Chris Harman


The right medicine

(December 1989)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.126, December 1989, p.30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Preserving disorder
David Widgery

THIS SELECTION of Dave Widgery’s articles, written over the last 20 years, includes the politics of rock music, arguments within the cultural underground of the early 1970s, the politics of sexuality and accounts of strikes.

Motivating them all is a deeply felt commitment to revolutionary socialism.

This commitment can give his writing a rare combination of sharpness of analysis, bitterness at the system, and enthusiasm in the ability of people to challenge it. The pieces on John Lennon, Bessie Smith and Billie Holliday, on Mayakovsky, on doctoring (he is a GP in east London) are all gems. He is one of those writers who can on occasions produce a phrase which encapsulates a whole complex political argument – as when he writes (in 1968), “the hippies are about as much threat to the state as people who put foreign coins in gas meters”.

He does not, of course, always get the combination right. As with every non-academic Marxist, bitterness at the system sometimes intrudes on the analysis of where it is going, and, less often, the pessimism of an analysis neuters the enthusiasm.

His main failing, however, is a certain tendency to allow the enthusiasm to run away with itself. Sometimes this is simply a stylistic flourish, as when he asserts in an excellent piece on the later Norman Mailer, of his “discovering ... the memories of sex almost before birth.”

On other occasions it intrudes seriously on the judgments he makes, as when he writes of Sylvia Pankhurst as if she was in the same league as Rosa Luxemburg or of C.L.R. James as if he bore comparison with Trotsky.

The judgements are particularly askew in some of the pieces he wrote in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the sudden rash of defeats for the working class movement led many activists to put too much faith in movements outside the class.

Healthy enthusiasm for struggle easily turned into an unhealthy counterposing of the young, the new and the “non-verbal” to stereotypes of old style socialists as dogmatic and of the traditional working class as all male, all cloth caps and whippets.

There is a softness in Dave’s treatment at the time for ideas of counter-cultural and personal politics which stands in complete contrast to his own hardness over these matters in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

For a time he exulted in “the new” with talk of “post-electronic Leninism”. It was not so long before many who exulted with him had moved on to other “posts” – post-Marxism Marxism, post-Modernism, post-structuralism, post-Fordism ... post-thinking.

Yet in the later essays there is a return to the stress on class, on the harshness of much working class life, on the merits of serious socialist analysis and hard political commitment. He points, in a positive appreciation of the underground press and alternative movements of the 1960s and early 1970s, to their fundamental failings:

“The women’s movement was not homogeneous, contained virtuosos of self regard and often adopted ’pro-woman’ positions which, bereft of class analysis, became openly right wing ... The underground press ... was interested in changing attitudes but put a lot of emphasis on being just that bit more hip than the masses, a chic elitism.

“But in the 1970s attitudes were taking social forms ... A dissenting journalism which reflected and expressed that much bigger social movement would have to alter its own attitudes, to overcome its habitual metropolitan bias, its disdain for the ordinary Alfs (as Oz – an underground magazine – called them) and its reverence for the insights of stoned stars ... Far from storming the reality studios, some of the writers were having increasing difficulty in opening the toilet doors.”

There are a few things I disagree with even in the later articles. But the post-Marxists, post-Modernists and post-Fordists will not simply disagree with odd items, but hate the whole lot. And it’s difficult to think of a better commendation for any book.

Last updated on 7 May 2010