An interview with François Maspero: ‘A few misunderstandings’


In commemoration of the death of author and publisher François Maspero, who passed away on Saturday, April 11 at the age of 83. Verso presents this translated interview with the founder of Éditions Maspero, the publishing house which has served as an inspiration for radical left publishing since the fifties.

François Maspero (19 January 1932 – 11 April 2015)

We see the publisher François Maspero as having played a leading role in ‘smuggling across’ the communist and anti-colonial thought of the postwar period and preserving its heritage. Indeed, Éditions Maspero is an unavoidable reference point for any discussion of critical publishing in France. Maspero’s output was the theatre of important debates on the far Left in the 1960s and 1970s, and played a pioneering role in many fields. It was Maspero who published Fanon, the political writings of Baldwin, Malcolm X and Che, anthologies of classic labour-movement works, Althusser’s ‘Théorie’ collection, the journal Partisans… We wanted to ask him about his project and the editorial ambitions that he had at the time. Here we reproduce what he calls an ‘attempt at a response’ to our questions.

François Maspero:
Reading your questions [see the Appendix below] I think that there are a few misunderstandings underlying them.

The first resides in your repeated use of the words ‘theory’ and ‘theoretical’.

You are a Marxist review, which I have plenty of respect for: it is a tried and tested way of reading society. That said, you really ought to understand that I was never truly a Marxist, and still less a theoretically trained one. My reading of Marx hardly goes beyond the Communist Manifesto. I entered working life aged 21, helping to put together an English-French technical dictionary for Éditions Gauthier-Villars, after having passed my baccalaureate at the fifth time of asking and having got an ethnology certificate at the Paris Ethnology Museum. My conception of history, society and life is, above all, affective, probably on account of the fact that in my childhood and adolescence I was surrounded by a family that was active in the Resistance. This conception, starting out from what I saw in the War – and all the other wars that followed – is perhaps rather Shakespearean: to paraphrase Macbeth a little, ‘A tale written by a fool and told by an idiot, full of sound and fury’. We could also say that my conception of freedom owes a lot to Sartre, and that I never turned my back on Camus.

So you weren’t paying attention – was this perhaps a piece of indulgence, or incredulity on your part? – when I told you that ‘I only crossed their [the authors’] paths, I was a little like a sponge absorbing something and then letting it out again. As it happened, I provided some format for their work – but nothing more’.

I’ll insist on that point. One time Pierre Vidal-Naquet defined me as an ‘organic intellectual’: he told me that it was a term Gramsci that used, and I took his word for it.

You ask me to ‘tell you about the links that were established among the “La joie de lire” bookshop, publishing activity and militant circles during Éditions Maspero’s adventures’. Actually, what happened was that after having had a very difficult time, and even more trouble putting up with the ethnology teaching of the period, in my first bookshop on Rue Monsieur-le-Prince I had the chance to meet some of the readers of Présence Africaine; militants in the Portuguese colonies including Mario de Andrade and Amilcar Cabral; anti-colonialists more generally; and visitors as varied as Césaire (then an MP), Senghor (then a senator) and L.G. Damas. It was thanks to Mario de Andrade that I entered into contact with Fanon, with a view to publishing Year Five of the Algerian Revolution, which all the other publishers obviously rejected. This was also the moment that I established links with Peuple et Culture. From late 1955 to late 1956, at the height of the ‘thaw’, I was a member of the Communist Party, but I was expelled for having protested against both the Budapest events and the Communist Party’s reluctance to commit itself in opposition to the war in Algeria: I was reproached by André Tollet (a member of its Central Committee) for having ‘spat on the Party’. An extremely salutary experience.

I then got into a lot of debt in order to buy ‘La joie de lire’ and everything went well up until 1968 (at least after the attacks, the repeated and very expensive bailiffs’ visits, and the charges for undermining state security and inciting soldiers to desertion and insubordination had all come and gone, as they did). There were seven of us working there, and I didn’t ever have to take on any further debts in order to double the space and raise the number of workers (they refused the label ‘employees’) to around thirty. From then on it became a nightmare. I was then very committed to having a collective leadership, and one of the most prominent members, Émile Copfermann – whose help was, in every other sense, of priceless importance, particularly in terms of books on education, psychiatry and theatre – had this idea that we had to publish everything that ‘contributed to debate’. And for a while I agreed with him. Hence all the pamphlets by Maoist groups, by the Révolution! group, the Front solidarité Indochine, the École emancipée, so many others whose names I’ve forgotten, and, indeed, the Ligue communiste [later LCR, which initiated today’s NPA]. Publishing the banned journal Tricontinental and various books on the African dictatorships, I was overwhelmed with court cases and convictions (one for having insulted France’s great pal Mobuto: ‘publication of “foreign” works’, ‘libel against foreign heads of state’), costing me an enormous sum, being deprived my civil liberties, and even three months in prison (which I did not have to serve, thanks to Pompidou’s death – Giscard d’Estaing had the fine idea of declaring an amnesty for those with short sentences). And at the same time, a lot of the same groups whose pamphlets I was publishing recommended stealing from my bookshop (‘nick from Masp.’) because it was ‘revolutionary’. A majority of the ‘workers’ at the bookshop took a laissez-faire view of this, arguing that when they came to work there it wasn’t because they wanted to become cops. I should add that I never could call the police because having discussed this problem with the district commissioner he warned me that given the kind of people coming to the bookshop and the probable trouble in the case of arrests, it would give the police prefecture a pretext to shut the place down, an opportunity that they’d be only too happy to take.

I joined the Ligue communiste in 1970, above all as a reaction against those members of the collective leadership who proclaimed themselves militants but were nothing of the kind (the most nightmarish of those helping to run Partisans was a certain Boris Fraenkel). This affiliation to the Ligue owed principally to my friend – and he was a friend, to the last – Daniel Bensaïd. Then I had a motorbike accident, followed by serious depression and finally a suicide attempt that left me in a coma for several days, before quickly making out that it had been a phoney attempt. 

In 1973, I stopped the pamphlets and the publication of Partisans and Tricontinental. Stupidly, I had stubbornly continued putting out Tricontinental, even after having told its Cuban organisers that it did not correspond to the hopes that Che had placed in it, and it was the ruin of me. Struggling to get back on my feet, I no longer belonged to the LCR (newly rebranded), and nor did I publish what it produced.

In that same period, many writers mobilised in a significant movement in solidarity with publishers in difficulty, which you wouldn’t see many doing now. It was then that I decided to sell La joie de lire, which was the only solution given that a large proportion of its ‘workers’ were becoming increasingly uncontrollable (the authors who had rallied to the cause were discouraged by their discussions with them, so decided only to defend the publishers themselves) and the prospective buyers had committed to keeping them on. But then the buyers hurried to liquidate the bookshop, having helped themselves to what was in the kitty. That earned them a trial and a conviction in a magistrates’ court… but that’s another story.

I can remember the two opposite extremes of this experience: on the one hand, the authors’ impressive mobilisation; on the other hand, a certain visit by Alain Geismar and Serge July, who upon my refusal to publish their book Vers la guerre civile [‘Toward civil war’], barked that the day would come when I’d have to pay for all the wool I’d sheared off the back of the revolution… 

You speak of a ‘political project’, ‘theoretical activity’, ‘political and theoretical imperatives’. I don’t see it like that. Rather, I would just say that I was always moved by peoples’ struggles for freedom and sensitive to the axiom that ‘a people that oppresses another cannot itself be free’.  Pierre Vidal-Naquet established some subtle distinctions among the opponents of colonialism and neo-colonialism: the Dreyfusard tradition, the legacy of the Resistance, Judeo-Christian morality… (and I am quoting him off the top of my head). Frankly, I don’t know which of these categories I belong to. Anyhow, I supported the Algerian people’s struggle, through my liaisons with the French federation of the FLN. I very quickly saw how this struggle was being appropriated in the interests of a new oligarchy. I had placed a lot of hope in the Cuban Revolution during the early days, but took my distance after Che’s death, having myself also been to Bolivia twice. The militarisation of Cuban society and its alignment with the Soviet Union sealed the matter. But I never gave up on supporting anything that I saw as bringing hope. I often think of what F. Scott Fitzgerald says in The Crack-Up, which Jorge Semprun always loved quoting: ‘One should … be able to see things as hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise’.

I will add that it was always a principle of mine that from the moment I published an author, I would support them if they needed it. That is why, for example, I was expelled from Bolivia, and then from Spain after giving a witness statement in defence of the author of a biography of Franco, and why I went to Israel in 1971 to protest in solidarity with a Palestinian author who had been interned in a camp. From the moment you publish someone, you are responsible for them to the last.

Again, I must tell you that I am unable to answer your question ‘What political or theoretical imperatives were guiding you when you decided to “import” into France writings and strategic debates connected to … etc.’ I only did what seemed right at the time, for better or worse – nothing more. I know that in May 1968 you heard a whole bunch of people saying ‘Morality – fuck it’. But I am still convinced that a revolutionary morality does exist (Trotsky wrote that it demanded a ‘moral courage of a different calibre’ as compared to bourgeois morality).  And I think I didn’t do too badly, apart from a few bum notes (e.g. the publication – again in service of ‘participating in the debate’ – of Gilbert Mury’s Albania, Land of the New Man, some Enver Hoxha texts and Alain Badiou’s ‘Yenan’ collection, which I have never ceased to regret). 

You want to know how I got the idea of publishing translations of ‘Black American thought’. Well, it was exactly the same as I said before, a modicum of interest in what was going on in the world, nothing else. A modicum of interest without which you wouldn’t even be human. And nor did this begin ‘in the late 1950s’; we could even say I was running a little late. I missed out on the publication of other books (or did not have the means to do so), for example Du Bois’s works, even though my friend Abdou Moumouni had told me all about them.

Similarly, I published texts by the German Red Army Faction, though in that case I added a foreword specifying what importance they had and in what sense they were of interest to us, and, on the other hand, the dead end that I thought they were leading us down.

You ask me ‘if “engaged” publishing can intervene in the political recomposition of the radical Left’. First off, I would reject this term ‘engaged’ being applied to publishing: real engagement requires a more directly concrete action than the mere fact of publishing books – if you just did that, you’d be getting off lightly. Then, I would remind you that the times have profoundly changed: at the time of the first few texts that I published, books were still a first-rank medium almost at the same level as newspapers, radio and the TV (and there was only one channel). Photocopying was at an embryonic stage and the Internet not even imaginable.  I am well aware that certain books or pamphlets can, still today, have a mass influence – of course I am thinking of Stéphane Hessel’s Time for Outrage! although despite the friendship between us I find outrage alone ineffective and insufficient, and have taken care to avoid it in my own writings. All the same, I think that in the era of boundless individualisation, the Web, social networks and everything of that kind, it must be difficult for publishing alone – what you call ‘engaged’ publishing – to intervene effectively in the political recomposition of the ‘radical Left’, a term which itself needs some qualification, since it seems to me to encapsulate everything and nothing – which is rather a problem, when you claim to speak of ‘theory’.

You want me to talk about my relationship with Louis Althusser and Charles Bettelheim. I had friendly relations with Louis Althusser (except during his manic episodes, when he became impossible: like when he demanded that I hand over my management responsibilities at the publishing house to Étienne Balibar). He used to make an excellent shoulder of lamb with peaches (or maybe apricots, I don’t know any more), but obviously we only episodically spoke of philosophy: he spoke to me at my own level, and that was fine. While he was totally free to run his own collection, he had no meaningful influence over the rest of our output. He used to say, not without a certain condescension, that what I published was ‘in the domain of ideology’ – for him an eminently pejorative term – or even that I put out ‘too many bad books’ (and in fact nowadays I wouldn’t blame him for that). All the same, I did have to publish three books in the ‘Cahiers libres’ series that he had already planned for his collection and which I thus contracted. The first was Bangla Desh, nationalisme dans la révolution, by Bernard-Henri Lévy; then Michèle Loi’s L’intelligence au pouvoir  (if memory serves, this was about the marvels of the Cultural Revolution); and the icing on the cake was M.A. Macciocchi’s Lettres de l’intérieur du parti: in this particular case, the book was meant to be built around Macciocchi’s letters and Althusser’s responses to them, but then Althusser abruptly renounced his own contributions, which left little of interest. But ultimately, I’ll repeat, my relations with Althusser were amicable. He always had this need to be seduced. Though that obviously didn’t stop him going to set up another collection – ‘Analyse’ – with Hachette… I’d add that I held his wife Hélène in great affection, but that, too, is another story.

As for Charles Bettelheim, it’s a simple one: I had little contact with him, as everything went via his collaborator Jacques Charrière (who was also director of the magazine L’Avant-Scène). I followed their instructions, I obeyed what they said – I only had one problem, with a certain Dumenil, who I think later made a name for himself. I do not think that this very strictly delimited collection had any influence on our other publications, be that in the ‘sociology’ series (Wright Mills) or ‘economics’ (Andre Gunder Frank), or later with the Critique de l’économie politique.

The only person who indulged me with his highly theoretical insights was Maurice Godelier, who spent long hours deluging me with them, during which I was unfortunately (or fortunately?) often unable to understand him. Still, I am grateful to him for bringing us some great classics of anthropology (Byzance noire, De la Souillure), though Malinowski’s Jardins de corail appeared not on his initiative, but rather as the result of an old dream of mine. And there were a lot of publications with at least something to do with anthropology that didn’t owe to him, such as Le long voyage des gens du Fleuve, Les fleurs du Congo, Le Royaume du Waalo, the books of Basil Davidson, Claude Maillassoux, M.H. Dowidar, Pierre-Philippe Rey, Gérard Althabe, Mahjemout Diop, etc. (I will here note that the third book I published in 1959 was Au pied du mont Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta’s dissertation on his own people, with a preface by Georges Balandier, which was published while Kenyatta was in prison).

Conversely, I enjoyed the most generous support and advice of authors like Christian Baudelot, who I mentioned in an earlier message, and others such as (in no particular order) Roger Gentis, Yves Benot, Abdou Moumouni, Albert Memmi, Yves Lacoste (before the journal Hérodote turned from geography to geopolitics, which happened after my departure), Jean Copans, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Jean Maitron, Gérard Althabe (who was behind the ‘Luttes sociales’ collection), Elizabeth Roudinesco, Mouloud Mammeri (who had me publish Isfra de Si Mohand and his own Grammaire berbère), Taos Amrouche, and so many others. I probably lent their suggestions due weight, and each author had their own. Georges Haupt, who I asked to take a lead on the ‘Bibliothèque socialiste’, was a novel unto himself, his suggestions on the history of the socialist movement burned like fireworks. J.P. Vernant, even aside from the priceless contribution he made with his books, always behaved like he was my older brother: that was a man who right up to the final period before his death gave you an incredible love for life. Thanks to him as well as Pierre Vidal-Naquet, I was able to publish a collection of Greek and Roman studies that made a big splash at the time. Finally, I cannot forget to mention Chris Marker, without whom, quite simply I would not have become what I am. Among others, it was he who shared with me the ideal that was then behind Peuple et Culture, and much besides: a whole vision of the world where dreams were always at the heart of reality; for without dreams (unlike utopia) you can only live life as a vegetable. He, too – even more so – gave me this love for life, this life force, not to give up on what you have committed to doing.

Three particular collections were a joy to work on. First, Voix, which was devoted to poetry and entrusted to Fanchita Gonzalez-Batlle, with such successes, for example, as John Berger’s Septième homme, the poems of Nazim Hikmet and Tahar Ben Jelloun’s first books: ‘Put the poetic back at the heart of the political’, Édouard Glissant used to say, and at one time I published his review Acoma. Second, ‘Actes et Mémoires du peuple’, which I personally took charge of, under the name Louis Constant. Its best-seller was Les carnets de guerre de Louis Barthas, edited by Rémy Cazals. Third, ‘La Découverte’, based on travel essays, and not only European ones: : Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, Ibn Batouta and Juan Pérez Jolote…

Another aspect of our publishing was to serve organisations like the CFDT [trade union federation], the  Union générale des travailleurs sénégalais (my friend and comrade and friend Sally N’Dongo), the Paysans Travailleurs (the ancestors of the Confédération Paysanne, with Louis Lambert), École émancipée, Planning familial, the magistrates’ union; and above all Gisti [a migrants’ rights group], printing books and textbooks for literacy programmes, which were sold at cost price.

I very much liked doing this work, above all everything to do with their graphic conception, work with the printers, and exchanges with the authors, which were highly stimulating when they really wanted to come under my wing. But as time passed I more and more came to hate the profession, to the point of terming it – and again recently – as a kind of pimping. At many big publishers (and sometimes the less big ones, too) there is an odious proprietary culture. Simply put, I hate possession as much as authority. And if you hate power (whether power over individuals, or in choosing books), then that’s a real problem when your job is to run a business (even a supposedly intellectual one), which, alas, was far too long the case for me…

When I took on François Gèze at the end of 1980, he was already running a Cedetim (later, ‘Centre d’études socialistes du tiers-monde’, then ‘Centre d’études anti-impérialistes’ and finally ‘Centre d’études et d’initiatives de solidarité internationale’) collection: and strangely, this was the only collection authentically attached to the ‘third-worldism’ for which he reproached me. I only later realised my error and his inseparable ally Bruno Parmentier had been educated in France’s top colleges and so I could not measure up to them. I remember that one of his accusations directed against me was that of ‘confusing experience with the conditions of experience’, which for them, I suppose, was some unpardonable crime.

Before my departure, the last books I published were a paperback of La France contre l’Afrique, Jacottet’s translation of the Odyssey with a postface by François Hartog, Varlam Chalamov’s account of Kolyma, Captain Dreyfus’s memoirs (with a preface by Pierre Vidal-Naquet), and Anna Akhmatova’s Poème sans héros. I left without any severance pay, giving up my share to François Gèze for the token payment of one franc. Following this, I was able to write essays (factual ones, that is, with nothing ‘theoretical’ about them), and work for radio and newspapers: in China, Sarajevo, the Balkans, Palestine, Gaza, the Caribbean and so on. I wrote novels and articles that were translated into many languages. I went out in search of the Earth’s inhabitants – Les Passagers du Roissy-Express, Balkans-Transit – and tried to explain the beginning of the conquest of Algeria in L’Honneur de Saint-Arnaud. I did more than eighty translations from three languages, some of which are particularly close to my heart: Conrad, Rigoni-Stern, César Vallejo, Álvaro Mutis… All things that brought more to me intellectually than publishing did, but which I can well understand are outside of your field of interest.

For four years I continued publishing the review L’Alternative (for rights and freedoms in Eastern Europe), though unfortunately I eventually had to bring it to a close because after some remarkably successful, substantial issues that brought hope of the potential of the countries then still under Soviet domination – hopes that were, alas, later betrayed – the weight of nationalisms became impossible to bear, particularly in Romania, Ukraine and the Baltic countries. It was in this vein that I had the opportunity to live in Poland during some of the exciting moments of the KOR and then Solidarity, and to make friends such as Jean-Yves Potel, Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuron – who I met in Warsaw – Lev Kopelev and Efim Etkin, as well as Czech ‘Charter 77’ militants who I met in Prague during those years: and they were heady days. 

I am conscious that I have not been able to give a satisfactory response to your questions. But for my part, I think that you mistook me for someone else, imagining an individual who is not me, and who I have never been. I made no theoretical reading of the texts that I published. I was merely lucky enough to have dozens of authors and readers coming to me from various directions, suiting my curiosities, who had a certain view of history and society, and, above all, brought hopes that coincided to some extent with my own.

Indeed, I do worry rather that all this won’t be of much more use to you than what is already contained in my book La Maison des Passages.

Fr. M.



The questions that Félix Boggio Éwanjé-Épée and Stella Magliani-Belkacem put to François Maspero:

- From its first activities putting out pamphlets and books during the Algerian War, up till the end of the ‘La joie de lire’ bookshop, Éditions Maspero was an unrivalled example of the interaction between independent bookshops, activism and radical-Left publishing. Could you tell us about the links that were established among the ‘La joie de lire’ bookshop, publishing activity and militant circles during Éditions Maspero’s adventures?

- From the very first sentences of Éditions Maspero’s output we see the flowering of a political project around anti-colonial and anti-racist struggles. Your publishing activity began at the heart of the Algerian national liberation struggle. We would like to know if, for you, this experience suggested the need for a certain type of theoretical activity, to be found for example in Partisans journal or the publication of the writings of Che and Fidel Castro. We can see that Éditions Maspero brought out texts that accompanied oppressed peoples’ struggles – struggles and texts that perhaps had little visibility in France otherwise – at the very moment when these battles were being fought. How, for example, did you get the idea of publishing translations of Black American thought (Malcolm X, Baldwin) in the late 1950s and early 1960s?

- Following straight on from the previous question, how did this internationalism evolve, how did you see it? What political or theoretical imperatives were guiding you when you decided to “import” into France writings and strategic debates connected to semi-colonial social formations – or, at least, ones dominated by imperialism?

- One of the characteristic traits of Éditions Maspero was its openness to the various different currents of gauchisme and even certain elements of the Communist Party. You even provided a real tribune to the organisations of the radical Left, with collections and book series – and we are particularly thinking of those devoted to the Ligue communiste, later the Ligue communiste révolutionnaire. What conception of political and theoretical debate allowed you such variety, such openness, at a moment when the most sectarian polemics were at their high point? How did you see the incessant polemics among the far Left? Do you think that ‘engaged’ publishing can intervene in the political recomposition of the radical Left?

- Could you tell us about your involvement with Louis Althusser and Charles Bettelheim, and their influence on your catalogue? With these authors as well as the wide range of so-called ‘Althusserians’, it seems that Éditions Maspero contributed to a French social sciences – in particular political economy and sociology – very heavily influenced by Marxism, which has today largely been wiped away by other currents of social sciences. Do you have a view on the potential of this renewal of the social sciences, which was perhaps too quickly abandoned by your successors at La découverte?

- Today, it would probably be difficult to rally many far-Left political activists around the publications (theoretical or otherwise) of a publisher like Maspero used to be. Indeed, we can see a widespread anti-intellectualism on the radical Left, which seems to date back to the very end of the 1970s. Do you agree with this intuition – and if there was such a turning point, what was your experience of it? How was it expressed? What do you think were its causes?

Translated by David Broder.

The original French-language text is available here.