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Doris Lessing - A Life Behind the Scenes

The Files of the British Intelligence Service MI5

Peter Raina

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.

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Why Doris Lessing Became a Communist


People become communists, Doris Lessing wrote in her memoirs:

because of cynicism about their own governments – that, first. Because they had fallen in love with a Communist – as Gottfried Lessing did. Because they were taken to a Party rally and were swept away by mass emotion. Because they had been taken to a Party meeting and found the atmosphere of conspiracy appealing. Because of the idealism of the Party. Because they had a taste for heroics or suffering. In my case it was because for the first time in my life I was meeting a group of people (not an isolated individual here and there), who read everything, and who did not think it remarkable to read, and among whom thoughts about the Native Problem I had scarcely dared to say aloud turned out to be mere commonplace. I became a Communist because of the spirit of the times, because of the Zeitgeist. 1

A report by MI6 underlines this confession: ‘Her communist sympathies have been fanned almost to the point of fanaticism owing to her upbringing in Rhodesia, which has brought out in her a deep hatred of the colour bar. Colonial exploitation is her pet theme and she has now nearly become as irresponsible in her statements as COPPARD saying that everything black is wonderful and that all men and all things white are vicious.’ 2

There is one further reason why Doris decided to become a communist, however, and that was...

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