Iundertook to write this obituary of Louis Althusser for the alumni of the École Normale Supérieure in 1993, nearly three years after the thinker’s death; and not without hesitations and delays.footnote1 The moment happened to coincide with yet another change of fortune in the media image of our comrade, as the posthumous publication of two autobiographical texts had once more drawn attention, not without some commotion, to the fate of the ‘caïman of the rue d’Ulm’.footnote2 This reawakening of curiosity about a man who had seemed forgotten, his writings virtually out of print, no doubt coincided with the lifting of certain taboos and the end of a latency period. For Althusser had been famous two times over: first, in the 1960s and 70s, as a Marxist philosopher and, with Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, Foucault and Barthes, an emblematic figure of ‘French structuralism’; and second, for a few weeks at the end of 1980, as the unfortunate and scandalous protagonist of an unexpected fait divers, the murder of his wife Hélène, within the very walls of the École. By 1993, it seemed, enough time had passed for interest and nostalgia to appear, along with the need to explain events that now belonged to history.

It was nevertheless unclear whether this type of curiosity could lead to a lucid comprehension of Althusser’s personality and intellectual role. Of course, it is neither possible nor desirable that there should be unanimity on such matters; but one might hope that they would at least be discussed on the basis of all the available facts, and of judgements independently reached. The time of writing, when testimony was still available from several generations of Althusser’s colleagues, students, comrades, interlocutors, friends and adversaries, seemed a favourable moment for shedding light not simply on the fate of a man, however exceptional or abnormal, but on the institutions and organizations with which his existence was so closely interwoven.footnote3

I should like therefore to make clear from the start what such a ‘notice’ will not be: neither a personal testimony, which would have been out of place in the Annuaire and would have required more space; nor a biography, to complement, confirm or correct the texts recently published, something for which I was not qualified; nor a formal presentation of Althusser’s theoretical work; nor, finally, a detailed analysis of the role that, for more than thirty years, he played in the life of the École, and that it in turn played in his. Rather, it is intended as a reminder of the facts, followed by some reflections and hypotheses.

Born on 16 October 1918 in Birmandreis, a suburb of Algiers, into a family of office workers and petty officials—his father, Charles, ended a career spent almost entirely in North Africa as head of the Marseilles office of the Compagnie Algérienne de Banque—Louis Althusser attended lycée in Marseilles, and prepared for the competitive examination to the ens in the khâgne at Lyon, where his teachers notably included, for philosophy, Jean Guitton and Jean Lacroix, and for history, Joseph Hours. In his view these three masters of state education, representatives of distinct tendencies in Catholic thought, had a profound influence on his intellectual formation. Successful in the 1939 competition, Althusser was mobilized before the start of the academic year. He was taken prisoner with his artillery regiment in Brittany, and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany—Stalag xa, in Schleswig-Holstein— where he was to spend the rest of the War. He returned to his studies in October 1945. There followed a few uncertain months, in which it seems that Jean Baillou, deputy director of the École, helped to reassure him that it would be possible to overcome this dreadful six-year ‘interruption’. Althusser obtained his diplôme d’études supérieures with an essay on ‘The notion of content in Hegel’s philosophy’ under the supervision of Gaston Bachelard, coming second in the 1948 agrégation. Close friendship and intellectual affinity linked him both to Jacques Martin (class of 1941, translator of Hegel and Hermann Hesse, who committed suicide in 1963) and to Michel Foucault (class of 1946).

In the year that he graduated Althusser was appointed caïman in philosophy, succeeding Georges Gusdorf. He held this post without interruption until 1980, with the rank of agrégé-répétiteur, then maître-assistant and maître de conférences—first on his own, then together with Jacques Derrida and Bernard Pautrat. From 1950 he was also secretary of the humanities department of the École, and in this capacity played an active part, alongside successive directors, in the management and orientation of the establishment.footnote4 In 1975 he defended a doctorat d’État thesis at the Université de Picardie, before a jury made up of Bernard Rousset, Yvon Belaval, Madeleine Barthélémy-Madaule, Jacques D’Hondt and Pierre Vilar.footnote5 After the murder of his wife on 16 November 1980, the judicial non-lieu pronouncing him unfit to plead under Article 64 of the Penal Code, on the basis of psychiatric evidence from Drs Brion, Diederich and Ropert, and the confinement order obtained by the Prefecture of Police, he retired from his post. The administration of the École then asked his friends to empty the apartment that he had occupied for more than twenty years in the south-west corner of the ground floor of the main building, opposite the infirmary where his friend Dr Étienne lived.

The last ten years of Althusser’s life were spent in various psychiatric establishments—the Hôpital Sainte-Anne; ‘L’eau vive’ hospital of the 13th arrondissement at Soisy-sur-Seine; the Marcel Rivière centre at La Verrière—initially under a regime of administrative detention, then as a voluntary patient; or else at the apartment he had acquired with a view to his retirement on the rue Lucien-Leuwen, in the 20th arrondissement, where he notably stayed for a long and almost uninterrupted period from 1984 to 1986. Treated by various doctors, he was now visited only by a few friends, old or new, but never left alone. Michelle Loi and Stanislas Breton, in particular, took the responsibility of providing him with constant company.

These facts are enough to give an idea of the strength of the link—for all its problematic aspects—between Althusser and the École. This tie, ‘physical’ as much as ‘moral’, is probably unique in the history of the ens; notwithstanding the case of Lucien Herr, often compared with Althusser in this respect, though he never actually lived on the premises, or some of the great directors of its scientific laboratories, such as Yves Rocard, Albert Kirrmann, Alfred Kastler or Jean Brossel.