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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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Parting with the Communist Party and the Waning of Security Interest


In November 1956 Soviet tanks invaded Hungary to quell an uprising there. This brutal action prompted many left-wing intellectuals to question their loyalties to Soviet communism.

Extract for File No. PF 97, 471

Name: Lessing

Receipt Date: 20.11.56

Copy of Telecheck on Temple Bar 2151, Communist Party H.Q.; conversation between John Campbell and George Mathews, mentioning Lessing.

Incoming. 20.11.56. DAILY WORKER LINE.

John Campbell asked for John Gollan but he was in a meeting. Campbell thought Gollan would be interested in what he had to say and they got George Mathews out of the same meeting. He read out a letter he had received:

All of us have for many years advocated Marxist ideas, both in our own special fields and in political discussion in the Labour Movement. We feel therefore that we have a responsibility to express our views as Marxists in the present crisis of international Socialism.

We feel that the uncritical support given by the Executive Committee of the Communist Party to Soviet action in ←122 | 123→Hungary is the undesirable culmination of years of distortion of facts, a period where British comrades have to think out (??????????) [sic] political problems for themselves. We had hoped that the revelations made at the 20th Congress of the CPSU would have made our leadership and press realise that Marxist ideas will only be acceptable to the British Labour Movement if they arise from the...

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