Bob Light

David Widgery:
The human face of revolution

(November 1992)

From Socialist Review 158, November 1992, p. 24.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Founder of a revolutionary student federation in the 1960s; editor of Oz when the state banged up its editors; writer of columns and books; moving spirit in Rock Against Racism; and a GP in Limehouse. David Widgery had some life.

All that has been catalogued in the obituaries, but it does not really capture how I will remember Dave.

First and foremost I’ll remember him as a friend and a comrade; a lovely and warm man, who it was always a pleasure to bump into.

I’ll remember Dave as a writer, sure. At his best Dave was as good a writer as the left can field. Read any of his books (especially Some Lives) and you’ll find some seriously fine writing: just right images and nicely worked phraseology. Dave wrote brilliantly, and then some.

But Dave was more – much more – than a phrasemonger, the left’s answer to the vile Burchills and O’Rourkes. Dave had two qualities these post-cod scribblers will never have: he had real learning, and he had real commitment. His writing was sometimes too clever for his own good: you overlooked the scholarship and research that had gone into it. That’s most obvious in his book on the health service, but it’s there in Beating Time (a book I admit I’ve never really liked). There are not that many writers who can quote William Morris and Walter Benjamin with the erudition Dave had. There are none at all who could go on to quote Burning Spear and Billie Holliday on the same page with the same sense of purpose (and style).

But more than anything else Dave’s best writing had passion, because he was always a committed writer: always committed to the left, to the working class and the possibility of changing the world. In that sense, as Roger Huddle remarked to me, Dave was always a cultural revolutionary and always an unreconstructed modernist.

That’s why, I suspect, Rock Against Racism was so important to Dave. Red Saunders was saying to me how RAR was the fusion of cultural subversion and mass politics that Dave always craved. As Dave wrote in his book about RAR, ‘RAR cured the schizophrenia between Marxist politics and modern culture.’ At last, Dave was writing for a real live radical audience and I suspect that Dave’s writing for RAR in its Temporary Hoarding is amongst the best he ever did. Red spoke to me movingly about Widge’s piece on What is Racism? in the first Temporary Hoarding: simple but brilliant. I just hope someone now collects and publishes them.

It’s typical of Dave, though, that he saw a ‘schizophrenia’ between Marxism and culture. These were the two great intellectual passions of his life: and he was never sure how to reconcile them. Which is why he so admired those great writers like Walter Benjamin and Victor Serge who could.

Dave was a life-long revolutionary socialist; for most of that time a member of the SWP. There was absolutely no calculation in this commitment. In the worlds where Dave moved, being in the SWP is profoundly unfashionable. But I think it was for Dave just that: a deep personal commitment. I remember seeing him on a TV documentary a few years back about his work as a GP: there was Dave with Socialist Worker in his pocket. But Dave always had an uneasy relationship with the party. Roger Huddle reminded me of when Dave stood for our National Committee in the 1970s and described himself as a ‘reluctant Leninist’. That’s a bit of an understatement, I’d say.

I suppose Dave saw himself as the human face of the SWP, and maybe, in a way, he was. What Dave really cared about was people and their lives. That sounds soppy, I know, but I think it’s true. Dave was like Peter Sedgwick: a radical humanist intellectual on permanent loan to revolutionary socialism. And what’s wrong with that? If we had all been like Dave, the SWP would have dissolved itself into the East End Jazz Club or the Hackney Empire years ago. That’s true.

But we need, we will always need comrades like Widgery and Sedgwick to remind us that socialism starts and finishes with human beings and their needs. We need to be reminded that there is a world outside industrial sales and contact visiting. But what Dave only fitfully understood was that without that humdrum work of organisation and routine, the world will be condemned to stay a shit-hole for ever.

What in the end kept Dave going as a socialist and a revolutionary was his experience as a GP in Limehouse. It’s no secret that he had trouble qualifying as a doctor; it’s even less of a secret that he took his time becoming a dedicated doctor. But Dave became energised by his commitment to the politics of health. He was Chair of the Campaign to Save Bethnal Green Hospital; he wrote an excellent book on the destruction of the health service; he had a regular column in the British Medical Journal.

As Anna Livingstone (who worked with Dave in Limehouse) said to me, Dave had become more and more thrown into the low glamour politics of health like fighting to stop the spread of budget holding practices and fighting the spread of asthma in the East End. It also gave Dave the inspiration for his very best book, Some Lives.

What I find so poignant is that Dave had to die now of all times. Just last week I saw him on the march for the miners’ jobs. The 1980s were terrible dog days for socialists, reeling from defeat to defeat. I think of all of us who learnt our politics in the heady days of the 1960s found it tough to keep going. But at last things are changing. As that march showed, the working class and the left is regaining its stomach for a fight.

I don’t have any doubts that this will be our decade: and we will take our revenge for the 1980s. That’s exactly when Dave would have come into his own. We’ll miss Dave because we’ll miss his wit, his passion, his humanism and his talent. What’s even more tragic is that the Good Times are starting to Roll, and Dave won’t be here to enjoy them.

We’ll do it for you Dave.

Last updated on 19.9.2013