MI5 spied on Doris Lessing for two decades for her Communist and anti-apartheid sympathies

Newly-released files confirm the author's suspicions, published in the New Statesman, that she was under surveillance by MI5 during the 1940s and 50s. 

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In 1956, the writer Doris Lessing wrote in her first piece for the New Statesman that she feared she'd be refused entry into South Africa. Lessing, at the time, was an out and proud member of the Communist Party - "I have made no secret of the fact" - but despite the party's unpopularity with the British establishment at the time, she wondered if her fears were overblown: "The idea that MI5 would send warnings to South Africa of my approach seems to border on megalomania." Friends accused her of having a "persecution complex" for believing she might be a priority for secret services. 

But over half a century on, it turns out that Lessing, who died in 2013, was right, and the surveillance ran even deeper than she guessed. For the first time, redacted MI5 files seen by Vice ahead of their public release confirm that Lessing was monitored by the agency throughout the 1940s and 50s. MI5 agents intercepted Lessing's post, followed her family, and recruited her friends to inform on her. Included in the files are Lessing's articles - including, presumably, her New Statesman pieces - and reviews of her novels. 

According to Vice's piece on the files, MI5 carried out its long investigation in cooperation with London's Metropolitan Police, with the stated aim of monitoring Lessing's interactions with the Communist Party. Yet the files also reveal a keen interest in Lessing's anti-apartheid stance ("I learned to disapprove of the colour bar [apartheid]", she wrote for us in 1956) and support for independence movements in British colonies and protectorates. In 1956, Lessing left the Communist Party in disgust after the Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian uprising, yet MI5's survellance continued until at least 1962, the date of the last non-redacted record in Lessing's file. It reads:

She is known to have retained extreme leftwing views and she takes an interest in African affairs as an avowed opponent of racial discrimination. In more recent years, she has associated herself with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.”

The surveillance first began in the 1940s, while Lessing was still living in Africa, after she wrote a report on Communist organising for a South African paper. On a 1956 trip to Southern Rhodesia, where she was brought up, Lessing was surrounded by informants, who filed a secret to report to MI5 reporting on her "Communist friends" and "extremist African" contacts in the country. During a visit to the city of Lusaka, agents even appear to have broken into her hotel room, where they read a draft short story by Lessing called The Uneasy Alliance. One agent notes that the story would "undoubtedly reveal her great sympathy for African advancement and contempt of the color bar" if it reached public attention. (The story has never been published under that title.)

Today, the Guardian published an editorial on the surveillance of Lessing and the lessons it can teach our security-obsessed state today. The piece notes:

First, treat the security state’s demands for new powers with caution, since these powers could end up being directed on the wrong targets. Second, be particularly suspicious of the line of argument that maintains that those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear. Lessing had nothing material to hide, and yet – unless she was freakishly indifferent to privacy – would have had fair reason to fear MI5’s prying eye.

When she won the Nobel prize for literature in 2007, Lessing was praised by the Nobel committee as "that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny". It's worth noting that it was that very desire to scrutinise and publicise divisions in society that made her an enemy of the British security forces.

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.