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In recent years, a revival of interest in his work has taken place. He had garnered a reputation as an oppositional, radical figure among Communists and the Left more broadly, but was unable to act beyond the dictates of the party bureaucrats. Why was Althusser unable to break from the PCF? While his membership in the PCF is often claimed as evidence that he was a doctrinaire Stalinist, Althusser actually hoped to drastically change the party from within, to render it a legitimate organ of the working-class masses that formed its base of support.

He believed that abandoning the party would lead to isolation from the working class, and for this reason he felt that a renewed revolutionary Marxist outlook needed to be built through an oppositional role within it. Historically, this turned out to be impossible. Althusser greatly underestimated the degree of bureaucratization that had taken hold, his perspectives remained marginal, and the party lost its once-great support in the French working class.

While this was a serious error, he is still to be credited with articulating perspectives that he hoped could win predominance in a political institution supported by the French labor movement. Althusser believed that the best hope for the resuscitation of the party was represented by the ideas and practices championed by Mao Zedong and his adherents.

In On the Reproduction of Capitalism, Althusser attempts to register in theory what he had been unable to support in practice: that is, the new revolutionary potential that had suddenly appeared in French culture. On the Reproduction of Capitalism is one on his most accessible books, and has more immediate political consequences.

For this reason, it is a good choice for someone unacquainted with his project to develop an initial familiarity. Althusser believed that Marxism was widely distorted by false interpretations that depended on humanism and economism. According to Althusser, both Stalinist orthodoxy and the philosophy of Western Marxism believed that Marx conveyed insight into human species-being and the overcoming of human alienation through a historical process of economic development. He argued Marx himself had broken from the humanism of his early work, developing a scientific understanding of history only in his mature writings.

The revolution could only be the product of multiple interrelated social conflicts, rather than an overcoming of one basic contradiction in human experience. In his view, while the mode of production is determining of society, it can never be analyzed in isolation.

While he intended his theory to explain and develop a revolutionary outlook, his rejection of humanism created the sense that agency was illusory. Without a theory of human alienation, his approach risked positing the eternity of capitalism. His work in the wake of was meant to remedy this and to explain cultural struggles in terms of a new understanding of ideology. Rather than considering ideology as mistaken ideas about the world, for him ideology is essentially practical.

We are even tempted to say, more precisely: ideology exists in apparatuses and the practices specific to them. These social institutions have the capacity to not only inculcate a worldview that is conducive to bourgeois domination, but also enforce these beliefs by means of a series of rituals, habits, and customs, which are more or less compulsory.

He argues that the state actually has two components: a repressive state apparatus, which includes the army, the police, and the courts, and enforces class domination directly, and the ideological state apparatuses ISA , which maintain complicity and identification with class society.

Controversially, Althusser argues that the domestic sphere of family life is included in the domain of the state, because it functions to maintain and develop an ideology that will maintain psychological adherence to and participation in class society. It is probably not coincidental that his theory was elaborated from the French context, where a strong centralized state has always overseen education as well as ecclesiastical functions.

In this context, it seems rational to view the church and the school system as ideological state apparatuses. In the political culture of the United States, this seems more counterintuitive, because there is such a long history of anti-state tendencies, particularly on the right. This may be one reason why his thought has not been as influential in the United States as it has been in Europe or in South America. A strong post-Althusserian tendency in North American thought has only appeared very recently, with the work of people like Warren Montag.

For him, a private school system, an independent church authority, privately owned media, or even the family, all operate as functions of the state regardless of their apparently private-sector status. From his point of view, even homeschooling operates as an extension of the state.

How is this possible? According to his argument, the state is not a discrete institution or bureaucratic entity but rather an ensemble of all practices that maintain the potential for the reproduction of relations of production. This means that the most paranoid Tea Partier, the angriest secessionist libertarian, or the most die-hard Randian is actually a servant of the state who extend its power ideologically and perhaps even its repressive force insofar as they can function as part of an armed paramilitary militia.

This is a very counterintuitive thesis to North Americans, but it might have validity. Or, one can consider variousreligious groupings , such as evangelicals, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which are also independent yet simultaneously act as an adjunct to state initiatives. Althusser argues that ideology has a profound relationship with subjective experience. Our conscious experience of the world and sense of individual personhood is always bound up in effects of the social institutions that have raised and educated us.

Furthermore, it is in the nature of ideology to conceal this basically artificial and imposed nature. This leads to ambiguity on the question of ideology outside capitalism. Althusser believed that ideology was a basic aspect of subjective experience, thereby persisting even in a post-capitalist society. However, because his theory and description of ideology are rooted in capitalism, it is very unclear in his work which aspects of ideology are contained in the capitalist mode of production, in contrast to a more general conceptual claim.

Althusser is often charged with holding an elitist perspective. Some commentators believe that this way of conceiving of ideology effectively prevents agency for ordinary people, because they are inevitably deluded and controlled by the ideological state apparatuses.

For example, Kevin B. Effects of class struggle appear within ideology, and class struggle presents the possibility of a complete overthrow of bourgeois ideology. In response, Althusser insists that his entire theory depends on the primacy of class struggle.

In fact, there would be no need for ISAs at all if resistance and struggle were not always present and in need of pacification. Ideology is a second-order formation that strives to ensure the continuation of the capitalist mode of production and continuing working-class adherence to a system that oppresses them. However, he argues that ideology cannot maintain an unbroken domination, because it is produced by apparatuses that are enmeshed in material class society.

Because these apparatuses are bound up in labor, they cannot be fully owned and controlled by the capitalist state, and they are not fully reconcilable into a consistent social whole. As a result, ideology carries with it proletarian values, as well as bourgeois domination. The proletarian elements that have been distorted in capitalist ideology can be strengthened and clarified to the degree that eventually the entire edifice can be overthrown in a revolutionary process.

But because individual experience is always constituted by ideology, this process of liberation must always take place as part of a commitment to working-class activity, not as a personal break with delusion and conformity. Althusser argues that the basic contradictions and irrationalities of the capitalist system will also interfere with the ability of ideology to fully capture a convincing experience of the world.

In the later stages of the Russian Revolution, insists Althusser, Vladimir Lenin understood this basic framework, and that is why he was so interested in reforming education and social institutions under the rubric of the cultural revolution. Why have his ideas proven so inspirational? One striking effect of his analyses is the emphasis on the necessity of cultural norms in order to reproduce capitalist social relations.

A consequence of this is that Althusser posits the family as a basic ideological state apparatus and a site of the reproduction of productive relations. While he does not flesh out the gendered aspects of this understanding of the family, the obvious result of this insight is the beginnings of social reproduction theory.

It is by no means accidental that Lise Vogel and Martha E. Gimenez, two of the feminist thinkers who have contributed the most to social reproduction theory, describe Althusser as a decisive figure.

This anticipates and affects the perspective of contemporary historians described as political Marxists, whose outlook has sparked such stimulating recent debate in the International Socialist tradition. However, the reader must be aware that when Althusser speaks of humanism, he almost always has in mind his own struggle within the PCF and the opportunist definition of humanism disseminated by Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier, and Roger Garaudy, the Stalinist theorist of the PCF.

Althusser intended his writings as theoretical interventions in his own conjuncture, and as a result some of his statements, taken out of context, can produce a brittle, hyperbolic schema, easily dismissed. Patient reconstruction of his argument can reveal deeper insights than might initially appear; we owe it to the rigor of our tradition to read him more charitably than he himself did his opponents.

Farris, Gal Kirn, and Peter D. Thomas, eds. Ian H. Birchall, Sartre against Stalinism Oxford: Berghahn, , Jason E. Smith, Kevin B. Martha E. This is both a devastating tragedy and a horrific crime. However, his work needs to be judged on its own merits, and his personal action has not diminished the usefulness of his ideas for many other thinkers and activists. Goshgarian Berkeley: University of California, , — Elliott, Althusser, 58,


Althusser’s theory of ideology

In recent years, a revival of interest in his work has taken place. He had garnered a reputation as an oppositional, radical figure among Communists and the Left more broadly, but was unable to act beyond the dictates of the party bureaucrats. Why was Althusser unable to break from the PCF? While his membership in the PCF is often claimed as evidence that he was a doctrinaire Stalinist, Althusser actually hoped to drastically change the party from within, to render it a legitimate organ of the working-class masses that formed its base of support.


Althusser: The Detour of Theory


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