Simón Vázquez: ‘Radical culture has split away from political and social movements’
This article was originally published by El Salto on 3 February 2023.
The neighbourhood of Nou Barris in Barcelona is inscribed in his heart, a political cause of his: from the neighbourhood, for the world, with love, Simón Vázquez. Nothing would have been possible, he says, without the veins through which culture, specifically books, seeped into his home. More specifically, the act of reading. He was involved in the founding of the publishing house Tigre de Paper, a project that cannot be understood without the periodical Catarsi Magazín and the Literal fair (which will soon be celebrating its tenth birthday). Later, he teamed up with Bellaterra Edicions. Vázquez is now launching two new and demanding ‘radical book’ projects: Manifest Llibres and Verso Libros, together with the cooperative Radical Books co-founded with Ekaitz Cancela. ‘It makes me happy to participate in culture in another way,’ says Vázquez.
Verso Libros will publish in Spanish Fredric Jameson, Barbara Ehrenreich, Christine Delphy (one of its first publications), Giovanni Arrighi and Juliet Mitchell. Manifest Llibres, as its publisher says, will bring out both non-fiction and fiction in Catalan, for example Trainspotting – a varied list. it’s not only about providing tools for thought and debate, but also establishing cultural structures that have almost always been weakened and remain fragile. Maybe this will allow us to sit down one day and read together (figuratively) like we did when we were little, finding it difficult to keep silent before going out to the playground.
You co-founded Tigre de Paper. And you were the publisher of Bellaterra Edicions, a leader in subjects such as social sciences and political philosophy. Years later, here you are, launching Verso Libros and Manifest Llibres. Who did you learn from?
I would say that, in general, I am inspired by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli and Tariq Ali, among others. And there is one figure, José Luis Ponce, from the second generation of Bellaterra Edicions, who has been fundamental for me. My mother, who worked in a textile factory and was among the founders of the Comisiones Obreras in Baix Llobregat, an industrial zone to the south of Barcelona; my father, who has always been more the intellectual of the family, and José Luis, they are my references. But, in Barcelona, we have the advantage of being the Rosa de Foc, the city of anarchists [laughs]. Also, the city of typographers and printers. In fact, if you remember Don Quixote, the knight tells Sancho that the city of the future, where books will be printed, will be Barcelona.
Well, the fact is that Barcelona, as well as being in cultural ferment, is seeing an explosion of “nepo babies”.
You get to the publishing sector in two ways: through family inheritance, and that doesn’t just mean money – no, I’m not saying it’s through ownership of the means of production, no way – but also through an address book [laughs].
Parental activities, depending on the parents, of course, are a good inheritance...
They allow you to get to places without taking steps that the rest of us usually have to take. There are very, very few people of working-class origin in publishing. And even fewer in management. And those of us who get there, if we get there at all, do so thanks to a community impulse. If we didn’t have a structure to support this... I mean, I don’t consider my work to be much better than that of others, but neither do I consider that those others, because they have an address book and the access it gives them, do a better job. The fact of being structured in a community, of being part of militant, political, cultural spaces, allows us access to a social capital that others achieve with economic capital. That is to say, some have access to publicity campaigns and others have access to a lot of people around them: to give us support, to propose readings, to generate ideas. They give us strength so that our books can reach out, take root, and produce flowers.
Where are radical books going?
Let’s look back, if you like. In the 1920s and 1930s, the publishing sector was closely linked to the publications of the labour movement. The Left Book Club, which reached 57,000 members in 1936-37, was a triumph of that time. They published one title a month, read it in groups, discussed it. Similar to what Editorial Cénit did in Spain, which was closely linked to the birth of the Communist Party and to what would later become the Madrid Book Fair. Something, by the way, that is little known: the Madrid Book Fair grew out of Communist activism. Or in Catalonia, Arc de Barà at the hands of Manuel González Alba, the first Marxist publisher in Catalan. Then came the 1950s, the 1960s, the emergence of what we consider ‘the left’. In my opinion, at the beginning of 2010, another publishing leap took place in parallel with the political cycle. To a large extent, we are now heirs to those periods in which independent, left-wing, radical publishers walked, more or less, alongside the political and social processes.
And with that genealogy, what now?
The world of left-wing publishing, radical culture, apart from very specific cases, has split away from political and social movements. I think we should go in the opposite direction, that is, towards the construction of communities around books. Otherwise, publishers are always companies and radical books just a niche market like crime fiction or children’s books. And, of course, if we develop a niche market we are not helping our social or linguistic environments.
If your readers are (only) a niche market, it is because you are either unwilling or unable to provide them with levers of emancipation.
We don’t really have the capacity yet to generate agency. If the role of the publisher is to prescribe political debates, we are a step behind. We should try to build spaces for thought, to listen to social rumour before it becomes noise. We are publishing when it is already noise. As a sector, we are not delivering.
That’s self-criticism – tough self-criticism. A step behind, but also on the defensive, looking more at what separates us than what unites us, as Marina Garcés – whom, by the way, we will see soon in Verso – reproaches us for when she explains how to achieve ‘a common world’. Garcés says that discomfort unites us and that emancipation passes through complication. But on what ground?
This deserves deep reflection and, yes, a very harsh self-criticism. Since the 1970s, since what was called the Transition, no stable structures of culture have been created in the left-wing political community, except for the Basque country and a few other spaces. Why, for example, have there been no left-wing mass media for more than 30 years? In general, there are no stable common cultural spaces – and I am not only referring to physical places, which is also true. When the Comisiones Obreras had branches in all the neighbourhoods of Barcelona, they had spaces for building communities and culture, for workers’ culture, for social culture. When that disappeared, there was nothing else. Why isn’t there a newspaper like Libération or L’Unità? – even if the latter are disappearing. Even in Galicia, which has a much more solid culture, Nós Diario is a very new newspaper. Or, in Catalonia, where although there is a broader social structure, there are only heroic cases such as La Directa.
Apart from the obvious, why are there no stable structures?
The question has not been asked. There is no concern for cultural questions beyond the time of elections. The musician as accompaniment to political action, the book as support for political strategy. The popular world, the social movements, to a large extent, get their muscle from culture and no one has devoted themselves to structuring this political need. The structuring of concepts such as ‘hegemony’, for example, which was used a lot in the last political cycle, where is it now? We have had a whole layer of people who have moved from academia into the realm of political representation at a higher academic level than has historically been the case, at least since the middle of the last century. However, the work of creating alternative cultural policies has not been done. Or the possibility has been ceded to the administration. And, as a result, no resources of their own are generated in the popular classes. In general, the past political cycle has been the one that used the most political terms and, at the same time, the one that read the least.
Is there a kind of reactionary turn in the world of left-wing books? What happens if an author comes along who attracts great sales but does harm?
There is always that danger. If a reactionary turn is taking place, it is from old structures. Only in certain spaces. I would maintain that there is no radical transformation, there is no St Paul falling off his horse and converting to Christianity. Everything is more like a process of transformismo such as Gramsci talks about: small ideas that seemed harmless five or ten years ago when they were read in an article can grow, find humus, develop. We have to be very attentive to these small details, because we could say that these ideas already existed beforehand.
OK, that’s true. Call it a turn, call it a stretch. The point is to unravel why.
It is a multifactorial phenomenon, but it happens almost all the time when certain intellectuals are isolated from social spaces. Social spaces tend to be much less reactionary than other isolated spaces because reality, life, is much more complex and makes you live together. An example: the rank and file of a trade union have a less conservative view of immigration than the union leadership because, among other things, they do not work with numbers, statistics, dates, reports, but directly with people. Isolation in social networks, isolated in our own world, provokes the birth of reactionary monsters. That is why we must not allow this, we must not lose contact with our surroundings. This is the antidote.
This happens with many self-defined leftists. However, radical and socialist thought is very much alive. Look at what is happening with the Movimiento Socialista, for example, with GKS.
Verso Libros was born with the aim of generating tools for revolutionary movements to organise and fight. That is our aim. That is to say, we cannot be a publishing house isolated from the transformation of social realities, from the movement of struggle. As a publisher, we need active listening. As I said before, the last political cycle left theory to one side, or rather, it separated thought from action and was much more concerned with formal or immediate media issues. The new generations are very concerned with theory, which is to be welcomed, as this is always a good thing. But it is important not to lose the dialectic between theory and daily work, the contradictions of everyday life. In short, as the saying goes, he who only looks at his feet will hit a tree and he who only looks at the horizon will stumble over a stone.
But are books going to save us? Are we going to challenge capitalism with them?
Whoever thinks that radical books can transform anything is wrong. With a tool created 500 years ago, I think we would have some difficulty in transforming... What we can do is provide tools, capacities, to those who decide to fight. We, on our own, cannot transform anything. That would be to fetishise the book, and the book is neither good nor bad. And reading or not reading is basically a classist debate, badly structured. If you don’t read books you can’t transform anything, but if you only read books you can’t transform anything either. Roque Dalton asked something like this: ‘What is the role of the poet in the revolution and in the guerrilla?’ And he answered: ‘The same as that of the peasant.’ We want thinking and doing to be united.
But is this possible with a 500-year-old tool, as you say?
We have always said that we want to be a new-old left. That is to say, the tools work, the problem is that they have to be sharpened. The union, the party, the discussion club, the book... they work, but they don’t have to be the same as in the 19th century.
Bringing up old analyses, airing them and explaining that they have a place in understanding the present. Is it that way? For example, you are a fervent reader of Gramsci?
For many years we have been working to get to know the figure of Antonio Gramsci. I’m a member of the Associació d’Estudis Gramscians de Catalunya. Gramsci still makes us reflect on our societies. Hegemony, passive revolution, transformism, cessationism... All these concepts are part of the everyday discourse of the contemporary left, even if they are misused. In the coming months we will work on the southern question, that is, the Italian Communist Party as the articulator of an alliance of workers and peasants that was not only class-based, but also North and South. And the islands. How can we apply these old ideas in the Spanish state today? We only have to look at the situation of Extremadura, Andalusia or Galicia, the subalternity of the Canaries or the struggles of the stateless nations. It is an example of what I said before: we have Gramsci’s tools, which we know work, but we must sharpen them to understand, for example, empty Spain. (Beyond concrete measures such as making sure there is a train line to God-knows-where.)
Not being able to read any of the authors you love in your own language, for example, limits the possibilities of that nation without a state that you mentioned. From a narrative of identification to concrete representations, is that what Manifest Llibres is about?
The cooperative of associated workers has two projects. On the one hand, Verso Libros, which is twinned with Verso Books, and on the other, Manifest Llibres, which is an independent project in Catalan to work with both fiction and non-fiction: we want to create community through Catalan literature. Why another publishing house in Catalan? First, a nation without a state always needs all the cultural development that can be built. In this respect, there will never, never be enough. On the other hand, something has broken down. There is a lack of representation of the working classes in Catalan literature. There is an under-representation of conflict from this side. In other words, Catalonia is an existentially conflictive society, crossed by multiple contradictions that generate increasingly aggressive confrontations. And this is not being reflected in literature. That is the great challenge.
How will you bring all this together? Any examples?
We will translate Trainspotting into Catalan, which reflects, for example, how people speak in Scots, the language used by the Scottish working class.
Conflict, class, and culture
In Catalonia we have evictions, also an increasing consumption of drugs. And this is not appearing in our literature, or appears in a very tangential way.
Aren’t you afraid of contributing to a saturated sector? I mean, hundreds of books are pulped because they can’t even be stored any more, new titles are no longer new, they weigh heavily on our wallets, bookshops open but they also close rapidly?
We have to be a bit polemical. I sense that big publishers try to create a climate of overproduction in order to make small publishers responsible, when they are the ones who overproduce. An independent publishing house that publishes ten or twenty books a year versus a big imprint that produces 2,000. Here, too, we have to make a class analysis. Yes, a decrease is needed, but who needs to do the decreasing?
Tell me about the culture of micro-patronage with which you have launched Verso Libros, specifically. The ‘Lola Flores culture’ – if every reader gives me a peseta...
We have to explore all the possibilities of collective funding, because, as I said before, only as a community, a collective, will we move forward. That is to say, what is the point of establishing a publishing house if it is not for the people? Everyone, not only the left, has realised that they have to build communities. I think the key is to consolidate that community so that it serves as a loudspeaker to reach further, to make itself known. In this case, the medium, crowd-funding, is the least important thing. It is just a first step in building a community.
Translated by David Fernbach
 The ‘rose of fire’, a nickname given to Barcelona at the time of the anarchist rising of 1909. – Trans.
 The Movimiento Socialista in the Basque country, and its youth movement GKS. – Trans.
 I.e. the large depopulated rural regions. The political party España Vaciada now has representatives in the Spanish parliament. – Trans.
 An ironic reference to the crowdfunding campaign launched by Verso Libros : in the 90's, the flamenco singer Lola Flores had to pay a large amount of overdue taxes (40 million pesetas) to the Treasury. Her response to the press was, “If every Spaniard (40 million at the time) pays one peseta, the problem is solved.”