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The mad marxist

This is the centenary year of Althusser, a leading the oritition among communist intellectuals of Europe

The mad marxist

The bicentenary of Karl Marx in 2018 has overshadowed another important event this year i.e. the centenary of Louis Althusser (1918 – 1990). One of the key Marxist figures of the second half of the 20th century, Althusser went mad during his last years so much so that he killed his wife by strangulating her in 1980. Declared unfit to stand trial, he spent the last ten years of his life in psychiatric institutions. Prior to that, for 25 years he had shaken the Marxist politics in France and the Leftist ideology around the world with his incisive essays and lectures.

My first encounter with the writings of Althusser was in the mid-1990s. The Soviet Union had disintegrated and the communism, as we knew it, had declined the world over. The lovers of Marxism who had been fed on a diet of a sanitised Marxism were now looking for new interpretations of it. The ‘reformist’ ideas of Eurocommunism, neo-Marxism, critical theory, existentialism, and psychoanalysis, were frowned upon by the traditional communists. Now the shackles were broken, and those who wanted to understand what had happened, explored new intellectual avenues.

The second foray into the works of Althusser was spurred when I was doing my doctoral studies at the University of Birmingham, and my supervisor, Prof Lynn Davies, encouraged me to develop some understanding of research methodology, going beyond the data collection methods into the realm of philosophy. The terms such as epistemology, ontology, hermeneutics, teleology, and others had to be explored and understood, before any worthwhile research could be undertaken. The coursework at the university, brought Althusser back into my study, of course with some other contemporary philosophers. But first, some background.

After the Second War and the defeat of Fascism and Nazism, communism was in ascendency in Europe. Especially in France and Italy, communist parties were not only strong by also appeared on the verge of capturing power. When Stalin was still alive, there was no question of challenging his authority and his personality cult was tolerated as he was seen as the saviour of the working class and the winner of the war.  This all changed after 1953 when Stalin died and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) decided to change tack. The ‘secret speech’ of the new Soviet leader, Khrushchev, initiated a process of de-Stalinization.

This was the scene in which Althusser emerged. Three important events that reshaped the intellectual landscape of the Left movement were: de-Stalinization by the CPSU, Soviet invasion of Hungry, and the Sino-Soviet split. Communist and Marxist intellectuals around the world had hitherto mostly followed the Soviet line. Now, suddenly they found themselves in a quandary. The Stalin regime that they had been supporting and idealizing had been discredited by the new Soviet leadership. The Red Army that was projected as the liberator of Eastern Europe was now crushing the people of Hungary; and the communist China was growling at the communist USSR.

The Marxists of that era sought to defend Marxism. As it happens with most grand-narratives—including religious ones—when atrocities are committed in the name of that grand-narrative, the followers demand explanations. The ideologues either defend the original narrative, or reform it to suit new realities. Althusser was a member of the Communist Party of France and a teacher of philosophy. He started writing on Marxism and his focus was on simplifying Marxist ideas so that the party members and other sympathizers of Marxism could understand Marx. His articles and essays were first published in a collection tilted For Marx.

For Marx became a sensation in the Marxist circles in the 1960s and established Althusser as a leading theoretician among communist intellectuals of Europe. It became a founding text of what was later called ‘Structuralist Marxism’.

For Marx became a sensation in the Marxist circles in the 1960s and established Althusser as a leading theoretician among communist intellectuals of Europe. It became a founding text of what was later called ‘Structuralist Marxism’. Along with Foucault, Althusser became one of the most cited French philosophers. In For Marx, Althusser plays down the idea of class struggle and reinterprets Marx, using Freudian and Structuralist concepts. Althusser proposes the idea of an ‘epistemological break’ between the Hegelian Marx and the old Marx, meaning that the two differed in their orientation.

As an aside, if you want to understand that period, you would love to watch a new film by the Haitian director, Raoul Peck. His film, The Young Karl Marx, was released last year. It beautifully portrays Engels, Marx, Proudhon, Bakunin, and many other revolutionaries of the mid-19th century, working in Brussels, London, and Paris. Earlier, Raoul Peck had also made a biopic of Patrice Lumumba of Congo.

Coming back to Althusser’s For Marx, we see that he discusses Marx’s epistemology in detail.  For the uninitiated, epistemology is the theory of knowledge that enquires into the nature and possibilities of knowledge. When we talk about how knowledge is produced and accumulated we indulge in epistemology. When we discuss the attributes of knowledge and decide what ‘is’ and ‘is not’ knowledge we do epistemology. Epistemology makes us aware of the limits of our knowledge and enables us to see through the claims of knowledge made by others. For any thinking human being, the ability to judge the knowledge claims is crucial, hence the importance of epistemology.

Althusser proposes that scientific knowledge is not simply about grasping realities, it is also about conceptual breakthroughs. According to Althusser, each science is formed by a problematic. Here he borrows from Foucault and Kuhn, the idea of an implicit set of issues that arise from earlier conceptual situations. Kuhn calls it a paradigm, and Foucault terms it an episteme. The three terms mean almost the same i.e. a system of interrelated concepts that present a theoretical or ideological framework. So, to Althusser there appeared a distinct paradigmatic shift that he called an epistemological break in Marx.

In this way, the early works of Marx such as his Manuscripts and German Ideology written in the early 1840s are very different from his later and more mature works such as Das Capital.  Althusser criticized the French communists for lacking in Marxist thinkers such as Gramsci in Italy and Rosa Luxemburg in Poland. But, perhaps the most interesting essay in For Marx is about the concept of over-determination. The essay titled Contradiction and Over-determination borrows heavily from Freud’s notion about over-determination which designates an effect arising from a variety of causes.

Freud had used it as a characteristic of adult object-choices meaning that they are determined by a confluence of energy from many vital sources. To Freud, adult interests are complexly motivated or over-determined i.e. a choice may satisfy multiple instincts. When Althusser uses over-determination in Marxism, he mean economics is not the only determination is historical and social development. To put simply, there are linked and interacting causes that undercut a one-to-one correspondent between base and superstructure; base being the economy and superstructure being culture, education, ideology, law, religion, state, and other institutions.

Another term used by Althusser is relative autonomy, which is the view that in spite of the connection between culture and economics, art has a degree of independence from economic forces. Using these terms Althusser tries to clarify that a superstructure is not entirely determined by the nature of economic base.

The next collection of essays by Althusser et al was Reading Capital in which he explains the difference between a ‘surface’ reading, which simply focuses on the actual words of the text, and a ‘symptomatic’ reading. By symptomatic reading he means an attempt to piece together the problematic (episteme or paradigm) that governs the real meaning of the text. Since Capital by Marx is a difficult work to read, Althusser’s Reading Capital is a helpful guide about how to read and understand the complex economic thoughts presented by Marx.

Marx’s Capital was difficult, and trying to read it in Urdu translation by Syed Muhammad Taqi was impossible. Some chapters of Capital were translated into Urdu and published in Moscow—for example Sarmaye ki ibtida (the genesis of capital) was readable and lucid, but Althusser’s guidance on reading Marx was a useful intervention that helped many curious readers.

Althusser proposes that Marx was not a simple inheritor of classical framework (problematic) of political economy presented by Adam Smith and David Ricardo. The old Marx did not rely on humanism and historicism presented in Marx’s early works. Here Althusser tries to disentangle Marx from his economic determinism.

Another key term in understanding Althusser is ideology. He uses ideology as a system of representation including images, myths, ideas, and concepts that exist within a society and play a historical role. Ideology may also subsume culture and literature as vehicles of the values underpinning the status quo in any society. The values and assumptions in an ideology may be explicit but in most cases they are implicit. They may also be unrecognized but still suffuse deeply in the culture. Here again Althusser discards the simplistic notion of base/ superstructure model. The base influences superstructure and ideological practices, but not always and not entirely.

If we apply that to Pakistan, we see that a traditional Marxist analysis will try to find economic bases for all ideological practices. Using Althusser’s concepts of over-determination we realize that there are multiple causes that contribute to the superstructure. For example, recent judicial activism can hardly be analyzed in terms of economy-drives-everything. Similarly the increasing religiosity again cannot simply be described in economic terms. Yes, there may be some economic elements playing their role but there are numerous other factors too. Justice Saqib Nisar and Maulana Khadim Razvi cannot be brushed aside just by assigning them to economic factors.

Another useful idea that we get from Althusser is the useful distinction between ‘state power’ and ‘state control’. State power is maintained by repressive structures such as law courts, prisons, the police force, and the army which use external force, and internal consent of its citizens derived by ideological state apparatus (ISA). The ISA includes groupings such as political parties, schools, the media, religious institutions, the family, art, culture, and literature. All these are used to foster an ideology—a set of ideas and attitudes—sympathetic to the state and the status quo.

Althusser drew heavily from Gramsci’s concept of ‘hegemony’ and used these to expose capitalist societies, but as we know communist states were no exception. We can apply this to Pakistan as well and understand how the ideological state apparatus is driving us crazy. Lately this ISA has been used to malign democracy, political leaders, and even journalists. Though Nawaz Sharif represents a capitalist segment of society, his economic base does not determine the superstructure, at least for the time being.

In Pakistan, state power is represented by the army but state control is extended by education, judiciary, media, religious leaders, and uniform thinking. That’s why dissent is not tolerated and any political movement that challenges the real authority of the ideological state apparatus is crushed.


Althusser may have gone mad, but his writings (all available on the net now) carry a long-lasting influence.

Naazir Mahmood’s collection of essays, Politics, Pictures, Personalities, has been published in 2018.

Dr Naazir Mahmood

Naazir Mahmood
The writer has been associated with the education sector since 1990 as teacher, teacher educator, project manager, monitor and evaluator.


  • Have read your book and learned new ideas. Thank you for writing in urdu to enable people of Pakistan understand

  • Thanks Alavi sb, you have always been encouraging, and since you yourself
    have been an eye witness to many of the events, I suggest that you also write a book. regards

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