A report from the Laurie Penny vs. AWL debate on 27th Jan 2011 in central London
“If you have come to see a bloodbath, you’re in the wrong place”, announced Alliance for Workers Liberty member Ed Maltby. No worries Ed, I didn’t expect that. After all, various far left groups have been virtually falling over themselves to appease the influential young journalist Laurie Penny, who in a notorious article likened Socialist Worker sellers to cockroaches.
Penny, whose articles and columns in the Guardian and New Statesman are read by tens of thousands, represents those who – consciously or not – resurrect the ideas of the 1968 generation and present them as new. Informal structures, informal leaders, spontaneity, the whole shebang . Everybody who poses the question of power is ‘old left’ and best avoided. In fact, the very notion of thinking before you act is virtually totalitarian, not to mention passé.
But you know what? They were probably right to seek dialogue with her. Much as Laurie Penny indecisively bounces from one position to another while essentially suffering from what a comrade tagged “primal anarchism”, the past months have seen her evolve. She might refer to herself as an anarchist without knowing a great deal about anarchism, but, at least at this meeting, she says that she has come around to recognise the “need and use for a vanguard party in Lenin’s sense.”
Understandably, she is still annoyed at the Socialist Workers Party’s being “all over everything like a bad rash, trying to brand all that moves with the SWP name and control it”. But she claims she is no longer opposed to the hard Marxist left per se, regarding “everybody in this room as comrades”. Almost touchingly, she now expresses regret about her inflammatory article.
Laurie Penny appears angsty, confused, and alienated – not at all the snooty, ‘trendy left’ poseur that I expected. When she unthinkingly castigates Marxists for being “white men quoting other white men”, she might be parroting the most vacuous clichés that identity politics have to offer. But she does not do so calculatedly. It is simply because at this point, she cannot yet imagine that those “great white men” had no interest in defending white male privilege whatsoever – quite the contrary.
There are those who are disproportionally upset about being called a “cunt” by Penny – which, as far as I’m aware, happened in good humour. But if Penny is as genuine and committed to revolutionary politics as she appears tonight, we might well witness a change of tune in her future articles – at least to the extent that her paymasters let her.
Ed Maltby’s dry-as-dust introduction to Leninism might not have set Laurie’s world on fire, but his elaborations on internal party democracy, open debate, and the duty to criticise were certainly helpful to her. At times, we heard little devil versions of ourselves whisper in our ears: “Remember when the AWL expected David Broder to engage in Maoist styled public self-humiliation?” But hey – sometimes even we are capable of biting our tongues for the greater good.