Kill the Philosopher in Your Head

Althusserianism has always been a Marxism for those who prefer their class struggle as philosophy

Louis Althusser was upset about the cop in your head. Or rather, he was upset that the students on the streets in Paris ’68 told you there was one there to kill, so much so that he wanted their slogan “Kill the Cop in Your Head” damned to what he called “the Museum of the History of Masterpieces of Theoretical and Political Error.” These “anarchists,” he wrote, missed the point: It was not cops, prisons, armies, courts, and other forms of state repression that sustained capitalism. To imagine them as the enemy in your head was a mistake, for according to Althusser, “everyone knows, after all,” that in your head, “one can only have ideas.”

A philosopher might be lousy at fighting a cop on the streets, but no worries—the cop only appears to be what is standing in the way of revolution. It is the you inside you who are the enemy, trained since birth to be so. What the anarchists of ’68 should do, Althusser wrote, was give up their prejudice against the “authority of knowledge” and read Plato. They would then see that society couldn’t run on repression alone. Its real engine was “beautiful lies.” You would be better off to imagine, in place of the cop in your head, yourself in your head. What the you in your head looks like is someone propelled by society’s beautiful lies. Do you recognize yourself as yourself? Say hi. You are an “interpellated subject of ideology.”

And what, to Althusser, was ideology? It was, according to On the Reproduction of Capitalism, newly published by Verso, “beautiful lies,” a pure dream fabricated by nothing, a condition with no history, an always-ever, an imaginary representation of imaginary relations to real conditions, that what you always believe you are outside of but always in, a bricolage of the day’s residue, the “pale, empty inverted reflection of real history,” where we “live and move and have all our being,” ideas made material, the opposite of science, “not the gendarme,” and also what all reality lies outside of—“empty, nugatory imaginary, patched together, arbitrarily, eyes closed.” Ideology was not, Althusser insisted, composed of “ideas,” though sometimes he slipped and said it was. If you are ­confused by this list of descriptors, you might want to blame the interpellated subject of ideology in your head.

And what, to his critics, was Althusser’s definition of ideology? Wrong, mostly. Each newly available work of Althusser is a new whetstone on which a generation of critics can sharpen its knives. With so many vivid works on the wrongness of Althusser, his most remarkable legacy might be the way he collected the most distinguished haters and their works of most memorably lucid hate. Even Althusser, in The Future Lasts Forever—the memoir he wrote to explain how he came to strangle to death his wife, Hélène, in 1980—went on at length about Althusser’s hatred of Althusser. He killed his wife, he said, because “I wanted at all costs to destroy myself.”

Philosophy is harmless, except when it harms. It is no accident that philosophy and wife-killing are both conservative institutions with long cultural histories. In Althusser’s description of Hélène’s murder, it is as if he is describing not a person, but a pliant material:

I was massaging the front of her neck. I pressed my thumbs into the hollow at the top of her breastbone and then, still pressing, slowly moved them both, one to the left, the other to the right, up towards her ears where the flesh was hard. I continued massaging her in a V-shape. The muscles in my forearms began to feel very tired; I was aware that they always did when I was massaging.

Hélène’s face was calm and motionless; her eyes were open and staring at the ceiling. Suddenly, I was terror-struck. Her eyes stared interminably, and I noticed the tip of her tongue was showing between her teeth and lips, strange and still. I had seen dead bodies before, of course, but never in my life looked into the face of someone who had been strangled. Yet I knew she had been strangled. But how? I stood up and screamed: ‘I’ve strangled Hélène!’

In being unaware even if the person whose neck he is “massaging” from the front is alive or dead, Althusser inadvertently describes philosophy’s fatal level of abstraction. As the wife-killer treats human as object, a passive material to be formed or unformed by more powerful hands, so too, the kind of philosophy Althusser describes makes objects of the masses, much to their own risk.

Geraldine Finn, in her 1981 polemic Why Althusser Killed His Wife, wrote that the murder of Hélène could not be separated from his philosophy: “The truth is that the Althusser who killed his wife is Althusser, the revolutionary … His philosophical and intellectual practice cannot be separated from his personal and emotional practice: they are rooted in the same soil and have the same material, social, historical and ideological conditions of possibility and detemininancy.” Finn found the problem to be the relationship between “science” and patriarchy. That is, to Finn, “philosophers and political scientists have always killed their wives, either literally or figuratively, by reproducing the violent patriarchal social relation.”

Thus it remains useful to draw a line from the problem with Althusser (his thinking) to the problem with Althusser (strangling his wife). Althusser’s great fear, as he describes in his memoir, was that he would be exposed as “a trickster and deceiver and nothing more, a philosopher who knew almost nothing about the history of philosophy or about Marx.” His fear was not without basis. His former student Jacques Rancière said it. British Historian E.P. Thompson said it over and over in his colorful anti-Althussarian screed The Poverty of Theory. Althusser himself said as much, admitting that the claim he wrote “imaginary Marxism” was not far from the truth. And yet it must be repeated: The problem with Althusser, apart from being a wife-murderer, was that he was bad at Marx.

Althusser’s reputational fortune rises and falls often in tandem with the rise and fall of action on the streets. His work is reading for the downtime that stays down. The thing about ideas is that one’s hands never have to get dirty by touching them, or as the student placards chided in ’68: “Structures don’t take to the streets.” Verso’s release, then, of this first English translation of the aborted manuscript of 1968 arrives in time to harvest the now overripe disillusionment sown by Occupy. While the promotional materials for the book promise “a key theoretical text for activists,” what On The Reproduction of Capitalism provides is no instruction for revolution, but a messy, contradictory first draft full of unkept promises, maddening inconsistencies, boldly unsupported claims, a priori argument, amusing tirades, some Marxishly mystified Platonism, a sprinkling of praise for Stalin, and what is generally considered to be Althusser’s most useful and provocative work—what Thompson called “the ugliest thing he ever did”—the initial draft of what was to become the widely circulated and highly influential “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.”

The generous interpretation of Althusser is that he wasn’t bad at Marx; he was just iconoclastic: that, to borrow from Marianne Moore, his was imaginary Marxism but with real toads in it. Althusser claimed that he was “correcting” Marx, improving him and restoring to his work the clarity and coherency Althusser believed it lacked—thus “mastering his own thought better than he had done.” Althusser also admitted to have not read too much Marx when he first began to write Marxist theory, explaining that his philosophical method was not to read philosophical texts closely or entirely but to “bore” into them and draw a “philosophical core sample” from which he would intuit the content of the whole. He was a philosopher who believed he needed “no recourse to libraries,” and when it comes to his self-described liberation of Marx (who he considered “a prisoner of the theoretical constraints of his day”), it shows.

The generous interpretation of Althusser’s other problem—that it was Althusser himself who was the victim of the murder he committed—is a more telling measure of the delirium of Althusserianism. Just as Althusser frequently described the murder of Hélène as anything but the murder of Hélène—it was, variously, the destruction of himself, the destruction of evidence that he had lived, the eradication of his own disease, the confirmation of his desire to never exist, the murder of his “castrating” mother, the murder of all women, and/or not a murder at all but an accident or an act of mercy, and also, what Hélène really wanted—Althusser’s appeal is often to those who would like to think the world is what it is not. These are the Marxists of the type who differ from Marx in an important regard. Althusserianism has been a Marxism for those who prefer their class struggle as Philosophy.

Unlike Marx, Althusser believed in Philosophy. His self-described métier was “to intervene in politics as a philosopher and in philosophy as a politician.” What Althusser did was continuously write his own job description. The philosophy that Althusser advocated was not the kind that anyone could do. To define this philosophy, Althusser turned to Plato’s presentation of “the stock figure of a philosopher who goes around with his head in the clouds or in abstraction and ‘falls down wells’… because he keeps his eyes trained on the heaven of ideas instead of the ground.” What does a philosopher need to be a philosopher? Obviously a well to fall into, and by inference, the dowsers, well diggers, water drawers, and others who in their difference from the philosopher will define him.

When these less cloud-oriented people do philosophy, according to Althusser, theirs is a small-p philosophy, merely “to take things philosophically”—that is, to resign to the world as it is. The capital-P Philosophers do “active” and “strong” Philosophy. These include, for Althusser, the stoics (about whom he later admitted sketchy familiarity), communist militant philosophers (presumably including himself), Plato (whose work he read a great deal), Marx (about whom he claimed an inconsistent knowledge), and Lenin (obviously). If, Althusser insists, the people sometimes appear to be Philosophical in the active sense, this Philosophy does not originate among them as spontaneous mass consciousness but has been “disseminated” among them by the specialists of rational thought. This is because, for Althusser, “the philosopher knows and says certain things ordinary people do not know.”

How the Philosophers disseminate their revolutionary truths into the masses from the bottom of a well is an issue Althusser does not address from the bottom of his. This is the book’s tell. Or, as Rancière put it, “cut off from revolutionary practice, there is no revolutionary theory that is not transformed into its opposite.” One can almost get the feeling—though he scratches around this like a cat that has just used the litter box—that Althusser is about to explain to us that capitalism is happening because we need a philosopher to come along and tell us we are all in a cave watching a puppet show.

The philosopher is, for Althusser, the one who has the chance to vanquish you to save you. The philosopher is uniquely capable of a revolutionary killing of the you in your head. But with Althusser, of course, killing can never just be a metaphor.

As Althusser could not comprehend how strangling a person resulted in her death, or even that her death was actually her death, and not his, so also he could not see that the little-p “philosophy” which occurs among the people is neither as wholly received nor as wholly placatory as he believed, nor is the Philosophy of the elite who fall into wells the people dug for them as revolutionary as he suspected. Indeed, the well-digger, unlike the philosopher, is the one who with a shovel moves the earth; it is the philosopher who is always waiting for ideas to fall from heaven. Although Althusser very much disagreed with this statement, we can return to the “unimproved” Marx for a reminder: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Philosophy can land you in a hole, but only action will get you out of it.