In the moment I heard that David Widgery had died, I saw him standing in front of me on York station in the early summer of 1968. His eyes were shining and he had a grin on his face as though it were fixed there forever. I was off to speak on socialism at York University—he had just come from there. ‘It’s great’, he said. ‘Great. An enormous middle-class fun palace.’ Suddenly his expression changed, and he glowered at me. ‘They don’t need you there’, he said. ‘Not another of us. They need the proletariat.’ Years later when I read his book Some Lives!, I noticed again how he was the only person I ever knew who used the word ‘proletariat’ unselfconsciously, as though it came from the chorus of a popular rock band.
David was a creature of 1968. He revelled in 1968. At the lse he enjoyed the sectarian arguments every bit as much as the revolutionary action. All his life he remained fascinated by the political events of that wonderful year. He so much wanted to understand their origin that he spent a lot of his time in the early 1970s researching for his anthology The Left in Britain. The book charts, through the writings and speeches of the times, the development of the British Left from 1956 to 1968. It traces a clear line through the maze of those lse arguments, returning, without a hint of sectarianism, again and again to the proletariat. David’s theme was that the student arguments were all very important, but unless they were grounded in the fight against exploitation at work they were up in the air, vacuous. When he joined the International Socialists it was perhaps the smallest of the organizations left of the Labour Party, smaller by far than the Communist Party and smaller too than the other Trotskyist groups. He joined it, as most of us did at the time, for two reasons. First, he never for a moment identified with what was then called socialism in Russia and Eastern Europe. Nor was he prepared to put up with the very popular notion at the time that Russia was somehow half way or even quarter way to socialism, that it was somehow ‘better’ than the Western capitalist societies. Two of his early heroes—David had a lot of heroes, and, a bit later, heroines—were the writer and revolutionary Victor Serge and his British translator Peter Sedgwick. David was attracted to both by their commitment and their refusal to be hidebound by their commitment. No one supported the Russian Revolution and the Bolshevik Party’s role in it more enthusiastically than Victor Serge. Yet Serge saw before anyone else that the revolution was lost. It was, David thought, quite impossible to read The Case of Comrade Tulayev or Memoirs of a Revolutionary, translated by Sedgwick, and still defend Stalinist Russia as in the remotest degree progressive.
The second reason was—here we are again—the proletariat. He was fascinated by some of the great workers’ battles of the late 1960s and early 1970s. He liked to see and hear the stories of these struggles from
Those first five years of David’s active adult life were characterized by an unbounded enthusiasm. I remember many of his speeches at party conferences, but one in particular—in 1973. He spoke about the paper Socialist Worker, how and where it was produced, who wrote for it, the process of production, what a miracle it was. His words, full of wit, came tumbling out, it seemed almost by accident and yet in perfect order, and the whole hall was lit up in vicarious enthusiasm. A year later everything was different. We can look back now and easily trace how the enthusiasms and inspirations of the early 1970s were snared in Wilsonian pragmatism. While the Tories were in, lots of workers listened eagerly to calls for revolution. When Labour won in February and then confirmed their position a few months later, the mood changed. All our moods changed too. For a year and a bit, the toughest of my life by far, I took over as editor of Socialist Worker after a deep and bitter internal party dispute. David Widgery was a doctor down the road. Somehow he found time to come regularly to our meetings and to run what we absurdly called the ‘arts’ page. If I am honest, what I remember most about him in those years was the whiplash of his tongue. He had favoured the other side in the dispute, and he never let me forget it. In Christmas 1974 he sent me a letter in which he attacked every single aspect of Socialist Worker and my editorship in eloquent, endless and ferocious terms. I doubted I could ever speak to him again. Yet the following week there he was bundling into the office and grinning a little sheepishly, as if nothing had happened. He never apologized. He was not an apologizer. He had a terrible temper, but none of his invective was ever ill-considered. That was the worst of those editorial board meetings. His criticisms cut like knives because they were (at least partly) justified.
If I think harder, though, I can remember two other things about David during those years. The first was the Socialist Worker series ‘Under the Influence’ in which David sought out anyone he could think of, famous names followed by unknown workers, and asked them what they had read which had turned them to socialism. It was a brilliant series, always popular. I doubt whether any section of our paper was read as widely as was that column. The second was his glorious writing. At times, lying in bed at night with the sw pages rolling round in the darkness, I would yearn for some plain good prose, something which people would enjoy reading for its own sake, even if the line was slightly dubious.
There were so few who wrote like that: Peter Sedgwick did, so did Eamonn McCann; and so, always, did David Widgery. Sometime during that period he went to the United States and sent us a series of
David hated orthodoxy. As the swp turned for survival to its own orthodoxy in the long years of the ‘downturn’, David became restless. He ventured way outside the party walls, returning often to lecture us at Skegness on the campaign against abortion in the 1930s or the gay liberation movement in the 1970s. ‘You’ve got to listen to these gays’, he told us in 1977. By the end of that year he was throwing himself with another burst of enthusiasm into the Anti-Nazi League and into his own special offshoot of it, Rock Against Racism. In a brilliant and moving tribute to David at the swp’s memorial meeting in December, Darcus Howe said he had fathered five children in Britain. The first four had grown up angry, fighting forever against the racism all round them. The fifth child, he said, had grown up ‘black in ease’. Darcus attributed her ‘space’ to the Anti-Nazi League in general and to David Widgery in particular. It is difficult to imagine a more marvellous epitaph.