Louis Althusser’s Théorie series at François Maspero: A Brief History


As is well known, in autumn 1965, Louis Althusser published both the collection of essays entitled For Marx and the two collaborative volumes which developed from a seminar at the École Normale Supérieure, Reading Capital. Before this date, Althusser’s only book was a short study of Montesquieu, available in English in Politics and History. But these three 1965 volumes did more than bring Althusser to the attention of a wider French audience, and quickly an international one through translation. They were also the first volumes of a series he edited with the radical publisher François Maspero.[1]

François Maspero had set up the publishing house which bore his name in 1959, and some of the first volumes were collections about the Algerian war. He published Frantz Fanon’s A Dying Colonialism in 1959, and The Wretched of the Earth, with Jean-Paul Sartre’s preface, was published shortly after Fanon’s death in 1961. The press was known for its wide range of texts, including the ‘Cahiers Libres’ collection, and the journal Partisans. Its Petite Collection Maspero began in the late 1960s, with distinctive pastel-coloured covers. That series published almost 300 titles in total, available cheaply or often stolen from Maspero’s shop La joie de lire in the Latin Quarter, which did not prosecute shoplifters. Maspero recalled that they initially printed 5,000 copies of each title in the Petite Collection, quickly rising to 10,000 copies. The press published several books by authors from the Global South, including translating many works of anti-colonial struggle. Some books were banned, his shop was bombed, and he was shot. But he continued publishing. Several important French writers, including the classicists Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre-Vidal Naquet, Albert Memmi and Régis Debray, published early books with Maspero. Yves Lacoste’s classic La géographie, ça sert, d'abord, à faire la guerre [Geography is, above all, for making war] and the radical geography journal Hérodote were both published by Maspero. The press was also significant in the anti-psychiatry movement. A 20-minute documentary was made by Chris Marker about the publisher in 1970 (available on YouTube). In 2009, celebrating 50 years of the press, an exhibition was held and the book François Maspero et les paysages humains [François Maspero and the human landscape] was published. On Maspero’s death in 2015 there was a widespread recognition of his importance in French and radical publishing (see for example, this set of pieces in Viewpoint; and the Verso tributes). Interviews with Maspero have been translated on the Verso blog and at Viewpoint.

In 1965, Althusser defined theory as “any theoretical practice of a scientific character”, whereas “‘theory’ (in inverted commas) [is] the determinate theoretical system of a real science”. But both are contrasted to

Theory (with a capital T), general theory, that is, the Theory of practice in general, itself elaborated on the basis of Theory of existing theoretical practices (of the sciences), which transforms into ‘knowledges [connaissances]’ (scientific truths) the ideological product of existing ‘empirical’ practices (the concrete activity of man). This Theory is the materialist dialectic which is none other than dialectical materialism (Pour Marx 197; For Marx, 168).

Althusser goes on to indicate that there are many spheres in which a Marxist approach has not been settled, as they were not treated in Capital. In these areas, including “epistemology, the history of science, the history of ideology, the history of philosophy, the history of art”, work remained to be done (Pour Marx 198; For Marx, 169). The Théorie series can be understood, at least in part, as fulfilling that promise.

Althusser’s choice of a new series with Maspero for his work was interesting, avoiding either mainstream presses (his Montesquieu book had appeared with Presses Universitaires de France) or the French Communist Party’s own Éditions Sociales. Early volumes in the Théorie series included many texts by Althusser’s students or others close to him. Pierre Macherey had been part of the Reading Capital project, and his Theory of Literary Production was published in the series in 1968. Emmanuel Terray’s Marxism and “Primitive’ Societies, a critical engagement with anthropology, with a brief preface by Althusser, appeared in 1969. In the 1970s, Étienne Balibar, another member of the Reading Capital seminar, published Cinq études du matérialisme historique [Five Studies on Historical Materialism] (1974), On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (1976) and the collaborative Marx et sa critique de la politique [Marx and his Critique of Politics] with Cesare Luporini and André Tosel (1979).

Other works by Althusser were first published in the series too, including the original edition of Lenin and Philosophy (1972) and Response to John Lewis (1973; included in Essays in Self-Criticism). Although Althusser also published outside the series in the mid-1970s, he returned to it with his assessments of the French Communist Party in 22eme congrès (1977) and Ce qui ne peut plus durer dans le parti communiste [What can no longer go on in the Communist Party] (1978). In English these short books were translated in New Left Review issues 104 (reprinted in Balibar’s On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat) and 109 (an earlier version of the texts).

Althusser’s Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists was published in 1974 as part of a sub-series of texts entitled ‘Cours de philosophie pour scientifiques’. As the title suggests, this volume comprises four lectures originally delivered as part of a course given at the ENS on philosophy for scientists or non-philosophers. Although several volumes of lectures from this series by others were initially planned, only two actually appeared: Michel Fichant and Michel Pêcheux’s Sur l’histoire des sciences [On the History of Science] (1969) and Alain Badiou’s first book, The Concept of Model (1969). In 1969, Balibar, Macherey and François Regnault were listed as authors of future volumes, but these did not appear. Althusser’s own contribution was delayed by five years, and when it was published the link to the previous volumes was not obvious. Macherey has a good history of the series, looking at what was and what wasn’t published, in the online journal Parrhesia. A fifth lecture from the course by Althusser, originally planned for the series, was eventually published after his death in his Écrits philosophiques et politiques, under the title ‘Du coté de la philosophie [Alongside Philosophy]’. The original texts from the course are available as typescripts online.

Dominique Lecourt, another former student of Althusser, published three important early works in the main Théorie series. Pour une critique de l'épistémologie [For a Critique of Epistemology] (1972), was a study of Gaston Bachelard, Georges Canguilhem and Michel Foucault. It was translated as part of his Marxism and Epistemology, which also contained his earlier study of Bachelard. Lecourt’s next two books followed: Une crise et son enjeu: Essai sur la position de Lénine en philosophie [A Crisis and its Stakes: An Essay on the Position of Lenin in Philosophy] (1973) and Proletarian Science? The Case of Lysenko (1976). As well as his text from the ‘Cours de philosophie pour scientifiques’ series, Pêcheux published two of his early works in the main series, Les vérités de la Palice: Linguistique, sémantique, philosophie (1975, translated as Language, Semantics and Ideology: Stating the Obvious) and La Langue introuvable [Untraceable Language] (1981) with Françoise Gadet. These works on literature, connecting to Macherey’s work, and alongside Terray’s book on anthropology, show something of the breadth of work Althusser’s ideas, and this series, helped to support.

The Théorie series also had other sub-series within it. One, entitled ‘Textes’, translated key writings with a connection to the Marxist project. These included Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity (1968) and a collection of Joseph Dietzgen’s writings with annotations by Lenin (1973; available online), both translated by Jean-Pierre Osier. Osier’s study of the English socialist Thomas Hodgskin: Une critique prolétarienne de l’économie politique [A Proletarian Critique of Political Economy] appeared in the main series in 1976. The ‘Textes’ series also published Jean-Pierre Lefebvre’s translation of Hegel, La société civile bourgeoise (1975). Other works were also published in translation: Alexander Bogdanov, La Science, l'art et la classe ouvrière [Science, Art and the Working Class] (1977), translated by Blanche Grinbaum, appeared in the main series; while Lu Xun’s Pamphlets et libelles (1925-1936) translated by Michelle Loi (1977), was the only volume in a separate sub-series, ‘Écrits politiques’.

Balibar’s collaborative Marx et sa critique de la politique was part of another sub-series, entitled ‘Analyses’, which also included Bernard Edelman’s Ownership of the Image: Elements for a Marxist Theory of Law (1973), Pierre Raymond, Le passage au matérialisme: idéalisme et matérialisme dans l’histoire de la philosophie, mathématiques et matérialisme [The Transition to Materialism: Idealism and Materialism in the History of Philosophy, Mathematics and Materialism] (1973) and Gérard Duménil, Le concept de loi économique dans ‘Le Capital’ [The Concept of Economic Law in ‘Capital’] (1977). The latter came with a substantial Preface by Althusser, recently translated in Rethinking Marxism by G.M. Goshgarian.

Response to John Lewis came with a flyer, discussing what the series was doing. Almost impossible to find today, it gives a revealing insight into how Althusser saw the series developing.[2] It is explicit that it was “a collection of works of Marxist theory”, but stressed that these were “works of Marxist research, which obviously take risks, go off the beaten track, say new things and inevitably upend some received truths”. It said the aim was simple:

There is a scientific and philosophical political treasure in Marx and in Lenin. Scientific and philosophical weapons for the Revolution. This treasure is the property [bien] of the Workers’ Movement. It needs it to win. But the bourgeoisie has always succeeded covering and obscuring this treasure, by its class struggle and its ideology: it has always succeeded in deforming and watering down the revolutionary thought of Marx and Lenin.

It is necessary to help liberate this scientific, philosophical, and political treasure from the enormous weight of this deformation and blackmail of bourgeois ideology: to return it to the working class first, then to all its allies, and to all honest men.

It was complicated to enact this though, for several reasons, above all because “Marxism is not a religion, where it is enough to stick to a small number of well-presented beliefs, and to repeat the daily prayer”. Rather, being “the theory of the vanguard of the International Workers’ movement” imposed on Marxism a responsibility “neither to play nor to cheat as so many ‘Parisian’ intellectuals do”. Its scientific status also created strictures, acting with the need to advance, which “requires long, painstaking, persistent and rigorous work” and that “when you present a result, you must provide rational proofs”. Despite mistakes, of which an early tendency to ‘theoreticism’ was specifically indicated, the suggestion was the series had tried to follow these requirements.

And finally, because it was also a philosophy, Marxism was serious both intellectually and politically. The flyer indicates Althusser’s notorious claim in Response to John Lewis that “philosophy is, in the last instance, class struggle in theory”. It suggested that this was why there were often quite violent criticisms of the series. The difficulty of the early works was acknowledged, but the suggestion was that this was improving in more recent volumes. But other criticisms came because of the purpose of the series, to “struggle against all forms of bourgeois ideology in the Workers’ Movement, in order to liberate and develop the thought of Marx and Lenin”. The two greatest enemies were “theoretical Humanism and Economism”, as well as “evolutionism, historicism, positivism, juridical, literary, ethnological, scientific idealism, etc.” The challenge to these was “at root, political combat in theory”. This explained the attacks, though the flyer closed with inviting genuine criticism from those “trying to be a Marxist… trying to become communist”.

The series slowed in the late 1970s, perhaps because of Althusser’s separate Collection Analyse with Éditions Hachette, which began in 1974. As well as Althusser’s own Éléments d'autocritique [in Essays in Self-Criticism, 1974) that series also published two simultaneous books on the politics of the French language co-authored by Renée Balibar, Étienne’s mother.[3] Macherey suggests this move to Hachette was due to a falling out with Maspero, but Althusser did return to the Théorie series. It continued to publish important works such as Macherey’s own Hegel or Spinoza (1979). Plans for an expansion of the Hachette series were underway in the late 1970s too.

The final volume of the Théorie series was Gadet and Pêcheux’s La Langue introuvable in 1981. Althusser’s public career ended with his murder of his wife Hélène Rytman in November 1980 (see Richard Seymour and William S. Lewis on the Verso site). Although Althusser continued to write in the last decade of his life while in various institutions, almost all the texts we have from this period were all published posthumously. François Maspero became part of Éditions La Découverte in 1983, after publishing around 1300 titles. La Découverte has kept some works from the Théorie series in print, but with this publishing change the series itself ceased to exist. Maspero himself went on to a distinguished career as an author of novels and travelogues and as a translator.

The close connection many of the contributors to the series had to Althusser gives a sense of the intellectual circles he built up at the École Normale Supérieure. The impressive subsequent careers of many of the contributors to the Reading Capital volumes are well-known. Macherey and Balibar both published important subsequent work in this series. Jacques Rancière broke with Althusser and went in a different direction (see his Althusser’s Lesson, 1974); while Roger Establet’s early books with Christian Baudelot were published by Éditions François Maspero, but not in Althusser’s series. Other volumes for the Théorie series were anticipated but never appeared. In 1966 Althusser told Franca Madonia he was excited by the prospect of a collection of essays by Georges Canguilhem, with a companion text by Michel Foucault. But instead a Canguilhem collection was published by Vrin in 1968, and Foucault did not write on Canguilhem until his preface to the English translation of On the Normal and the Pathological ten years later.

The titles given above show that many of these books were translated into English, often with New Left Books (which became Verso) or Monthly Review. Andy Merrifield has explored Maspero’s link to Monthly Review Press in their associated magazine. Many of the French texts were reprinted in different imprints or with other presses, including the Petite Collection Maspero and with La Découverte. Seeing these books in translation or those later printings obscures the strong identity of their original publication in the Théorie series. Although the cover design typography changed over its 16-year life, all the books retained the image of a goose mosaic taken from a postcard Althusser brought back from a visit to San Giovanni Evangelista in Ravenna.[4] Several of these works are widely circulated today in different editions or translations; others are long out-of-print and hard-to-find.

Althusser commissioned the volumes himself, with Maspero reporting that Althusser was “totally free” to run the series. Their working relation seems to have been good, despite the rival series with Hachette in 1974, though Maspero reports that Althusser was impossible when going through one of his periodic bouts of mania. Althusser wrote prefaces for many of the volumes in the series, some of which have been included in collections of his writings, but others can only be found in the original volumes. The series published many crucial works, and helped to launch the careers of key figures who have shaped the French intellectual left to this day.


[1]           For a full list of books in the series, with references to English translations, see https://progressivegeographies.com/resources/louis-althussers-theorie-series-at-francois-maspero/

[2]           I am grateful to Panagiotis Sotiris and Tassos Betzelos for providing me with a copy.

[3]           Renée Balibar with Geneviève Merlin and Gilles Tret, Les Français fictifs: Le rapport des styles littéraires au française national, Paris: Hachette, 1974; Renée Balibar and Dominique Laporte, Le Français National: Politique et practiques de la langue nationale sous la Révolution française, Paris: Hachette, 1974. Both have prefaces by Étienne Balibar and Pierre Macherey.

[4]           Althusser biographer Yann Moulier Boutang tries to decipher the emblem in his contribution to the issue of Magazine littéraire devoted to Althusser (no 304, 1992, 56-61). Many thanks to Niki Kasumi Clements for discovering the source. For more on this emblem, see http://alluvions.blogspot.com/2017/09/222313-le-blason-de-ravenne.html