Friday, 30 January 1987


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 30 January 1987

The left and alternative press does not, of course, consist of just the magazines and newspapers you can pick up (if you're lucky) in major branches of W. H.
Smith and John Menzies — Tribune, the New Statesman, Marxism Today, New Socialist, the Morning Star, Spare Rib, Sanity and so on. There are also hundreds of left and alternative periodicals that never make it on to Smith's or Menzies' shelves.

The main reason they don't is that the aim of the big newsagents (who dominate the wholesale trade as well as retailing) is maximising profit. They're prepared to take left and alternative titles only if they believe they will sell enough to warrant giving them shelf space and doing all the paperwork — and they won't take even the tiniest risk of prosecution for libel or obscenity.

You can't really blame the big newsagents for acting like this: they're capitalist firms, after all. But the result of their (rational) behaviour is that many excellent publications can be bought only on subscription or from left bookshops, which have been dwindling in number for a decade. And this means that such publications sell far fewer than they could, which means less revenue from sales and advertising, which means less money to spend on promotion, which means fewer sales — a vicious circle that traps much of the left press on the brink of bankruptcy and impoverishes political debate.

Which is not to say that distribution is the only problem facing the left press: even titles that are widely available are typically short of cash, paying lousy rates to contributors (if they pay at all) and stuck for advertising revenue. Then there's the recurrent problem of bad management, and the fact that many left and alternative periodicals are too specialist for a general readership: excellent as they are, I can't see Labour Focus on Eastern Europe or Radical Philosopy selling 40,000 copies per issue in the near future.

Finally, much of the left and alternative press is so boring and badly written that sales would not improve even with distribution to every newsagent's shop in the country: most of the agitational papers produced by the Trotskyist sects fall into this category.

Nevertheless, distribution is a major obstacle for many left periodicals. And it's one that could be removed easily by an enlightened government — by legislating a right to distribution, whereby any periodical registered as political with a circulation of more than, say, 3,000 would be guaranteed availability in at least one shop in every town with a population of more than, say, 20,000.

Right to distribution schemes are not a new idea: they were instituted in many continental European countries after the war as a means of ensuring that the press would remain healthily pluralistic. They mean, of course, that some right-wing publications, including racist and fascist ones, benefit — which is one reason that right to distribution has not found much favour among the British left. In my view, however, that's a price worth paying for relaxing the censorship imposed by unmitiaged market forces and revitalising the ailing political public sphere. Any takers?

Friday, 16 January 1987


Paul Anderson, review of Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan by Olivier Roy (Cambridge, £9.95), Tribune, 16 January 1987

Olivier Roy's Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan is not an easy read. This is partly because of the complexity of its subject – the social roots and politics of the resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. But it is as much the result of some clumsy translation (from the French) and poor editing. The book is haphazardly structured and contains no maps, and its chronology of recent Afghan history is inadequate.

Nevertheless, the work Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan demands of the reader is worthwhile. The book can only help to de-mystify a movement that for too long has either been ignored or misunderstood in the west.

Roy puts the resistance into its many contexts: the cultural differences between town and country, the deep-rooted antagonism to the state felt by the Afghan peasantry, the importance of tribal allegiances, the arrogant incompetence and brutality of the communist reforms of the late 1970s, the complex and changing roles of Islam (not least as a system of common law) in everyday life. Against this complex background, he charts the fortunes of the different factions and parties of the resistance, examines the impact of the war on rural society, and discusses the military strengths and weaknesses of the resistance forces.

Roy's sympathies are clearly with the resistance fighters, with whom he has spent many months. Perhaps because of this, he skips lightly over the issue of aid to the resistance from the US and its allies: for Roy, the resistance is "organised by poor people in a war waged by poor people", and aid from outside Afghanistan has had only a negligible impact upon the equipment and training of the guerrilla fighters. He might be right – corruption, incompetence and the sheer difficulty of getting arms into Afghanistan could well have conspired to minimise the effect of US and other aid. I don't know. But whatever the truth in this particular matter, Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan deserves a wide readership. It's a path-breaking study.