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Louis Pierre Althusser, 1918-1990

The Lonely Hour of the
Last Instance
Against what common sense, the common sense of financiers and lawyers, tell us, there are many writings that
blow away, but a few words that remain. No doubt
because they have been inscribed in life and history.

Louis Althusser on Jean Hyppolite, 1968

The death of Louis Althusser – Communist, Marxist, philosopher
– scarcely constitutes a historical fact by his own exacting criteria
of historicity. With it, however, one of the most extraordinary
chapters in modem intellectual history has finally come to a

Of the principal representatives of the two major traditions
with which he is associated – French Structuralism and Western
Marxism – Althusser is survived only by Claude Levi-Strauss
and Jtirgen Habermas, respectively, as biographical accident
supervenes to compound the philosophico-political verdicts of
the postmodernist ’80s on the marxisant ’60s.

To date, with the exception ofTed Benton’ s admirable notice
in the Independent (27/10/90), obituaries on both sides of the
Channel have been characterised by a pervasive, if predictable,
anti-Marxism. Evident sympathy for the man, fond memories of
the teacher, deep respect for the maitre, have been accompanied
– whether in the Guardian, Le Monde or Liberation – by the
conviction (stated or implied) that Althusser’s ultimate significance resides in his having demonstrated, not only that it isn’t
‘simple to be a Marxist in philosophy’, but that it is quite
impossible. Indeed, doubtless pour decourager les autres, some
have not hesitated to identify the death of Helene Althusser at her
husband’s hands as the inevitable denouement of the very endeavour. Faits divers ,fait politique … As if all that remained was
the wreckage of a career tragically terminated by an indivisible
act of destruction and self-destruction.

Before accounts can be settled, they must be accurately
drafted. And we have yet to settle our accounts with Althusser.

Buried in silence for the last decade of his life, the philosopher
who wistfully observed of himself that he was famous solely for
being notorious – but who was, by any just reckoning, one of the
most important Marxist thinkers of the twentieth century deserves better on the occasion of his passing.

The full, desperate story of the life and deaths of Louis
Althusser awaits its historian; one day it will have to be told. For,
whilst it may not be allowed to function – surreptitiously or
blatantly, with regret of schaden/reude – as a substitute for an
adequate intellectual appreciation, nor should it be evaded by
anyone seeking to do elementary justice to him. In truth, it only
serves to render his achievement the more remarkable.


The bare outlines of what he once referred to as ‘autoheterobiographical circumstances’ are clear enough. Born in
Birmandreis, Algeria, in October 1918, Althusser’s youth was
marked by the overwhelming influence of traditional Roman
Catholicism – first in the shape of a pious mother, Lucienne, and
then in the strongly anti-Popular Front milieu of the Lycee du
Parc, Lyons, where from 1936 to 1939 he was taught in the
preparatory class for the Ecole Normale Superieure (ENS) by
Jean Guitton, Jean Lacroix and Joseph Hours (in common with
contemporaries there, Althusser belonged to the]eunesse etudiante
chretienne). Trained in the kind of spiritualist philosophy he was
subsequently to disdain, Althusser came sixth in the highly
competitive examination for the ENS in July 1939 – only to be
called up for military service that September. Captured the
following summer, he spent close on five years as a prisoner of
war in Schleswig Holstein, years attended by a loss of faith and the
onset of a long history of depressive illness.

Upon his release Althusser resumed his formal education,
coming first in the extremely demanding agregation in philosophy in 1948, with a thesis (supervised by Gaston Bachelard) on
The Notion o/Content in Hegel’ s Philosophy. In November 1948
he was appointed caiman (teacher responsible for preparing students for the agregation) at the ENS and remained there for the

Radical Philosophy 57, Spring 1991

rest of his active life, being promoted to Secretary of the Ecole in
1962. The same month he joined the French Communist Party,
rallied from quasi-heretical, left-Catholic circles by the bitter
class struggles of the Cold War conjuncture, the promptings of his
philosophical intimates (in particular Jacques Martin – the ‘prince
of intelligence’, in Merleau-Ponty’s words – to whom For Marx
is dedicated), and the example of Helene Legotien (alias Rytman)
– Resistance heroine, Communist dissident, later a distinguished
sociologist – whom he met in the winter of 1945-46. Although
Althusser maintained contact with various Catholic circles
throughout his life, the die was now cast; he would never resign
his party card, admission ticket to the working-class movement,
which is ‘our only hope and our destiny’.

First hospitalized in 1946, and eventually diagnosed as a
manic-depressive subject to fits of profound melancholy, Althusser
was obliged to return to psychiatric institutions with increasing
frequency over the years, submitting to a range of treatments,
from drugs to ECT, in search of some respite from the ‘fearful
traumas’ that plagued him and induced a Pascalian terror before
reality. As his former student, collaborator and comrade, Etienne
Balibar, reminded mourners at his funeral, Althusser suffered
terribly, tenaciously waging, but inexorably losing, that ‘war
without memoirs or memorials’ he evoked, in plangent tonalities,
in ‘Freud and Lacan’ (1964). When, in November 1980, defeat
came, provoked in part by the political setbacks of the late ’70s,
the pitiless form it took – the ‘murder’ of his companion of some
thirty-five years – condemned him to oblivion thereafter: a living
death, divided between a succession of clinics and the obscurity
of the twentieth arrondissement of Paris, nourished only by the
devotion of a few friends and diminishing hopes of one day
regaining health and resuming work.

That day never dawned for this doux maftre a la science pure
et dure, who nevertheless persevered in existence with a fortitude
one might be tempted to call singular, were it not common to all
those for whom Hell is not other people, but something infinitely
more insidious and ineluctable: their own subjectivity.

This, then, was the personal backdrop to the public career of
a thinker who only emerged from the seclusion of the rue I’Ulm
into the celebrity of the Quartier Latin after the Fourth Republic
had succumbed to De Gaulle’ s coup d’ etat and as the PCF sought
to rechart its course amidst the treacherous currents of deStalinization and the consequent Sino-Soviet split. Against the
current ofthe prevalent Marxist humanism, predominantly moral
in cast and now being adopted in homeopathic doses by the West
European Communist Parties for official purposes, Althusser
essayed a reconstruction of ‘historical and dialectical materialism’ – of Marxist science and Marxist philosophy – conducive to
a ‘left-wing critique of Stalinism … that would … help put some
substance back into the revolutionary project here in the West’.

Unveiled in 1965 in the two books for which he is renowned – the
characteristically laconically entitled For Marx and Reading
Capital- Althusser’s Marxism represented an audacious combination of political radicalism,advertising Leninist affiliations
and intimating Maoist sympathies, and philosophical modernism,
conjugating Bachelardian conventionalist epistemology and
Lacanian structuralist psychoanalysis with the ‘materialist conception of history’ .

Althusser was later to identify Spinoza – and not Saussure as the philosopher-general who had inspired the novel accents and
distinctive theses of his intervention in Marxism. At the time,
however, its austere anti-empiricism, its relentless hostility to
historicism, and its astringent theoretical anti-humanism partially aligned it with the contemporaneous enterprises of LeviStrauss and Lacan, Barthes and Foucault, and it was rapidly
assimilated to the ascendent structuralism.

High Althusserianism essentially encompassed three conRadical Philosophy 57, Spring 1991

verging initiatives. First, it ventured a re-reading of the Marxist
canon, which revolved around the postulate of an ‘epistemological break’ between the ideological works of the Young Marx and
the scientific discourse of the mature Marx, restoring Capital to
pride of place after its temporary demolition by the Paris Manuscripts. Secondly, it offered an alternative philosophy to ‘Diamat’

positivism and Western-Marxist anti-naturalism – the ‘Theory of
theoretical practice’ , an epistemology which sought to reconcile
conventionalist disclosure of the historical, social and theoretical
character of science with realist insistence on the existence of
‘real objects’ independent of, and irreducible to, theory. Thirdly,
it elaborated a non-economistic ‘science of the history of social
formations’, comprising four main components: (1) an antiHegelian recasting of the dialectic, which excised abstract fatalism from and inscribed the ‘necessity of contingency’ in its
structures, via the concepts of ‘contradiction and
overdetermination’; (2) a reconceptualization of the structure of
social formations that credited their constitutive complexity by
displacing the base/superstructure model in favour of a schedule
of ‘relatively autonomous’ instances – economic, political, ideological – governed by a structural causality of ‘determination in
the last instance’; (3) an anti-teleological theory of modes of
production as articulated combinations of relations and forces of
production, which eschewed evolutionism in the theorization of
historical transition; (4) finally – and perhaps most controversially – a re-theorization of ideology, not as ‘false consciousness’ ,
but as ‘necessary illusion’ – people’s imaginary relations to their
real conditions of existence, which might be transformed, but
which would not be dissipated, under communism.

The effect of Althusser’ s theoretical de-Stalinization, in and
beyond France, was nothing short of electric. His renewal of
Marxism represented a liberation for a younger generation, spared
the long Stalinist night of theory for whose duration Communist
intellectuals had been reduced to ideological officiators of the
party ‘line’, but still invariably intimidated into ‘official philosophy’ by insinuations of original social sin. This, crucially, was the
significance of the scandalous Althusserian revindication of the
autonomy of theory: not the self-elevation of a scientific elite
which his detractors, wilfully or carelessly, construed it as,
neglecting his own deeply-felt (and lived) contextual allusion to
those ‘whose labour, sufferings and struggles … nourish and
sustain our whole present and future, all our arguments for life and
hope’; but the defence, against the intrusions (and potential


depredations) of State, Party or Class, of the cognitive autonomy
of explanatory science – and hence of freedom of research – as a
prerequisite of any emancipatory political practice. In short,
Caesar non est supra grammaticos; nor is the Politburo.

Quite the reverse of the dogmatist he is so often portrayed as,
Althusser was acutely conscious of the problematic character of
his alternatives to actually existing Marxism. No sooner had he
expounded them than he embarked upon a prolonged exercise in
auto-critique. From the lectures eventually published as Philosophy
and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists (1967; 1974),
via Lenin and Philosophy (1968), to Reply to John Lewis (1972)
and Elements of Self-Criticism (1974), he returned again and
again to ponder and rectify his original theses, in the process
conceding the unilateralism of their fonnation, yet defending the
indispensability of such ‘extremism’ to a properly materialist
practice of philosophy – one concerned, that is, with its extraphilosophical effectivity.

The redefinition of philosophy as ‘class struggle in theory’

which he radically criticized and reconstructed for the sake ofthe
revolutionary cause, and a ‘post-Marxism’ which has disavowed
him, along with its erstwhile philosophical conscience, in these
new times? What persists of the’ Althusserian revolution’ , which
for a decade showed scant respect for national borders or disciplinary boundaries, sponsored a mass of research (much of it of
lasting value), and defined the tenns of theoretical debate on the
Left? If many of his writings have blown away, are there a few
words that remain, albeit screened by a convenient amnesia?

There is, first and foremost, the fact that Althusser’s rereading of the classics reconnected Marxism with vital, nonMarxist currents of thought (e.g. psychoanalysis and linguistics),
restoring their brutally interrupted communication and facilitating a series of new departures (especially in the theory of ideology
and cultural criticism). Secondly, his philosophy for science at
once registered the autonomy of the natural and social sciences,
and vindicated the possibility of science as the (intenninable)
production of rectifiable, objective knowledge of its object.

Thirdly, the Althusserian critique of the Hegelian dialectic (and
its Marxist avatars) as intrinsically teleological released Marxism
from a series of false promissory notes (the inevitability of
socialism as a function of linear economic progression; the
proletariat as the ‘universal class’ in a secularized theodicy of
(de )alienation; the historical messianism of an ‘end of ideology’).

Finally, the systematic reconstruction of historical materialism
reclaimed it as an open scientific research programme, taking
deadly aim at a crippling economic detenninism and its corollary,
economic reductionism, as it pertained to political practice and
cultural production alike. In what is arguably the quintessential
Althusserian essay, ‘Contradiction and Overdetennination’ (1962),
a generation found its licence and its charter:

in History ‘” the superstructures … are never seen to step
respectfully aside when their work is done or, when the
Time comes, as his pure phenomena, to scatter before His
Majesty the Economy as he strides along the royal road of
the Dialectic. From the first moment to the last, the lonely
hour of the ‘last instance’ never comes.

occupied most of the second phase of Althusser’s career, but not
to the exclusion of a last seminal contribution to substantive social
theory: the celebrated extract from one of many abortive projects
in this period, published as ‘Ideology and Ideological State
Apparatuses’ (1970), which registered the impact of the Cultural
Revolution in China and May ’68 in France, and proved to be his
single most influential text. Thereafter, in a third phase from 1976
onwards, Althusser simultaneously displayed his political credentials, culminating in his philippic against the leadership of the
PCF following its sabotage of the Unino ofthe Left in 1978 (What
Must Change in the Party), and set about a self-destruction of
Althusserianism (see especially Marxism Today, 1978) as ruthless as anything undertaken by his critics.

Various explanations might be advanced for this sombre
development. No doubt some overdetermination of the
philosophico-political by the psychological is the most plausible,
as unfulfilled political hopes aggravated an already deepening
melancholia. ‘The future lasts a long time,’ Althusser had incessantly cautioned those who lived politics in the mode of’ subjective
urgency’. By the turn of the decade there was little reason to
suppose that it would witness les lendemains qui chantent.

Twenty-five years on, what endures of a thought that guarantees its author an exceptional position in contemporary intellectual history, precariously poised between a Marxist tradition

‘Theoretical practice’; ‘epistemological break’; ‘symptomatic
reading’; ‘overdetennination’ ; ‘detennination in the last instance’; ‘relative autonomy’; ‘imaginary relations’; ‘ideological
state apparatuses’; ‘class struggle in theory’: a few words concepts and categories – that remain, inscribed in life and history
(and ‘better fewer but better’, as someone once said). For they
opened up new horizons within the’ continent of history , , restored
the intellectual reputation of Marxism, made it, if not simple, then
that much easier to be a Marxist – in philosophy, cultural studies,
literary criticism, sociology, anthropology, political theory, etc. than it would otherwise have been. His immediate students were
not the only ones for whom Althusserprovided either a theoretical
fonnation or a fonnation for theory. Others, who never met him,
recognize the immense debt they owe him and could make
Balibar’s acknowledgement their own: ‘I learnt everything, if not
from Althusser, then thanks to him.’

That such a legacy should have been forged amidst such
adversity – almost on borrowed or stolen time – can only enhance
(and in no way qualify) our admiration for Louis Althusser. In the
last instance, if not before, we may be grateful to him.

Gregory Elliott
Gregory Elliott’ s Althusser: the Detour ofTheory is published by
Verso, London; Ted Benton’s The Rise and Fall of Structural
Marxism: Althusser and his Influence is published by Macmillan,

Radical Philosophy 57, Spring 1991


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