Althusser’s Scientific Marxism

While humanistic Marxists see humans as creative beings, able to make history through their conscious actions, for structuralist Marxists, it is social structures that shape human action, and we should be researching structures not individuals.

The most important structural Marxist thinker is Louis Althusser (1918-90), a leading intellectual of the French Communist Party. Althusser’s version of Marxism rejects both economic determinism and humanism.

Criticisms of the base-superstructure model

Instead of being structured into two levels, Althusser argues that society has three levels, or structures:

  • The economic level – all of those activities which involve producing something or meeting a need
  • The political level – comprising all forms of organisation
  • The ideological level – involving all the ways that people see themselves and their world.

In the base-superstructure model, there is one-way causality – the economic level determines everything else. By contrast, in Althusser’s model, the political level and the ideological level have relative autonomy, or partial independence from the economic level, and instead of one way causality, we have two-way causality.

Ideological and Repressive State Apparatus

Although the economic level dominates in capitalism, the political and ideological level still perform indispensable functions – for example, workers need to be socialised into a work ethic, and those who rebel must be punished.

In Althusser’s model, the state performs political and ideological functions that ensure the reproduction of capitalism – he divides the state into two ‘apparatuses’

  • Repressive State Apparatuses – these are ‘armed bodies of men (such as the police and the army). -which can physically quash dissent and rebellion.
  • The ideological State Apparatuses – these include the media and the education system. It is, however, difficult to maintain order in this way over an extended period of time – a more effective tactic is to manipulate the way in which people think, instilling false consciousness, and avoid the necessity for physical oppression.

Althusser’s criticisms of humanism

For structuralist Marxists, our sense of free will, choice and creativity is an illusion. The truth is that everything about us is the product of underlying social structures. Society is a puppet theatre, and we are merely puppets – the unseen structure of society is the puppet master determining all of our thoughts and actions.

Thus according to Althusser, socialism will not come about because of a change in consciousness: Gramsci’s theory that organic intellectuals will spring up, develop an intellectual critique, and figure out creative ways of bringing about communism is a myth, because all of our ideas are determined by the Capitalist structure, which ultimately won’t allow any ideas to emerge that seriously threaten its existence.

Instead, socialism will come about because of a crisis of capitalism resulting in a collapse of the entire system – structural, systemic collapse needs to come about first, and only then can something new be built. Or in Althusser’s own words…

 Evaluating Althusser

For Humanistic Marxists the problem with Althusser is that it discourages political activism because the theory suggests there is little individuals can do to change society.

The theory also ignores the fact that the active struggles of the working classes have changed society for the better in many countries

Sources: Adapted from Robb Webb et Al’s Second Year A Level Sociology Text Book

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