François Maspero: Publisher, (P)artisan

La Joie de Lire, rue Saint-Séverin, Paris
La Joie de Lire, rue Saint-Séverin, Paris

This article first appeared as “François Maspero, éditeur (p)artisan,” in Contretemps, n°13 (Paris: Éditions Syllepse, 2005), 100-108.

The life of François Maspero unfolded through writing: by turns, reader, bookseller, publisher, then translator, and today writer. 1 Grandson of Egyptologist Gaston Maspero and son of the sinologist Henri Maspero, who died at Buchenwald, he is a man who illustrates in his own way the productive pairing of the bookseller-publisher in the world of letters. First, bookseller at l’Escalier, on the rue Monsieur-le-Prince; next, under his own direction, at the bookstore La joie de lire, rue Saint-Séverin, beginning in 1956; then in 1959 he launched into publishing, presiding over his publishing house until 1982. 2 The series of portraits dedicated to contemporary publishers by Livres Hebdo in 1999 offered him only a mere fold-up seat on the train of the commemorated great figures. 3 This was, however, no more than doing justice to a man who contributed to renewing the publishing field, placing the figure of the publisher at the level of the committed intellectuals of the 20th Century. While the postwar years mourned the hopes of an publishing upheaval of a Max Pol-Fouchet or an Edmond Charlot, François Maspero constituted the French side of a new generation of political publishers from the far left in Europe in the era of the advent of consumer society and the arrival of the pocketbook in publishing. 4 François Maspero in France, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli in Milan 1955, or Klaus Wagenbach in Berlin 1964, endeavored, each in his political, cultural, and national context, to use new media to disseminate a political message in the new wave of Third Worldism and of the revival of the workers’ movement, and to promote the pairing of publishing and politics in a creative and militant way.

Publishing and Politics: An Unlikely Pairing?

In France as in Europe, there are few politically committed, medium-sized publishing houses, in which a political orientation serves as its raison d’être and structures its catalogue. One finds the proof of this in L’Histoire des droites: “There were, there are always, committed publishers, but those who made their political standpoint into their sole publishing policy remain relatively rare.” 5 In this category, among the publishers who have lastingly attained an average place in the publishing field, in France one can count at best Éditions sociales on the left, and Table ronde on the right, besides Éditions Maspero. 6 This last of these is very much the exception in the postwar period, by its longevity (over 20 years), which says much about its originality, but also the difficulties of such a business, especially when not sustained by a particular party and remaining attached to a highly pluralist theoretical production (from Althusser to Gilbert Mury, passing by way of Alain Badiou, Ernest Mandel, Pierre Frank, Charles Bettelheim, Alain Brossat, Kostas Mavrakis, and many others). This is all the more significant when faced with an publishing field that is largely conservative, often reluctant to leave the literary domain for structural, ideological, or historical reasons. 7 As Jean Yves Mollier highlights, “the publishing firm’s attitude during the Algerian War – two marginals, François Maspero and Jérôme Lindon monopolizing politically committed and banned books – should lead one to reflect on the system’s lethargy and its refusal to support avant-garde positions outside of literature.” 8 It is therefore in conjoining the ethics of conviction with that of responsibility that François Maspero committed his bookstore, then his publishing house, on the path of resistance during the War in Algeria.

The Founding Episode of the Algerian War: A Bookstore at the Forefront of the Struggle

The bookstore Joie de lire was effectively at the forefront of the struggle against censorship during the Algerian War. François Maspero, quite active in that struggle, was connected to the network of “suitcase carriers” such as Jeanson and Curiel, meeting many collaborators who would later surround the publishing house, such as Jean-Philippe Talbo or Pierre Vidal-Naquet. The bookstore, beyond its large stock of contemporary literature, distributed many books banned by the censors, helping to disperse those that had escaped seizure and from being pulped. 9 This wasn’t easy: when Maspero decided to republish Fanon’s A Dying Colonialism, with his own preface denouncing censorship, he could not find practically anyone to distribute it; even the Présence africaine bookstore, fearing seizure, refused. Joie de lire therefore became one of the rallying points of militants opposed to the Algerian War, before being the crucible and lifeblood of the young publishers. A favored target of the OAS, the object of tight and unbearable police surveillance, it was defended in 1960-1961 by the students of the Front universitaire antifasciste, before being blown up. 10 Faced with the feebleness of leftist parties and groups in the world of publishing, the bookstore affirmed the need for a tribune and alternative distribution system of counter-information. This was the big challenge for these small networks: to have at their disposal a system of networks that could express the meaning of their struggle in the open, so as not to remain in the anonymity of clandestinity. This is what led to the creation of Vérités-Pour, the organ of the Jeanson network, with up to 5,000 copies mailed out beginning in 1958. 11 Determined to go further, François Maspero decided to take the plunge by creating his own publishing house to criticize censorship and seizure, with the review Partisans as its keystone.

The Éditions François Maspero, the Avant-Garde of the Publishing Field

The Algerian War was the raison d’être of François Maspero’s political commitment in publishing: “I was very impressed by Éditions Minuit; at that time, opposition to Paris was spreading across France, and I thought that it made perfect sense to give political texts and documents to all the militants who needed them, and who hadn’t been given them, or not sufficiently so.” 12 He therefore launched, with limited means, and practically alone, his own publishing firm. His “Cahiers libres” – his first collection – made reference to Charles Péguy to claim his independence and outspokenness. His “Cahiers rouges,” published in collaboration with the Ligue communiste révolutionaire, from 1968 to 1973, were also a nod to the interwar Grasset. In 1959, Pietro Nenni’s La Guerre d’Espagne and Frantz Fanon’s L’An V de la Révolution Algérienne [A Dying Colonialism] appeared, followed in the beginning of 1960 by Paul Nizan’s Aden Arabie and Les Chiens de garde [The Watchdogs], and Jean Jaurès’s Les Origines du socialisme allemand. His books denounced the lies of the state, the state of exception in the city, such as Les Harkis à Paris, on the network of Algerian auxiliaries to the French police; or Ratonnades à Paris, after October 17, 1961; 13 delivering accounts of conscripts and draft dodgers, such as Robert Barrat’s Officiers en Algérie, Maurice Maschino’s Le Refus, or Georges Mattei’s Disponibles, which were followed by Droit à l’insoumission; or Maspero published for the first time the entirety of the Manifesto of the 121, with an enlarged number of signatures; 14 or still the minutes of the Procès Jeanson. He thus inaugurated the form of the informational dossier, collections of texts, manifestos, newspaper articles, in direct contact with the event, which contributed to popularizing it. Very quickly, the harshness of the censorship proved just how intense his commitment was. Certain books, such as no. 2 of Partisans or Ratonnades à Paris, were seized at the binding, and never saw the light of day. François Maspero then set out on a publishing mission of counter-information: he was able to say later that he had devoted himself to this militant activity at the expense of other political or literary work, which would have shown itself to be incompatible with his editorial and publishing work.

The Committed Publisher in his Time

François Maspero was the only publisher at the head of his firm, which, without a formal review committee, relied on the publishing house’s close collaborators (Jean-Philippe Talbo-Bernigaud, Fanchita Gonzalez-Battle, Émile Copfermann) and the editors of the various collections (Charles Bettelheim, Louis Althusser, Pierre Vidal-Naquet…) had a say in what to publish, as well as on l’Association des amis des éditions François Maspero, in which Yves Lacoste played a large role during times of difficulty. Like most small publishing houses, it was above all the personality of the publisher that took shape through the constellation of books released. Committed to the idea of books for everyone, in the 1960s François Maspero was one of the leading proponents of easily accessible political books about specific topics, and then shorter books whose forceful and educational form guaranteed their success: such as Pierre Jalée’s Pillage du tiers-monde in 1967…He was, then, among those who dared to introduce [lancer] the political book into the consumer paperback sphere through the “Petit Collection Maspero,” which was met with great success by a new audience, composed mostly of students.  But François Maspero’s political commitment was not just a matter of his choices as a publisher.

He was in fact fiercely involved in defending his authors. Régis Debray is the most well-known example of this. In July 1967, Maspero traveled to Bolivia to defend Debray, arrested while took part in the guerilla struggle: his trip was simultaneously aimed at both learning about the situation and refuting the accusations brought against his author by arguing that Debray was in South America in order to write a book on behalf of his publishers. In 1970, Maspero defended Sabri Geries, an Arab lawyer imprisoned in Israel who had just published Les Arabes en Israël. A member of the Arab movement El Arad, he had written the book before the June 1967 war in a critical spirit with nothing really extremist to it; moreover, his book was written in Hebrew in order to address the Israeli community. But its translation into Arabic and its massive distribution changed the public status and reception of the PLO, bringing the wrath of the Israeli authorities down on its author. In 1971, Maspero intended to defend, in the same way, Cléophas Kamitatu when he was pressured by Mobutu to withdraw his book from sale, La Grande Mystification du Congo Kinshasa.

Afterwards, the publisher led a much larger struggle – which was as long as it was expensive – for freedom of speech. He was committed to republishing the seized or banned books, enhanced with prefaces by his own hand, which criticized the state of exception and stigmatized the rule of self-censure in the publishing milieu. This was the case throughout the history of the publishing house, as with Frantz Fanon’s A Dying Colonialism, or Andersen and Hansen’s Le Petit livre rouge des étudiants et des lycéens in 1971. But this financially expensive tug of war with the authorities made the daily life of the publishing house a demanding, permanent struggle.

At the Risk of Censorship and Bans: A Constant Battle

François Maspero’s political engagement in opposition to the Algerian War is without a doubt one of the most striking. Censorship manifested itself above all through seizures of books without trials (at the time, trials could turn into political platforms, for example, the trials of George Arnaud or of the Jeanson network) which bled the publishing house dry: they were hit with 13 seizures or bans, 9 of them in 1961. 15 But one forgets too quickly that it was Raymond Marcellin, Minister of the Interior after 1968, who established one of the most implacable censorship regimes in 20th Century France, which rested on the May 6, 1939 decree modifying Article 14 of the Law of July 29, 1881, intended for publications of foreign origin. 16 A formidable article, because it dispensed with legal motivation: simply the foreign origin of an author could be enough to condemn without appeal. The French edition of the Tricontinental review, the organ of the Organization of Latin American Solidarity (OLAS), founded at the Havana Conference in 1966, and published by François Maspero, was in this way attacked without mercy: Raymond Marcellin effectively intended to break the publishing house’s back. François Maspero lost this showdown, despite renewed protests in the press, which elicited few shows of solidarity from other publishers. 17

In the 1970s, the ebb of the far left, ideological counter =offensive against Third Worldism, and declining sales of political books further weakened his position, despite the active support of authors and sympathizers regrouped in the l’Association des amis des éditions – such that the publishing house and the bookstore grew significantly (over 20 titles published in 1965, over 50 in 1968, and over 70 in 1975). They were only more difficult to manage and make profitable, thus becoming more vulnerable. It’s here, without a doubt, that one can find, along with the tenacious severity of the police and judiciary for over 20 years (without counting the number of thefts from the library), the reasons for the crisis, which led in 1981-1982 to the end of the publishing house, which already had to separate from the Joie de lire bookstore in 1974, a veritable heartbreak for François Maspero and his comrades, so connected was the bookstore to their political adventure. But their work, their catalogue remained, testifying to their revolutionary commitment as much as their creativity and their openness to new currents of thought emerging on the left and in the social sciences, in turmoil in the 1960s and 1970s.

At the Crossroads of a Political Renewal on the Far Left

Editions Maspero published an important part of the revolutionary resurgence, following a productive form of revolutionary pluralism that Maspero became very attached to, and which could also determine the content of the bookshop shelves. It served as a laboratory and a favored tribune for a far left in formation during the 1960s and 1970s. Its catalogue of over 1300 titles constituted invaluable material for thinking the history of the left in the context of the Thirty Glorious Years in France. It included the proponents of a new communist path inside the PCF (Critique de base – Jean Baby’s le PCF entre le passé et l’avenir, 1960) or in Europe (what would later be called the Italian road to communism, with Palmiro Togliatti’s Le PC italien). But one of the backbones of this catalogue was Third Worldism: it was the principal organ in France of this current which at the time seemed to renew the revolutionary horizons and strategies of the industrialized countries. This orientation came very early on, with, from 1960, Jomo Kenyatta’s Au pied du mont Kenya; then, in 1961, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth with a preface by Jean-Paul Sartre, 18 then the works of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara’s Diary, the writings of Giap or of Malcolm X. After 1968, the Éditions Maspero and their founder met, and published, the maoists of the Union de jeunesses marxistes-léninistes (UJC(m-l)), those of the groups Révolution, and above all the Ligue communiste révolutionnire, for which the Éditions became the favored tribune (with the “Cahiers rouges” already mentioned, the “Classiques rouges,” and finally the “Poches rouges”) until the latter set off on its own (François Maspero himself was a member of the Ligue at that time). One equally finds in the catalogue the texts of the striking students or the first feminist manifestos (Libération des femmes, année 0 in the Partisans dossiers, 1972). One finds as well important republicans of classic texts from the workers’ movement, such as Jaurès or Rosa Luxemburg, Isaac Roubine, Roman Rosdolsky, exhumed by the non-communist New Left to renew the traditional Marxist approach.

Maspero and the Renewal of Social Theory [Porter l’écho des sciences humaines en plein bouleversement]

The other great innovative domain of this catalogue – which did not included much literature (but knew how to welcome North African francophone authors such as Tahar Ben Jelloun or Malek Haddad, and also a poetry catalogue, Voix) – was the social sciences, of which the success and echo was one of the great characteristics of the publishing house in those years. At the time, the social sciences carried a concrete political discourse. Political philosophy and the “Théorie” collection (Louis Althusser’s Reading Capital, 1968), history (Jean-Pierre Vernant, Mythe et pensée chez les grecs, 1971), sociology (C. Wright Mills, Les Cols blancs, 1966), economy (Arighi Emmanuel, L’Échange inégal, 1969; Charles Bettelheim; the review Critique de l’économie politique), pedagogy, (A.S. Neill, Les Libres Enfants de Summerhill, 1970), anthropology (Maurice Godelier, Horizons, trajets marxistes en anthropologie) – so many great subjects that found a place with François Maspero in the collection “Textes à l’appui,” and found a success that would leave many of today’s social science publishers dreaming. 19 The enumeration of these works cannot by itself summarize François Maspero’s innovative contribution to the renewal of the social sciences in France in the 1960s and 1970s.

There are decidedly many reasons to consider François Maspero as a major publisher in 20th Century France. His publishing house remains a rare example of politically committed and independent firm at a time of great reorganization in the publication and distribution of books, during the arrival of consumer society, on the eve of the formation of large publishing firms sustained by finance capital, which threatens to make the figure of the publisher and the creativity of the publishing house disappear. 20 At the crossroads of new currents of thought and politics, its publishing oeuvre was representative of the 1960s and 1970s, of the success of the political book, just as much as that of the social sciences, which intended to make their contribution to the transformation of the world. François Maspero’s journey also illustrates the itinerary of a committed intellectual on the path of Third Worldism and the anti-capitalist New Left. In a quarter of a century of considerable production he provided an unforgettable laboratory for the rediscovery of the roots of communism, for the exploration of new social conflicts (he was one of the first to be interested in the problems of immigration), and for the intercontinental expansion – even before what we now call “globalization” – of the outlook of the contemporary world.

Translated by Salar Mohandesi. The translator would like to thank Patrick King, David Broder, and Félix Boggio Éwanjé-Épée for comments on this draft.


1 The reader should refer to his books, which, from Figuier (Le Seuil, 1988) to Les Abeilles et la Guêpe (Le Seuil, 2004), borrow from the styles of the novel and autobiography. They restore, or illustrate, each in its own way, by fragments, François Maspero’s trajectory. His most recent work, Les Abeilles et la Guêpe, is particularly remarkable. A deep meditation on political commitment and the role of memory in his itinerary, it begins with an excerpt from the famous eponymous poem by Jean Paulhan. In the first part, François Maspero tries to return to the tragic “family novel,” from which he shapes, through the testimonies of his father’s companions – his father died at Buchenwald – to retrace, with the clues and evidence that he was able to gather since, the life his father during his final days in the camp. This meticulous historical inquiry then contradicts in a confusing way the testimonies of the survivors, notably that of Semprun…
2 As if this bygone quality must today be condemned to insignificance without appeal.
3 The series: “Douze éditeurs dans le siècle,” published in Livres Hebdo, nos. 350 to 362 (September 1999 - December 1999): « Gaston [Gallimard] Premier », « Arthème [Fayard] Le Grand », « Monsieur [Albin] Michel », « Bernard Grasset, le Conquérant », « Maître [Fernand] Nathan », « Robert Denoël, le Découvreur », « René Julliard, le Flambeur », « Sven Nielsen, le Viking », « Henri Flammarion, le Refondateur », « Paul Flamand, l’Engagement », « Robert Laffont, le Précurseur », « Jérôme Lindon, le Militant ». To which was added, « Éditeurs du XXe siècle » : « François Maspero, l’Insurgé », Livres Hebdo, n° 362, 17 décembre 1999, 60-64.
4 Julien Hage, “Feltrinelli, Maspero, Wagenbach : une nouvelle génération d’éditeurs politiques d’extrême gauche, histoire comparée, histoire croisée, 1955-1982 ‚” (PhD Dissertation, l’Université de Versailles-Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, December 2010).
5 Pascal Fouche, “L’édition,” in Histoire des droites en France vol. 2, “Cultures,” Jean-François  Sirinelli, ed. (Paris: Gallimard, 1992), 257.
6 Translator’s note: Éditions sociales, the publishing house of the French Communist Party (PCF); Éditions de la Table ronde, a right-wing press founded in 1944, which published, among others, authors blacklisted for accusations of collaboration during the Second World War.
7 Jean-Yves Mollier, “Édition et politique,” in Axes et méthodes de l’édition politique, Serge Berstein, ed. (Paris: PUF, 1998), 437.
8 Ibid., 438.
9 See Pierre Mesmer’s petition to the Keeper of the Seals, August 31, 1960, to put an end to these practices: “I am told that many works that were seized and were the object of legal prosecution are presently being sold in certain Parisian bookstores. These are especially the following books: Frantz Fanon’s A Dying Colonialism, Maurienne’s Le Déserteur, Maurice Maschino’s Le Refus, Francis Jeanson’s Notre guerre. These works can be purchased, not least, at the François Maspero bookstore or be ordered at Vérité-Liberté.” Justice Ministry Archies, BB 18 60-82-G-159. More generally on this theme, see Martine Poulian, “La censure,” in Pascal Fouche, L’Édition française après 1945 (Paris: Cercle de la librairie, 1998), 554-593.
10 Translator’s Note: The Organisation de l’armée secrète (OAS) or Organization of the Secret Army, was a dissident far-right paramilitary organization during the Algerian War that resorted to armed struggle to prevent Algeria’s independence from French colonial rule.
11 Subtitled, furthermore, “Centrale d’information sur le fascisme en Algérie.”
12 François Maspero, “Éditeur et révolutionnaire,” in Le Magazine Littéraire, no. 29 (1969), 39.
13 Translator’s Note: On October 17, 1961, under orders from the head of the Parisian police, Maurice Papon, the French police attacked a demonstration of some 30,000 pro-FLN Algerians, massacring as many as 200, with bodies fished out of the Seine the following days.
14 Translator’s Note: The Manifesto of the 121 was an open letter signed by 121 intellectuals first published on September 6, 1960 to support Algerian independence, denounce the war, and condemn the use of torture.
15 In which François Maspero participated; see, on this point, Georges Arnaud, Mon procès (Paris: Minuit, 1961).
16 An article used (for example) in the first days of the Second World War against German publications, and more recently, by Charles Pasqua, to ban the arrival of Islamic publications in France.
17 Except for the movement against the banning of Carlos Marighella’s Pour la libération du Brésil, published by Seuil in 1970, and republished by 24 publishers, one finds few examples.
18 A text which would have, at least in the short term in France, as much of a resonance as that of Fanon’s. When Sartre died, Raymond Aron could write in l’Express that it deserved to be included in “an anthology of anti fascist literature …”
19 We need only think of the print run for works of political philosophy or even the 300,000 copies of the Libres Enfants de Summerhill. Compare this with the present-day assessment provided by Sophie Barluet, Édition de sciences humaines et sociales: le coeur en danger (Paris: PUF, 2004).
20 A development condemned by André Schriffin for North American and Europe in his books, Édition sans éditeurs (Paris: La Fabrique, 1999), then Le Contrôle de la parole.

Author of the article

is a historian at Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines University, and the author of L’édition politique d’extrême gauche au XXᵉ siècle, essai d’histoire globale.