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Sept. 28, 2019

The Merchant of Revolution with Sarah K. Miles

The Merchant of Revolution with Sarah K. Miles

Guest host Sarah K. Miles tells the fascinating story of how radical bookseller François Maspero spread revolutionary anti-colonial ideas from the left bank of the Seine. Listen as Ms. Miles recounts how Maspero evaded government sensors, created networks of subversives across the world.


Guest host Sarah K. Miles tells the fascinating story of how radical bookseller François Maspero spread revolutionary anti-colonial ideas from the left bank of the Seine. Listen as Ms. Miles recounts how Maspero evaded government sensors, created networks of subversives across the world.

Sarah K. Miles is a graduate student in history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill currently working on a dissertation examining radical leftist networks in the francophone Atlantic world, focusing in particular on France, Quebec, Algeria, and the francophone Caribbean. She specializes in the role of publications and intellectuals in fostering transnational solidarity between revolutionary organizations in the late twentieth century. Today’s fascinating episode is about François Maspero, a radical bookseller in Paris, and his role in France’s tumultuous decolonization period. With that, I turn it over to today’s host, Ms. Sarah Miles.


The Merchant of Revolution: Francois Maspero and Radical Publishing in France


If you’re wandering through the Left Bank in Paris, I have a task for you.

Find the Fontaine Saint-Michel, just on the south side of the bridge of the same name. Look at the fountain for a moment or two, then go past it, to the left. The first street at which you’ll arrive going that direction is a little cobblestone path; you might even miss it if you weren’t paying attention. It’s called the Rue Saint-Severin, it’s only a few blocks long, but turn there. If you’re a French history buff, I should note that this street will sound familiar. It’s also where the “Great Cat Massacre,” an intriguing moment of masculine rebellion against a print master in the 18th century, made famous Robert Darnton, took place. But we’re not going to talk about that; what we’re talking about is a little more innocuous, but maybe, just maybe, a little more important.

Scooting around the packs of tourists that now roam this district, keep going down the street a little less than a block. Above the storefronts, keep an eye on the numbers and find number 40. It’s a hotel now, but if you can put yourself back 40 or 50 years, you might just be able to imagine the book store that was once in this same spot. It was called La Joie de Lire—the Joy of Reading—and contained books about anti-capitalism, about Communism, about solidarity and the Third World, books of fiction, of political theory, new editions of Marx and Lenin, the original version of Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, everything a young and rebellious francophone reader might want. Through the big front windows, you could see students, politicians, activists and intellectuals in the ‘60s wandering in to peruse the shelves. If you squint hard enough, you might even be able to imagine the store keep, coming up from the printing shop below, rearranging books on one of the shelves, barefoot, a cigarette hanging from his lips.

This is Francois Maspero: librarian, author, book keeper, publisher, anticolonial activist and radical thinker. In 1955, Maspero purchased La Joie de Lire and a few years later founded Les Editions Maspero—right in the middle of the Algerian War. The bookstore closed its doors in 1975, but Maspero, his team of editors, authors, and friends, and the publishing network he built had an incredible impact on France and the global francophone left.

Maspero continued to direct his publishing house until the 1980s when it became La Decouverte. Les Editions Maspero was the most heavily censored publishing house during the Algerian War and

My name is Sarah Miles, I’m a graduate student in history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and I study 20th century global francophone history, focusing in particular on the intellectual history of the radical left and publication networks in the French-speaking world. This might all help to explain why today on the French History Podcast, I’m going to be talking to you about leftist publishing in France in the late twentieth century through the example of Les Editions Maspero. We’ll explore a little bit about who Maspero was—why he was doing this, what projects he embarked on. Throughout, I’ll the explain, too, the broader impact of Maspero’s publishing house and bookstore on the development of the French Left and publishing in France more broadly during the Algerian War and beyond.

While there were a few different publishers who played an important role in this industry—like Les Editions Minuit directed by Jerome Lindon or La Cite directed by Nils Andersson—Maspero’s publishing house shaped the francophone Left during the late twentieth century and can help us understand the broader landscape of leftist publishing in France. Indeed, Maspero’s unique ability to keep up with contemporary French politics while avoiding adherence to a particular political line made his publishing house particularly valuable for francophone leftists as a meeting place, a source of information, and a way to communicate with sympathetic audiences around the world.  So who was this man—only 23 years old in 1955 when he first opened up his bookstore? Why was he so interested in this work and how did he change the political and cultural landscape of France?

Born January 19, 1932, Francois Maspero was intimately linked to most of the notable events in France in the twentieth century. He was the son and grandson of academicsc: his father was Henri Maspero, the Sinologist and professor at the College de France while his mother wrote studies of the French Revolution. Meanwhile, Francois’ grandfather—Henri’s father—was Gaston Maspero, a known Egyptologist who published many renowned works on French-Egyptian affairs. Indeed, Maspero was raised in the world French academic and activists. Francois lived had a relatively calm childhood, though by no means one that resembled that of other French children—after all, his father was named to the Legion of Honor in 1935.

Yet as the Second World War began and the Nazis overran Paris, Francois’ world was turned upside down. Though no longer actively practicing, his family was of Jewish origin, and thus were in danger. Sensing the need, Francois’ older brother, Jean, joined the French resistance and eventually was assigned to help American troops—on translation duty. Tragically, Jean was killed in combat in 1944, leading Nazi officials to arrest the boys’ parents under suspicion of aiding resistance activities. Henri was deported to Buchenwald where he remained until his death on March 17, 1945—just a month before the camp’s liberation by American troops. His mother was deported to Ravensbruck, though she survived the war. Francois was just 13 years old.

Maspero later acknowledged the importance of this experience for his development, saying, “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.” Indeed, this early experience likely influenced his own youthful participation in the Parti Communist Francais—renowned for its commitment to resistance activities during World War II. In 1953—at 21 years old—Maspero was an active militant with the PCF, a student, and began what would become his life’s work: he began working for a small bookstore, in this case to earn money for his schooling. When, soon after, he was presented with the opportunity to purchase a store that was falling apart, he took it, abandoning his studies in favor of running the bookstore on the Rue Monsieur-le-Prince. Maspero said of his own action: “I believed that I could combine the bookstore and political activism. In the bookstore and in publishing, I did what a bookseller and an independent editor with a certain political commitment has the capacity to do.”

Over the course of the next several years, Maspero abandoned his schooling and was expelled from the Communist Party—in his words, because he had protested against the Soviet invasion of Budapest and the French Communist Party’s reluctance to support anticolonialists in Algeria. Maspero thus began on the path to publishing not simply things that supported what he saw as the most important revolutionary political line—of the Marxist Left, but rather unpartisan. Along with his team of editors, Les Editions Maspero published, in Maspero’s words: “everything that contributed to debate.” He called himself “an engaged editor in Marxist affairs.” The decision to avoid a particular party line was one of the things that set the young bespectacled man apart from other early leftist publishers. In fact, one of the more important publishing houses of the left at the time was that of the French Communist Party! Certainly not dispassionate about keeping the party line. The decision to publish a variety of viewpoints earned Les Editions Maspero little sympathy with, say, the organs of the PCF, but this choice did mean that Francois Maspero was able to publish a diverse array of viewpoints on any given issue—from anarchist pamphlets to socialist analysis to Marxist psychology or anthropologies of colonial lands. And besides, it earned him respect from local activists and students who found him willing, even, to print their pamphlets and writings in the years to come, so long as they were created with the intention of spurring debate and discussion.

Maspero was able to publish this widely largely because of his wide network of friends—folks he brought to the publication business with him and friends he met along the way. He would eventually work with Jean-Paul Sartre, who wrote the preface to several important works in Maspero’s catalogue, as well as Fanchita Gonzalez Battle, who served as translator for much of the Latin American texts, and figures like Gerard Chalian and Emile Copfermann who would become fellow editors alongside him. In this way, Maspero was able to expand on his list and gain new followers from France and from across the francophone world.

Many of these important contacts, in fact, stemmed from Maspero’s early years at the Rue Monsieur-le-Prince. Indeed, in that book shop  Maspero encountered and befriended a veritable who’s who of world-famous activists and anticolonial resisters: Aime Cesaire (then an MP), Leopold Sedar Senghor (then a Senator), L. G. Damas, Amilcar Cabral and Mario de Andrade—a militant against Portuguese colonialism who would eventually introduce Maspero to one of his first major writers: Frantz Fanon. Fanon’s Year Five of the Algerian Revolution had already been rejected by other French publishers who knew all too well the way it portrayed the French government and the danger posed by releasing this anticolonial text.

The ones opposed to Maspero’s willingness to publish critical works of the Left? The French government. As many of you will know, the French government was particularly harsh towards publishers willing to release works about the Algerian War in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In fact, between 1954 and 1963, about thirty-five books were seized by the French government—of these, fully two-thirds were published by Editions Maspero or les Editions de Minuit.[1] All of these either discussed the use of torture by the French or presented the FLN’s case to the public, effectively dissuading many publishers from choosing to release such controversial works.

Maspero, however, had few qualms about this decision: “I wanted to contribute to an antifascist union,” he noted. This was the motivation behind the decision to publish Fanon’s original text, which was seized by the French government in October of 1959 when it first appeared—they took every printed copy of the text out of their stock and placed an official injunction on printing more, not that Maspero heeded these with any regularity. Also seized from Maspero’s presses in these years were Maurice Maschino’s Le Refus, published in 1960, then Fanon’s 1961 The Wretched of the Earth (1961), Andre Mandouze’s La Revolution Algerienne Par les Textes (1961), Elie Kagan and Paulette Peju’s Ratonnades a Paris (1961) and several others—a total of 12 or 13 texts taken by the French government out of Maspero’s stock for violating the supposed security of the French state during an ongoing conflict. Moreover, while figures like Jerome Lindon of Editions de Minuit were willing, too, to face censorship, Maspero quickly became known for continuing to sell contraband texts—like Henri Alleg’s 1958 La Question—in La Joie de Lire, the bookstore he owned and operated from 1959 until the early 1980s.

In an excerpt from Chris Marker’s 1970 film about Maspero and his catalogue, a young man explains the importance that La Joie de Lire held for his own development, saying: “If I even came into the library, it’s precisely because it played, for me, during the Algerian War the role of information. It was there you can find Alleg’s book, even if it was banned.”

The importance of La Joie de Lire as a site of intellectual exploration, as a place where students and intellectuals, activists and anticolonialists could meet and read new ideas, even those the government didn’t want them to read, was immeasurable.. The sustained publication and distribution of texts like The Wretched of the Earth or The Question undermined the French government’s narrative of what was going on in Algeria, offering new ways for those opposed to the war to discuss and find ways of resisting their country’s violence. Indeed, the Swiss publisher Nils Andersson—who directed La Cite—was a close friend of Maspero’s in these years and also ran an important network of “Porteurs de Valises”, individuals who would carry cash and supplies for the FLN in Europe. By providing such a service in the heart of Paris—in the middle of the renowned Left Bank—Maspero was effectively bringing many French people the resources they needed to revolt: something he would continue doing even beyond the end of the Algerian Revolution.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, many also claimed that it was information from Maspero’s own publishing house—so often censored—that aided French policy makers as well! Chris Marker, the director of the film you just heard a clip of, said: “when the negotiators at Evian went to meet the FLN, they didn’t even know what the FLN was! Maspero had published Mandouze’s book La Revolution Algerienne par les textes [and this] was to become the reference book for the Evian negotiators.”

So while other leftist publishers like Lindon were certainly important, Maspero’s own reputation as a faithful engaged editor, his willingness to be targeted by the French government, and the bookstore that accompanied his editing operation made him a vital resource for anticolonialists from Algeria and their French sympathizers and supporters in Paris.

After the end of the Algerian War in 1962, Maspero continued to be a vital part of radical movements in France and around the world. He joined forces with other prominent leftist intellectuals in France to help edit the collections published with Les Editions Maspero, including Albert Memmi (the Tunisian-Jewish author of the Colonizer and the Colonized), Charles BEttleheim (French Marxist economist and professor at the EHESS), Jacques Berque (Franco-Algerian ethnologist), Louis Althusser (Franco-Algerian Marxist philosopher), and Emile Copfermann, French critique, writer, and dramaturge who became one of Maspero’s closest collaborators at the publishing house. Bringing together this hodge-podge of left-oriented intellectuals was no small feat; Maspero’ was able to bring these people together, perhaps precisely because he was not simply attempting to profit off of revolutionary sentiment, but rather meeting the need that he saw amongst revolutionaries in his bookstore.

More than just a meeting place, however, the methods and ideas behind the publications released with Maspero changed the French political scene. All while traveling the world, Maspero and his team of editors contributed to the French political landscape examples, information, and ideas from these global leftist movements. Les Editions Maspero was the first press to translate into French the work of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara—secured after a visit to Cuba in the early 1960s. They released ethnographies and fictional writings from the Maghreb, poems and songs from Greek partisans, collections of articles from the separatist struggle in Quebec, and a multitude of theoretical works about politics and struggle in France and in Europe. In many ways, Maspero brought the world to the French Left and revealed the best ideas of the French Left to the world.

Two other major contributions for development of the French left emerged from this period: the livres de poches (mass market paperback books) and several important magazines. The popularization of the livres de poches diversified the availability of high theory—as well as the practice of purchasing and not reading books. These paperback books were relatively inexpensive, easy to carry, and often re-edited with more visually appealing covers. In contrast to even the most famous of Maspeor’s war-time publications, which never sold extraordinarily well, these new paperbacks flew off the shelves, introducing a new young generation to works like Richard Wright’s Native Son which sold 30,000 copies—despite being more expensive than the original non-paperback edition. As noted by historian Ben Mercer, this relatively new practice that set books alongside newspapers and magazines on newsstands, “treating books as something akin to other printed materials…blurred the lines between high and low culture, between an intellectual elite and the ‘masses.’”[2] Though by no means the first to attempt a mass-print run on paperback of works, Maspero was among the first to do so in France and certainly among the earliest to do so with serious theoretical works. While many critiqued the change—even Maspero acknowledged that he wasn’t convinced young people actually read all the paperbacks they bought—this development in reading practices created an expectation of mass access to culture and ideas of the left. The “Paperback Revolution,” Ben Mercer argues, were vital for the 1968 student protests which were inspired by a similar ethos—democratic, mass access to intellectual culture.

Over the course of the 1960s, Les Editions Maspero also began to produce a magazine alongside its other works. While nowhere near as famous as Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes, Maspero and his editorial partner Emile Copfermann—in 1961—began a periodical known as Partisans that helped connect leftists the world over. In the introduction to the first issue, the editorial team noted in their unique sensitivity to the “tiers-monde” and their commitment to engagement. They wrote that what was needed was to “regroup our forces in order to determine the best theoretical lines that will provides us clear and effective instructions. This is the role that we, the editorial team, would like to assume.” Maspero, Copfermann, and others involved in the publication of Partisans therefore demonstrated their interest in providing a clear direction for what they saw as the potential socialist movement in France. Yet they did not remain focused on the French context: even in this first, they published articles from Raul Castro on the Cuban path to socialism, on Danilo Dolci and Italian socialism, the Greek working class and poetry, the Kurdish question, Soviet figures, and even a long article on the “Algerian generation.”

A few days after its publication, this first edition was seized by the French government, as you’ll remember, not an unusual problem for Maspero. Yet the authors forged on. Over the next decade or so, the magazine published translations of foreign texts, but was particularly focused on bringing to the French political scene information from Cuba, Algeria, and colonial holdings in Africa and southeast Asia. While the exact circulation numbers are difficult to pin down, regular mentions of the magazine and the diverse array of figures who wrote for it indicate that it remained a fairly important publication through the early 1970s. Partisans provided an intellectual space wherein French leftists could learn about international events and ideas, read works from their fellow students, and even, in the case of Regis Debray—the radical French student who traveled to Bolivia with Che Guevara—earn space for their own writing. In 1967, Les Editions Maspero would add to his periodical selection the French edition of the famous Cuban publication Tricontinental, another favorite of European students and intellectuals.

When the student and worker protests of 1968 broke out, Maspero was therefore already far ahead of the “market of revolution.” He was already known for his commitment to the cause and for his contacts with important French and international intellectuals. Students found in his bookstore an important meeting place, just as anticolonialists had only a few years before. While he also faced significant danger because of this commitment—his bookstore was the target of several right-wing terrorist attacks in the years around 1968—students demonstrated their commitment to Maspero’s project by establishing rotating shifts of guards who would keep watch over night and protect the valuables inside.

Things changed for the French publishing scene after the revolts of ’68. Maspero noted that it was really only after 1968 that booksellers realized there was a “leftist market” that could be tapped into—partly through the example of his own works and the surprisingly large market that demanded things of this nature. While not necessarily caused by Maspero, this edition house paved the way for a broader change in French publishing—towards a consumer culture of the left. Rather than being marketed solely towards elites, French publishers discovered that books of theory, analyses of global movements, and new editions of classic texts could bring in a massive audience—though how many of these new converts to the market of revolution were actually committed to the politics of revolt, in the way Maspero and his team were? I would wager that there were relatively few.

Yet as late as 1969, Maspero seemed doubtful about whether he was even undertaking an important project: “The most pressing problem,” he stated in an interview, “is knowing whether publishing is a means of revolutionary activity…one runs into nearly intractable contradictions. Either one founds and develops a publishing house in order to develop the work of publishing…in a capitalist system…or one does the work of revolutionary formation. In many cases, these are not compatible.” Unfortunately for the long-time editor, this was perhaps the least pressing concern. Fines imposed by the French government on Maspero for selling prohibited publications as well as increasing numbers of thefts by leftists—many of whom saw it, as Maspero described, “as revolutionary to ‘steal at Masp’.”—challenged the financial viability of La Joie de Lire. By 1970, despite the support of the Amis de Maspero group who donated funds for his work—Maspero was forced to close his bookstore.


While Maspero continued to work in leftist and intellectual circles after the mid-1970s, his heyday was over. What, then, do we make of these years? Of the importance of leftist publishing as an industry and as an ideological project? It is easy to see that the work undertaken by Maspero had an impact—the French government’s regular seizure of his material indicates as much. French leaders from de Gaulle to Pompidou saw the free circulation of such frank condemnations of the government’s actions as dangerous—yet the fact that they continued to circulate contributed to the frustration that drove students and workers to revolt. Moreover, for radicals working outside the Hexagon, the knowledge that the French left—one of the historically most important sites of revolution—cared about their movement was impactful. Maspero’s advertising in Algerian magazines, for instance, provided them financial support, while his republication of a collection of Quebecois writings on separatism bolstered support from people far beyond the bounds of Canada. It is easy to see, in hindsight, the impact that Les Editions Maspero had on global history and the importance of publishing as not only the locale of intellectual development, but a source of intellectual change in and of itself.

Yet Francois Maspero, the bespectacled publisher of La Rue Saint Severin, wasn’t always so sure of himself. As a committed activist himself, Maspero sometimes struggled to see how he was contributing to his own goals: I’ll close with a quote from Francois that gives you some perspective not on how historians see Maspero, but rather how Maspero saw himself:

He said:

“That’s why I consider, in a certain way, the Editions Maspero a failure: from the professional point of view, it is a success, but it isn’t the success it should be. To be a professional success, it would have to be Le Seuil or Gallimard. I think I would have no trouble becoming Le Seuil in the next two years if I had wanted to. But this isn’t the goal I have set myself, because my goal is to serve a certain revolutionary movement. I think that at a second stage, the revolutionary movement, revolutionary groups would have to take hold of their own presses, publishing houses, means of information. But there exists a very clear contradiction, at any given moment, between these empirical work that is publishing, the echo of the revolutionary movement, and deep theoretical work, which is the work of revolutionary thought, and which can only be accomplished through already-existing platforms, and a movement tied to the masses, a whole series of things that cannot be the work of a lone publishing house….[yet] what makes me proud is not apparent at first sight. This is the fact that my publishing house rests on a large network of trustworthy people and friends, which has nothing to do with the regular connections that I often see the Parisian publishing world built on…it’s this phenomenon of constant exchanges, without formalism, that constitutes the living force of my publishing house, and which makes me think that I am perhaps, not completely wrong to keep going.”

[1] Martin Harrisson, “Government and Press in France during the Algerian War,” The American Political Science Review, vol. LVIII, no. 2 (June 1964).

[2] Mercer, “Paperback Revolution,”