Louis Pierre Althusser was a French Marxist philosopher of the twentieth century. He is best known for his concept of structuralist Marxism. He was a member of the French Communist Party but his association with the party never prevented him to turn critical of the party. His ideas influenced a generation of philosophers such as Derrida, Pierre Bourdieu, and Michel Foucault.
Two of his major works For Marx (1965) and Reading Capital (1965) are set against the predominant interpretation of Marxism under Hegelian purview. The Hegelian approach towards Marxism ignores Marx’s epistemological break that is focused on the development of new science to look at the historical processes rather than historical subjects.
Althusser’s idea of historical change gave importance to the relationship between forces and relations of production rather than consciousness. This emphasis on objective factors was an attempt to rescue Marxism from existential notions of Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Marleau-Ponty.
The effort was further supported by philosophers such as Claude Levi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan. In his attempt, Althusser brings Marxism and Structuralism together, a fusion of historical analysis and ahistorical analysis.
In his essay Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, Althusser redefines the Marxist theory of ideology. The essay studies the relation between the state and its subjects. Althusser explains two mechanisms of the state (RSA and ISA) that control the behavior of the people. Repressive State Apparatuses (RSA), Althusser says, is directly applied to the people’s behavior. Courts, police and armed forces are such apparatuses.
Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA), on the other hand, are institutional tactics which generate ideologies in an indirect manner. Institutions such as religions, politics, schools, family, arts, and literature are based on the system of ideas. Individuals within these institutions are trained in order that they internalize the ideas and values generated by these systems.
Althusser further explains the difference between ideologies and ideology. He argues that ideologies have history and are specific and differing. There can be various ideologies such as Marxist ideology, feminist ideology, and democratic ideology.
On the other hand, ideology has no history, it is structural. His idea of ideology pertains to the Marxist concept of the superstructure of which ideology is considered apart. Althusser links this notion of ideology to Freudian and Lacanian concepts of the unconscious.
He then explains that Ideology as form or structure functions unconsciously and can contain several contents. Althusser thinks that the belief in the free choice of the content is illusory since ideology has an unconscious roleplay.