Some Thoughts from Reading Althusser

“State Machine”, by Alan Hardman

I’ve always had a strange relationship with Althusser even before I read him, particularly because I’ve both been influenced by authors who clearly were influenced by him, but also by authors who absolutely despised him. I’d also found it odd how figures like Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Zizek – both some of my gateway drugs (gateway theorists?) into the Left and Marxism – clearly draw on Althusser’s concepts concerning ideology while also being very avowedly Hegelian.

I recently had to pick up For Marx as part of my podcast, and so I also read Gregory Elliott’s excellent Althusser: The Detour of Theory and have started a bit of Reading Capital, the“Ideological State Apparatuses” essays, and assorted interviews and texts about the strategy of the PCF in the mid 70s. Ultimately I have found most of Althusser’s theoretical frameworks to be very deficient, but reading Elliott in particular has at least given me some appreciation for Althusser’s attempt to critique Stalinism and the failures of the PCF “from the inside.” I am also perfectly happy to admit that there are aspects of Althusser’s research that I think are valid and worthy of developing (and as I said, I’m influenced by people who did develop some of these points of research, not only in philosophy but in sociology and anthropology as well). However, I think a lot of these points need to be acknowledged but also detached from many of Althusser’s larger theoretical foundations- they should be subjected to internal critique, one could say. One of the first issues with Althusser is actually his “return to Marx.” On the one hand, the argument that Marxists should actually read Marx is one that I agree with, and it has been stated by everyone from Mike Davis, to Moishe Postone, to Andrew Kliman, to Anwar Shaikh. On the other hand, we should acknowledge Althusser’s own point that “there is no innocent reading”: insofar as Althusser relies heavily on textual claims to produce his epistemology, it creates serious problems when we look between Althusser’s own work and the texts he draws from.

It is possible to acknowledge insights in Althusser’s theories without necessitating that he be absolutely “loyal” to the exact word of Marx. However, what complicates even this more pragmatic reading of Althusser is that so much of his argumentation relies on the claim that he is locating a true epistemological break through Marx’s texts, thereby locating the real Marxist dialectic that separates science from ideology. Althusser explains the incorporation of other theorists into Marx – Bachelard, Spinoza, Lacan – as producing the true theoretical language of Marx that Marx could not himself produce due to his connection to Hegel. We do not need to rely on a defense of Hegelianism to see certain problems with Althusser’s formulations here. One of the most serious problems is a tendency to fall into a rather circular explanation whereby Marx breaks first with Hegelian humanism, then with Feurbachian humanism to create a theory of theory, but the break with humanism must be explained through the epistemological work of pre- or post-Marxist thinkers (often with no explicit relationship to Marx, or even to sociology proper) who’s application is justified as the proper language of Marxist thought that Marx could not realize in his own time.

The application of other thinkers to enrich, critique, or expound on a theory or text is no sin, but it is a problem to justify them as being the unknown language of the original theory itself. That is: the outside voices are justified in their application by essentially stating they are already the language of the theory they are being added to. This is further complicated particularly by Althusser’s use of the “problematic” from Bachelardian philosophy wherein the practice or foundation of Marxism as “one science among others” is supposedly autonomous and without reference to anything outside its own logic. Problematics as Althusser uses them individuate theories by cutting them from one another, they become islands of thought. The problematic, which should appear to single out the particularities of the questions and thought, is just as capable of reducing various kinds of approaches into a lump, as Althusser often does with thinkers – Lukacs, Korsch, Gramsci, Sartre, Della Volpe, etc. – he deems to belong to a single “historicist” and “humanist” problematic.

The existence of a Marxist “theory of theory” and “science of science” which had broken with ideology and attained a position of scientific knowledge among other sciences ended up turning on an “an ontology of practices of which he vouchsafed little or no justification.”[1] Althusser’s set of epistemological claims merely takes as given that thought and the real are both practices and that the former is necessarily concordant with the latter, ironically inserting a subterranean empiricism which would appear to be in conflict with Althusser’s (excessively broad) anti-empiricism: “The prime enemy of this epistemology – the theory of theoretical practice – was dubbed ‘the empiricist conception of knowledge’. As portrayed by Althusser, it embraced much more than, perhaps even the opposite of, empiricism as normally understood. To this paradigm he assimilated any theory of the cognitive process which represented it as the confrontation between (knowing) subject and object (to be known), and which conceived knowledge as abstraction by the subject of the essence of the object.”[2]

The attempt theoretically clarify (or complicate) Marxism’s relationship with epistemology is commendable. The link between knowledge and ideology in Marxism (and the question of knowledge in genera) is generally unclear and deserves elaboration. The (re)introduction of certain levels of abstraction – particularly the separation of the “mode of production” and the “social formation” – are important and remain influential. Impressively, these distinctions have become important in some schools of empirical anthropological study. But many of Althusser’s most recognizeable contributions are themselves marred by the entire “problematic” or “theory of theory” that they are integrated within. There is a circularity to Althusser’s simultaneous claims of maintaining fidelity to Marx’s word while stating that Marx’s words couldn’t be Marxist enough. The autonomous theory still has to connect with observable reality but it simultaneously wants to refute the “empiricist” subject/object relationship. Althusser’s solution is unclear, and perhaps contradictory.

Out of all of Althusser’s theoretical work, his theory of ideology is his most famous. I am willing to grant that aspects of Althusser’s conception of “ideology” have some use. Particularly interesting is the emphasis on the way concrete situations enforce ideology and the way that experience leads to presupposed “imaginary relationship[s] of individuals to their real conditions of existence.” The distinction between the description of things as they appear to happen and the actual occurrence of things (i.e., an explanation of real relationships) deserves to be explored. That said, Althusser – as early as 1963 – sees ideology as an inevitability of lived existence:

So when we speak of the class function of an ideology it must be understood that the ruling ideology is indeed the ideology of the ruling class and that the former serves the latter not only its rule over the exploited class, but in its own constitution of itself as the ruling class, by making it accept the lived relation between itself and the world as real and justified. … Even in the case of a class society ideology is active on the ruling class itself and contributes to its moulding, to the modification of its attitudes to adapt it to its real conditions of existence (for example, legal freedom) – it is clear that ideology (as a system of mass representations) is indispensable in any society if men are to be formed, transformed and equipped to respond to the demands of their conditions of existence. … In a classless society ideology is the relay whereby, and the element in which, the relation between men and their conditions of existence is lived to the profit of all men.[3]

Thus, ideology cannot stop existing. However, what is most strange is that ideology is here still capable of existing in a classless society while a “ruling ideology is indeed the ideology of the ruling class.” So how can a classless society still have ideology when the dominant ideology is the ideology of the ruling class? If classless society is brought about through the understanding and application of Marxist theory and science, which is explicitly seen as a break from ideology, then why does ideology still exist in a society founded upon that science? If ideology cannot be abolished, then can a ruling class be abolished? Would a classless society have some kind of multiplicity of ideologies?

On the one hand we can still be certain that individuals in different places and times, with different access to different sorts of knowledge, will have assumptions and biases, and certain forms of science – Marxist or otherwise – are methods of learning that can rectify that. On the other hand, if the Marxist “theory of theory” and “science of science” must be continuously applied to rectify ideological knowledge that cannot be eliminated, it appears to become a cyclical practice that is itself redundantly ideological. Classless society – knowingly or not – subtly becomes a continuous and necessary dictatorship of the proletariat as a class perpetually. In a 1976 interview, after Althusser had re-formulated aspects of this theory of ideology in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” he seems to admit believing the dictatorship of the proletariat will be permanent, identifying the dictatorship of the proletariat as “a law proper to the very nature of social relations, which Marx called a natural law”[4].

Whether this line – stated well after the early writings of For Marx and Reading Capital – truly means an eternal dictatorship of the proletariat, I am not sure. Certainly in 1977 Althusser wrote of the 22nd Congress that

this bourgeois state, the instrument of bourgeois class rule, as Marx and Lenin repeatedly stated, has to be ‘smashed’. And, a much more important notion, they related this ‘destruction’ of the bourgeois state to the subsequent ‘withering away’ of the new revolutionary state — a ‘withering away’ which is indispensable if socialism is not to mark time indefinitely but to give rise to communism. In other words, they thought the ‘destruction’ of the bourgeois state also on the basis of the ‘withering away’ and ‘end’ of any state. This is part of a basic thesis of Marx and Lenin: it is not just the bourgeois state that is oppressive, but any state. … If you want examples in which the state has not been ‘destroyed’ and is therefore not en route to ‘withering away’, you need only look towards the socialist countries and note the consequences that follow. The Soviet leaders state: ‘With us the withering away of the state is achieved via its reinforcement…’ It is a fact that the problem of the state is, as Lenin said, a difficult one, even a very difficult one; it is a fact that it deserves historical and concrete investigations and thoroughgoing theoretical reflections. But it is a real and inevitable problem which is thus signaled to us by a necessary element of the dictatorship of the proletariat. I insist that it is not just a question of the problem of the bourgeois state, but also one of the problem of the revolutionary state, which is oppressive too.[5]

In For Marx Althusser does remark on the end of the state and the dictatorship of the proletariat: “It is difficult here to avoid relating together the necessity to prepare and realize an important historical mutation (the transition to communism, the end of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the withering-away of the State apparatus, presupposing the creation of new forms of political, economic and cultural organization, corresponding to this transition) on the one hand – and, on the other, the historical conditions in which this transition must be put into effect.”[6] But what remains unclear through much of Althusser’s work is if the emancipation of the workers and destruction of the state is taken to mean that the proletariat can abolish itself.

A virtue of Althusser’s conception of ideology is that it puts activity and society front and center, but it necessitates that activity only be understood through the understanding of society as society itself becomes center-less and indescribably diffuse. Individuals play no role except where they express the ebb and flow of society. For all his work to try and make the superstructure an area of analysis, Althusser seems to analyze activity in such a way that superstructure becomes as much a reduction as earlier crude emphasis on the “economic base.” A sociological analysis where the relationship between the laws of social totality and individual activity are examined is instead capitulated to “society” being the be-all and end-all. Althusser’s “overdetermination” likewise becomes a reductionist move while trying to diversify cause and effect and provide contingency.

What seems more theoretically profitable is to introduce a new level of abstraction where human experience is related to the integration of unconscious biases, assumptions, presuppositions, and the like without a) retroactively justifying all of Marx and Engel’s understanding of ‘ideology’ to a new theory, or b) situating human experience to be inevitably ideological and “pre-given” within the structure of society as a whole without any subjectivity (or rather, with a subjectivity that is only the mediation of ideology). Raymond Williams’ “structure of feeling” and Pierre Bourdieu’s “habitus” are both theorizations of the way that experience mediates autonomy and social structure, producing unconscious presuppositions that are actively expressed. At the same time, these formulations are studied in ways that are not fearful of empirical observation, nor do they deny that human rationality is capable of eliminating ideology, even if unconscious assumptions form experience are inevitable or aspects of subjectivity are itself the effects of inescapable ideology. Althusser’s interest in experience and action as unexplored aspects ideology’s constitution and development deserved to have their own theorization that did not simply absorb Marx and Engels’ use of the term “ideology” while subsuming experience and social function in toto to ideology as-such. There is a possibility of distinguishing between the understanding we have that is informed by our experience and situation and the convenient bullshit (ideology) which justifies the limits of our understanding which we could actually think through.

In political terms, too, these theories have severe shortcomings. In the early Althusser (For Marx and Reading ‘Capital’) the conflation of experience and ideology, along with Marxism as a ‘problematic’ that exists among other sciences without any ground outside its own logic, leads to transforming political struggle into the act of theorizing for the purpose of producing anti-ideological science: “Any connection between science and society, and science and class, was denied except in the negative form of epistemological obstacles…”[7] Later, after his self-critiques and “Reply to John Lewis”, Marxism would become the science, though the theory of ideology would remain similar (but with certain original elaborations). This variant – in part influenced by a turn to Maoism as a “left critique of Stalinism” – would end up promoting volunteerism. Inspired in part by the Cultural Revolution, this later Althusserian orientation would surprisingly reintroduce a notion of the class struggle as the expression of overdetermined contradiction. Class struggle became the “motor of history,” and not man but “the masses make history.” Marxist science, the science, also necessitates an “ideological class struggle,” a “class struggle in theory.” Class struggle is the very means by which materialism counteracts idealism, a theory that looked surprisingly akin to the early Lukacs’s (Hegelian!) view of the proletarian “viewpoint” as expressing a unique truth of social totality. Unlike Lukacs, however, Althusser still rejected any concept of a “subject’ or “maker” of history: class struggle is the “motor” that men express as though it were a social structure itself, rather than the means by which people take agency over their own needs to shape society. “Voluntarist when it comes to class struggle, Althusser courts the charge of structural necessitarianism when it comes to agency. History – social reproduction and transformation – is inexplicable according to either. … Althusser opted for the worst of both worlds in retaining strict anti-humanist theoretical protocols while relaxing structural causality to accord an exorbitant role to class struggle.”[8] If ideology comes from the fact of living in society, but Marxist theory and science are intended to counteract ideology through class struggle, but class struggle is akin to a social structure without subjectivity which individuals express, then what good is Marxist theory and science overall? What does it actually dispel or move us towards? How does this autonomous theory and science actually analyze society which also produces ideology when these things are also changing?

Early Althusser (and his co-authors in Reading Capital) certainly try to provide theoretical answers, but their reliance on an explanation of autonomous theory – a mix of ontology and epistemology – and the over-utilization of the epistemological break leads to a politics where theory cannot be related to class struggle in a clear way. Intellectuals who theorize must do away with ideology scientifically, but how this is to direct revolutionary action is unclear. The self-critique afterwords is too hasty and too quick to make Marxism “the science” while making class struggle in-and-of-itself the only motor of social change without having a real concrete analysis of what class struggle is, instead making class struggle a structure unto itself.

The theories of “state apparatuses” may have opened up a needed discussion on the role of particular institutions and the reproduction of classes, but it still focuses on an ever-eternal ideology and simultaneously makes the State everything and nothing. ISAs include churches, schools (public and private), the family, the legal system, “the political system, including different parties,” trade-unions, communications and media, “literature, the arts, sports.”[9] Rather than pointing out how various public and private institutions can have relations to the state without being the state, or have conflicts among themselves, or how the state is not simply capitalism itself, the state instead becomes absolute in its own fragmentation. The difference between ISA and RSA (”repressive state apparatus”) is not enough. The intriguing exploration of how the bourgeois state is not simply a single centralized force; and that there is a complex relationship between centralization and diffusion regarding power, domination, and social relationships; ultimately doesn’t go as far as it should. In attempting to diversify analysis of the state, society and state are homogenized, diffuse power and central organization uncertain in their relationship, and description and explanation swapped around.[10]

These are all slapdash observations from the reading I’ve done on my own. As I have said: I did find value in reading Althusser, but much of that value is precisely in seeing how interesting questions and lines of research could be opened up in a theoretical program that I find lacking. At the same time, others have clearly taken Althusser’s projects and made headway with it. Perhaps Elliott is not wrong to suggest at the end of his book that we no longer really think about “high Althusserianism” very favorably because the best questions and opportunities for development have already been picked up and integrated into other theories and studies. I have to admit that I was struck by how some of Althusser’s general points of theory were synchronous with some of my own thoughts. Particularly since I’ve been independently studying modes of production, I can see that Althusser has had an indirect influence on my thoughts on the separation of mode of production and social formation. As a fan of Roy Bhaskar, I can see that the sociological premise that societies have their own laws and tendencies that are not reducible to individual behavior itself or to the “average” of all social interactions – a premise I generally agree with – has roots in Althusserianism (as Bhaskar has admitted). I have also been recently thinking about what Marxism is in its relationship to science. I have approached Marxism as the study of capitalism as it actually exists and the relationships it creates that can allow and advancement into socialism and communism, certainly aspects of this definition – an attempt to see Marxism as one kind of science without also making it just a “viewpoint” – has similarities with some of Althusser’s work. At the same time, my similarities to some of Althusser’s points only makes me more certain it is worth learning how to do better empirical analysis and not to rely simply on theory qua theory. Discussions on, and investigations of, the relationship between the abstract and concrete should be paired with discussions on, and investigations of, the relationship between the empirical and the rational.

I’ll hastily wrap up with eight points of investigation that I have found interesting in Althusser’s work, even if I am unsatisfied with his own theoretical approach and conclusions:

  1. Trying to situate Marxism as a particular form of investigation and study that relates with other sciences/research projects.
  2. Investigating what theory and rational understanding does to fill in the role of causality in empiricism.
  3. Re-examining the difference and relationship between the “concrete” and the “abstract” in theory.
  4. Bringing back the relations of production as an important element for understanding modes of production and social formations (rather than just focusing on the “economist” forces of production).
  5. Seeking to pluralize the exploration of cause and effect due to the superstructure in social formations.
  6. Examining how Marx’s thought develops over time and how he responds to his contemporaries/influences in different ways as he develops his own work.
  7. Investigating the role of experience and social position in the development of ideology.
  8. Attempting to critique Stalinism by looking at the Stalin’s theoretical positions and the society of the USSR holistically, rather than merely the generalization of a “cult of personality.”

If Althusser did open up new ground for a Marxist research program, it still has the problem from much of the Marxist-Leninist approach of starting from the presupposition that “Marxism is true” and treating that as sufficient foundation for research. 

In his rather remarkable and unique critique of Mike Macnair (a thinker I also have profound respect for) Lawrence Parker remarks:

A left-wing reader who has been through one of the Marxist sects will not approach a detailed historical argument against her conventional thought on the subject on the basis (which might appear reasonable) that because the author of that historical text has assembled compelling evidence then it is probably true. No, it is likely that she will only be able to read the evidence through fixed reference points and that it will be largely non-comprehensible as a result. It will be filtered through the objective needs and demands of her sect education and points of historical evidence, no matter how compelling, will be reduced to her a priori understanding. Black will be painted white and the more evidence is provided that black is still black, the more it will be reduced to white. The alternative is the despair of avoidance and silence. We thus go around in circles. … we have to consciously overthrow reductive identity thinking by contemplating and working through how subjects epistemologically mangle the objective world around them, which is actually a logic embedded in the structures of capitalism itself.[11]

Some of Althusser’s project is precisely an attempt at this worthy goal, and his own critiques of the PCF and Eurocommunism in the mid 70s (whichI’ve found to be some of his most lucid and interesting writing) submit a very similar critique of the communist parties in his own time. Simultaneously, Althusser also exhibits the tendency to hastily categorize thinkers and thought, to turn periodization into Manichean dichotomies, to rely on “our theories are true” as the starting point of investigation, in ways that enable easy dismissal and stifle imminent critique and the understanding of positions and implications from other frameworks and research projects. The fact that someone can appear to do both – epistemological, structural, theoretical critique that simultaneously categorizes and dismisses through “fixed reference points” – is just another point of complication that should be researched and – most importantly – discussed among radicals from different positions and assumptions, not transformed into its own sectarian excuse for concluding who is a good enough thinker for presupposed positions.


[1] Elliott, Althusser: The Detour of Theory (Chicago: Haymarket), 90.

[2] Elliott, 81.

[3] Althusser, For Marx (New York: Verso), 235-236.

[4] https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/2787-althusser-the-dictatorship-of-the-proletariat-is-not-at-all-the-same-thing-as-stalinism

[5] https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1977/22nd-congress.htm

[6] For Marx, 238.

[7] Elliott, 124.

[8] Elliott, 203.

[9] https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1970/ideology.htm

[10] The unremittingly mystifying effects of ideology [in Althusser’s essay] meant that it constituted a ‘social cement’ ensuring cohesion and reproduction. Ideology was both an invariable component of any society and invariant in its structure. Only in the subject-less discourse of science could its illusions be shattered … if this is correct, then a marked feature of the new theory is its replication, in certain essentials, of the old one. … Althusser slides into ‘ideologism’, reducing the relations of production to inter-subjective relations. Secondly, the ‘point of view of reproduction’ trumps the ‘point of view of the class struggle’. Or, rather, in the class struggle in ideology the cards are always stacked in favour of the ruling class, because its particular interests coincide with the universal functional requirements of social reproduction. No space is left for oppositional ideology; little efficacy can be assigned the oppositional ideologies Althusser nonetheless posits. … Althusser’s inflation of the strategic role of the ideological was accompanied by an expansion of the state – in the form of the ISAs – to cover everything from play-schools to political parties. Therewith the state was emptied of existence as an objective structure and diffused into any institution or social form, public or private, which contributes to social cohesion and reproduction. (Elliott, 210-212)

[11] https://communistpartyofgreatbritainhistory.wordpress.com/2020/04/02/springing-the-philosophy-trap-a-critique-of-mike-macnair/

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