The Lessing Legend

[Doris Lessing, a Nobel Literature laureate and one of the most important literary figures of our time, passed away at the age of 94. Born in Iran on October 22, 1919, she was brought up in southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) since the age of 3. Her first novel, The Grass is Singing, is an unsparing exploration of race and gender power in colonial Africa. She is best known for The Golden Notebook (1962), which, along with her other writings, reflected her complex relationship with communist and feminist movements. Below are excerpts from Paul Foot’s review of Lessing’s Walking In The Shade, Volume two of my autobiography 1949-1962, from Socialist Review, No.216, February 1998, pp.26-27. Copyright © 1998 Socialist Review. Downloaded with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.]

When they are dead, heroes and heroines cannot let you down. When they are contemporary, still writing and thinking, they can cause the most frightful disillusionment. I still remember my indignation when, more than 20 years ago, I read the last chapter of E.P. Thompson’s book on the Black Acts of the 18th century, Whigs and Hunters.

The chapter, which subscribed to the idea of an eternal and consistent rule of law independent of economic circumstances, seemed to me an appalling betrayal of the Marxist clarity of Thompson’s great history book, The Making of the English Working Class.

I recall something very similar much later when I started, but could not finish, Doris Lessing’s novel The Good Terrorist, published at the height of Thatcherism during the Great Miners’ Strike. This novel seemed to me nothing more nor less than reactionary propaganda.

How could such a ferocious assault on left wing commitment have been mounted by such a committed left winger? Doris Lessing’s early Martha Quest novels are full of life and energy and a passion to change the world. She became a Communist in the most unlikely circumstances – in Rhodesia during the war – and, against all the odds, lived her life according to her principles.

The Golden Notebook, which was started in the late 1950s and published in 1962, is one of the great novels of our time. Its central theme is the condescension of women, and the relationship of that condescension to the subordination of the majority of the human race. The Golden Notebook is often described as a ‘women’s book’ and so of course it is. But it is a man’s book too. The novel hardly ever pontificates, but more than anything else I have ever read it grapples with a secular sexual morality which makes it compulsive and compulsory reading for men. ...

The novel throbs with a passion for liberation: liberation from masculine patronising, from puritanical commandments and enforced stereotypical nuclear families, from baptisms and weddings and all other superstitious ceremonial....

When she wrote The Golden Notebook Doris Lessing’s socialist commitment, however damaged by the behaviour of male socialists or by Stalinism, was still strong. The point in exposing the absurd ways in which men, including socialist men, treated women was to move forward to a new society in which both sexes could freely take part.

The sections in the book entitled the Red Notebook cover the central character’s membership of and disillusionment with the Communist Party before and after the 20th Congress of 1956 in which Nikita Khruschev denounced the crimes of Joseph Stalin, his predecessor as general secretary of the Russian Communist Party.

The Congress led to mass defection from Communist Parties all over the world. Among those who left the British CP were Edward Thompson and Doris Lessing who, at 37, was in her prime.

The shock of the revelations at the 20th Congress runs through the novel. The Communists in it are angry and disillusioned at the way they have been hoaxed. But the rational arguments which inspired these people is there too. I did not read The Golden Notebook until 25 years after it was written, and for a time could not believe that its author was also responsible for The Good Terrorist. The shock of the comparison sent me scurrying back to find a book by Doris Lessing which corresponded as a turning point, as Edward Thompson’s Whigs and Hunters had done. I think I found it, at least to some extent, in her 1973 novel The Summer Before the Dark, where a liberated woman starts to revel in the sentimental domesticity which Doris Lessing rejected and mocked in her early novels and lifestyle.

After that, I was inclined to assume that hers was yet another dreary example of older people abandoning the ideas and zest of their youth and settling for the safe, comfortable and reactionary condescension they once exposed.

Such was the prejudice with which I embarked on her new autobiography, especially this second volume which covers the crucial period of her membership of the British Communist Party, the 20th Congress and the writing of The Golden Notebook. ‘And now,’ she writes on page 52, ‘I have to record what was probably the most neurotic act of my life. I decided to join the Communist Party. And this at a time when my “doubts” had become something like a steady, private torment ... To spell out the paradox. All over Europe, and to a much lesser extent the United States, it was the most sensitive, compassionate, socially concerned people who became Communists ... These decent, kind people supported the worst, the most brutal tyranny of our time.’

Why? Her answer nowhere reflects that sympathy and concern for former Communists which is so central to The Golden Notebook. Her only answer is ‘belief’. She explains: ‘This (Communism) was a religious set of mind, identical with that of passionate religious True Believers ... we inherited the mental framework of Christianity.’

This is demonstrable drivel. Pretty well everyone who joined the Party at that time or any other were non-believers, secularists, humanists, people who rejected and argued passionately against religious superstition and a substitute for independent thought...

The crushing disillusionment which overwhelmed so many Communists in the mid-50s sent them scurrying in many different directions. Perhaps the most interesting part of this book are the letters which Doris Lessing wrote to Edward Thompson in 1956 when he, with John Saville, started the New Reasoner, a journal for former Communists who wanted to stay active socialists. Dorothy Thompson sent the letters to Doris after Edward’s recent death, so we know what she said to him, but not what he said to her. We can only guess from her responses that he was trying to persuade her to stay a committed and campaigning socialist. ‘I know I am a socialist, and I believe in the necessity for revolution when the moment is opportune,’ she replied on 21 February 1957, and then at once argued the exact opposite: ‘But I don’t want to make any more concepts. For myself, I mean. I want to let myself simmer into some sort of knowledge, but I don’t know what it is ... I haven’t got any moral fervour left. No one who feels responsible for the bloodbaths and cynicism of the last 30 years can feel morally indignant about the bloodymindedness of capitalism. I can’t anyway.’

...She identified the chief cause of the failure of the Stalinist parties as the most essential element of socialist commitment, cooperating with others to establish a cooperative world. Once the principle of collective activity, discussion and thought is abandoned, there is nothing left but individual initiative and whim. These desperate letters in 1957 and 1958 contain more clues than anything else about the decline in the power of Doris Lessing’s writing. ...

Can her autobiography then be chucked aside as yet another apology for the existing order from a former socialist who has grown into a petulant reactionary? No, it most certainly cannot. As I look back on the marks I made on this book I am surprised not at all by the number of ‘Oh Nos’ and other exclamations of irritation, but by continuous surprised delight at the flashes of the old Lessing intuition and fury.

It is almost as though, as she forces herself to remember her socialist youth, as she summons up what kept her active and militant for so long, her former commitment comes back to inspire her. I single out, just for tasters, a wonderful analysis of Brecht’s Mother Courage; a furious denunciation of the prevailing fashion for putting poor people in prison for not paying fines; a comparison of the mood at Thatcher’s Tory conference with the Nuremburg rallies; bitter and eloquent assaults on the McCarthyite witchhunts in the US, on means testing, on ‘academic polemical writing’; a warm memory of the camaraderie of CND’s Aldermaston marches; and even an expression that somewhere out there is still an honesty and integrity – or so I believe – and a slight shift in our political fortunes would bring that (1945) face of Britain forward. At least, I hope so.’

We organised socialists may have a lot to say to her, but she has some advice for us too. In October 1956, at the height of the crisis of Stalinism, she wrote to Edward Thompson, ‘Unless a communist party is a body of individuals each jealously guarding his or her independence of judgement, it must degenerate into a body of yes men.’ And yes women too, of course, which Doris Lessing has never been.