Doris Lessing’s letter to The Reasoner (November 1956)

The author Doris Lessing died yesterday at the age of 94. Raised in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Lessing was a member of the short-lived Southern Rhodesian Communist Party, a proxy member of the Communist Party of South Africa and then a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. She joined the rebellion in the Party in 1956 after Krushchev’s revelations of the crimes of the Stalin era and the inability of the CPGB leadership to acknowledge the uncritical support that they gave the Soviet Union during these years. I thought people might be interested in a letter that she wrote for the third issue of the mimeographed journal The Reasoner, published by E.P. Thompson and John Saville as an attempt to foster discussion within the CPGB. Thompson and Saville resigned from the Party in November 1956 after being threatened with expulsion and developed The New Reasoner in 1957. The letter, dated 19 October, 1956, is as follows:

Lessing in 1961, with John Osborne, Vanessa Redgrave and Shelagh Delaney.
Lessing in 1961, with John Osborne, Vanessa Redgrave, John Berger and Shelagh Delaney.

The Cult of the Individual

The reaction to the 20th Congress has been expressed in party circles throughout the world in the phrase ‘the cult of the individual’. That these words should have been chosen as the banner under which we should fight what is wrong with the party seems to me as a sign of the corruption in our thinking.

For they suggest that what caused the breakdown of inner-party democracy was an excess of individualism. But the opposite is the truth. What was bad is not that one man was a tyrant, but that hundreds and thousands of party members, inside and outside the Soviet Union, let go their individual consciences and allowed him to become a tyrant.

Now we are discussing what sort of rules we should have in the party to prevent the emergence of bureaucracy and dictatorship. A lot of worried and uneasy people are pinning their faith in some kind of constitution which will ensure against tyranny. But rules and constitutions are what people make them. The publication of the Constitution of the Soviet Union, an admirable document, coincided with the worst period of the terror. The party rules in the various communist parties are (I believe) more or less the same; but the development of the different communist parties has been very dissimilar.

I think that this talk about changing the rules is a symptom of the desire in all of us to let go individual responsibility on to something outside ourselves, something on to which we can put the blame if things go wrong. It is pleasant to have implicit trust in a beloved leader. it is pleasant and comfortable to believe that the communist party must be right simply because ‘it is the vanguard of the working class’. It is pleasant to pass resolutions at a conference and think that now everything will be all right.

But there is no simple decision we can make, once and for all, that will ensure that we are doing right. There is no set of rules that can set us free from the necessity of making fresh decisions, every day, of just how much of our individual responsibility we are prepared to delegate to a central body – whether it is the communist party, or the government of the country we live in, be it a communist or a capitalist government.

It seems to me that what the last thirty years have shown us is that unless a communist party is a body of individuals each jealously guarding his or her independence of judgement, it must degenrate into a body of yes-men.

The safeguard against tyranny, now, as it always has been, is to sharpen individuality, to strengthen individual responsibility, and not to delegate it.


Lessing resigned from the CPGB shortly after this letter was published, but was still involved in progressive politics, such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Anti-Apartheid Movement, in the 1960s.

EDITED TO ADD: The New Statesman has republished a short article by Lessing on being a communist in South Africa and Britain in the late 1940s and 1950s here.

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