Doris Lessing - A Life Behind the Scenes

The Files of the British Intelligence Service MI5

by Peter Raina (Author)
©2021 Prompt XVIII, 160 Pages


In March 1949 the security service MI5 received notice of a suspect person about to enter Britain and went to great pains to keep her under surveillance. This person was the author Doris Lessing. She would eventually go on to win the Nobel Prize for literature as an «epicist … who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny». And it was precisely this scrutiny that troubled the guardians of the status quo. Lessing grew up in colonial Rhodesia and hated the scorn with which the colonists treated the native population. She worked tirelessly for a more just society and this drove her into support for communism. But a communist, as one of her fictional characters says, «is hated, despised, feared and hunted». Peter Raina’s book, reproducing the secret files kept on Lessing, shows that this was largely true, even though her emphasis in these troubled times was always on Peace. Lessing was eventually disillusioned by communism, and sought a better understanding of human relations than Soviet-conforming clichés could provide. However, her understanding was much enriched by the experiences of her activism and knowledge of the opposition it aroused. The secret files show how strongly Lessing followed her convictions and throw new light on how her perceptions of society evolved. Peter Raina elucidates this in a short Introduction and an Epilogue discussing aspects of her writings.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Dedication
  • Contents
  • List of illustrations
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgements
  • Background to the Files
  • Why Doris Lessing Became a Communist
  • The Communist Party of Great Britain
  • MI5 – The British Security Service
  • Secret Service Files
  • The Files on Doris Lessing (chronological)
  • Early Security Interest
  • Heightened Interest and the Authors’ World Peace Delegation
  • Visit to ‘Central Africa’ and the Aftermath
  • Parting with the Communist Party and the Waning of Security Interest
  • Epilogue
  • Doris Lessing as Writer
  • Bibliography
  • Index

←ix | xi→



Doris Lessing with her son, Peter. By courtesy of Gabriele
Gysi, Berlin (private collection).

Within the book

1. Gottfried Lessing & his son, Peter

2. Doris Lessing & her son, Peter

3. Doris, Gottfried & Peter

4. Doris & Peter

5. Doris & Peter

6. Gottfried Anton Nicolai Lessing

All these photographs were made accessible to the author by
Mrs Gabriele Gysi (Berlin) from her private collection. Frau
Gabriele is the daughter of Irene Gysi, sister of Gottfried Lessing.

←xi | xiii→


This small volume is not a study in biography, nor is it a treatise on the literary qualities of a very distinguished British novelist. Its designs are more modest. It presents reports of the British security service, MI5, recording the activities of Doris Lessing, especially while she was a member of the British Communist Party from 1952 until 1956. Doris never made a secret of her sympathies for communism, but openly proclaimed them. She helped in founding communist cells; she played an active role in the Soviet-sponsored peace movement; she travelled to the Soviet Union with other left-wing intellectuals and, on her return, highly commended the achievements of communism in that country, doing so in several public lectures. Doris had come to hold communist views while she was still residing in Southern Rhodesia, mainly because she deplored the colour bar imposed by the white colonials so strongly. She found the unjust social status forced upon the natives utterly abhorrent, and since the imperial rulers showed no desire to remedy the atrocious conditions of the Africans, she earnestly believed that the road to freedom lay in communism.

While she remained in Southern Rhodesia, Doris was not a principal player. Her enthusiasm for the cause had her distributing left-wing literature and little more. It was only when she arrived in Britain in 1949 that she adopted more purposeful measures to further Marxist objectives. She attended communist meetings, borrowed books from the Left Wing Book Club and developed contact with various comrades. She became a full member of the British Communist Party in 1952, and from that moment on, she was a suspicious person so far as the British security service MI5 was concerned. And this is where our story begins.

←xiii | xiv→

Her telephone was bugged, her correspondence intercepted1 and her meetings were closely documented by the agency. Although it was against the law, MI5 continued to keep a close eye on her. Whenever Doris Lessing visited Southern Rhodesia. the local security service documented all her spheres of action, and sent reports to MI5. These reports were not available until recently. We publish them here for the first time.

What do they tell us?

First, they show how the security service employed what they called ‘well-placed sources’ to gather information: and how that information was secured.

Secondly, we learn about Doris’s movements and her whereabouts in London, the people she met, what meetings she attended and what she said.

Thirdly, the security services were chiefly interested in what Lessing did when she visited Southern Rhodesia. There she met all the important African trade unionists and political activists. She advised them on how to coordinate their work towards the achievement of their aim of securing release from oppression. She advised them (and this we must emphasize) that all their activities must be peaceful, never volatile or violently revolutionary. She recommended that Africans showing promise should be sent to Britain for further education. The South African security service reported all her activities in Africa and forwarded these reports to the British security service, so that we have records about Doris from Rhodesia as well as from Britain.

We also know from the MI5 files that Doris Lessing never received any instructions from the Soviet Secret Service. Whatever she did, whoever she met and wherever she went, it was all on her own initiative. The British Secret Service records tell us what exactly Doris attempted to achieve as a communist. This information, unknown before, reveals a life behind the scenes (hence our title), which should be indispensable to any future Lessing biographer.

In 1956, when Stalin’s crimes became public and when Soviet troops invaded Hungary, Doris left the British Communist Party and her ambition to change the dismal life circumstances of Africans through communism totally disappeared. Years later she explained why. The underlying problem, she said, was the way Party members maltreated the language: how words were misused:

←xiv | xv→

It is not a new thought that communism debased language and with language, thought. There is a communist jargon recognizable after a single sentence. […] Even five or six years ago Izvestia, Pravda, and a thousand other communist papers were written in a language that seemed designed to fill up as much space as possible without actually saying anything – because, of course, it was dangerous to take up positions that might have to be defended.2

With language unable to reflect on reality and ask hard questions, it was ‘possible to divorce oneself from life or to live in an ivory tower’. And what had happened?

The writers who were to write about social injustice, took power in 1917. It became socialist realism. Anyone who had the misfortune to read through a lot of that stuff, which I did in London early in the ’50s for a communist publisher, knows that socialist realism created novels written in a language as dead as the books already mentioned as a product of academia. Why? Writers know instinctively that a recipe for writing dead books is to write because you ought.3


XVIII, 160
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (April)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. XVIII, 160 pp., 7 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Peter Raina (Author)

Peter Raina read Modern History at St Catherine´s College, Oxford. Later he worked on various aspects of British history in Oxford, as Senior Research Associate, the Graduate Centre, Balliol College; Honorary Member of High Table and Member of the Senior Common Room, Christ Church; Associate Member of Nuffield College; Honorary Member of the Senior Common Room, Magdalen College; Visiting Research Scholar, Faculty of History. He has also been a Visiting Fellow of the Institute of Historical Research, School of Advanced Studies, London; the Centre of International Studies, Cambridge University; and the Centre for International Studies, LSE. He was granted High Table Privileges at Peterhouse and at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. He is a Life Member, Clare Hall, Cambridge and a Knight Companion Grand Cross of the Order of St Stanislas.


Title: Doris Lessing - A Life Behind the Scenes
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180 pages