NOTES ON: Althusser L (2011) [1964] Student problems.  Radical Philosophy 170: 8--15

by Dave Harris

Montag W Introduction

This essay has come as a surprise to readers of Althusser, even though he wrote it at his most productive period.  It is specific to the French student movement after the Algerian conflict, aimed in particular at the communist student group UEC, which was 'divided and factionalised' (8). 

Critics including Rancière [and Bensaid] saw it as decisive, however, revealing political and theoretical positions particularly clearly.  For them the piece is theoreticist in prioritizing theory over practice, and in its attacks against 'petty bourgeois anarcho-syndicalist student critics (many of whom were members of the party)'.  It demands a defence of the order of the university.  The whole thing represents the authoritarianism of the Party and its opposition to revolt.

Most readers tended to agree, and many saw it as resembling Stalinism.  The insistence on the autonomy of theory just seems like a way to prevent criticism from those lacking in the necessary knowledge.  They just had a duty to receive the correct line. 

The hierarchies in French universities was under serious challenge by communist and noncommunist activists, who had been radicalized and unified as a response to the Algerian War.  However, the Party itself had been ambiguous about the War, and in particular had opposed 'as "adventurism"', (9) tactics of refusing conscription, and aiding the FLN, opposing French imperialism and the fascist OAS.

After the War, the national French student organization, UNEF, which united a number of factions including the communists, focused on the university itself. UNEF repositioned itself as a trade union for students, seen as intellectual workers, demanding better conditions and even a student wage, as well as student participation in administration.  It opposed the hierarchy in university pedagogy, especially the relation 'between student and professor understood as a relation between one who does not (yet) know and one who does'[so this is where Rancière got it from?].  Knowledge was to be collectivised through working groups.  The conventional exams were to be opposed in the name of pedagogical effectiveness.  Some radicals, including many communists saw these demands as '"apolitical" and "economistic"'and thought in terms of '"global contestation"'. However students were no longer a privileged elite.  Many had experienced violence in the struggle.

Althusser seemed to have abandoned the concrete analysis of concrete situations, still seeing students in terms of their classic abstract class position.  Despite the [better-known]  ISAs essay he seemed to be defending French universities with their discipline and individualizing mechanisms, and focusing on the content of instruction [the ISAs essay actually came later though, we are told below].  In particular, he seemed to be restoring theory to a privileged place, almost suggesting that the correct practice was only possible after theory.  This seem to oppose his earlier position in The Piccolo Teatro (in For Marx) which argued for the materiality of critique and the priority of practical problems, which might occur before theory could grasp them.

Rancière saw this essay as a pure expression, the 'real Althusser, beneath the rhetoric of struggle and resistance'.  Others argued that the essay was not central at all, either a tactical maneuver, or representing 'the brief phase in which Althusser saw himself as the enunciator of the Theory of theoretical practices'[admitted to be an error in the self criticism].

However, both simplify.  Althusser's work is contradictory, 'a philosophy at war with itself', perhaps 'a wish…  that the correct theory could act as a guarantee of correct practice'.

The notes are interesting:

Note 4 says it was the 'Italian wing' of the UEC [who included Rancière], who wanted pedagogical reforms, based on 'a Marxist humanism according to which the concept of alienation replaced class struggle is the motor of history'.  The ISAs essay was written six years later and shows the influence of this critique.  The critique also appeared in later [PCF not LA?] denunciations of the university 'inspired by the Chinese cultural revolution', but minus the humanism.

Note 5 says the PCF did finally engage in the struggle, and was ferociously repressed, losing eight of its members at a single demonstration in 1962.

Note 7 points to other work by Althusser on the student movement.  In 1969, he admitted its significance and denied it was simply the revolt of privileged youth.  He saw it as rooted in the struggle against French imperialism.  In 1972, he criticizes a small group attempting to boycott annual exams, but on tactical rather than principled grounds.


We should use Marxist concepts of the technical and social division of labour to analyze the modern university.  These concepts are universally valid, since they depend on a mode of production and positions reflect the labour process itself.  The division of labour has two forms, for Marx, which can be confused in actual jobs—the technical and the social division of labour.

The technical division relates to jobs which are 'exclusively justified by the technical necessities' of a particular mode of production.  These can be defined objectively and scientifically (11).  Thus consumer goods require technical jobs in factories, administrative jobs to run the organization or to control complex processes—engineers, technical management and so on.  Universities are basically part of the technical division of labour, undertaking the training of future technical and scientific groups, doing creative scientific work.  Pedagogical training of this kind 'is of vital necessity for every society' ['society'?] and is therefore itself based on the technical division of labour.

The social division of labour is different.  It involves the forms of class structure and domination.  It is technical only in this sense of reflecting the mode of domination.  It includes the instruments of the state, the army the police and law courts, with all the associated personal and jobs.  Managers can be seen as being produced by both the technical division of labour and the social division, since management involves controlling and repressing workers.  Foremen are included here: they also have a dual function, both technical and social, and workers in charge of their comrades can display this.  Thus sometimes people in charge have to lean towards the boss, and sometimes towards the workers. [This is pretty determinist -- compare the later work by Poulantzas on political and ideological determinants of class position, or Giddens on 'structuration factors' etc].

These trends can be seen in universities, but in 'very special conditions'.  Universities have special privileges, for example to appoint their own professors.  This is the result of a long struggle, and universities do offer some shelter from class politics.  University autonomy and independence is based on its role in distributing knowledge and producing it, which demands a certain critical spirit and freedom of thought.  The early development of science and philosophy were rooted in the first medieval free universities. Thus,  '"liberal" values: critical spirit, freedom of scientific research and discussion and so on…  do not, as some people dangerously say, spring from bourgeois individualism, but from genuine scientific values'  (12).  Liberty is necessary to science and is not the same as ideological liberalism: scientific forms 'are sometimes necessarily individual' but this should not be confused with 'bourgeois individualist ideology'—Marx himself 'made his discovery alone', and Lenin worked alone at certain times.

It is quite wrong to join scientific individuality and bourgeois individualism.  It is wrong to insist on collective forms: 'these are very dangerous points of view, as much from the pedagogic as from the political and ideological standpoint'. The real issue for Marxists is not the form in which knowledge is transmitted, but 'the quality of the knowledge itself'.

University liberalism is of considerable value to resist the transformations introduced by 'the monopolistic bourgeoisie'.  It would be 'a political mistake' to 'alienate academics'.  It would be wrong to reject all forms of individualism, especially where individual work is carried on in collective forms anyway. We have to understand how social and technical divisions of labour work out in the university in order to undertake any political or trade union work.

Although universities clearly exhibit social divisions of labour and class domination, the main site is not where students theorists look for it.  It is found in the objects of intellectual work, 'in the knowledge the university is commissioned to distribute to the students' (13) [more below] .  We can see class domination at work in government measures attempting to control the appointment of teachers, maneuvering to nominate vice chancellors, reforming teaching 'along technocratic anti democratic lines etc.' These reforms of teaching 'are the most dangerous' since they are based on error and theoretical confusion [apparently, even the most technocratic enthusiasts did not always oppose student wages].

It's not just the student struggle that should dominate critique of universities.  There should be a much wider battle involving 'the union of all abilities and of all university and popular forces'.  The social division of labour does not only act through 'government political and administrative measures' and ideology.  The 'true fortress of class interest in the university' would be untouched by such struggles.  The real influence lies in [positivist] knowledge that reproduces the division between technical and social divisions of labour.

True scientific knowledge, which 'really corresponds to technical necessity' might well be taught in old fashioned ways, whereas 'pure ideology' might be taught in more modern forms. The issue is to clarify the scientific status of knowledge, the interplay of ideology and science, the effects of 'technique shot through with ideology'.  Pedagogy itself is both technical and social ['politico ideological'] whether or not it uses modern forms.

'Most of the literary disciplines… [and]  sometimes history…  are often a place for the reigning aesthetic, ethical, judicial or political ideology, and almost all the so-called "human" sciences, which are the chosen ground for the contemporary positivist technocratic ideology'. Positivist ideology even appears in the pedagogic presentations of the natural sciences, but is often not contested.  Practical work in science can 'inspire in the students nothing but passivity', although this passivity can be a form of resistance.  Science can be taught in a way which chops it up and make students swallow the segments: if these thing-like objects are unpopular with students and teachers, 'then they are right'. 

Positivism brings 'thingification'[sic] (14).  Positivism prevails for example in the insistence on teaching [deeply bourgeois] epistemology in the philosophy of science and in all disciplines.  We need a 'new conception of the subject matter' as 'the essential thing' rather than demanding new pedagogic forms.  The main issue is the nature of knowledge taught, and the distinction between science and ideology, arising from 'knowledge which a class division cuts into two'.

We need an objective analysis of the pedagogic function of the university.  Pedagogy transmits knowledge to subjects who do not have it, and rests on 'the absolute condition of any inequality between knowledge and a lack of knowledge'.  The 'society' decides what should be transmitted and assimilated, and therefore also defines inferior knowledge.  The classic pupil teacher relationship is the technical expression of this pedagogy.  It is not just an age relation. Usually, teachers are older than pupils, but not always— not in some cases of social and political transformation, such as mass literacy campaigns in the USSR and China, or when political leaders have arisen without formal education.

Claiming that universities belong to students 'is pedagogically a mistake and politically an insult to the convictions of the majority of the teachers', and this can only assist governments who want to send in the police.  It is the same for protests based on the difference in age or generation.  In addition, we should not fall into 'the traps of governmental "novelty"' [such as announcing new gee-whizz technology for online education?].

There is no way of settling the problem of pedagogy by demanding 'pedagogic equality between teachers and students'.  It is legitimate for students to claim that they be represented on various management committees, but they should not have equal powers of decision in teaching 'for this does not correspond with the reality of the pedagogical function' [or the right of teachers to assess students and not the other way around].  Demands for the management of student activities outside of teaching is valid 'for it corresponds to a social and political reality and not to a pedagogical reality'.  Demands for equal representation should not be transferred from one sector to another: objective justification exists for one, but not the other.

If students demand equality in work with the teachers, they are confusing the two cases.  There is no real equality in pedagogy.  There may be some when in academic life, say when researchers collaborate in a team, but here, equality in knowledge is indispensable.  Not so in 'its simulacrum' (15).  Students need long training before they do research, unless it is 'piecemeal investigations, dubbed research by a capitalist society, which abound in both the natural sciences and the humanities, and where the researcher is more a blind operative for fragmented tasks arranged by others'.  Participants here are 'victims of the consequences of the positivist ideology'.  Nor should 'the mere personal or collective rediscovery of an already existing knowledge' be called research.

They can be collective labour to assimilate existing knowledge, and this can save time and effort.  However 'good "participational" intentions' can be technically bad if it lacks meaning and direction. Teaching works  'if it is led by teachers' who have the knowledge already that students need, and are able to develop 'scientific technique for transmitting that knowledge.  This scientific technique is called "pedagogy"'.  Self instruction might have good intenions, but if it distrusts all directional forms, if it only operates in a democratic or authentic groups not led by teachers, then it 'rests on the incorrect conception of the reality not only of research but even of simple pedagogic work'.  It will lead only to disappointment.  Enthusiasm will rapidly wane.  It is absurd and inefficient to rediscover knowledge which is already accessible by a direct and rational path.  Such discoveries will only postpone acquiring enough knowledge to become researchers.

There is also a risk of students  'alienating the good will of their professors', whose pedagogic expertise is suspected, 'and whose knowledge is held to be superfluous'.  They might even become alienated politically, and turn into enemies of students and their causes.  Students committed to participation and 'the "democratic" illusion of knowledge 'will remain 'for a long time in a half-knowledge—that is, in a state that does not give them the weapons of scientific learning'. 

Reactionary bourgeois and technocratic governments often prefer this half-knowledge.  Revolutionaries seek 'knowledge, in other words science'.  Half-formed intellectuals are easier to manipulate.  The government is obliged to train intellectuals to provide itself with 'cadres and teachers', but it fears proper training for intellectuals.

Note 1 admits that forms of teaching can actually be complex, with both dominant and subordinate tendencies.  Content is primary or dominant.  We can demand that the forms of teaching should be transformed, but only by considering the content first.

[I must say I actually quite like this!  Have I become a Stalinist?  It is also worth pointing out that Gramsci had very similar views about the liking of the fascist government for progressive methods, much to the chagrin of his British admirers.  However, they just chose to ignore those bits, rather than launch a great campaign against Stalinism as they did with Althusser.  Increasingly, I think the old guy was right, that he attracted so much opprobrium, scorn and hostility because he wouldn't let leftists operate with the dubious category of humanism, so they responded by choosing the usual bourgeois straw man opposites of humanism—economism, positivism, Stalinism, elitism -- and slagging him off. They NEVER consider his arguments calmly or interrogate them with demands for evidence etc. It is full on hate from the word go!]

more notes on Althusser and on other social theorists here