Review of Althusser’s ‘On the Reproduction of Capitalism’

Review by Derek Wall

March 2, 2014 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Verso has just published the English translation of the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser’s book On the Reproduction of Capitalism. Althusser, who was arguably “the Marxist philosopher” of the late 1960s and early 1970s, is perhaps best known for his essay, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.

However this work was just a fragment of a much larger book that was unseen in his lifetime. On the Reproduction of Capitalism will change perspectives on Althusser, as profoundly as the publication long after his death of Marx’s Grundrisse or Paris Manuscripts, transformed understanding of Marx’s thought and practice.[1]

Palaces of gold by Leon Rosselson

If the sons of company directors,
And judges' private daughters,
Had to go to school in a slum school,
Dumped by some joker in a damp back alley,
Had to herd into classrooms cramped with worry,
With a view onto slagheaps and stagnant pools,
Had to file through corridors grey with age,
And play in a crackpot concrete cage.

Chorus (after each verse):

Buttons would be pressed,
Rules would be broken.
Strings would be pulled
And magic words spoken.
Invisible fingers would mould
Palaces of gold.

If prime ministers and advertising executives,
Royal personages and bank managers' wives
Had to live out their lives in dank rooms,
Blinded by smoke and the foul air of sewers.
Rot on the walls and rats in the cellars,
In rows of dumb houses like mouldering tombs.
Had to bring up their children and watch them grow
In a wasteland of dead streets where nothing will grow.

I'm not suggesting any kind of a plot,
Everyone knows there's not,
But you unborn millions might like to be warned
That if you don't want to be buried alive by slagheaps,
Pit-falls and damp walls and rat-traps and dead streets,
Arrange to be democratically born
The son of a company director
Or a judge's fine and private daughter
. --

Written in the immediate aftermath of the 1968 French student rebellion, On the Reproduction of Capitalism, is bathed in the glow of the Algerian uprising against France and the Vietnamese people’s battles against first French and then US military forces. While it is written by a philosopher, whose work rightly or wrongly is often viewed as opaque, it asks a simple question and is directed not at philosophers but at workers and peasants fighting for liberation. The question is evident from the title, how does capitalism reproduce the conditions necessary for its own existence? How does capitalism mould us to serve a system which rests upon our exploitation?

Althusser asked this question so as to further the struggle to destroy capitalism and to produce a new social system. Althusser was widely seen to have been destroyed, both personally by severe mental illness and politically/philosophically by his critics over 30 years ago, yet the text is fresh and relevant to those of us who seek to challenge capitalism today. While On the Reproduction of Capitalism is both flawed and unfinished, I believe that it may, eventually, perhaps, be referenced as widely on the left as The Communist Manifesto, Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth or Lenin’s State and Revolution. Reading it is an unsettling experience, it is a dangerous text, but lucid and relevant.

Althusser, born in 1918, was originally a Catholic. He was imprisoned by the Nazi occupiers during the Second World War and became a Marxist. He joined the Communist Party of France and sought to fight, in his eyes, a philosophical war  on behalf of Marxism and the working class. He collaborated with close associates on books such as Reading Capital, Lenin and Philosophy and For Marx.

Althusser was known as a structuralist, an anti-humanist and anti-Hegelian thinker. He rejected the idea that humans have an intrinsic unchanging essence, so felt that so-called “humanist Marxist” critiques in the 1950s and 1960s of Stalin were inappropriate. He felt that we had no fixed identity and humanism was anti-Marxist. He was seen as a structuralist, arguing that underlying processes shaped society and human subjectivity. He sought to understand Marx’s work as a form of science, arguing that there was a break between the works of the younger Marx, such as the Paris Manuscripts, and the mature Marx who wrote Das Kapital. The younger Marx was a Hegelian thinker, while the mature Marx rejected any idea of historical “stages”, historical inevitability or other Hegelian inspired ideas.

Cynics argued that he was a Stalinist; in Britain his supporters such as Paul Hirst were seen as preparing the way for Tony Blair’s right-wing New Labour project. Described as an anti-humanist, hostile to the study of history and opposing free human association with his apparently functionalist and structuralist approach, Althusser was widely attacked in print by both former students, such as Jacques Rancière, and other Marxists such as E.P. Thompson.

Plagued by severe mental illness for much of his life, he killed his wife and was placed in an institution in 1980. His ideas, dominant at least on the French Marxist left in the 1960s and ‘70s, were discarded.

It is however clear that the thought of prominent post Marxist, post-modernist and post-structuralist thinkers including his friend Jacques Derrida, his former student Michel Foucault and also Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe were shaped by dialogue with much of his work. The tragedy of Althusser was reinforced when Nicos Poulantzas, who applied his work to the study of the state, committed suicide in 1979. Althusser in works of biting self-criticism attacked his own work and on his death in 1990 appeared likely to have disappeared other than as tragic and intellectually/practically bankrupt figure.

In the last decade or so, a new Althusser has emerged. Huge quantities of previously unpublished material has appeared showing that Althusser in his later work traced the origins of materialism from Greek philosophers and Spinoza on to Marx. Althusser’s work on Machiavelli has also attracted the attention of many on the left and recently the literary critic Warren Montag has produced an impressive reassessment of Althusser’s work, Athusser and his Contemporaries.

On the Reproduction of Capitalism provides a new perspective on the old Althusser but rather than being a work of purely philosophical or literary interest, is one that can inform struggles for socialism in the 21st century. Philosophy and Marxism is a rich field but often seems like an academic industry or even -- in the hands of that well known stand-up comedy communist Slavoj Žižek -- a form of light entertainment.

Althusser argued that class conflict extends to ideas and that philosophy has a material effect. He was motivated by a desire to further material goals in a specific context, rather than to take part in a disembodied debate.

The book is introduced with an appeal “To My Readers”’, in which Althusser provides a clear guide to his project and addresses his critics. On its own “To My Readers” would be an impressive essay, concise and effective. He explains that he intends to write two volumes and that “this short book” deals with the reproduction of capitalist relations. The second volume, which never appeared, will cover “class struggle in capitalist social formations”. Althusser was widely condemned as a functionalist who only explained how a range of social institutions were functional to capitalism but failed to look at resistance to such institutions and their allied practices. On the contrary he makes it very clear that to resist we must understand how capitalism functions. Marx focussed on how capital works but both Marx and Althusser felt that they were forging tools for social change not pictures of unchangeable repressive societies.

Sadly only short sections of On the Reproduction of Capitalism  were published during his lifetime, which gave rise to distorted and one sided perspectives on Althusser's work.

Athusser notes that Marx examined the reproduction of productive forces in Capital but notes that ideology is also essential to social reproduction -- ideas from legal forms to light entertainment, seen as the superstructure -- play a role in reproduction. A theme of the book is that philosophers learn from class struggle, rather than being an elite who tell the workers how to fight; they learn from the workers.

At one point he even argues that Marx was an “organic intellectual”. By this he meant that while Marx and Friedrich Engels were not workers, their work was only possible because they were taught by the struggle of the working class, “they belonged organically to the workers’ movement of their day” (Althusser 2014: 229). Even without volume two, On the Reproduction of Capitalism puts class struggle first, providing a fundamental revision to previous perspectives on Althusser.

Althusser is clear that the issues under discussion are difficult. Social reproduction cannot be separated from class struggle or “economic” reproduction; talking about any one aspect involves discussing all aspects. Theoretical tools must be used to make things clearer and this can seem to involve elitism. For Althusser philosophy, while necessary, was a material practice as mysterious, or otherwise, as designing circuit boards or building homes, necessary and difficult without training but not the product of an intellectual elite. He noted:

We must, however, warn our readers that, so as not to traduce our subject, we shall sometimes have to enter into explanations that are complex and call for sustained attention. This is not our fault. The difficult of our explanations has to do with the objectively complex nature of philosophy, law, its apparatuses, and ideology (Althusser 2014: 9).

He also notes as one last “warning” that nothing he writes should be seen as “the bible truth” and noted that Marx insisted that readers think for themselves.

The first chapter, “What is Philosophy?”, distinguishes between philosophy as a spontaneous common sense and a more abstract professional activity. Social change is linked to change in philosophy but the interrelationship is left open, the elitist assumptions of Plato are linked, though, by Althusser to Plato’s belief in a class-based hierarchical society “to establish class relations among people that flattered the convictions of the reactionary aristocrat that he was” (Althusser 2014: 13).

Philosophy is a product, Althusser argues of class society, in the same way that Lenin argued that the state is a product of a class society and will wither away in a world without social classes. Althusser argues both that philosophy involves technical work and abstraction that involves risks but such technical work should not be used to justify “elitism”. In this regard he notes that philosophers have often wrongly argued that “there are people who are made for work, others who are made to command and, finally, still others who are made to ensure that the dominant class’s order reigns over slaves and tradesmen” (Althusser 2014: 13). Philosophy in the more abstract sense can be related to the disseminations of ideologies that reproduce class societies; Marxist philosophers seek to aid the transformation of society from elite rule to popular liberation.

Althusser asks in his second chapter, “What is the mode of production?” He argues that Marx opened up a”‘continent” to intellectual exploration helping us by “making the structure, persistence, development, stagnation and decline of societies intelligible” (Althusser 2014: 18).

Philosophers including Spinoza and even economists like Adam Smith and Ricardo, contributed to this process but were limited by an idealist philosophy of history that Marx moved beyond. Marx rejected the term “society” for the more precise notion of a “social formation” and argued that the study of a mode of production was necessary to understand how a particular social formation functions.

Althusser outlines in turn four classical thesis of the mode of production, noting 1) the dominance of one mode of production in society, 2) the correspondence between the relations of production and the productive forces, 3) the need for productive forces to be “rendered operational” within relations of production and 4) that the relations of production are limited, in turn, by the forces of production.

Althusser seems to be arguing that a complex unity occurs. Not only do different modes of production coexist but that while material forces limit what is possible, material production is conditioned by ideological elements such as law and culture. Production involves an interaction with nature and particular labour processes that allow cooperation. Technology alone cannot work without precise labour processes but the technology makes certain labour processes possible. Without a team fishing is difficult but different kinds of nets and boats lead to new forms of social cooperation to get the fish. In a complex and easily misunderstood chapter the complex interaction between different elements is sketched, to show that ideas can have a material force but that the material, at the risk of vulgarising Althusser’s ideas, helps to also shape the intellect and culture. Taken further this no doubt reflects Spinoza’s notion that the duality between “mind” and “matter” is false. Althusser was a great reader of Spinoza.

In On the Reproduction of Capitalism Althusser outlines with great clarity an account of Marx’s notion of the exploitative nature of a capitalist society, showing that capitalism cannot be defined merely by legal forms of property ownership but by a number of practices that create a hierarchical society. Thus, while in any society some division of labour is likely to exist, the rigid division of labour in our society is a function not of technical necessity, but of social division. Class struggle is ideological and political, changing ownership to create democratic access to the means of production and making technical changes to improve productivity are insufficient to create a communist society. There is, according to Althusser, an ideological element which is also vital, class struggle is simultaneously economic, ideological and political.

The mode of production of a class society … is quite the opposite of a mere technical process of production. At the same time as it is the locus of production, it is the locus of class exploitation and of class struggle as well. It is in the productive process of the mode of production itself that the knot of class relations and the class struggle bound up with exploitation is tied. This class struggle pits the proletarian class struggle against the capitalist class struggle… It is easy to understand the capitalists’ interest in depicting the process of production as the opposite of what it is: as a purely technical rather than an exploitative process… It is also easy to understand that the destiny of every class struggle, the victorious revolutionary class struggle included, ultimately depends on an accurate conception of the relations of production. To “build socialism”, it will be necessary to establish new relations of production that abolish concretely, the exploitative effects of the previous relations of production, together with their class effects. The construction of socialism can therefore not be settled with purely legal formulas: ownership of the means of production plus better technical organization of the labour process (Althusser 2014: 45).

The rest of the book explores this central insight. As we know, Althusser in the published fragment explored how the ideological and repressive state apparatus reproduced capitalist society. He can be accused rightly of producing a science of management, showing how capitalism was reproduced in a functional fashion by institutions as diverse as the police and pop music. However, such institutions are a product of a class interests and are challenged by the working class.

In the more complete work he showed how they were a product of the class war waged by the ruling class, however he notes that the working class also wages class war. There is conflict between institutions that seek to conserve capitalism and institutions created by the workers that seek to transform society. Philosophers, if they are Marxists, learn from the workers and seek to create a more precise and material understanding of the nature of the class warfare that occurs. Philosophy is a material practice that hinders or contributes to social change.

Reproduction of capitalism requires the reproduction of our subjectivity as workers as well as the reproduction of social practices necessary for economic production. Such forms of reproduction require “ideology”, which Althusser is well known for defining in the following terms:

Ideology has very little to do with “consciousness” -- it is profoundly unconscious.

His discussion of the ideological and repressive state apparatus, the way that ideology is internalised and creates our subjectivity, along with his combination of ideas from Marx along with Sigmund Freud and Lacan has been well discussed, but there are yet more insight into his thinking in On the Reproduction of Capitalism. For example, he is critical of the very notion of law, examines how class struggle has an ideological effect and promotes a fundamental critique of Stalinism.

Seeking to relate law, the state and ideology, he suggests that communism will see the abolition of law. Rather than a future communist society being based upon a legal distinction of collective ownership, it will require, according to Marx, the quite distinct “collective or common, appropriation by freely ‘associated’ men and women” (Althusser 2014: 61). Law is “by essence … inegalitarian and bourgeois”. One thinks of Brecht’s observation in the Three Penny Opera that “the law was made for one thing alone, for the exploitation of those who don't understand it”.

According to Althusser, neither state planning nor “slogans such as ‘workers power’ or ‘economic democracy’” are adequate. Socialism demands the very difficult transition to a new society, this transition should not be confused with the even more difficult question of how a communist society based on “collective or common appropriation” would function. Rejecting notions of state planning under Stalin, Yugoslavian “self-management” and other suggestions current in 1970, Althusser argues that communism will require “unprecedented forms”, intense political struggle and take a very long time period to achieve.

Althusser’s chapter on “Law” provides a fundamental challenge to perhaps all obvious conceptions of a communist society, clearly rejecting the market and the state. Althusser provides only questions in this area but implies that others on the left only give answers, wrong answers.

Althusser discusses the repressive nature of law in reference to Immanuel Kant. Althusser argues that while ideological pressures make us often respect law, law is always repressive and this leads to a more detailed consideration of the state on his part. Referencing Marx, Lenin and Poulantzas, Althusser introduces his concept of ideological and repressive state apparatuses. He notes that strict ownership by the state is unnecessary, the media, political parties, religious institutions, cultural institutions are part of a system that is driven by the ideological needs of the state. However, uniform control is not a feature of the system, for instance he notes of the church that internal class struggle is a feature:

We do not deny that the institutions in question “produce”, internally and in their practices, certain forms of ideology that would be inexplicable without references to those practices. Thus we shall say that religious practice “produces”, inside the Church, certain forms of ideology: ecclesiastical ideology, for example. But there are other ideologies in the Church, to stick with that example: these days, it is teeming with them. Consider Isolotto, the “letter” by the 360 French priests. Father Cardonnel’s Lenten sermon… Consider all the extraordinary developments in the religious ideology of certain groups among the lower clergy and even a few members of the high clergy in some Latin American countries, to say nothing of Father Torres, who died fighting with the guerrillas (Althusser 2014: 82).

Thus On the Reproduction of Capitalism, while suggesting that class struggle occurs most directly in the workplace, observes that class struggle takes place across society and invites us to take our part. Ideology is produced by a complex set of conditions, it is not spontaneous. Class struggle is essential to the production, reproduction and transformation of ideology.

While E.P.Thompson criticised Althusser, correctly one might think, for ignoring “history’”, in On the Reproduction of Capitalism historical sketches of class struggles around ideology in France and the UK are developed. Much of the quite detailed and stimulating discussion of ideology and the three-fold nature of class struggle -- which is at the same time, political, ideological and economic -- would require a longer review than this to describe, let alone situate or critique.

It should be noted, before drawing to a close, that Althusser’s text can be read as an extended critique of Stalin and Stalinism. Althusser noted that Stalin put the forces of production before the relations of production. This is wrong and leads to a stageist and repressive path. Stalin argued that only with the raising of productive forces, i.e. swift, industrialisation, would socialism or indeed communism be possible. Rapid industrialisation led to rapid brutality but ignored the fact that a mode of production had an ideological element. Lenin, in contrast, according to Althusser, was concerned with how educational and other ideological institutions could be transformed so as to create the conditions for liberation. Althusser implies that without ideological transformation socialism would fail as even the beginning of a transition to a liberated society.

This, of course, poses difficult questions,. If ideology is necessary to a mode of production and communism remains a mode of production, how can repression be avoided? If a social formation requires a form of subjectivity, how is “collective or common, appropriation by freely ‘associated’ men and women” ever possible? While Mao’s attempts to construct alternative subjectivities also led to repression and violence, despite Althusser’s implied positive contrast with Stalin, Mao also failed to build lasting socialist institutions and practices.

While rejecting Stalin, Althusser fails to tell us how repression can ever be replaced with a free association and how the processes of attempting to do so can avoid themselves being repressive. How can we “arrange to be democratically born?”
The question of “collective or common, appropriation by freely ‘associated’ men and women” remains unanswered but it is powerfully posed in On the Reproduction of Capitalism. The text will provoke, one hopes, work on how this question can better be presented, and answered. It is a text that attempts to discuss human liberation not just human oppression. Can we collectively become causes not effects? How is this possible, because when we are most aware of our individuality we are perhaps most formed by forces we are unconscious of.

He draws attention to the failures of thinkers including Spinoza and Freud, but does so productively.

It also straightforwardly tells a lot more about the Althusser we thought we knew. Some things are clear: Althusser is not a functionalist; he rejects the need for a philosophical elite; class struggle is at the centre of his work, not banished to the edge; he accounts for the reproduction of capitalism but notes that revolution is possible and necessary. He writes with clarity and where necessary uses historical examples. While he is critical of “common sense”, he notes that abstract analysis can also be misleading.

Althusser, a good former Catholic and atheist that he was, had kind words for liberation theology. Who would have thought that![2]

He is, above all, an anti-Stalinist. On Reproduction of Capitalism gives us a “new” old Althusser. Yes, On Reproduction of Capitalism needs to be criticised and it needs updating to relate it to the specifics of 21st socialism, along with the ecological component of any possible progressive social change. Yes, Althusser never completed this work, his ideas are sometimes inconsistent, flawed or occasionally dogmatic. Yes his work is under the shadow of his severe experience of mental illness. Yet, On Reproduction of Capitalism is a lucid, instructive and beautifully written work, a Marxist classic restored to us which will have material effects.

[Derek Wall is international coordinator of the Green Party of England and Wales and author of The Sustainable Economics of Elinor Ostrom.]


[1] On the Reproduction of Capitalism is a difficult and important text for activists who wish to transform the world we live in. I have already written a review of Warren Montag’s excellent book describing Althusser’s work and I hope to write both a critique of On Reproduction of Capitalism and a final article looking at the relevance of Althusser’s work for 21st century socialism and the struggle for ecosocialism. My task here is to encourage others to read On the Reproduction of Capitalism, I make no attempt to defend my own reading and partial understanding beyond claiming that it is an important text.

[2] Although he does note the importance of liberation theology in passing in other texts.


Althusser, L. (2011) Machiavelli and Us. Verso: London.

Althusser, L. (2014) On the Reproduction of Capitalism. Verso: London.

Montag, W. (2013) Althusser and his Contemporaries. Duke University Press, Durham NC and London.

Rancière, J. (2011) Althusser's Lesson. Bloomsbury: London.

Thompson, E.P. (1978) The Poverty of Theory. Merlin Press: London.