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 they took their own impo­tence to very the end – 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.

This is not an over­loaded France, like that of 1976, but a France 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 the 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.