It Moves!

A Trotskyist in the NHS

© Syd Shelton

David Widgery. Against Miserabilism: Writings, 1968–1992. Eds. Juliet Ash, Nigel Fountain and David Renton. Vagabond, 2017.

An activist and writer barely known outside his family of unorthodox British Trotskyists, David Widgery (1947–1992) has been restored for a new generation by the second ever collection of his essays, the only one now in print. Tenderly, the project is curated by three of Widgery’s longstanding friends and comrades and comes to us from a small independent publisher in Scotland, whose previous output has all been fiction and poetry.

As with republication, so it was in life: in the shadow of 1968 David Widgery never quite fit. He wrote from boorish London, not from disillusioned Paris or by samizdat mimeograph from dissident Prague. To make matters worse, he was a working doctor among professional theorists, a soldier of the Socialist Workers Party amid the anarchic rejection of drab party discipline, a white man from England who talked of black politics in America. The most brilliant essay of this collection defends James Baldwin from Eldridge Cleaver. Later, he was just another rock and roll survivor mourning under Margaret Thatcher but one who refused somehow to surrender, to “drop out” when that became fashionable again. He met Allen Ginsberg and adored CLR James (“the greatest living Marxist” when few others in Britain thought so). His work spanned Kerouac and Mayakovsky, sex, love, and the hospital waiting room. He treated all these themes in prose as if they were one; his was always the same searching tone, the heartfelt pitch and careful, hopeful rhythm.

Still, he never quite fit. He hailed the “penetrating gleam and silvery gaze” of Herbert Marcuse, pitted Erich Fromm against “a world of repressive empiricism and mass efficiency,” but wrote of their admirers in May ’68:

Acid hippies, progressive school bohemians and bored pop entrepreneurs all like the language of liberation and the look of Che Guevara (and some can even spell his name right). But as for theory, history and ways of understanding these are all brain diseases. Indeed, the more the underground loons on about the revolution, the more obvious it becomes that pot serves roughly the same role that gin did in the 1920s: to enable the enlightened to sit around talking about their enlightenment. The club called “Revolution” where youthful members of the ruling class whinny under the portraits of Mao and Che is typical. The hippies in Britain are about as much of a threat to the state as people who put foreign coins in gas meters.

He wrote that for OZ, the psychedelic magazine of the British underground in which he was centrally involved. Such were his ostensible paradoxes. He seemed sometimes curmudgeonly, the socialist who longed openly in OZ for “a single busman on strike” to replace “five thousand critics campaigning to legalize pubic hair.” He wanted, he wrote shortly before his death, to Make Striking Sexy Again. There are worse ambitions. But he was also the Leninist who said “Lenin certainly doesn’t tell you much about gay liberation,” who called for “new forms, new definitions of socialism” to incorporate feminist energies. He was the old-fashioned anti-fascist whose dream and grind built huge music festivals called “Rock Against Racism.” His was a dissident voice puncturing counter-cultural self-celebration, disdainfully contrasting hippies handing out food to black rioters who stole fridges instead and “will hopefully leave . . . police stations and tenements in ashes.” Ultimately “the workers” mattered above all. He seemed poised between Old and New Lefts.

None of this is actually paradoxical at all. Widgery is first of all an artifact now, a symbol of a different 1968: neither the happy Sixties of pot-smoking innocence nor a world of barricades alone. He put it best in one of his last essays, in the doldrums of the 1990s, when New Labour was on its way to triumph, having shed nearly all memory of the organized working class. Dissenting to the last, Widgery imagined the opening statements delivered at a hypothetical worldwide congress of socialists, meeting after revolution had swept the globe in a supremely unlikely victory by 2000:

We remember the British cotton workers who supported the struggle against slavery and we salute the inventors of regicide, hunger strikes, civil disobedience and the reggae-punk rock fusion.

This collection of Widgery’s writings reminds us how deeply two worlds—the picket line and the dancefloor, politics and culture—were once entangled. In his context, he was not so iconoclastic, and at times we might shudder or wince at his combination of excitable, creative radicalism with unstinting orthodoxy about fundamentals. He would quote George Orwell on the oppressed as a plant, which could be trusted to “keep pushing upwards towards the light,” inexorably. He would quote William Morris on the miserable fates of so many socialists at the hands of capital and its states: “believe me, when such things are suffered for dreams, the dreams come true at last.” The proletariat was always for him the beast whose final victory was near-certain, though it came to be imagined in different colors and in different jobs than the left had long (and lazily) presumed.

This was a common synthesis of Old and New. But Widgery had a foot buried so deeply and faithfully in each camp that he was saved from the tendency to idealize either of them. That was more unusual. He could write in Socialist Worker of all the horrors on earth and then close, acerbically: “And we march to Trafalgar Square one Sunday and think we’ve done something.” Evident there is his long battle to keep alive one early catchphrase of the awkward writers and strikers who became the Socialist Workers Party. The slogan was Without Illusions. Ten years after ’68, strikes swept Britain in a “winter of discontent.” Widgery wrote in Socialist Worker, the party paper:

The workers are out on the streets again, thank God, from Tehran to Tottenham Court Road, and the plump smile of the Stock Exchange has gone noticeably ashen. But are we really witnessing the birth of a new society, or merely a further installment in the disintegration of the old? For even we, the benighted bootboys of the SWP, the rent-a-mobsters, the mindless extremists, tertiary pickets and habitual holders-of-the-nation-to-ransom, sometimes fail to pondering, “Are we getting anywhere?”

Here was a revolutionary who took seriously people’s experiences of class and capitalism, even where they diverged from the socialist hymn-sheet. Keenly he looked where others on the left averted their eyes for fear of succumbing to misery. He lamented the “madness” of market rationality as the only principle of social life before Thatcher’s ascent, under a Labour government, and then he predicted what was to come with striking accuracy (in the established narrative few on the left saw the revolutionary scale of Thatcherism at first, and those who did were all Eurocommunists ensconced at Marxism Today). Imagining himself in the heartland of British Toryism, the “Home Counties,” amid the tough 1970s under Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan he could marry meaningful sociology and psychology, apparently offhand: 

The lights are going out all over the Home Counties: being a Tory is plain going out of fashion. There are complicated causes: stagnation in world trade, demographic movement into cities, secularization, female integration into productive labor, the extending role of the state and most important, too many years in opposition. But that doesn’t explain to the man on the Brighton Belle why “Made in Britain” is a joke, or why his wife and children answer back, and school doesn’t seem to teach either good handwriting or good discipline any more and costs a fortune into the bargain. Or why that man Callaghan looks so damned smug all the damned time.

American audiences might find that picture grimly familiar now, but Widgery was not fatalistic about it. He represented modernity as a screen. He wrote of “the real world which smolders behind TV ‘reality.’” Capital was cruel, but it wrapped itself in comfort blankets. Already in the 1960s he complained of that post-ideological condition now sometimes attributed to neoliberalism, “the play ethic of late capitalism for which a flayed self-awareness wears so much better than conviction.” He mapped continuities where we tend to think of ruptures; comfortable consumerism set the mood music for 1950s Britain and 1980s Britain alike. But he saw that condition as fragile, shallow. If this reminds you of Debord, remember that the Situationist International was not usually well represented on the wards of NHS hospitals. Leftism, though, at its best means shedding parochialism without acquiring snootiness. More than once in writing, Widgery deployed a turn away from national myopia to all the violence of imperial politics (Vietnam, Chile, South Africa) as a tool for undercutting capital’s palliatives.

To be on the left meant, for David Widgery, to identify a way of living that was solidaristic rather than merely self-interested, to think the whole world could be remade in that image and to see among the oppressed the carriers of that standard, at times the practitioners of that ethos. The modern left has tended to opt for Hobbes or Rousseau, either for a politics of collective security or popular power, and Widgery was firmly in the latter camp. That was the real foundation of his disdain for the stultifying, stabilizing conservatism of Labour Party leaders and official Communists alike. He insisted again and again, when most wouldn’t listen, that the strike waves of the 1970s in Britain were not only about workers demanding extra cash; they pitted two visions against one another, two sets of priorities for how to run a society, and the splendor in those tough battles was the sight of workers empowered as they voted to act. He defended libraries as hubs of the mind’s empowerment. He saw a grotesque international order and shared Rousseau’s confidence in Émile that all that is constructed can be torn away again. He spent his adult life in a Trotskyist organisation. Trotsky was to him a symbol of smothered continuity connecting old battles and new ones, but above all Trotsky (this is the figure of the Left Opposition, not of Kronstadt) represented a writhing incandescence, a refusal to bow before rulers who could never really represent the red mole burrowing always through history. All this looms in the most gut-wrenching essay of the collection. “Meeting Molly” takes us into a hospital strike in the early Thatcher years, but this is no dispatch from an industrial correspondent. It tracks Widgery’s few weeks with his daughter, who died in infancy during the strike:

As a doctor, I wanted the most intensive medical care possible and wanted to know about it down to the last platelet count and percentage of her conjugated bilirubin. But looking at her, hoist on the special baby unit operating table, grilled by overhead lamps, continuously exchange transfused, trussed by tubes and swaddled by machinery, it was impossible not to want to snatch her and hear human sounds instead of the electronic sighs and blips and flickers which came to signify her life . . .

Molly was born and so nearly lived only because of a chain of organized and unselfish human beings which stretched from the unknown blood donors whose gift sustained her in the womb to the nurses who got Molly and us through so many nights and still spared a thought to tuck a white carnation in her death wraps. In the 1980s, politically dominated by the philosophy of possessive individualism, the NHS still allows a different set of values to flourish. And it makes manifest the spirit of human solidarity which is at the core of socialism, and which our present rulers are so concerned to eradicate. While Molly’s death is a tragedy, her life was something brave and marvelous.

Romance giving way unbearably to tragedy: Molly stands for her moment, perhaps more than Widgery wanted to think. Reading him today, the jarring sensation is greatest on encountering his talk of revolution as a real, lived, “actual” possibility. These are the Lukácsian terms of 1968, though Widgery was already questioning them a decade later. Once the 1990s arrived, his final sketch of global socialist transformation escapes easy categories of genre—not quite romantic or tragic, was it comedy?:

There was spontaneous singing of “Jerusalem” and “Anarchy in the UK” at the London meeting, which included . . . representatives of what had once been called the Third World on their way to Dublin to sign formal cancellation of their entire debts, and delegations of Central African health workers who had announced earlier that day the eradication of new cases of AIDS worldwide through the “San Francisco-Lusaka Project” into which the military budget of the old USA had been channeled.

Of course, those prophecies look self-consciously improbable. Widgery might be read, then, not as a prophet of socialist ascendancy but as something much more modest. He quotes one deliriously happy catchphrase of the first New Left in 1956, arriving after a decade of passivity and proclamations about the end of politics: “it moves!” Widgery’s added optimism twenty years later takes him only a small distance: “it grows!” These are the notes that speak to us now, where all the excitement in Britain about Jeremy Corbyn amounts not to any certainty in any kind of victory—still less any final victory—but only to a sort of relief, a form of assurance that even after all this time politics is still possible. Americans might find here a measured antidote to despair in the age of Trump. Widgery insisted on facing up to tough times, the invasive power of capital that all socialists hate and yet so many pretend leaves an imagined proletariat untarnished. Worse still, often professed radicals covertly join conservative choruses in consigning socialism to the past by making its imagery only the romantic heroes of old. Widgery loathed that as an act of surrender. He wanted to rummage in the muck of the present for new possibilities. That muck is all we have, and strange, rough jewels may after all be buried there.

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