Murderer and French Marxist philosopher.
Born 1918 in Birmandreïs, Algeria, Louis was the child of middle-class French parents. His fathers work saw the family return to Marseille, where Althusser showed promising academic ability. However, World War II disrupted his chances at further study, as he was drafted into the army. His experience of the war was exasperatingly futile; his company was rounded up by the Germans in 1940, and he spent the next five years in a prisoner of war camp. Soon after the war, Althusser graduated from the Ecole Normale where he soon obtained a teaching post. During his student years, he met his future wife, Helene Legotien. Helene seemed terminally unhappy, and by most accounts, the two were held together by the bond of mutual destructiveness.
Despite the popular academic revulsion with Stalinism at the time, he jumped on the red bandwagon by joining the French Communist Party in 1948.
The grim post-war reconstruction period that lent existentialism its appeal soon faded with the economic recovery of the 1960s, and structuralism came into fashion. Althusser and his student Michel Foucault were regarded as strong proponents of this vogue, renovating Marxist theory for the new era. The structuralists stressed the persistence of "deep structures" that underlie all culture, leaving little space for changes wrought by history or human initiative.
Starting from Marx's criticism of empiricism, Althusser rejected the positive content of empirical knowledge entirely. Althusser asserts that Essence is not to be found in Appearance, but must be discovered through 'theoretical practice' - "history features in Marx's Capital as an object of theory, not as a real object, as an 'abstract' (conceptual) object and not as a real-concrete object". Thus the 'real' history lies in a 'beyond', behind the 'theory of history', which is the only true object of knowledge. Althusser further rejects the concept of contradiction in Marx and Hegel, which he sees in structuralist terms as "overdetermination". Althusser saw the early chapters of Marx's Capital not as a key, but a barrier to understanding Marx's view of capitalist society, advising readers to begin Capital with Part II. Althusser thus arrives not at a revision, but at a complete negation of Marx.
Much of Althusser's work was an attempt to explain why there hadn't been a Communist revolution. Instead of a cause and effect relationship between ideology and the economic base of society, Althusser redefined ideology as a continuous and all-pervasive set of practices in which all groups and classes participate in their manipulation. With everyone participating, the task of overthrowing the capitalist running dog lackeys was almost impossible. This participatory model, where even the oppressed classes join forces to oppress themselves is similar to Gramsci's notions of hegemony. However, Althusser's theory is more pessimistic insofar as it makes social change appear unlikely. Gramsci, on the other hand, allows a much greater role for resistance, and recognizes the opportunity for social change within a capitalist system.
Over the last thirty years of his life, Althusser was diagnosed as manic depressive and was hospitalized multiple times. Much of his later work reflects his state of mind, with bouts of manic creativity followed by long creative droughts. For quite some time, his colleagues had considered him suicidal but never a threat to others.
On November 16, 1980, Althusser ran into the courtyard of the Ecole Normale in a state of confusion, screaming "My wife is dead." The police found no sign of struggle or violence. The authorities attributed Althusser's ravings to his depression. An autopsy revealed that Althusser's wife had been strangled without protest. According to Althusser's memoirs, she had previously begged him to kill her, but he had refused.
Althusser was deemed unfit to stand trial, and languished in a psychiatric hospital for three years.
He spent his final years in a flat in Paris, emerging occasionally to accost passers-by with the statement "Je suis le grand Althusser!". He died in 1990, leaving behind his autobiography, The Future Lasts Forever, and an unstoppable juggernaut of Marxist theory.
Louis Althusser, The Future Lasts Forever, A Memoir. New York: The New Press, 1994.
_____., Lenin and Philosophy. Trans. by Ben Brewster. London: Monthly Review Press, 1971
_____., For Marx
_____., Reading Capital