Literary Criticism: Marxism in details- Althusser’s Ideology

Louis Althusser (1918-1990), French philosopher, is best known for his contributions to the debate over the origins and development of the theories of German philosopher Karl Marx. Althusser viewed Marx’s writings as having two distinct stages: an early humanistic or ideological period and a later scientific phase that culminated in the publication of DasKapital (1867; Capital, 1907-1909). Between these two stages, Althusser postulated the existence of what he called an epistemological break. With this term, he intended to show that developments in science do not emerge from gradual, piecemeal change, but are instead the result of sudden dislocations in knowledge where the entire framework of a theory is replaced.

Althusser’s most important innovation was his rejection of the Marxian doctrine of strict economic determinism: the assertion that the economic system by which goods are produced determines the organization of society and therefore a society’s political and intellectual history. Marx further stated that this history invariably comprises struggles between the ruling class and the oppressed classes. Through his idea of relative autonomy, Althusser asserted that it was possible to study politics, law, and philosophy as activities independent of economic production. The result was the introduction of a more complex model of historical change into the Marxian scheme.

Althusser’s most controversial idea was that Marxism was not a moral philosophy concerned with the alienation of humankind under capitalism and its possible redemption under socialism, but rather that Marxism was a science and an “antihumanism.” The result of Althusser’s work, which was criticized by traditional Marxists, was to make Marxism seem less like a revolutionary program aimed at the liberation of humankind and more like a purely theoretical doctrine concerned with the conditions of scientific knowledge.

The view that the base determines the cultural superstructure is not seen by all because there are forces at work that prevent us from seeing that, for instance the liberal humanist view that we are essentially free. It is here that ideology works and makes us experience life in a certain way and also at the same time makes us believe that that way of seeing the world is natural. The French Marxist philosopher says that ideology works through ideological state apparatuses, which although they may have their own sub-ideology are all subjected to the ruling ideology. Althusser’s ideological state apparatuses include organized religion, the law, the political system, the educational system, in short all the institutions through which we are socialized. So, everything is pervaded by ideology. And while we believe we are acting out of our free will, we are in reality ‘acted by the system’. Drawing on French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, Althusser says that the processes we go through when we grow up leave us forever incomplete. Aware of that deep lack and yearning for completion, we turn to ideology because it constantly ‘interpellates’ or addresses us as concrete subjects. It convinces us that we are whole and real and so we see what ideology makes us see, as belonging to the natural, harmonious order of things. Ideology makes us believe we are free agents and in that way makes us complicit in our own delusion.


  1. Respected Sir,

    I had enrolled with Brilliant Tutorials for NET but they are yet to send me the English paper II and III study materials. I have heard that they are on the verge of putting their shutters down, so it seems that I have to prepare all by myself. I have selected 'Literary Theory' and 'English Language Teaching' as my electives for Paper III. I'll be really grateful if you suggest names of comprehensive books for English Paper II and III as soon as possible as the exam is only four months away. Are there any question banks, published by UGC, available in the market? I have also heard that Paper III will become objective from June 2012...has it been confirmed by UGC because their website is still displaying the old structure. I'll also be obliged if you let me know the names of authentic Bengali TET books for SSC available in the market.


  2. It's a God's gift that students like me have got a great teacher like you. Actually I am now fully depended on you. Sir, please post some critical issues from Kipling's "Kim". There is not much books on this topic available in market.
    Thanking you
    Arindam Das, Midnapore


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An English Teacher;    M. A.(English) , D. Ed., B. Ed., UGC- NET Qualified

"Dear Readers/ Students, I am a huge fan of books, English Grammar & Literature. I write this blog to instill that passion in you." 

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