Peter Sedgwick

What chance for the big man’s widow?

(23 December 1972)

From Socialist Worker, 23 December 1972, p.9.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

THE PERSONAL LIVES of socialists are often hard to uncover – only recently has it become common knowledge that Karl Marx and Lenchen (the comrade, home-help and friend of the family) produced an illicit son right in the midst of a heavy domestic scene already encumbered by debt, politics and the usual miseries.

But, once uncovered, the private cares of the activist may reveal chasms of blackness or further enigma. Aneurin Bevan, for example, apparently left no personal material in writing that would record for other eyes any early intrigues or tentative tryings-out, whether of a political or a romantic nature.

‘Nye was fond of saying in those days he would give no hostages to fortune,’ reports his widow, Baroness Jennie Lee, in an interview with The Observer. How seriously a person must take himself to safeguard his reputation against enemies and posterity. Nye Bevan actually believed that his own rise into parliamentary power represented the advance of the working class.

Jennie Lee’s remarks on My Life with Nye are perhaps one more subtle blow directed against the institution of marriage. Despite its exceptional liberality, with months-long separations on political business ending without those prying questions being asked, the Bevan monogamy was achieved at the expense of the wife’s development.

‘What was most important was that I came to care more for Nye’s happiness than my own. I had to learn to do that.’ And this without the alibi of child-rearing.

In a male-dominated world, where interviewers and job-selectors are much more interested in the dead husband than in the living Woman, the exuberant Jennie Lee – so careful always to keep that separate surname – can find only two possible full-time occupations: that of Baroness and that of widow.

Dredged out for occasional viewing at Labour Party conferences to bestow a Bevanite benediction on right-wing policies, Lee has become the parlour pink’s substitute for the Queen Mother. And in her prime of vitality she must have been as productive and as independent as any woman liberationist of nowadays. It remains to be seen whether the coming decades are any more tolerant of the strong-minded female than our previous masculine millenia have been.

THE LATEST NEWS from the Black Panthers (USA) confirms their rumoured tendency towards small-scale do-gooding. The party has sponsored 35,000 tests for sickle-cell anaemia among West Coast blacks, Bobby Seale goes around lecturing the churches, and there is now this escort programme (SAFE – Seniors Against a Fearful Environment) whereby Panther militants drive old people from home to bank their welfare cheques without running the risk of being mugged on the way.

Is this co-optation in the system or the groundwork for some creative revolutionary politics? For the moment it’s neither.

Any revolutionary organisation worth its salt has to push for whatever gains can be got out of this bloody social order and must identify itself with all sections of the oppressed.

But, in the outcome, do-gooding will remain do-gooding, a liberalism of the left, unless two conditions are fulfilled.

Firstly, the active work of the militants must enable the less militant to organise themselves. The activist can launch, impel, stimulate: he cannot carry the campaign.

And much of the Panthers’ work will leave the initiative where it began – with the party members, transformed from revolutionary leaders into individual community notables.

Secondly, campaign work on separate local issues must be situated within an overall picture of the transition of socialism which has some fields as priorities over others: the main priority being the working class in industry. The Panthers never had priorities.

The system can get you so much on the run that you never have time to work out what you should be doing. If you let it do that much to you.

Peter Sedgwick


Last updated on 25.11.2004