Althusser and ideology


Althusser and ideology


Unlike Gramsci, Althusser encourages the “war of movement” and the need to destroy the state apparatus

on the pages of the german ideology we find an epistemological conception that understands ideology as a distorted view of reality. At the time they wrote the text, Marx and Engels sought to distance themselves from Feuerbach's ideas, but they did not manage to distance themselves from the theory of alienation that is projected in the understanding of ideology as inversion (the “dark chamber”).

Feuerbach had criticized the Hegelian philosophy for being an alienated philosophy that started from consciousness in order to derive the real world from it. With Feuerbach, the proposal of materialist inversion is born: the creation of a philosophy that has being and not consciousness as its starting point. Marx and Engels carried this project forward and replicated Feuerbach's critique of Hegel and his disciples. Ideology is then seen as false consciousness to which the authors oppose the material social process. For this reason, they claim that one should not start, as the Young Hegelians do, from consciousness, from what men think, but from active, real men.

In this epistemological register, ideology assumes an air of unreality, of a ghostly form of consciousness. In the words of Marx and Engels, ideology would be “an imaginary representation of the conditions of existence”.

Althusser starts from this problematic. He notes, however, that the german ideology, a work of rupture, is still marked by the humanist and positivist influence. For Althusser, the antidote to ideology is not “real, active men” but science. Therefore, he contests the thesis of the materialist inversion of the Hegelian dialectic, stating that “you cannot obtain a science by inverting an ideology” (ALTHUSSER: 1967, p. 168). The reference to “active, real men” is understood as a direct influence of Feuerbach's humanist problematic. To break with this ideological formulation, Althusser defends the scientific nature of Marx's thought. Therefore, influenced by Lacan, he corrects the formulation: in ideology, men do not represent their real conditions, their real world, but their relationship with the conditions of existence, therefore, it is an imaginary representation of the real world. And this representation is not a matter of consciousness, but an unconscious structure.


Mode of production and ideology

Marxism, in Althusser, when breaking with humanism, became a science dedicated to the study of structures and, therefore, to the understanding of the mode of production category. In doing so, he sought to rescue the scientific character of Marxism, making it contemporary with the rigor that structuralism demanded of the human sciences.

The context in which Althusser marked his structural interpretation of Marx's legacy was dominated by two themes that were agitating the communist movement at the time: the discussion about the character of socialist society and about the Chinese Cultural Revolution. This discussion, evidently, brought to the center of the debate the relations between the material base and the superstructure, as well as a critique of mechanical determinism. If society is socialist, so is the superstructure: how then to explain Stalinism? What is the need for a cultural revolution in a country that is already communist like China?

To criticize mechanistic views, Althusser revolutionized the traditional interpretation of the mode of production category. But, for that, he also needed to criticize historicist conceptions and, in particular, his Hegelian version. Totality in Hegel, as he observes, is an expressive totality in which the whole is present in each of its parts. In this perspective, the conception of history is based on the belief in a linear, homogeneous time, and also in a time that is contemporary with itself: “all elements of the whole always coexist in the same time, in the same present, and are, therefore, , contemporaries of each other in the same period” (p. 33).

Althusser criticizes this expressive conception of totality and the linear view of historical time. He opposes the first, the conception of a complex structured whole already given. Thus, when he speaks of a mode of production, he states that heterogeneous times, different levels of historicity of different instances coexist in it. These are not expressive parts of the totality that contains them, and they do not maintain symmetrical relationships among themselves that mirror the same determination of the whole. Althusser's totality is also structured in its articulated decentration, in its structural effects: it is, finally, a totality that replaces the simple determination of the material base with overdetermination, a concept imported from psychoanalysis.

Historians such as Braudel, Labrousse and L. Febvre, says Althusser, perceived the discontinuous character of historical time, the existence of short times, medium durations and long durations, but they did not go beyond the observation, they did not see that such variations are variations of the structure of time. The Althusserian project of a structural history has Lévi-Strauss' anthropology as a declared model (p. 48).

Such a model is not satisfied with being a simple “inversion” of the Hegelian dialectic, the replacement of the Idea by successive moments of the economy. For Althusser, there is in Marx a new conception of the relationship between base and superstructure. “The economic dialectic never acts in a pure state”; “neither in the first nor in the last instant, the solitary hour of the “ultimate instance” never sounds” (p. 99). This is because in Marx, unlike Hegel, we are not facing a simple contradiction, but the accumulation of contradictions that coexist in social life. Althusser relies here on the text of Mao Zedong, about the contradiction, which analyzes revolutionary conjunctures. Mao stated that the main contradiction coexists with secondary contradictions, that there are antagonistic and non-antagonistic contradictions, etc. In this way, the temporal vision typical of Hegelian historicism is replaced by a spatial vision in which multiple contradictions coexist, in which they are hierarchical, overdetermined, and the economic instance is ultimately determinant. Therefore, the modifications that occur in the material base do not automatically modify the superstructure, since its various instances have their own temporality and a power of survival.

The mode of production is a complex structure formed by three instances (the economic, the legal-political and the ideological). Thus conceived, it is interpreted as a combination of instances, each with its specific level of historicity. In place of the old simple causality (the superstructure mechanically determined by the base), Althusser proposes structural causality or metonymic causality. There is no direct causality between instances. The economic instance remains the “ultimately” determinant, but another instance may play the dominant role. In the feudal world, for example, the ideological instance (Catholicism) plays this role, as it guarantees social reproduction. But this sphere is overdetermined by the contradictions present in other instances. Thus, structural causality seeks to explain the combination between the various instances of a given mode of production.

The superstructure, it should be insisted, is not a reflection of the base, something offered to the researcher's vision. The concept of overdetermination designates, on the contrary, the absence of structure – an invisible structure that nevertheless produces effects. In the words of François Dosse: “This concept of effectiveness of an absence, this structure defined as an absent cause for its effects, insofar as it exceeds each of its elements, in the same way that the signifier exceeds the signified, approaches to this a-spherical structure that defines the Subject in Lacan, this Subject constructed from the lack, from the loss of the first Signifier”. (DOSSE: 1993, p. 341).

In this extremely abstract plane, ideology loses its inertia and, in its relative autonomy, gains effectiveness, being able to exercise, in some cases, the dominant role over the other instances of the mode of production.


The materiality of ideology

Althusser, in the famous essay State ideology and ideological apparatuses, from 1970, departs from the philosophical abstraction that characterized his texts until then, to understand how the reproduction of production relations takes place. In fact, the essay is a fragment taken from a book that Althusser intended to write and that was only published posthumously in 1995 based on the notes left by the author (ALTHUSSER: 2008). The understanding of the theory on ideological apparatuses becomes clearer when one takes into account the historical moment in which the ideas were conceived and when inserted in the book of which it is only a part.

Several interpreters have already observed that the windstorm of 1968 was a non-existent possibility in Althusser's work (as, indeed, in other authors). Althusser, in an optimistic assessment soon contradicted by history, saw that event, as well as the struggles for national liberation in colonized countries and the black movement in the United States and the women's movement in several countries, the harbinger of an irresistible socialist offensive.

In a delirious forecast, he asserted: “We are entering a century that will see the triumph of socialism across the entire earth. It suffices to observe the irresistible current of popular struggles to conclude that, in a more or less short period of time, and through all possible vicissitudes, including the very serious crisis of the International Communist Movement, the Revolution is, from now on, on the order of the day. Within a hundred years or even, perhaps, fifty, the face of the world will be changed: the Revolution will get the better of the whole earth” (p. 26).

Althusser's texts, from 1968 onwards, were influenced by this voluntarist diagnosis and his approach to Maoism. I cite just one example of this shift to the left: the presentation he wrote, in 1971, for the book by his disciple Marta Harnecker, The Elementary Concepts of Historical Materialism (HARNECKER, 1973). This author, who was the great promoter of Althusser's work, especially in Latin America, had rewritten the book for its sixth edition following the guidance of her master. The social classes that, until then, were seen as the “support” of the structures are now put into action: the class struggle, says Althusser, is “at the heart of the daily practice of the labor movement. It's in the heart of The capital, at the heart of Marxist theory”. It should be remembered that the transition from the realm of structures to that of practices also marks the influence of Michel Foucault who, in the same period, left rigid structuralism behind to focus on practices – in his case, discursive practices.

Praise for Foucault history of madness, however, coexisted with the relentless criticism previously made of neo-anarchist groups that supported the author's ideas. For them, affirmed Althusser, “the essence of exploitation is repression” dispersed in the various institutions and not, as Marxism wants, in the State. Althusser's irritation turned especially against the thesis of the repressive nature of knowledge and its political consequence: “Hence the need for the 'revolt' against the 'authority of knowledge'; hence the “anti-authoritarian” rebellion against the representation of knowledge” (ALTHUSSER: 2008, p. 201) – Marxism itself was thus contested by Foucault's disciples in the student movement.

It may seem surprising that in a moment of social upheaval Althusser gave his book the title about reproduction – which echoes Lévi-Strauss' concerns about the stability of so-called “cold societies”, condemned to not develop. Althusser, however, warns that he initially intends to recall “the nature of exploitation, repression and capitalist ideologization”, promising a second volume in which he will deal with “the class struggle in capitalist social formations” (ALTHUSSER: 2008, p. 21).

As Marx had already dealt in detail with the reproduction of productive forces, Althusser dedicates himself to developing the reproduction of production relations.

Emphatically defending the thesis of the primacy of production relations over productive forces, he criticizes the passages in which Marx affirms the opposite, such as, for example, the misery of philosophy (“With the water mill, we have feudalism, with the steam engine, capitalism”), the Preface of 1859 and the floorplans. He also criticizes the modern humanist theses that assert the primacy of man over the means of production from the moment that, allegedly, “science became a direct productive force” (although he does not cite any author, it is a direct reference to the “autonomist” movement and its main theoretician, Toni Negri).

The defense of the primacy of production relations privileges the synchronic analysis to the detriment of the diachronic one. But what moves Althusser is not the contemplation of stable realities, but the denunciation of capitalist exploitation that takes place in the productive sphere and is perpetuated in reproduction. And reproduction, according to Althusser, takes place thanks to State intervention through its repressive and ideological apparatuses.

The understanding of ideology undergoes a sudden change at this point. It now lives in institutional places, such as school, family, unions, parties, etc. We are no longer in the previous analyzes that opposed science to ideology and that considered the latter something perennial, as can be seen in this quotation: “everything happens as if human societies could not subsist without these specific formations, these systems of representations (of various levels) which are the ideologies. Human societies segregate ideology as the element and atmosphere itself indispensable to their breathing, to their historical life. Only an ideological conception of the world can imagine societies without ideologies” (ALTHUSSER: 1967, p. 205).

Until then, we had a transhistorical understanding in which ideology was always determined by the structure in all existing societies and overdetermined, in capitalism, by the class struggle. The “social imaginary” in which ideology was constituted undergoes an unexpected change of direction when included in the Ideological State Apparatuses (AIE). It is no longer a question of a spontaneous relationship between men and their conditions of existence, nor of the “atmosphere” present in every society. Ideology is now at the service of a system of domination. It lost its “relative autonomy” and began to serve as an instrument to ensure social reproduction. In feudalism, the religious AIE dominated; in capitalism, the school AIE (we remember here that Althusser invited Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron to teach at the École Normale Supérieure).

With this inflection, Althusser observed that Marx “speaks of ideology and that we speak of the ideological State apparatuses (…). Ideology does not exist in the “world of ideas” conceived as the “spiritual world”, but in institutions and in the social practices of these same institutions. We would even be tempted to say that ideology exists in devices and in the practices of these same devices” (ALTHUSSER: 2008, pp. 178-9).

Thus, it can be seen that Althusser moved from a strictly epistemological view (ideology as a representation of the imaginary relationship with the conditions of existence, always seen in opposition to science) to a political view directly influenced by Gramsci.

There is not much similarity between the private and public apparatuses of hegemony listed by Gramsci and the AIEs listed by Althusser. The authors differ, however, in the political conceptions derived therefrom. Gramsci, in the name of hegemony, considers the “war of position” to be fundamental before taking over the State, the struggle within the different institutions. Althusser, strictly speaking, does not disdain this need: the class struggle within the AIE can make “structures creak”, as in the case of students in 1968 in their contestation of the school AIE or progressive priests, with Camilo Torres cited as an example who, by joining the guerrillas, confronted the orientation of the religious AIE. Althusser's sudden shift to the left led him to encourage the “war of movement” and the need to destroy the state apparatus and not the “war of position” advocated by Gramsci.

*Celso Frederico is a retired senior professor at ECA-USP. Author, among other books, of Essays on Marxism and Culture (Mórula).



ALTHUSSER, Louis. Critical analysis of Marxist theory (Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 1967).

ALTHUSSER, L. about reproduction (Petropolis, 2008).

HARNECKER, Martha, The elemental concepts of historical materialism (Cordoba: Siglo Veintiuno, 1973).

DOSSE, Francois, history of structuralism, vol. I (São Paulo: Ensaio/Unicamp, 1993).

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