‘Philosophy for Non-Philosophers’ reviewed by Sean Ledwith

Philosophy for Non-Philosophers

Translated by G. M. Goshgarian, Bloomsbury, New York, 2017. 224pp., £21.99 pb
ISBN 9781474299275

Reviewed by Sean Ledwith

About the reviewer

Sean Ledwith is Lecturer in History at York College. He is also a regular contributor to the …


This volume should be accompanied with a health warning that it is unwise to judge a book by the title. Anyone seeking a layman’s introductory guide to philosophical debates should definitely look elsewhere. Even those who claim familiarity with the general terminological categories of the subject often find the works of Louis Althusser notoriously opaque and disorientating. A newcomer to philosophical discussions is unlikely to be enticed by passages such as: ‘It is more interesting to make the demonstration for scientific practice or theoretical practice, the meaning of the latter is broader, for it takes in ideological practice as well, to the extent that ideological practice is theoretical, and also philosophical practice, which can by all rights be called theoretical’ (91). Prolonged exposure to this style of explication is more likely to induce a life-long aversion to philosophy among ‘non-philosophers’ and confirm suspicions among many that it is a futile activity.

Having said that, the book is not devoid of interest as it provides a numbers of insights as to why Althusser enjoyed a meteoric ascent to sage-like status among academic Marxists in the closing decades of the twentieth century; only to then become the focus of an equally spectacular fall from grace, triggered by his murder of Helene Rytman, his wife, in 1980. Philosophy for Non-philosophers merits its recent publication, apart from anything else, as it is one of the few works created by Althusser that was actually conceived of as a book by the man himself. His reputation still rests predominantly on For Marx and Reading Capital in 1965. This work was originally written by Althusser in the post-1968 period when poststructuralism emerged to displace the twin camps of structuralism and Marxism that he had sought to reconcile. The intellectual isolation that affected Althusser in this era persuaded him to prevent its publication in his lifetime. As he was writing, two of his former students, Andre Glucksman and Bernard Henri-Levy, hubristically declared a crisis of Marxism (again) in 1977 to justify their defection to the right wing of French politics.

His reluctance to publically defend the work at the time was, however, provoked not only by the rise of the poststructuralists, but also by the hostility of those on the left who, understandably, felt his failure to make a significant intervention during the revolutionary crisis of 1968 invalidated his authority as a thinker of substance. Famously, during the tumult of the year, graffiti-writers scrawled on a wall at the Sorbonne: ‘A quoi sert Althusser? (‘What use is Althusser?’). Sceptics on the left who were unconvinced of the value of his better known works from the 1960s are unlikely to revise their judgement based on a reading of this volume. Althusser takes his inspiration for the title from Gramsci’s well-known remark that in, some sense, ‘Everyone is a philosopher’ (23).

Also like Gramsci, he adopts the viewpoint of Machiavelli, one of the leading protagonists from the revolutionary period of bourgeois philosophy, who declared ‘one must be people to know the Prince’ (63). In other words, to understand the nature of capitalism in our time, it is necessary to view it from the perspective of those furthest removed from it; that is to say, the working class, the marginalised, those labelled as mentally ill and others deemed to be unworthy. One of the anomalies of the Althusserian paradigm, however, is that such excluded groups are apparently the victims of ideological repression at the hands of the ruling class; yet the understanding of ideology that he constructs makes it difficult to envisage how they can be liberated from such control. There is another inconsistency in Althusser’s stated intention to write a book specifically for those on the margins of the status quo, but then to deliver it in a style that is virtually inaccessible for the vast majority.

In the opening section on arguments concerning existence of God, he contends that throughout human history ‘religion has historically been massively associated with resignation in the face of earthly trials, in exchange for the promise of a reward in another world’ (27). A more nuanced Marxist approach to the question of theism would recognise that although this is indubitably the case in many societies, it is equally essential to note the persistent occasions across the centuries when oppressed groups have appropriated religious belief to legitimate their own pursuit of emancipation, such as the use of the Bible by dissenting sects in the English Revolution or the allusions to spirituality in the American civil rights movement. This requires a more dynamic conception of the role of ideology than the one deployed by Althusser.

On the same issue, he argues that Marxism should continue to incorporate elements of the Enlightenment critique of religion, such as the question posed by the eighteenth century rationalist, Malebranche: ‘But why does it rain upon sands, upon highways and seas?’ (30). The point here, in Althusser’s words, is to accept ‘there are a great many things in the world that make no sense and serve no purpose … undertakings and even entire civilisations that come to naught and vanish in the nothingness of history, like those big rivers that disappear in the desert sands’ (34) Such a pessimistic outlook on humanity’s place in the universe sounds strangely like the existentialist mentality that Althusser sought to overcome when he burst onto the Paris philosophical scene in the early 1960s. The scientific status of his remarks about the natural world would be accepted by many but surely the distinctively dialectical nature of an authentic Marxist philosophy would want to add that these inanimate processes in nature, unfolding over millennia, have been the necessary corollary for the miraculous emergence of the human race? Althusser would, of course, respond that such a perspective is indicative of the humanism (defined by him as a human-centred account of history) that he sought to excise from the world-view of the left

This hostility to an emphasis on human agency in history led him to coin the phrase, ‘a process without a subject’ (102) that came to encapsulate the distinctively Althusserian project in history and social science that attained intellectual hegemony among academic Marxists in the 1970s. Althusser’s definition of humanism was adapted from thinkers on the Parisian left, such as Garaudy and Sartre, who interpreted Khrushchev’s 1956 secret speech denouncing Stalinism as the opportunity to prize open the straightjacket of ideological debate within the French Communist Party. Garaudy believed that Christian ethical values could be validly utilised by the PCF, while Sartre pursued a synthesis of existentialism and Marxism. Althusser welcomed the liberalising of debate within the party, but felt these ideas would ultimately undermine the position of the PCF as the hegemonic organisation of the far left at the time. The so-called ‘return to Marx’ that he pronounced in the two magnum opuses of 1965 was predicated on detoxifying the influence of such theorists who Althusser regarded as little more than variations of liberalism.

His concern that the USSR under the post-Stalin leadership was departing from orthodox Marxism led Althusser to embrace Mao’s China in the late 1960s as a viable alternative as the new home of revolutionary thought. In this volume, Mao is classified along with Marx, Engels and Lenin as one of the great pioneers of Marxist philosophy (183). From our perspective in the 21st century, it is absurd to regard China as any form of beacon of liberation as that state is clearly embarked on constructing a version of capitalism just as coercive and exploitative as anything in the West. Althusser’s wholesale dismissal of humanist Marxist also failed to recognise that the work of figures such as Lukács, Korsch and Sartre, for all their imperfections, was a necessary corrective to the decades of stultifying dogmatism that Moscow-led orthodoxy had imposed on the philosophy of the left. It should also be added that Althusser’s so-called ‘left critique of Stalinism’ involved no meaningful engagement with the ideas of Leon Trotsky, whose followers had to sought to preserve a tradition of radical Marxism stretching right back to 1917.

Althusser presented his works of the 1960s as a restoration of the scientificity of Marxism, cleansed of the Hegelian deviations he believed to be present in the ideas of the ‘humanists’. In this volume, he repeats the attack on what he regards as the misplaced totalising tendency of this current: ‘Hegel proclaims that the true is the whole and says that philosophy’s specific task is to think the whole as the result of its logical and historical development.… It is inordinately pretentious of idealist philosophy to claim to see the whole, think the whole or aspire to totalisation’ (67-8). Althusser’s alternative model of Marxist analysis is the delineation of separate levels of social activity: the ideological, political, economic and theoretical levels of practice. In his works of the 1960s, Althusser argued that Marxism in his time should prioritise the latter in order to enhance its sciencificity, in accordance with the classic notion of contrasting itself with utopian socialism as ‘scientific socialism’. Predictably, this was the pretext for some academic leftists to detach themselves completely from the ebbing tide class struggle in the 1980s on the grounds they were engaged in ‘theoretical practice’. Some may not wish to blame Althusser directly that the logical end-point of this mentality was the intellectual cul-de-sac of Post-Marxism (which, in real terms, is no form of Marxism). However, the germ of this outcome was clearly present in Althusser’s celebrated maxim of the ‘relative autonomy of theory’.

Interestingly, in this volume, he partially accepts the separation of theory from other modes of activity was a flaw in the original Althusserian design: ‘I admit that I, for my part, was not always able to escape the influence of this conception, and that in my first philosophical essays, I modelled my description on the philosophy of science…. I think that we have to forgo expressions of this sort which can lead us astray’ (186). The one-sided pursuit of scientific status in the pre-1968 period led Althusser to reject the notion that Marxism is a world-view that is specific to the working-class, as he felt such an idea compromised its claim to objectivity. Linked to the rejection of Marxism as a partisan philosophy was the notion that ideology is the sine qua non of all societies, even a future communist one, and that its all-embracing presence is inescapable and ubiquitous. He reiterates the proposition in this volume: ‘It will be readily conceded that all human beings are ideological animals inasmuch as they can only live and act under the domination of ideas, those of their own practice or the practices dominating their own practice’ (192). This is the basis of his celebrated concept of ‘interpellation that transforms individuals into subjects’ of capitalism (112).

This highlights another crucial weakness in the Althusserian model, however, in that the only way to sustain such a conception is to integrate it with a neo-Kantian transcendental object that somehow stands outside history and neutrally observes the effect of ideology on us. The classic riposte to this ahistorical option from within Marxism is Lukács’ conception of the working class as the unified subject-object of history. Althusser in this work explicitly rules out that possibility: ‘we do not claim that the correctness of the proletariat’s philosophy is the equivalent of truth by virtue of this universality which supposedly does away with the particularism of subjectivity’ (182). Directly after this statement, however he remarks: ‘we shall say that the correctness of the philosophy of the proletariat escapes subjectivity because it is under the control of an objective science, the science of class struggle’. It is difficult to tell how this is supposed to be any different, in practical terms, from the Lukácsian revolutionary party that uniquely sees the world as it truly is due to its position embedded in the working class which, in turn, assumes a unique position in the relations of production. Althusser’s notion of a supra-historical object steering the working class towards socialism from above provides a theoretical gloss for the manipulative demagoguery of figures such as Mao.

Apart from these philosophical antinomies, the modern world provides some indications on why Althusser has deservedly dropped off the intellectual radar of the left. His view that the working class is locked into – or interpellated by – the ideology of capitalism looks increasingly untenable as we have seen the British working class vote in massive numbers for the explicitly left-wing policies of Jeremy Corbyn; likewise their American counterparts last year put Bernie Sanders within touching distance of the Presidency. Neither of these developments have been the outcome of exclusively academic ‘theoretical practice’ as envisaged by Althusser. The question sprayed on the walls of Paris in 1968 remains unanswered.

17 July 2017


  1. 'his failure to make a significant intervention during the revolutionary crisis of 1968' was due partly to the fact that he was institutionalised at the time.

  2. Complaints about the opaqueness, not to say impenetrability, of Althusser's style are certainly warranted. Complaints about his "Stalinism" much less so. This review recapitulates many of the slurs against made against Althusser over the past 50 years without offering very much in the way of insight.

  3. While I do not want to be considered a defender of Althusser's structural Marxism, I will follow Comrade Miller in saying that although Althusser's style may be impenetrable, and his structuralism profoundly disabling of subjective agency in political change, there are certainly critical points to be gained from studying Althusser's theory of ideology, which I'd summarize for non-philosophers as follows:

    Althusser applies the structuralist theory that human societies are structured like a language to Marxist theory by arguing that (Stalinist, bourgeois, or capitalist) ideology is a centered structure which interpellates individuals by hailing them as subjects, as a police officer, for example, hails a suspect: 'Hey, you!' 'Who, me?' 'Yeah, you! you're busted…' etc. This ideological structure is centered upon a capital-S Subject (the Kantian transcendental subject, the Hegelian absolute subject etc.) who, like the 16th or 17th century king, the Nazi dictator, the Stalinist tyrant, etc., forces his citizens and subjects to identify themselves as subjects of the totalitarian system by identifying themselves with him, as, for example, some Americans identify with President Donald J. Trump (although they may be having second thoughts…), many Russians identified with the Great Leader and Teacher Stalin, and many Germans identified with Hitler when they screamed Heil Hitler! at the Nuremberg rallies, where Hitler was the charismatic center of their ideological structure. Or as British citizens identify themselves as subjects of the Queen, and ogle at pictures of her hats in the British tabloids, and want to be Prince William or Princess Kate. Or maybe even Prince Chuck. And so on.

    Because it sees individuals as interpellated in the ideological structure, Althusser's theory then tends to reduce subjective human agents to 'effects of structure' (so-called 'subject effects'), and therefore to negate their subjective agency for political change, as is especially evident in Althusser's statement that history is a process without a subject or goal, which is totally determined by political-economic forces, and by the ideological state apparatuses (ISAs) (churches, schools, etc.) and repressive state apparatuses (RSAs) (military, police, etc.) which serve to interpellate individuals as subjects, by the police hailing method (described above). The Althusserian system is also predicated upon the theory that the ideological structure is determined, in the last instance, by the economy, also leaving him susceptible to the charge of economic determinism (economism), a charge often leveled at Marxists generally, with some justice. But Althusser actually argues that the ideological structure is characterized by multiple layers and different strata of IRAs and RSAs, which do not completely synch up, even if the ideological structure is structurally over-determined, in the last instance, by political economy, and that these regions of indeterminacy allow for subjective agency in social change. Further, Althusser argues (I think…) that subjective individuals can actually see through the ideological structure in which they are interpellated, even if, in the vast majority of cases, ideology is always invisible to those who are most trapped in it, and ideology is always something everybody else has, not me! So that when I say, in response to Althusser's theory: 'Hey! That's true! He's right!' I'm simply betraying that I'm still a captive of ideology. In this case, Althusserian ideology…

    I remember a previous discussion on the M&PRoB website with an Althusserian, who argued that not only is Althusser's theory a valid description of the capitalist political-economic structure of contemporary postmodern societies, but that it does allow for a subjective agency of political change, just not at the individual subjective level, but at the level of a class subject, which, by interpellating individuals as members of a social class, gives them agency in the otherwise structurally over-determined system. Whatever else, I would certainly encourage those inclined toward Althusser's structural Marxism to follow through in reading Althusser until they get frustrated and discouraged and give up, like our reviewer here, or finally find they can apply Althusser to the critical analysis of, say, the Elizabethan State, as the New Historicists did, or to Postmodern Consumer Capitalism, aka Late Capitalism, as did Frederic Jameson. For myself, I don't regret reading Althusserian theory, I just don't want to be interpellated as a subject by him…


  4. I would not suggest giving up on reading Althusser or any other philosopher for that matter,but the key question for a critical response to him should be how-if at all-he can be a beneficial source for the movement in this conjuncture. As I note in the closing paragraph,there are promising signs of a revival of the left in this decade and the question for Althusserians is- does their system help us engage with it? To sum up my arguments to answer in the negative a) the concept of interpellation promotes a pessimistic view of the capacity of most workers to reject bourgeois ideology 2) the levels of practice outlined by Althusser obfuscates the base-superstructure model and provides a pretext for leftish academics to opt out of actual class struggle 3) Althusser never broke with 'socialism from above' regimes such as the USSR and China ,whereas other Marxist theorists such as Tony Cliff and Chris Harman developed critiques of these states that have been validated by subsequent events 4) his style of writing was utterly remote from most workers,unlike the genuine pioneers of Marxist theory-Marx,Lenin,Trotsky,Luxemburg and others .

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