Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 4


Margaret Dewar (1901–1995)

MARGARETE OR Rita Watz was born in Latvia of middle class Russo-German-Latvian parents. She grew up in Riga, Siberia, St Petersburg and, from 1910, Moscow. There a musical but apolitical schoolgirl, she rejoiced in the overthrow of the Tsar but felt bewildered by the Bolshevik revolution, if not vaguely hostile (see page 65 of her grippingly human autobiography, The Quiet Revolutionary, Bookmarks, 1989). In February 1920, amid the general privations of the famine years, her German step-father took her family to Berlin. Here many of her acquaintances remained Russo-German. This time though, even if many of her acquaintances were anti-Bolshevik, her confrontation with collapsing capitalism led her in the opposite direction. In 1929, after a succession of jobs, often bilingual secretarial ones, she moved to Willi Münzenberg’s International Workers’ Relief and soon joined the German Communist Party.

In the spring of 1933, with the Chancellor’s chair scarcely warm under Hitler’s behind, Margaret courageously joined the Left Opposition. Her autobiography is unforgettable on the practicalities and dangers of her work: virtually an underground within an underground. It also contains surprises such as the smuggling in of a pamphlet by the Freudo-Marxist Wilhelm Reich, disguised as a Nazi tract! There are also comparisons of the various degrees of support enjoyed by the various oppositional tendencies. By early 1936 she was in danger: the Gestapo and the Stalinists at her Soviet-owned workplace wanted to use her to spy on each other. Under cover of a skiing trip she escaped to Prague. Czech and German-speaking Trotskyists were not lacking there, but ‘by and large’ her ‘small group was stewing in its own juice with nothing useful to do politically’ (The Quiet Revolutionary, p. 195). There was talk of moving her to Norway as a secretary to Trotsky when suddenly ‘my world fell apart’; the Stalinists denounced her to the local liberal press as a Gestapo agent (see pp. 198–202, not least for conceivable links to the Moscow Trials, for Jan Frankel’s reaction, and for her mistreatment, much later, by Pierre Broué). In August 1937, after seven months of mounting anguish, she left for Paris. Here, ‘life was much harder ... and the factional struggles much sharper’ (p. 208). At the Lutte Ouvrière office she met Hugo Dewar.

She was supposed anyway to be on her way to work as a servant in north London where she arrived that October. After three or four philistine months in that job, she married Hugo early in 1938, and, until he died in 1989, they were politically one team — at first in the Socialist Anti-War Front, and subsequently within the Independent Labour Party opposing its reaffiliation to the Labour Party. Their élan was punctured when Hugo got a derisory vote in the 1946 Battersea by-election.

Much of this can be followed in Keeping My Head by Harry Wicks. Rather like Harry, Margaret intensified her political activities in her final decade or two, in her case with the British Socialist Workers Party (from which Harry, ironically, had recently been expelled). She recounts her admiration for Clara Zetkin in 1931, making a passionate speech while held up between two supporters: ‘I wished then that I would be able to retain such vigour and idealism into my old age.’ (The Quiet Revolutionary, p. 131) Coincidentally, the last time my companion and I saw Margaret outside a rest home in the spring of 1990, she told us to gobble our lunch so that she could take us to an anti-poll tax demonstration in nearby Haywards Heath. Arriving soon after it had moved off, she led our pursuit, clinging not only to us but to her unstable double spectacles, her stick — with one of my hands in reserve against a force seven wind — and her sou’wester, all the while urging us on; she wanted to deliver something to a comrade she expected to meet. The dispersal point was a raised garden where she threaded quizzically in and out of the throng. No one had seen the comrade. Slightly deflated, she propelled us towards the garden’s edge, and nonchalantly onto the pavement, a drop of more than half her height. ‘Everyone has to die one day’, she commented airily as we landed. She was nearly five years premature but, like the musician she had once unbearably ached to become, her focus was elegantly relentless.

Logie Barrow

Updated by ETOL: 25.9.2011