Althusser is a Marxist Philosopher. Although he took a journey towards Marxism in his early works, but he began to think outside its frame of reference in his late works. In order to make sense of Althusser’s work we need to understand the basic elements of Marx’s thought.
Marx and Engels develop a systematic philosophy they call the ‘materialist conception of history’. The first premise of all human history, for Marx and Engels, is the existence of living human individuals. The first fact to be understood about these individual is that they find themselves. They distinguish themselves from other animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence out of the raw materials of nature. When men and women produce their means of subsistence in this way, according to Marx and Engels, they are indirectly producing their material life. According to this conception, a given society consists fundamentally of the forces and relations of production of its members’ material lives. Althusser intends correctly to expound is that the first and fundamental fact of human life is not at all human ideas, whether the idea of God, of man, of the good, or whatever. It is forces and relations of production into which men and women enter in order to maintain and develop their material lives. It is a person’s place in the system by which society produces the material conditions of the lives of its members and not any innate quality like humanity or personality which determines their life in every respect.
The second fundamental principle of the materialist conception of history, namely that the sum total of the force and relations of production in a given society constitutes its ‘base’ or ‘infrastructure’, which is its first and fundamental reality. Out of this economic base develops a ‘superstructure’, consisting of every other aspect of the life of that society. In the first place, the superstructure consists of the political and legal system, its judiciary, and its defence systems and so on. In the second place, it consists of all the forms of consciousness in whose terms the members of society understand and represent themselves to each other, namely legal and political theories, religion, art, literature and other kinds of cultural production. All these forms of consciousness comprise what Marx and Engels called ‘ideology’.
Since human history has always been the history of class struggles, ideology is a discourse of class interest, reflecting the positions of the antagonistic classes in society, especially that of the ruling class. The kind of literary and cultural criticism that follows from materialist conception of history, such as Althusser’s interprets the meaning that has produced it as such. Marx arrived at this materialist conception of history after an intellectual journey through the humanism that characterizes his early work, in which he describes the alienation of men and women from their humanity under capitalism, and their re-appropriation of this humanity under communism.