Althusser, ideology, and Stalinism

A response to Andrew Ryder

The revival of interest in French Communist philosopher Louis Althusser is reopening a series of old debates, albeit in a new context. Andrew Ryder’s review of the recent Verso edition of Althusser’s On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, in ISR Issue 99 (“Althusser’s theory of ideology”) repeats the arguments made by those who think that his theory, or at least part of it, is compatible with the politics of revolutionary Marxism.1 Ryder argues that Althusser’s theory of ideology should be seen as a contribution to the strategy of socialism from below, and that while Althusser remained a member of the French Communist Party (PCF), critics have been too quick to tar him with the brush of Stalinism.

However, while Althusser was critical of aspects of the PCF’s policy and practice, he was never capable of fully breaking with Stalinism, and his theoretical project remained deeply enmeshed in a framework that was hostile to the core tenets of the revolutionary socialist tradition.

Althusser and ideology

What underpins the recent interest in Althusser has not been his most anti­humanist statements such as “history is a process without a subject,”2 or his hostility to Hegel and Lukacs, but his later work, particularly on ideology. Ryder claims that “without a theory of human alienation, [Althusser’s] approach risked positing the eternity of capitalism. His work in the wake of 1968 was meant to remedy this and to explain cultural struggles in terms of a new understanding of ideology.” The publication in English of On the Reproduction of Capitalism, from which his famous essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” is taken, offers us an opportunity to look at these claims more closely.

Althusser locates the material basis of ideology in various structures of society: the education system, religious institutions, and mass media, and conceptualizes these structures as ideological state apparatuses (ISAs), in contradistinction to the repressive arms of the state. On a surface level this can seem fine; Marxists often have to argue against the essentially liberal view of ideology in which it is conceived as having an independent existence from social structures, or even a determining role. In terms of the debates about the source of various forms of oppression, for instance, we have always asserted that it is not a question of just “bad ideas” floating around in people’s heads but how the structures in society reinforce the material interests of the ruling class by promoting sexism, racism, homophobia, and other pro-capitalist ideas. 

This does not, however, answer the question of what the roots of ideology are, for we must explain not only why people accept ideology, but also how they can break from it. This in turn also affects how we understand the structures that promote ideology in the first place.  

When Althusser attempts to answer the question of why workers accept bourgeois ideology, he rejects Marx’s theory of alienation. While he acknowledges that “ideology represents individual’s imaginary relations to their real conditions of existence,”3 he argues against the conception that ideology is rooted in “the material alienation reigning in people’s very conditions of existence.”4 Instead he seeks to resolve this question by showing “the mechanisms by means of which ideology makes people, that is concrete individuals, ‘march.’” Key to his argument is the idea that “ideology interpellates individuals as subjects.”5 

It is through ideology that concrete individuals are transformed into “subjects,” he argues, and thus embedded into capitalist relationships. “Interpellation” is the process by which workers, simply by going through the motions of living under capitalism, reinforce their own place within the system. This begins before we are even born; Althusser uses the example of a child’s development and the way in which various ideologies structure its development (familial, religious, legal, moral) to make the case that “ideologies never stop interpellating subjects as subjects, never stop ‘recruiting’ individuals who are always-already subjects.”6

This explanation fails to answer the question of why workers accept ideologies that go against their material interests. Althusser sidesteps the question by arguing that ideology does not represent in a distorted fashion people’s actual relationship to society, but rather represents people’s false idea of that relationship to society. This definition is shaped by Althusser’s contention that ideology is not simply the product of class-based social relations, but is an inescapable condition present in all societies—a point to which I’ll return. 

On one level Althusser is right, in that people’s alienated consciousness does not simply reproduce their material conditions under capitalism in an ideological form, and there is plenty that is false about such consciousness (i.e., that it does not accurately represent their actual relationship to capitalism). However, the point that Marx makes is that distorted consciousness is not simply the product of the ideas being fed to people by the structures of the system; it is that there is something distorted about their relationship to society itself. 

This is the basis for the theory of alienation as established by Marx, and later built upon by the Hungarian revolutionary philosopher Georg Lukacs.7 They placed the material roots of ideology not only in the structures of society, but also in how the experience of life under capitalism shapes our consciousness. Key to their argument is the way in which the labor process under capitalism alienates workers from society, from each other, and from the products of their work. Lukacs expanded this concept to explain how this alienation at the site of production results in what he called the reification of society as a whole. John Rees summarizes the argument. Lukacs’s

essential point was that the transformation of labor power into a commodity, the very foundation of capitalist production, atomizes workers and works to prevent them from grasping the nature of the system that exploits them. The capitalist system treats wage labor as something to be bought and sold on the market like any other commodity. This induces the sensation in workers that they are simply individual atoms whose fate is dependent on a force—the market—over which they have no control. And this is actually true in so far as workers remain isolated individuals.8

Hence ideology can be accepted, or at least partially accepted, because it appears to be true; it matches concrete experiences under capitalism, which in turn masks underlying contradictions. 

However, precisely because that acceptance is based on the alienation of human self-activity, anything that undermines the alienation of labor also undermines the basis for the acceptance of bourgeois ideas. As one writer puts it, “The reified objective world appears like a hostile natural environment with laws that may be studied but never altered . . . The objective side of reification requires the subjective: without subjects who reproduce it, the objective world wouldn’t stand for a day.”9 

It is through struggle that alienation can be overcome. As Marx puts it in the Theses on Feuerbach, “The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.” This theoretical point has been given life in revolutionary upheavals time and time again, but there are elements of it in every social confrontation that gives its participants a sense of power over their own lives. 10 However, as the root of people’s alienation is in their lack of power at and during work, it is only through movements that challenge capitalist control over production that alienation can begin to be overcome in a more serious way. Thus the theory of alienation explains the reproduction of bourgeois structures and ideologies while retaining a central role for human agency. 

Althusser, with his narrow focus on the structures of society, can only produce an elitist conception of the struggle against ideology. Ryder dismisses this charge of elitism, arguing that “Althusser’s entire project is rooted in the recognition and advocacy of organized struggle against oppression and exploitation, and the means by which class struggle appears in less economically based forms of oppression and subject formation.” It is true that Althusser repeatedly talks about the struggle of the working class, proletarian struggle, and revolution in On the Reproduction of Capitalism. However, what matters is not formal adherence to the terminology of Marxism, but the content behind those terms.

Because Althusser rejects the theory of alienation as a liberal perversion of Marxism, he is unable to put forward a strategy for working-class struggle that is not imbued with an elitist approach. This is not just because he cannot construct a relationship between subjects and ideology that does not simply posit it as an external relationship between the two. It is also because in his concept of interpellation workers reproduce the system that then dominates them, and fails to locate any mechanism within this framework by which workers can challenge the hold of the ISAs.

This leads to several equally elitist options for defeating the hold of ideology. One can capture the existing structures in order to use them to promote a different ideology. The Spanish Eurocommunist theorist Santiago Carrillo used Althusser’s theory to justify such a strategy.11 Or one can get rid of those structures and replace them with new ones that promote a different ideology or even a “science.” Althusser, committed formally to the terminology of the Communist movement, holds for the most part to this second conception. But neither explains how it is that the working class liberate themselves through revolutionary struggle, and therefore both conceptions are essentially varieties of what Hal Draper called “socialism from above.”  

This elitism is reinforced by yet another option that lurks in Althusser’s thinking. What if the masses can’t escape ideology at all? What if this is possible only for a tiny minority of the intellectual elite? This tendency is revealed most clearly whenever Althusser discusses the question of ideology in a socialist society, and this question also shows how Stalinism shaped his theory. Althusser always believed, whatever their bureaucratic distortions, that the USSR and China were socialist. These societies depended upon enormous propaganda machines to disguise oppression, exploitation, and state violence using socialist rhetoric. This brings us back to Althusser’s hostility to the theory of alienation—a hostility mirrored in the ideology of the Soviet Union. As the independent Marxist Henri Lefebvre wrote, the Marxist theory of alienation was “treated with . . . mistrust” in the Soviet Union, where “by order from above, for reasons of State, the concept had to disappear.” Not because alienation had really disappeared. “The divorce between Stalin’s decree and the reality,” wrote Lefebvre, “between ideology—brought into line with propaganda—and the objective truth, could only get wider.”12

Althusser solved this problem by arguing that ideology is a feature of all societies, and a socially useful one at that. “In a society without classes, just as in a class society,” he wrote, “ideology has the function of securing the bond between men in the ensemble of the forms of their existence, the relation of individuals to their tasks fixed by the social structure.”13 For Althusser, “the permanence of ideology as a lived medium of delusion was . . . a necessary consequence of its social function, which was to bind men together into society, by adapting them to the objective positions allocated them by the dominant mode of production.”14 

Althusser did hold out that a section of society could escape ideology. Alongside his skepticism towards the ability of the working class to overcome ideology was a vastly inflated understanding of the role of intellectuals. This is probably most apparent in his concept of “theoretical practice,” in which he conceived of theory as an autonomous mode of inquiry separate from and superior to the world of practical politics—an idea itself rooted in an acceptance of the capitalist division between mental and physical labor.15 This was coupled with the argument that Marxism was a science precisely because it wasn’t based upon any one class in society, but like other sciences was the product of theoretical research.16

Althusser and Stalinism

Ryder spends a lot of time trying to distance Althusser from the charge of Stalinism, but this can only be done if you have a very narrow interpretation of Stalinism. The triumph of the counterrevolution in Russia, and the Stalinization of the international Communist movement transformed the way in which socialism had been understood by the generation of revolutionary activists forged in the immediate post-1917 period. It involved a total rewriting of the content of socialist strategy and Marxist theory, even as it retained some of its form and terminology. This affected not just the Communist parties and their supporters but had a lasting impact on the broader left and the workers movement.17 In many countries there were deep ties between the left wing of social democracy and the Communist parties;18 even the Trotskyists weren’t immune to the impact of Stalinism.19 

Socialism became associated with state planning, and with the struggle of the “socialist” countries against the imperialist bloc. Socialist strategy swung from the sectarianism of the Third Period to the building of popular fronts with a range of reactionary forces, and Marxist theory languished as it became subordinated to finding a few choice quotes to back up the latest twists and turns demanded by Moscow. Above all, Stalinism destroyed the idea, beyond platitudes, that the struggle for socialism was the act of the working class. Instead, various other social forces and organizations were substituted for the working class.

The postwar period saw a dramatic evolution for Stalinism. The rise of “polycentrism,” first articulated within the Italian Communist Party and later the development of Eurocommunism, and the splits within the Communist bloc, particularly between China and Russia, led to various internal oppositional tendencies and eventually open splits. The best-known and most dramatic was that between the Maoists and the traditional Communist parties. As many CP leaderships embraced “destalinization” and began to embrace something closer to social-democratic politics, more hard-line Stalinist but not necessarily pro-China, currents developed. These were often sectarian with the veneer of ultraleftism, but just as profoundly conservative. The remnants of this current can be seen today in such organizations as the Communist Party of Greece. These developments resulted in the breaking up of the monolithic nature of Stalinism, without altering the underlying gulf between it and genuine revolutionary politics. 

Althusser doesn’t fit neatly into any one current of Stalinist politics; he was influenced by several. In particular, he was torn between his support for the Stalinist critics of Khruschev’s “destalinization,” his sympathy for Mao, and his loyalty to the French Communist Party—a conflict further complicated by the move of the French Communist Party away from orthodox Stalinism toward an acceptance of a version of Eurocommunism, and the opposition to this within sections of the party. 20      

Ryder argues that despite the fact that Althusser underestimated how degenerated the PCF had become, he should still be “credited with articulating perspectives that he hoped could win predominance in a political institution supported by the French labor movement.” Is this the case, though, when both his practical and theoretical perspectives were still hopelessly lost in the labyrinth of Stalinism? 

Ryder acknowledges that Althusser was influenced by Stalinism and Maoism but then writes, “His interest in Mao . . . was fairly superficial, and his ideas can be assessed on their own merits. While he remained limited by his inheritance of Stalin’s notion of socialism in one country and his failure to fully consider the criticisms of Stalinism made by Leon Trotsky and his tradition, Althusser’s theory of ideology remains useful.”

We have already assessed Althusser’s theory of ideology on its own merits; it is a retreat from the breakthroughs of Marx, and those revolutionary socialists who have built upon his work. It is deeply marked by the Stalinization of the left and the impact that had on the development of Marxist theory. Similarly, Althusser’s attempt to create what he claims is the first “left-wing critique of Stalinism” offered no serious explanation for the roots of Stalinism, or a way out of its crippling influence. What this critique consisted of was an acknowledgement of the problems of the “personality cult” around Stalin, and the general dogmatism around theoretical questions within the PCF. Althusser saw Stalinism not as a social system or political body of thought, but as a deviation from Marxism that could be corrected.21

This was coupled with a furious assault on “right-wing deviations” from Marxism—a useful category that managed to contain Khrushchev and the various shades of Eurocommunism that were abandoning traditional Communist terminology for humanism on the one hand, and left-wing critics of Stalinism from Trotskyism to the New Left on the other.  Althusser’s utter hostility towards Trotsky’s critique of Stalinism, or even the more left-wing variants of Maoism, meant that even when he took a more critical stand towards the PCF in his later writings, he was still totally incapable of breaking with his Stalinist heritage. This inability to break with Stalinism was reinforced by his illusions in Mao and the Chinese Communist Party. 

While he criticized the Twenty-Second Congress of the PCF for abandoning support for the “dictatorship of the proletariat” and for advocating the “democratization” of the capitalist state, Althusser also rejects the idea that the capitalist state had to be destroyed. In his view, Marx and Lenin argued for “a very special kind of ‘destruction’, not at all an annihilation, but the reorganization, restructuring, and revolutionization of an existing apparatus, so that the rule of a new class, profoundly linked to the mass of the people, is successfully established in it.”22 So despite Althusser’s hostility to Eurocommunism, his views on the state were similar. As Alex Callinicos noted, “Althusser occupies a space within the political universe of Eurocommunism. A Left Eurocommunism it may be, but Eurocommunism it remains none the less.”23

In response to the breakdown of the Socialist-Communist electoral front in 1978, Althusser again raised criticisms of the direction the PCF was taking. However, as Ernest Mandel, who is highly supportive of this later period in Althusser’s life acknowledges, “Having denounced a deep-seated and institutionalized evil, he concludes with two very modest proposals: 1) opening up the pages of the communist press to debate, and 2) securing the right to obtain information horizontally in order to guarantee a truly democratic debate.”24 

Faced with the growing crisis not only of the PCF, but of the international Communist movement, Althusser like many slipped into theoretical confusion. Having tied his project, qualifications notwithstanding, to the Stalinist masthead, he could not help sinking along with it. In 1977 he announced that not just Stalinism, but Marxism itself had entered a profound crisis.25 And contra Ryder, the influence of Mao and the Chinese regime on Althusser’s thought was revealed, as the crisis of Maoism removed for Althusser any alternative pole of criticism from within the Communist world.

As Althusser’s biographer Gregory Elliott puts it, “The collapse of Althusser’s elected alternative had an influence on him as strong as its emergence. Formerly he had taken refuge from Stalinist practice in Marxist theory, while reading into the Maoist Cultural Revolution a Leninist ‘letter from afar’. . . Henceforth his confidence in that theory was profoundly shaken and his thinking infected with a pessimism.”26

The return to a period of capitalist crisis and the reemergence of movements against austerity since 2008 has resulted in a revived interest in radical and socialist theory. Some people looking for a more rigorous understanding of the dynamics of capitalism and Marxist strategy have returned to the writings and debates from the last major period of radicalization in the 1960s and 1970s.

This is undoubtedly a positive thing, for Althusser was right that a revival of the revolutionary movement is intertwined with a revival of revolutionary theory. However Althusser’s theory and politics are not a contribution to such a revival; they are an obstacle to it. His philosophical system is ultimately a barrier to any serious conception of revolutionary agency. His rejection of the importance of alienation, reification, and commodity fetishism for Marxist theory means he is incapable of understanding the material roots of ideology or how it can be overcome. 

 As Ryder points out, Althusser’s ideas both in his time and since have been met with resistance not only by members of the International Socialist tradition but other revolutionary and socialist critics as well,27 and for good reason. As his own one-time student, the then-Maoist theorist Jacques Ranciere put it, “The Marxism we had learned at Althusser’s school was a philosophy of order whose every principle served to distance us from the uprisings which were then shaking the bourgeois order to its core.”28

I would like to thank Omar Hassan, Chloe Rafferty and Paul D’Amato for their comments on a draft of this article.


  1. See for example Richard Seymour, Louis Althusser and Socialist Strategy, November 2011, http://www.leninology.co.uk/2011/11/loui....
  2. Louis Althusser, “Lenin before Hegel,” Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971) https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1969/lenin-before-hegel.htm.
  3. Louis Althusser, On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (London: Verso, 2014), 181.
  4. Ibid., 182.
  5. Ibid., 180–181.
  6. Ibid., 193.
  7. Marx’s writings on alienation are scattered through a number of his works. The German Ideology contains an early statement on his views after he had broken with the crude materialism of Feuerbach and the idealism of the young Hegelians. The section in chapter 1 on commodity fetishism in Capital is a mature statement on the problem. Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness also discusses both Marx’s theory and outlines his own contributions. Dan Swain’s short Alienation: An Introduction to Marx’s Theory (London: Bookmarks, 2012) is a useful starting point.  
  8. John Rees, introduction to Georg Lukacs, A Defense of History and Class Consciousness: Tailism and the Dialectic (London: Verso 2002), 12–13. 
  9. Daniel Lopez, “Georg Lukacs’s theory of revolution,” Marxist Left Review 8 (Winter 2014), http://marxistleftreview.org/index.php/no8-winter-2014/113-georg-lukacss-theory-of-revolution
  10. Sandra Bloodworth draws this out in relation to Lenin and the Russian Revolution. See Sandra Bloodworth, “Lenin and a Theory of Revolution for the West,” Marxist Left Review 8 (Winter 2014), http://marxistleftreview.org/index.php/no8-winter-2014/114-lenin-and-a-theory-of-revolution-for-the-west
  11. Santiago Carrillo, Eurocommunism and the State (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1977). See Chris Harman, “Eurocommunism: the State and Revolution,” International Socialism 1:101 (September 1977), 11–14. https://www.marxists.org/archive/harman/1977/09/eurocomm.htm
  12. Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life: The One-Volume Edition (London: Verso, 2014), 75.
  13. Louis Althusser quoted in Perry Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism (London: NLR Books 1974), 84.  
  14. Perry Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism, 84.
  15. On “theoretical practice” see the introduction to Louis Althusser, For Marx (London: Verso, 2013); for a critique see Jacques Ranciere, Althusser’s Lesson (London: Continuum Books, 2011), 24. 
  16. Louis Althusser, “On Marxism,” The Spectre of Hegel: Early Writings (London: Verso, 2013). For an alternative argument for Marxism being a science see John Molyneux, “What is the Real Marxist Tradition,” International Socialism 2:20 (July 1983).
  17. The following account draws on Ian Birchall, Workers against the Monolith (London: Pluto Press, 1974).
  18. In the Australian Labor Party, for instance, splits in the Communist Party over questions such as the Sino-Soviet conflict often led to similar divisions within the ALP Left. See Corey Oakley, “The Rise and Fall of the ALP Left in Victoria and NSW,” Marxist Left Review 4 (Winter 2012), http://marxistleftreview.org/index.php/no4-winter-2012/80-the-rise-and-fall-of-the-alp-left.     
  19. Alex Callinicos, Trotskyism (London: Open University Press, 1990). 
  20. Gregory Elliott, Althusser: The Detour Of Theory (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2009), 1–23.
  21. See Valentino Gerratana, “Althusser and Stalinism,” New Left Review I/101-102 (January–April 1977) and chapter 5 of  Elliott, Detour Of Theory for a discussion of Althusser’s evolving understanding of Stalinism and its limitations. 
  22. Louis Althusser, On the Twenty-Second Congress of the French Communist Party (1977). https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1977/22nd-congress.htm
  23. Alex Callinicos, Is There A Future for Marxism? (London: Macmillan Press, 1982), 79.  
  24. Ernest Mandel, “Mandel on Althusser, Party and Class,” Against the Current 1:4 (Spring 1982).  https://www.marxists.org/archive/mandel/1982/xx/althusser.htm.    
  25. For Althusser’s growing pessimism and the crisis of the Althusserian system see Elliott, Detour Of Theory, 254–300.
  26. Elliott, Detour of Theory, 253.
  27. Chris Harman, “Philosophy and Revolution,” International Socialism 2:21 (1983): 58-87 https://www.marxists.org/archive/harman/1983/xx/phil-rev.html; Henri Lefebvre, The Ideology of Structuralism (Paris 1975); E.P Thomspson, The Poverty of Theory (Merlin 1978).
  28. Jacques Ranciere, Althusser’s Lesson, xix.

 

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