Shaping the Intellectual Terrain: On François Maspero


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


A pub­lisher is defined by his cat­a­logue. But there is the cat­a­logue of the books pub­lished, and then the cat­a­logue – in any case much more impor­tant for me – of the books I haven’t pub­lished. And I’m very proud to see that there are many books I haven’t pub­lished. A third cat­a­logue that one can have is the cat­a­logue of the books pub­lished by other pub­lish­ers because of one’s very exis­tence … I’m very pleased to see piles of books that would not have appeared if I had not existed.

– François Maspero, 1970

François Maspero, born in Jan­u­ary 1932, lived as an author, jour­nal­ist, and trans­la­tor. He is per­haps best remem­bered, how­ever, not for what he wrote, but for what he allowed oth­ers to write.

The 1950s-1970s are famil­iar to many as a time not only of intense polit­i­cal strug­gle, but of global intel­lec­tual fer­ment – in France, anti-impe­ri­al­ism stirred the imag­i­na­tion of young rad­i­cals, Marx­ism was hotly debated, and new styles of thought were elab­o­rated. Less famil­iar, no doubt, are the highly mate­rial – although now largely for­got­ten – net­works that col­lected, edited, refined, cir­cu­lated, and pop­u­lar­ized those ideas. At the cen­ter of this dynamic nexus stood the often hid­den labor of François Maspero. Eas­ily one of the most impor­tant French edi­tors and pub­lish­ers of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, he helped, as his­to­rian Kristin Ross has shown, shape an entire intel­lec­tual ter­rain.

In 1956, when just 24 years old, Maspero opened the doors of his book­store, La Joie de Lire, in the Latin Quar­ter. Four years later he, along with a few oth­ers, founded Édi­tions Maspero. Mil­i­tant, exploratory, uncom­pro­mis­ingly rig­or­ous, his books focused above all on decol­o­niza­tion, Marx­ism, and rev­o­lu­tion. At a time when anti-colo­nial rev­o­lu­tions were over­throw­ing West­ern empires across the globe, Maspero, along with other pub­lish­ers such as Gian­gia­como Fel­trinelli in Italy and Klaus Wagen­bach in Ger­many, helped the ideas of these rev­o­lu­tions invade the heart of impe­ri­al­ism itself. He pub­lished books about Alge­rian lib­er­a­tion, accounts of tor­ture, and of course Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth – all dur­ing the war itself, pro­vok­ing con­stant harass­ment, law­suits, and bomb threats.

In Sep­tem­ber 1961, he founded the anti-impe­ri­al­ist jour­nal Par­ti­sans, and after the 1966 found­ing of the Tri­con­ti­nen­tal – which brought together del­e­gates from Asia, Africa, and Latin Amer­ica in the first inter­na­tional body orga­nized by the Third World itself to over­throw impe­ri­al­ism – he dis­trib­uted the organization’s quar­terly in France, which in 1968 was offi­cially banned by the gov­ern­ment. Pub­lish­ing the works of rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies such as Võ Nguyên Giáp, Che Gue­vara, Mao Zedong, and Mal­colm X, he proved that the great­est ideas ulti­mately derive from con­tem­po­rary polit­i­cal strug­gles. The writer sim­ply artic­u­lates the ideas implicit in these strug­gles; the pub­lisher cir­cu­lates them, cast­ing them into a wider field.

But he also made pos­si­ble the exper­i­men­tal wave of rad­i­cal thought for which 1960s France is per­haps best known, reviv­ing dis­si­dent thinkers like Vic­tor Serge, and pub­lish­ing con­tem­po­rary unortho­dox writ­ers such as Daniel Guérin, Nicos Poulantzas, Michael Löwy, and Louis Althusser. Indeed, the latter’s deci­sion to pub­lish his mon­u­men­tal works with Maspero was per­haps one of the most influ­en­tial moves in 20th cen­tury Marx­ism, sym­bol­i­cally mark­ing Marxism’s escape from the crush­ing grip of the French Com­mu­nist Party, even if Althusser him­self strate­gi­cally chose to con­tinue wag­ing the strug­gle from within. Maspero even allowed Althusser to direct the pub­lish­ing house’s “Théorie” col­lec­tion, which lasted from 1965 to 1981.

In 1967, Maspero launched the Petite col­lec­tion Maspero, a set of afford­able pocket books – fea­tur­ing authors from Rosa Lux­em­burg to Fidel Cas­tro – that com­posed the arse­nal of the young rad­i­cals who fought in May 68 and the many strug­gles of the fol­low­ing years. Dur­ing the rag­ing street bat­tles of May, his book­store in the Latin Quar­ter served as both a head­quar­ters and field hos­pi­tal for mil­i­tants – remind­ing us in our dig­i­tal age that a rad­i­cal intel­lec­tual ter­rain is not sim­ply an abstract con­cep­tual space, but, to have any kind of effi­cacy, nec­es­sar­ily implies a kind of phys­i­cal­ity as well.

In the 1970 doc­u­men­tary Chris Marker made of him, Maspero sug­gested that per­haps what most defined a pub­lisher was not what he or she pub­lished, or even didn’t pub­lish, but what his or her very pres­ence, in chang­ing the intel­lec­tual field, had forced oth­ers to pub­lish. Maspero not only revived rad­i­cal ideas, force­fully insert­ing new themes, top­ics, and lan­guages into cir­cu­la­tion, but did so in such a way that forced other pub­li­ca­tions to shift their cat­a­logues or risk becom­ing his­tor­i­cally irrel­e­vant. His own works may not be remem­bered, espe­cially in the United States, but his effects cer­tainly are, his fad­ing fin­ger­prints left on so many thoughts. Maspero was, in the cin­e­matic sense of the term, a great pro­ducer of ideas – from the project’s sweep­ing vision to its tini­est details, from the the­o­ret­i­cal con­cepts to the dis­tri­b­u­tion net­work, from the library to the streets.

Today, as rad­i­cal thought seems to be search­ing for its sec­ond (or third, fourth) wind, let’s not for­get that rad­i­cal, cre­ative fer­ment comes not sim­ply from intel­lec­tu­als, but just as much from those who can best artic­u­late the social move­ments of their times into the ter­rain upon which such ideas can con­tinue to grow.

Author of the article

is an editor of Viewpoint and a doctoral candidate in History at the University of Pennsylvania.