Althusser, Louis

Assigned: Althusser, Louis. From “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)” (1285-1311). Also read the editors’ introduction (1282-85).

From Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation) (1970)

From On the Reproduction of the Conditions of Production; Reproduction of Labour-Power

1. On 1285-87 (“As Marx said, every child…”), Louis Althusser examines “the reproduction of the conditions of production” (1285); in other words, he examines what is necessary for an economic order to perpetuate itself. What role do workers’ wages play in this perpetuation? (1286) Why is education even more important than the simple replenishment of workers’ material needs as a means of reproducing the conditions of capitalist production? According to Althusser, when children go to school, what do they learn, aside from basic skills such as mathematical computation and reading? What is really the most important thing that students with various social-class expectations and scholarly capacities learn at school? (1287)

From Infrastructure and Superstructure

2. On 1287-88 (“On a number of occasions I have…”), how does Althusser develop the traditional Marxist explanation of the way the economic activities or “base” of a given society support and relate to the ideological, political, and legal “superstructure” (1288)? What significance does Althusser derive from the standard Marxist metaphor of a building to describe how base and superstructure fit together, and what relative importance each has? In what sense does Althusser describe the relationship as more complex than a simple determination by economic activities of every aspect of the superstructure?

From The State

3. On 1289 (“The Marxist tradition is strict…”), with the help of some of Marx’s classic texts and Lenin’s State and Revolution, how does Althusser describe the function of the State? What is the “State apparatus,” a term that Althusser says he has derived from traditional Marxist and Leninist interpretation? What “essential point” does Marxist-Leninist theory make about the main purpose of the State?

The Essentials of the Marxist Theory of the State

4. On 1289-90 (“Let me first clarify one…”), what distinction does Althusser make between “the State” and “State power” (1289)? In particular, how are the State apparatus and State power to be distinguished? What four basic points does Althusser summarize regarding the “Marxist theory of the State” (1290)?

The State Ideological Apparatuses

5. On 1290-91 (“In order to advance the theory…”), what are “ideological State apparatuses” (1290)? In what two key ways do they differ from what Althusser calls a “Repressive State Apparatus”? (1291) How does Althusser defend his claim that the great majority of Ideological State Apparatuses or ISAs are private institutions rather than public ones? (1291) How, that is, can an institution like the Church or the family be in any way connected with the State? What insight from Antonio Gramsci (see Leitch 927-35) does Althusser appeal to in this regard?

6. On 1292-93 (“But now for what is essential…”), how does Althusser explain yet another difference between “Ideological State Apparatuses” and “Repressive State Apparatuses”; namely, the relationship of each to violence and repression? How are the interests of the ruling class involved, even if not always in the most blatant ways, in “Ideological State Apparatuses” (1292). In what sense is the class struggle very much in play in the operation of Althusser’s ISAs? (1293)

From On the Reproduction of the Relations of Production

7. On 1293-94 (“I can now answer the central…”), Althusser provides a fuller answer to the question he had earlier opposed; namely, “how is the reproduction of the relations of production secured?” (1293) What is his answer at this point? How does he also account for the relationship between Ideological State Apparatuses and Repressive State Apparatuses? (1294)

8. On 1294-95 (“We are thus led to envisage…”), how does Althusser analyze the role of the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages? Which ideological functions did the Church maintain? What other Ideological State Apparatuses existed during this “pre-capitalist historical period” (1295)? According to Althusser, what was the “foremost objective and achievement of the French Revolution” (1295)? Because of the French revolutionaries, what institution replaced the Church as the dominant Ideological State Apparatus? (1295)

9. On 1295-97 (“Why is the educational apparatus…”), Althusser makes several key points about Ideological State Apparatuses and then explains the nature of the dominance he attributes to education as an Ideological State Apparatus. What, then, do primary, secondary, and post-secondary schools accomplish with regard to their supposed mission of helping to reproduce the relations of production? (1296-97) How does Althusser describe the way the several school systems and levels prepare French children and adults for their various roles in French society?

From“On Ideology” and Ideology Has No History”

10. On 1298-1300 (“When I put forward the…”), how does Althusser validate and adapt Marx’s proposition from The German Ideology that “ideology has no history” (1298)? How does he describe the meaning of this proposition in Marx’s own terms, which he describes as “positivist,” or dependent on “what can be empirically observed” (see Norton editors’ note 9, pg. 1298)? In what way does Althusser adapt Sigmund Freud’s framework and terminology regarding the unconscious for his own purposes in defining “ideology in general” (1299)?

Ideology Is a “Representation” of the Imaginary Relationship of Individuals to Their Real Conditions of Existence

11. On 1300-01 (“In order to approach my central…”), Althusser sets forth Thesis I on ideology: “Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (1300). How does he explain the way other philosophers have dealt with a fundamental question that arises; namely, why is it necessary for human beings to engage in imaginary representations of their real conditions of existence? Why don’t they simply grasp them directly? (1300) What two answers does Althusser examine and reject, and why does he reject them? (1300-01)

12. On 1301-02 (“Now I can return to a thesis…”), Althusser insists that it is not people’s “real conditions of existence” but rather, as he has stated in Thesis I, their “relation to those conditions of existence” (1301). How does he go on to explain the significance of the difference between these two formulations? What new question—which Althusser defers answering at this point—arises on the supposition that his own formulation is the correct one? (1302) Ultimately, what is Althusser implying about human beings’ ability (or inability) to understand the real conditions in which they live their lives?

13. On 1302-04 (“Thesis II: Ideology has a material…”), Althusser’s Thesis II is, “Ideology has a material existence” (1302). How does he defend this claim using the example of “‘individuals’ who live in ideology” and who are subject to his first thesis, which entails the assertion that people represent to themselves an imaginary relation to their real conditions of life? How does Althusser describe the life of, say, “An individual [who] believes in God, or Duty, or Justice, etc.” (1303)—where does this belief, this idea, come from, and what material practices sustain it? According to Althusser, what soon becomes apparent about the alleged spiritual derivation or independence from materiality of such an individual’s notions? (1303) How does Pascal’s rather scandalous assertion “Kneel down, move your lips in prayer, and you will believe” (1304) help Althusser encapsulate his assertion about the material existence of ideology?

Ideology Interpellates Individuals as Subjects

14. On 1304-06 (“This thesis is simply a matter…”), Althusser offers as a thesis the idea that “all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects” (1306). Essentially, he is suggesting that ideology is inextricable from the process of subject-formation, of subjectivity. Look up the Latin etymology of the word “interpellate”—what do the various meanings given for interpellō add to your understanding of the Althusserian term? How does Althusser illustrate the mechanism and function of interpellation by means of examples on 1305 and 1306? In particular, why does the “right” person almost always turn around when a policeman shouts, “Hey, you there!” (1306)?

15. On 1306-07 (“Thus ideology hails or interpellates…”), Althusser explains in another manner—one not tied down to what he calls “the temporal form in which I have presented the functioning of ideology” (1306 bottom)—how interpellation works. How does he draw out the significance of the proposition that “individuals are always-already subjects” (1307 top)? How can an individual (a term in itself apparently connoting only an abstraction) be “always-already a subject, even before he is born” (1307)? How does Althusser illustrate this fundamental point?

An Example: The Christian Religious Ideology

16. On 1307-09 (“As the formal structure of…”), how does Althusser use religious ideology as an example of how all ideology functions? What kind of interpellation process does he describe with respect to this ideology? (1307-08) In addition, what is the condition of possibility for there being “a multitude of possible religious subjects” (1308)—what alone could ground or constitute the subjectivity of so many people as Christian believers?

17. On 1309-10 (“Let us decipher into theoretical…”), Althusser reflects further on the necessity of God as absolute Subject in the functioning of religious ideology. In what sense is ideology’s structure “speculary” (1309) or mirror-like, even doubly so? What four things does Althusser say he has discovered about “ideology in general” (1309)? When this ideological structure works as expected, according to him, what is the result as regards the individual subject living his or her ordinary life? How is it that such a subject experiences—and indeed must experience—a sense of “free subjectivity” (1309 bottom) even as he or she is clearly “a subjected being” (1310 top)? What ultimate “reality” (1310) does this entire model of subjectivity refer to, or rather pointedly and necessarily ignore?


18. On 1310-11 (“I have suggested that the…”), Althusser is concerned to clarify one key point about the centrality of the “class struggle” (1310) in the birth and existence of Ideological State Apparatuses or ISAs. Why, according to him, is it impossible to leave out consideration of the class struggle when one is speaking about ISAs? In what sense is he thereby bringing his theory back to a more traditional Marxism? Does Althusser’s theory, on the whole, remain faithful to traditional Marxism? Or does the “updating” he performs seem more important than the link to the original theory? Explain.

19. General question: Karl Marx is aptly described as an “economic determinist,” even if that term is perhaps too rigid to capture the nuances in his thinking. It is fair to suggest that any variety of Marxism or Marx-inspired theory will follow Marx’s lead in this regard: that is, there will be some degree of determinism involved. Look up the term “determinism” and write down in your own words a clear, concise definition of it. Then consider Louis Althusser’s own brand of determinism in our selection from “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation).” To what degree does Althusser’s determinism resemble that of the originals Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels? In what key way does it differ from their version? In sum, how has Althusser, like many latter-day Marxist authors, “updated” Marxist theory to suit the epistemological assumptions of later times? To what extent do you credit any version of determinism, Marxist or otherwise? (Freudian psychoanalysis, for example, could be described as deterministic.) Explain.

20. General question: The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism offers selections by a variety of Marxist and Marxism-inspired or inflected authors—see the Alternative Table of Contents (page xxii-xxiii) for a list, but among the most obvious would be Marx and Engels, Antonio Gramsci, Raymond Williams, and Walter Benjamin. Briefly compare and contrast our selection from Louis Althusser’s “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)” with any of the authors on the Norton Marxism list. Which author, in your view, makes the best possible case for Marx, whether directly or by way of considerable adaptation? Explain. (To answer this question, one need not agree with Marx—the question, rather, has to do with who makes the strongest argument in favor of the claims associated with Marx.)

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake