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Louis Althusser

althusser [1]3,858 words

Editor’s Note:

The following essay was later incorporated into Kerry Bolton’s The Psychotic Left: From Jacobin France to the Occupy Movement [2], available from Black House Publishing [3]

One of the pre-eminent Marxist theorists emerging during the 1960s, having joined the French Communist Party in 1948, Louis Althusser sought to revitalise and update Marxism. His theories have been adapted to formulate a postmodernist Marxism, and he was arguably a founding figure of ‘Structuralist Marxism’[1] – what has been called Althusserianism Marxism[2] — with the publication of his first essays on Marx in La Nouvelle Critique, which were collected into his seminal Pour Marx in 1965. ‘Though this influence is not always explicit, Althusser’s work, and that of his students, continues to inform the research programs of literary studies, political philosophy, history, economics, and sociology’.[3] He has been described by Douglas Johnson, who knew him well since their student days,[4] and who wrote the Introduction to Althusser’s memoirs, as the ‘most influential of western thinkers on Marxism’ next to the Italian Communist theorist Gramsci.[5] For Leftist youth during the 1960s in particular, ‘Althusserianism was the highest stage of Marxism’.[6]

Althusser came to Communism via the need for an identity during his incarceration by the Germans for the duration of World War II, mainly at Schleswig, Stalag XA.[7] He affiliated with the Communists in the concentration camp. The affiliation might be seen as a survival mechanism that extended its duration for the rest of his mentally troubled life. His affiliation prior to this crisis had not been Communism but Catholicism. As a matter of sheer self-interest, affiliation with the Communists, who were the best-organised faction among POW and concentration camp inmates,[8] would seem the best course. A biographical outline of Althusser states of this period:

Later he said that he found life easy because he enjoyed the comradeship of men and behind barbed wires he felt well protected. After the war Althusser started his studies at the École Normale Supérieure, where, with his sense of coming from a ‘different world’, he felt of being a complete stranger.[9]

Here can be seen a sense of alienation and insecurity so deeply felt that Althusser found more security in the ordered and closed life of a German POW camp. The question that might be asked is whether Althusser found in Communism the means of recovering a sense of identity, order and security that he had found as a prisoner. Communism creates a vast prison, not only physical but mental, albeit one with personal certainty for those who subordinate themselves to the system. It is the security of the prison that is actually sought by some personality types who become recidivists to maintain an ordered and structured life, where otherwise freedom in normal society becomes a hardship and even oppression. Althusser found freedom after the German prison alienating. Again, as in the prison camp, he sought out Communism as a means of belonging. A few years later he found in Hélène Rytman a mother-figure who could give him security through total dependence.

Lewis states ‘cycles of deep depression’ had afflicted Althusser since 1938.[10] He had been born into a Catholic family where the father, Charles Althusser, a bank manager, was seen by Louis as ‘an authoritative, distant figure, whose nightmares and shrieks and occasional violent outbursts terrified him’;[11] those nightmares, we might assume, being a legacy of the world war.

In Althusser allegiance to Communism might also be seen as the projection of a conflict between father and son rationalised into an ideology of class struggle: the struggle between the father as the archetypal bourgeoisie, a bank manager, authoritarian, aloof and volatile; representative of capitalism. The family scenario fits Marxian doctrine, which sees the family as inherently repressive.[12] Louis was the downtrodden victim in revolt against patriarchal authoritarianism. He related in his autobiography that he regarded himself since childhood as ‘constantly the victim’ ‘whose work is his escape from is “tombstone of the non-lieu, of silence and public death”’.’[13] His Marxism, which was not to manifest until several years after the war, was his means of projecting his angst onto an entire social order and his literary output in his manic periods was his method of therapy in seeking a meaning and an identity. Interestingly, like the Marxist émigrés from Germany of the Frankfurt School who came to dominate sociology in the USA during and after World War II,[14] a theme of Althusser’s neo-Marxism was its synthesis with the psychoanalysis of Freud:

His dependence on psychiatry was enhanced by his interests in Freud, and as he embarked on his textual examination of Marx he was struck by its similarity to the work that Jacques Lacan[15] was carrying out on Freud. The renowned seminars that the two men held emphasised this parallelism.[16]

His ideological biographer, Gregory Elliott, writes of this Freudian-Marxian synthesis proposed by Althusser and Lacan:

Althusser, then, believed that the cause of Marxist materialism could best be defended in the early 1960s in conjunction with aspects of structuralism. That he turned to contemporary French philosophy, as well as to the Marxist classics, for aid in the construction of a post-Stalinist Marxism, is readily apparent from the affiliations he announced to Lacan’s anti-humanist re-reading of Freud and especially to Bachelardian ‘historical epistemology’. While Althusser was proposing a return to Marx, Lacan was conducting a return to Freud. In an essay dating from 1964 – ‘Freud and Lacan’ – which reopened the dialogue between Marxism and psychoanalysis proscribed by Zhdanovism, Althusser endorsed both Lacan’s construction of Freud and his representation of it as a rejoinder to revisionism.[17]

Immediately after the war Althusser met Hélène Rytman,[18] of Lithuanian-Jewish descent and a Resistance member who had joined the Communist Party during the 1930s, later expelled from the Communist Party for Trotskyite tendencies, whom he would later marry and murder. His first sexual connection with Rytman was immediately followed by the first of Althusser’s depressive episodes and his admittance to Saint-Anne’s Hospital where he was given the first of the electric shock treatments that he was to receive for the rest of his life.[19] Althusser was for most of his life subjected to what has been described as ‘the most aggressive treatments post-war French psychiatry had to offer such as electroconvulsive therapy, narco-analysis, and psychoanalysis’.[20]

In 1961, the year of Khrushchev’s famous repudiation of Stalinism, Althusser became influential as a Communist philosopher, with the publication of his essay ‘On the Young Marx’. He sought a ‘de-Stalinization of the Left’ that was hard-line rather than what he regarded as the deviation from the Left by the USSR under Khrushchev. This, unsurprisingly, brought him closest to a Maoist position, and he lead the pro-China faction within the Communist Party.[21]

During the 1970s and 1980s Althusser’s depression became more severe, and after release from hospital he strangled his wife. Lewis writes of this:

Before he could be arrested for the murder, he was sent to a mental hospital. Later, when an examining magistrate came to inform him of the crime of which he was accused, Althusser was in so fragile a mental state that he could not understand the charges or the process to which he was to be submitted and he was left at the hospital. After an examination, a panel of psychiatrists concluded that Althusser was suffering at the time of the murder from severe depression and iatrogenic hallucinations. Citing a French law (since changed), which states that ‘there is neither crime nor delict where the suspect was in a state of dementia at the time of the action’, the magistrate in charge of Althusser’s case decided that there were no grounds on which to pursue prosecution.[22]

Hélène Rytmann [4]

Hélène Rytman

Althusser strangled Rytman in their rooms at the École Normale Supérieure, and on 16 November 1980 at 8 or 9 am ran into the courtyard in his pyjamas and dressing-gown, shouting repeatedly, in a confused and demented state:  ‘my wife is dead’. He had strangled her while massaging her neck, then had a mental blackout.[23] By the time the police arrived, university colleagues had already taken him to Sainte-Anne’s mental hospital, where he had been previously treated.[24]

After a two-month enquiry by a panel of three psychiatrists, Althusser was sent again to Sainte-Anne’s, where he experienced ‘confusion’ and ‘hallucinations’.[25] Althusser stayed at Saint-Anne’s hospital until 1983, when he was released and permitted to live by himself, walking the streets of northern Paris, shabbily dressed, and confronting strangers with outbursts.[26]

The last ten years of Althusser’s life were spent in frequent hospitalisation and heavily medicated. He died of a heart attack in 1990 at La Verrière, west of Paris.[27]

Oedipus Conflict as Basis of Althussian Marxism

Despite his ongoing mental state Althusser continued to be widely discussed as a ‘fashionable Marxist’ with ‘powerful connections’.[28] He was often disputatious even within the Communist Party, partly due to his adherence to Maoism.[29]

Althusser’s symptoms, including his moments of creative output together with his frequent episodes of severe depression, hallucinations and finally the murder of his wife, indicate manic-depressive (Bipolar I) psychosis.

In his autobiography The Future Lasts Forever, written several years after his release from Sainte-Anne’s hospital, Althusser returned to the theme that shaped his life, a of feeling depersonalisation. As previously noted, Althusser came out of a World War II German POW camp with a sense of alienation and of being one of a ‘missing’ generation. His release from Saint-Anne’s left him with the same feeling as ‘those victims of world wars and disasters who are reported missing’:

If I speak of this strange situation it is because I have experienced it and to a certain extent experience it still. Even though I have been out of psychiatric hospital for two years, I am still a missing person for the public who have heard of me. I am neither alive nor dead and, though I have not been buried, I am ‘bodiless’. I am simply missing which was Foucault’s splendid definition of madness.[30]

This sense of ‘bodilessness’ however was not a symptom that was caused by either the POW experience or the release from Saint-Anne’s. Althusser traces it back to his birth. He had been named after his father Charle’s brother, Louis, whom his mother had intended to marry. In contrast to Charles, Althusser speaks of uncle Louis — whom he could not have met — as a man of much warmth. However, when the two bothers went to war, Louis did not return,[31] and she married Charles instead.  Whereas his mother’s relationship with Louis had been a platonic intellectual idyll, and Althusser was to later remark about the burden of sexual organs,[32] Charles returned to war, and left Althusser’s mother ‘robbed, raped, and shattered; physically brutalised, deprived of the savings she had patiently accumulated . . .’’[33] He was to always regard his mother as a ‘martyr, bleeding like a wound’. He also saw his mother not only as suffering for her husband and for the home, but also as both ‘a masochist’ and ‘dreadfully sadistic’. Althusser’s perception was that she wanted both her husband dead — despite Charles’ ‘worshipping’ her[34], hardly the tyrant Althusser conjures — as well as himself, as Charles was ‘associated’ with his brother’s death, and ‘she could not help wanting me dead, as the Louis she loved was dead’.[35] Althusser’s Oedipal castigation of his father as a tyrant seems to be based on Charles’ having insisted on the normative gender roles between husband and wife which placed her at the centre and organiser of the home, children, education, and holidays, in which Charles would seldom interfere.[36] Althusser alludes to this as ‘the role to which he [Charles] had confined her’, albeit one which did not preclude her playing an outspokenly assertive role even in the public company of her husband.[37] ‘Confronted with her terrible pain’ Althusser had regarded his mission in life as devotion to his mother, ‘body and soul’, to relieve his enormous sense of anguish and guilt; ‘an unshakable conviction’ that this was the meaning of his life.[38] To Althusser, his father would remain an unbearable authoritarian given to occasional violent outbursts.[39] However, it was not the ‘occasional outbursts’ that Althusser ‘feared’ from his father but his being a man of few words.[40] Nonetheless, he was also a witty conversationalist among friends,[41] and it seems that Charles was to his son many things, none of which Althusser could find to be acceptable.

Charles was the great scapegoat for Althusser’s lifelong angst.

Jacques Lacan (who collaborated with Althusser in the formation of a Marxian-Freudian synthesis) insisted on the primary importance of the Oedipus complex.[42]

Althusser detested his Christian name, Louis, as being too short and as suggesting the meaning ‘yes’, ending with a sharp ‘ee’.[43] Louis, being the name of the dead uncle, also ‘above all, contained the sound of the third person pronoun (“lui”) which deprived me of any personality of my own, assuming as it did an anonymous other… it was him my mother loved, not me’;[44] ‘a dead man’s name’.[45]

If he hated his father, his attitude towards his mother was ambivalent: the feeling of trying to redeem himself before her for being the wrong Louis, and yet one of disgust when his mother commented with pride on his having reached manhood when he began to wet-dream at thirteen. The mother’s prideful discovery filled young Althusser with ‘shame’, ‘degradation’ and ‘a sense of rebellion’, and a feeling of being ‘raped’, feelings that stayed with him his entire life:

 It was truly a form of rape and castration. I had been raped and castrated by my mother, who felt she had been raped by my father (but that was her affairs, not mine). Family fate was indeed inescapable. But the horror of what happened was intensified by the fact that my mother pattered this obscenity and behaved so unnaturally in considering it to be her duty (whereas it should have been my father who did it).[46]

Atlhusser’s ambiguous attitude towards his mother included erotic feelings, yet it was the dead Louis whom she loved through her son.[47]

Being raised in early childhood in Algeria where his father managed a bank, Althusser longed for friends but his mother forbade it. He arrived at school with his Moorish maid, young Louis dressed smartly but feeling ashamed for appearing rich and privileged (despite the family’s poor circumstances).[48] Yet when he attended the high school at Algiers he was conscious of his being among rich boys being taken to school in chauffeured cars.[49] Again, there was the feeling of self-inflicted isolation, this time based on class, and a perception that he did not fit anywhere; neither among rich nor poor.

It has been objected by Althusser apologist Gregory Elliott that Atlhusser’s philosophy should not be judged on ad hominem depictions of its creator as a madman:

‘I am one thing, my writings are another’, proclaimed Nietzsche in his putative autobiography.[50] The point applies to Althusser, as to any other thinker: the genesis, the structure, the validity, and the effectivity of a body of thought are analytically distinct issues for any inquiry that aims at something other than ad hominem incrimination or exculpation of ideas.[51]

Elliott criticises the headlines of the Western press at the time of Althusser’s murder of his wife, such as ‘Marx and Murder’ and ‘A Marxist Murderer’, with the general tenor of ‘Marxism=Madnesss=Murder’.[52]

Yet an entire school of Leftist sociological and psychoanalytical interpretation has been formulated around the concept of the Right and even of normative, ‘conservative’ values, such as loyalty to family and affection for parents, being interpreted as symptoms of mental ill-health, and of latent ‘Fascism’, the so-called ‘F’ factor in the theories of Adorno et al.[53] ‘Lunatic fringe’ is routinely used to label anything broadly non-Left, Nazism is portrayed as a manifestation of psychopathy,[54] and anything of the ‘right’ as a manifestation of Nazism, or as being latently Nazi. Hence for example even the Conservative Member of Parliament, Enoch Powell, made ‘infamous’ for his ‘rivers of blood’ speech when trying to warn of the dangers of alien immigration into Britain, was compared to the Nazis by the Labour Party stalwart Tony Benn, who stated: ‘The flag of racialism which has been hoisted in Wolverhampton is beginning to look like the one that fluttered 25 years ago over Dachau and Belsen’.[55] Such comparisons are essential components of Leftist smear tactics, yet there is indignation when, as Gregory Elliott protested in regard to the murder by Althusser of his wife, some of the press equated Marxism with murder and madness, although the approximately 100,000,000 victims of Communism[56] attest to Marxism as an intrinsically psychopathic creed.

The question to be asked is whether Althusser’s personality can be detached from his ideology, as with Marx, Trotsky, Mao, Lenin, et al.? Was his neo-communist doctrine formulated through empirical evaluations of history, or as a projection onto the world of his Oedipal struggle rationalised as class struggle? The fact that, like the Frankfurt School of Adorno et al., Althusser synthesised Freudianism with Marxism indicates that he saw in Marxism a therapeutic rationalisation for his own mental torments. Althusser’s strangulation of his wife, who served as a proxy for his mother, was his individual act of revolutionary liberation, yet one in which the supports of his very existence were self-destroyed.

 * * *

It is seldom that the Left is held up to socio-psychoanalytic examination, and as Adorno et al., attempted to ‘prove’ the Left – from Liberalism to Marxism – is considered at the very least acceptable among polite society. Consider for example the differences in treatment meted out to the few academics that adhere to a conservative position,[57] who are regarded as anathema by their colleagues, while the most extreme Communists in academia are regarded as perfectly acceptable.

However, a consideration of the psychopathy of Leftist theorists and leaders is entirely relevant to a consideration of Leftist ideologies, given that the Left, whether under the name of Jacobinism in 18th century France, Communism in China and the early USSR, or the Jim Jones cult synthesising ‘Christianity’ with Marxism, has the most psychopathic record of any doctrine of the modern era. One might well ask, when the psychopathy of the Left in theory accords with the psychopathy of the Left in practice, whether its theorists, leaders and functionaries at all levels are projecting their own psychopathic traits onto the world and enacting their personal torments behind the mask and with the rationalisation of ‘idealism’?

As ‘The Psychopathology of the Left’ and ‘Leftist Personality Types’ have attempted to show, seminal influences on the Left, including Marx, Trotsky, Marat, et al., have been afflicted with profoundly flawed personalities. It is legitimate to ask whether these flaws have manifested in their contributions to the formulation of intensely destructive ideologies? Next we will consider observations on the psychopathology of the lower level adherents of the radical Left, and the personality traits of Mao Zedong.


[1] Gregory Elliott, Althusser: The Detour of Theory, Historical Material Book Series, Vol. 13 (Leiden: Brill, 2006), p. 48. Althusser applied methods of French structuralism. Cf. Gregory Elliot, p. 163: Althusser met the structuralists ‘more than half-way’.

[2] Gregory Elliott, xvii.

[3] William Lewis, ‘Louis Althusser’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2009/entries/althusser/ [5]

[4] Douglas Johnson in Louis Althusser, The Future Lasts Forever: A Memoir (New York: The New Press, 1992), ‘Interaction’, p. vii.

[5] Douglas Johnson, ‘Introduction’, ibid., p. v.

[6] Gregory Elliott, p. 190.

[7] http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/althusse.htm [6]

[8] For example, the Communists ‘ran’ Buchenwald concentration camp. When the Americans entered the camp they were astounded to see that 300 communists ran the camp and were dressed like ‘prosperous business men’.  See: Donald B Robinson, ‘The Communist Atrocities at Buchenwald’, American Mercury, October 1946, pp. 397-404; R H S Crossman, ‘Buchenwald’, Nation, July 30, 1945, pp. 123-125.

[9] Petri Liukkonen, ‘Louis Althusser’, Kuusankosken kaupunginkirjasto, 2008, http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/althusse.htm [6]

[10] William Lewis, Ibid.

[11] Petri Liukkonen, op. cit.

[12] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975), p. 68. Here the ‘bourgeois family’ is described as founded on ‘private gain’. Trotsky, in lamenting the reversal of many orthodox Marxist doctrines by Stalin, comments on the early years of Bolshevik state having made ‘an heroic effort to destroy the so-called “family hearth” – that archaic, stuffy and stagnant institution…’ Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed (London: New Park Publications, 1967), p. 144, ‘Family, Youth, Culture’.

[13] Douglas Johnson, op. cit., ‘Introduction’, ix.

[14] K R Bolton, ‘”Sex Pol” Ideology: The Influence of the Freudian-Marxian Synthesis on Politics & Society’, Journal of Social, Political & Economic Studies, Vol. 35, no. 3, Fall 2010, pp. 329-355.

[15] Like the Marxian social scientists of the Frankfurt School, Lacan saw psychoanalysis as a means of creating the therapeutic society where the social structure as a whole would be transformed on the basis of psychiatric theory to ensure general mental health according to the definitions provided by the social scientists themselves. See, K R Bolton, Sex Pol Ideology’, ibid.

[16] Douglas Johnson, op. cit., viii.

[17] Gregory Elliott, op. cit., p. 48.

[18] She would also become a patient of the same psychiatrist as Althusser, although it is suggested that she might have done so in order to better supervise her husband. See: Douglas Johnson, ibid., xiv.

[19] Petri Liukkonen, ibid.

[20] William Lewis, Ibid.

[21] Gregory Elliot, pp. 168-178, pp. 246-253.

[22] William Lewis, Ibid.

[23] Louis Althusser, op cit., p. 15.

[24] Douglas Johnson, op. cit., ‘Introduction’, v.

[25] LouisAlthusser, op cit., p.  18.

[26] Ibid., ‘Introduction’, vi.

[27] Petri Liukkonen, op. cit.

[28] Douglas Johnson, ‘Introduction’, vi.

[29] Gregory Elliott, op. cit., p. 17.

[30] Louis Althusser, The Future is Forever, op. cit., p. 23.

[31] Ibid., p. 36.

[32] Ibid., p. 36.

[33] Ibid., p. 38.

[34] Ibid., p. 44.

[35] Ibid., p. 38.

[36] Ibid., p. 43

[37] Ibid., p. 43.

[38] Ibid., p. 38.

[39] Ibid., p. 43.

[40] Ibid., p. 44.

[41] Ibid., p. 45.

[42] Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection (London 1997) p. 66.

[43] Louis as ‘Lui’, and the French word for ‘yes’, ‘oui’, is being referred to.

[44] Louis Althusser, The Future is Forever, op. cit., p. 39.

[45] Ibid., p. 54.

[46] Ibid., p. 51.

[47] Ibid., p. 54.

[48] Ibid., p. 52.

[49] Ibid., p. 57.

[50] Nietzsche’s mental breakdown marked the end of his work, whereas Louis Althusser was afflicted with mental health problems throughout his life, and his work was written during his periods of mania as a projection of his own troubled psyche. The comparison between Nietzsche and Althusser is therefore, I contend, not legitimate.

[51] Gregory Elliot, op. cit., p. 322.

[52] Ibid., p. 322.

[53] T W Adorno, et al The Authoritarian Personality. See: K R Bolton, “Sex Pol” Ideology’, op. cit.

[54] R G L Waite, The Psychopathic God: Adolf Hitler (De Capo Press, 1993).

[55] James Cotton, ‘Enoch Powell: Voice of the Nation’, Traditional Britain Group, http://www.traditionalbritain.org/content/enoch-powell-voice-nation-james-cotton [7]

[56] See: Robert Conquest, The Human Cost of Soviet Communism, Senate Judiciary Committee, subcommittee Internal Security (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1971)p. 25. Conquest estimates 20 to 30 million killed in the USSR. Chang and Hallidfay in their definitive biography of Mao estimate ‘well over 70 million deaths’. Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: the Unknown Story (London: Jonathan Cape, 2005), p. 3.

[57] For example, the Australian academic Prof. Andrew Fraser who was suspended from Macquarie University in 2005 for has written a letter to a newspaper questioning Sudanese immigration to Australia.  S Sailer, ‘Diversity vs. Freedom’, http://www.vdare.com/articles/diversity-v-freedom-chapter-clxxxvii-the-case-of-andrew-fraser [8]

Source: Ab Aeterno, no. 11, April-June, 2012.