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Louis Althusser

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Louis Althusser (1918-1990)


Louis Althusser was born in Algeria and studied at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. He was a contemporary of the Existentialist Jean Paul Sartre with whom he publicly disagreed, and had many students who later became famous including Nikos Poulantzas , Regis Debray and Michel Foucault . Althusser continually suffered from mental breakdowns and had reeceived ECT on several occasions. In 1980 he stangled his wife but wass never brought to trial, being assessed as suffering from "diminished responsibility".

He was a committed Marxist who favoured orthodoxy and who argued at length against the introduction of Marxist Humanism. He is credited with a re-reading of Marx which draws a sharp distinction between the latter's early works and the more mature works such as Capital. His analysis of Marx led him to review the means by which social reproduction takes place and paralleled the work of Gramsci in hegemony. His work also presaged the notion of habitus as theorised by Pierre Bourdieu. Arguably his most influential theoretical work is the essay Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Toward an Investigation. There, he interrogates the State's use of force and compares it with its more subtle ideological methods of ensuring social and cultural control. He draws a sharp distinction between what he calls the Repressive State Aparatuses (army, police, the courts etc) and Ideological State Apparatuses  (the media, the education system) through which the State controls the meaning of public life.


Althusser's earliest important work was the publication of  Reading Capital (1965). It is widely considered an important contribution to Marxist philosophy and also marks a moment in the history of post-structuralism. Among its tasks the book seeks to clarify differences between Marx's and Hegel's dialectics, and to more thoroughly demarcate the "break" which Althusser saw between Marx's later writings (Marxism proper) and his early, Hegelian work. And, furthermore, the book sought to re-establish Marxism as a viable position within philosophy, albeit in a manner influenced by structuralism, against its years of dilution from not only critiques (humanist and Sartrean ones, particularly) but also from the supposedly socialist philosophy of popular liberal-socialist democratic writing and politics.

Althusser's essay On the Young Marx  suggests a great "epistemological break" between Marx's early, "Hegelian and Feuerbachian" writings and his later, properly Marxist texts. His essay Marxism and Humanism is a strong statement of anti-humanism in Marxist theory, condemning ideas like "human potential" and "species-being," which are often put forth by Marxists, as outgrowths of a bourgeois ideology of "humanity." His essay Contradiction and Overdetermination borrows the concept of overdetermination from psychoanalysis, in order to replace the idea of "contradiction" with a more complex model of multiple causality in political situations (an idea closely related to  Gramsci' s concept of hegemony).

Like Gramsci, he saw the State as playing a crucial role in the reproduction of social relations. The State's role in the control of meaning was conceived by Louis Althusser as one of the key elements in the process of social reproduction. Althusser constructed his theories in direct opposition to the Existentialism of Sartre, whose notion of freedom, according to Althusser, left no theoretical base for social transformation. He believed that the continued reproduction of the existing system rested upon the creation of twin systems of ideological persuasion and physical repression. Moving beyond simplistic conceptions of the economic base - cultural superstructure polarity he argued that the relationship between the forces of economic and material production cannot be seen as a simple cause and effect determination of cultural forms. Instead, he recognised that social reproduction required the separate but related creation of a set of commonly accepted social values which support the productive process. The use of both force and ideology was required as a means of social control and compliance for the production of knowledge and skills required to maintain the productive capacity. He maintained that these functions are carried out not directly by the dominant class, but indirectly on their behalf by the State, under the operation of his twin Repressive State Apparatuses (RSAs) and Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs).

When persuasion and organisational restructuring fail to forestall the demands for real social change, or to delegitimate competing social and political realities, the State invariably resorts to more overtly violent means of repression. In addition to the territorialisation and politicisation of space as noted by Engels, the State also exercises its power through what Althusser referred to as its Repressive Apparatus - through physical intimidation and repression. Historically speaking, the operation of Althusser's RSA has been documented throughout the capitalist as well as the communist world

The record is replete with documented accounts of State complicity and involvement in murder, torture, intimidation and imprisonment of political rivals who would challenge the structural distribution of resources. In addition to noting the State's own involvement in internal repression, it is worth noting that private interests are often implicated along with the State in such acts, although these are usually carried out "behind the scenes". Such connections reinforce the notion that the State is really the arm of capital. More often, private interests are revealed to have been implicated in the suppression of dissent overseas. What is at stake in each case are investments by corporate nationals (under capitalism) or State agencies (under communism) within these countries. Hence, the intervention of Britain and France into Egypt was specifically to preserve their economic interests in the Suez Canal, recently nationalised by President Nasser to finance the high Aswan Dam, while the furor in Panama more recently was staged to protect American interests in the Panama Canal. There are also Western oil interests in the Persian Gulf which are key to the ongoing source of conflict in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and so on. Nor are these "interventions" carried out by the State’s executed in isolation from industrial pressures and influences. In his epic investigation of the American conglomerate company ITT, Anthony Sampson has detailed its direct involvement in the assassination of Salvador Allende in Chile as well as its extensive involvement in the political regimes elsewhere overseas.

These examples of psychological intimidation and physical repression not only convey the dark side of capitalism, but also graphically illustrate the dual and ambiguous nature of the State as an instrument of social reproduction. They illustrate the efficacy of the distinction drawn by Althusser between ideological State influence and Repressive State influence, and to mark the ways in which they are related. In addition to both the overt and covert mechanisms of repression involving physical violence, the State in co-operation with its multi-national corporate partners also has at its disposal enormously powerful economic forces which it can employ in the defense of its socially-constructed reality.  The rapidly accelerated global mobility of capital in the last twenty years has significantly augmented this power, allowing States to threaten economic isolation to those foreign countries (even powerful communist countries like China) who refuse to accept the capitalist doctrine. These functions fall somewhere between the RSAs and the ISAs, in that their intimidatory potential is very great, yet they do not necessarily require and indeed are designed to prevent more overt armed intervention

In addition to physical repression, economic sanctions and territorial manipulation, the State also engages extensive mechanisms of ideological propaganda (Althusser's ISAs). These ISAs operate at many different levels - from the control of the news media to the control of State education. What is important to remember from all of this, is that the ideological function is not a completely separate function of State power from its repressive function. Structuralist and social theorist Nicos Poulantzas has suggested, for instance, that the capitalist State develops a monopoly on legitimate physical violence, accumulating the means of corporal control hand in hand with its function of law and order."  Martin Carnoy notes:

"... disciplinary institutions and the emergence of ideological institutions like the parliament and the school assume the monopoly of violence by the State, and this violence, in turn, is obscured by the displacement of legitimacy towards "legality" and the law. Not only that, but the major instrument of legal violence - the army - serves as the model for the organisation of schools and bureaucratic hierarchies both within the State and in the private corporations."

Althusser believed that the Repressive State Apparatuses include the army, the police and penal system, and the Ideological State Apparatuses are made up of agencies such as the nuclear family, the mass media, the church, and the function of public education. He noted that while the former were invariably under the control of the State, the latter are often under private control, or are in a continual state of movement between public and private control or some combination of both. Of all of the agencies of ideological reproduction, Althusser considered the educational function of the State as undoubtedly its most important and effective instrument, arguing that schools teach both the skills and knowledge for future production, but that they also inculcate into their pupils a set of values, beliefs and attitudes upon which this reproduction will eventually depend for its legitimacy.

He died of a heart attack in 1990 at the age of 72.

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