A Walking Nexus

David Widgery, Against Miserabilism: Writings 1968 – 1992

Vagabond Voices, 314pp, £14.95, ISBN 9781908251862

reviewed by Matt Myers

David Widgery was many things. He was a writer, a doctor, a father, a socialist – as the essays in Against Miserabilism ably show. But what is more, Widgery was a man who offered his considerable talents to the service of others; his life found meaning in the common struggle for a most just and humane society. As he wrote in the preface to Preserving Disorder in 1989, the last collection of his essays to be published: ‘I’m glad I heard Hendrix live but gladder to have marched with the dockers to the gates of Pentonville Prison.’ For Widgery, no individual experience could compare to the beauty present in a moment of collective liberation. Against Miserabilism, as its editors explain, is an attempt to transmit his energy and optimism to future generations.

Editors Juliet Ash, Nigel Fountain, and David Renton have chosen 38 of Widgery’s essays – 13 of which are republished from the Preserving Disorder collection. Against Miserabilism follows Widgery’s previous books, including his collage of left-history, The Left in Britain 1956-68 (1976), his account of Rock Against Racism, Beating Time (1986), his book of assorted quotes and aphorisms co-written with Michael Rosen, The Chatto Book of Dissent (1991), and probably his most famous, Some Lives!: A GP's East End (1991), an extraordinary work recounting his life as a doctor.

By splitting the book into seven sections – ‘Politics’, ‘Health’, ‘On Black Cultural Politics’, ‘Arts’, ‘Personal Politics’, ‘Miscellany’, and ‘End’ – the editors have attempted to structure Widgery’s work into thematic compartments rather than chronological sequence. Each section is introduced by a short essay by one of Widgery’s friends, colleagues, or family. Widgery’s breadth ability shines through in essays like ‘What is Racism’, ‘Why Do Lovers Break Each Other’s Hearts?’ and ‘When Harrods is Looted’. Ahead of his time, his articles exhort the left to see the struggles of gay liberation, second wave feminism, and black radical politics as their own. It’s unfortunate that certain of Widgery’s articles didn’t make the final cut, especially his 10-year balance sheet of ’68, ‘Ten Years for Pandora’ (1978). The book’s title refers to a phrase from an ‘Unpublished biographical piece’ from 1984, quoted by Juliet Ash – Widgery’s widow – in the introduction. After lamenting the changed political climate of the 1980s, Widgery corrects himself: ‘but I’m very against miserabilism.’ Yet as much as the theme of optimism is stressed in the introductory essays, Widgery’s tragic death in 1992 still hangs over the book.

The editors of the collection wish to make Widgery’s work relevant – as the book’s dedication reads – ‘to the youth of today and tomorrow.’ However the transmission of experiences across generations is a harder proposition than it seems. In the attempt to connect old and new generations, one hopes to avoid the fate of Giulio Manieri in the 1972 film St. Michael Had a Rooster; Manieri, the 19th-century revolutionary – exiled for a decade for his beliefs – returns to activity only to find the politics which had sustained him during his ordeal are now irrelevant and quixotic to the new generation of militants. The difficulty of transmission lies in both the hopes and the defeats of the generation of ’68, as well as the inability to relive them.

‘In so far as any one person can’, Anthony Barnett writes in one of Against Miserabilism’s introductory essays, David Widgery ‘embodied the revolution attempted in Britain in the sixties that my generation fought and lost.’ Widgery was a walking nexus where the 1960s cultural revolution met a libertarian-tinged Marxism reborn after ’68. The contradictions of the times he lived impressed themselves on Widgery’s life even as he tried to transform them. In the 1970s, Ernst Mandel talked of the three converging ‘sectors’ of world revolution: third world revolution, anti-bureaucratic revolts in the countries of actually-existing socialism and the burgeoning workers’ movement of western world. But by the late 1970s, the political moment which had shaped Widgery, like thousands of others, had stalled. As Widgery wrote in a 1979 essay in Time Out (‘Whatever Did Happen to the Revolution? Memoirs of an Inner-City Marxist’):

‘It is a decade on from the Tet Offensive and the heady days when 1000,000 marched in London in solidarity with the Viet Cong. Ten years since Danny Cohn-Bendit’s infectious grin and Alexander Dubček’s wan smile seemed to be signalling, from Paris and Prague, new revolutionary possibilities. Only ten years ago since Bernadette Devlin and the young civil rights campaigners first raised their banners on the Bogside. And only five since a Tory government, hell-bent on high unemployment and stern wage restraint, was overthrown by wave after wave of industrial action – by builders and dockers, engineers and miners – on a scale which hadn’t been seen since the days of the General Strike. Revolution did seem in the air, somewhere. “Now what have we got?” inquires Sham 69’s Jimmy Pursey of his motley followers. “Fuck-all” we roar in self-mocking delight.’

The three ‘sectors’ structured the imagination of Widgery’s generation; for the youth of today and tomorrow, they are no more. The anti-colonial revolutions of the Third World lost their vigour; the collapse of the USSR also sunk those who wagered on its reform; the working class of the western world was neutered by deindustrialisation and the rise of neoliberalism. Reading Widgery’s essays, it is hard not to feel that their subjects and controversies feel different. The imagined interlocutor of his polemics was a working class labour movement which today seems chimerical and immaterial, while the stakes of the arguments have changed. It is to this imagined subject which Widgery exhorts support for gay liberation, ‘not [as] a question of moralism but one of class solidarity. For a male worker who sneers at queers, just like one who talks of niggers and slags, is finally only sneering at himself and his class.’ The working class which so excites Widgery in ‘The Pilkington Strike’ – self-confident, articulate, dignified, and self-organised – appears foreign to 21st-century eyes accustomed to minuscule levels of industrial struggle.

What, then, would Widgery have made of the new generations transforming politics in Britain today? And what would they make of him? Since 2010 we have seen an explosive student movement, innovative uses of social media as a tool of propaganda (Widgery once called for ‘Post-electronic Leninism’), and small but important victories of workers in the gig-economy – all which would have given him resources of hope. Though what he would have thought of all the hundreds of thousands of young people joining the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn – the same party against which Widgery had defined his politics – is another matter. Would he lecture and lament, berating young people for not having learnt the lesson of putting faith in the party of the Social Contract? It seems unlikely. As Widgery showed in his involvement in the creation of Rock Against Racism (RAR), the important thing is to relate to where people are, not where you would like them to be. As Widgery wrote in a letter criticising the patronising attitude of his party’s press to the youth of RAR:

‘Atrocious articles on Carnival. Mr Calico Nickers wants to harness and channel the energy of “Youth” who have ten times more idea of what's going down than your pretty average Marxist Editor . . . Working class kids NOW are political and fun without having to make five minute speeches to prove it.’

RAR was the confluence of cultural subversion and mass politics – Widgery’s greatest achievement. With RAR, political activists had created a space where the creativity and energy of the marginalised could bloom into a powerful movement without being brow-beaten. It worked. At Widgery’s memorial, Paul Foot recounts the praise of Darcus Howe. Howe said he had fathered five children whilst in Britain. The first four had grown up angry, fighting forever against the racism all round them. The fifth child, he said, had grown up ‘black in ease’. He attributed her ‘space’ to the Anti-Nazi League in general and to David Widgery in particular.

Yet if Widgery’s life and work are to remain relevant to future generations, his personal ethic will be the guiding thread between past and present, not his organisational commitments or political positions. In a beautiful introductory piece from the book, Michael Rosen recalls a speech Widgery gave at a LSE student occupation in 1968:

‘. . . he ended by urging us all to be positive: we could win. The point was – and still is – there are things worth fighting for, and if you get your tactics right, you get the support and you can win. In my many chats with him later, something else emerged: that doing these things is what makes life possible.’

Widgery’s radical humanism, loaned permanently to revolutionary socialism, saw radicalism – in the words of Raymond Williams – as making ‘hope possible, rather than despair convincing.’ If future readers should take anything from Widgery’s life and work, it is its call to live one’s life in the service of others, to live for their liberation; it asks us to dare to hope and dare to act – but without illusions.