Louis Althusser (2003) The Humanist Controversy and Other Writings, ed. F. Matheron, trans. G. M. Goshgarian.

London: Verso, ISBN 1-85984-507-X.

Theory’s Long March: Louis Althusser 1966-7

John Seed

There has been something of an Althusser renaissance in the last decade or so. A plethora of mostly unpublished writings by Althusser appeared in France during the 1990s. These include five volumes of philosophical and political writings and two volumes of psychoanalytical writings. A variorum edition of Lire le Capital and a new edition of Pour Marx, with additional material by Etienne Balibar, were also published in 1996. In addition, two separate versions of what is sometimes called his ‘autobiography’, L’Avenir dure longtemps, suivi de Les Faits, have appeared, as have a collection of letters, his prison journals and letters, and the first volume of a substantial biography. Much of this newly published material has quickly found its way into English translation. In addition, there have been several valuable engagements in English with the work of Althusser during the last ten years or so (for instance: Resch, 1992; Elliott, 1994; Kaplan & Sprinkler, 1994, Callari & Ruccio, 1996; Butler 1997); recent special issues of Yale French Studies (1995) and Rethinking Marxism (1998) were also devoted to him. There is no sign of interest coming to a halt: 2003 saw the publication of useful monographs on Althusser by Warren Montag and Andrew Levine.

The Humanist Controversy and Other Writings collects a number of important but unpublished texts, from Ecrits philosophiques et politiques, produced during the pivotal years 1966-67. With much of the material we are on familiar ground: the question of Marx’s theoretical revolution. There is extended discussion of the epistemological break into the science of history inaugurated by The German Ideology in 1845. This is the primary concern of ‘On Feuerbach’, a substantial text of nearly 70 pages. It argues not only that Feuerbach’s theoretical positions are incompatible with the historical materialism which Marx develops in his mature work, but that they embody the same procedures as every form of phenomenology and hermeneutics to the present day. The long introduction to ‘The Humanist Controversy’ is another careful critical account of the early writings of Marx and their relations to Hegel and Feuerbach. Althusser calls it ‘my very brief analysis of the moments punctuating the theoretical history of the formation of Marx’s thought’ (266). And ‘The Historical Task of Marxist Philosophy’ covers much the same ground, though in a more direct pedagogic mode.1

Where this collection begins to break new ground is in the insights it provides into what the translator appositely calls ‘Theory’s long march through the French Communist Party’. For instance ‘The Humanist Controversy’ (1967) is the lengthy introduction to a book – La Querrelle de l’humanisme – which Althusser had pretty much finished. It would have included two texts initially published in journals and collected in For Marx, including ‘Marxism & Humanism’, plus several essays, pro and contra, which these pieces sparked off, mostly in the pages of La Nouvelle Critique. Althusser’s introduction opens with an ironic narrative of how ‘Marxism & Humanism’ had come to be written. It began with an invitation from Erich Fromm to contribute to a collection of essays on socialist humanism to be published in New York. The ironies multiply because this invitation had been engineered by Adam Schaff, a leading ideologue of the Polish Communist Party who had assured a dubious Althusser that as a humanist Fromm was also a liberal and would allow dissenting voices in his book. Althusser acknowledged that his essay — ‘very short and too clear’ – was a provocation: ‘I went right to the point, with tolerably unrefined arguments and concepts (a sledgehammer opposition of science and ideology) that would, if they did not quite manage to convince, at least hit home’ (224).

After several months Fromm eventually responded to this attack on socialist humanism with a rejection: ‘He was terribly, terribly sorry’. ‘Thanks to the liberalism of Critica Marxista‘, Althusser quips, and of the Cahiers de l’ISEA — theoretical journals of respectively the Italian and French Communist Parties — the piece was published in the spring of 1964. It provoked a critical response from Jorge Semprun and a lively debate in the pages of La Nouvelle Critique. This led to a general assembly of Communist Philosophers in January 1966, in which positions were bitterly polarised, and ultimately to a meeting at Argenteuil. Here the Central Committee of the PCF finally resolved, after three days of debate, that there was indeed a Marxist humanism and set about closing down any further critical assaults on its ideological bastions. Unlikely as it seems in the vacuous political culture of the present, serious and sustained philosophical argument shaped the terms in which key theoretical/ political positions of a major European political party were being fought out in the mid-1960s. As Althusser recognised at the time:

All of us sense that, riding on the small change of a few concepts or words that are now being sorted out, is the outcome of a game in which we all have a stake, of which this ‘discussion’ of Humanism by a few philosophers is an echo, close to hand and infinitely remote: the way we should understand Marx, and put his ideas into practice. (226)

From being at the intellectual margins of the PCF, unable to get some of his key articles published in party journals, Althusser had his brief moment at the centre of a public political debate in the summer of 1966. Subsequently he was once more consigned to the margins, though now with a dangerous reputation and a significant following among a younger generation. As Dominic Lecourt has recalled: ‘Althusser was the prince of philosophers, the hero of thought who was defying the Comminist Party authorities, the one who was going to save Marx from Marxism and the Marxists’ (Lecourt 2001; see also Macherey 1999).

‘The Historical Task of Marxist Philosophy’ has an equally interesting history. In April 1967 Althusser unexpectedly received a letter from the general editor of the Soviet philosophical journal Voprosy filosofi, soliciting a contribution to its special issue for the Fiftieth Anniversary of the October Revolution. Althusser was disdainful of the ‘right-wing revision’ of Marxist theory in the ascendant in Moscow. The Soviet ‘fish’, he told a former student at this time, was ‘rotting from the head down’. Nevertheless, the outcome of this tainted invitation was a lengthy text, some 45 single-spaced typed pages, which developed and questioned some of the basic positions which Althusser had developed in For Marx and in Reading Capital. Translated into Russian in France, it did not appear in the anniversary issue of Voprosy filosofi, was subsequently edited (or censored) at the Soviet end and then disappeared altogether. It was never published in the USSR. In France it was recognised by Badiou as important enough to serve as the theoretical manifesto of the new journal Theorie, which Althusser and his collaborators were about to launch in the summer of 1967. It also got as far as proof stage as a short book in a new Maspero series. However, neither the journal nor the book materialised. Only a few sections of ‘The Historical Task of Marxist Philosophy’ found their way into print — in a 1968 collection of Althusser’s writings published in Budapest, Hungary.

It is hardly surprising then that in 1966 we find Althusser investigating relations between politics and philosophy. A few years later in various places — in, for instance, ‘Lenin and Philosophy’ — Althusser publicly announced his rejection of his earlier conception of philosophy as somehow standing above politics. As he put it, ‘philosophy “represents” the class struggle in the realm of theory, hence philosophy is neither a science, nor a pure theory (Theory), but a political practice of intervention in the realm of theory’. We begin to see in some of these writings how Althusser was already questioning and rethinking the relations of philosophy and political practice in 1966, a matter of months after the publication of For Marx and Reading Capital. In the final section of ‘The Historical Task of Marxist Philosophy’ in particular there is an extremely interesting attempt to explore this question. Philosophy alone, he argues, is positioned at the articulation of the system of social practices and the system of theoretical practices. And Althusser explores what it means to propose: ‘The object of philosophy is not politics but philosophy is political by nature’ (217).

This is mapped in an unusually explicit form in ‘The Philosophical Conjuncture and Marxist Theoretical Research’ — a lecture given at a specially-convened public session in June 1966, which subsequently circulated widely in typescript and enjoyed a semi-public status. Here Althusser sketches out a particular kind of political history of philosophy. He stressed the immense weight in twentieth-century France of a reactionary and narrow-minded philosophical spiritualism allied with the Church and the aesthetic. It is a tradition which systematically marginalised a whole series of important French thinkers. Saint-Simon, Fourier, Comte, Cournot, Durkheim are just some of those, according to Althusser, whose work requires rehabilitation.

Against this tradition of philosophical spiritualism in France stand two movements. First there was a critical, rationalist idealism, often involving a return to Descartes, Kant, Hegel or Husserl. Some of the proponents of this kind of rationalist idealism – Merleau-Ponty, Ricoeur — have tended to drift back towards philosophical spiritualism, Althusser thinks. But others have forcibly attacked this dominant tradition: he particularly singles out Sartre, Hyppolite and Geroult, as well as some Marxist philosophers and some philosophers/historians of science (Cavailles, Bachelard, Koyre, Canguilhem). But second, there has been more recently a breaking out of the problematic of critical, rationalist idealism. The influence of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, Althusser announces, is beginning to fade: ‘The truly vital work that is now being done is being done elsewhere — around Marx, Freud, and also Nietzsche; around Russell, Frege and Heidegger; around linguistics, epistemology and the history of the sciences’ (8).

Not only the problematic of traditional philosophical spiritualism but also that of the ‘human’ sciences and critical, rationalist idealism are now being challenged – often under the aegis of Levi-Strauss or Bachelard or Lacan. The political implications of this for a renewed Marxist philosophy are complex. On the one hand Marxists must stand with the critical, rationalist idealists against the deeply conservative hegemony of philosophical spiritualism in France. But they must also be critical allies of the former. Hence for Marxists the complexities of strategic and tactical alliances in an intellectually fluid situation. Indeed the struggle against critical, rationalist idealism occurs within marxist theory itself where there are, Althusser warns, all kinds of distortions and misinterpretations — even versions of philosophical spiritualism.

The ambiguities of political/intellectual alliances in France are further explored in ‘On Levi-Strauss’, a long critical letter which circulated during 1966. Despite some commendatory remarks on Levi-Strauss and his scientific approach, this letter provided a cogent critique not just of structuralist anthropology but of anthropology per se. According to Althusser, Levi-Strauss conceives of ‘primitive societies’ as outside history — as primitive not simply in a relative but in an absolute sense, in other words as primordial or originary. This is Rousseau’s old myth. Anthropology, according to Althusser, is merely an ethnological ideology. From a Marxist perspective there are no primitive societies only historical social formations. Levi-Strauss manages to explore kinship structures without ever noting that these are in fact relations of production intelligible only as a function of the modes of production which underpin them. ‘On Levi-Strauss’ was liberally cited in Emmanuel Terray’s Le Marxisme devant les sociétés ‘primitives’, published in the series which Althusser edited for Maspero.

This kind of direct engagement with the work of a contemporary is unusual in Althusser — and this one of course was never published. It is a pity that he generally restricted such cogent critical readings to the texts of Hegel, Feuerbach and Marx, and that there is not more critical engagement with his contemporaries. For instance, his polemic against historicism and humanism in the 1960s never confronted Sartre directly. When be finally did so in 1972 in his ‘Reply to John Lewis’, the results were disappointing, to say the least. Sartre was dismissed as a humanist and an idealist, a bourgeois philosopher of freedom, a ‘pre-Marxist and pre-Freudian ideologue’. And yet nobody had done more to open up Marxist theory to critical treatment in the 1950s than Sartre in The Critique of Dialectical Reason and especially in the long introductory essay, Search for a Method. There are a number of echoes of this essay in Althusser’s writing. And who else had exerted so much energy in France at this time in exploring the ways in which Marx and Freud could be articulated together as Sartre had in The Family Idiot?

Another missed engagement is with the powerful schools of historians in France in the ’50s and ’60s, especially those around Annales. Braudel clearly exerted an influence on Althusser’s thinking about differential temporality. And in ‘The Philosophical Conjuncture and Marxist Theoretical Research’ he points to a crucial question that remained undeveloped in the theory of theoretical practice — the question of empirical knowledge. The failure to deal with this issue led to conflict with those — historians and sociologists in particular — whose commitment is precisely to the production of empirical knowledge. This question is deferred to work in progress, his projected book on the union of theory and practice. And in ‘The Historical Task of Marxist Philosophy’, Althusser seems to gesture towards a more cooperative relation to empirical work. Having patiently explained his concepts of ‘structural causality’ and ‘overdetermination’, he comments: ‘I do not claim that these formulations . . . are satisfactory. They have to be tested, developed and rectified’ (201).

Contentious issues of the trajectory of Marx’s writings and of the political role of philosophy stand at the centre of the pieces collected in The Humanist Controversy and Other Writings. But so too does a concern only signalled in For Marx and Reading Capital and which did go some way towards building more productive relations between theory and empirical knowledge. It was to become Althusser’s most influential theoretical contribution: the question of ideology. ‘Althusser’s doctrine of interpellation continues to structure contemporary debate on subject formation’, as Judith Butler has remarked. (Butler 1997, 106) The inadequacy of existing notions of ideology in current Marxist work is reiterated throughout this book. In the ‘The Philosophical Conjuncture and Marxist Theoretical Research’, for instance, the tasks for Marxist philosophy included the theory of ideology and, more specifically. ‘The theory of a particular structural effect: what we might call the subjectivity effect or theory of the subject’. This is taken much further in ‘Three Notes on the Theory of Discourses’, part of a remarkable project in 1966 and ’67 in which Althusser and four other collaborators, including Badiou, Balibar and Macherey, were to cooperate to produce a work titled Elements of Dialectical Materialism. Though some 400 pages of typescript were produced the work was never completed.

Initially concerned with questions inherited from For Marx about the status of psychoanalysis as a regional theory of an absent general theory, the argument of ‘Three Notes on the Theory of Discourses’ moves in a quite different direction and begins to explore questions subsequently taken up in the 1969 essay, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’. This seminal text had put forward three propositions about ideology. First, ideology is a ‘representation’ of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence. This conception, already elaborated in For Marx, moved beyond clumsy notions of false consciousness. Second, the Gramscian insight: ideology has a material existence. And third, ideology interpellates individuals as subjects. ‘Three Notes on the Theory of Discourses’ has little to say on the first two propositions but it has much to say on the third and perhaps the most difficult one:

The structure requires Trager: ideological discourse recruits them for it by interpellating individuals as subjects to assume the functions of Trager. The conscription carried out by the structure is blank, abstract, anonymous: the structure does not care to know who will assume the functions of Trager. Ideological discourse provides the who: it interpellates individuals in the general form of the interpellation of subjects. (55)

It is then through the interpellation of the individual as a subject that ideology is articulated with economic and political structures.

Althusser does not develop here the concept of interpellation in terms of being hailed by a voice which names and in naming constitutes the subject. However he does several other things. First, he explores the different subjectivity effects of different discourses. In ideological discourse the subjectivity-effect is present in person and is thus the primary signifier of this discourse, which has a structure of ‘speculary centring’. In scientific discourse by contrast the subject-effect is absent in person and is thus not a signifier of this discourse — it possesses a de-centred structure, a system of abstract relations whose elements are concepts. Aesthetic discourse is different again. Here the subject-effect is present through the mediation of others via a combination of several signifiers — i.e. a structure of cross-references and multiple subjects. If a single subject became signifier this discourse would lapse into ideology (50).

At this point Althusser focuses more closely on how ideological discourse interpellates the individual as a subject. One way in which ideology works, he suggests, is by providing the individual with reasons for the carrying out of that function — reasons made explicit within the discourse of ideology. Ideology is not a commandment, it has no force to use. It involves persuasion and conviction. Ideology, in the words of Althusser, ‘must provide its own guarantees for the subject it interpellates’. The centring structure of ideology is a structure of guarantee. But Althusser does not pursue very far this more conventional notion of ideology as a matter of rational argument, conviction, consciousness. Instead he continues to probe ideology’s subject-effect — and how this in turn requires or produces an unconscious-effect: ‘the interpellation of human individuals as ideological subjects produces a specific effect in them, the unconscious-effect, which enables these human individuals to assume the function of ideological subjects’ (56). Althusser is not, he says, attempting to demonstrate that the unconscious is produced by the subject-effect of ideological discourse — but having noted the autonomy of the unconscious-effect, he is interested in exploring its articulation with ideological discourse and how it ‘induces’ a specific subject and ‘is essential to the functioning of the system thanks to which the individual assumes the role of ideological subject interpellated as an ideological subject by ideological discourse’ (56). In other words, the unconscious is essential to the functioning of the ideological subject — though this is just one of its functions.

When any patient describes to his therapist his dreams or his feelings he is speaking within ideological discourse. At the same time, the unconscious exerts its effects in certain situations of everyday life — family, work, etc. The unconscious functions on ideology, though always in specific forms and never in an undifferentiated and unconstrained way. And this is relevant to the interpellation of the individual as a subject when a child — the complex forms in which the unconsciousness of the two parents are articulated with ideological discourses to shape the child. Here Althusser is cautiously exploring the complex interplay between the unconscious as conceptualised by Freud and Lacan and his own version of the Marxian concept of ideology. At this crucial point Althusser’s argument begins to lose its way and drifts to a close with some thoughts on the benefits that could accrue from the regional theory of psychoanalysis being brought into relationship with two general theories — the theory of the signifier and historical materialism, the latter intervening in the former. It would break psychoanalysis out of its isolation and connect it up with a wider field of scientific work. It would give critical support to Lacan’s project. And, it would provide a critical but sympathetic way of reading Freud’s various cultural texts — Totem and TabooMoses and MonotheismLeonardo, and so on.

As already noted, several key dimensions of the later concept of interpellation in ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’ are missing here. In particular, Althusser had described the subject-constituting power of ideology through the figure of a divine voice that names, and in naming brings its subjects into being. But that essay had also posited the relation between the subject and the Subject (‘a Unique, Absolute, Other subject, i.e. God’) as a ‘double-mirror connection’ through which each subject can recognisehimself, or herself, in the Subject. This dimension of interpellation is touched on in ‘Three Notes on the Theory of Discourses’:

In order for the individual to be constituted as an interpellated subject, it must recognize itself as a subject in ideological discourse, must figure in it: whence a first speculary relation, thanks to which the interpellated subject can see itself in the discourse of interpellation. (52)

Here and in several sections of ‘On Feuerbach’ we can see Althusser patiently but boldly rethinking the concept of ideology.

The Humanist Controversy and Other Writings consists of much more than the minor unfinished, marginal remnants of a main and fully-published body of work. Here we have available for the first time works which were pivotal in Althusser’s oeuvre and which circulated among his collaborators and exerted a significant influence on a new generation. The ‘Althusserian moment’ was remarkably productive in France.2 And indeed it continues to be so. Several of Althusser’s immediate disciples of the 1960s — Etienne Balibar, Pierre Macherey, Alain Badiou, among others have continued to produce important work. This book is of immense historical interest in another way — for the insights it provides into the world of the Marxist intellectual inside the French Communist Party in the mid-1960s. But the book is of more than historical interest. Here we have also for the first time texts in which Althusser was working through problems which found only a single articulation in writings published at the time. We can see paths opened but not followed and formulations which illuminate and clarify published texts. The Humanist Controversy and Other Writings brings together materials essential for any critical reading of Althusser’s work. In fact, we can begin to say that we now have available for the first time the writings of Louis Althusser from the 1960s.3


1For continuing debates about the position of Hegel within Marx’s, and Marxian, theory see Rees, 1998; Rosenthal, 1998 & 1999; Smith, 1999.

2The following is a merely indicative list of some of the influential work produced by those around Althusser in France in the ’60s and ’70s: Pierre Macherey, Pour une théorie de la production littéraire (1966), Hegel ou Spinoza, (1979); Étienne Balibar, Cinq Études du matérialisme historique, (1974), Sur la dictature du prolétariat, (1976); Emmanuel Terray, Le Marxisme devant les sociétés primitives, (1969); Robert Linhart, Lénine, les paysans, Taylor. Essai d’analyse Materiel Historique de la naissance du system productif sovietique (1976); Christian Baudelot et Roger Establet L’École capitaliste en France, (1971); Pierre Raymond, Passage au matérialisme, (1973); Dominique Lecourt, Lyssenko, histoire réelle d’une «science prolétarienne», (1976).

3 For a bibliography of key Althusser’s works please see the References section below.


Althusser, L. (1992a) Journal de captivité: Stalag XA/1940-1945: Carnets—Correspondances–Textes, O.Corpet & Y. M. Boutang (eds). Paris: Stock/IMEC.

Althusser, L. (1992b) L’Avenir Dure Longtemps, Suivi de Les faits: Autobiographies, O. Corpet & Y.M. Boutang (eds). Paris: Stock/IMEC.

Althusser, L. (1993a) Ecrits sur la psychanalyse: Freud et Lacan, O. Corpet & F. Matheron (eds). Paris: Stock/IMEC.

Althusser, L. (1993b) The Future Lasts a Long Time. O. Corpet & Y. M. Boutang (eds), trans. R. Veasey. London: Chatto & Windus.

Althusser, L. (1994a) Sur la philosophie. Paris: Gallimard.

Althusser, L. (1994b, 1995a)Ecrits philosophiques et politiques, 2 vols, F. Matheron (ed.). Paris: Stock, IMEC.

Althusser, L. (1995b) Sur la reproduction. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Althusser, L. (1996a) Lire le Capital, E. Balibar, P. B. Gala & Y. Duroux (eds). Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Althusser, L. (1996b) Pour Marx. Paris: Le Decouverte.

Althusser, L. (1996c) Psychanalyse et sciences humaines: Deux conferences (1963-1964), O. Corpet & F. Matheron (eds). Paris: Le Livre de Poche.

Althusser, L. (1996d) Writings on Psychoanalysis: Freud and Lacan, O. Corpet & F. Matherson (eds), trans. J. Mehlman. New York: Columbia University Press.

Althusser, L. (1997) The Spectre of Hegel. Early Writings, F. Matheron (ed.), trans. G. M. Goshgarian. London: Verso.

Althusser, L. (1998a) Letters a Franca (1961-1973), F. Matheron & Y. M. Boutang (eds). Paris: Stock/IMEC.

Althusser, L. (1998b) Solitude de Machiavel (et autres textes), Y. Sintomer (ed.). Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Althusser, L. (1999) Machiavelli and Us, F. Matheron & G. Elliott (eds). London: Verso.

Boutang, Y. M. (1992) Louis Althusser: Une Biographie, vol. 1 La formation du mythe; Paris: Grasset, réédition en poche en 2002.

Butler, J. (1997) The Psychic Life of Power, Stanford: Stanford University Press

Callari, A. & Ruccio, D. F. (eds) (1996) A Postmodern Materialism and the Future of Marxist Theory: Essays in the Althusserian Tradition. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.

Elliott, G. (1994) Althusser: A Critical Reader, Oxford: Blackwell.

Kaplan, E. A. & M. Sprinkler (1994) The Althusserian Legacy. London: Verso.

Lecourt, D. (2001) The Mediocracy. French Philosophy since the mid-1970s, trans. G.Elliott, London: Verso

Levine, A. (2003) A Future for Marxism?: Althusser, the Analytical Turn and Revival of Socialist Theory. London: Pluto Press.

Macherey, P. (1999) Histoires de dinosaure. Faire de la philosophie1965-1997, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France

Montag, W. (2003) Louis Althusser. London: Palgrave

Rees, J. (1998) The Algebra of Revolution – The Dialectic and the Classical Marxist Tradition. London: Routledge.

Resch, R. P. (1992) Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rosenthal, J. (1998) The Myth of the Dialectic. London: Macmillan Press.

Rosenthal, J. (1999) ‘Escape from Hegel’, Science and Society Vol. 63(3): 283-309.

Smith, T. (1999) ‘The relevance of systematic dialectics to Marxian thought: a reply to Rosenthal’, Historical Materialism, Vol. 4: 215-240.

John Seed teaches History and Cultural Studies at Roehampton University, UK. He has published on religion, politics, art and the propertied classes in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England. He has also written on twentieth-century British and American poetry and on the 1960s, including Cultural Revolution? The Challenge of the Arts in the 1960s (co-edited with Bart Moore-Gilbert1992). He has been a member of the editorial board of Social History since 1982. He is currently completing a book on eighteenth-century historiography, public memory and politics for Edinburgh University Press.