Doris Lessing’s MI5 file: was she a threat to the state?
“‘A communist must consider himself a dead man on leave,” Anton tells Martha in Doris Lessing’s 1958 autobiographical novel, A Ripple from the Storm. “A communist is hated, despised, feared and hunted by the capitalists of the world. A communist must be prepared to give up everything: his family, his wife, his children, at a word from the party.”
The scene takes place during the second world war, and Anton is the leader of Southern Rhodesia’s small communist group. He and Martha are accurate depictions of Gottfried and Doris Lessing. Gottfried was a Russian-born German refugee who would soon convince Doris that it was her revolutionary duty to marry him. She had already given up a husband and two children to devote herself to communism and create a free world in which her estranged children could grow up.
The Lessings were not, in fact, currently despised for their allegiance to the Soviet Union. After 1941, Russia was seen as a heroic nation, helping to protect the western allies against Hitler’s might. However, the communists had indeed been feared and hunted, and would be again. Over the next 10 years the capitalists of the world would assemble astonishing quantities of paper in the service of the hunt.
In August 2015, the British security service, MI5, released four bloated files documenting the activities of Doris Lessing between 1943 and 1959. Scholars with an interest in Lessing have been awaiting them because there remain questions surrounding her communism. Most importantly, in her autobiographical accounts of her political activity, there are some curious discrepancies in timing.
Lessing was a member of the officially unrecognised Communist party in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) between 1942 and 1944, and a member of the Communist party of Great Britain between 1952 and 1956. She later claimed that her commitment to communism as practised in the Soviet Union predated her membership of the British party, lasting only until 1949. Why, then, did she join in 1952, and why did she keep renewing her membership at a time when most of the surviving intellectual members were leaving the party? Why was she drawn into campaigning for the CP in London and northern England, and officially representing it on trips to the Soviet Union and South Africa?
Anyone seeking the answers in the National Archives is going to be disappointed. We do not learn much about Lessing’s political beliefs from the terse notes in her files. However, we do learn about the relationship between intellectuals and the CP in this period, and about the peculiarly obsessive and inept mechanisms of intelligence in 1950s Britain.
Lessing’s file opens in Southern Rhodesia in 1943. These are documents from the Southern Rhodesian security service, extracted by MI5 in 1949. The hunt begins with a letter from the air ministry in London in 1944 alerting security about the “Left Club” in Salisbury, Rhodesia’s capital city (now Harare), which has been brought to their notice by the Rhodesian air training group. The club, the informant states, is controlled by a “Mr and Mrs LESSING, the former being a German and the latter a South African”, and is patronised by “persons with foreign accents” as well as a number of RAF personnel. The club is described as “very left” and its discussions are reported to “end in anti-British, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist vapourings”.
Officials in Southern Rhodesia took up this lead, firing off inquiries. One wrote to the police in the neighbouring town of Bulawayo, asking for more information about the Southern Rhodesian branch of the Left Book Club (mistakenly assumed to be the Left Club in question), suggesting that Mrs Lessing was Mrs Gwendolen Margaret Lessing, who was born in Johannesburg in 1917 and was formerly a dancer at the casino at LourenÇo Marques. Within a month, they were better informed, announcing that the “leading light in the Salisbury Left Club” was in fact a typist called “Doris May LESSING, nee TAYLOR [sic], formerly WISDOM”.
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