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.