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7 June 2024

Éric Hazan, rebel publisher

The leading French thinker has died aged 87. His cosmopolitan ease and intellectual industry is an example to the left.

By Enzo Traverso

Éric Hazan – doctor, writer and arguably the greatest publisher in the history of the French left – passed away on 6 June in Paris after suffering from cancer for several years. He died in the city where he was born 87 years ago, and whose unofficial biographer he became. His death is a vital loss for the global left. But his life can now be read as paradigmatic of a tradition the left should always champion: polymathic and cosmopolitan intellectual ambition.

Publishing was a family tradition, but he didn’t join the profession until well into his forties. In the two decades before, he worked as a heart surgeon, specialising in paediatrics, a field in which he became a prominent figure. While he had been a socialist from his adolescence, his first profession absorbed him entirely, pulling him away from culture and politics, which were only to emerge later as his chief personal and professional preoccupations.

Éric always combined work with activism. During the Algerian War he became a porteur de valises (suitcase carrier), a euphemism for the underground agents who supported the Algerian National Liberation Front. When civil war broke out in Lebanon in 1975, he travelled to work as a surgeon in a Palestinian camp. But in 1983, the doctor left medicine and took charge of Éditions Hazan, the publishing house specialising in fine arts built by his father at the end of the Second World War. From that moment until the end of his life, he was a prominent figure in French intellectual culture.

Books had always surrounded Éric’s life. His grandfather, a French-speaking Egyptian Jew, ran a bookshop in Cairo. His father moved to Paris to become a publisher and married Éric’s mother, a Romanian Jew. During the war, they survived hidden in a village in southern France, living off their savings: Éric often remarked that surviving the Holocaust was primarily a question of money. He was also aware of the peculiar status of his family in postwar France – immigrant and yet also bourgeois.

During the war, Éric did not attend primary school. Instead, he learned from his family and read the books available at home. After the liberation, he entered the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, one of the most prestigious secondary schools in Paris, where he realised he had received an excellent education, probably better than most of his schoolmates’. But while literature and history were clearly Eric’s signal interests, his father did not think they would assure him of a solid social position, so pushed him towards medicine.

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Once Éric turned to publishing, he was free to return to those earlier interests. Venturing beyond the erudite but ultimately conventional tastes of his father, he quickly transformed the Éditions Hazan into a leading publisher of modern art books, open to the 20th-century aesthetic vanguard, with a special attention on photography. When I first met Éric, in the mid-1990s, he was preparing a book on photography and revolution. I remember the contagious enthusiasm of his description of the only existing photo of the Paris barricades of 1848. That specific photo unified his personal intellectual passions: Paris, revolution, art and 19th-century history.

At the end of that decade, when the concentration of the French book industry in the hands of a few corporations threatened the independence of most publishers, Éditions Hazan was absorbed by Hachette. Éric could not stand the commercial imperatives of the new regime – his own form of Foucault’s “discipline and punish” – so he resigned to set up La Fabrique, a left-wing publishing house. Instead of art books, his output now consisted chiefly of critical theory and political writing.

He threw all his savings into the venture, and for much of its existence La Fabrique was run out of a single room. But in this setting, Éric could place his skills as a publisher in the service of his political commitments. He created a small editorial committee (I was part of it for almost a decade) that met regularly to propose and discuss book projects, while busying himself in the portfolio role as the company’s editor, proof-reader and press officer. The office dynamics were, therefore, set by the vagaries of his charisma. Yet he was able to play this role because of his political personality, which – while sometimes sectarian – was never dogmatic.

Éric was never an “organic intellectual”, bound to his position in the class struggle – not even during his youth when he was a member of the French Communist Party. He drew from many pre-Marxist French traditions – his authoritarian streak was probably inherited from his hero Robespierre, whose mantle Éric claimed with typical iconoclasm. But such tendencies were softened by his personal generosity and kindness.

In a time of triumphant neoliberalism, when liberal democracy and market society had become incontestable norms, he was able to establish a dissident voice that quickly became an indispensable tool of intellectual criticism and political non-conformity. La Fabrique set about not only reissuing classic texts by Marx, Adorno and Benjamin, but volumes of contemporary critical theory (by the likes of Jacques Rancière, Alain Badiou, Daniel Bensaïd and Andreas Malm) and books on revolutionary history and literary studies of Proust and Balzac.

But Éric was equally committed to publishing books on the Holocaust, the crisis of democracy, the gentrification of the metropolis, the “capitalocene”, and the rights of gender minorities. La Fabrique also renewed the tradition of anti-colonialism that had distinguished another great French publishing house, the Éditions Maspero in the 1960s – with a special attention on the Middle East, by giving voice to both Palestinian and anti-Zionist Jewish authors. Éric himself wrote an essay with his friend Eyal Sivan, the Israeli film-maker behind Route 181 (2003) and Jaffa: The Orange’s Clockwork (2009), to denounce what they regarded as the false use of Jewish history to legitimise modern Israeli policies. In this regard, Éric fitted Isaac Deutscher’s mould of the “non-Jewish Jew” who rejected Judaism in the name of cosmopolitanism and secularism, while never being afraid to present as Jewish before anti-Semites. Éric always claimed his true loyalties were to Paris, however, his one true homeland.

In France, La Fabrique has become a reference point for the decolonisation movement, publishing numerous books that question the dogmas of French national republicanism by revealing their colonial backgrounds. Xenophobia and Islamophobia were his natural targets, and he understood that this struggle was not a question of generosity and compassion towards immigrants (in the classic slogan of the French left: touche pas à mon pote, or “don’t touch my friend”), but rather a question of equality.

While running La Fabrique, Éric also discovered his literary talents. He became an acclaimed writer, historian and essayist. His Invention of Paris (2002), a history of the French capital narrated through its streets and squares and monuments, was an international bestseller. And his History of the French Revolution (2012) surprised many readers by reclaiming narrative – sometimes regarded as obsolete in the study of history – as a radical historical method, drawing from Balzac and Benjamin, and the historians Jules Michelet and EP Thompson.

Éric Hazan’s true political and intellectual imprint was to be found in his work at La Fabrique. Unlike François Maspero – perhaps Éric’s only equal as publisher and homme de lettres, but who was left depressed after he abandoned his publishing house to become a writer – Éric was able to create a team that will assure the continuity of his enterprise. His legacy will be neither forgotten nor abandoned.

[See also: Elias Canetti’s war against death]

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