Althusser Louis(1918-90), French Marxist social philosopher, and theorist within the French Communist Party, whose theories were especially influential in the aftermath of the student activism of 1968 and in the period of the greatest vogue of structuralist thinking in the 1970s. In particular, Althusser opposed ‘humanist’ and Hegelian movements within Marxism, proposing instead that Marx's mature work – especially Das Kapital with its emphasis on ‘labour power’ and class contradictions, etc. -should be seen as a 'S cientific’ theory on a par with that of Galileo or Darwin (Lenin and Philosophy (1971)). Thus, in For Marx (1966) and (with E. Balibar) Reading Capital (1970), he rejects all suggestions that the Hegelian concept of ALIENATION can have any place in Marx'S mature theory Drawing on the epistemological ideas of the French philosopher of science Gaston BACHELARD -especially his concept of the PROBLEMATIQUE – Althusser's argument was that an EPISTEMOLOGICAL BREAK exists between Marx's early philosophical (and ideological) work and his later scientific theory. Further key concepts in Althusser's account of Marx's theory are the concepts of OVERDETERMINATION – the idea that major changes in society are complex and multiply determined – and his distinction between the ideological and repressive state apparatuses (see INTERPOLATION, IDEOLOGICAL STATE APPARATUS). Together these concepts are Althusser’s way of avoiding a vulgar determinism or ‘economism’, in that they allow, first, that the ideological superstructure is not merely a reflection of the economy but also in part conditions the existence of it, and, second, that IDEOLOGY must be seen not merely as ‘false consciousness’ but as an important part of real social relations. Similarly, the Marxian concept of MODE OF PRODUCTION is seen as requiring an interpretation so that it is accepted as involving in each concrete case a complex ‘articulation’ of economic, political and ideological practices. It is difficult now to convey the extent of the interest that Althusser’s somewhat tortuous conceptions for a time aroused. However, the degree of dogmatism in his Marxism, and the fact that his theory solved few concrete issues and soon ran into self-contradiction, have meant that his star has waned – an eclipse compounded, tragically by his murder of his wife and his own incarceration. See ALTHUSSERIAN MARXISM, CULTURAL STUDIES.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000