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  • Communism by the Letter:Doris Lessing and the Politics of Writing
  • Matthew Taunton

The writers of the 1930s generation fixed in place an enduring pattern for literary encounters with Communism. The established narrative of the Red Decade positions Communist commitment as a naive and youthful aberration, to be followed inevitably by profound disillusionment and then repentance coupled to a militant Cold War liberalism. This story of "the journey into Communism, and the return" was influentially cemented by the six contributors to Richard Crossman's edited collection The God that Failed (1949), as well as in the subsequent historiography surrounding the Auden gang.1 This has been a sustaining myth of the literary Cold War, underpinning a heavily polarized understanding of political commitment. On the one hand, by their own testimony, those writers experienced the turn to Communism as a religious conversion and described "mental rapture which only the convert knows."2 On the other hand, as apostates, they embraced anti-Communism with a similar fervor. "Ex-Communists," wrote Hannah Arendt in an essay of that name, "are not former Communists, they are Communists 'turned upside down,'" replacing one dogmatism with another.3 As one of many writers and intellectuals who became a Communist, then left the Party to become its unrelenting and severe critic, Doris Lessing in some respects followed this familiar narrative. Her anti-Communism did at times tilt into paranoia. However, her early engagement with Communism was not the all-consuming infatuation described by Arthur Koestler, for example. Before and during her membership of the Party, she expressed and debated views that went far beyond its official orthodoxy. Lessing was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) from 1952 to 1956, but her involvement with Communist politics began earlier, in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Her engagement with Communism is a well-known element of her early formation but this paper draws on archival materials that enable us to reconstruct the early phase of Lessing's intellectual development in greater detail. These archives are relatively recently opened and are only beginning to be consulted by Lessing scholars. In helping us to paint a more detailed [End Page 251] and complex picture of her early career, these materials provide a vital and (to date) untapped resource for understanding Lessing's early political and aesthetic formation, without simply assimilating it to the pattern of the 1930s Communist converts. With that in mind, this paper pursues two related goals.

First, I seek to reposition Lessing politically, in relation to the currents of the mid-century far left, setting out a nuanced picture of Lessing's early political development. In the second volume of her autobiography, Walking in the Shade (1998), she described her decision to join the CPGB in 1952 as "probably the most neurotic act of my life," emphasizing that she already had severe doubts about the Party.4 The word "neurotic" captures some of the complexity of Lessing's position (as well as being one Koestler applied to his Communist period); she had given up unthinking loyalty to Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union before she moved to England in 1949. Yet Lessing did not become a Communist by mistake. The archival materials which I draw on below—predominantly letters in recently opened archives held at the University of East Anglia and the University of Sussex—provide a more ambivalent picture of a rational and skeptical individual who gravitated towards Communism with her eyes open. They also show that many of the intellectual disputes that led to Lessing's departure in 1956, and to the formation of the New Left, were already in place before she arrived in London.

Second, I aim to throw light on the early development of Lessing's thinking about realism and the novel (mostly known through her famous essay "The Small Personal Voice" [1957]) and on her novelistic practice as she reflected on her experiences in the Party in her fiction up to and including Landlocked (1965). Lessing grappled with Marxist literary theory in the 1940s and took some striking positions that shed light on her later arguments and novelistic practice. She anticipated and sought to circumvent the Cold War opposition between realism...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6547
Print ISSN
0013-8304
Pages
pp. 251-280
Launched on MUSE
2021-03-09
Open Access
No
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