The Long Struggle of François Maspero (1976)


This interview first appeared as “Le long combat de François Maspero,” in Le Nouvel Observateur, September 27, 1976, 56-57.

You are the only serious representative of a certain form of politically-motivated publishing. How is it possible to have different currents of the left coexist under the same banner?

François Maspero: What mattered to me in the 1960s was to create instruments for those who wish to use them. As a political militant in a profession connected to information, the most effective form of action, for me, was to bring the two together, by fusing my militancy with my profession. At the time, I was a rank-and-file, “oppositional” communist, that is, an anti-Stalinist (this was the epoch of the Khrushchev Report) and anti-colonialist (it was the War in Algeria), and so completely minoritarian within the Party, doomed to exclusion and solitude. This period, at the end of the Cold War, was Manichean: outside of the Party, you became a renegade. I did not, nor did many others that were known to break with the “party of the working class” while continuing to be, I believe, true communists. That’s easy to say today, but it wasn’t obvious then. When I republished [Paul] Nizan, the PCF still officially labeled him as a “traitor”…

While the instrument that was born at that time was weak, it was one of the elements that allowed voices to be heard other than those from the “respectful left” – and respectful means two things: respect for the pressures and constraints of power, on the one hand, especially in the anti-colonial struggle; and respect for the Stalinist leadership of the PCF, on the other.

A bookshop, La joie de lire, since 1956; a publishing house, beginning in 1959; a journal, Partisans, in 1961 – all of this would not have had any direction if there had not been any political practice on my part. The authors that I published were primarily those whom I had met through my activities as a militant, in France or on other continents. This was the hardest thing for me, this distribution of labor, and it caused me to break down at one time: my comrades, my brothers making the revolution; for myself, the task of publishing their works and to get them talked about. This is the leitmotif of the insults that have been directed towards me, and not only from the right: I was the merchant of revolution, comfortable in Paris. I have often talked about this with my comrades, and they said that this division was essential efficiency-wise and that all the rest was the unhappy consciousness of some petit-bourgeois. Sure, but today, how many of these comrades are still here, who have not been tortured or murdered?

I have held onto this notion of an “instrument” for a long time. Some have not used it because I have published some other Trotskyist or Maoist, their sworn enemy, or because my publishing house was a “ghetto.” To the extent that it created other publications, this was still very positive: it nourished my famous “catalog of books I published elsewhere.” What I regret is that after having given the means for organizations to establish or set up their publications, this was very often not used – as I’d hoped – as a launching pad for a politics of autonomous, independent publishing.

In the overloaded France of 1976, what are the anchoring points for political action?

There is overproduction and saturation in publishing, for sure, but I think that this is a superficial phenomenon. On the one hand, with 1968, a political “market opportunity” was discovered. On the other hand, the outpouring of university students into the street, who felt blocked in their careers by institutions and in their vague desires for political action by their own incapacity to overcome their condition, always experienced negatively, as intellectuals “cut off from the masses.” There is only one path: to produce books. And this goes well, the demand is strong on the market. But to produce what? I would say openly that it doesn’t matter. First of all, theory: one follows the elders, comments on them, where they can be found…I understand that we’ve had enough of their routinized and institutional Marxism.

At the same time, there are all those who took the step and, with the belief that their impotence had gone as far as it could go – especially after the leftist illusions surrounding May ‘68 – found a certain fashion, recalling a very “interwar” dandyism, in its claims to style, the hypertrophy of the self due to the continual cathartic experience of their own psychoanalysis, a “new” form of expression that coldly dismissed revolution and revolutionaries, workers and their organizations, to the dustbin … Here is the new right. Ten years ago, they were students of Marx and Coca-Cola. Now all that remains is the Coca-Cola.

France in 1976 is not overloaded, but a country everywhere in struggle: in Sochaux, at Peugeot, against “milices patronales” [company goon squads]; in Marignane, at SNIAS [Société nationale industrielle aérospatiale] against the intimidation of union members; in Marseilles, against the illegal practices of the “secret prison” at Arenc; everywhere, against the concentration camp-form and police-like organization of the ZUPs [zone à urbaniser en priorité], the expulsion of residents from “perimeters of renovation,” the conditions of immigrant workers and Sonacotra, [Robert] Hersant’s stranglehold on the press. This is not just a lyrical diatribe, but the listing of dossiers that I have published or are in preparation. At this really concrete level, writing and publishing must be relentlessly carried out; it is urgently important. Look at Claude Angeli and Nicholas Brimo’s book, Une milice patronale: Peugeot; that is a dossier that has been massively circulated among CGT militants at Sochaux. This is not a question of noisily denouncing a scandal, but demonstrating a mechanism, in an irrefutable manner. The leadership of Peugeot wouldn’t dare go to trial: that’s what’s great! This permanent, precise labor of documentation and denunciation, this molelike activity, this is what interests me.

Here, then, is an “anchoring point” in everyday reality, in France, in the world. There is also research into political and economic mechanisms, updating strategy, the analysis of these two phenomena that are destroying us, with all their implications: imperialism (and multinational firms) and Stalinism, which remains an immediate threat to the experiment of a left in power. This requires a reflection on the history of socialism, as well as current examples: the USSR, China, and Cuba. On this, there is the book by Marta Harnecker, a student of Althusser, Cuba: Dictatorship or Democracy?.

My fear in publishing is to fall into repetition, reproducing the same themes. I reject several ideas or proposals each day. I dream of simplicity and elementary pedagogy, for books that are weapons for everyday life and struggle. That could take many forms, even poetry, a poetry in no way “committed” like Nazim Hikmet’s work, which is also a weapon, as Celaya said. This is the direction of the “Voix” collection.

With the benefit of hindsight, can you analyze the reasons for the failure of your bookshop, La joie de lire?

Was La joie de lire a failure? It lasted for 19 years. Almost unknown in 1956, it was known throughout the world by 1974, too well-known, maybe. First, because I always wanted to go further in the services that were expected, without thinking clearly in terms of profitability in the short run: always more books, locations, the creation of a mail-ordering sector that became a fantastic tool, a service for readers from every country. Logically, however, expansion led to all the problems facing a small business that passes to the stage of a medium-size business. In the end, La joie de lire did not “deteriorate,” as has been said. Sales increased by 15% per year, reaching a billion in old francs in 1974. The deficit in 1973 was due to enormous fines (30 million), to resulting costs, prohibitions, legal proceedings against the Tricontinental journal and other books, partially because of some hasty investments, partially because of thefts. I would like to make it clear that FNAC’s emergence played no role in these difficulties.

Can you recall the timeline of these events? 

As luck would have it, I had a motorbike accident in 1973 that kept me in the hospital, and the complications have endured for two years, to this day. I was already worn down by a few difficult years. The business encountered a serious crisis: with a staff that had always refused self-management (a trap for idiots!) and hierarchy (down with the small managers!), I had not been able to find a system that, while still being based on a policy of high salaries and the research for a democratization of work, still allowed for relays in the exercise of responsibilities. If there has been a failure in management on my part, it’s here: having not known how to build a team capable of collectively handling everyday management problems in the bookshop. I’d wish that those who call themselves political militants admit that the “principal contradiction” resides in our struggle to spread a different form of culture, against power, the Right, bombings, provocateurs, thieves … and that the class struggle within the company, without minimizing it, was the “secondary contradiction.” What were the stakes, since I had no material interest to protect, and this was equivalent to me losing my property titles and my title as owner?

On October 8, 1974, I announced to the staff that I intended to sell the bookstore to Claude Nedjar, under conditions that protected their employment. Claude Nedjar, a movie producer and owner of the “La Pagode” cinema, wanted to incorporate several audiovisual activities: films, books, records (Pierre Barouh’s records). The transfer happened in December. Out of over 40 people, not a single one told me during this two-month delay: “wait, you’ve done something stupid!” At that time there were four staff representatives, four members of the business committee, delegates: the account books were completely open …

Everyone was worried about the financial difficulties. My absence, my sickness had been taken as a betrayal. In a different atmosphere, the experience showed that I could have found the resources to balance the financial situation and start again. The crisis was deep. La joie de lire had become a site of spectacle, where everyone came to imagine their fantasies. Visitors – both patrons and thieves – workers, all were intoxicated by a permanent psychodrama that created a tension that made it difficult to live… It was possible to remedy all this; but with a new perspective, a new attitude, by taking some distance. This is why I thought Claude Nedjar’s arrival would be for the better.

The agreement with Nedjar foresaw a collaboration more than a sale. He brought in capital, reorganized the economic management, and left me with professional and political control. On the day of signing the contract in December 1974, he came with an unexpected associate, a Bernard Lallement, who turned out to be the actual financial backer, with a glorified past as a manager at Libération. Some manager! Still, as to my presence and work at La joie de lire, it was never a question.

It should be understood that I sold the bookshop with zero liabilities. The sale price was enough to settle what was owed to suppliers on the transfer day, including the book stock. In short, Lallement never paid the sale price. He dragged out the proceedings and defaulted on his debts. I repeat, it’s that simple: he did not pay. This is where it took a bad turn, when he began to stop paying the statements from the publishers he bought the books from. In July, we sued him in commercial court. For their part, the bookshop staff, at first reassured (“all bosses are equal”), went out on strike. A judicial administrator was named. At the beginning of 1976, La joie de lire was liquidated. Mr. Jean-Edern Hallier came forward to buy it back. Who accompanied him, arm in arm? Mr. Bernard Lallement!

So, Jean-Edern Hallier bought it by auction, very legally, for the lowest price – the bookstores that were not paid, including the books not paid to their publishers, and after all the workers who created them, brought them to life, were fired. And do you know what Mr. Hallier said to the press? “I consider myself to be the moral inheritor of La joie de lire.” Moral. Of course. It’s a wise precaution to add this adjective. But still too much, because the moral in this story…If Mr. Hallier is the “inheritor” of anything, it’s of a fraud. As for the Maspero bookshop, it always exists, and there is only one: at my address, 1, Place Paul Painlevé. We continue, as well as the publishers who were wronged in this affair, to legally pursue Claude Nedjar and Bernard Lallement.

The epilogue of this long story is a new and vigorous relaunch of your publications. How are you doing? 

My publications have expanded again: nearly 100 books this year. We look, first and foremost, to understand situations, to support them and change them. It is definitely more difficult today than yesterday. Within the harshest struggles, we believed to have glimpsed victory, and we saw it emerge from the great militants who were speaking. Today, a kind of sabre-rattling envelops the world. The great voices were killed. We killed them. Others, many others, maybe more humble, need to be heard. I am struck by the success of the “Mémoire du peuple” series, from Louis Constant, or the Mémoires d’un militant ouvrier du Creusot by Jean-Baptiste Dumay. These lost voices in the popular collective memory are heard today as if they had never existed. This relates to something very profound in the way that past history is experienced – but perhaps also the making of history in the present. This is what interests me, more than ever, in the books that I publish: not the empty gesture of an isolated individual, but the outcome of a long collective process [démarche] that opens onto another. And I say this as much for Althusser’s “Théorie” series as for the book collectively written by the CFDT postal workers…

– Translated by Patrick King


Author of the article

was a French author, translator, journalist, editor, and publisher. He was also the owner of La Joie de lire, a radical bookstore in Paris.