Louis Althusser: Last Gasp Stalinism

I’m working my way through certain Cultural Studies works chronologically because they laid the ground on which current Cultural Studies is based.

In order to fully understand John Fiske’s Popularity and Ideology: A Structuralist Reading of Dr Who or Tulloch and Alvarado’s Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text it is necessary to situate their debates within the intellectual context that gave rise to them. This was an academic world dominated by Screen Theory (which I examine in my essay on Noël Carroll’s Mystifying Movies), which was itself rooted in Saussurian linguistics, Lacanian Psychoanalysis and the Structural Marxism of Louis Althusser.

This essay examines Althusser’s work in general as presented in his essays collected in For Marx (1969) and Lenin and Philosophy and other Essays (1971). It draws largely on critiques of Althusser written from within Marxism itself to illustrate that Althusser’s ‘Stalinism’ was  not uncontested within the academic ‘Left’ even if it did attain dominance.

I should mention that I use the term ‘Stalinist’ throughout this essay in the technical, Marxist sense, to refer to a particular interpretation of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy which sees the Communist Party as the authentic representative of the Proletariat – rather than the working class themselves – following the Third Period of the Socialist International (or Comintern), rather than in the more ‘popular’ sense of referring to the mass murder and persecution of dissidents; as far as I know, Louis Althusser murdered only one person, his wife, following an ‘epistemological break’ of his own, and he publicly denounced Stalin’s ‘deviations’ a mere decade or so after the Soviet Union itelf.

‘Return to Marx’

Althusser saw his role as very much a ‘Return to Marx’, just as Jacques Lacan described his work as a ‘Return to Freud’.

In For Marx (1969) Althusser targeted three ‘deviations’ from Marxist orthodoxy: empiricism, historicism and humanism. 

The Ideological State Apparatus

Althusser distinguishes between what he calls the ‘Repressive State Apparatus’ (RSA) and the ‘Ideological State Apparatus’ (ISA). 

The ‘Repressive State Apparatus’ (RSA) refers to the Government itself and the arms through which it maintains order through force, or the threat of force: the Police, the Law Courts, the Prisons and the Army.

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…

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)”

– Louis Althusser, ”Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” (p.141)

The role of the Repressive State Apparatuses is pretty easy to grasp and need not detain us long; Althusser himself does not devote much space to them as he is more concerned with the second set of ‘Apparatuses’, the ‘Ideological State Apparatuses‘ (ISA): 

”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.”

– Louis Althusser, ”Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” (p.142)

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 private ‘Schools’),
  • the family ISA,
  • the legal ISA,
  • the political ISA (the political system, including the different Parties),
  • the trade-union ISA,
  • the communications ISA (press, radio and television, etc.),
  • the cultural ISA (Literature, the Arts, sports, etc.).

– Louis Althusser, ”Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” (p.143)

You can see from this list that the ISA includes all of what we’d call civil society – including the trade unions! – but conveniently excludes the Communist Party. This is a key step in Althusser’s project to consolidate the monopoly of the Communist Party as the authentic representatives of the Proletariat, over and above the organisations they have created and fought for themselves.

Wheras the RSA functions be force, or the threat of force, the ISA, as its name suggests, operate through ideology.

Marx himself had little to say on the subject of ideology, believing himself that capitalism maintains itself by means of commodity fetishism, whereby relationships between people are ‘mystified’ so they appear to exist between people and things (commodities, money) rather than between people themselves.

The Dominant Ideology Thesis has been contested by Nicholas Abercrombie, et al (1984) who concluded that the ruling classes are far more likely to accept self-legitimating ideologies than those they exploit.

Theoretical anti-humanism.

Anti-humanism is the rejection of role of individual human agency in the process of history in favour of  social structure.

Ideology, according to Althusser, ‘interpollates’ individuals as subjects:

”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 ) ofconstituting 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.”

– Louis Althusser, ”Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” (p.171)

But the vast majority of (good) subjects work all right ‘all by themselves’, i.e. by ideology (whose concrete forms are realized in the Ideological State Apparatuses). They are inserted into practices governed by the rituals of the ISAs. They ‘recognize’ the existing state of affairs (das Bestehende ), that ‘it really is true that it is so and not otherwise’, and that they must be obedient to God, to their conscience, to the priest, to de Gaulle, to the boss, to the engineer, that thou shalt ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’, etc. Their concrete, material behaviour is simply the inscription in life of the admirable words of the prayer: ‘Amen — So be it ‘.

Yes, the subjects ‘work by themselves’. The whole mystery of this effect lies in the first two moments of the quadruple system I have just discussed, or, if you prefer, in the ambiguity of the term subject. In the ordinary use of the term, subject in fact means: (1) a free subjectivity, a centre of initiatives, author of and responsible for its actions; (2) a subjected being, who submits to a higher authority, and is therefore stripped of all freedom except that of freely accepting his submission. This last note gives us the meaning of this ambiguity, which is merely a reflection of the effect which produces it: the individual is interpellated as a (free ) subject in order that he shall submit freely to the commandments of the Subject, i.e. in order that he shall (freely ) accept his subjection, i.e. in order that he shall make the gestures and actions of his subjection ‘all by himself’. There are no subjects except by and for their subjection. That is why they ‘work all by themselves’.

– Louis Althusser, ”Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” (p.181-182)

Althusser’s conception of the misrecognised human subject is drawn from Freud, via Lacan:

Not in vain did Freud sometimes compare the critical reception of his discovery with the upheavals of the Copernican Revolution. Since Copernicus, we have known that the earth is not the ‘centre’ of the universe. Since Marx, we have known that the human subject, the economic, political or philosophical ego is not the ‘centre’ of history and even, in opposition to the Philosophers of the Enlightenment and to Hegel, that history has no ‘centre’ but possesses a structure which has no necessary ‘centre’ except in ideological misrecognition. In turn, Freud has discovered for us that the real subject, the individual in his unique essence, has not the form of an ego, centred on the ‘ego’, on ‘consciousness’ or on ‘existence’ — whether this is the existence of the for-itself, of the body-proper or of ‘behaviour’ — that the human subject is de-centred, constituted by a structure which has no ‘centre’ either, except in the imaginary misrecognition of the ‘ego’, i.e. in the ideological formations in which it ‘recognizes’ itself.

It must be clear that this has opened up one of the ways which may perhaps lead us some day to a better under standing of this structure of misrecognition, which is of particular concern for all investigations into ideology.

– Louis Althusser, Freud and Lacan” (p.219)


Anti-empiricism rejects the notion that knowledge comes (only or primarily) via sensory experience. Althusser’s criticism of empriricism is very much based on a straw man version of science.


Althusser’s rejection of historicism follows that of Talcott Parsons (1937)

The Role of the Marxist Intellectual

Althusser’s ouvre can best be seen as an attempt to legitimate the role of the Communist Party and Marxist intellectuals as arbiters of revolutionary thought:

The founders of historical and dialectical materialism were intellectuals (Marx and Engels), their theory was developed by intellectuals (Kautsky, Plekhanov, Labriola, Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin, Gramsci). Neither at the beginning, nor long afterwards, could it have been otherwise — it cannot be otherwise, neither now nor in the future: what can change and will change is the class origin of intellectual workers but not their characterization as intellectuals.* This is so for those reasons of principle that Lenin, following Kautsky, impressed upon us: on the one hand, the ‘spontaneous’ ideology of the workers, if left to itself, could only produce utopian socialism, trade-unionism, anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism [suits me!]; on the other hand, Marxist socialism, presupposing as it does the massive theoretical labour of the establishment and development of a science and a philosophy without precedent, could only be the work of men with a thorough historical, scientific and philosophical formation, intellectuals of very high quality…

”*Naturally this term ‘intellectuals’ denotes a very specific type of militant intellectual, a type unprecedented in many respects. These are real initiates, armed with the most authentic scientific and theoretical culture forewarned of the crushing reality and manifold mechanisms of all forms of the ruling ideology and constantly on the watch for them, and able in their theoretical practice to borrow — against the stream of all ‘accepted truths’ the fertile paths opened up by Marx but bolted and barred by all the reigning prejudices. An undertaking of this nature and this rigour is unthinkable without an unshakeable and lucid confidence in the working class and direct participation in its struggles.”

– Louis Althusser, Introduction to For Marx (p.24)

As many Marxists themselves have noted, this isn’t about liberation, its about legitimating the authority of the ‘intellectual’ over masses; of displacing the lived experiences of the working class by the authority of those versed in Theory and thereby replicating the technical division of labour – the social division which places mental labour over physical – at the head of the Socialist movement:

“What is so obvious is that this new elitism stands as direct successor in the old lineage: Benthamism, Coleridgean ‘clerisy’, Fabianism, and Leavisism of the more arrogant variety. Once again, the intellectuals–a chosen band of these have been given a task of enlightening people. There is no mark more distinctive of Western Marxisms, nor more revealing as to their profoundly anti-democratic premises. Whether Frankfurt School or Althusser, they are marked by their very heavy emphasis upon the ineluctable weight of ideological modes of domination which destroys every space for the initiative or creativity of the mass of the people – a domination which only the enlightened minority of intellectuals can struggle free.”

– E. P. Thompson, The Poverty of Theory

The Anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin, predicted the authoritarian tendences of such ‘socialist savants’ as far back as the Hague Congress in 1872 and every Communist State since has proven him correct:

”It will be the reign of scientific intelligence, the most aristocratic, despotic, arrogant and contemptuous of all regimes. There will be a new class, a new hierarchy of real and pretended scientists and scholars, and the world will be divided into a, minority ruling in the name of knowledge and an immense ignorant majority. And then, woe betide the mass of ignorant ones!”

– Mikhail Bakunin, Marxism, Freedom and the State (Chapter III)



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