Doris Lessing (1919-2013) Self-proclaimed ‘Useful Idiot’ for the Soviet Union
Doris Lessing, who died in November 2013 at the age of 94, was one of the major novelists of the 20th century. She influenced the way many influential people understood Africa in the 1950s. TREVOR GRUNDY wonders if Lessing, a committed communist when she wrote her political books about central and southern Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, was the right person to guide tourists of the African revolution around a maze of complicated race and ethnic issues considering her commitment to Moscow’s way of seeing the world at the height of the Cold War.
Doris Lessing was critical about herself, much more so than the people who wrote obituaries about her following her death at her London home in November 2013.
From 1942 to 1949 she was active in various Marxist groups in southern Rhodesia.
And in Britain, she was a card- carrying member of the Communist Party from her arrival in 1949 to late into the 1950s.
She said so many times that when she was young, the Communists were the only people who fought the colour bar. At the end of her life, she (courageously, I think) told a BBC journalist that she’d been duped by them that she had often acted like one of Lenin’s proverbial “Useful Idiots.”
Earlier on, she thanked the Communists for liberating her from what she called the stifling boredom of white life in southern Rhodesia.
In volume one of her biography Under My Skin she writes: “I had become a Communist in 1942. In my case it was because, for the first time in my life. I was meeting a group of people (not an isolated individual here and there) who read everything, and who did not think it remarkable to read, and among whom thoughts about the Native Problem I had scarcely dared to say aloud turned out to be more commonplace. I became a Communist because of the spirit of the times, because of the zeitgeist.”
But even before her move to London she harboured doubts about Communism saying –
“It took me four to five years from my first falling in love with Communism, or rather ideal Communism, in 1942 to become critical enough to discuss my ‘doubts’ with people still inside the Communist fold. In other two or three years, I discussed with other Communists facts and ideas for which in a Communist country we would have been tortured or killed. By 1954 I was no longer a Communist but it was not until the early 1960s I ceased to feel residuals of loyalty, and was really free.”
In her long life, Doris Lessing flirted with a number of causes.
She was easily bored and said of the Communists she later met in Britain: “They had taken the same stands on Korea and Kenya, on Cyprus and Suez, on Hungary and the Congo, on Nigeria, the Deep South, on Brazil on South Africa and Rhodesia and Ireland and Vietnam . . . now they were sharing opinions and emotions on the nine million refugees from Bangladesh.”
Towards the end, she grew tired of wandering around ideological supermarkets.
An obituary in the British newspaper The Guardian said that her destiny was always to be feted as a pioneer of the feminist movement, a mantle that she had thrust upon her and spent many years trying to shake off.
”If her themes were seen as female emancipation and sexual liberation, her later obsessions were madness and breakdown. After her disillusionment with communism she was influenced by the Sufis. And all the while this feeling for Africa and this flight from and then towards her mother. Her journey from Marxism to mysticism is well documented – and there are few political or cultural ideologies of the 20th century which Lessing did not embrace –only, usually, to divorce herself with equal ferocity.”
Doris Lessing wrote dozens of books.
This is about one of them, a book called Going Home. She wrote it in 1956. It was published the following year by the English publishing house, Michael Joseph.
Lessing wrote it after re-visiting the country where she spent many of her formative years.
She was born in Persia in 1919 but her father took the family to southern Rhodesia to grow tobacco in 1925 when Doris was six.
She left that race-divided country in 1949 but was allowed safe passage back to Salisbury in 1956 when the white liberal icon, Garfield Todd, was prime minister.
A prohibition order had been relaxed so she could move around the country, talk to people and write about what she saw. This was at the height of the Cold War and the middle years of the Central African Federation in Central Africa (1953-1963) a British-inspired effort to federate three territories – North Rhodesia (Zambia) with its vast un-tapped copper/mineral resources with agriculture-rich Southern Rhodesia ( Zimbabwe) which had a large European population and close ties to neighbouring South Africa, with the nearby (much smaller) Nyasaland (Malawi) which the British inherited because of the activities and commitment to the people by Scottish missionaries in the 19th century.
CAF’s buzz slogan was ‘Partnership between the races.’
Lessing dismissed ‘partnership’ as a trick to keep blacks subservient and whites wealthy and in power forever.
Lessing had no time for Todd and told her readers that white Rhodesians were building a future too ghastly to contemplate.
The book is a stinging attack on all aspects of white rule and life in a colony that had been effectively self-governing since 1923.
The interests of ‘natives’ were protected by the British Government which made no objection to the draconian Land Apportionment Act (1931) which endorsed the division of land between whites and non-whites The an act was approved in Britain by the Colonial Secretary, Lord Passfield (Sidney Webb, who wasa founder member of the Fabians and a great admirer of Stalin’s USSR.
Doris Lessing called for the end to Federation and transfer of power in southern Rhodesia to black nationalists.
In 1956 Doris Lessing was well-known in London’s leftist circles.
She left Rhodesia with a book in her suitcase, a short novel that painted a chilling picture of life in southern Rhodesia – The Grass is Singing. Many saw her as an African expert, a dedicated Euro-communist and a champion in the fight against apartheid.
After its publication in 1957 Going Home became a leftist travel guide to southern Africa, a sort of political Baedekar.
In a reprint of ‘Going Home’ published by Panther Books in 1968 Lessing, says in a chapter called Eleven Years Later: “When I wrote Going Home (1956) I was a Communist – that is, I was holding a party card. I am not one now. The trouble is being an ‘ex-Communist’ is just as much of a false position as being one. But I’ve long since understood that what it was like bring a Communist in a certain time and place can be understood by no one who was not. Which is why I am glad I was one, had the experience. And I’m grateful to the Communists for what they taught me: particularly about power, the realities of political power. It is no accident that the only group of people who knew that Federation was dangerous nonsense, that Partnership was a bad joke, were Socialists of various kinds.”
She predicted that historians who write the story of the fight against apartheid would praise white Communists.
And then a stirring call to the barricades –
“So I believe in the ginger groups, the temporarily associated minorities, the Don Quixotes, the takers-of-stands-on- principle, the do-gooders and the defenders of lost causes. Luckily there are plenty of them. So – “To the barricades, citizens! If we don’t fight every inch of the way, we’ll find ourselves with our numbers tattooed on our wrists yet.”
This call on comrades to get to flock to the barracks was made from her new home in Hampstead where her fellow comrades were fighting a painful ideological battle – to stick with the Party after the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary or leave it.
Leave it and do what? The Party offered some sort of solution.
I was not in Central Africa during the days of Federation but it was an important time. It shaped the way the region’s future leaders saw themselves and made them realise what they were up against.
In Going Home Lessing treats Garfield Todd with varying degrees of mockery and contempt and ridicules the way he and his followers were presented as honourable men.
She thanks him for lifting a ban on her returning to southern Rhodesia but regrets the way she was followed around the country by “Garfield Todd’s publicity men and shadowed by the CID.”
Todd was a Christian and a liberal. He was anathema to Communists and most Whites. But Britain loved him.
When the full biography of Todd is written –it’s badly needed- it will show the extent of this remarkably courageous man’s opposition to Smith and White racists and his commitment to African nationalism.
He believed Europeans and Asians and members of mixed races (called in Africa coloureds) all had a full role to play.
He and his wife Grace were educators.
They shaped the way that Ndabaningi Sithole (the first leader of the Zimbabwe African National Union) thought and spoke.
Less well- known men and women were taught by the Todds.
But in many ways, the Todds were virgins in a brothel.
At the age of 87 and towards the end of his long, illustrious life, he said: “I was a missionary. I am a missionary. I was not ever a politician.”
The Todds lived in an Africa that Doris Lessing knew next to nothing about.
Why should she even want to visit the remote mission station where they worked, a place called Dadaya in Matabeleland.
Lessing spent a great deal of her time mixing with upper crust diplomats and their wives in Salisbury.
She observed European politicians who went on to support Ian Smith but never mixed with them.
Getting to know the world of the Todds and other missionaries, rubbing shoulders with die-hard European settlers and learning what made them tick and what fueled their greatest fears about black rule in Africa would have upset her pre-conceived half-baked ideas about how the African world goes round.
She dismissed nearly all whites as settlers and spongers, unless they were members of her set.
There were only a handful of them and they were allowed to operate because the only threat they posed were to one another, as Lessing makes so clear in her two volume biography – Under My Skin and Walking in the Shade.” And much more so in her novel The Good Terrorist.
‘Going Home’ influenced many young Labour Party MPs in Britain.
Sadly they did not know who financed the trip that led to the book’s publication.
We do now.
“The financing of this trip was tricky,” she writes in the 1968 edition. “I had to go home for emotional reasons. I needed to see how Rhodesia struck me after living in a civilized country. I needed to feel and smell the place. But I had no money. I was very hard up. I did not have the money for the fare – £250. The News Chronicle said they would send me, but they changed their minds. Meanwhile, I had made arrangements to leave. But I was determined to go somehow. What to do?”
With her departure date a month off she got on a bus to Fleet Street, then the centre of the media world in London, and walked into the office of TASS, the official government financed news agency of the Soviet Union.
She proposed to “a charming but surprised young man” that TASS should pay for her trip to southern Rhodesia.
“Every civilized country in the world, said I, paid journalists to visit countries and report on what they found there, and why should not Russia do the same? This, of course, sounds very naïve. But I do not feel that this is the place to discuss the usefulness of naiveté. Besides, a good many Communists at that time conceived it to be their duty to influence the Soviet Union towards modern ways. Journalism, then as now, in Russia was old-fashioned, and one of the thoughts in my minds was that I might be adding my mite toward dragging Russia kicking and screaming into the twentieth century.
“The man behind the desk at TASS was non-committal: but he put me into his car and drove me to the Soviet Embassy, where we saw the cultural attaché, a very urbane man, to whom I out my proposition. I was not even asking for expenses. I said I wanted my fare paid, in return for which I would write articles for any newspaper in the Soviet Union he cared to name.”
The weeks went by and suddenly, just before departure date, “rather less than the fare arrived from the Narodny Bank, but no word about what newspaper I was hired by. Later, after returning from the trip, I found out that the money represented payments for some short story of mine published in the Soviet Union, which I had not been told about. But the fare. I had it, or almost.
“When I came back I wrote a lot of articles and posted them off to Moscow.
“Now comes the really unforgivable naiveté. It never occurred to me, since the conditions I was describing were so black a case against ‘imperialism’ they could not be worse, that there was any need to gild the lily. But then I got a letter from a friend in Moscow saying why had I written this and that? But I hadn’t written this and that. It appeared that the articles had been edited, cut and bits put in. This is why it is not advisable to write for the Russian press until it modernizes itself: until the rights of an individual journalist, an individual point of view can be guaranteed.”
Having lived in Britain, Lessing was determined to drag Russia – the motherland of the coming world revolution – into the twentieth century.
Stalin would have smiled.
Unlike some of the British and Irish intellectuals who visited the USSR, Doris Lessing had the courage to admit that she’d been used.
Talking to the journalist John Sweeney on the BBC World Service (August 4,2010) 92- year old Doris Lessing – by then a Nobel Prize winner – said that she’d been part of a British delegation to Moscow in 1952.
She was a member of the British Communist Party (the southern Rhodesian Communist party was so small it was not even recognized by the South African Communist Party).
She said that her job was to say nice, sweet things about the Soviet Union. “That’s what my role was. I was taken around and shown things as a useful idiot. I can’t understand why I was so gullible.”
On the same programme, Professor Donald Rayfield the author of Stalin and his Hangmen reminded listeners about what George Orwell said:
“There are some things so stupid that only an intellectual could believe them.”
Like all of us, Doris Lessing was influenced by those who cared for her when she was growing up.
One of the men who introduced her to communism was Gottfried Lessing. Born in St Petersburg but brought up in Germany, his grandfather was Jewish so Gottfried qualified as a Jew under the Nuremberg Race Laws of 1935.
Doris said how refreshing it was to meet people who discussed ideas, books and philosophy in little southern Rhodesia where white women spoke endlessly about ‘lazy kaffirs’ (Africans) at country clubs where men stood on one side of the room drinking and eating with women on the other side, knitting, gossiping.
She writes in Going Home: “You have to experience the paranoia, the adolescent sentimentality, the neurosis.”
Gottfried was forced to leave Hitler’s Germany. He sought refuge in southern Rhodesia where he set about organizing the tiny Communist Party.
Gottfried and Doris married in 1944. Their convenient mainly political union ended in 1949, the year Lessing and her son Peter (Gottfried’s son) left Africa for England. Doris (who kept the surname Lessing all her life) had other children by previous marriages but she did not take them with her for various reasons which she explains in her biography, Under My Skin (Harper Collins, 1994).
Doris Lessing lived in Africa for a relatively short period of her long life – from 1925 when she was six years old to 1949 when she was 30. The London stay was far longer, 1949 until her death in November 2013.Yet her fame rests primarily on being an Africanist.
Precisely why she left the Communist Party is not clear but when she wrote Going Home she was in thrall to Moscow.
Later, she became a literary flag to wave at rallies against white rule in Rhodesia, South Africa and the Portuguese colonies in Africa.
British and South African Communists remained slavishly loyal to Moscow even though anyone with any sense had grasped (after Stalin’s death in 1953) that the crimes he committed were as horrendous as anything done by Hitler and the Nazis.
Gottfried Lessing stayed loyal to Moscow until the end of his life.
After his time in Rhodesia, he went to East Germany and later served as his country’s ambassador to Uganda.
He and his third wife were killed by drunken Tanzanian soldiers during President Julius Nyerere’s war against Idi Amin in 1979.
Doris Lessing made four visits to Zimbabwe between 1982 and 1992. Towards the end of her life, she told her friend and fellow author Lawrence Vambe how Robert Mugabe had betrayed every hope and dream Africans had when they went to war against Ian Smith between 1966 and 1979 known in Zimbabwe as the Second Chimurenga.
On the eve of her 80th birthday, I asked her if she’d give me an interview so I could ask her about Mugabe, what had gone so wrong in Zimbabwe.
After all, a self-proclaimed Marxist coming to power in 1980 against a background of universal from every capitalist country in the world was interesting, was it not?
She turned me down but was kind enough to send me a postcard, the front showing Monet’s Water Lilies. “I’m sorry,” she wrote,” there is so much I could say in this interview. I think I’ll skip it with apologies – Doris Lessing.”
In April 2003 she wrote three articles for the New York Review of Books which spoke about the awful state of affairs in Zimbabwe.
She started off recalling what either President Nyerere of Tanzania or President Machel of Mozambique is supposed to have said to Robert Mugabe when he was made Prime Minister of Zimbabwe in April 1980 – “You have the jewel of Africa in your hands. Now look after it.”
Lessing recalled that before independence, the country was a paradise “and not only for the whites. The blacks did well, too, at least physically. Not politically.”
In a series of lengthy articles, she mentions that between 1982-1987 Robert Mugabe approved the slaughter of anything between 25,000 -30,000 black men, women and children in Matabeleland and the Midlands, with the help of a special unit of terror troops called The Fifth Brigade who were trained by the North Korean Army.
In 1992 she gave lecture before a large audience at the British Council in Harare.
She told them that a she’d had a long conversation the day before with a young black boy. She told him that she noticed that there were no trees, no animals, scanty vegetation. She told him what it had been like when she was his age, growing up in Rhodesia.
The boy blinked and asked if she’d been brought up in a game park.
At the end of Under My Skin she speaks with bitterness about the death of her second husband, Gottfried and how- because the Soviet Union backed the mass killer Idi Amin – he’d been forced to stay on in Kampala when other diplomats had flown to safety and how he was murdered by “drunk and trigger happy” Tanzanian soldiers.
She also spoke of her shock when it was confirmed – oddly, by white Rhodesian security men who’d switched to serving Mugabe after 1980 – that Gottfried had been a trusted member of the KGB.
Her fervor for the African revolution faded as the reality of black power hit home. Almost all the socialist leaders she had befriended in her younger days were dead or in prison in different parts of the continent.
After listening to a further lecture in Harare (1995) the Zimbabwean journalist Dr Michael Hartnack said she should be compared to African wine. “One might say she was one of those early Rhodesian reds which, well laid down over many years, lose their ability to cause severe headaches.”
But he later said:
” Doris Lessing could not avoid the element of affected moral snobbery because she was writing for the leftist, feminine audience without whose support her work would never have been published . . . she was as helpless as some Medieval bard in the hands of an aristocratic patron.”
Aristocratic admirers there were. Plenty of them.
In an interview with The Observer (September 9, 2001) she spoke about a forthcoming meeting with the Spanish royals.
The following month she flew to Madrid to receive a top literary award from the king and queen.
Said the former communist and life-long opponent of class privilege: “I’m delighted. I love Spain. This is Spain for you – I got a letter from the king and queen, the crown prince and the mayor congratulating me. I’m going to be given the prize by the crown prince. I will curtsy, make a speech and have a lovely time.”
She told journalist Barbara Ellen: “I have nothing in common with feminists because of their inflexibility. They never seem to think that one might like men, or enjoy them.”
Ellen commented: “All generalised tosh, of course, and I wonder why Lessing bothers to say such things, whether in fact her whole stance might be a huge joke.”
Humour was never Lessing’s strong point.
One of the few critical voices raised in the British media after the 1994 publication of Under My Skin came from Derwent May.
Writing in The Times on October 13 that year, he mentioned the genteel poverty of the Tayler family (Doris’s maiden name) when they all lived in a wild part of North East Rhodesia. The reviewer says that in the first paragraph of her memoir the famous author lashes out at her mother for being snobbish as she watched her genteel dreams fade away on that remote farm, surrounded by white farmers and their wives and hundreds of subservient blacks.
“When she is 12,” writes May,” she loses what she thinks is her rightful chance to go and see Sybil Thorndike playing Lady Macbeth in Salisbury. Her self-pitying and solemn self takes another step forward: she feels at that moment she is ‘the embodiment of all the insulted and injured of the world.’ We move on through a convent school here the nuns torture the girls with the threats of hellfire, to her first jobs as a nurse-maid and then, at 18, as a telephonist in Salisbury. She gets involved with a young crowd of radicals in the city and the next important part of her story begins. It was to give her most of the material for the novels which she wrote when she first came to London which brought her fame.”
Lessing tells us that her younger self had an outer personality that made light of her troubles and made people laugh. She was known to the family as Tigger or Tigs but she came to detest this false outer shell and never let herself be called Tigger again after she came to London.
Says May: “But perhaps her earnest and angry novels – and her rather joyless biography – would have benefitted if she had let Tigger live.”
She never regretted her time as a Communist, although in Going Home and during the interview with the famous British journalist John Sweeney she expressed some regret for being naïve.
Sweeney referred to her 1952 visit to the Soviet Union and asked her if she had been Stalin’s Useful Idiot.
“Yes, I would,” she replied. “That’s what my role was. I was taken around and shown things as a Useful Idiot. I would then go away and say – Oh, it’s very nice . . . it is all so sweet. I can’t understand why I was so gullible.”
Later she gave a rare smile and said – “Everyone makes mistakes. That’s why they put erasers on the end of pencils.”
Professor Donald Rayfield, author of Stalin and is Hangman, butted in: “As George Orwell said “There are some things so stupid that only an intellectual could believe them.”
Lessing followed a long line of fellow travelers to the Soviet Union.
George Bernard Shaw met Stalin in Moscow in 1931 and waxed lyrical. He ignored the fact that thousands were being shot, hundreds of thousands were perishing in the icy hell of the Gulags and millions were dying of man-made famine.
As the train crossed into Soviet territory, Shaw threw away the sandwiches prepared by Lady Astor and said it would be silly to eat them in Russia where there was so much food, where the peasants ate so well.
Who had the remarkable Irishman been listening to?
The British journalist Walter Duranty was a working class English socialist.
After a spell in Paris, where he mixed with European socialites and picked up their ways and manners, he was appointed as Moscow correspondent of the New York Times and his 1929 interview with Stalin won him a Pulitzer Prize and his articles played a prominent role in gaining American recognition for the USSR in 1933.
He hushed up the Great Famine of the early 1930s and glossed over the infamous show trials.
The Welsh journalist Gareth Jones exposed the famine and denounced Duranty.
Jones was mysteriously killed in China, probably by Stalin’s hit men. The secret of his death is still hidden from view in NKVD files. The famine is dismissed in a single paragraph in modern Russian history books.
Sweeney chipped in again and said that Stalin’s Useful Idiots do not deserve sympathy but Stalin’s victims do.
How strange that not a single obituary published in Britain made reference to Doris Lessing’s startling admissions at the end of Going Home – admissions repeated and expanded on in volume two of her memoir, Walking in the Shade.
As I said at the start, she was more honest than many of those who wrote obituaries.
Anyone familiar with her work must have known they were there.
Canada’s Margaret Atwood said that Doris Lessing was a model for every writer coming from the back of beyond “demonstrating, as she so signally did, that you can be a nobody from nowhere, but, with talent, courage, perseverance through hard times and a dollop of luck, you can scale the topmost heights.”
In the case of Doris, a dollop of Russian gold chucked in to fill the pot.
Does any of this matter?
I think so, if only to encourage all to try and find out where Africanists (or writers who specialize in any other complicated area) come from, who pays them, finances their trips, meets their expenses.
Who else took (or takes) Russian gold?
Also it leaves young Africans believing that there was no strong white opposition to racism in Rhodesia, that Garfield Todd was a puppet of white racists and that all whites still in Africa are legitimate targets when things go wrong for black governments.
There were thousands of whites in Rhodesia who opposed Ian Smith.
Some –like Garfield Todd and his daughter Judith – went to prison for their stand against racism and all-white rule.
But the history of these people, which has never been told, remains a yawning gap in the saga of modern African history.
Given the perilous state of affairs in both Zimbabwe and South Africa, the need for harmony between all the races has never been more needed.