Louis Althusser and education

Ivor Abrahams, [untitled], 1978


Author introduction to newly published book

A student or researcher interested in the theory of education of the French communist philosopher Louis Althusser can find a recent entry in Encyclopedia of Educational Theory and Philosophy. According to the entry, Louis Althusser's theory of the ideological apparatuses of the state was an attempt to overcome economic determinism. However, the theory failed due to Althusser's structuralism, which, as the entry notes, has been widely criticized for its functionalism and its denial of individual and group agency. The entry concludes that, according to Louis Althusser's theory, students and teachers and others involved in education are “[…] mere puppets for the control of coercive and ideological structures”.

The author of the entry is Raymond A. Morrow, co-author of the seminal tome Social Theory and Education: A Critique of Social and Cultural Theories of Reproduction (1995), which traces the history of social reproduction theory and education, which includes a complete version of this interpretation entry by Louis Althusser. Raymond A. Morrow is not alone in this interpretation. It follows a common sense about Althusser in critical education literature more broadly. A version of Raymond A. Morrow's reading can be found in early foundational texts by the field's founders Michael Apple and Henry A. Giroux to take more contemporary references. The consensus in the field, still prevalent today, is that while Althusser's theory of Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) was an important attempt to understand education in a capitalist society from a Marxist perspective, it failed because of its functionalism. and inability to recognize the concrete agency of people in and around schools.

Although this reading has an air of finalism, in the same year that Raymond A. Morrow's entry in the Encyclopedia was published, Louis Althusser's book On the Reproduction of Capitalism (2014) first appeared in English translation. The significance of this translation should not be underestimated. The book is the complete text from which Althusser's (1970) famous essay on the Ideological State Apparatuses was initially extracted. That essay, called "Ideology and Ideological Apparatuses of the State: Notes for a Survey," more than a generation ago provided the definitive account of Althusser's thinking on education; but the book from which it was taken has rarely, if ever, been mentioned in the educational research literature. It was only available in French in 1993 and was not available to English readers until sixty years after its excerpt was published.

Juxtaposing the Morrow Encyclopedia entry on Althusser and On the Reproduction of Capitalism, published in the same year, addresses the issue of revisiting Althusser's theory of education. Althusser is experiencing something of a renaissance in the humanities and social sciences with several other new translations published, including the first complete English translation of Reading Capital (2016). Part of this resurgence has focused specifically on Ideological State Apparatuses, ideology and reproduction. While some of the early voices suggested such a revision, the more recent return to Louis Althusser has yet to reach educational research. Given that we have the full text from which the original expression of Louis Althusser's groundbreaking theory of education was extracted, and given the new wave of interest in the theory, education scholars should be curious about the content of Louis Althusser's theory of education. Althusser, how the reading of common sense in critical education emerged, and whether this common sense holds up.

Althusser and Education analyze these issues. Following recent examinations of the assumptions and history of critical education, this book is a clarifying project for critical education, both in relation to Althusser's theory of education specifically, how it has been criticized and how it has been advanced; and examining assumptions, frameworks, and axioms in left education thought more generally.

The book has three main parts. In Part I, “Education as an Ideological State Apparatus: Eleven Rules”, I expounded Althusser's theory of education, giving a close educational rereading of the essay on Ideological State Apparatuses as an excerpt from the book from which it was taken, On the Reproduction of Capitalism. The book provides much-needed detail, clarification, and elaboration on the notes to research Althusser did in his essay on Ideological State Apparatuses fifty years ago.

From the educational rereading of this essay, deepened by a reading of the book from which it was originally extracted, eleven golden rules are derived for understanding Althusser's theory of education in its fullness. These rules cover important themes in theory, such as social reproduction, relations of production, structural causality, apparatus, and so on. Table 1 lists these rules and the theoretical terms to which they apply.

Table 1. Eleven Rules of Thumbs for Understanding Althusser's Theory of Education

Source: David Backer (2022, p. 180)

The rules are best summarized as follows. Social reproduction for Althusser is the key to the key to production, the process of maintaining continuity in the dominance of the relations of production preferred by the ruling class (distinctly Marxist compared to earlier references to the concept, such as Durkheim). These production relations are how people hold the means of production in their hands and thus define an economy. Production relations establish positions that people occupy, or roles that they assume, but crucially for Louis Althusser these positions exist immanently rather than transcendentally. The ruling class cannot maintain its preferential production relations solely through economic power, it also needs state power. According to Marx, the state is a superstructure that exerts the kind of downward force necessary to maintain certain dominant relations of production now and over time.

In Louis Althusser's interpretation, based on a distinction by Antonio Gramsci, there are two superstructures: ideological and repressive, the first manifesting itself as imagined relations to real conditions, while the second works through violence. These two apparatuses are relatively autonomous of each other and of the economy, each exerting a special third of the total social force in society. The ideological apparatuses of the State are themselves composed of systems of institutions. These institutions reproduce the dominant ideology to the extent that people in them tread a dominant line.

To follow a line, in this case, means to engage in certain practices that anchor aspects of (and thus reproduce) dominant relations of production. Education is the number one state ideological apparatus in modern capitalist societies, as it instructs so many young people in skills and submission to the dominant ideology. In schools, students are taught to go it alone and to toe the [mainstream] line without a policeman on their heads or the immediate threat of violence. This recruitment, which takes place through what Althusser calls interpellation, does not happen because there is a bunch of evil priests or diabolical leaders pulling people's strings like puppeteers, but takes place largely unconsciously in the everyday experience of class struggle.

All these claims concerning the school and the reproduction of production relations depend on a particular concept of causality, since the apparatuses in this theory are a means to intervene in society, exerting a force towards the interest of some group. After a Spinozist ontological turn, Louis Althusser's concept of causality is structural rather than linear or expressive, distinctive for its emphasis on inequality and complexity, refusing Fustian (or obscure) thinking that – as Althusser cites Hegel citing Schelling (1988) – sees all cows as ashes in the night. According to this structural concept of causality, ideologies do not determine institutions, but rather the opposite. While class struggle impacts schools, it does so through primary ideologies external to them and secondary ideologies internal to them, and these tend to be specific to their context. In this sense, schools contribute to the larger class struggle. The insurgent classes used ideology as a weapon and won victories against the ruling class, making the Ideological State Apparatuses a site of struggle.

The first part of the book explains each of these rules using textual evidence and arguments that Althusser outlined in the essay on Ideological State Apparatuses and detailed with much more premises and elaboration in On the Reproduction of Capitalism. The rules form a basic framework for Althusser's theory of education, embodying crucial philosophical and political premises that support the idea that education is an ideological state apparatus. Overall, I think this is a dynamic and deeply influential Marxist theory of education, whose immanent structural framework emphasizes the complex contribution of schools to class struggle, the large-scale relative autonomy of schools, in Louis Althusser's conception of the base-superstructure, for the meaning of small everyday school gestures in its concept of interpellation.

The theory has been taken up in a different way in education, however. Common sense about Louis Althusser remains stubbornly in place. Left-wing education literatures inherit this interpretation today in the form of the criticisms mentioned at the outset, of which Morrow's entry is just one example.

In Part II, “Common Sense About Althusser: Reassessing Critical Education,” I trace the provenance of that common sense. Using Morrow and Torres' (1995) history of social reproduction theory as a guide, I begin with two founders of critical education, Michael Apple and Henry Giroux, looking at references to Althusser in their early publications, which led Giroux to the book Theory and Resistance in Education, and Apple to your book Education and Power. When it comes to Althusser, I find a mixture of reverence and revulsion, with accompanying indecision and reversals in his readings. I call these readings the Foundations of Critical Education, since the texts that include these inconsistent readings of Althusser have done much to build the assumptions upon which critical education is based, such as the dichotomy between reproduction and resistance.

I also think that Giroux and Apple's readings were based on a number of other interpretations. Giroux went so far as to say that these interpretations were so definitive that they required no further attention. As part of their larger project to contrast critical education with neo-Marxist education, they drew on a line of criticism against Althusser, starting with Jacques Rancière, Michael Erben and Denis Gleeson, Alex Callinicos, Paul Hirst, EP Thompson, RW Connell, and ending with a reading by Paul Willis. While Giroux writes that Althusser has already been interpreted by these authors, so we don't need to, I delve into these texts to reconstruct the line of criticism that Giroux and Apple drew on (but also informed other similar criticisms, such as Clarke's).

I do some historical work to contextualize these criticisms and their authors, summarize their arguments, and show how each account has limitations that Apple and Giroux (and those who followed them, such as Morrow and Torres) did not consider. I use two tests for this reassessment of the texts cited by Apple and Giroux. The first test is whether the text has an argument. The second test is whether this argument raises significant questions for the framework established in Part I.

Generally, the common sense about Louis Althusser in critical education and the line of criticism on which it rests is composed of three platforms: the critique of functionalism, the critique of agency, and the critique of tragedy. The first characterizes Althusser's theory as part of a school of social theory, functionalism, which is at odds with the basic premises of Marxism. This critique points to functionalism's tendency to understand social phenomena as having simple and clear purposes in maintaining balance, and its rooting in non-Marxist trends in intellectual history as a point against Althusser. Functionalism's focus on cohesion and order is ultimately bourgeois, says the critic, and so is Louis Althusser's theory.

Perhaps more devastating, however, is the second platform: that Althusser's theory does not provide an adequate concept of agency. According to this agency critique, the theory is at best silent on the issue of freedom and at worst antithetical to any notion of it. In this view, Althusser's theory makes social forces so strong that they determine the thoughts, actions and group activities of individuals (such as student activists, teachers and the entire working class) or entire institutions (such as schools). Finally, the last criticism is that of tragedy. While Louis Althusser's theory is a worthy attempt to de-Stalinize Marxism, it fails to do so on its own terms.

I think only one of the texts that make up this line of criticism passes the two tests mentioned above, RW Connell's critique of promiscuity. I do not find many convincing arguments in the texts themselves that Althusser's theory of education is functionalist, lacks an account of agency, or fails on its own terms. However, my account in Part II should not, and cannot be, exhaustive. The aim is to show that there is much to be desired in the line of criticism cited by Apple and Giroux in their configuration of critical education, and that critical education researchers must therefore reconsider assumptions in the paradigm (e.g., how the reproduction-resistance dichotomy ).

The general line of criticism is also vulnerable to an argument reduction to the absurd when it comes to those scholars who have applied Althusser's theory. If we assume that line of criticism is true, we would expect there to be little worthy Marxist research inspired by Althusser. We might even expect to see non-Marxists, non-activists, bourgeois functionalists and those committed to capitalist determinism taking up the claims. These claims would reduce social phenomena to their usefulness in maintaining balance, leaving out notions of agency and class struggle. But this is far from being the case.

In Part III, I present a line of studies providing ample evidence to the contrary. This line of study also provides resources to answer a question that has recently arisen in Althusserian studies of education: what would an Althusserian pedagogy look like?

Paulo Freire, perhaps the most famous and important figure in critical education, wrote that Althusser's theory of overdetermination "prevents us from falling into mechanistic explanations or, what is worse, into mechanistic action." This brief mention shows that a figure like Paulo Freire understood Althusser's theory as non-mechanistic rather than functionalist and useful for thinking through political action rather than leaving out a notion of agency. Paulo Freire's passage points to a line of thought produced by a diverse group of researchers on race, gender and nationality that offer meaningful applications, extensions and constructive readings of Althusser's theory of education. Focusing on advances in structure, reproduction, race, gender and ideology, I argue that this line of advance – as distinct from the line of criticism – converges into a distinct paradigm for left-wing education, thinking about what I call structural education, which provides resources for a properly Althusserian pedagogy.

Stuart Hall's work is an undercurrent throughout the line of advancement. His writing on articulation theory, race/class, and codification/decoding, provides a theoretical basis for many of the ideas of the forefront of education, particularly true of Zeus Leonardo's work on whiteness and education. In terms of structural thinking about education, Christian Baudelot and Roger Establet in The Capitalist School in France it is a paradigmatic case of little considered texts inspired by Althusser's theory of education. (I didn't have the time or space to carefully consider all the texts I found, such as Vasconi (1974), that deserve careful translation and study.)

Looking at data from the French school system between 1968 and 1973, the authors use a framework that understands schools as part of an ideological State apparatus that is determined and that determines the class struggle in a social formation. Baudelot and Establet critique the school's ideologies to show that this apparently unified system is really an uneven and bifurcated network structured along class lines. I show how the book's argument is an original research to which Louis Althusser's theory of education gave rise.

Other examples of texts in the forefront include Richard Johnson who, in 1979, outlined an interesting synthesis between Althusserian and Thompsonian arguments when it comes to social reproduction, offering a concept of reproduction-in-struggle. Nicos Poulantzas' (1978) claims about education in the opening essay of Classes and Contemporary Capitalism return to the theme of causality and point to the stupidity of the problematic of bourgeois education, which understands the school as the cause of inequality. Instead, criticizing prominent theories of stratification, he asserts the opposite: an uneven structure is what makes schools the way they are, not the other way around.

The American political economist of education Martin Carnoy clarifies this premise further in his early work on education and the state from the 1980s onwards. Placing the thinking of Althusser and Poulantzas in context with Marx and Engels, Lenin and Gramsci, Carnoy moves on to a theory of mediation. This theory asserts that education – as part of the state – smooths out contradictions and struggles at the grassroots. This theory also includes fundamental contradictions in the contribution of schools to the class struggle as mediators: such as the problem of excessive education, the symbol of democracy, grade inflation and underemployment.

Althusserian theory has also inspired an understudied cohort of Marxist feminist research on gender/class and education. AnnMarie Wolpe is a great example. A fighter for the liberation of African National Congress who, among other things, helped her husband (a companion of Nelson Mandela) to escape prison, uses Althusser to build on Poulantzas' ideas about structural determination to analyze girls' education. She also uses Ideological State Apparatuses theory to think about issues in South African Bantu education.

Other examples include Michèle Barrett's well-known dual systems theory, a unique historical theory of how patriarchy articulates with capitalist exploitation in educational practice. Barrett devotes an entire chapter to the framework of Women's Oppression Today to the education that explains this thought, which I examine. I then look to a cohort of Marxist feminist education researchers that build on Althusser's research, providing examples of Barrett's historical approach to the articulation of patriarchy and capitalism in education.

Madeleine Arnot presented a political economy of girls' education with a focus on docility. Rosemary Deem (2012), in her history of gender and education in Women and Schooling, provides examples of gender/class interpellations from the history of school policy, curriculum and practice. American educational researcher Linda Valli put Althusser's theory of gender/class analysis into a vocational education program focused on girls becoming clerical workers. Like Rosemary Deem, Linda Valli's study provides a case study of questions about what this cohort of Marxist feminists called the sexual division of labor.

Finally, Althusser's theory inspired advances in thinking about ideology, specifically his landmark concept of interpellation. Stuart Hall (1985) made significant advances. He asserted that there are no guarantees in ideology, which emerges from his reading of Althusser's concept of uneven development. Hall (2001) applied these ideas in another seminal essay on encoding/decoding messages in the media, presenting the idea that codes are negotiated in the process of being issued as interpellations to recruit for dominant relations of production, leaving room for oppositional codes. arise through misunderstandings or creative re-articulation. These essays provide a clear and distinct account of contingency, freedom, and contradiction in Althusserian structuralism.

While Hall does not explicitly extend the concept of interpellation to cover oppositional and negotiated codes, Jean-Jacques Lecercle has written about the notion of counter-interpellation to this end, naming what is perhaps implicit in Hall. Lecercle's counter-interpellation refers to the taking and assumption of interpellations that shift a balance of forces, insulting the insult of an interpellation of the dominant ideology. The concept has important implications for critical education. However, the interpellation has been taken in other directions in educational theory.

Tyson Lewis, in his provocative reading of the beginning versus end of Althusser's work, he conceived the disinterpellation, a moment of suspension between interpellation and counter-interpellation, which Lewis claims is more educational than the counter-interpellation. Consistent with Hall's findings on the power of creative misunderstanding and the space of possibility between the encoded message and its decoding, literary theorist James Martel elaborated on the concept of misappellation, or when recruitment fails, or has unintended consequences. He cites the cases of Haitian revolutionaries misinterpreting French appeals to universal dignity and Third World revolutionaries responding to Woodrow Wilson's call to sovereignty, pointing to the ways in which interpellations are subject to the anarchy of everyday life. These developments and enhancements together form a set of resources from which theorists could build an Althusserian pedagogy.

In the Conclusion, I bring together the results of each part of the book to present an account of this pedagogy using the framework of structural education initiated by Althusser's theory of education, extended by the line of advance, and challenged by the line of criticism. This structure is distinct from critical education and enables different insights in left-wing educational thought. To paint broadly, critical education has two fundamental tenets: (1) a critique of dehumanization that, when followed through, can lead to liberation, (2) centralizing human experience against systems through the agency inherent in cultural practices. The line of criticism against Althusser, from Rancière and Thompson to Giroux and Apple covers the second premise of the critical framework for education.

Reflecting on the eleven rules and the line of advancement, I contrast critical education with structural education. Thus, the reassessment of Althusser's theory, as it has advanced, and the foundations of critical education and its line of criticism, at the very least, is an occasion to explore other frameworks such as the structural one, particularly given the new resurgence of socialism in the mainstream in the United States and elsewhere. In the Epilogue, I outline how this framework has helped me in my own teaching, activism and research, a set of practices that I characterize as belonging to an Althusserian pedagogy, and I invite criticism of my interpretation of Althusser established in the text.

*David I Backer Professor of Education Policy at West Charter University.

Translation: Alessandro Melo.


David I. Backer. Althusser and education. Reassessing critical education. London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2022, 228 pages.

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