- (1918–1990)A hugely influential French Marxist theorist, Althusser put forward an innovative structuralist reading of Karl Marx. He portrayed Marxism as a science, rejecting humanist interpretations of Marx, and promoting the view that there is a radical break between Marx’s early humanist writings and his later scientific works. Born in Birmandreïs, Algeria, Althusser studied in Lyons and later at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris, where he became a professor of philosophy. He was an activist in the Catholic youth movement in the 1930s, imprisoned in a German prison of war camp during World War II, and joined the French Communist Party in 1948.Althusser’s most significant publications are For Marx (1965), Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (1971), Essays in Self-Criticism (1976), and Reading “Capital” (1970 with Étienne Balibar). In these and other works he advanced the thesis that Marx’s work could be divided into two: the pre-1848 writings which were concerned with human nature, alienation and self-realization; and the writings of 1848 and after which outlined a scientific theory of history and society. These later works superceded the earlier pre-scientific ones and involved a rejection of any notion of human nature or of human beings as the crucial active agents of change in society. Rather, Althusser argued, society is composed of different structural levels that determine human actions and outlooks. The early works were separated from the mature works by what Althusser called an “epistemological break.” This break demarcated two distinct “problematics” or theoretical frameworks characterized by different concepts, presuppositions, values, and questions. The early works, according to Althusser, represented an ideological pre-history of the Marxist science that followed.Althusser, though, did not embrace some form of economic determinism, but instead offered a much more complex and sophisticated model of society and change based on multiple determining factors. Specifically, he introduced the notion of “relative autonomy,” suggesting that the different levels of the social whole were decentered and operated with relative autonomy. In terms of the orthodox Marxist model of society as composed of an economic base that determined the noneconomic superstructure, Althusser’s approach understands the superstructure to be relatively autonomous from the economic base and to act back upon it.
Historical dictionary of Marxism. David Walker and Daniel Gray . 2014.
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