2018 : Review of David Widgery, Against Miserabilism
Originally commissioned by Revolutionary History, but not yet published.
David Widgery,Against Miserabilism : Writings 1968-1992 (edited by Juliet Ash, Nigel Fountain & David Renton), Vagabond Voices, Glasgow, 2017, xiv + 299pp, £14.95.
David Widgery was one of the most outstanding socialist activists of the 1968 generation. He was deeply involved in opposing health service cuts and hospital closures – for example as chair of the Keep Bethnal Green Hospital Campaign. He played a part in the reopening of the Hackney Empire, and above all was a key figure in Rock Against Racism, which preceded and inspired the Anti-Nazi League and which, arguably, was one of the few interventions by the revolutionary left which actually changed the course of mainstream politics. (There was nothing inherent in British society or the British character which meant that the far right could not take off as it did in so many parts of Europe.)
He died, unexpectedly, at the appallingly early age of forty-five (I had seen him only a few weeks before, eagerly collecting material for a volume of the writings of another fine writer who died too soon, Peter Sedgwick). Throughout his adult life he was a doctor, working, by choice, in a highly unprivileged area, London’s East End. The job, as he described it, was hard and often gruesome – he noted after twenty-four hours in a Casualty department, “it is almost impossible to imagine quite the things that can fall upon, hit, crush and cut the human body”.
He was also a remarkable writer. When one considers the other pressures on his time, the surprising thing is not that he wrote well but that he wrote at all. Yet as this anthology shows his writing keeps its power decades on – he was often insightful, sometimes angry, sometimes funny and deeply serious at the same time. He had a huge range of cultural references; on one page he is quoting Blake and Dickens, on the next Clash lyrics. He read, and wrote, very fast. Often he relied on memory and didn’t check details; he left it to his editors to correct his spelling. But when one looks at what he achieved, one is almost ashamed of being able to spell. When I look at the dreary acreage of tedious clichés that now constitute Socialist Worker, I find it hard to remember that this paper once counted among its contributors Paul Foot, Peter Sedgwick, Eamonn McCann and…. David Widgery.
The present anthology gives a good reflection of the breadth of his work. There are substantial and informative studies of James Baldwin, Sylvia Pankhurst, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, and a lot of rather slighter journalism. And there is the almost unreadably sad “Meeting Molly”, the story of his first daughter who died after only a few weeks of life. Some of the material appeared in the collection Preserving Disorder in 1989, or is on the Marxists Internet Archive, but quite a bit is new. It seems everyone on the team that produced the book wanted to write the introduction – so rather than fight it out, everyone did. The book has a Preface and an Introduction, and each of the seven sections has an introduction. Fortunately these are short and not intrusive; they show what a wide range of lives were touched by Widgery.
Widgery wrote of and for his time. Yet he was not trapped in the present and there is plenty here that will reach a new generation of readers. The editors have carefully – but occasionally inaccurately – footnoted references to books and television programmes. But politicians are left unexplained. Another David – David Ennals – gets a couple of name-checks here. I had to go to Wikipedia to find out that this totally forgotten figure was Secretary of State for Social Services. But David Widgery is still read and remembered.
Alongside everything else, Widgery was a member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP – before 1977 the International Socialists – IS) throughout his adult life, from 1967 to 1992. Sometimes his non-party friends seem a bit puzzled by this. Nigel Fountain, also briefly an IS member, says that IS “at its fleeting best, was a rarity: a relatively open, argumentative Marxist grouping”. But Widgery stayed much longer, through various turns, twists and splits. How long he would have remained if he had lived is impossible to say, though I can well imagine him taunting those purists who refused to take the gamble of working with George Galloway.
Certainly it was not naïvety – after all his first book had been The Left in Britain 1956-68, which is still (if you can find a copy) an invaluable guide to the minutiae of the far left. Widgery knew all that stuff about the Korean War and Pabloite revisionism – knew it far better than many SWP members. His decision to remain was a conscious recognition of the need for socialist organisation. He wrote of CLR James that his “excellence is because of his political vantage point, not despite it.” Likewise Widgery’s merits were because of his SWP membership, not despite it.
Not that the relationship was free of friction. When Widgery died, the SWP held a memorial meeting at the LSE, preceding the much larger event at the Hackney Empire. It was a clear case of the party claiming the corpse, and in death he acquired a slightly sanctified status that he had never had in life. Earlier his unorthodoxies had seemed a bit of a nuisance; comrades, very unfairly, would quote Lenin’s letter to Gorky: “The saints preserve us from comrade-doctors in general, and Bolshevik-doctors in particular!” In the 1980s there was a turn back to “hard politics” after the ANL period – one Central Committee member told me the ANL was no more than a pimple on the arse of history. Widgery was now neglected – an occasional meeting at Marxism, a few articles in the party press, but his talents were terribly underused. I myself wrote a party-line polemic against his book Beating Time.
And as this volume makes clear, Widgery had reservations too. In 1979 he wrote (in Time Out) “new definitions of socialism are needed …. Such definitions are unlikely to be possessed in toto by any one party, group or creed”. Few of us would have put it so bluntly in those days of “party building”. In a generous account of Sartre’s politics he noted, perhaps enviously, that he was not committed to “the comfortable platitudes of party and dogma”. And he lamented the attitude of a comrade who commented on a demonstration “It’s a pity the women are so backward” because “he had discovered a hokey-cokey formation dance team of NUPE Manchester cleaners shrieking ‘Make love not war’ instead of the politically correct but emotionally bald chant of £60, thirty-five hours.” I strongly suspect the comrade in question was a fellow-SWP member.
Widgery believed in dialogue. He wanted all those in revolt against the system to work together and learn from each other. Hence he wanted to talk to hippies in the sixties, punks in the seventies. But in the last resort he was always clear which side he was on, and he could be firm without needing to quote Lenin; thus he concluded “the hippies in Britain are about as much of a threat to the state as people who put foreign coins in gas meters”.
Likewise, he was more sensitive to questions of race and gender than many of his contemporaries. Presciently he warned that “a modern revolutionary party unable to come to terms with feminism and the gay movement is storing up trouble for itself”. But in his essay on Billie Holiday he insisted “race was always wound up with money”.
On the gay question IS was, in Widgery’s words, “a little slow off the mark”. In the early seventies, when the IS National Committee was debating the party programme, Widgery’s was the only vote in favour of including a section on gay oppression. (I was there and voted the wrong way.) He got no thanks and was not re-elected to the National Committee. Four years later the line changed.
There is no false optimism in Widgery. In 1979 the SWP acknowledged that there had been a “downturn” in struggle. Some of the bleak pieces collected here show that Widgery had noticed it rather earlier. In a Time Out article from 1979 he noted that “The SWP has now in fact nearly 4400 members, roughly twice the figure of 1974. But their standing in the labour movement and their experience on the left has probably declined in those years.” Sometimes one senses a frustration that has become almost unbearable. As schoolchildren were gunned down in South Africa, he lamented “Week after week for nearly eighteen months until there are over 1200 officially reported dead. And we march to Trafalgar Square one Sunday and think we’ve done something.”
Yet the book closes with a fanciful piece from the Guardian in 1991, in which Widgery, not realising he would not live to see it, imagined looking back from the Millennium at a decade in which revolution had spread across the world. In Britain “the real damage was done by the Swuppies, an elite cadre of City dwellers who had joined the SWP and spent their time sabotaging what was left of the international stock market by making bogus loans and siphoning payments into workers groups.”
A pleasing fantasy. But elsewhere in the book there are grounds for hope amid the gloom – repeated resistance, the gradual breaking down of sexist and racist oppression, the values of human solidarity embodied in the National Health Service. There is still much to be learnt from Widgery, and the editors of this volume deserve our thanks for making these writings available.