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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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Althusser, Louis

core definition

Louis Pierre Althusser (1918–1990) was a French Marxist philosopher who developed Marxist structuralism.

explanatory context


Louis Althusser was the principal theoretician for the French Communist Party in the 1950's and 1960's. As such he must bear some responsibility for the decline in the electoral fortunes of the PCF in the 1970's and 1980's. Beginning as a seminarian, Althusser left the Church and joined the French Communist Party in the period after the second world war.

His contribution to theoretical debate within Marxism generally is marked by three texts: For Marx, Lenin and Philosophy and Reading Capital. The first two are collections of essays, the third is an examination of Capital presented in a seminar at Ecole Normale Superieure in 1965.

Broadly speaking , Althusser's contribution to Marxist thought comprises

(i) the drawing of ' a line of demarcation between Marxist theory and the forms of philosophical subjectivism that have compromised or threatened it, and

(ii) the identification of an epistemological break between the early Marx and the late Marx, which enables the true theoretical bases of the Marxist science of history to be demonstrated in contrast to the pre-Marxist idealist notions on which depend contemporary interpretations of Marxism as 'a philosophy of humanism'

In his later works Marx may be interpreted as having reworked his critique of bourgeois relations of production in a way that concentrated on structures and relegated history to a secondary analytic role. This view is one held by Althusser and his reformulation and development of Marx represents the nadir of structuralist Marxism.

The now familiar debate concerning, on the one hand the relative merits of the young and mature Marx, and on the other, the relevance of this division, have been a result of Althusser's rigorous disavowel of all other Marxist perspectives.

Marxist structuralism, as Althusser interprets it, appears to have a secure base in Marx's later economic analyses. In dealing with bourgeois social relations, Althusser argues that Marx is dealing with a system rather than with a historiographical task because the form of capital that the system develops produces its own conditions of existence and no longer does so as 'conditions of its arising' but as 'a result of its presence'.

The potential for a structuralist critique is obvious here. The relations of production may be considered as synchronic structures, whose diachronic analysis is a secondary feature, in the sense of analysing the totalistic progress from one pattern to another (via specific unitary changes). Althusser, then, proposes a strongly anti-historicist approach to Marxist analysis.

Althusser seizes on Marx's apparent concern with structural analysis in Capital and legitimates his orientation by adopting Lenin's notion of epistemological break and applying it to Marx's own work, thereby fragmenting the usual Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin tradition.

Althusser also defended Marx against the charge of vulgar materialism (or economism) and also against the humanist view that Marx was not a materialist at all. Althusser essentially does this by asserting that in Marx there was a complex thesis about the interrelations of superstructural relations and economic base. Althusser argues that societies maintain their relations of production through the interaction of social practices, viz. economic, socio-political, theoretical, ideological practices. This theory, James (1984) claimed, enables Althusser to expound a social theory and a theory of history. For Althusser, the 'dominant instance' in any system is the one to which the other practices relate in the last resort, in capitalism, economic practices dominate in the last instance.

Social practice, for Althusser, is the basis of accounts of structure and developments of the social world. The idea of individuality as a basis for explanation is erroneous, therefore, because individuals are, in all aspects, determined by social practices. Thus, for Althusser, Marxist history must offer an explanation of social events that portrays actors not as individuals but as ‘supports of social practices’. Thus history must be a process without a subject. The role of human action in social change is not simply a function of individual properties (as much conventional history of ‘great men’ does) but must be traced to its origin in social practices. This leads Althusser to posit a view that our own ‘subjectivity’ is also a social artefact. Our own self-image is a function of the ideological state apparatuses.


Athusser's approach


Through his exegisis of Marx, which he claims is the only correct reading, Althusser has established an explicit metascientific thesis. According to Geras (1972) Althusser maintains that Marx founded historical materialism (the theory of history) thus breaking with ideological philosophy and established the cornerstones of dialectical materialism . However a fuller development of dialectical materialism has been left to others notably Lenin who has been significant especially in the practical development of dialectical materialism within the arena of the revolutionary class struggle.

'For Althusser, Marxist philosophy is a 'theory of the differential nature of theoretical formations and their history, that is, a theory of epistemological history', or what comes to the same thing 'the theory of the history of the production of knowledge. It is, in short, 'the theory of science and of the history of science'. (Geras, 1972, p. 59).

Althusser asserts that, for Marx, the real object of knowledge was the comprehension of the real, formative processes of knowledge.

Althusser's structuralism is more than an approach to the analysis of bourgeois relations of production. Althusser is not simply arguing that the focus of attention be the structure as it is manifested rather than in its emerging, instead he proposes an epistemological position that locates all knowledge structurally. Althusser sees knowledge as production. This leads him to a rejection of empiricism that, he argues, conceives of knowledge as vision. His objection to empiricism is on three counts.

First, empiricism has a limited conception of knowledge dependent upon the notions of subject and object, abstract and concrete, and 'the given'. Althusser stylises empiricist views of knowledge as the operation of the subject on a given objective reality to create an abstraction that is thereby the acquired knowledge of the concrete reality. This approach, Althusser argues, mistakenly assumes that the material of theoretical practice is reality itself and that all that one needs to do is to unclutter reality and reveal the essence, which is not directly observable. This view is mistaken, for Althusser, because it inscribes 'within the structure of the real object to be known, the knowledge of that object. It does so by equating knowledge with one part of the real object, the essential part', (Geras, 1972, p. 63)

This leads to empiricism's second mistake, it takes the product of theoretical practice (i.e. knowledge) to be part of the reality known. 'It confuses thought with the real by reducing thought about the real to the real itself'. (Geras, 1972, p. 64)

The result is the third deficiency of empiricism, that abstract theory can only be a pale approximation of concrete reality (in as much as it attempts to re-present reality in the form of explanatory models). There is no possibility of a knowledge 'fully adequate to the reality of which it is the knowledge'.

Althusser's rejection of empiricism is not an acceptance of relativism. Althusser is anti-relativistic. He argues that

'Scientific knowledge in its content is universal and objective, not dependent for its validity on the values and perspectives of this social group or that historical epoch, not therefore merely a matter of opinion or interest' (Geras, 1972, p. 80)

Althusser regards relativists as embodying a contradiction. If all knowledge is partial and subjective how can one claim to know that knowledge is relative? Geras (1972) endorses this anti-relativism and goes on to suggest that Althusser is also correct in proposing that scientific knowledge is produced within given and specific conditions and processes of production and that it is not given in the consciousness of an individual or class (as Lukacs tends to do).

'Scientific activity is a reality, (as real as the realities it studies and on no account reducible to them): to identify its products with what is immediately given in consciousness is to deny its rationale and thereby its very reality.' (Geras, 1972, p. 80)

Object of Knowledge

For Althusser, knowledge resides in thought. The development of knowledge is not through a 'working on' a given, a 'real object', but through practice applied to concepts and abstractions. The raw material to be transformed is already 'worked up' material, the result of previous practice that is partly scientific and partly ideological, the latter (like the former) is not reality itself but abstraction based on previous ideological practice. The real object and the object of knowledge are distinct as theoretical practice has its own material and its own product both being distinct from the reality it aims to know. There is a relation between the real object and the object of knowledge while the


'object of knowledge is not the real object, the object which is known finally, via the object of knowledge, is the real object. Theoretical practice achieves, through the object of knowledge, the cognitive appropriation of the real object called knowledge.' (Geras, 1972, p. 66)

More accurately, via continual transformations, one achieves an 'incessant deepening' of the knowledge of the real object. The real object is the object of knowledge in the last instance. Reality thus exists independently of thought. Althusser insists that concepts are structurally related in a process of knowledge production and not merely 'visible abstractions' from a given reality.


'The sighting is thus no longer the act of an individual subject endowed with the faculty of 'vision' which he exercises either attentively or distractedly, the sighting is the act of its structural conditions.' (Althusser, quoted in Geras, 1972, p. 67)


Thus the universe, for Althusser, is 'governed by hegemonic structures' and the subjects within it are subject to this government, 'their places and functions marked out for them by its ubiquitous hegemony'. (Geras, 1972, p. 67).

The distinction between ideological and scientific practice consists in this : an ideological concept designates an existing reality but fails to provide us with a means of knowing it. The scientific concept does not so designate and by revealing structures permits an ever-deepening knowledge of reality.

Thus, for Althusser, reflecting Bachelard, science is founded only at the cost of a complete rupture with the ideological problematic that precedes it, a thorough going mutation of its basic structure. This rupture or mutation, which founds a science, Althusser calls an epistemological break. (Geras, 1972, p. 68).

The process of mutation is not located in the subject but in the determining mechanism of the process. One may ask what is this process and how do we know its result is not ideological?

'It remains to ask, if science produces knowledge, what are the criteria which guarantee that this knowledge is true, that it is indeed knowledge? The question, according to Althusser, is 'false', and the classical Problem of Knowledge is not a 'real problem'. Any epistemology that sees the relation between the object of knowledge and the real object as a problematic one, i.e. that regards knowledge itself as a problem, is simply ideological and to be rejected for that reason.' (Geras, 1972, p. 68).

While that may sound like dogma, Althusser would argue that it is not and that it is not even an avoidance strategy because theoretical practice 'contains in itself definite protocols with which to validate the quality of its product'. The established sciences provide their own criterion of validity of knowledge that are internal to their theoretical practice and are embodied in 'forms of proof', which serve to provide a cognitive grasp of reality.

'The mechanism that produces this effect is the overall conceptual system of the science, since it determines not only the meaning of the concepts but also the order of their appearance in the discovery of proof. That the effect produced is knowledge is no problem, how it is produced is. In other words, the only real problem according to Althusser is to understand the nature of the aforesaid mechanism.' (Geras, 1972, p. 69)

Althusser, of course, attacks other Marxists, e.g., Lukacs, Korsch, Gramsci, Colletti, Della Volpe and Sartre, for their historicism.

The epistemological break that Althusser locates in Marx serves to indicate that the of historical materialism has shifted to that of being a science. Althusser spoke of a double intervention in the intellectual history, on the one hand to 'draw a line of demarcation' between philosophical subjectivism (embodied in empiricism, voluntarism, pragmatism, historicism, etc) and Marxist theory and, on the other hand to distinguish 'true Marxism' from pre-Marxist Idealism (which can be found in Marx's earlier writings and on which humanist Marxism relies).

He goes on, 'Behind the details of the arguments, textual analyses and theoretical discussions, these two interventions reveal a major opposition; the opposition that separates science from ideology.' (Althusser, 1969, p. 13)

For Althusser, science is conceptually and epistemologically autonomous vi s a vis science (unlike Bachelard who posits the institutional collective character of scientific research embedded in the 'scientific city' similar to that of Price and Beaver's (1966) 'Invisible College'). Science as an autonomous realm is thus apparently unrelated to any specific system of social relations or mechanisms. Science is, for Althusser, opposed to ideology (and not to Bachelard's 'reverie').

For Althusser, the obstacles to the advancement of science are not rooted in the individual psyche, but in the theoretical articulation of the ideologies (religious, political, ethical etc.) through which individuals live their relationships to their conditions of existence.

This opposition Althusser raises from the level of specific conflict between particular sciences and specific ideologies to a general opposition between science and ideology that lies behind the detail of specific engagements.

Althusser claims that, in failing to realise this, historicist Marxists take on board the empiricist reduction of the object of knowledge to the real object. Furthermore, Althusser accuses them of four additional errors. First, they ignore the differences between different levels of practice. Second, they fail to distinguish dialectical materialism from historical materialism. Third, they adopt a Hegelian type conception of social totality. Fourth, they regard historical time as a linear continuum susceptible to the essential section, such sectioning being designed to reveal the current manifestation of the Idea.

These four objections reveal elements of Althusser's position and will be examined in more detail.


Following Marx, Althusser elaborates a notion of practice. For Marx, an analysis of conscious human activity was necessary if philosophy was to be materially grounded. Althusser identifies four levels of such 'practice': the economic, with its resultant socially useful products; the political, with the resultant new social relations; the ideological, which produces new forms of representation; and the scientific, which produces knowledge. These four levels involve different types of material and labour and generate very different products. Althusser argues, therefore, that each practice is distinct and not collapsable into a notion of practice in general.

Dialectical and Historical Materialism

Second, Althusser distinguishes between historical materialism and dialectical materialism. Historical materialism is the science of social formations and their history. This is distinct from dialectical materialism, which is the theory of science. Historical materialism depends upon dialectical materialism to prevent it becoming prey to ideology.

Hegelian Idealism

Third, Althusser regards Hegelian idealism as unacceptable. For him, it effectively acts as merely the inverse of empiricism without transcending the latter's epistemological limitations. Althusser argues that Hegelian idealism confuses thought and the real by reducing the real to thought and conceiving of the real as the result of thought. This is embodied in Hegel's conception of history as social totalities whose entire economic, political, legal, aesthetic, religious, etc., phenomena are mere externalisation of the Idea, the one 'internal spiritual principle which is the essence of these phenomena, manifesting itself in each and all of them and expressed by each and all of them.' (Geras, 1972, p. 70)

For Hegel, each historically located social totality has a ‘unique internal spiritual principle’ to which all the diverse realities can be reduced. The complexity of reality, according to Althusser, thereby conceals an essential simplicity that at any time is merely a 'cross section' from the continuum of the evolution of the Idea.

For Althusser this is no better than crude empiricism. Where the empiricist sees a series of events, Hegel sees moments of the Idea.


Fourth, Althusser in rejecting Hegelian history, argues that each level of practice has its own history and time continuum that are dislocated but still interdependent. Their independence is the relative independence compatible with, and complementary to, their determination in the last instance by the economy, i.e. the relative dependence of the superstructural practices on the economic base.

Background to Althusser's Approach

Two events of the 1960s were of crucial importance as background to Althusser's reworking of Marx. These were the denunciation of Stalin at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the split between Chinese and Russian Communism.

Orthodox Marxism and Philosophy

Benton (1984) argues that the orthodox tradition [i.e that institutionalised in Soviet Marxism] allowed three basic options to philosophy. First, to abandon philosophy for a science of history. Second, to abstract the methodological elements from classic works (notably Capital) and produce the volume on dialectics promised by Marx but undelivered. Third, continue the later work of Engels on philosophy and the natural sciences, which has become codified into 'dialectical materialism'. This third line of development moves philosophy away from a priori speculation to a generalisation of recent scientific results. The assumption being that, although 'each science has its own domain and its own specificity, there is a fundamental logical, methodological and doctrinal unity binding together all the sciences, and constituting the basis for a philosophical world-view of a radically new type'.


Independent Marxism: Sartre and Merleau-Ponty

Both Sartre and Merleau-Ponty were opposed to Stalinist Marxism, specifically the reliance on 'naturalism' and 'scientism' (in the casting of dialectical materialism), the associated economic and technological determinist accounts of historical process and the conception of historical materialism as a science.

The view that there is a unity between natural and social worlds as propounded in the orthodox view of dialectical materialism denies the unique creativity of the human [to which Marx addressed himself]. The resultant 'iron laws' rooted in an hypothesised contradiction inherent in a system where forces and relations of production are incompatible and the former will 'progress' at the expense of the latter, denies a role for creative human action.

Marxism in this orthodox formulation becomes a science tolerating no opposition rather than a theory of revolutionary self-emancipation.

Opposition to Stalinist Marxism involved not just a break in the Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin lineage, but a re-reading of Marx based upon phenomenological and existential categories.


For Merleau-Ponty historical practice is seen as bestowing shape on and transforming its object. In this he adopts Husserl's notion of the intentionality of consciousness, i.e. consciousness is consciousness of something. Thus, Marxism is directed [back] towards the making of history by people.



For Sartre, an existentialist, human subjectivity and freedom are no longer abstract universals but are historically located and contextualised. Dialectical reason applies only to social practice (praxis). Social actors are creative and make history.

'In their practical relations to nature, human beings necessarily interpret objective conditions of their action, and are constrained by them, but in intentionally modifying nature they in turn impress something of their own humanity upon it. Worked nature, however, has a reciprocal effect on human actors, and, at least under conditions of material scarcity, they become themselves thing-like, passive, inert, in relation to nature. This ordering of human relations by worked-nature, the 'practico-inert', imposes self-alienation, isolation and passivity on human subjects. Such nature-ordered and external relations between human beings are designated 'series' by Sartre, and contrasted with 'fused' groups, which arise when actors spontaneously recognise common goals and arrive at mutual recognition and reciprocity as they do so. Such communal action defines itself against all fixed and alienated relationships, and is capable of bearing a human praxis which imposes its own meanings and creates its own future'. (Benton, 1984, p. 8)

For Sartre, consciousness is not formed simply through productive relationships but also through participation in a whole range of institutional practices. For Sartre, the most important mediator of the productive relations is the family.

While this provides a basis for an alternative to 'economism' , Sartre, in the last resort, sees revolutionary action as dependent on economic considerations. Human practice imposes meanings through 'totalisations' (i.e. 'interpretations of the conditions of action in the light of the intentions of action). Creating history is, thus potentially a chaotic process of competing totalisations. Coalescing such totalistions into a revolutionary force is dependent upon the universality of the working class whose own emanicaption carries with it the emancipation of all other classes. This thesis presupposes that the mode of economic production is central to social class divisions and struggles. (Benton 1984, p. 9)

While humanist Marxism contains within it, (via its locating of theory directly within the historical process) the solution to the 'orthodox Marxist' problem of 'how can the science of Marxism make contact with the lived experience of the working masses?', it does so at a cost. The radical non-determinist concept of human freedom means that theory is incapable of guiding practice, specifically strategies and tactics.

In short, Benton sees this humanist Marxism as derived from a long line of philosophical speculation, from Descartes, via Hegel and the early Marx. It is a philosophy that sees the subject as 'a self-subsistent source of knowledge of the 'object' which it similarly constitutes'.


French Structuralism

An alternative approach to existentialist Marxism in France was that embodied in structuralism in its various guises. Structuralism sees the subject not as the bestower of meaning but as the prisoner of meaning.

French Structuralism is rooted in a French tradition of thought that stands opposed to subject centered history and subject constituted knowledge'. This goes back as far as Comte and is clearly expressed in Durkheim. (Hawkes, 1977; Benton 1984; Craib, 1984) For these, human subjects are constituted by their social milieu.

'The consciousness of the individual subject is made up of representations in which the imperatives of the individual subject is made up of representations in which the imperatives of an external social order are internally inscribed.' (Benton, 1984, p. 10)


This means that the subject is not able to make itself intelligible to itself and that objectivity (if it is obtainable) is established through opposition to subject pre-notions. Subjectivity is thus socially constituted rather than socially constitutive.

Benton (1984) points to two structuralist theses that challenge the phenomonological approach. First, the displacement of the subject as bestower of meanings in the semiotic view of linguistic signs . The arbitrary nature of signifiers and the relational nature of sign systems means that the 'identity of the sign is given neither by the object to which it refers, nor by the intention of its user, but only by the system of differences and oppositions which constitutes the language to which it belongs' (Benton, 1984, p. 11).


Second, the distinction between language and speech made by structural linguistics has, as a corollary, the coercive view of language. Any speech utterance must conform to language rules if it is to constitute a communicative process.

In short, being, as we have seen, can be said to inhere in language.


Althusser, humanism and Stalinism

In his opposition to humanism and Stalinism, Althusser produced several essays (published collectively as For Marx, Althusser (19**)). In them he asked

a. Is Marxism necessarily 'humanist' or 'historicist' in its philosophical basis ?

b. What is the relationship between Hegel and Marx?

c. What is the relationship between the earlier and later works of Marx?

While not starting from a structuralist position, Althusser's reworking of Marx systematically refutes historicism and adopts a structuralist inspired position (although he denies what he calls the structuralist ideology).

It seems odd that a Marxist philosopher can ally with structuralism (which effectively denies the role of history and of an active subject). Althusser does this by refuting that the humanist/historicist position was ever Marxist at all.

For Althusser, Marxism was the result of Marx's rejection of the philosophical humanism of his early years, which is threatened by the retreat to humanism in the face of Stalinism. While humanist approaches were right to attack the inhumanity of Stalinism, the construction of a non-Stalinist socialism requires a political strategy (not derivable from humanist Marxism) that in turn requires a scientific analysis of Stalinism and the conditions by which it came into existence. Such a scientific analysis is not possible via humanist philosophy.

The denunciation of Stalin at the 20th Congress was followed by 'examples of opportunism' in the PCF, particularly 'rightist' devlopments including the dialogue between Christians and Marxists and the alliance policies of the party leadership. The poor level of development and humanist misappropriation of Marxist theory were at the root of this opportunism and needed to be opposed on political and intellectual grounds. Voluntarism, central to humanist Marxism, provided no sense of direction. Althusser thus wanted to re-establish a scientific Marxism.

Humanist Marxism identified Stalinism with the idea of Marxism as a science and with the denial of human constituting practice. Althusser's intention to re-establish a science of Marxism and his view of history as a 'process without a subject' has led to him being regarded as a 'neo-Stalinist' in a structuralist disguise. Such an attack also came from Althusser's initial collaborators who left the PCF and joined various Maoist factions. They saw his continued membership of the PCF as indicative of Stalinist revisionism. Trotskists, similarly see Althusser as essentially Stalinist not least because Althusser wrote [for whatever reasons] little about Trotsky.

This attack is unjustified, argues Benton. Althusser was explicitly anti-Stalinist and his attack on humanism was not an attack on the ethical content of humanism but on the abandonment of the theoretical tools necessary to oppose Stalinism as a theoretical reality.

Indeed, in attempting to construct a scientific Marxism, Althusser attacked Stalinism for its economism and technical determinism. First, the Marxist thesis of the superstructure-base relationship, the idea of the 'determination in the last instance' of the base (economic relations), is reinterpreted by Althusser as a thesis about the causal relations between the elements in a society, considered in abstraction from their historical movement rather than as an historical law. For Althusser, then, the determination in the last resort of the economic base is a structural (synchronic) relation not an historical one. The corollary of this is the relative autonomy of the superstructure. This implies that simply changing the economic base is insufficient for a thorough-going revolution. (Benton suggests that 'relative autonomy' is similar to Sartre's mediations.)

The second line of argument Althusser projects against Stalinism is that Stalinism misappropriates Marxism, in a way that mirrors humanist misappropriation. The teleological thesis of the humanists (the progress of human subject through self-alienation to final self-consciousness and self-emancipation) is re-presented as the progress of productive processes without a human subject.

For both, history is a succession of phases in which 'original inner potentials are successively realised through historical time.' (Benton, 1984, p. 18).

Althusser sets a 'proper' Marxist conception of history (as history without a subject) against this. This means that no social form has any necessary transcendence embedded in its origins. Historical change can occur in any direction. There is no ineluctable historical tendency towards socialism embodied in contradictions.

Benton suggests that while this clearly sets Althusser against Stalinist conceptions it is not so clearly opposed to historicist humanism; Sartre saw the possibility of the imposition of meaning on history as a 'fragile, contingent and partial achievement'. (Benton, 1984, p. 18).

Althusser set out to re-examine the orthodox lineage Marx to Stalin, not simply by discarding everything after Marx and selectively reading Marx (as, arguably,the humanists do) but by, first, dislocating Stalin from Lenin; second including Mao; third selectively appropriating from Gramsci and then reconstructing, retrospectively, a whole tradition. This leads Althusser to a search for a series of discontinuities, disclocations and differences within and between texts, thereby establishing a principle of selection (to provide some kind of authority to his restructuring). Further, by discarding humanism, the cognitive value of historical materialism has to be engaged as a question of epistemology.

'It is here that the two problems of Althusser's theoretical programme converge: how is the authenticity of Althusser's restructuring of the Marxist tradition to be established? Answer: by recourse to epistemology and philosophy of science. A criterion of 'scientificity' is required to distinguish the acceptable, and to reconstitute the tradition as a scientific one. The second problem, which asks what role is left for philosophy with the abandonment of phenomenological philosophies of history, has the same answer. Marxist philosophy is to be an epistemological theory through which concepts and propositions are authenticated as 'scientific' or assigned the status 'ideology', non-knowledge.' (Benton, 1984, pp. 21–22).

While this proposes a powerful role to philosophy it does restrict it to epistemological questions and debars ontological questions at all, which is a much narrower specification than either orthodox or humanist Marxism .

Benton argues that this narrow perspective inhibits Althusser from posing questions such as: 'How far are the social processes through which agents are constituted, socially distributed, allocated to positions of dominance and subordination and so on, rooted in biological differences between individuals (age, sex, race and others)?' (Benton, 1984, p. 22), either as philosophical or scientific questions.


Conventionalism and historical epistemology

Althusser drew not only on structuralism but also on conventionalism in developing his reconstruction of Marxism. The 'crisis' in physics at the turn of the century led to a revival of conventionalist theories of science. Duhem and Poincare had developed the conventionalist approach. In contrast to rationalism and empiricism, which attempted a distinction between '(justified) scientific belief', based on 'provable' propositions (either formally from indubitable premises or via operations on empirical evidence) and the non-scientific (faith, opinion prejudice)', conventionalism argued that the body of established scientific knowledge is established by convention. While the classical approaches, especially empiricism, see science as a progressively and continuously accumulating body of knowledge, conventionalism argues that scientific theory is not underpinned by adequate empirical evidence and formal reasoning, i.e. the prevailing accounts are but one of a set of theoretical alternatives.

This view is further helped by arguing that observation is not theory neutral, and thus empirical evidence is not the final arbiter that empiricist approaches would want. Science is constructed and ethical and/or aesthetic values, instrumental or other 'extrinsic' conditions can then enter into scientific theory construction. Science is thus not a simple (internal) logical account.

Conventionalists thus allow science to be taken seriously as an historical process subject to transformation and locked into relationships with other social practices. Any account of science from this conventional point of view requires an engagement with concrete episodes.



Althusser was especially influenced by Bachelard who questioned the taken-for-granted notion of scientific progress. Indeed Bachelard asked what differentiated pre-scientific (or ideological) concepts from scientific ones. Bachelard resisted the (Comtean) positivistic fusion of history and philosophy of science, arguing that the post hoc construction of schema constituted historical laziness. It is 'whig type' history that sees only improved variants of the old in the new. This 'positivistic' approach essentially argues that discoveries in knowledge are determined by what came before. Bachelard argues that this is incorrect. (He cites relativity theory, which he says had no precedents or was in no way anticipated but constitutes a radical break with the past knowledge structures.) Bachelard asserts that the history of science is not linear and that science has no continuity. There are breaks in the process by which theory develops historically.

Bachelard's view of science as discontinuous involves a notion that the achieving of a scientific level of analysis constitutes a break at the epistemological level. I.e. a 'received problem' rooted in an ideological field is reconceptualised such that the scientific analysis completely replaces the ideological framework that necessarily, through unconsciously operating images, presuppositions and myths , accompanies it.

Philosophies of science for the conventionalist Bachelard are at least in one respect the result of innovations in science, yet, they also serve as obstacles to further advance.

'Only a new philosophy can distinguish within the discourse of a post-revolutionary science what is truly scientific, and defend this achievement from contamination by the philosophical residues of a previous phase in the history of science.' (Benton, 1984, p. 24)

For Bachelard, science as an objective endeavour constantly struggles against the 'reverie' of our poetic/artistic tendencies, which tend to be grounded at a common-sense level and take experiences at face value. Thus scientific knowledge is not (as some empiricism would have it) opposite to ignorance but opposite to 'a tenacious web of error'.

Bachelard argues that changes in scientific knowledge involve a total change in the theoretical system not a piecemeal change [reflecting Kuhn rather than Popper]. Epistemological obstacles inhibit science, but a revolution does not see the end of them. For Bachelard, rationalism, positivism, empirical realism are all such surviving obstacles. Such obstacles, while presenting themselves as universal philosophies of the scientific method are pertinent only to a certain phase in the history of each science. Thus a pertinent philosophy must be one that negates all previous ones. Science is characterised, not be fixed ontological presuppositions, but by theoretical formulations that are susceptible to constant transformation.

For Bachelard the dynamic of science comes from the dialogue between concept formation and their 'concretisation' in instrumentation that produces, in the scientific experiment, the phenomena of scientific observation.

'In Bachelard's conception of scientific experimentation as 'phenomeno-technics', scientific theory is not seen as an attempt to account for 'data' given to experience, but, rather, through the technical realisation of scientific concepts nature is made to exhibit phenomena which would not otherwise be available for observation.' (Benton, 1984, p. 26)

Bachelard's epistemology rejects the 'irreducible fact' as starting point of science and maintains that all scientific activity is subject to an historical dialectic 'which develops between the poles of the rational and the experimental'. In relating scientific knowledge to both a rational and an empirical moment Bachelard reflects concern with what has come to be called the theory-laden nature of observation. Knowledge cannot be constituted in a presuppositionless vacuum.

More than this, Bachelard argues that the ordering of empirical information to assess theoretical conjecture itself implies that knowledge progresses from 'the rational to the real'. The rational is primary. Here Bachelard reverts to a pre-positivistic perspective where he permits of the knowability of the 'being - in - itself'. Positivism, from Hume, Neitzsche, Mach and Avenarius, rejected this as unproven metaphysic.

Bachelard views knowledge as 'approximate', as an 'incomplete objectification' but maintains that this is a rational and conscious approximation because it is conscious of the insufficiency of its progress.

Bachelards's conception of scientific theory as an open-ended, developing construct, and his rejection of realism and empiricism enable him to abandon any concept of objectivity that purports a correspondence between the concepts of theory and the real world. Bachelard views knowledge as 'approximate', as an 'incomplete objectification' but maintains that this is a rational and conscious approximation because it is conscious of the insufficiency of its progress.

In short, Bachelard gives the following to structuralist methodology
a. a revised concept of the history of science (as non-linear and discontinuous)
b. the importance of investigating science in its nascent state

c. a renewed scepticism of empiricism.


Schmidt argues that Althusser, Bachelard (and Cauguilhem) merely speculate about the historical process in the history of science.

Althusser's Project : Review

In an attempt to provide an alternative to humanist and Stalinist Marxism, Althusser is seeking some kind of authority for a particular reading of Marx in opposition to other readings. He locates this authority in the general framework of conventionalist theories of science (notably drawing heavily on Bachelard) and rests it on the notion of 'epistemological break' and the constant transformation of science.

Even so, Althusser has difficulty in avoiding relativism because all he can show is the differences between early and late Marx. He needs to ground his analysis as 'objective' in some form or else he has no seal of scientific authority. Similarly, in opposing science to ideology, in which 'common sense' is rooted, Althusser inhibits any 'living relationship' between science and popular struggles.

Finally, structuralist approaches to the reading of a text do not permit a simple apparently refuting instance to be used against the analysis.

Nonethless, as his further development exhibits, Althusser runs into the problem of a philosophical (vicious) circle, as Benton notes:

'Althusser seeks to validate his reading of Marx as scientific. For this he needs to found a Marxist philosophy (epistemology) adequate to the task. But the founding of a Marxist philosophy itself requires that the authentically 'scientific' and authentically 'Marxist' texts can already be identified'. (Benton, 1984, p. 30)

Benton goes on to say that Althusser, on the one hand, breaks the circle, by importing structuralist and historical epsitemological elements, but that these are non-Marxist sources. This leads Althusser, on the other hand, to reclose the circle by claiming that such devices only aid the clarification of already present concepts. How, Benton asks, does such an application in any way have any superiority over humanist or Stalinist readings. (The only way out, Benton (1984) suggests, is a root not taken by Althusser, namely to detach what is authentically scientific from what is authentically Marxist.)

Althusser's Thesis

Infrastructure and Superstructure

Althusser argues that Marx sees society as 'infrastructure' (economic base, 'unity' of productive forces and relations of production) and 'superstructure' (which has two levels, political-legal (law and the state) and ideological, (various ideologies, legal, religious, political etc.)

The superstructure can not exist independently of the base. In the last instance the base determines the superstructure. Althusser suggests that this leads to two different Marxist emphases.

1. 'relative autonomy' of superstructure

2. 'reciprocal action' of the superstructure on the base.

Althusser argues that that the 'edifice' metaphor of base and superstructure is useful as a descriptive account pointing to the relation of superstructure and base as it emphasises the importance of determination, the ultimate role of the base in this determination, and the complexity of this determining process. For Althusser,there is no simple economic determination but a complex relationship between base and superstructure such that while base determines superstructure in the last instance, there is a relative autonomy of superstructure from base. Althusser refines this: 'the economy determines for the non-economic elements their respective degrees of autonomy/dependence in relation to itself and to one another, thus their differential degrees of specific effectivity. It can determine itself as dominant or non-dominant at any particular time, and in the latter case it determines which of the other elements is to be dominant.' (Geras, 1972, p. 72).

To resolve or develop this descriptive metaphor it is necessary to investigate reproduction (of productive relations). In the Marxist tradition the state is a repressive mechanism enforcing surplus value extortion. The Marxist mechanism enforcing surplus value extortion. The Marxist theory of the state (and revolution) is

1. State is the repressive state apparatus
2. State power and state apparatus must be distinguished
3. Class struggle is about gaining state power and the consequent use of state apparatus to further class objectives.
4. The proletariat must seize state power in order to destroy the existing bourgeois state apparatus and replace it with a proletarian state apparatus then later destroy the state. (For Lenin, the state will wither away).

Ideological & Repressive State Apparatuses

Althusser wants to add to this Marxist theory of the state. The addition is the 'ideological state apparatuses' - not to be confused with the army, police, etc. that Althusser relabels the repressive state apparatus. The inclusion of the notion of ideological state apparatuses is important for Althusser given that the focus of his metascientific endeavour is the discussion of the reproduction of the means of production.

The reproduction of labour power is ensured by paying wages that is that part of value produced by labour power, which ensures its own reproduction. But in addition labour power must be 'competent', i.e. trained as reproducers both in specific skills and more general 'know how' (via school, etc.), which includes such cultural 'adjustment' as is necessary, including 'rules of performance' in a bourgeois society. In short, a reproduction of skill and a reproduction of submission to rules of the 'established order' i.e. to the ruling ideology. Ideology is, therefore, to be seen as a 'new reality'. (Althusser 1971, p. 128: ' 'Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses' originally published in La Pensée, 1970) Ideological state apparatuses are 'realities which present themselves to the immediate observer in the form of distinct and specialized institutions' (Althusser 1971, p. 136) religious, educational, family, legal, political system and parties, trade unions, media, culture (art and literature, and sport) and so on.

There is one repressive state apparatus but many ideological state apparatuses, which, even if constituting a 'unity', is not empirically visible. However, Althusser maintains that there is a ruling ideology (ideology of the ruling class, that being the class with control of the repressive state apparatus) that underpins the diverse ideologies of the ideological state apparatuses. No class can hold state power over a long period without exercising hegemony over ideological state apparatuses. Ideological state apparatus is therefore, not only the stake but also the site of class conflict.

What is the extent of the role of the ideological state apparatuses? This is answered by Althusser in relation to the question of how reproduction of the relations of production is secured. Mainly it is secured via legal-political and ideological superstructure. It is secured by the exercise of state power in the repressive state apparatus and ideological state apparatuses.

State apparatuses function via repression and ideology.


Repressive state apparatus is primarily repressive (violent) and secondarily ideological. Ideological state apparatuses are primarily ideological and secondarily violent (school sanctions etc.) The repressive state apparatus is a unified system. Ideological state apparatuses are distinct and relatively autonomous, however the unity of the ideological state apparatuses is secured via a ruling ideology.

'The role of the repressive state apparatus, insofar as it is a repressive apparatus, consists essentially in securing by force ... the political conditions of the reproduction of relations of production that are, in the last resort, relations of exploitation. Not only does the State apparatus contribute generously to its own reproduction ... but also and above all, the State apparatus secures by repression… the political conditions for the action of the Ideological State Apparatuses.

In fact, it is the latter which largely secure the reproduction specifically of the relations of production, behind a 'shield' provided by the repressive State apparatus. It is here that the role of the ruling ideology is heavily concentrated, the ideology of the ruling class, which holds State power. It is the intermediation of the ruling ideology that ensures a… 'harmony' between the Repressive State Apparatus and the Ideological State Apparatuses, and between the different State Ideological Apparatuses'. (Althusser, 1971, p. 142)

Althusser argues that the once dominant ideological state apparatus was the church but that it has been replaced by school.

For Marx, ideology is the system of ideas that dominate the mind of a social group (a reversal of the prior notion (of Cabanais and Destutt de Tracy) that it constituted an objective theory of ideas). However, according to Althusser, Marx does not provide an articulated Marxist theory of ideology. (Althusser, 1971, p. 149)

Ideology and History

Althusser distinguishes between a theory of ideology in general (ahistorical) and a theory of ideologies, which are class specific (and historical). Particular ideologies are a function of social/productive relations and express class positions. They have their own history, whose determination is, in the last instance situated outside themselves.


There can, then, be no theory of ideologies in general. What Althusser proposes, however, is a theory of ideology in general. This presupposes that ideology has no history.

Althusser points to a similar thesis in Marx (German Ideology). For Marx, ideology is an imaginary assemblage, 'empty and vain', resides from the positive reality of concrete history (of individuals materially producing their existence). Ideology has no history, since its history is outside it. Thus, ideology is illusory and historyless (it has no history of its own,) although reflecting the history of material production. Ideology is nothing in so far as it is a pure dream and also has no history of its own although it is an empty inverted reflection of real history. Althusser, however, argues that Marx's view (in German Ideology) that ideology has ho history (of its own) is actually a positivistic and historicist thesis that Althusser intends to counter.

Althusser wants to free Marx from 'a conception of ideology as 'pure speculation' or false consciousness' (Larrain, 1979, p. 154). Structuralism is opposed to historicism that supposedly emphasises the role of the subject class and of consciousness in the origin of ideology thus making ideology an arbitrary and psychological creation of individuals. Structuralism advocates a material existence of ideology that determines the subject. Ideology, then, 'is not a false representation of reality because its source is not the subject but material reality itself' (Larrain, 1979, p. 154).


Larrain suggests that Althusser has developed this argument but not always systematically. In his early work Althusser see ideology as independent of individual subjectivity, ideology is embedded in structures that impose on the 'majority of men'. People 'practice' ideology without being consciously aware of it. Awareness of ideology can only be through an analysis of structure. Isolated images, etc., do not make ideology,

'it is their system, their mode of combination and disposition which give them sense, it is their structure which determines them in their sense and function' (Larrain, 1979, p. 155). Ideology arises before class divisions appear and will survive them. Ideology is a structural feature of any society. The distortion of ideology is inevitable as it is determined by structure. This distortion is opaque (and unrealised by individuals within the structure) ' ''the opacity of social structure makes necessarily mythical the representation of the world necessary for social cohesion'' ' (Althusser, quoted in Larrain, 1979, p. 156).

So, Althusser argues that ideologies have a history of their own while ideology in general does not.

The idea that ideology in general does not have a history of its own, Althusser describes as having a positive sense if

'it is true that the peculiarity of ideology is that it is endowed with a structure and a functioning such as to make it a non-historical reality, i.e. an omni-historical reality, in the sense in which that structure and functioning are immutable, present in the same form throughout what we can call history, in the sense in which the Communist Manifesto defines history as the history of class struggles, i.e. the history of class societies. (Larrain, 1979, pp. 151–2)

Thus, Althusser argues, ideology in general, like Freud's notion of unconscious (in general) is eternal, transhistorical. It has no history (in the sense of social formations), rather ideology is omni-present. However, ideology has a material existence in an apparatus and its practice. Individuals live in ideology by participating in practices within ideological appatatuses. Practice must be in ideology.

Thus Althusser proposes a positive and a negative thesis of the structure and functioning of ideology. The labels adopted by Althusser are the reverse of those proposed by Larrain (1979). The negative thesis is that ideology is illusory. It represents the 'imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence' (Larrain, 1979, p. 159) it corresponds to 'world views' which are largely imaginary. In ideology 'men represent their real conditions of existence to themselves in an imaginary form' (Larrain, 1979, p. 153). But why do individuals need this illusion? Althusser denies the cynical mechinistic 'plot' theory of the development of ideology and also the Feuerbachian notion (which he argues Marx defends) that people 'fool' themselves, that is, create for themselves an alienated/ imaginary representation of their conditions of existence, because these conditions are themselves alienating. In developing this thesis it is the relationship that is stressed when considering the view of ideology as an imaginary structure reflecting (if distorting) the real conditions of existence. Althusser's thesis argues that it is not the real world that people reflect in ideology but that it represents people's relations to the conditions of existence. It is the imaginary nature of the relationship that underlies the imaginary distortion that may be observed.

'What is represented in ideology is therefore not the system of the real relations which govern the existence of individuals, but the imaginary relation of those individuals to the real relations in which they live'. (Althusser, 1971, p. 155).

On the other hand Althusser's offers a positive thesis (similar to what Larrain (1979) calls the negative thesis) in that he asserts that ideology has a material existence. Ideas or representations are not IDEAL but have a material existence. Ideologies always exist in an apparatus and its practices. This existence is material. Further, Althusser argues, 'there is no practice except by and in ideology' (p. 159) i.e. there are no idealistic ideas. Also that 'there is no ideology except by the subject and for subjects'. As everyone is embraced by ideology and ideology is constituted as 'obvious' (to the extent that it is 'plausible', 'those who are in ideology believe themselves by definition outside ideology'), then, in order to analyse ideology we need a discourse 'which tries to break with ideology' (Althusser, 1971, pp. 159–163).

In a class society the class division overdetermines the opaque character of society, so that both aspects determine the distorting and mystifying character of ideology. In later work, Althusser abandons the opacity argument. He rejects the idea that imaginary representation reflects the conditions of existence, rather it reflects people's relations to those conditions of existence.

Larrain (1982) engages Althusserians on the nature of Marx's concept of ideology.

Theoretical Anti-humanism

Despite Althusser's attack on historicism, he does find useful the historicist distinction between scientific and philosophical knowledge. However, historicist interpretation ignores the specifity of science (theoretical practice) and tends to talk of praxis (in toto). The history of knowledge loses its relative autonomy. Marxism then, is no longer a specific practice but a direct result of the activity and experience of the masses - i.e. class consciousness directly informs theoretical practice. Althusser regards this as a 'leftist' conception that serves to legitimate political spontaneity and to relate content and history of science to class conflict; thus Marxism becomes the proletarian science confronting bourgeois science. Althusser argues that the historicist position is a theoretical monstrosity and that class is insufficient to explain the relatively autonomous history of science. Further, contrary to Gramsci's interpretation, Althusser argues that Marx did not include science in the superstructure. Althusser argues that there is no equation between Marxist science and the ideology of the proletariat, and agrees with Kautsky and Lenin that Marxist theory is produced by a specific theoretical practice outside the proletariat and imported into a working-class movement.

(Althusser appears to ignore the later shifts in Lenin's philosophy that tended to relate to Weltanschauung.)

In developing the distinction between science and proletarian world view, Althusser presents an alternative conception of the subject of history. Marxists historicists argued that groups, especially social classes, were the true subjects of history. Althusser endorses the view that history does not reside in individuals but he goes in a different direction in proposing his anti-humanist conception of Marxism. He argues that knowledge does not reside in classes but structures.

People do not make their own history in the naive sense that historicists suppose. Ideology inhibits the genesis of an objective Welatanschauung science, and only a structuralist reconception of the relationship between subject, ideology and science may resolve this. Ideology does not provide adequate instruments of knowledge. It is more concerned with a practico-social function than with a theoretical knowledge function. In bourgeois societies it serves to conceal relations of exploitation and legitimate class relations. Ideology provides a system of beliefs, values etc., by which the world is experienced and lived in and provides the basis for reproduction of productive relations. Ideology will, therefore, also exist in communist societies. Ideology is an objective structure of social formation, imposed by an incomprehensible mechanism which determines that structure is the objective mode of appearance of reality. Marx referred to this mechanism as fetishism.

Althusser embraces this idea in his notion of structuralist causality, which he opposes to two other types of causality. First, linear, transitive causality, which expresses the relationship of one element on another. Second, expressive causality, the determination of parts by the whole through reduction to essence necessarily involving a simplification of the whole. Structuralist causality, on the other hand, involves structural relations that are not reducible.

Marxism is then theoretical anti-humanism for Althusser. People do not make history, they are not the subjects of the process. A scientific knowledge of social reality cannot be founded on a humanist conception of the 'essence of man'. Humanism is an ideology. 'Men' are not the true subject of the process of history but its supports. The true 'subjects' are the definition and distribution of the places and functions held by men and women. The true subjects are the definers and distributors, that is, the relations of production. There are, then, no subjects at all. Individuals are the historically specific products of relatively autonomous practice. Thus, the subject is abolished and practice is the core principle of Althusserian dialectical materialism.

Critique of Althusser's structuralism

Althusser's Idealism

Despite his attempts to dislocate Marx from idealism, Althusser himself appears, in the last resort, to have produced an idealist thesis (Geras, 1972; Larrain, 1979).

Essentially, Althusser does not provide an adequate grounding for his view of ideology and science. He does not, for example, explore and elucidate the nature of the relationship between science and other practices. Nor does he address the problem of the 'object of knowledge in the last resort'. While, according to Althusser, knowledge is constructed entirely in thought and a clear distinction must be made between the real object and the object of knowledge, he mystifies the process by arguing that the real object is the object of knowledge in the last resort. Similar to his view of the relative autonomy of the superstructure, this relationship between real object and object of knowledge is elusive and resolvable only intuitively. This constitutes an idealistic element, which becomes more pronounced as Althusser develops his analysis of ideology via the notion of a historyless concept of ideology in general. Larrain comments that

'In Althusser's Lenninist formulation, science came from without to rescue the spontaneous ideological consciousness of the working class. In his theoretical formulation, science constitutes itself by breaking with ideological knowledge at the moment of its inception. In both cases, science appears located above class struggle ... the picture one gets is similar to a battle in heaven between two non-historical and transcendent actors, ideology and science, which are engaged in a permanent struggle. The reality of the concrete historical ideological struggle between classes would be just a reflection, a secondary and relative one, of the real transcendent world.' (Larrain, 1979, p. 162).

Althusser, then, makes no attempt to provide a metascientific model that spells out the interdependence of the conditions of production of knowledge and social formation. While accepting their theoretical interdependence, Althusser fails to provide a bridge between them and in practice treats the socio-historical context of knowledge production as independent. So, although Althusser regards the validity of science ruptured from ideology as unproblematic, he fails in providing a frame that, he argues, is all that is necessary.

The Self Legitimation of Science

Furthermore, in the last resort, science is legitimated and validated through its own internal protocols. Althusser's position in detaching science from ideology via the protocols internal to science implies an autonomy for science, in the last instance, which is clearly at variance with a view of science as located within specific socio-historical mileu, and informed by it in various ways.

For, Althusser, there is nothing left for metascience to do but work through the scientific production process internally once one has established a criticist frame.

However, Althusser fails to elaborate, or even discuss the basic assertion that science has no 'problem of knowledge'. His position is an act of faith, for it cannot be adequately sustained except in the 'extreme' by accepting the primacy and autonomy of internal protocols. This is circular and ultimately idealistic. In principle, Althusser's position appears only tenable if one accepts a transhistorical eternal (self evident) concept of science i.e. of Science in general (and its corrolory, ideology in general).

Chalmers (1978) sees some hope in Althusser's internalist element for an approach that establishes the autonomy of science yet is not detached from considerations of the social milieu in which it is located. He sees it as providing a welcome alternative to, for example, the idealistic 'three world thesis' of Popper. For Chalmers, Althusser offers a general theory of history (historical materialism) dependent on interrelated practices and sees science as a relatively autonomous practice and the scientific method as discoverable by an investigation of the functioning of that practice, which leads to two aspects of an historiographical metascience.

First, a general history of the emergence of a given relatively autonomous science and, second, internal analysis of the development of the practice and the knowledge it produces.

This ignores Althusser's own idealism, though, and skirts the problem of the interrelationship of the history of science and the internal analysis of its practice and consequently of metascience itself.

Althusser's metascience, however, raises important issues. He has revealed the complexity of social relations and has argued forcibly against reductionism. He has provided a critique of Marxist historicism, (e.g Lukacs) especially its weak conception of social totality. By concentrating on the concepts as used by Marx at different times, Althusser has brought into question the conceptual development of Marxism. Finally, Althusser's theoretical and ideological elements constitute a unified metascientific theory.

Nonetheless, what one is left with, when his thesis is examined closely, is a metascience that reverts to idealism and contains a positive notion of ideology. In it, ideology becomes a social necessity and has, ultimately, no historical specificity and hence no critical usefulness. This thesis, furthrmore, adopts a cynical view of praxis and subsumes its efficacy within a conception of knowledge that over-relies on science. Geras argues that Althusser is wrong to assume that revolutionary praxis is entirely outside the working class even if it is developed by intellectuals. Intellectuals are, says Geras, allied to and influenced by the working class movement.

Socialist practice

This is accentuated when Althusser ignores the socialist committment of Marxist science. Althusserian structuralism, Benton (1984) argues, through its importation of conventionalist philosophy of science, has abandoned all considerations of the reliance of humans on their natural environment for their 'physical and spiritual well-being'. Ontological considerations are entirely subverted to epistemological ones leading to a restricted 'science' of historical materialism. From a practical point of view this excludes Althusserian Marxism from conservationist/ environmentalist problems of the late twentieth century. Benton sees classical Marxism, unlike Althusserian Marxism, as having a role to play in this area.

In other areas such as the analysis of non-class forms of social oppression, and the nature of the legitimating 'mechanisms' of oppressive structures, Althusserian Marxism has made significant advances over classical Marxism, through the concept of 'interpellation' and the 'relative autonomy of ideology'. Yet, Benton warns that a post-Althusserian or indeed a post-Marxist critique should not become so embroiled in an assessment of the specific forms of oppression experienced by women, ethnic minorities or groups adopting an unconventional sexuality. Though these forms of oppression cannot be reduced to class they cannot be wholly understood in abstraction from it as they are located in a society characterised by class domination.

The key problem, for Benton, is the problem of the relation of theory to socialist practice (tactics etc.). If this is unresolved [as he implies it is in humanist Marxism] then theory has no role in socialist practice. Resolve it through the mediation of a coercive party or state apparatus and you have Stalinism. Althusser needs some other form of legitimation.

'It is here that the two problems of Althusser's theoretical programme converge: how is the authenticity of Althusser's restructuring of the Marxist tradition to be established? Answer: by recourse to epistemology and philosophy of science. A criterion of 'scientificity' is required to distinguish the acceptable, and to reconstitute the tradition as a scientific one. And the second problem— what role is left for philosophy with the abandonment of phenomenological philosophies of history ?—has the same answer. Marxist philosophy is to be an epistemological theory through which concepts and propositions are authenticated as 'scientific' or assigned the status 'ideology', non-knowledge.' (Benton, 1984, pp. 21–22).

While this proposes a powerful role to philosophy it does restrict it to epistemological questions and debars ontological questions, which is a much narrower specification than either orthodox or humanist Marxism. Benton argues that this narrow perspective inhibits Althusser from posing questions such as

'How far are the social processes through which agents are constituted, socially distributed, allocated to positions of dominance and subordination and so on, rooted in biological differences between individuals (age, sex, race and others)?' (Benton, 1984, p. 22), either as philosophical or scientific qestions.


Althusser's Misreading of Marx
Althusser, who in effect, in Reading Capital claims the only correct exegisis of Marx, in fact distorts Marx in two ways, according to Schmidt (1981). Althusser rejects any Hegelian influences on Marx and construes his approach as anti-humanistic and anti-historicistic.

Contrary to the structuralist view, Schmidt maintains that Marx does not reject either the theme of history or of human nature as being ideological. Clearly, in 'Capital', there is no ontological construction of the nature of humanity external to the scientific process of cognition, but this does not constitute theoretica anti-humanism. On the contrary, although aiming at analysis of structures and concentrating on the commodity as fundamental unit, Marx, in confronting the surface appearance of 'reality', evolves view of commodities in terms of social relations between persons. That such people are mere representatives of a world of commodities is not indicative of anti-humanism, it is not, for Marx, a scientific norm, rather it constitutes a negative condition that is to be transcended. Schmidt maintains that Althusser's concentration on the pre-given structure and his dismissal of historical evolution in total means that history is in fact excluded from the Marxist structuralist account and thus a rigid totalism replaces a dialectical totality.

The Nature of Change

As with other structuralist approaches, Althusser is rather limited in how he can account for changes in science. He does not have much to say about the processes of the formation of scientific knowledge, how does one transcend into the scientific level, how do new theories emerge, etc.?


In conclusion, Althusser provides a critique of historicism but fails to construct a fully materialist metascience. Althusser's structuralism is opposed to the 'idealism of historicism' with its emphasis on the false consciousness of the subject. However, Althusser ends up making ideology an:

'objectified functional requirement of all societies and falls into another form of idealism. The epistemological idealism of the false consciousness has been superseded by the transcendental idealism of the eternal ideology'. (Larrain, 1979, p. 164).



A review by Lee Harvey of Benton's (1984) The Rise and Fall of Structural Marxism: Althusser and his influence is available as a pdf, click here.

analytical review

associated issues

Benton's analysis of Althusser's notion of Marx's Epistemological Break (Benton, 1984, pp. 53–65)

Benton argues that Althusser posits an epistemological break in Marx as a means of distinguishing Marxist science of historical materialism from ideological philosophies which claim Marx as projenitor. Althusser's aim, simply put, is to:

locate an 'epistemological break' in Marx's intellectual career ... such that those texts produced before the break can be designated works of theoretical ideology, whilst those after it are governed by the newly founded scientific problematic. (Benton, 1984, p. 52)

Reconstructing Althusser's approach, Benton notes that, while Marx, in the 1844 Manuscripts, adopts the Feuerbachian materialist inversion of Hegel, he takes it further in works from 1845 onwards, and thus critiques Feuerbach as well.

In the 1844 Manuscripts, Marx applies Feuerbach's approach to the field of political economy. Feuerbach had applied his materialist critique of Hegel to religious and philosophical ideology, inverting Hegel's view that the Absolute Spirit (or consciousness) is the subject of historical processes and material life a mere 'predicate' or appearance. The inversion Feuerbach proposed was that humans are the historical subject whilst conscious life (or the spiritual) is itself the historical evolution of matter.

In 1845, in the Theses on Feuerbach, Marx (and Engels) reject the essentialism of Feuerbach's approach. In the sixth thesis they argue that Feuerbach resolves the essence of religion into the essence of man. Marx and Engels reject this as it implies a historically transcendent essence of humanity which is not historically specific. For Marx and Engels, the subject of history is the 'historically fleeting 'ensemble of social relations' in any phase of history'.

In the course of their critique of Feuerbach in the German Ideology, Marx and Engels repeatedly establish their distance from this philosophical scheme for thinking about the phases of human history: The individuals, who are no longer subject to the division of labour, have been conceived by the philosophers as an ideal, under the name 'Man'. They have conceived the whole process which we have outlined as the evolutionary process of 'Man', so that at every historical stage 'Man' was substituted for the individual and shown as the motive force of history. The whole process was thus conceived as a process of the self-estrangement of 'Man' ... Through this inversion ... it was possible to transform the whole of history into an evolutionary process of consciousness. (Marx, 1970, p. 122)

Althusser uses such passages as these to argue that they are based on premises quite imcompatible with the 'problematic' of the 1844 Manuscripts, which is to say, that of Feuerbach's 'inversion' of Hegel. On these passages, and the later works of Marx and Engels in founding the discipline of historical materialism, are based Althusser's provocative claims that Marxism is 'anti-humanist' and 'anti- historicist'. (Benton, 1984, p. 59)

Benton argues that Althusser does not clearly define either historicism or humanism. What he means by historicism is that history has an end result and that history passes through a succession of stages toward the goal. Some 'germ' exists at the start which sets in motion the train of historical transformations.

By humanism, Althusser means, a theoretical ideology which posits the human essence as the subject and goal of the historical process. Humanism is thus intimately linked with historicism.

According to Benton, Althusser argues that from the 'self-clarifying works' of the German Ideology onwards, Marx rejects any idea of historical materialism as being a general philosophical theory. Specifically, Marx opposes the idea of history as a ‘developmental process of 'man', or as a process whose outcome is pre-given, independently of concrete historical circumstances’ (Benton, 1984, p. 61).

The specificity of the Marxist dialectic

Althusser asks how can Hegel's dialectical form be of use to Marx given that he has progressed beyond a mere inversion of Hegel? He answers that Marx has changed the nature of dialectical analysis. For Marx, there is no simple inversion of essence-appearance, rather there is now an assymmetrical relationship of mutual determination; i.e. relative autonomy of the superstructure but determination in the last resort by the economic base.

There are two implications of this in terms of the difference between Hegel and Marx:


1. Totality

Thus the Marxian and Hegelian notion of totality are quite distinct. For Hegel, each element of the totality is seen as expressing an aspect of the totality, which can thus be reduced to an essential simplicity. For Marx, social totalities are irreducibly complex.

Ideological forms, particularly forms of the state, and so on, do not 'reflect' or 'express' any inner principle through which the whole can be grasped, but rather must be first analysed in their specificity, and only then explained in general terms. (Benton, 1984, p. 62)

(Defending his view from attacks of mere empiricism on the one hand, or a reconstructed 'expressive totality' on the other, Althusser argues that Marx(ism) does have a general conception of the relationship between the elements and the social totality as embodied in the embryonic propositions of relative autonomy and determination in the last instance. This he refers to as a de-centered 'structure in dominance'. (See Benton, 1984, p. 63).

2. Contradiction

Hegel's notion of contradiction is less complex than Marx's (Marxists'). For Althusser, the Marxist conception of contradiction is not a simple one, in which apparently diverse contradictions are manifestations of a single underlying one (capital versus labour), but one in which a multiplicity of co-existing contradictions overdetermine one another, the condensation of these determinations producing a revolutionary rupture. (Benton, 1984, p. 63)


Structural causality

Althusser's thesis leads him to posit a notion of structural causality in Marx's later works, notably in Capital. He argues that Marx had available only the Galilean/Cartesian notion of linear transitive causality, or the notion of expressive causality of Hegel. Thus Marx presents accounts of the relations between elements and their structural determinants in such terms, for example, the use of the essence-appearance relationship to specify the relationship between capitalist production relations and the wage form. Given Althusser's notion of structure in dominance in 'Capital' then it is necessary for Marx to transcend these conceptions of causality (anticipated only by Spinoza -whom Marx refers to). Despite the way he 'labels' his causal analysis, what Marx offers is 'structural causality'. This, Althusser argues, is irreducible to the other two and through it Althusser proposes to conceptualise ‘the determination of the elements of a structure, and the structural relations between those elements, and all the effects of those relations by the effectivity of that structure’ (Althuser (1970) Reading Capital, quoted in Benton, 1984, p. 64).

Benton (1984, p. 65) raises three questions against this Althusserian construct.

1. Is structural causality the means whereby an assymetrical hierarchical set of relations of causal determinacy is established between elements (or sub-structures) ? If so how does a notion of a structure 'present in its effects' help ?

2. Does structural causality attempt to provide a basis for theorising the relationships between structural determinants and their appropriation in the consciousness of agents ? If so, wouldn't the (Freudian) notion of overdetermination be more helpful?

3. Is structual cauality setting out to explain the capacity of a set of social relations to maintain its integrity, to persist and reproduce itself ? If so, the notion of cause immanent in its effects is far too effective, and the fluid, transformable character of the social world is abandoned.

related areas

See also







Althusser, L., 1969, For Marx. Harmondsworth, Allen Lane.

Althusser, L., 1970, 'Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses' La Pensée, 1970, reprinted in Althusser, 1971, Lenin and Philosophy and other Essays. London, Monthly Review Press, available at, accessed 21 November 2019.

Althusser, L., 1971, Lenin and Philosophy and other Essays. London, Monthly Review Press.

Althusser, L. & Balibar, E., 1970, Reading Capital. London, New Left Books.

Benton, T. 1984, The Rise and Fall of Structural Marxism: Althusser and his influence. Basingstoke, Macmillan.

Geras, N., 1972, ‘Althusser's Marxism’, New Left Review, 71, p. 57–86.

James, S., 1984, 'The Pope of Theory', Listener, 17 May 1984.

Larrain, J., 1979, The Concept of Ideology. London, Hutchinson.

Larrain, J., 1982, ‘On the character of ideology: Marx and the present debate in Britain’, Theory Culture and Society, 1, p. 56

Price, D. J. de S. and D. Beaver, 1966, 'Collaboration in an invisible college', American Psychologist 21: 1011–18.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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