Les quarante-huitards? Postmodernism and French Stalinism


In a recent post I described the novelist Saul Bellow’s reaction to the literary review Les Temps modernes, which he encountered in 1948 while living in Paris.

Bellow would ‘scan the local sottises [and] observe with brutal contempt the latest wrinkle in anguish’:

One of the things that was clear to me when I went to Paris on a Guggenheim grant was that Les Temps modernes understood less about Marxism and left-wing politics than I had understood as a high-school boy.

Jean-Paul Sartre was ten years older than Bellow and a graduate from the rue d’Ulm. Among his prewar friends and fellow Normaliens were some prominent PCF intellectuals, like Georges Politzer and Paul Nizan. Yet Sartre didn’t read Marx seriously until the 1940s.

Nonetheless, in post-Liberation Paris, bestowed suddenly with enormous fame and influence, Sartre was esteemed as an authority on this and every other topic. Eager to consolidate this position, he leapt into print, with Les Temps modernes appearing from October 1945.

His early ventures into political pronouncement, like the 1946 essay ‘Materialism and Revolution’, in which the oracular tone betrayed rather than concealed the author’s ignorance, were accordingly embarrassing.

In them and in ‘political’ plays like Dirty Hands, Sartre used Marxist language and concepts (‘permanent revolution’, ‘united front’, etc.) with little regard for their established meaning.

Meanwhile his journal gradually developed a house ideology. For several decades this would remain stable yet incoherent: perched just off the PCF’s shoulder, it mixed relentless criticism of the party with, in the words of Edgar Morin, ‘courtesy, deference and flirtatiousness’.

Thus Bellow wrote later to Philip Roth: ‘When I landed in Paris in 1948 I found that the intellectual leaders (Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, etc.) remained loyal despite the Stalin sea of blood.’

By this Bellow meant Merleau-Ponty’s sinisterly fatuous remarks on the Moscow Trials, published in 1947. In them the philosopher had announced that ‘we are as far from [the prosecutor Andrey] Vyshinsky’s interpretation of them as we are from the leftist [Trotskyist] view.’

Sartre went on to draw closest to the PCF in the period between 1952 (Ridgway’s visit to Paris) and 1956 (the Hungarian uprising).

But neither before nor after this period did he develop any firm stance on the PCF based on an evaluation of Stalinism.

Responding in Les Temps modernes to the Hungarian events, Sartre expressed disappointment that the ‘path imposed on it by circumstances’ had led the ‘hidebound’ Kremlin leadership to ‘compromise on its principles’.

To a great extent, the lenient attitude of France’s marxisant intellectuals towards the Soviet bureaucracy (and the professional success enjoyed by these rapidly multiplying writers and academics) stemmed from the country’s unique political circumstances.

By 1948, Truman’s USA was undertaking a ‘de-Marxization of the intelligentsia’. Writers, artists and critics like Bellow, James Burnham and Clement Greenberg were shedding their anti-Stalinist socialism of the 1930s for the more salubrious fit of Cold War liberalism, on the way to full-blown reaction.

In contrast, les trente glorieuses, spanning France’s Fourth Republic and into the Fifth, involved a kind of permanent Popular Front, with Stalinism tolerated in official political culture and accommodated in the latter’s journalistic offshoots.

In 1952 Bellow’s friend and former socialist Mary McCarthy explained the contemporary behaviour of US intellectuals in a letter to a newly arrived Hannah Arendt.

Ex-Trotskyists, she said – including Greenberg, Sidney Hook and others from the Partisan Review crowd – were cooperating so intently with the HUAC because of bad memories from the Popular Front era:

They live in terror of a revival of the situation that prevailed in the thirties, when the fellow-travellers were powerful in teaching, publishing, the theatre, etc., when stalinism was the gravy-train and these people were off it and became the object of social slights, small economic deprivations, gossip and backbiting. These people, who are success-minded, think in terms of group-advancement and cultural monopoly and were really traumatized by the brief stalinist apogee of the thirties, when they suspected that their book, say, was not being pushed by their publishers because of stalinist influences among the salesmen or even the office-workers.

In postwar France different incentives prevailed. Ambitious intellectuals were presented with alternative prospects for networking, sources of patronage and routes to cultural authority.

Postwar, the eminence of Maurice Thorez’s PCF (le parti des 75 000 fusillés) had been restored. Along with the Stalinist party’s fortunes, so was the Popular Front, that travesty of socialism, revived. (The African-American novelist Richard Wright and Bellow’s friend, Ralph Ellison, had broken with Marxism due to disgust with the US version of this policy, which involved the prostration of Earl Browder’s CP to FDR’s Democrats, the party of Jim Crow.)

From Liberation until May 1947 the PCF formed a series of coalition governments with the SFIO and the Christian Democrat MRP.

During this time Thorez, as vice-premier, and four other Stalinist ministers approved the Monnet Plan for the reconstruction of the French coal and steel industries. This involved reductions in real wages and increases to hours worked.

In April 1947 Thorez was forced to posture as a defender of 30 000 striking Renault workers, whom the Stalinists had initially tried to force back to work, when the SFIO came out in support of the striking employees.

As a mainstream correspondent noted:

[The] Renault strike is a revolt against wages policy and union leadership. The Communist-controlled Confederation of Labour [CGT] intervened on Tuesday with the aim of taking the strike under its control, but it became clear yesterday that the Communists felt they could only counter an attempt to outflank them by supporting the demands for wage increases.

Thorez and the other PCF figures were expelled from the government ministry.

With France threatened by ‘armed insurrection’ and ‘civil war’, the government was granted emergency powers. It duly invoked anti-strike and anti-sabotage measures to mobilize the armed forces, and in December 1947 the CGT ordered employees back to work.

The governing troika was succeeded by an anti-communist parliamentary alliance, as the following years saw a wave of strikes.

These were the formative circumstances greeting a generation of young French thinkers, born around 1930, as they graduated from lycée, khâgne and grande école. They would go on to be feted (and mischaracterized) as the clerks of la pensée 68:

Derrida (born in 1930), Foucault (1926), Lyotard (1924), Deleuze (1925), Baudrillard (1929), Sollers (1936), Irigaray (1932), Ricardou (1932), Wahl (1925), Thibaudeau (1932), de Certeau (1925), Genette (1930), Meschonnic (1932), Debord (1931) and Guattari (1930).

Derrida would later describe how ‘very difficult’ it had been for him, studying under Louis Althusser at the ENS during the early 1950s, ‘not to join the Party’, and thus ‘to be thought of only as a crypto-Communist or fellow traveller.’

When later, in 1971, Phillipe Sollers and Tel Quel broke finally from the PCF and embraced Maoism, the PCF’s La Nouvelle Critique and Les Lettres Françaises embraced Derrida, and he, with some ambivalence, reciprocated.

His contemporaries in the social sciences were just then forming the brilliant cadre of the Rockefeller-funded École des hautes études en sciences sociales:

Le Roy Ladurie (b. 1929), Le Goff (1924), Bourdieu (1930), Touraine (1925), Furet (1927), Nora (1931), Ferro (1924), Castel (1933), Morin (1921), Augé (1935), Lefort (1934) and Godelier (1934).

The thoroughgoing anti-communist purges that took place elsewhere following the ascent of Cold War liberalism did not occur in France until the mid-1970s, when the electoral alliance between PCF and SFIO made the Stalinists likely participants in a future government.

Until then, from roughly 1945 to 1975, the existence of an avowedly revolutionary socialist party with a mass base influenced French intellectual and creative matters to a remarkable extent.

The PCF funded daily newspapers, maintained literary reviews, served as chief patron for other publications, colleges and institutional entities, and held ‘progressive’ writers, scholars and artists within its orbit.

The PCF, through Georges Sadoul and trade unions, had played a major part in the Comité de Défense du Cinéma Français, which organized film-industry lobbying, strikes and demonstrations against the postwar Blum-Byrnes Agreement – mostly on grotesquely nationalist and anti-American grounds.

In 1948 state funding was secured for local film production. Thereafter funds were distributed by the Centre nationale du cinéma, in whose administration, led by Michel Fourré-Cormeray, PCF and CGT members exercised disproportionate influence if not the preponderance claimed by right-wing alarmists.

Though the early 1950s saw a purge of suspected PCF sympathizers from official positions, what Mary McCarthy had called the ‘Stalinist gravy train’ survived intact to a degree unknown elsewhere.

Meanwhile the comparative weakness, marginality and disorganization of French intellectual liberalism, represented by Raymond Aron, Jacques Rueff, Maurice Allais and Bertrand de Jouvenel, was striking.

The managerial elite and civil servants, trained at Sciences Po and the Ecole nationale d’Administration, were raised on a distinctly dirigiste ideological stew. This technocratic doxa was most appropriate for the reconstruction of a postwar society playing productivity catchup, in which the largest social class remained independent farmers and the technological frontier was patrolled by state-owned enterprises (energy and transport firms) and state-financed infrastructure projects (commercial banks and insurance companies had been nationalized).

To be sure, the CIA-financed Congress for Cultural Freedom had an influential local branch in the review Preuves. Atlanticism was favoured on the editorial pages of Le Figaro. French intellectuals, as distinct from businessmen, were well-represented in the Mont Pèlerin Society.

But the US State Department’s sway over cultural and intellectual life was limited as, backstopped by nuclear autonomy, De Gaulle kept France out of NATO integrated command. Aron and his anti-communist associates went through the necessary motions, but the PCF was tolerated, plainly presenting no genuine revolutionary threat.

Raymond Aron, Denis de Rougemont, Michael Josselson

Thus, during the Cold War, French thinkers offered a glamorous source of apparent dissent and free thinking to people elsewhere (especially US or West German academics) whose available outlets for radical political activity and cultural avant-gardism were few. (The enormous influence of Sartre on the thought and style of US cultural theorist Fredric Jameson, for example, has never been adequately emphasized.)

In such circumstances, the fact that people like Sartre and his epigones understood only a bowdlerized and travestied form of Marxism – never enlisting in the PCF but never being sure exactly why they didn’t – was of deep consequence.

The enormous postwar pretensions of French culture also rested, to be sure, on Paris’s traditional status as a global clearing house for literature and the visual arts. It remained a central site for discovery and diffusion of new talent if no longer for its production.

It also prospered thanks to various eminent refugees, imports and transfusions from the colonial empire and Francophone world. (This was one reason why the Congress for Cultural Freedom devoted so much of its efforts and funds to shifting the world’s art market from Paris to New York.)

But the political context mattered deeply. In France there flourished a kind of Popular Front culture, of the sort that in the United States did not survive the 1940s; and it allowed postwar French cinema, for example, together with that of Italy (home to the even stronger PCI), to resist the craning towards commercial mediocrity that characterized US and other entertainment products of this era.

Therefore André Malraux’s ballyhooed stint during the 1960s as De Gaulle’s Minister for Cultural Affairs coincided with a shift in the composition of French intellectual exports to the world.

The longstanding hierarchy of the beaux-arts, with letters at its apex, crumbled. Though Camus was awarded the Nobel in 1957 and Sartre famously rejected the prize in 1964, literature had lost its pre-eminent place in the cultural and media pantheon. It was replaced by an interdisciplinary social science, mixing linguistics and anthropology with philosophy, psychoanalysis, literary theory and radical politics.

In the world’s intellectual shelves and shop windows of the 1970s, France’s contribution would not be the defanged grandeur of Voltaire, Montaigne, Flaubert and the Louvre.

Instead, it would be gauchiste iconoclasm, marketed to a demographic bulge of college students and intellectuals in the advanced capitalist countries, who had been radicalized by imperialist war and the end of the long economic boom.


Assigned a prominent place in the intellectual marketplace, these radical-sounding but harmless notions – pumped out by assorted Maoists, crypto-Stalinists and anarchists – were shopped to a largely Anglophone New Left that had come to understand French produce as a guarantee of quality and the acme of political trenchancy.

Wahl, Sollers, Pleynet, Barthes

As previously mentioned, the avowed adherence to Marxism of many French intellectuals did not break until the mid-1970s.

Before it did, post-1968 reforms to French higher education granted secure academic positions to a cohort of younger intellectuals. Official approbation and media renown eased their dependence on Stalinist patronage for income, and eventually opened up wider vistas of career opportunity.

In the wake of the May-June évènements, the government established new campuses like the Centre Universitaire Expérimental de Vincennes, now University of Paris VIII.

According to François Dosse’s History of Structuralism, the new minister for education, Edgar Faure, approached Jean Dubois, linguist at Nanterre and ‘a PCF member known for his fair-mindedness’, to be dean of the new ‘experimental centre’.

Faure had declared before the National Assembly: ‘If those who claim to possess imagination have not seized power, it remains for power to seize imagination’. Dubois demurred at the official request, and Faure instead turned to Raymond Las Vergnas, dean and director of the Institut d’Anglais at the Sorbonne.

The latter contacted a young Hélène Cixous, along with other ‘left-leaning colleagues associated with the Institut d’Anglais (notably Bernard Cassen and Pierre Dommergues) who all knew and admired the American university system’:

In October 1968, he invited a commission of twenty well-known figures, including Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Pierre Vernant, Georges Canguilhem, and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, to discuss the orientation of the programs at Vincennes. A dozen of those present were quickly appointed to a central committee responsible for naming the academic staff…

Michel Foucault was in charge of hiring the teaching staff for philosophy; Jean-Pierre Richard was responsible in French literature; Jean Dubois, Jean-Claude Chevalier and Maurice Gross decided on the teaching staff in linguistics. The university included a department of linguistics, which was a real first, headed by Serge Leclaire, second in command in the Lacanian organization.

‘The grand project was to make Vincennes a small MIT, an American university, a model of modernity, an internationally known enclave with overtly interdisciplinary amibitions…

Here, especially among the linguists, flourished roseate visions of North American intellectual life, with MIT exemplifying a cutting-edge modernity worthy of emulation, envy and longing trans-Atlantic glances.

‘Faure loved the project, and Cixous’ group suddenly found themselves in charge of creating a new university out of thin air.’

PCF members at the Sorbonne such as the historian Guy Bois were apparently consulted, and decided to ‘throw their weight’ behind the Vincennes idea.

The recruits to Foucault’s philosophy department would be ‘structuralist-Maoist.’ Its leader had spent the 1950s and 1960s on friendly terms with Gaullism after a shortlived stint in the PCF. More recently, in Les Mots et les choses (1966), he had derided Marx as a minor Ricardian.

But, following his typically well-timed gauchiste pirouette, Foucault brought to his faculty the likes of Lyotard, Deleuze, Étienne Balibar, Alain Badiou and Daniel Bensaïd.

Deleuze, Sartre, Foucault at Vincennes

The linguistics and politics departments acquired eminences like Cixous, Tzvetan Todorov, Henri Meschonnic, Mitsou Ronat and Nicos Poulantzas.

The psychoanalytic school boasted Guattari and a nest of Lacanians: Jacques-Alain and Judith Miller, Gérard Miller and Jacques Rancière. All were formerly of Cahiers pour l’analyse; most were now part of the Maoist groupuscule Gauche Prolétarienne, which waged campus battles against Badiou’s tiny sect and other ‘Marxist-Leninist’ anti-revisionists.

Thus at Vincennes, and elsewhere, a flow of state funds and media promotion nurtured what may, at a stretch, be called an intellectual ‘research program’.

But (as later disputes over the label ‘post-structuralist’ would attest) members of this milieu were unified mostly by their allegiance to ‘radical’ or New Left ideology. For all its revolutionary phraseology, the latter had proved during May-June 1968 that it presented no threat to the French state and the existing social order, nor to the Stalinist leadership of the PCF and CGT.

Official indulgence and the seal of academic respectability were thus granted costlessly. This concession of institutional territory and prestige to stars of the  intellectual New Left (whose members favoured Gramscian rhetoric about ‘wars of position’) soon brought rewards for the forces of order.

Bensaïd Krivine 1969

In July 1972 the PCF, shifting to ‘Eurocommunist’ parliamentarism, announced a Common Program with the Parti socialiste. This electoral union, raising the likely prospect of renewed Stalinist participation in government, immediately provoked anti-communist hysteria throughout the organs of public opinion.

Amid stagflation and geopolitical disorder, the party’s usefulness had abruptly been exhausted.

As France’s unique postwar compromise was finally erased, the responsibility for pronouncing obloquies of socialism fell to writers and academic ‘radicals’ who until recently had been members or enthusiasts of avowedly Marxist organizations.

In the literary world, the occasion for this thoroughgoing anti-Marxist upheaval among intellectuals was the translation of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. This 1974 publication became the pretext for an explosion of commentary concerning ‘totalitarianism’ and its political roots, and to the widespread abandonment of old commitments.

The arrival to media fanfare of the Nouveaux philosophes smoothed the scholarly ascent, in the person of François Furet, of revisionist histories of the Jacobin Terror.

Suddenly French intellectuals underwent a transformation that their counterparts in other countries had experienced during the late 1940s: the enthusiasm for Dostoevsky, the turn to Zionism and Atlanticism, and various antiquarian rediscoveries and revivals (in France, of Tocqueville, Constant and Guizot as weighty political thinkers).

As described above, Bellow’s cohort of New York intellectuals (Hook, Podhoretz, Kristol, etc.) had undergone just such a postwar conversion to Zionism, market liberalism, State Department cheerleading and full-blown reaction.

In 1970s France, at the forefront of these efforts to reconquer old territory was Claude Lefort, the former contributor to Les Temps modernes, and his old ally in the third-campist outfit Socialisme ou barbarie, Jean-François Lyotard.

In Instructions païennes (1977), Lyotard invoked Solzhenitsyn as an example of how ‘little narratives’ (stories from the prison camps) could defeat ‘master narratives’ such as ‘le grand récit marxiste‘.

Daniel Bell’s ‘end of ideology’, for which Raymond Aron had tried forlornly to gain a French audience during the 1950s, finally found a belated echo in Lyotard’s declarations of the death of ‘metanarratives’ and renunciation of ‘the desire called Marx’.

Time September 1977 - Nouveaux Philosophes

Marcel Gauchet, another former Socialisme ou barbarie philosopher, would soon found the influential centre-right journal Le Débat, bringing liberalism to the centre of national ideological life.

Together with the Saint-Simon Foundation, a think tank co-founded by Furet, Le Débat sponsored a vision of NATO Atlanticism as France’s natural external posture

Claude Lanzmann, another member of the Sartre-Beauvoir ‘family’ at Les Temps modernes, would achieve international renown by directing the film Shoah, on which he commenced work in 1974 at the invitation of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. (Lanzmann elevated Primo Levi’s ‘Hier ist kein warum‘ from the motto of a camp guard to a general prohibition applying to treatment of the Judeocide, declaring the ‘obscenity’ of seeking to understand the calamitous event.)

The temper was such that Furet could rapidly ascend to the summit of domestic intellectual life, wrangle a measure of international fame and win a position in Bellow’s Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.

That the revelation of crimes by the Soviet bureaucracy involved such world-shattering novelty and induced such demoralization in French littérateurs of the 1970s testifies to their own wilful preservation of ignorance (and to France’s still rather monoglot intellectual layer, who apparently formed their own sturdy Maginot Line against the intrusion of ideas common abroad). There was, of course, much cynicism in these exclamations of shock and betrayal.

But the disorientation was genuine, and that fact is incomprehensible without noting the decades-long hold of Stalinism and the PCF over France’s ‘left’ intellectuals, both within the party and outside.

Of course, as decades of the Fourth and Fifth Republic passed, the PCF’s radical appeal had sharply subsided thanks to its support for the colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria and its opposition to the ‘spontaneism’ of 1968.

Thus the increasing popularity during the 1960s of other avowedly socialist groups or perspectives. Yet, though critical to varying degrees of what uniformly was described as a ‘hidebound’ PCF, these organizations or networks taught members little principled opposition to nationalism and Stalinism.

While deploring the PCF’s policy or outlook on this or that matter, most continued to nurse hopes in the party’s revitalization, and would re-establish contact at intervals and then periodically feel let down by it. These groups displayed scanty historical or political understanding of the Soviet Union, China, Algeria, Vietnam and other societies; and the ‘anti-Stalinist’ scene was characterized by a curious circulation of members back and forth between different groups labelled Communist, Marxist-Leninist, state capitalist, Guevarist or Trotskyist.

Emblematic figures were people like Pierre Frank or Alain Krivine, for whom the PCF retained a lifelong attraction. 

The collapse of French Stalinism alongside the Kremlin bureaucracy’s embrace of capitalism thus led to a rush for the exits during the 1980s. Territory was abandoned and the vacuum was filled by Pierres Nora and Rosanvallon, etc.

During the 1980s ‘left’ intellectuals universally accepted, as sufficient excuse to despatch Marxism and make a complete break with socialism, arguments that were astonishingly feeble and uncompelling.

Mass ideological conversions of this sort may be explained by material incentives, herd behaviour and the lure of social advancement (as in McCarthy’s description of ‘success-minded’ intellectuals).

But similar explanations may also apply in retrospect. The ultimately flimsy adherence to socialism of many French intellectuals, the shallowness of declared commitments revealed in a sudden cascade of apostates during the 1970s and 1980s, suggests the confused and corrupted – if not wholly cynical and ersatz – character of much intellectual Marxism during the 1950s and 1960s.

Perry Anderson has described the ‘extraordinary vitality’ of French culture during the Fourth and early Fifth Republics, comparing its ‘full flowering of the intellectual energies’ to today, when figures like Bernard-Henri Lévy’s have a ‘bizarre prominence’:

It would be difficult to imagine a more extraordinary reversal of national standards of taste and intelligence than the attention accorded this crass booby in France’s public sphere, despite innumerable demonstrations of his inability to get a fact or an idea straight. Could such a grotesque flourish in any other major Western culture today?

This assessment of the earlier period may itself be explained by the tastes of Anderson’s own New Left Review.

The journal’s editorial line has always displayed an ambivalence about Stalinism and nationalism; and during the late 1960s and 1970s the NLR enthused over Althusser and the ‘student movement’, provided fascinated attention for the latest academic fashion, and served as a platform for the ambitious to reach an Anglophone audience and its related perks: a visiting position at a US university, lecture and publishing opportunities, media attention.

Paris’s transformation during the late 1970s into a global ‘capital of intellectual reaction’, alongside Chicago, was not a simple annulment of all that came before. The counter-revolution in thought had been prepared for decades, and the most vicious reprisals accompanying the return of the old regime were performed by those who had hitherto been the most enthusiastic cadre for the existing order.

The source of the later deluge was France’s national anomaly during the 1950s and 1960s: a singularly fortunate reprieve from Cold War strictures that, elsewhere throughout the advanced capitalist world, scrubbed any trace of socialist ideas from respectable public discourse and eliminated Stalinist influence in trade unions and state agencies.

This local respite, given world conditions, provided an institutional setting for the survival and growth of intellectual carpetbaggers and parasites, feeding off the apparatus of Stalinism. Here was the heartland of so-called Western Marxism.

Anti-socialist tropes that found early expression elsewhere (c.f. the New York intellectuals once again) were thus postponed in France, only to assume more toxically inane forms when they did finally emerge.

These historical circumstances, rather than any peculiar national talent for obscurantism, account for France’s competitive advantage in the production and intellectual export of theoretical dross during the 1970s (in any case, import substitution quickly took over and the industry migrated to North America).

Who knows Marxism and its flaws better than the seers at Vincennes, the Sorbonne, the rue d’Ulm? people could say with a straight face during this period.

Thus Lévy’s nomination of Sartre as a personal hero and the ‘philosopher of the twentieth century’ is not merely the grotesque and undignified appropriation of intellectual credibility that is usually claimed. Sartre – lacking professional competence as a philosopher, novelist, playwright and political theorist – nonetheless became world-famous in each of these fields.

Was he not in this sense the forerunner of BHL, Glucksmann, Finkielkraut and Bruckner?

Sartre Glucksmann Aron


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3 Responses to “Les quarante-huitards? Postmodernism and French Stalinism”

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