Chris Harman

Dave Widgery:
Carrying the spirit of revolt

(7 November 1992)

Obituary: Dave Widgery – Carrying the spirit of revolt, Socialist Worker, No.1316, 7 November 1992, p.13.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

DAVE WIDGERY, who died last week, will be missed by the whole left, particularly by supporters of the Socialist Workers Party.

He joined us in the late 1960s as a young medical student, and was still attending meetings of our Hackney South branch shortly before he died.

His books, especially his last one, Some Lives, are an inspiration both for older socialists and those who have discovered the left with the recent rise of anti-Tory anger.

Dave first became involved in political activity at a time when the great post war boom, which created so many illusions among people about capitalism, was only just beginning to flicker.

Like many others of his generation, his rebellion was at first very much a cultural one, influenced by the American “beat” writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. But a visit to the US in 1965 brought home to him the harsh realities of racism, of oppression, of the material deprivation of many people’s lives under capitalism – and of the inability of the non-violence preached by people like Ginsberg to deal with these things.

Back in Britain he was soon active in the rising movements among students and against the Vietnam War.

He realised, however, that students alone could not change the world anymore than non-violence could, and committed himself to the International Socialists – the predecessors of the Socialist Workers Party. It was a commitment that remained with him through all the ups and downs of the next 25 years.

He continued to write for the magazines of the sixties cultural underground like Oz. But his pieces swam against the “counter-culture” stream, rejecting the idea that you could challenge the system by changing your lifestyle.

“The hippies are about as much threat to the state as people who put foreign coins in gas meters”, he wrote in the paper Black Dwarf.

He insisted in Oz, “To wait for a revolution by Mao or Che or comprehensive schools or BBC2 is to play the violin while the Titanic goes down, for if socialists don’t take theory back into the working class there are others who will.”

This was not just idle talk on his part. His flat in Chapel Market in north London was the centre of activity for the Angel International Socialist branch.

We held our weekly meetings there, distributed papers for selling outside Mount Pleasant post office, dispatched groups to leaflet the pubs for the Irish Civil Rights Solidarity Campaign, flyposted for the strikes against Labour’s planned anti-union laws, gathered to produce a special one page issue of Socialist Worker when the authorities and police shut down the London School of Economics.

Dave’s political commitment did not die with the movements of the sixties.

THROUGH THE seventies he was active as a junior hospital doctor and then as a hard working East End GP, around the first ever wave of health workers’ strikes in 1973. He helped produce the rank and file Hospital Worker paper and was active in the long campaign against the closure of Bethnal Green Hospital.

When the British Nazis began to achieve major success in 1976 and 1977 and there was a horrendous series of racist killings in the East End, Dave threw himself into the fightback. He came on counter-demonstrations which broke up Nazi marches in Wood Green and Lewisham. He threw himself heart and soul into Rock Against Racism, the campaign that drove the racists out of the music industry and youth culture.

He continued to contribute not just his energy but his writing to the left. He was an unpaid member of Socialist Worker’s editorial team as it achieved real influence within the working class in 1973-4.

Later he wrote a weekly column as well as innumerable articles (often under the name Dr Gerry Dawson) on issues ranging from health and capitalism to the Russian poet Mayakovsky. On top of this he produced five books in 15 years as well as contributions to New Society and the British Medical Journal.

Like most people on the left Dave was shaken and confused by the Tories’ gains in the early and middle Thatcher years. But he had nothing but disdain for those middle class intellectuals who created their own version of the Thatcher myth and embraced “designer socialism”.

DAVE, LIKE any good socialist, did not always agree with everything the leadership of the party told him. His vision of revolution involved more than the humdrum tasks of socialist organisation. But he knew those tasks had to be done.

Twenty five years after becoming a revolutionary socialist he continued to sell this paper, taking a regular five copies a week, and to attend weekly meetings when he could.

He wrote three years ago: “Without ‘68 and the SWP I would, no doubt, be ensconced in the Department of Community Medicine at a cathedral town with my children down for public school and a sub to the SDP.”

He added, “Nor am I prone to the depression which seems near-terminal among so many socialist intellectuals now becalmed in sophisticated nihilism.”

That is why only a fortnight ago he was still agitating for action against the Tomlinson Report and marching for the miners.

That is why so many of us will mourn him as one of those who carried the spirit of revolt of the sixties through to the revolutionary decade of the nineties.

Last updated on 19.9.2013