manuscripts, an explicit theory of ideology, but . . . it is not Marxist (we shall see why in a moment). As for Capital, although it does contain many hints towards a theory of ideologies (most visibly, the ideology of the vulgar economists), it does not contain that theory itself, which depends for the most part on a theory of ideology in general.
I should like to venture a first and very schematic outline of such a theory. The theses I am about to put forward are certainly not off the cuff, but they cannot be sustained and tested, i.e. confirmed or rejected, except by much thorough study and analysis.
Ideology has no History
One word first of all to expound the reason in principle which seems to me to found, or at least to justify, the project of a theory of ideology in general, and not a theory of particular ideologies, which, whatever their form (religious, ethical, legal, political), always express class positions.
It is quite obvious that it is necessary to proceed towards a theory of ideologies in the two respects I have just suggested. It will then be clear that a theory of ideologies depends in the last resort on the history of social formations, and thus of the modes of production combined in social formations, and of the class struggles which develop in them. In this sense it is clear that there can be no question of a theory of ideologies in general, since ideologies (defined in the double respect suggested above: regional and class) have a history, whose determination in the last instance is clearly situated outside ideologies alone, although it involves them.
On the contrary, if I am able to put forward the project of a theory of ideology in general, and if this theory really is one of the elements on which theories of ideologies depend, that entails an apparently paradoxical proposition which I shall express in the following terms: ideology has no history.
As we know, this formulation appears in so many words in a passage from The German Ideology. Marx utters it with respect to metaphysics, which, he says, has no more history than ethics (meaning also the other forms of ideology).
In The German Ideology, this formulation appears in a plainly positivist context. Ideology is conceived as a pure illusion, a pure dream, i.e. as nothingness. All its reality is external to it. Ideology is thus thought as an imaginary construction whose status is exactly like the theoretical status of the dream among writers before Freud. For these writers, the dream was the purely imaginary, i.e. null,
result of 'day's residues', presented in an arbitrary arrangement and order, sometimes even 'inverted', in other words, in 'disorder'. For them, the dream was the imaginary, it was empty, null and arbitrarily 'stuck together' (bricolé ), once the eyes had closed, from the residues of the only full and positive reality, the reality of the day. This is exactly the status of philosophy and ideology (since in this book philosophy is ideology par excellence ) in The German Ideology.
Ideology, then, is for Marx an imaginary assemblage (bricolage ), a pure dream, empty and vain, constituted by the 'day's residues' from the only full and positive reality, that of the concrete history of concrete material individuals materially producing their existence. It is on this basis that ideology has no history in The German Ideology, since its history is outside it, where the only existing history is, the history of concrete individuals, etc. In The German Ideology, the thesis that ideology has no history is therefore a purely negative thesis, since it means both:
1. ideology is nothing insofar as it is a pure dream (manufactured by who knows what power: if not by the alienation of the division of labour, but that, too, is a negative determination);
2. ideology has no history, which emphatically does not mean that there is no history in it (on the contrary, for it is merely the pale, empty and inverted reflection of real history) but that it has no history of its own.
Now, while the thesis I wish to defend formally speaking adopts the terms of The German Ideology ('ideology has no history'), it is radically different from the positivist and historicist thesis of The German Ideology.
For on the one hand, I think it is possible to hold that ideologies have a history of their own (although it is determined in the last instance by the class struggle); and on the other, I think it is possible to hold that ideology in general
has no history, not in a negative sense (its history is external to it), but in an absolutely positive sense.
This sense is a positive one if it is true that the peculiarity of ideology is that it is endowed with a structure and a functioning such as to make it a non-historical reality, i.e. an omni-historical reality, in the sense in which that structure and functioning are immutable, present in the same form throughout what we can call history, in the sense in which the Communist Manifesto defines history as the history of class struggles, i.e. the history of class societies.
To give a theoretical reference-point here, I might say that, to return to our example of the dream, in its Freudian conception this time, our proposition: ideology has no history, can and must (and in a way which has absolutely nothing arbitrary about it, but, quite the reverse, is theoretically necessary, for there is an organic link between the two propositions) be related directly to Freud's proposition that the unconscious is eternal, i.e. that it has no history.
If eternal means, not transcendent to all (temporal) history, but omnipresent, trans-historical and therefore immutable in form throughout the extent of history, I shall adopt Freud's expression word for word, and write ideology is eternal, exactly like the unconscious. And I add that I find this comparison theoretically justified by the fact that the eternity of the unconscious is not unrelated to the eternity of ideology in general.
That is why I believe I am justified, hypothetically at least, in proposing a theory of ideology in general, in the sense that Freud presented a theory of the unconscious in general.
To simplify the phrase, it is convenient, taking into account what has been said about ideologies, to use the plain term ideology to designate ideology in general, which I have just said has no history, or, what comes to the same thing, is eternal, i.e. omnipresent in its immutable form
throughout history ( = the history of social formations containing social classes). For the moment I shall restrict myself to 'class societies' and their history.
Ideology is a 'Representation ' of the Imaginary Relationship
of Individuals to their Real Conditions of Existence
In order to approach my central thesis on the structure and functioning of ideology, I shall first present two theses, one negative, the other positive. The first concerns the object which is 'represented' in the imaginary form of ideology, the second concerns the materiality of ideology.
Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.
We commonly call religious ideology, ethical ideology, legal ideology, political ideology, etc., so many 'world outlooks'. Of course, assuming that we do not live one of these ideologies as the truth (e.g. 'believe' in God, Duty, Justice, etc. . . .), we admit that the ideology we are discussing from a critical point of view, examining it as the ethnologist examines the myths of a 'primitive society', that these 'world outlooks' are largely imaginary, i.e. do not 'correspond to reality'.
However, while admitting that they do not correspond to reality, i.e. that they constitute an illusion, we admit that they do make allusion to reality, and that they need only be 'interpreted' to discover the reality of the world behind their imaginary representation of that world (ideology = illusion/allusion ).
There are different types of interpretation, the most famous of which are the mechanistic type, current in the eighteenth century (God is the imaginary representation of the real King), and the 'hermeneutic ' interpretation, inaugurated by the earliest Church Fathers, and revived by
Feuerbach and the theologico-philosophical school which descends from him, e.g. the theologian Barth (to Feuerbach, for example, God is the essence of real Man). The essential point is that on condition that we interpret the imaginary transposition (and inversion) of ideology we arrive at the conclusion that in ideology 'men represent their real conditions of existence to themselves in an imaginary form'.
Unfortunately, this interpretation leaves one small problem unsettled: why do men 'need' this imaginary transposition of their real conditions of existence in order to 'represent to themselves' their real conditions of existence?
The first answer (that of the eighteenth century) proposes a simple solution: Priests or Despots are responsible. They 'forged' the Beautiful Lies so that, in the belief that they were obeying God, men would in fact obey the Priests and Despots, who are usually in alliance in their imposture, the Priests acting in the interests of the Despots or vice versa, according to the political positions of the 'theoreticians' concerned. There is therefore a cause for the imaginary transposition of the real conditions of existence: that cause is the existence of a small number of cynical men who base their domination and exploitation of the 'people' on a falsified representation of the world which they have imagined in order to enslave other minds by dominating their imaginations.
The second answer (that of Feuerbach, taken over word for word by Marx in his Early Works) is more 'profound', i.e. just as false. It, too, seeks and finds a cause for the imaginary transposition and distortion of men's real conditions of existence, in short, for the alienation in the imaginary of the representation of men's conditions of existence. This cause is no longer Priests or Despots, nor their active imagination and the passive imagination of their victims. This cause is the material alienation which reigns
in the conditions of existence of men themselves. This is how, in The Jewish Question and elsewhere, Marx defends the Feuerbachian idea that men make themselves an alienated (= imaginary) representation of their conditions of existence because these conditions of existence are themselves alienating (in the 1844 Manuscripts : because these conditions are dominated by the essence of alienated society -- 'alienated labour ').
All these interpretations thus take literally the thesis which they presuppose, and on which they depend, i.e. that what is reflected in the imaginary representation of the world found in an ideology is the conditions of existence of men, i.e. their real world.
Now I can return to a thesis which I have already advanced: it is not their real conditions of existence, their real world, that 'men' 'represent to themselves' in ideology, but above all it is their relation to those conditions of existence which is represented to them there. It is this relation which is at the centre of every ideological, i.e. imaginary, representation of the real world. It is this relation that contains the 'cause' which has to explain the imaginary distortion of the ideological representation of the real world. Or rather, to leave aside the language of causality it is necessary to advance the thesis that it is the imaginary nature of this relation which underlies all the imaginary distortion that we can observe (if we do not live in its truth) in all ideology.
To speak in a Marxist language, if it is true that the representation of the real conditions of existence of the individuals occupying the posts of agents of production, exploitation, repression, ideologization and scientific practice, does in the last analysis arise from the relations of production, and from relations deriving from the relations of production, we can say the following: all ideology rep-
resents in its necessarily imaginary distortion not the existing relations of production (and the other relations that derive from them), but above all the (imaginary) relationship of individuals to the relations of production and the relations that derive from them. What is represented in ideology is therefore not the system of the real relations which govern the existence of individuals, but the imaginary relation of those individuals to the real reIations in which they live.
If this is the case, the question of the 'cause' of the imaginary distortion of the real relations in ideology disappears and must be replaced by a different question: why is the representation given to individuals of their (individual) relation to the social relations which govern their conditions of existence and their collective and individual life necessarily an imaginary relation? And what is the nature of this imaginariness? Posed in this way, the question explodes the solution by a 'clique', by a group of individuals (Priests or Despots) who are the authors of the great ideological mystification, just as it explodes the solution by the alienated character of the real world. We shall see why later in my exposition. For the moment I shall go no further.
: Ideology has a material existence.
I have already touched on this thesis by saying that the 'ideas' or 'representations', etc., which seem to make up ideology do not have an ideal (idéale or idéelle) or spiritual existence, but a material existence. I even suggested that the ideal (idéale, idéelle) and spiritual existence of 'ideas' arises exclusively in an ideology of the 'idea' and of ideology, and let me add, in an ideology of what seems to have 'founded' this conception since the emergence of the sciences, i.e. what
the practicians of the sciences represent to themselves in their spontaneous ideology as 'ideas', true or false. Of course, presented in affirmative form, this thesis is unproven. I simply ask that the reader be favourably disposed towards it, say, in the name of materialism. A long series of arguments would be necessary to prove it.
This hypothetical thesis of the not spiritual but material existence of 'ideas' or other 'representations' is indeed necessary if we are to advance in our analysis of the nature of ideology. Or rather, it is merely useful to us in order the better to reveal what every at all serious analysis of any ideology will immediately and empirically show to every observer, however critical.
While discussing the ideological State apparatuses and their practices, I said that each of them was the realization of an ideology (the unity of these different regional ideologies -- religious, ethical, legal, political, aesthetic, etc. -- being assured by their subjection to the ruling ideology). I now return to this thesis: an ideology always exists in an apparatus, and its practice, or practices. This existence is material.
Of course, the material existence of the ideology in an apparatus and its practices does not have the same modality as the material existence of a paving-stone or a rifle. But, at the risk of being taken for a Neo-Aristotelian (NB Marx had a very high regard for Aristotle), I shall say that 'matter is discussed in many senses', or rather that it exists in different modalities, all rooted in the last instance in 'physical' matter.
Having said this, let me move straight on and see what happens to the 'individuals' who live in ideology, i.e. in a determinate (religious, ethical, etc.) representation of the world whose imaginary distortion depends on their imaginary relation to their conditions of existence, in other words, in the last instance, to the relations of production
and to class relations (ideology = an imaginary relation to real relations). I shall say that this imaginary relation is itself endowed with a material existence.
Now I observe the following.
An individual believes in God, or Duty, or Justice, etc. This belief derives (for everyone, i.e. for all those who live in an ideological representation of ideology, which reduces ideology to ideas endowed by definition with a spiritual existence) from the ideas of the individual concerned, i.e. from him as a subject with a consciousness which contains the ideas of his belief. In this way, i.e. by means of the absolutely ideological 'conceptual' device (dispositif ) thus set up (a subject endowed with a consciousness in which he freely forms or freely recognizes ideas in which he believes), the (material) attitude of the subject concerned naturally follows.
The individual in question behaves in such and such a way, adopts such and such a practical attitude, and, what is more, participates in certain regular practices which are those of the ideological apparatus on which 'depend' the ideas which he has in all consciousness freely chosen as a subject. If he believes in God, he goes to Church to attend Mass, kneels, prays, confesses, does penance (once it was material in the ordinary sense of the term) and naturally repents and so on. If he believes in Duty, he will have the corresponding attitudes, inscribed in ritual practices 'according to the correct principles'. If he believes in Justice, he will submit unconditionally to the rules of the Law, and may even protest when they are violated, sign petitions, take part in a demonstration, etc.
Throughout this schema we observe that the ideological representation of ideology is itself forced to recognize that every 'subject' endowed with a 'consciousness' and believing in the 'ideas' that his 'consciousness' inspires in him
and freely accepts, must 'act according to his ideas', must therefore inscribe his own ideas as a free subject in the actions of his material practice. If he does not do so, 'that is wicked'.
Indeed, if he does not do what he ought to do as a function of what he believes, it is because he does something else, which, still as a function of the same idealist scheme, implies that he has other ideas in his head as well as those he proclaims, and that he acts according to these other ideas, as a man who is either 'inconsistent' ('no one is willingly evil') or cynical, or perverse.
In every case, the ideology of ideology thus recognizes, despite its imaginary distortion, that the 'ideas' of a human subject exist in his actions, or ought to exist in his actions, and if that is not the case, it lends him other ideas corresponding to the actions (however perverse) that he does perform. This ideology talks of actions: I shall talk of actions inserted into practices. And I shall point out that these practices are governed by the rituals in which these practices are inscribed, within the material existence of an ideological apparatus, be it only a small part of that apparatus: a small mass in a small church, a funeral, a minor match at a sports' club, a school day, a political party meeting, etc.
Besides, we are indebted to Pascal's defensive 'dialectic' for the wonderful formula which will enable us to invert the order of the notional schema of ideology. Pascal says more or less: 'Kneel down, move your lips in prayer, and you will believe.' He thus scandalously inverts the order of things, bringing, like Christ, not peace but strife, and in addition something hardly Christian (for woe to him who brings scandal into the world!) -- scandal itself. A fortunate scandal which makes him stick with Jansenist defiance to a language that directly names the reality.
I will be allowed to leave Pascal to the arguments of his
ideological struggle with the religious ideological State apparatus of his day. And I shall be expected to use a more directly Marxist vocabulary, if that is possible, for we are advancing in still poorly explored domains.
I shall therefore say that, where only a single subject (such and such an individual) is concerned, the existence of the ideas of his belief is material in that his ideas are his material actions inserted into material practices governed by material rituals which are themselves defined by the material ideological apparatus from which derive the ideas of that subject. Naturally, the four inscriptions of the adjective 'material' in my proposition must be affected by different modalities: the materialities of a displacement for going to mass, of kneeling down, of the gesture of the sign of the cross, or of the mea culpa, of a sentence, of a prayer, of an act of contrition, of a penitence, of a gaze, of a hand-shake, of an external verbal discourse or an 'internal' verbal discourse (consciousness), are not one and the same materiality. I shall leave on one side the problem of a theory of the differences between the modalities of materiality.
It remains that in this inverted presentation of things, we are not dealing with an 'inversion' at all, since it is clear that certain notions have purely and simply disappeared from our presentation, whereas others on the contrary survive, and new terms appear.
Disappeared: the term ideas.
Survive: the terms subject, consciousness, belief, actions.
Appear: the terms practices, rituals, ideological apparatus.
It is therefore not an inversion or overturning (except in the sense in which one might say a government or a glass is overturned), but a reshuffle (of a non-ministerial type), a rather strange reshuffle, since we obtain the following result.
Ideas have disappeared as such (insofar as they are endowed with an ideal or spiritual existence), to the precise
extent that it has emerged that their existence is inscribed in the actions of practices governed by rituals defined in the last instance by an ideological apparatus. It therefore appears that the subject acts insofar as he is acted by the following system (set out in the order of its real determination): ideology existing in a material ideological apparatus, prescribing material practices governed by a material ritual, which practices exist in the material actions of a subject acting in all consciousness according to his belief.
But this very presentation reveals that we have retained the following notions: subject, consciousness, belief, actions. From this series I shall immediately extract the decisive central term on which everything else depends: the notion of the subject.
And I shall immediately set down two conjoint theses:
1. there is no practice except by and in an ideology;
2. there is no ideology except by the subject and for subjects.
I can now come to my central thesis.
Ideology Interpellates Individuals as Subjects
This thesis is simply a matter of making my last proposition explicit: there is no ideology except by the subject and for subjects. Meaning, there is no ideology except for concrete subjects, and this destination for ideology is only made possible by the subject: meaning, by the category of the subject and its functioning.
By this I mean that, even if it only appears under this name (the subject) with the rise of bourgeois ideology, above all with the rise of legal ideology, the category of the
subject (which may function under other names: e.g., as the soul in Plato, as God, etc.) is the constitutive category of all ideology, whatever its determination (regional or class) and whatever its historical date -- since ideology has no history.
I say: the category of the subject is constitutive of all ideology, but at the same time and immediately I add that the category of the subject is only constitutive of all ideology insofar as all ideology has the function (which defines it ) of 'constituting ' concrete individuals as subjects. In the interaction of this double constitution exists the functioning of all ideology, ideology being nothing but its functioning in the material forms of existence of that functioning.
In order to grasp what follows, it is essential to realize that both he who is writing these lines and the reader who reads them are themselves subjects, and therefore ideological subjects (a tautological proposition), i.e. that the author and the reader of these lines both live 'spontaneously' or 'naturally' in ideology in the sense in which I have said that 'man is an ideological animal by nature'.
That the author, insofar as he writes the lines of a discourse which claims to be scientific, is completely absent as a 'subject' from 'his' scientific discourse (for all scientific discourse is by definition a subject-less discourse, there is no 'Subject of science' except in an ideology of science) is a different question which I shall leave on one side for the moment.
As St Paul admirably put it, it is in the 'Logos', meaning in ideology, that we 'live, move and have our being'. It follows that, for you and for me, the category of the subject is a primary 'obviousness' (obviousnesses are always primary): it is clear that you and I are subjects (free, ethical, etc. . . .). Like all obviousnesses, including those that make a word 'name a thing' or 'have a meaning' (therefore including
the obviousness of the 'transparency' of language), the 'obviousness' that you and I are subjects -- and that that does not cause any problems -- is an ideological effect, the elementary ideological effect. It is indeed a peculiarity of ideology that it imposes (without appearing to do so, since these are 'obviousnesses') obviousnesses as obviousnesses, which we cannot fail to recognize and before which we have the inevitable and natural reaction of crying out (aloud or in the 'still, small voice of conscience'): 'That's obvious! That's right! That's true!'
At work in this reaction is the ideological recognition function which is one of the two functions of ideology as such (its inverse being the function of misrecognition -- méconnaissance ).
To take a highly 'concrete' example, we all have friends who, when they knock on our door and we ask, through the door, the question 'Who's there?', answer (since 'it's obvious') 'It's me'. And we recognize that 'it is him', or 'her'. We open the door, and 'it's true, it really was she who was there'. To take another example, when we recognize somebody of our (previous) acquaintance ((re )-connaissance ) in the street, we show him that we have recognized him (and have recognized that he has recognized us) by saying to him 'Hello, my friend', and shaking his hand (a material ritual practice of ideological recognition in everyday life -- in France, at least; elsewhere, there are other rituals).
In this preliminary remark and these concrete illustrations, I only wish to point out that you and I are always already subjects, and as such constantly practice the rituals of ideological recognition, which guarantee for us that we
are indeed concrete, individual, distinguishable and (naturally) irreplaceable subjects. The writing I am currently executing and the reading you are currently performing are also in this respect rituals of ideological recognition, including the 'obviousness' with which the 'truth' or 'error' of my reflections may impose itself on you.
But to recognize that we are subjects and that we function in the practical rituals of the most elementary everyday life (the hand-shake, the fact of calling you by your name, the fact of knowing, even if I do not know what it is, that you 'have' a name of your own, which means that you are recognized as a unique subject, etc.) -- this recognition only gives us the 'consciousness' of our incessant (eternal) practice of ideological recognition -- its consciousness, i.e. its recognition -- but in no sense does it give us the (scientific) knowledge of the mechanism of this recognition. Now it is this knowledge that we have to reach, if you will, while speaking in ideology, and from within ideology we have to outline a discourse which tries to break with ideology, in order to dare to be the beginning of a scientific (i.e. subject-less) discourse on ideology.
Thus in order to represent why the category of the 'subject' is constitutive of ideology, which only exists by constituting concrete subjects as subjects, I shall employ a special mode of exposition: 'concrete' enough to be recognized, but abstract enough to be thinkable and thought, giving rise to a knowledge.
As a first formulation I shall say: all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects, by the functioning of the category of the subject.
This is a proposition which entails that we distinguish for the moment between concrete individuals on the one hand and concrete subjects on the other, although at this level concrete subjects only exist insofar as they are supported by a concrete individual.
I shall then suggest that ideology 'acts' or 'functions' in such a way that it 'recruits' subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or 'transforms' the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: 'Hey, you there!'
Assuming that the theoretical scene I have imagined takes place in the street, the hailed individual will turn round. By this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he becomes a subject.