Althusserian Marxism

Louis Althusser combined Marxism with the scientifically oriented methods of Structuralism in his essay, Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses (1970) and analysed how the dominant systems enforce their control by subtly moulding their subjects through ideology. Ideology has been earlier defined by Engels as “false consciousness” to refer to the ways in which hegemony is naturalised, justified and sustained in society, and to the invisible ways in which the cultural forms seek to ensure the perennial dominance of the ruling class.


Propounding that the structure of society is not monolithic but constitutes by  a diversity of non-synchronic social formations or Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA), Althusser employed a structuralist account of the societal mechanisms that inculcate consent and produce willing compliance; and psychological account of how ideology “interpellates” individuals and make them unwittingly participate in their own oppression — thereby dispensing the humanist notion of freewill. The ISAs are the social mechanisms which individuals take up predefined subject positions which conform to the values and interests of the dominant class. ISAs include social institutions like family, school, religion and so on. Althusser observes that these institutions operate with “relative autonomy” and obtain their power not through explicit coercion like the RSAs (Repressive State Apparatuses) but by implicit consent. Althusser also traces the rising influence of school as the dominant ISA in modern society, instilling the students the habits that will make them productive citizens of modern capitalist societies. Adopting the Lacanian concept of the imaginary, the real and the symbolic, Althusser defines ideology as “the imaginary relations of individuals to their real conditions of existence” and his idea of subjectisation through interpellation can be compared to the Lacanian mirror stage.


While Althusser believed that art is formed out of ideology, he also holds the concept of authentic art, which detaches itself and exposes ideology to its consumers, as expounded by Pierre Macherey in his A Theory of Literary Production, 1966. This idea can be connected to the Russain Formalist‘s concept of “defamiliarization” and Bertolt Brecht‘s “estrangement” or alienation effect. Althusser’s ideology echoes Gramsci’s hegemony, while it has also influenced Stuart Hall in Cultural Studies, and has been foundational in later Marxist critics like Terry Eagleton (Criticism and Ideology, 1976) and Frederick Jameson (The Political Unconscious,1981)

Althusser has had broad influence in the areas of Marxist philosophy and Poststructuralism: Interpellation has been popularised and adapted by the feminist philosopher and critic Judith Butler; the concept of ISAs has been of interest to Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek; the attempt to view history as a process without a subject garnered sympathy from Jacques Derrida; historical materialism was defended as a coherent doctrine from the standpoint of analytic philosophy by Gerald Cohen; the interest in structure and agency sparked by Althusser was to play a role in Anthony Giddens‘ theory of structuration; and Althusser was vehemently attacked by British historian E. P. Thompson in his book The Poverty of Theory.

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