books Doris Lessing's MI5 File: Was She a Threat to the State?
'Probably pro-communist'. Doris Lessing, pictured in 1950., Photograph: Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty Images // The Guardian
"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".
These opening pages set the tone for the remainder of Lessing's files. The anxiety about foreign accents is only marginally more paranoid than a typical MI5 report, though "vapourings" is more poetic than the usual lexicon in London. It is typical that the information gathered begins with an error. It is also typical that the result of several months of inquiries is no more enlightening than the information that Lessing was prepared to state publicly about herself.
In her autobiography, Lessing describes her cohort as living and talking at this time as though "tomorrow we might face the firing squad". But what is striking in the reports is the lack of confrontation. This was a woman who was publicly distributing communist literature and who was entirely open in her anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist stance. There was no need for a secret hunt to ensnare her.
The scene shifts to London. A report from the security liaison office in Salisbury warns the director general of MI5 to expect a "person of suspected communist tendencies" who has sailed from Cape Town to the UK in March 1949. There is a page redacted here, marked with the ambiguous stamp found throughout MI5 files: THE ORIGINAL DOCUMENT RETAINED IN DEPARTMENT UNDER SECTION 3(4) OF THE PUBLIC RECORDS ACT 1958. It was in May 1949 that the Southern Rhodesian files were extracted and posted to London, so the missing page may feature a request for this information. Then, in March 1950, there is a memo from MI5 to special branch asking for information on suspicious activity on the part of either of the Lessings.
Doris and Gottfried had now divorced, their marriage of expediency ending amicably as soon as Gottfried received his British citizenship. They were living in London, with Doris looking after their three-year-old son Peter and pursuing her career as a writer. She had arrived in Britain with the manuscript of The Grass Is Singing, which was published in 1950 and brought her instant literary fame in Britain and political infamy in Southern Rhodesia, where she was castigated for publicly questioning the colour bar. She was too busy looking after her child to engage with communism and was anyway now more interested in literature than in politics. Gottfried, on the other hand, was working with their former Southern Rhodesian collaborator Dorothy Schwartz and preparing to move to East Berlin, where he went in the spring of 1951.
Within the next year, all this information became known to MI5, though there was also considerable misinformation. Agents examined correspondence to both addresses and looked for mentions of either Lessing at the CP headquarters in King Street, London, where they intercepted mail and bugged telephone calls and meetings. The reports mention Doris and Dorothy Lessing, Nessing and Lacey, with her nickname Tigger reported as Tia, Tig and even Trigger. Gottfried is frequently named Godfrey, and The Grass Is Singing is often referred to as Rustling Grass. The only consistency is Lessing's file number - P.F.97,471 - which is usually mentioned multiple times on each document.
Lessing first "came to notice" in London as a contact of the black Southern Rhodesian nationalist politician Charles Mzingeli, when he visited London in 1951, and then as an associate of a communist called Lew Smith in a memo of the same year. One document records that Smith "is on extremely friendly terms with Dorothy LESSING, an authoress, of 71 Church Street, London W8, who is responsible for the book The Grass Is Singing'' and that "In letters he has received from Dorothy LESSING, whom he calls `Trigger', there does not seem to be anything strongly suggestive that she is interested in communism".
At this stage there are several parallel lines of inquiry in Lessing's files, with an apparent lack of communication between investigators. Though some documents list her address accurately as 71 Kensington Church Street, an independent MI5 investigator spent four months tracing "Doris LACEY, an authoress" who had been mentioned in a phone conversation between two CP officials. This woman was reported to be a South African or Southern Rhodesian who lived at number 71 on an unknown street. When searches at 71 Lexham Gardens and 71 Bedford Gardens failed to produce the elusive authoress and 71 Lexham Gardens turned out instead to house the Alexa hotel, the investigator sent someone to comb the hotel register to see if Lacey had been staying there three months earlier. This was all at the same moment that an independent series of reports noted in detail the movements of the Southern Rhodesian novelist Doris Lessing, who in June 1952 flew to Prague and then Moscow. The doggedness is both impressive and mystifying.
Lessing returned from the Soviet Union in mid-July and spent the next couple of months giving talks to communists in London about her time in Moscow. In a Daily Worker article included in her MI5 file, she praised the high level of culture in Russia, describing travelling on a tube train "between one person reading Pushkin and another reading Dosteoevsky". She was also impressed by the political views of the Russians. A special branch informant who observed her speaking to an Authors' World Peace Appeal meeting recorded her saying that the Russian people talked about peace and not war, and that "not one member of the party had seen any indication of war preparation".
It is strange that Lessing continued to be described as "probably pro-communist". She made no secret of her party membership when she joined on 1 July 1952, so it seems laggardly that it should not come to light at MI5 headquarters until April 1953, when they came across a copy of her 1953 registration form. The assumption that she was not a member is a reminder of how furtive many communists were at this time, when members of the CP were banned from government positions and were unable to work for the BBC.
MI6 revealed that it did not know about her party membership in an otherwise astute report that described her as a pro-communist novelist ("though it is doubtful if she is a member of the party") whose "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".
After 1953, Lessing became more directly involved in activities in the party's heavily bugged King Street HQ and her MI5 files became more accurate as a result. She was in regular contact with nationalist leaders in Southern Rhodesia, sending detailed reports about her Soviet Union trip to Mzingeli, who was now prominent in the All-African Convention, formed to oppose colonial rule. She urged King Street officials to do more to help the communists in South Africa, and in return she joined the CP writers group and hosted meetings in her flat. When she was struggling over a question of Communist party bureaucracy while writing the novel that would become A Proper Marriage, she phoned King Street for help. When she needed a lawyer to help her buy a house, she asked the party to recommend one. In 1956, an MI5 informant announced that Lessing had been described by a CP official as "a literary ace in the party".
MI5 knew enough to warn security in Southern Rhodesia that Lessing was intending to visit Africa in March 1956, reporting for the communist press and making contacts for the party. The authorities in Southern Rhodesia declared that she was to be deemed a prohibited immigrant. She would be allowed to remain in Southern Rhodesia on a temporary permit for one month but was not to be allowed into South Africa.
Lessing's files now become more interesting because the hunt becomes an actual hunt. Watching as Immigration sights her boarding her plane to South Africa, we know before she does that she will not be allowed in. She learned the news only after landing in Johannesburg, where she was immediately dispatched to Southern Rhodesia on another plane. "No reason was given to me for refusing me," she complained to Reynold's News. "It is true, I am a member of the British Communist party. But what do they think I could do there?"
Lessing had lost her first battle with officialdom but, let loose in Southern Rhodesia, she and the artist Paul Hogarth quickly evaded their pursuers. "These two communists are still in or around Salisbury," the private secretary told the prime minister at the end of April, complaining that they were taking "a great deal of evasive action and abnormal security precautions to shake off surveillance". In fact, he went on, "at the time of writing, CID have lost track of them".
After her return in May, Lessing reported on her trip in articles and in a book, Going Home (1957). In the book she wrote as a communist, insisting that within a decade the communist countries would become more democratic than the west. This quickly proved not to be true. Lessing became frustrated by the reluctance of British CP officials to intervene in Africa and by their failure to distance themselves from Stalin.
After the Soviet communists brutally suppressed the Hungarian uprising in October 1956, Lessing wrote a letter to the communist magazine the Reasoner complaining about the refusal in King Street to listen to criticism from the so-called "intellectuals". She was distressed that when she and her friends asked for "a fresh approach" they were greeted with "defensive platitudes", though they were all part of the "terrible, magnificent, bloody, contradictory process, the establishing of the first communist regime in the world", which should create the basis for freedom of speech.
In November, Lessing joined Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill and others in signing a letter to the Daily Worker protesting about Hungary. MI5 reports reveal the growing schism between the intellectuals and the bureaucrats. On 23 November someone announced in a bugged King Street conversation: "Lessing is out." The officials claimed not to mind. Cultural groups were better off with ordinary people; the Daily Worker had been "much better since the readers have been writing it".
Lessing (front right) with John Osborne (left), John Berger (behind Lessing) and Vanessa Redgrave (in fur hat) in 1961.
Photograph: Reg Warhurst/Associated Newspaper.
At this point Lessing's files become stranger. As she publicly distanced herself from the party, she became less dangerous to British security interests. Yet the file now existed and therefore needed new material, so the speculation became more speculative. In January 1957 a source described Lessing as a "Marxist at present in search of a party she can support", convinced that she remained a security risk. "Source describes her as an attractive, forceful, dangerous woman, ruthless if need be, even wavering in a forceful way." Some of the King Street bureaucrats shared the source's views. One observed in November 1957 that he thought Lessing would find her way back into the party, though another remarked that she had only joined the party because friends of hers had done so and that her looks had "steadily gone down" since leaving.
The comment about Lessing's looks is typical of the open sexism that united MI5 and the Communist party. Both described her appearance and mentioned her divorces in scandalised tones at every opportunity. When Lessing's Czech anti-communist neighbour decided to inform on her, he suggested that as she was visited by men of "various nationality" ("Americans, Indians, Chinese and Negroes") her flat was probably being used "for immoral purposes". The idea that she might be running an international brothel stuck, though eventually MI5 had to concede that the rumour had not been substantiated. At the same time, party officials seem frequently to have judged her communism according to her appearance. Announcing that he wanted to bring Lessing to Newcastle to meet the workers, a CP official informed a colleague that she was "a very nice person and a very attractive girl", by way of proving her credentials. It is not surprising that, as she became more outspoken in her doubts, her looks should start to wane.
In the early 1960s, Lessing's file shrinks to include occasional references to her presence at anti-nuclear meetings and random press cuttings. Intermittently there is a run of reviews for a novel, as if in the archive of Lessing's publisher rather than the security service. There are probably later documents still to come, but it seems unlikely there will be much else of interest. After Lessing devoted her energies to Sufism in the 1970s and 80s, it is difficult to imagine even MI5 thinking she constituted a threat to national security.
But did she ever represent such a threat and did MI5 really believe that she did? The latter question is arguably irrelevant because the business of those compiling intelligence files was as much to gather information as to protect the nation. The intelligence machine was necessary for Anglo-American relations, quite apart from genuine security needs. The 1950s were years of hardline McCarthyism in America, and if Britain wished to continue to receive political and financial assistance from the US, then it needed to be seen to play its part.
The question of whether Lessing posed a danger is better answered by her books than by her MI5 files. This was a war of ideas, and she was more menacing in words than deeds, though no one at MI5 seems to have read her books. Certainly, Lessing's anger about the colour bar was as fervent as MI6 feared, and she wanted to bring down the government in Southern Rhodesia. Her files indicate she was spurred into action in London by her links with Mzingeli. She returned to Southern Rhodesia in 1956 determined to make a difference there, and the anxious letter from the private secretary suggests that she was perceived to have real power. If she constituted a security threat anywhere it was in Africa, but even there, having eluded her hunters, she didn't do anything more than write another angry book about the situation.
In London, her support for the Soviet Union made her a perceived hazard. These were years when cold war fear was real and anyone who expressed such enthusiasm for Russia in 1952 might well be plotting to overthrow the British political order. But it is hard to see how Lessing's enthusiasm for the Soviet Union or open membership of the CP could have translated into any genuinely dangerous acts in Britain. Her statements about communism, even before she had left the party, are marked by ambivalence. When Martha decides to "fling herself into the struggle" in Lessing's 1954 novel A Proper Marriage, she remains put off by "the exclamatory style, the hectoring language" of communist literature and is amused by the way communists refer to "the party", as though there could be no other.
Lessing's 1962 book The Golden Notebook is usually seen as being about women's liberation, but it is also a book about communism that acted as Lessing's protracted farewell to her politically committed self. The heroine Anna Wulf becomes gradually disillusioned with communism but joins the party just at the point when everyone else is leaving because she feels contempt for the side of herself that hates joining anything and because she finds the literary world "so prissy, maiden-auntish" and class-bound.
In her autobiography, Lessing describes herself as joining the CP in London for reasons she still did not fully understand (it was, she stated, "probably the most neurotic act of my life") and claimed she did not go to meetings and was already in effect a dissident. She suggests that both in Southern Rhodesia and in London she had joined the party primarily because the communists were the best-read people she had met. Her MI5 files reveal she did go to meetings, but contain nothing about why.
The practical explanation for her decision to join seems to be that she wished to help the African nationalists and was determined to change the situation in Southern Rhodesia, if no longer in the world as a whole. Reading the novels and autobiographies, it seems also that she retained a loyalty to her younger self. Lessing found it hard to let go of a promise of freedom that had impelled her to abandon two children she loved. She found it easier to belong to the party, until it became untenable.
In The Golden Notebook, Anna considers a statement by Arthur Koestler to which Lessing also refers in her autobiography. Koestler suggested that any communist in the west who stayed in the party after the war did so on the basis of a private myth. Anna reflects on her own myth and concludes, as Lessing did, that she has stayed in the party because she believes that while most of the criticisms of the Soviet Union are true, "there must be a body of people biding their time there, waiting to reverse the present process back to real socialism".
Whatever Lessing's residual loyalty, it is hard to accept that she really believed these idealistic bureaucrats were about to enter the stage. It feels as though there are two Lessings in this period. There is the party member, telling herself that the Soviet Union will come good and in the meantime using the communist language we see recorded in the MI5 files. And there is the writer: a woman with too much self-knowledge, too much weary irony, to have any more time for the CP officials than she would have for MI5, if she could read their reports.
In the end, Lessing the writer won out - and she was always going to. The heroine of her 1985 novel The Good Terrorist resembles Lessing as her capitalist hunters portrayed her. Alice is a self-styled "revolutionary", prepared to sacrifice everything in the fight against "fascist imperialism". She decides to risk the lives of innocent people in the service of the larger struggle. This was not Lessing's way in the 1950s, and in a letter to the communist EP Thompson, published in his magazine the New Reasoner in 1957, she made explicit why that was the case.
"I know full well that all my reactions now are because (if I may use this word I hate so much) I am an artist," she wrote. As a writer, she had now "exhausted all the experience and emotions that are useful to me as an artist in the old way of being a communist". She had no moral fervour left; she thought that anyone who felt responsible for the "bloodbaths and cynicism" of the past 30 years must be unable to feel indignant about the bloody-mindednesss of capitalism; and, perhaps most importantly, she knew that she would "wither and die and never write another word if I can't get out of this straitjacket of what we've all been thinking and feeling for so long".
It was because she was foremost an artist and not a propagandist that she never represented a real threat to British security and that MI5 was never going to unearth any information more shocking than the ambivalent statements she was prepared to make in her published writing. This was something that her pursuers at MI5, for all the references to her as an "authoress", did not understand.
[Lara Feigel's new book The Bitter Taste of Victory: In the Ruins of the Reich is out in January. She is currently working on a book about reading Doris Lessing.]