Althusser was released in 1983, and resumed a normal life of a kind, seeing friends, reading, and completing the manuscript of his autobiography, The Future Lasts a Long Time. But he never went back to the Ecole normale, and much of his time until his death in 1990 was spent in and out of mental institutions. Sometimes he could be seen walking the streets of northern Paris, announcing loudly to passers-by 'Je suis le grand Althusser'.
Surprising as it may be to anybody under 30, this sad figure was for a time the most discussed philosopher in the world. Althusser's contribution was to combine structuralism and Marxism. In a series of densely argued works in the mid-1960s, he explained how history was driven by the interplay of hidden forces, and how the later writings of Karl Marx, if read with a properly structuralist eye, contained the key to this process. The message that Marxism could now at last be placed on a scientific footing won Althusser a huge audience, and for more than a decade no respectable sociology seminar could afford to ignore his latest pronouncements.
When The Future Lasts a Long Time was first published in France last year, the general reaction was little short of dismay. Althusser's expressed purpose in writing the book was to give the account of himself he was never asked to give in court. But he does little to help us understand the killing. His wife, an older woman he met soon after the war, remains shadowy, and the events leading up to her death obscure. Instead, the book offers a rambling survey of Althusser's life, filled with psychoanalytic fabulation and sexual confession, and much concerned with old squabbles and long
standing resentments. The best that can be said is that it gives an honest account of an unattractive personality, though it is doubtful whether the author intended this impression created by his cheesy anecdotes and adolescent boasts.
Even worse for Althusser's erstwhile admirers, the treatment of his philosophical work is quite unedifying, being largely devoted to old scores and spiced with admissions about how little Marx he had actually read. The result has been that Althusser's credibility in France is now at rock bottom. It is not entirely rational, of course, to turn against his philosophy, as Parisian fashion has now done, on the basis of this document of doubtful sanity. But the truth is that Althusser should never have been taken seriously in the first place. Plenty of critics, including many on the left, recognised from the start that he was an emperor without clothes, not least E P Thompson, who in a widely read essay in the 1970s pointed out that Althusser's politics were indistinguishable from Stalinism and that his philosophy rested on a dogmatic faith reminiscent of the Catholicism he embraced until he was almost 30.
If the book does have a virtue, it is that it shows us what kind of man was responsible for these views. By his own admission, Althusser's experience of life was extremely limited. As a child, he was rarely allowed to play with other children, and when he left school he was promptly incarcerated as a military trainee in a prisoner-of-war camp. He arrived at the Ecole normale in 1945 and stayed there for 35 years, as undergraduate and tutor, choosing to exert his influence through seminars and students rather than seeking the normal promotion to university professor. He claims never to have masturbated until he was 27. He did not realise, until well after he had written his major works, that French factory workers use a shift system. Perhaps it is unsurprising that someone with this background should have developed a philosophy in which knowledge of the real world requires nothing more than structuralist incantations and the close reading of sacred texts.
If Althusser is remembered at all, it will be as the philosopher who killed his wife. He will not be the first person whose life's work has been negated by a single act of madness. But perhaps in this case the ungenerous gaze of posterity will have the right perspective. For killing his wife was probably the most real thing Louis Althusser ever did.
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