Louis Pierre Althusser, a prominent French Marxist philosopher of the twentieth century, is renowned for introducing the concept of structuralist Marxism. Despite his membership in the French Communist Party, Althusser remained critical of the party at times. His ideas greatly influenced a generation of philosophers, including Derrida, Pierre Bourdieu, and Michel Foucault.
Challenging Hegelian Interpretations of Marxism
In his major works "For Marx" (1965) and "Reading Capital" (1965), Althusser opposed the predominant Hegelian interpretations of Marxism. He emphasized the epistemological break in Marx's thinking, which focused on developing a new science to examine historical processes rather than historical subjects.
Althusser's concept of historical change prioritized the relationship between forces and relations of production over consciousness. This emphasis on objective factors aimed to rescue Marxism from existential ideas propagated by figures like Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. His efforts were supported by philosophers such as Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan, as he sought to merge Marxism and Structuralism, combining historical analysis with ahistorical analysis.
Understanding Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses
In his essay "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses," Althusser redefined the Marxist theory of ideology and explored the relationship between the state and its subjects. He introduced two mechanisms of the state: Repressive State Apparatuses (RSA) and Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA).
Repressive State Apparatuses, including courts, police, and armed forces, directly enforce behavioral control. On the other hand, Ideological State Apparatuses are institutions, such as religion, politics, schools, family, arts, and literature, that generate ideologies indirectly. These institutions train individuals to internalize the ideas and values they produce.
Unraveling the Notions of Ideologies and Ideology
Althusser differentiates between ideologies and ideology, arguing that ideologies are specific, differing, and have a history. Examples include Marxist ideology, feminist ideology, and democratic ideology.
Ideology, on the other hand, is considered structural and timeless, pertaining to the Marxist concept of the superstructure. Althusser draws connections between this notion of ideology and Freudian and Lacanian concepts of the unconscious.
He explains that ideology, as a form or structure, functions unconsciously and can contain multiple contents. Belief in free choice regarding its content is illusory, as ideology operates unconsciously, exerting a powerful influence.