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David Widgery: instigator of Rock Against Racism

As a new generation confronts the possibility of a transformation of capitalism and the realities of fighting ascendant fascism, Anthony Barnett reflects on someone who, insofar as one person can, embodied ‘the revolution’ the ‘68 generation sought and lost.

David Widgery. Image used under Fair Use: Vagabond Voices.David Widgery was the comrade who, in the seventies, lit the fire of Rock Against Racism that drummed the British Nazis out of town. A doctor who was as complete a revolutionary as there might be.

Widgery died 25 years ago, when he was only in his forties, and Against Miserabilism, an anthology of his essays has just been published; described by former New Statesman editor Stuart Weir as a collection from the keyboard of ‘one of the finest writers and critics ever produced by the revolutionary left’.

He was only 21 in the breakthrough year of 1968. But David Widgery emerged like a boyish Venus from its waves, his voice and politics perfectly formed to express its raging currents even as his judgment rightly scorned the mass of surrounding foam.

He rocked to the music, he trained to the science of medicine, he practiced as a doctor in working class London, he agitated with the strikers, he wrote, read and argued without cease, fighting racism instinctively and he embraced the feminism that emerged in reaction to the misogyny of sixties hedonism and was present at its founding moment in the UK. With his skills, intelligence, sensitivity and generosity, Widgery was the living spirit of intelligent solidarity.

Perfect? Revolution is a deeply human activity, which can be hurtful and dangerous. It is only to be tolerated in those who fear the pain and instinctively concern themselves with the moral consequences. Such was Widgery. Almost all ‘professional revolutionaries’ especially in the Leninist tradition are instrumental power seekers, if not for themselves then for a larger egoism of ‘the working class as a whole’. For them, tenderness is weakness; with their revolutionary desire rooted in a yearning for victory not compassion. In this way, being upside down, their desire generates sectarianism and defeat.

He was hardly perfect. Emotionally Widgery was promiscuous, politically he was loyal, well as loyal as he could be, to the Socialist Workers Party who were daft and destructive to put it mildly. He was often over-bearing, he was said to be hard to work with although I never found him so, and he was trapped in a doomed sectarian ecosystem which generated its own morbid egoisms that he resisted but could not escape. But he was Widgery, careful as well as careless, inspiring, loquacious, fluent, immensely well-read, interested in life in all its forms including right-wing ones, learned as a Doctor, passionate against any inhumanity, generous towards weakness and ferocious when he witnessed oppression and prejudice. He was a force of nature and yet at the same time intensely cultivated: scientifically, culturally, musically and politically.

I can see him now, with his rolling gait due to childhood polio, and the lurking of the unexpected behind his exceptionally large forehead. He thought fast, wrote like a dream, worked tirelessly as a militant, had no airs or fastidiousness (of the kind I suffered from as we will see). He punctured pretentiousness, sought a strategic way forward, yet was clear sighted about defeats. He wanted to see the working class overthrow the capitalists and put an end to inhumanity and exploitation. Such beliefs can sit quite genuinely in the brain of thin-lipped academics or even accountants whose lives proceed as they must, earning a living without changing the world. Widgery made the revolution. When he couldn’t he shook the bars, and when he couldn’t shake the bars he shook those he lived and worked with.

The tectonic, political year of 1968 was longer than 12 calendar months. Against the background of half a million murderous US troops deployed in Vietnam, it started the previous summer of 1967 when Berlin saw the demonstration against the Shah of Iran and the occupation of its Free University; France, the Situationists in Strasbourg, and London, the Dialectics of Liberation; all before the Tet Offensive in January inflamed resistance everywhere.

My first memory of Widgery, who was five years younger than me, dates from that year. At least I think it does. He had just become a member of the International Socialists (later to adopt the improbable moniker of the ‘Socialist Workers Party’). I was on the board of New Left Review refusing to join any of the then burgeoning Trotskyist and Trotskysan groups.  Yet I was thrilled to see Widgery at work, enraging speakers with his contrarianism at a conference before 1968. What it was all about or precisely when I’ve no idea, but I vividly recall the taste of freshness to his provocation rather than the usual dull knowingness of correctitude. He was unforgettable.

In a generous salute to Widgery in openDemocracy on the twentieth anniversary of his death, David Hayes notes his precociousness. You can see it in the opening essay of Against Miserabilism, ‘When Harrods is Looted’, which was published in Oz, the hippy magazine, in 1968. Barely an adult Widgery already speaks with sweeping confidence and range, not just of Fleet Street, universities and German capitalism but also the nature of the time itself. He has no need of Gramsci to reflect on the old dying and the new being unable to be born:

‘For until this struggle against capitalism and for popular power is finished, we remain in this logjam at the middle of the century - slung, as Arnold wrote, “between one world dead and the other still powerless to be born”.’[1]

Both his attraction to the ribald, ‘Labour has simply been taking its pleasure too often on the bed of Capital, for us still to be crying rape’; and the intensity of his commitment - it was one I certainly shared – are present in the article: 

‘Those who are fond of asking why we don't join the National Liberation Front should not suppose that the workers and intellectuals of the Spanish war are the only people who meant what they said when they declared that they would die for what they believed’.

(The National Liberation Front were the Vietnamese fighting to liberate what was then South Vietnam. It may be hard for later generations to grasp what it meant to know that tens if not hundreds of Vietnamese civilians were being uprooted and often massacred every day by an army fighting for ‘our’ democracy.)  Widgery’s interest and knowledge of hippy radicalism and his urge to demystify it also stands out:

‘how much more important is a single busman on strike than five thousand critics campaigning to legalise pubic hair’.

Above all, he is for arousing the working class to the ‘tradition of European revolutionary socialism and the activist heart of Marxism within it’, already confident that he has a full grasp of its significance.

The reference to Arnold reveals another quality that distinguished Widgery from many leftists, a discerning interest in the intellectual range and potential of ‘bourgeois’ radicals, which you can see in his fine 1970 tribute to Bertrand Russell, or his critique of Private Eye republished in the collection. Forensic as well as scathing about the other side in the class war, he tried to apply the same critical intelligence to those who supported the working class – without whose strength Marxism, however activist, was condemned to weakness. Writing in the short-lived insurrectionary newspaper Black Dwarf in October 1968, Widgery reports on the SDS, the German Socialist Students, Frankfurt Delegate Conference. He uses his report to warn against over-heated prophecies, lack of realism, ‘vicarious involvement with the struggles of the Third World’ and ‘Germanic taste for complex academic debate’. While he observes the need to ‘build from scratch contacts with organised workers’ he doubts that ‘these campaigns will go beyond photogenic demonstration and political spectacle’ and concludes with a wider sense of foreboding – just before Britain’s Vietnam solidarity movement was to be ignominiously outmanoeuvred by the authorities, ‘After one spark set France alight, the rest of us are committed to throwing lighted matches around the room’.

What set France alight in 1968? The massive, rolling strike that took the student protest out of the universities and into the factories. The British student movement had yet to peak, but what followed over the next three years appeared to vindicate the International Socialist focus on factories and working class struggle, as strikes took off to match the level of the 1920s.

Yet the language of Widgery’s almost elegiac response to the Pilkington strike of 1970 seems to reluctantly prefigure the lack of revolutionary impetus within Britain’s proletarian defiance. If ‘First and foremost self-respect’ is all that has been won, then while deference may have been ended, which is no small achievement in recently militarised, imperial society, it is a long way from ‘revolutionary consciousness’. Widgery ends the piece looking forward to a future where the great glass works are run not by Lord Pilkington but by ‘the rank and file’.

This semi-military term, 'rank and file', conjures up serried rows of proletarian labour and now belongs to another age. In this one, Pilkington is today wholly owned by Japan’s Nippon Sheet Glass, not by its workers. A decade later Widgery is clear about the destruction of the ‘working class insurgency’ of the early seventies. The essay ‘Whatever did happen to the revolution?’ is especially fascinating to read now because of when it was written, just after ‘the winter of ‘79’ by which he means the winter of 1978/79 the third coldest of the twentieth century and months before the election that brought Margaret Thatcher to number 10 in May 1979. Today, such is the loathing she generates on much of the left, Thatcher is often seen as a harridan whose monstrous policies vanquished the sensible progress being administered by a progressive Labour government. To read this essay now is to feel for ourselves the overwhelming sense of defeat and frustration that pre-existed Thatcher, as well as the revulsion at the complacency of Jim Callaghan, the then Labour Prime Minister. The feeling was not confined to revolutionaries. Indeed, you can also sense why so many felt the need for a right-wing ‘broom’, or any broom at all - for something was needed to sweep away the humiliations of a decade of frustration.

‘As for our Left’, Widgery concludes,

‘bedraggled but alive, we are still infants. We have not yet come of age and are far from the height of our powers. But we survived and, in Tom Mann's words, intend to grow more dangerous as we grow old.’

Within a few months, he sensed a different danger and this time writing in Socialist Worker he backed the party line to vote for the despised Labour Party in the face of the alternative. He recognised that in Thatcher the Tories had embraced a new kind of class-conscious leader ready to take on the unions already tamed, if not broken, by the experience of Wilson and Callaghan. He could not draw openly on Stuart Hall’s analysis, who was the first to recognise Thatcherism as an ‘ism’ and see it as a response to the ‘decomposition’ of Labourism, for this appeared in the dreaded pages of Marxism Today. But Widgery is compelling in his parallel analysis of the dangerous novelty Thatcher represented and how it was also a response to the decomposition of the old right:

‘The High Tory ring, bounded by Anglican piety, public school decency, Oxbridge loyalty, Stock Exchange insights and safe seats, is disintegrating… the rise of Mrs Thatcher…  marks a new course… By announcing an official end to Tory compassion… Thatcher moves the Tory Party away from its traditional claim to mediate, rather like the Church of England, between all class interests… Something called ‘Freedom’ is the battlecry. ‘Freedom’, it soon becomes apparent, is closely connected, if not identical with, money. Mrs T will grant us the freedom not to have any obligation towards fellow humans who are ill, out of work or incapable so that we can have the freedom to select whichever private ward, public school dorm, restaurant or townhouse we wish for ourselves.’

An analysis familiar to us thirty-five years on.

There could have been another course, for example had everyone on the left drawn on the creative energies that propelled the GLC, the Greater London Council, to prominence in 1981 – its heritage website is here. Widgery would have been open to this, as a short piece by him in the collection shows, but the SWP was not, despite his efforts. A fine example of his trying to get his comrades to listen to him is his jewel of an article (now online) about Allen Ginsberg, called Howling to the Beat. It should have been included in the collection as it combines his political and cultural forcefulness and erudition to perfection in the briefest of essays. It is, in effect, an open letter to his comrades in the SWP. Its aim, to persuade them to see that there is more to revolution than reading Trotsky, indeed that if they just read Trotsky they might miss the revolution altogether. ‘Howling to the Beat’ displays Widgery's exceptional grasp of post-war USA and America’s energies. In one brilliant short passage, he joins and juxtaposes the simultaneous development of the poetry of the beats, the invention of abstract expressionism and the music of modern jazz in their resistance to corporate orthodoxy of the 1950s. ‘It is also worth reminding ourselves’, he tells his comrades, ‘that movements of popular revolt against long periods of reaction, such as we have been enduring for the last decade, often come in unpredictable, impetuous, and in infuriatingly subjective idioms’. He was describing exactly how they saw him.

He had a special relationship with Ginsberg and a disturbing one. I learnt of it in the mid-80s when I edited a short-lived imprint at Chatto & Windus called Tigerstripe and commissioned Widgery to produce Beating Time: Riot 'n' Race 'n' Rock 'n' Roll - a book about his defining political experience in the mid-1970s. We were leaving a meeting together going in the same direction on the London tube. We got around to talking Ginsberg for some reason. I said how I’d seen him in 1965 at the poetry happening at the Albert Hall – now allegedly regarded as the moment ‘alternative London’ was born. Widgery had been there too. I told him how I was appalled at the way Ginsberg asked at the end if anyone would sleep with him, and revealed my fastidious revulsion at Ginsberg’s abuse of his star role to pull in such a shameless fashion. Widgery responded by telling me he had gone to the green room afterwards to interview Ginsberg. And then had himself been laid by him! I had no idea that Ginsberg was gay. While I was trying to assimilate this remarkable information Widgery went on, ‘Yes, and anal penetration is surprisingly enjoyable’. Not an easily forgettable conversation for the tube.

I report it not because it is memorable and now makes me laugh, but to show how Widgery was genuinely emancipated – and I was not. He may indeed have been ‘unpredictable, impetuous, and infuriatingly subjective’. But while most of us revolutionaries were trapped in our psychodramas, un-liberated while dreaming of liberating others, Widgery was also – helped by the doctor in him – lucid, clinical and unashamed – and did not feel the victim of this abuse of power [2].

Two essays in Against Miserabilism demonstrate Widgery’s unabashed tenderness. They are in the section on ‘Personal Politics’ introduced by Sheila Rowbotham. ‘Women Are Goddesses or Sloppy Beasts’ is a superbly ferocious assault on Norman Mailer’s misogyny (and a glancing blow at Orwell’s). He repudiates Mailer’s claim that men become men and demonstrate their prowess over women ‘in the full rigours of the fuck’. On the contrary, we both become each other, writes Widgery, as ‘Embraces are cominglings… not a pompous High Priest entering’, quoting Blake. And he develops this in a lavish description of why such unruly doings are bad for ‘industrial relations’ and must be kept under control by capitalism in, ‘Why Do Lovers Break Each Other’s Hearts’.

The two essays are rooted in Widgery’s exceptional genius, which is to hold in play with equal perceptiveness his class politics and cultural sensibility. With most of us Marxism usually withers sensitivity while personal insight squishes political judgment. Widgery, with his acute sense of bodies, achieved the capacity to combine politics and culture in order that they reinforce each other to deliver exceptional clarity and insight. A brilliant example is his 1976 essay on James Baldwin, republished in the new collection for the first time. He contrasts Baldwin with Eldridge Cleaver, then the most famous and polished Black Panther, who was in exile in Algeria. Of the two Americans, in terms of reputation at the time, Baldwin was a mere literary figure and Cleaver the radical. Widgery’s perceptiveness is a model for how to assess rhetorical revolutionaries.

‘They share an understanding of how North American capitalism operates, they differ about why and how to fight it. Cleaver is apparently to the left with his muscular talk about the struggle, a fast line in sexual insults and quotes from Che Guevara… this sort of tough talking appealed most to the male radical students… its politics were intensely individualistic. The revolution becomes an act of will undertaken as proof of manhood’.

He then describes a film of Cleaver in Algeria, ‘with a gracelessness peculiar to Americans overseas’ and delivers his conclusion: ‘when that heady individualism falters, as it did for so many of the celebrities of the black revolt, it falls asunder. Because it doesn’t understand itself, it can’t afford to pause lest it disintegrate’. James Baldwin, by contrast, who does understand himself, ‘speaks much less explicitly but in a more profoundly political way’. In contrast to Cleaver, he has ‘a different kind of strength and leadership’ that has more in common with the early student movement, the non-violent movements and women's liberation. Shortly after Widgery wrote this, Cleaver returned to the States where he converted to Christianity and later became a right-wing Republican. Baldwin’s reputation rises still, as a witness of America’s racial capitalism.

Which brings me to the central question of Widgery’s political life. This is not ‘Why did he become a Trotskyist?’ The end of the 60s was a time of experimentation and pleonastic energy and many did. For them it was, in effect, a learning experience. The question is, given Widgery’s extraordinary sensitivity and that it governed such a far-sighted strength of judgment, why did he remain a member of the SWP until the end of his life?

When I learnt of his premature death in 1992, he was just 45, I felt three things acutely: my heart went out to Juliet Ash and their young children at the shocking news; I suffered the usual regrets at not having seen more of him, not having made that extra phone call and had the evening with him that I intended but never planned; and finally, I felt something quite strange, ‘Trotskyism is definitely over’, I said to myself.

By then I had long felt that whatever formal insights it might have, Trotskyism was a form of death cult. Yet while one of its organisations retained the loyalty and active membership of David Widgery there remained the chance, however improbable, of a Lazarus-like resurrection. For Widgery personified the unexpected in his creativity and energy. The news of his death extinguished the last chance that life could flicker back into a benighted tendency.

To ask why he stayed in the SWP is to ask in the first place what he was up against. Perhaps the most gentle way of answering this is to quote from Bob Light’s obituary in the SWP’s Socialist Review. It’s a genuine attempt at a eulogy and expression of personal loss: ‘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.’ But Light goes on,

‘when Dave stood for our National Committee in the 1970s [he] 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 forever.

This is infuriatingly well-meaning and utterly patronising. In essay after essay, packed with hard reading, Widgery painstakingly explains why if their politics is to succeed revolutionaries must listen to the powerful voices and experience of artists like Allen Ginsberg. And the comrades he seeks to address say to themselves, ‘There he goes again with his radical humanism.  No worries. He is just on loan. Of course, it’s good to be reminded there is a world ‘outside’. Now pass the leaflets and get on with humdrum Leninism’.

At least Bob Light liked Widgery and embraced the importance of his helping to create Rock Against Racism (which I will come to). The chilling and more official obituary in the Socialist Worker by Chris Harman one of the SWP’s then leaders was worse still. It tried to turn him into a gatekeeper against ‘beat’ culture, quoting two of Widgery’s fine excoriations of the hippy left, with no acknowledgement at all that his concern was to open the door to the energy of its radicalism. Harman does not even mention Widgery’s unique engagement with anti-racism. That H-word, however, turns up,

‘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’

The emotional hollowness and orthodoxy of Harman’s politics can be felt from the next sentence of this attempt at an epitaph,

‘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’.

Imagine little more than this being said over your grave by one of your leaders in return for 25 years of service! A quarter-century of commitment, passionate arguments and much humdrumming, as well as being a GP; after many articles, reviews and regular columns in the SWP press; after creating a genuine public following through his books; after helping initiate the most successful anti-racist intervention of the period; after playing a vital role in smashing a latent fascism movement; in no way do the party’s official obsequies permit any suggestion that its leadership learnt anything at all from Widgery. They cannot allow that he might have contributed to their understanding of the times through which they struggled together. Despite his evidently being amongst the most brilliant of their thinkers, party members were not permitted for a moment to entertain the idea that revolutionary leadership had any other source than the actually existing leadership of the SWP.

If this asphyxiating refusal of originality was what he was up against in the SWP, what on earth led Widgery to stay?

Part of the answer demands talking about his polio. It would be wrong to say it left him a cripple, not because he would in any way object to the political incorrectness of the term, but because in so many ways it did not. If anything, the disability of a foreshortened leg and a legacy of pain strengthened him. But the long convalescence through his teenage years marked him out as different. When he identified with blacks and Asians there was no artificial sense of his projecting onto them a longing for the authentic that he lacked, nor any liberal concern for fairness. His body was like theirs in that it inscribed him as an outsider. The anti-racism of this well-educated English middle-class boy was, if I can be allowed the word in this context, natural. So too was his immediate identification with women’s liberation in the UK that started in 1970. The bodily, by which I mean the intimate, physical urge for equality, was intrinsic to his own experience. It led him to support from their beginning the two transformative movements that came out of the sixties to challenge the exclusive white patriarchy of the British Establishment: feminism and multiculturalism.

The working class ‘insurgency’ of 1972 and 1974, to use Widgery’s description, had led to a second Harold Wilson government after two elections in 1974. This incorporated the trade unions into a social contract. Meanwhile, in 1975, with inflation running at 15 per cent, Margaret Thatcher took over the Tory leadership. The far-right in the form of the National Front or NF also mobilised. In August 1976 Eric Clapton used a concert to speak out for Enoch Powell, the totemic figure of racist alarmism. Enraged, Red Saunders, a radical photographer, wrote an instant letter that was signed by six friends and ran in Musical Express, Melody Maker and Sounds, telling him, 'Come on Eric…you’ve been taking too much of that Daily Express. Own up. Half your music is black.’ And with that letter, Rock Against Racism was born.

Loaned office space by the SWP’s Socialist Worker it hammered out its own ideas, launched an explosive propaganda broadsheet, Temporary Hoardings, overseen by the graphic designer Ruth Gregory. Widgery wrote its first editorial in manifesto prose:

‘We want Rebel music, street music. Music that breaks down people’s fear of one another. Crisis music. Now music. Music that knows who the real enemy is. Rock against Racism. Love Music Hate Racism.’

RAR organised numerous events and concerts. It was supercharged by the simultaneous arrival of Punk, without whose energy it might have faltered, and its vulgar up-yours to the fatuous monarchism of the Queen’s silver jubilee in 1977.

This was the moment when everything came together for Widgery. The mad anarchism of Punk ‘was another response to the same social crisis which produced the NF’s successes’. Violent and sexist, it could have gone in any direction politically, he argued, but punk was working class and coming from the bottom, despising liberal pieties. Widgery’s political intelligence and cultural radicalism, so often in tension, had found a joint home and clunk-clicked. In August RAR mobilised its raucous supporters against the National Front in the battle of Lewisham.

The NF’s leader the ‘veteran fascist John Tyndall’ was so shaken by Lewisham he declared ‘the Third World War has just started’, Widgery writes:

‘As for our side, we were frightened and brave and proud and ashamed all at the same time as the day became more brutal and frightening and the police, furious at their failure, turned to take revenge on the counter-demonstrators. There was one big flash of recognition on the faces of the groups: between dread and socialist, between lesbian separatist and black parent, between NME speedfreak and ASTMS branch secretary. We were together.’

Out of the events at Lewisham the SWP decided to establish a broader front against Fascism, the Anti-Nazi League. Supported by up and coming politicians such as Peter Hain and Neil Kinnock, the ANL whacked the stuffing out of the National Front. Apparently Martin Webster, the chief NF organiser, believed that,

‘prior to 1977 the NF were unstoppable. Then suddenly the ANL was everywhere and knocked hell out of them… He said that the sheer presence of the ANL had made it impossible to get NF members onto the streets, had dashed recruitment and cut away their vote. It wasn't just the physical opposition to their marches, they have lost the propaganda war too.’

Widgery argues that what they achieved was historic:

‘if such a campaign as the ANL and RAR had not been launched in Britain, there is every reason to suspect that the mid-70s electoral surge of the NF might have been sustained. The evidence is in France where Jean-Marie Le Pen, now the leader of Europe's largest movement of the extreme right, advanced from a mere 0.2 per cent in the March 1982 local elections…  to a total of 2.5 million votes in the 1984 Euro election.’

This claim and the earlier quotes come from Beating Time, Riot ‘n’ Race ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll written by Widgery and designed by Ruth Gregory and Andy Dark as a graphic photo book laid out with the style and energy of Temporary Hoarding. The episode is situated in the longer experience of British racism by Paul Gilroy, in There Ain't no Black in the Union Jack. He observes that RAR had an extensive rather than narrow definition of racism which connected to the much wider social-political struggles in Britain at that time. Gilroy also recognises the effort RAR made to communicate an anti-authoritarian appeal,

‘The effect of punk on RAR's ability to function effectively was not confined to its pronouncements on ‘race’ and nation. Punk style, like its anti authoritarian ideology, was also borrowed, used and developed by RAR. It became an integral part of the movement's capacity to operate in a truly popular mode, a significant component in its ability to be political without being boring at a time when the NF was identified as being ‘No Fun’. This can be seen most clearly from an examination of the visual design of RAR broadsheets and magazines. In breaking from what was felt to be a dour and therefore self-defeating leftist approach, almost as devoid of fun as drab fascist propaganda, RAR's designers, Ruth Gregory and Syd Shelton, David King, Roger Huddle, Red Saunders, Andy Dark, Rick Fawcett and others laid great emphasis on the visual appeal of their publications.’

Gilroy regrets the loss of this wider energy in the shift from Rock against Racism to the Anti-Nazi League with its narrower focus and demagogic striving for a patriotic wartime appeal. The move may have helped crush the National Front definitively but it let British racism live on to find other forms. At the same time the combination of RAR and the ANL laid a foundation stone for multicultural London, if not yet the rest of Britain. It culminated in the Victoria Park mobilisation and concert in 1978. In his account Dave Renton quotes the historian Raphael Samuel reporting that it was ‘the most working class demonstration I have been on, and one of the very few of my adult lifetime to have sensibly changed the climate of public opinion’.

Written in the mid-eighties and published in 1986 Beating Time was critically reviewed in International Socialism by one of Widgery's party comrades, Ian Birchall. He reprimanded it for ‘the absence of an adequate theoretical framework’ and for ‘missing… a concept of ideology’. An interminable put-down suffused with the spirit of an ideological apparatchik and stuffed with routine quotes from Marx, Lenin and SWP leader Tony Cliff, Birchall scorns Widgery’s celebration by asking in effect, if RAR and ANL were so good, why were there so few new recruits for the SWP?[3]. Widgery’s reply is droll and restrained except about the format of the book, which he defends with a brilliant, forceful account of the need to embrace new visual means to communicate the possibilities of change. As for the reason that RAR and the ANL did not recruit large numbers of new members for the SWP? ‘RAR and the ANL activity was an upsurge within a downturn’[4].

An upsurge within a downturn! If you want a five-word introduction to Widgery’s politics you can’t do better. And what an upsurge he and his fellow creators of Rock Against Racism were!  Against the reactionary tide of mid-1970s Britain, he wove a revolutionary’s dream of working class youth, new music, defiant lèse majesté, graphic invention, confrontation and celebration, outside and against the official structures – overcoming police lines to do so. And did this with purpose, helping smash the UK’s incipient fascist movement with lasting effect.

This brilliant fight was not a defensive politics to rescue a community’s dignity, fine and hard though that can be. Rather, he had helped inspire and organise a shape-shifting claim on his country’s political culture that broke a racist movement forever and laid a framework for active multi-culturalism in an old imperial society. Also, it was not done in the top-down Leninist model of bringing ‘revolutionary consciousness and strategy to the masses’ that so hypnotised orthodox Trotskyists. It was done with – not to – the young working-class who mobilised against racism, learning from its language and spirit [5].

All this meant that for 18 months Widgery lived the revolution that he dreamt of. Which in turn meant he learnt how it needed organisation. He could never have done it alone, meaning in his case without the resources of the SWP. It is hard to leave an organisation which has gifted you such an experience. I’m speculating, but the legacy of polio meant he knew intimately that he needed the strength of others. Many remain members of sects out of psychological weakness and a need for the authority and security they seem to provide, a mental state of affairs that can preserve the pathology that creates the bond. Mentally, Widgery was fit and free and at ease with his own judgements and feelings. This was why he was never trusted by the SWP, he acknowledged the need for discipline without surrendering his liberty. Also, he could see that the SWP needed him while stupidly refusing to recognise the fact, which must have been immensely frustrating. But, surely, they would learn? Surely, the moment would come, for he understood that there can be no revolution without the wider unruly energies and resources of popular democracy, which Widgery, unlike them, had the capacity to hear and mainline. 

He died before he learnt that no such opportunity would come within a usual lifetime. Probably he would have left his party by drifting away rather than publicly denouncing the SWP, under the pressures of his medical practice and writing. Where would he be now, had he lived into the age of the internet?  He wrote that he intended to become more dangerous as he grew old. And he would have been more dangerous. In his introduction to The Left in Britain, which he edited in 1975, he wrote, ‘Because such a small group of people actually find written words convincing, I half wish that it wasn’t a book at all but some species of talking poster…’.  A talking poster is what the graphics of Rock Against Racism and Temporary Hoardings strove for. What else is the World Wide Web but a format for talking posters? It would have been home from home for someone as fast, opinionated, engaged, visual, provocative and knowledgeable as Widgery. Russell Brand would have had little chance up against him.

A couple of years before he died, probably in November 1989, he, his partner Juliet and their children Jesse and Annie (Beating Time is dedicated to the three of them) came to stay for a fireworks night with me and my partner Judith and our daughters Tamara and Portia. A vicious bug had struck me down. I found myself prostrate in bed, unable to join them outside to watch the pyrotechnics that I love. Widgery checked me out. He asked careful questions, then told me firmly that I had to wash my hands twice in future after going to the loo, which indeed I have done ever since (I hold him responsible for wasting enormous quantities of soap). Tender and professional, he assured me I would recover. I can see him now, Doctor Widgery. He is leaning over me still.

Thanks to Juliet Ash, Paul Gilroy, Richard Kuper and Ross Spear for helpful comments. 

[1] ‘Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse’ by Matthew Arnold, and I discover on checking that another aspect of Widgery’s prodigious fecundity was also present, a slightly inaccurate quotation. It should be: ‘between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born’.

[2] Peter Whitehead’s Wholly Communion, a 33-minute hand-held, close-up documentary of the 1965 Albert Hall ‘International Poetry Incarnation’, shows Ginsberg was pretty much out of his head. It also features Adrian Mitchell reading Tell Me Lies About Vietnam, which distils the rage and pain the war created in many of us. You can see it on the BFI DVD, Peter Whitehead and the Sixties. 

[3] Ian Birchall, ‘Only Rock and Roll?’ an article you could not make up if you wanted to caricature it. I can’t resist quoting one hilarious paragraph in full: ‘What is needed in this situation is not a vague ‘mentality’ of good-will, but hard politics. And that politics has to be backed up by organisation. But just as Widgery underplayed the role of the revolutionary party in fighting reformism, so he fails to point to the role of the party in cultural struggle. One of the very few bands that has preserved its political and musical integrity over the recent period is the Redskins. Firstly, because membership of the SWP has given them a clear political framework. And secondly, because every time they appear on stage or television, they know they are being watched by SWP members muttering: ‘Beware of your deviations and faux-pas, we shall not miss a single one.’’ Just as Birchall’s ‘review’ was gate-keeping, to ensure that any comrades who felt tempted by the spirit of Rock against Racism were aware that they had to put the party first, so good popular music need to be guarded from the deviations of punk by making sure that whenever you played the collective policeman of the SWP was keeping an eye out for the slightest deviation or even faux-pas! What was the fate of such musical inspiration? According to Wikipedia, ‘The Redskins released one full album, Neither Washington Nor Moscow, and two final singles before splitting at the end of 1986’. I should add that when, after he had given fifty years of loyal service to the party, Birchall could take no more and resigned in disgust over its ‘Comrade Delta’ rape scandal in 2013, he listed the SWP’s achievements across his five decades of membership. They included, ‘Our initiation of the Anti-Nazi League played a major role in blocking the rise of the far right in Britain’.

 [4] Widgery, Reply to Ian Birchall. The phrase ‘upsurge within a downturn’ is also a form of code for the initiated. The SWP had an ‘upturn/downturn’ analysis of the times they lived in, emanating I presume from Tony Cliff. It gave its members a sense of measuring their place in the rhythm of the class struggle and whether their duty was the hold the line and preserve their forces (a downturn) or escalate confrontations to maximize the opportunities of the conjuncture (an upturn). 

[5] Here is how Widgery saw it, writing in Beating Time in 1986 (p.54): ‘In his 1977 study of nationalism and social crisis, the Breakup of Britain, Tom Nairn looks forward to a ‘new progressive and generous cultural movement which will be an alternative to the nationalist revival and may one day serve as a cultural bond between sectarian Marxism and a wider popular movement’. Nairn predicted exactly what Rock Against Racism became. But RAR's own strength was that it was not a decision of the intellect. It came out of the cultural experience of the first generation to have grown up in a multi-racial inner urban Britain. It was a generation who mixed loyalty to the spirit of the commune, Bolshevism and the German revolutionary left with post-war, post-electronic modernist culture. So RAR was not started by university graduates but by rock autodidacts working in photography, the glossies, Theatre, rock 'n' roll, graphic design and fashion. When we were finding our way to Marxism in the 1960s our common influences were not only Mayakovsky, El Lissitzky, Tatlin, Brecht, Grosz and Heartfield, but surrealism, Tamla Motown, Village Voice, Cadillac fins and American pop art. We plagiarised from far wider sources: Hanoi banana labels, Istanbul daily papers, Vivienne Westwood's clothes, Cecil Beaton, the US air force, Matisse (for colour), Man Ray, the underground press, Kraus’s Die Fackel, mid-period Jean Luc Godard, Situationism, always backed by the music of Jamaica and the American cities.

About the author

Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the founder of openDemocracy 


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