Childhood & Early Life
Louis Pierre Althusser was born on 16 October 1918 in Birmendreïs, French Algeria. Now called Bir Mourad Raïs, the town is located near Algiers, the capital city of Algeria.
His father, Charles-Joseph Althusser, was initially a lieutenant in the French army. Later, he settled down in Algiers, where he began working as a bank clerk. His mother, Lucienne Marthe Berger, a devout Catholic, worked as a school teacher. He had at least one sister.
In 1930, Louis Althusser’s family moved to the French city of Marseille. Here, he attended Lycée Saint-Charles, doing extremely well in studies.
In 1936, they moved to Lyon, where he was admitted to the prestigious Lycée du Parc. Here, he was especially influenced by professors like Jean Guitton, Jean Lacroix, Joseph Hours, who had distinct Catholic leaning. In 1937, he joined a Catholic group called Jeunesse étudiantes chrétiennes.
In 1939, he received admission at École Normale Supérieure (ENS). But very soon, at the onset of the Second World War, he was drafted into the French Army and was taken prisoner by the Germans after the Fall of France in June 1940, spending the war years as a prisoner-of-war.
In 1945, after the end of the war, Althusser entered École Normale Supérieure. But, poor in physical and mental health, he spent considerable period in the school infirmary. In 1947, he had to undergo electroconvulsive therapy. However, his illness did not affect his education.
During his student years at ENS, he became sympathetic to the leftist movement, but did not officially join the party. Neither did he move away from religion, instead tried to synthesize Christian and Marxist thoughts.
In 1947, he obtained his diplôme d'études supèrieures on his thesis, ‘Du contenu dans la pensée de G. W. F. Hegel’ (On Content in the Thought of G. W. F. Hegel).
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Teaching & Writing
In 1948, Louis Althusser began his career as the agrégé répétiteur (director of studies) at the ENS. He was responsible for offering special courses on particular topics and on particular figures from the history of philosophy. Same year in October, he joined the French Communist Party (PCF).
He now started publishing papers and soon became quite popular with his students. In 1954, he became secrétaire de l'école litteraire (secretary of the literary school). In this capacity, he became responsible for management and direction of the school.
Although a committed communist, he avoided bringing in Marxist philosophy in his teachings. Instead, he catered mostly to the students’ interests and to the demand of each aggregation.
In 1949, he taught Plato. Next in 1949–1950, he gave lectures on René Descartes and wrote a thesis entitled ‘Politics and Philosophy in the Eighteenth Century’. Then from 1950 to 1955, he concentrated on Rousseau, changing his focus to philosophy of history, also studying Voltaire, Condorcet, and Helvétius.
Although he did not teach Marxism in class or published any work on the subject from 1953 to 1960, he was otherwise very active, opening the Cercle Politzer, a Marxist study group at ENS. He was also an active member of the Peace Movement.
In 1960, he resumed writing on Marxism, translating a collection on Ludwig Feuerbach's works. In the following year, he wrote 'Sur le jeune Marx – Questions de théorie' (On the Young Marx: Theoretical Question). It was followed by a series of articles, which in 1965 were published together as ‘Pour Marx’.
In 1965, he coauthored 'Lire le Capital' (Reading Capital). The book, which was translated in various languages, discusses Karl Marx's Das Kapital including subjects like labor theory of value, dialectical materialism, and historical materialism.
During the May 1968 event, when a civil unrest broke out in France, he was undergoing treatment for depression at a hospital, as a result of which he failed to respond. Enraged at his silence, protesters wrote on walls, “"A quoi sert Althusser?” (Of what use is Althusser?).
On his recovery, Louis Althusser gave statements in which he followed the party line, describing the students as the victims of "infantile" leftism. It angered many of his students, especially Jacques Rancière Thereafter, he went through a new phase, resulting in the publication of ‘Éléments d'autocritique’ (Essays in Self-criticism) in 1974.
In 1969, Louis Althusser started working on ‘Sur la reproduction’ (On the Reproduction), which was eventually published in 1995. Meanwhile, he continued with his scholarly works, editing and publishing not only his, but also others’ works. His responsibilities in the ENS also increased manifolds in 1970s.
In 1978, as the French Communist Party lost the general election Althusser suffered an acute depression and with time developed suicidal thoughts. However, he managed to function until November 1980, when he strangled his wife to death in a bout of mental illness.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1946, Louis Althusser met sociologist Hélène Rytmann-Legotien, a Jewish women, ten years older than him. She was a former member of French Resistance and the French Communist Party. Although it is not known when or if they got married, they lived at ENS and shared a deep emotional bonding.
Louis Althusser had always suffered from mental illness. But after the French Communist Party’s defeat in 1978, it became worse and by March 1980, he became almost non-functional; but refused to be hospitalized.
On 16 November 1980, in a feat of mental confusion, he strangled Rytmann to death in their room at ENS. Judged unfit for trial, he was institutionalized until 1983 and thereafter lead a solitary life in an apartment in Paris.
He spent the last few years of his life at the psychiatric institution MGEN in La Verrière, undergoing treatment for depression. There in the summer of 1990, he suffered pneumonia and died of a heart attack on 22 October 1990.