Paul Foot

The Lessing legend

(February 1998

From Socialist Review, No.216, February 1998, pp.26-27.
Copyright © 1998 Socialist Review.
Downloaded with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Walking In The Shade, Volume two of my autobiography 1949-1962
by Doris Lessing (Harper Collins £20)

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. After taking part in a debate with Islamicists not long ago at a London college, I was rebuked by one of the women in the audience (they sat separately from the men, and wore veils). ‘If there is no God,’ she asked, ‘how would we know what was right and wrong?’ I was tempted to reply (but didn’t) that for a bit of an answer to this impossible question, The Golden Notebook is a million times better than any religious work.

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. Her demand for women’s liberation had nothing of the feminine exclusivity of the separatist women’s liberationists of the 1980s. 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. Two passages from The Golden Notebook stand out in my memory. The first is a report by a member of a British teachers’ delegation to Russia in the early 1950s when Stalin was still alive. At the end of his stay, the teacher reports, he was summoned to meet the general secretary, a plain simple man in a plain simple office smoking a pipe, asking plain simple questions about the state of affairs in Britain, and nodding wisely as the earnest teacher spilled out his plain simple opinions. The story was the most ludicrous fantasy. But the fantasy was shared, The Golden Notebook argues, by almost every such delegate in those times. When I read the passage I remembered the great Clydeside revolutionary Harry McShane telling me in some embarrassment about his visit to Russia as part of a delegation in 1931. ‘I sat listening to the trams outside, and revelling in the fact that these were our trams, the people’s trams.’ It took Harry more than 20 years to discover that they had been ‘just trams after all, trams just like everywhere else’.

The point about the fantasy was not simply that iconoclastic socialists demeaned themselves by dreaming up such fantasy and pretending it was true. There was another side to it – the great yearning among socialists for a place and time where rulers have no airs or graces and are, because of the democratic nature of the society they represent, quite normal, secular people whose only aim in government is to run the society as fairly as they can. This yearning comes out more clearly in another remarkable passage when the writer of the Red Notebook recalls her stint as a literary adviser to a Communist newspaper. She publishes an advertisement asking readers to send in their own fictional work. She is astounded by the flood of original material which pours into the offices and the accompanying letters in which the authors, almost all working class people, give vent to their literary ambitions, some political, some romantic, some crude, but all throbbing with desire for a world where such expression is natural and free.

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.

No one joined the Party from ‘belief’. They joined because they were disgusted with the state of capitalist society, because they believed that capitalism had led the world into two world wars and would probably lead to a third, because they hated inequality and improverishment, because they were convinced that the world economy could and should be run on egalitarian lines, and above all because they realised that they could only win a new world by combining their resources with others to fight against the old one. They joined, in short, for rational reasons.

The fact that they supported a regime every bit as murderous and tyrannous as anything thrown up by private capitalism must, therefore, be explicable in rational terms. Chief among these was the fact that Stalinist Russia pretended to be socialist, that its economy seemed to be based on planning, not free enterprise, and that its foreign policy appeared to be implacably opposed to that of the free market US.

The facts, now accepted by almost everyone, that Russia was not socialist, that its planning was bureaucratic in the interests of its own ruling class, and that its foreign policy was as imperialist as that of the US, were stubbornly resisted by the Stalinists. The refusal to accept these facts, and a party structure founded on Stalin’s Russia where all ideas and inspiration came from the top down and not in the other direction, led to an intellectual tyranny, an abject acceptance of everything which emerged from the Kremlin and its Communist Parties, and an atmosphere of collective lying which understandably still shocks Doris Lessing even though (or perhaps because) she was part of it.

‘I have come to think,’ she concludes, ‘that there is something in the nature of Communism that breeds lies, makes people lie and twist facts.’

She does not, cannot even begin to, justify that sentence. Communism is about the democratic control of the economy, need before greed, public interest before private interest, the pooling and conserving rather than the atomisation and waste of human and natural resources. How can such a concept by its nature ‘make people lie’? It was not Communism nor socialism, but the betrayal of both, which led to people lying in and about Stalinist Russia. Once the essence of socialism, democratic control from below, was jettisoned, everything else, including straight talk and honest accounting, was jettisoned too.

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.’

Doris Lessing, of course, was not at all responsible for a single bloodbath. She had plenty of moral fervour left – she had not even started on The Golden Notebook, after all. Her acceptance of the blame for Stalin’s crimes in such absurd terms is the measure not just of the depth of her disillusionment, but of the abandonment of the socialist zeal which started her off in the first place. The socialist baby was thrown out with the Stalinist bathwater. Like thousands of other former Communists she placed the blame not on the intellectual and political failures of the actual party they joined, but on the very idea of joining a socialist party at all. 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. The abandonment of the ideas of her youth took a long time to complete. If anything, her initial doubts and disillusionment contributed to the wonders of The Golden Notebook. The real decline followed later, taking her, ‘simmering’ on her own, into all sorts of absurdities, weird cult religons, extra-sensory perception, even a campaign to install nuclear shelters at the bottom of every garden. Again and again in this autobiography she reproaches herself for her Communist past, denounces all organised socialists as ‘bigots and fanatics’, lumps Trotsky in with Stalin and rejoices grotesquely (and quite inaccurately) that ‘by the time I had finished The Golden Notebook, I had written my way out of the package’.

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.’

She has been all round the houses but she has not gone down the drain. There is a lot of the old fire and passion left, and her story, as easy as ever to read, puts flesh and bones on the fictional characters in The Golden Notebook. 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.


Last updated on 27.11.2004