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Louis Althusser: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses

Lesson: Louis Althusser: Ideology and Ideological State


Apparatuses
Lesson Developer: Kashish Dua
College/ Department: Vivekananda College, University of Delhi

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Louis Althusser: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses


Why Althusser?
Marxist critical theory and the functioning of capitalist society can never be fully understood
without studying the ideas of Louis Althusser (1918-1990). His contribution to the ever
evolving theory of Marxism not only created a wave during his time but also influenced and
inspired thinkers and theorists after him.
Luke Ferreter, the author of Louis Althusser Routledge Critical Thinkers, argues that it was
Althussers writings on ideology that helped us understand the complexities of the
exploitative system of capitalism and the culture and literature that are produced in it. He
asserts that Althussers ideas will continue to remain significant till the time humans are
living in a society where some classes are benefiting from the exploitation of other classes.
According to him, it is only through an understanding of such a system that a change can be
brought about in the society.

Life of Louis Althusser

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Althusser.jpg
Louis Pierre Althusser was born on 16th October 1918 in French Algeria. An excellent
student,

Althusser spent most of his childhood in Marseille, France, with his mother and

sister after his fathers death. He was a devout Catholic and had also founded a Christian
movement for students. He was selected for admission to cole Normale Suprieure in
Paris. However, his education came to a halt for sometime when he was imprisoned in
German war camp during World War II. The time spent here gave him a chance to indulge
in reading which took him closer to Communism.

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Louis Althusser: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses

But the experience and the treatment in the war prison also led to his lifelong fits of mental
instability. The mental issues that began with the imprisonment in Germany continued and
became worse over the years. His bi-polar disorder made him go through depression and
frenzied phases. By 1976 he had spent fifteen of the thirty years of his life in psychiatric
care. Since the year 1963 he went through psychoanalytical sessions. The worst of his
mental bouts led him to murder his wife, Hlne Rytmann in November 1980. He was freed
of all criminal charges as he was considered mentally unfit to take responsibility for his
actions. Althusser died in October 1990 after spending the rest of his years at psychiatric
hospitals.
Later, Althusser completed his masters in 1947 with a thesis on G.W.F Hegel and a year
later he was appointed as the tutor in philosophy at cole Normale Suprieure. It was in
October 1948 that Althusser joined the Communist Party. The Catholic Church and the
Communist Party were mutually hostile but Althusser maintained his affiliation with both as
long as he could.

Althussers Position in the History of Marxist Critical Theory


Since the advent of the Marxist thought, the history of Marxist critical theory has seen the
development of new and different theoretical trends ranging from the Soviet Socialist
Realism that emphasized the propagation of realism in literature to the Frankfurt School,
with members like Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969) and Max Horkheimer (1895 1973),
who rejected realism all together. It is in such a heterogeneous field of thought that
Althusser can be placed with other thinkers of the 1960s who came under the influence of
structuralism and dealt with its influence on Marxist criticism.
Structuralism: It is a movement which began in the 1950s with Claude Levi-Strausss work
whose analysis was based on Ferdinand de Saussures linguistic model and analyzed
phenomenon like kinship, mythology etc. Structuralism concerns itself with the general
ways by which structures are governed. It revolves around the proposition that units of any
system have meaning only in their relations to each other. Analytical in nature, it isolates
deep structures that are not visible at the surface. However, structuralism gave way to
deconstruction and poststructuralism in the late 1960s with its influence remaining in fields
like stylistics, analysis of culture etc.
Although Althusser was never really comfortable with the label of a structuralist, his works
are often read under the label of Structuralist Marxism. His major concern remained to

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Louis Althusser: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses

explain the need to reject Hegelian revival within Marxist philosophy and to understand
Marxs main contribution emerging from his shift from the Hegelian view. Althussers
writings critique the idea of totality as given by Hegel which indicated that the essence of
the whole is articulated in all its parts. In its place he argued for social formations as
structures that lacked overall unity and a central governing principle.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georg_Wilhelm_Friedrich_Hegel#/media/File:Hegel_portrait_b
y_Schlesinger_1831.jpg
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (27 August 1770 14 November 1831) was a German
philosopher, associated with the late Enlightenment. Hegel is known for creating a
possibility of overcoming binaries and dualisms like that of mind and nature, subject and
object, etc. through his notion of absolute idealism according to which a human being is an
all-inclusive entity.

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Louis Althusser: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses


Karl Marx
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl_Marx#/media/File:Karl_Marx_001.jpg
Karl Marx (5 May 1818 14 March 1883): A revolutionary socialist, economist and
philosopher, Marx was born in an affluent middle class family in Prussia. Marx is known for
his works on the relation of labour and capitalism. In general, he proposed that the human
society functions because of class struggle where the rich and the powerful continue to
enjoy their privileged position at the cost of the labour done by the working classes.
Throughout his life he tried to motivate the proletariat into revolutionary action against
capitalism to bring about a classless society.

Friedrich Engels
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friedrich_Engels#/media/File:Engels.jpg
Friedrich Engels (28 November 1820 5 August 1895): Engels was a philosopher,
businessman and a journalist. He together with Marx laid the foundation for the theory of
Marxism. Some of the major works by him include The Condition of the Working Class in
England (1845) and The Communist Manifesto (1848).
The studies and criticism available on the works of Karl Marx commonly divide his works
into the early and the later ones that are characterized by humanism and materialist
conception of history, respectively. The humanism associated with young Marx can be
explained as the belief in the fact that men and women can and should themselves define
their lives. As per humanism, the individual lives should be run according to reason of the
humans. Some critics are of the opinion that young Marx saw capitalism as a system that
created obstructions in the determination of the course of lives by people themselves. In
opposition, communism is thought to be a means to achieve such autonomy.

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Louis Althusser: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses


Althusser and Marxism
It was the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts written by Marx in 1844 and finally
published in 1932 that caught the attention of many philosophers like Jean Paul Sartre,
Jean-Yves Calvez, etc. for its use of humanist language to express the critique of capitalism.
These philosophers started claiming that the kind of humanism present in the early works of
Marx was the foundation of his entire corpus. This highly augmented attention given to the
humanist interpretation of all the works of Marx was something which Althusser targeted.
Jean-Paul Sartre (21 June 1905 15 April 1980) was a French philosopher, playwright,
novelist, political activist, biographer, and literary critic. He was one of the key figures in the
philosophy of existentialism and phenomenology, and one of the leading figures in 20th
century French philosophy and Marxism. His work has also influenced sociology, critical
theory, postcolonial theory, and literary studies, and continues to influence these
disciplines.
Jean-Yves Calvez (3 February 1927 11 January 2010) was a French Jesuit, theologian,
philosopher, economist, expert in Marxism and professor of social philosophy.
Source: www.wikipedia.com
Althusser saw the notion of materialist conception of history as more relevant. According to
Marxs materialist conception of history, the society can be categorized into a base
consisting of all political and legal institutions and a superstructure made up of ideology.
Thereby, Althussers cultural criticism shows allegiance to the materialist conception of
history as it studies a particular work in the society by keeping in mind the very forces that
have produced it.

Althusser and the Idea of the Epistemological Break


Louis Althusser became a name known to scholars worldwide, when he argued that Karl
Marxs views were not consistent in all his writings. He debated that Marx underwent a very
radical change of thought. Althussers ideas as expressed in For Marx (1965) discuss how
Marx in the Theses on Feuerbach (1845) and The German Ideology (1845) entirely
discredited the whole notion of humanism that prevailed in all his previous writings. In place

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Louis Althusser: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses

of this, his works subtly propose notions of social formation, relations of production,
ideologies, etc. as the new basis for formulating a theory on history and politics.
Althusser in his works sees the materialist conception of history as a kind of science from
which emerge other systems of knowledge about the history of societies. He calls the
transformation in Marxs thoughts the epistemological break because epistemology
represents the theory of knowledge and break symbolizes the gap that came in the
dominant thoughts in the works of Marx. The schism between humanism and the
philosophies associated with it and the materialist conception of history ushered an entirely
new form of knowledge and thus could justifiably be termed as epistemological break. In For
Marx, Althusser attributed the term epistemological break to Gaston Bachelard (18841962), a prominent French philosopher.

Althussers Works: An Overview

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reading_Capital#/media/File:Reading_Capital_(French_editio
n).jpg
Many scholars including Ferretter often see Althussers writings divided into five phases. His
early works produced between 1946-1951are based on the shift from his Catholic belief to
Communism and from Hegelianism to Marxism. The significant works of this period of his
career are collected in The Spectre of Hegel (1953). The second phase of his writings
commonly seen as the most productive time of his life gave birth to influential works like
For Marx (1965) and Reading Capital (1965). These writings articulated the principles of the
science of history given by Marx.

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Louis Althusser: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses

Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lenin_and_Philosophy_(French_edition).JPG
The third stage (1967-1975) had Althusser recant his early views and focus on theory. It
was during this stage that he called philosophy the class struggle in theory. Philosophy
and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists (1967), Lenin and Philosophy (1971) and
Essays in Self-Criticism (1976) were the major texts written by him during this time.

Book cover of the first French edition of For Marx


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:For_Marx_(French_edition).jpg
The writings of 1976-1978 reflected Althussers dissatisfaction with theory and practice of
the Communist Party. In his works he called for a re-interpretation of Marx. On the 22nd
Congress of the French Communist Party (1977), The Crisis of Marxism (1977), What
Must Change in the Party (1978) and Marxism Today (1978) were some of the important
essays of this time.

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Louis Althusser: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses

The fifth and last phase of Althussers professional life gave the world Aleatory Materialism
which as opposed to historical materialism is a philosophy that also takes into consideration
the idea of chance in the way history functions. Althusser asserted that instead of being a
necessary process, history can also be the consequence of chance encounters.
Overall, Althussers oeuvre brought about a revolution in the way literary studies was
carried out. The critical practices that prevailed in Britain and America before Althussers
intervention had always excluded the politics from the literary. It is often believed that the
way theory functions in the fields of literary theory and critical theory is derived from the
thoughts of Althusser. His theory about the society provided a new perspective in which
literature could be analyzed. His work offered possibilities of making literary criticism both
radical in terms of its politics and scientific in nature. Althussers writings and their study is
crucial in order to completely understand the contemporary models of criticism and theory
that demonstrate political commitment. Cultural materialism, new historicism, queer theory,
feminism, postcolonial theory, etc. are all in a way indebted to the principles propounded by
Althusser.
Before engaging with Althussers idea of Ideological State Apparatuses and ideology it is
important to briefly discuss Friedrich Engels and Karl Marxs contribution to philosophy.
Their philosophy of materialist conception of history suggested that a society is made up of
the relations of production and the forces of the material lives of the people living in it. They
argued that it is out of such an economic base that a superstructure is formed. The
superstructure here includes literary and cultural productions, political and legal institutions
etc. Marx and Engels opined that human history has always been that of the struggle
between different classes and ideology is a discourse that reflects and validates the selfish
interests of the ruling classes.

Ideological State Apparatuses


Published in the year 1970, Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses proved to be one
of the most influential and discussed works of Althusser. Composed by the compilation of
extracts from a larger work on the reproduction of production relations, the essay discussed
how societies reproduce the relations of production which are the very criteria for their
functioning. Althusser here deals with the reason behind the continued exploitation of one

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Louis Althusser: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses

class by another, years after years. According to him, the answer to this lies in the concept
of Ideological State Apparatuses.
Marxist theory and all its accounts have always seen the State as the State apparatus which
represses and exploits the lower classes by reinforcing the dominance of already powerful
classes through the government, the police, the courts, the civil service, the army and the
prisons. Althusser finds this explanation of the functioning of the state as rather simplistic.
For him, the State apparatus is more complex and comprises of distinct but overlapping
institutions- the Repressive State Apparatus and the Ideological State Apparatus.
Here, the term, the Repressive State Apparatus (RSA) is used by Althusser for all the
institutions Marxist theory has already recognized. He prefers to use the term repressive
to denote the nature of its functioning which is violent in its essence. However, the new
concept of Ideological State Apparatuses or ISAs consists of the religious ISA, the
educational ISA, the family ISA, the legal ISA, the political ISA, the trade union ISA, the
communications ISA (T.V, press, radio) and the cultural ISA (arts, sports, literature, etc.).
The primary difference between these two categories of State apparatuses is the basis of
the Repressive State Apparatus in violence and that of Ideological State Apparatus in
ideology. Althusser writes, The (Repressive) State Apparatus functions massively and
predominantly by repression (including physical repression), while functioning secondarily
by ideology. (There is no such thing as a purely repressive apparatus.) For their part, the
Ideological State Apparatuses function massively and predominantly by ideology, but they
also function secondarily by repression, even if only ultimately, but only ultimately, this is
very attenuated and concealed, even symbolic. (There is no such thing as a purely
ideological apparatus) (Althusser 173).
Althusser means that the Repressive State Apparatus maintains the economic dominance of
the ruling class through activities that involve coercion, violence and force. When people are
subjected to institutions like the police, the army and the court they are compelled to
certain actions by the use of direct force. Conversely, the Ideological State Apparatus
operates through a discourse on ideology where the family, the school, the religion, etc.
naturalize the process of subjugation to certain rules, ways of life and thought processes
developed and sustained by the dominating classes to ensure their position in the society.
While the institutions involved in the Ideological State Apparatus appear to be very different
from each other, they are unified by the aim of operating through and reasserting the
ideology of the powerful class.
What came to be seen as a revolutionary thought in this theory proposed by Althusser was
the way in which he saw Ideological State Apparatus as the site that not only transmits the

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Louis Althusser: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses

ruling ideology but also articulates the ideology of the exploited classes. In the essay, he
further describes how religion and theological discourse in the pre-capitalist time operated
as the dominant Ideological State Apparatus through the church. As the bourgeoisie
acquired economic power the dominant Ideological State Apparatus shifted from the church
to education. The ideological functions that were being performed by the church are now
performed by educational institutions.
Althusser believed that family and religion together operated as means of circulating
dominant ideology in the pre-capitalist era whereas later, family, along with educational
system, started training children and adults in the dominant discourses, techniques and
traditions. It was Althusser who recognized that Educational State Apparatus teaches and
trains people of all age group according to the role they need to perform in the society so as
to maintain the status quo.

The Material Existence of Ideology


Time and again in his essay, Althusser tries to explain that ideology is not just a
phenomenon that exists and functions in the minds of human beings. Rather, ideology has a
material existence and even though ideas precede actions, ideology is always present in
apparatus and the practices associated with it. Althusser traces the reason behind certain
beliefs of people in the presence of some or the other Ideological State Apparatuses. These
beliefs are in turn governed by the institutions that form the material apparatuses. Thus, it
can be said that for Althusser, ideas are the consequence of the situations of the individual
subjects in a society within specific Ideological State Apparatuses.

Interpellation
The theory and discussion carried out by Althusser in Ideology and Ideological State
Apparatus point out that the origin of ideas and beliefs are not the individuals. They just
appear to be the sources of what in fact comes from Ideological State Apparatuses. In
addition, Althusser also developed the idea of the change of an individual into a subject on
the functioning of ideology. This change occurs when ideology interpellates individuals.

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Louis Althusser: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses

The French word interpeller is commonly translated as hail or interpellate. The two
meanings of interpellar, which Ferretter discusses, are to call out and to interrogate. If
now one tries to understand interpellation, it is significant to note that ideology and all the
ideological concepts are based on the primary category of a subject. While the term
subject came with the rise of the bourgeoisie, Althusser contends that the idea of the
subject already existed in other systems.
Generally human beings are considered to be independent individuals with their own original
thoughts, feelings and actions. Althusser, on the other hand, looks at the society as a
complicated system of relations between different practices that interact with each other.
Instead of opining that individuals define and determine their actions and practices,
Althusser writes that it is the practices and actions that constitute the individuals. The idea
of a free and self-defining individual for Althusser is an ideological concept.
Althusser further explains the politics and the working of ideology that unveils the manner
in which humans are fooled to believe in their own exclusive identity. He emphasizes that all
humans are made to live in a false reality through the interpellation of ideology. However
much people may want to believe that they have total control over their existence and the
way their identity functions, the reality as per Althusser lies in the insertion of humans in a
complex set of social and economic practices even before they are born. Humans are then in
a way called into being as the subjects of ideology. The most simplified examples of this can
be noted in first, how in patriarchal societies it is pre-decided that even an unborn baby will
get the fathers name. Second, in case of religious institutions like the church, people are
made to believe in God and His creations, the practices that lead one to God, etc. which
become the parameters according to which followers of Christianity start defining their lives.
Althussers views point to how the interpellation of subjects by ideology functions by placing
an absolute or supreme subject as the model and it is on its basis that other subjects act
and understand themselves. In the Christian Ideological State Apparatus it is God who acts
as an exclusive and unique subject, based on whom the Christians try to shape their lives.
Althusser also highlights that the subjects also act as real subjects in terms of obedience
and subjection to the higher model placed in front of them.
The negative aspects of the interpellation of ideology come into picture when humans
become subjects in both the ways mentioned above. Ideology then not only supports false
beliefs in ones individuality but also strips one off of all kinds of freedoms by making
obedience and subjugation part of ones existence. It is in this manner that Ideological State
Apparatus without the use of violence make people subject to the supreme subject and
hence, unresisting in nature.

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Louis Althusser: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses

The politics of interpellation can be found in how the entire system makes people work and
act as subjects all by themselves. They easily become a part of a particular Ideological State
Apparatus, live according to its practices and never question them because they cannot see
the sham in the idea of themselves as free agents. As Althusser writes, The individual is
interpellated as a (free) subject in order that he shall submit freely to the commandments
of the Subject, i.e. in order that he shall (freely) accept his subjection, i.e. in order that he
shall make the gestures and actions of his subjection all by himself. There are no subjects
except by and for their subjection. That is why they work all by themselves (Althusser
204).
Luke Ferretter observes that Althusser points out that although a societys ideology
consists primarily of the ideology of its dominant classes, nevertheless the dominated
classes also produce ideologies, which express their protest against this domination. It is in
this sense that Althusser speaks of proletarian ideology or petit-bourgeois ideology as well
as of bourgeois ideology (Ferretter 80).
The essay Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus ends with a possibility to resist and
fight the working of the dominant ideology by urging people to realize and recognize that
society is made up of antagonistic classes characterized by Subject-subject relationship and
this recognition can help people critique the working of the dominant ideology.
This can only be interpreted when attention is paid to Althussers comment on how
Ideological State Apparatuses and ideologies are not plain platforms where the dominant
ideology circulates in the simplest of terms. Althusser also sees them as platforms where a
constant class struggle is always taking place: first, between the former ruling class and the
current ruling class and then, between the current ruling class and the class being ruled. It
is precisely this kind of complex interplay of power struggle between these classes which
Althusser finds affirmative. In his view if people realize these ongoing clashes between
different classes then it is possible to resist the working of Ideological State Apparatuses.

Althussers Influence
The way Althussers works explained the logic of Marxism was new and revolutionary. His
writings and ideas changed the way British and American literary studies were being carried
out. It was the avant-garde critics who saw his theory as both highly political and scientific.
Althussers influence also extended to the critics on the Left during the 1970s and the
1980s. The post-Marxist critical studies of even the present day show some or the other
kinds of association with the ideas Althusser had propounded.

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Louis Althusser: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses


Glossary
1. Avant-garde: A French term, it literally means advance guard and thus stands for
people and/or works that are experimental, new and innovative.
2. Cultural Materialism: This was a theory which found its origins in the works of the
literary critic and cultural and political theorist, Raymond Williams (1921-1988). Cultural
materialist criticism analyses the way in which hegemonic forces appropriate and utilize
texts of historical and canonical significance. It also draws attention to the processes that
religious institutions, educational institutions and political authorities use to circulate
ideology.
3. Ideology: A set of opinions, beliefs and ideas of a particular group of people.
4. Interpellation: In Marxist theory, interpellation is the process by which ideology,
embodied in major social and political institutions, constitutes the nature of individual
subjects' identities through the process of institutions and discourses of 'hailing' them in
social interactions. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interpellation_(philosophy)

Bibliography
Althusser, Louis. Essays on Ideology. London: Verso, 1984. Print.
Eagleton, T. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 1983. Print.
Ferretter, Luke. Louis Althusser Routledge Critical Thinkers. :London and New York: Taylor
and Francis Group, 2006. Print.
Marx Karl and Friedrich Engels. The German Ideology: Part One. Ed. C. J. Arthur. 1970; rpt.
London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1982. Print.
Resch Paul, Robert. Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory. Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1992. Print.
Selden, Raman, Peter Widdowson and Peter Brooker. A Readers Guide to Contemporary
Literary Theory. U.K.: Pearson Education Limited, 2005. Print.

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Louis Althusser: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses


Web Links
https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/index.htm
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/althusser/
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wz3YNMPMNzU

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