Doris Lessing and the Dynamite Prize

After awarding it to Harold Pinter, an East End Jew, the Nobel prize for literature has fallen to another outsider of the English establishment, Doris Lessing, born in Persia, raised in Zimbabwe, a school drop-out. The newspapers tell us that Doris Lessing in her book The Golden Notebook foreshadowed the Women’s Liberation movement. Or, they tell us she was a Communist. Neither is right. She helped to found the New Left. She took the ‘angry young men’ of the 1950s theatre critics to also include ‘angry young women.’ We might say they were angry persons. She embodied ideas in men and women with other problems too, such as appointments to keep, marriages to get out of, jobs to find.

Cross with the women’s libbers in 1971 she wrote a preface to The Golden Notebook to explain. Her book was about cracking up. “The point is,” it began, “that as far as I can see, everything is cracking up.” The novel is set in 1956/7. This was the annus mirabilis for the New Left. The fact is the Communists were cracking up, and she was glad of it. The Cold War had put dichotomies in people’s heads that could only be sorted out by various kinds of crackings up. She had left the Communist Party by then, but that doesn’t mean she’d left Marxism. “I think it is possible that Marxism was the first attempt, for our time, outside the formal religions, at a world mind, a world ethic.” She wrote novels of ideas, which the pompous Harold Bloom senses, but in accusing her of political correctness he stumbles, as she and her comrades, more than anyone else, ridiculed this Stalinist phrase.

She helped form the New Left sitting on the editorial board of The New Reasoner: A Quarterly Journal of Socialist Humanism along with its editors John Saville and E.P. Thompson who had led critical discussions from within the British Communist Party throughout 1956, sending out mimeographed pages of ‘revisionism’ from Halifax in Yorkshire. Expelled from the Party, they roared back with a multitude of voices in The New Reasoner. The New Left was born from the shell of the old.

Doris Lessing wrote in the second number of The New Reasoner, autumn 1957, a story called “The Day Stalin Died.” Well, on that day (5 March 1953) she had to take her niece and sister shopping, other appointments had fallen through. Mother and daughter bickered constantly until pacified by mutual snobbism to cabbies, bus-drivers, and conductors. They end up up top a double-decker bus. Just as they are getting settled and as the bus resumes its motion, two middle-aged people in the midst of some private quarrel come lurching up the bus stairs. Apparently, they’re lodgers in the same rooming house. She accuses him of destroying her goldfishes, or at least in causing a fungus to ruin their pond. After taking separate seats and going back and forth a few times, he concluded, “There are all those little fishes in the depths of the sea, all those little fishes. We explode all these bombs at them, and we’re not going to be forgiven for that, are we, we’re not going to be forgiven for blowing up the poor little fishes.” His companion responds “I hadn’t thought of that” and she joins him at the same seat.

That was fifty years ago, and it’s, like, totally off the wall. What do the poor little fishes have to do with Stalin? In the arguments of the day, absolutely nothing. It’s not apocalyptic, and if anything you can hear the comrades complaining of petit-bourgeois animal-loving or hopelessly benighted Christianity, “forgiven” indeed! Here’s the sympathetic imagination extended to the oceanic depths, quarrels resolved. An ecological perspective provided by a man and a woman, by an ordinary man and an ordinary woman. And the bombing? Didn’t that lead to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Aldermaston marches, and the famous semaphore peace symbol? Where on earth did Doris Lessing learn to listen to people on the bus?

The New Left is ignored by the Times and by Bloom. To us, big letter C Communism came to an end in 1956, not 1989 or 1990. The Golden Notebook came out in 1962 the same year as The Port Huron Statement, that collective SDS manifesto giving us “participatory democracy” and “anti-anti-communism.” Both phrases await a thorough airing as ideas. Democracy requires actual equality hence it is incompatible with capitalism; communism requires participation by all hence it is incompatible with Cold War stances. To be a communist fifty years ago was to participate in an international debate Poland, Hungary, Halifax, Alabama. The New Leftists began by philosophical opposition to mechanistic determinism, and they did so in the name of free human agency. This was the source of their infamous moralism (Oh, where is it now!) . It was the moralism against the color-bar, the moralism against the electric chair (after the Rosenbergs, at the time of Caryl Chessman), the moralism against the atom bomb, the moralism against alienation and automation, the moralism against the Establishment and Money. But didn’t the New Left just lead to bombing and destruction?

Cathy Wilkerson has published a beautiful memoire, Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman (Seven Stories Press 2007). The comparison is with Icarus who was confined in the labyrinth along with his father, Daedalus or “cunning workman”. To escape, he made them wings of feathers and wax. Icarus flew too close to the sun, the wax melted, Icarus plunged into the sea. Death by fire greeted three of her young comrades in the townhouse explosion of March 1970 when 18 West 11th Street in Manhatten owing to clumsy bomb making went up in flames. The house belonged to Wilkerson’s father. She escaped.

Two parts Quaker, four parts Regis Debray and Franz Fanon, she speaks for many who made the rapid transitions from the Civil Rights movement, to the student movement, to anti-war activity, to going underground in support of Third World guerrillas. This was one of the New Left trajectories, soaring intensely over history: the moral emphasis on commitment, the solidarity against human suffering all around the world, the growing consciousness of patriarchal structures, and all the while being penetrated or stalked by the sly, murderous schemes of the federal, state, and municipal governments called COINTELPRO which had been ordered to “neutralize” SDS.

Her memoire contains the thoughtfulness, the retrospective reflections, and the clarity that she and not only she but the entire movement longed for. The Weather Underground in 1970 issued a “Declaration of a State of War” to destroy the empire by armed revolution. Cathy Wilkerson went ahead with it despite the fact that her questions went unanswered: what is revolution? what are the short-term and long-term goals of the war? Some of the answer was there already in Doris Lessing. The rest needs our attention.

Wilkerson quotes The Port Huron Statement, “We regard men as infinitely precious and possessed of unfulfilled capacities for reason, freedom, and love. We oppose the depersonalization that reduced human beings to the status of things. We oppose, too, the doctrine of human incompetence Men have unrealized potential for self-evaluation, self-direction, self-understanding, and creativity.” These are the themes, this is the tone of the New Left on both sides of the Atlantic.

We hear them in an essay by E.P. Thompson called “Agency and Choice” published as a discussion piece in The New Reasoner of 1958. He had written “An Epistle to the Philistines” to those social-democrats and Communists alike who were infected by philistinism. They complacently settled for the appearance of things and apathetically absorbed received opinion. “Although the forms of infection are very different, it produced in both a common symptom: the denial of the creative agency of men, when considered not as political or economic units in a chain of determined circumstances, but as moral and intellectual beings, in the making of their own history; in other words, the denial that men can, by a voluntary act of social will, surmount in any significant way the limitations imposed by ‘circumstances’ or ‘historical necessity’.”

In the same New Reasoner Christopher Hill wrote on the interest which Marx and Engels expressed in moral questions and in humanism. They opposed “mechanistic determinism in the name of the free activity of man.” They complained of the egotism that had separated him from community, bourgeois man had become pre-occupied in self-interest and in the dominance of his own will. Hill quotes them against dogmatism, “we should help the dogmatists to reach a clearer understanding of their own principles.” Lessing does this. Dogmatists console with illusions says “the young Charles” as Hill calls Marx. “To demand that man should abandon illusions about their condition is to demand that a condition that needs illusions should itself be abandoned.” Yes, that’s a racial, patriarchal, class society.

Doris Lessing is a white woman of British settler parents who took her to grow up in Rhodesia in the era of African independence movements. She wrote the lead article in the same issue of The New Reasoner called “The Sun Between their Feet.” Her story was set in the Native Reserve. It was desolate, hot, but traces of human activity were available to the careful observer, old mounds like Irish ringforts or the mounds of the Ohio Hopewell people, Bushman paintings under the boulders, signs of raids for cattle and women. Now we could call it a commons, scrub cattle strayed there.

She wrote a story evocative of the heat, evocative of the past, and suggestive; a story of a pair of dung-beetles and their struggle, having cut off and formed into a ball, a portion of cattle-dung, to maneuver it up a hill to gather grass and dust, the better for the incubation of their eggs. She spent the day observing their efforts. Observing their failures, and observing their efforts again. The beetles scrambling up the steep slope, slipping back; scrambling up the steep slope, slipping back again; scrambling up the steep slope . But they have their accidents. The action is vivid, up mountains, dreadful disasters, falling into lakes, nearly drowning, hair-raising escapes, &c. The pair of beetles suffer it all.

Eggs will be hatched in the dung-ball. It must be placed on a gentle slope, so that in rolling down it will accrue a sheltering, protective coat of dust or sand, and then come to a stop in a suitable place for hatching, the sacred beetle holding the sun between their feet. The only thing Communist about the story is the absence of private property. It could be an allegory but it reads as that kindly, matter-of-fact nature observation that produced Darwin, only you can’t imagine any of Darwin’s correspondents lying down on the desert all day in the equatorial sun lazily eyeing a pair of beetles. “Sacred beetles, these: the sacred beetles of the Egyptian scarabs, holding the symbol of the sun between their busy stupid feet. Pompous, busy, silly beetles, mothering their ball of dung again and again up a mountain ”

The hieroglyphic image of the beetle means “to come into being.” The sun was imagined to be this ball pushed from one side of the sky to the other by a divinity with dung beetle powers. Is there an Hegelian message of transformation and renewal? Was it a critique of ‘the couple,’ somehow a disavowal of the nuclear family, the futility of making children in an overpopulated world? In the 1950s existentialism was the rage in the cafés where the key text was ‘the myth of Sisyphus.’ Cathy Wilkerson quotes Carl Sandburg at the beginning of her book and this is perhaps the explanation of the allegory,

The people will live on. The learning and blundering people will live on. They will be tricked and sold and again sold And go back to the nourishing earth for footholds.

The New Left was anti-imperialist. C. Wright Mills and Cuba and Doris Lessing and Africa. Bandung conference of the non-aligned nations and the Montgomery bus boycott, these were the events of 1956 in addition to Khruschev’s “secret speech” about Stalin and the Hungarian uprising. So, besides the cracking up of Communism, she expressed the cracking up of empires, and the cracking up of Jim Crow.

I think Jonah Raskin helps provide a key to the story. Jonah took on the English literary imperialists writing The Mythology of Imperialism (1971), a brilliant critique of Kipling, Conrad, Forster, Lawrence, and Joyce Cary. “The myth perpetuated by imperialist culture is that revolutionary artists are poor artists,” Raskin concluded. He began his book quoting Nazim Hikmet, three of whose poems appeared in The New Reasoner along with “Agency and Choice” and “The Sun Between their Feet.”

The soil on which
Naked slaves die of hunger.
The common property of everyone
Except those born on it.
The land where hunger itself
Perishes with famine!
But the silos are full to the brim,
Full of grain —
Only for Europe.

What was so astonishing about this poem from 1925 was its generosity, for it proposed an alliance, I give you my hands We give you our hands The sansculottes of Europe; Let’s ride our horses together, Look The halting-place is near The day of freedom nearer still.

These thoughts are needed to understand Lessing. She was born in Persia, an English banker’s daughter. Was she not Oriental? Sans-culottes and naked slave alike are invited to feast upon the brimming silos.

Jonah Raskin asked Doris Lessing at Stony Brook, “You seem to feel that history is a series of explosions.” At the time Jonah had just plastered the New York subways with ‘wanted posters’ for ‘Trains’ Trilling, the noted Cold War literary critic at Columbia University. The NYPD rewarded him with a vicious beating. Lessing answered Jonah’s question. History is a series of explosions, and explained, “I feel as if the Bomb has gone off inside myself, and in people around me. That’s what I mean by cracking up. It’s as if the structure of the mind is being battered from the inside.” The police were kicking down student’s doors at night and arresting them. “You and your generation need a calm to negotiate the rapids,” she told Jonah.

Cathy Wilkerson became a Weatherman, in the splits of 1969 when the Maoist Progressive Labour Party and the RYM II and the Weathermen dissolved the old SDS in the fireworks of sectarian fission. The “white youth of Babylon will resort to force to bring down imperialism.” Ever afterwards, force could not be accepted as part of political discussion without automatically assuming violence and violence was identical with cruelty, consequently a whole dimension of political discourse from the time of Machiavelli on, the analysis of forces, was lost. And the conscious building of forces. Instead another paralyzing dichotomy was formed, violence versus non-violence.

When you examine coolly a list of the Weatherman bombings you’re struck by the absence of human casualties and by the apposite nature of their anti-imperialist, anti-prison targets. They were neither assassinations, attentats, nor acts of terror; these were acts of sabotage. The wooden shoe (sabot) was brought in the spirit of putting our bodies on the machine, as Mario Savio had warned in 1964 at Berkeley, “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part, you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!”

The Weatherman they were demonized, and a problem, one might say a dialectical problem with demonization is that it tends to create a purity in the heart, a feeling of lightness of being, an almost florescence of virtue, among those doing the demonizing such that a kind of ache develops between the shoulder blades as if wings yearned to sprout. Here’s the origin of the peace pansies, the pwogs, the goody-goody two-shoes and that entire angelic spectacle whose ineffectuality, became the target of Afflicted Powers as well as Midnight Notes. The self-policed demonstration was the result. The ritual of the arrest became de rigeur. At best the demonstration was transformed into the festival.

As editor of New Left Notes Cathy Wilkerson wrote against of the “false privileges” of the university education where students majored in Individualism and minored in Amorality. The university of the day, at least the elite white universities, “dehumanized its participants by allowing creativity and initiative only in service of a system that offered increased income for the few, at the expense of the many.” As Jonah Raskin wrote, “We, the readers and students of literature, have been hijacked. The literary critics, our teachers, those assassins of culture, have put us up against the wall and held us captive.” In the spring of 1968 she describes the revolt at Howard University against “the plantation curriculum.” She recounts from the same spring the massacre at South Carolina State in Orangeburg when thirty-three black demonstrators were shot by the police and three killed. True, Fred Hampton before he was assassinated by the Chicago police, asleep in his bed, had warned the Weathermen, “the primary task of radicals was education.”

Thompson “A number of factors have conspired to induce a sense of impotence in the individual in the face of historical events; men feel themselves to be victims of vast technological changes or of international accidents which they cannot influence, powerless before great bureaucratic institutions, in the state machinery and in the labour movement, and before commercial mass media which manipulate peoples’ minds and debase their responses. Historical determinism, in Western capitalist society, does not take the form of a proclaimed philosophy buttressed by the organs of the State; instead, it enters in the disguise of slavery to expediency.” Expediency is a wall of “experts” who enclose a field called “realism.”

Calling himself now “a Communist dissident” it was “to re-awaken an appreciation of the community of aspiration among working people East and West” There’s another argument there. He says “working people” and you thought the Marxist communist would say “working class.” He went to work on that, publishing five years later The Making of the English Working Class. Instead of saying “revolution” he says “the community of aspiration”. Certainly, this has affinities with the “beloved community” of early SNCC, though not perhaps with that world mind, that world ethic which Lessing found in another tradition of Marxism.

Cathy Wilkerson does not call her book Flying Too Close to the Sun. Now and then the heat begins to scorch. “We threw ourselves into the possibility of remaking ourselves as more effective tools, for humanity’s benefit to the point of sacrificing our own humanity and certainly losing, in the process, our individual voices.” The wax softens. This is a long way from the moments of 1957 described by Doris Lessing in The New Reasoner. “In the end, we would lose sight of the potentially resilient qualities of people and of our own movement, qualities like flexibility, compromise, forgiveness, creativity, intellectual rigor.” The wax drips. COINTELPRO or the FBI’s counterintelligence program steeped in the acid of dirty tricks and stinking in the perfume of received opinion successfully rotted away the whole cloth of the liberation movement within SDS. They contributed, perhaps decisively, to the atmosphere of nastiness that made any kind of correct politics impossible, or even friendly interchange between him and her, between a black person and a white person.

In another proclamation of the Weather Underground, it declaimed that “the white youth of Babylon will resort to force to bring down imperialism.” Thirty-seven years later and we must reverse it, white and black youth of imperialism resorted to force to bring down the actual historic and archaeological site of what was once Babylon, hundreds of thousands killed in Mesopotamia, four million exiled from Iraq. These are not deeds of Pharoah. The Old Testament vocabulary, that Yahweh-talk, has got to go, whether it is from William Blake and the radical English protestant antinomianism, or from the songs of the great Bob Marley. That geography of Babylon, Jerusalem, Zion does not contain a revolutionary road-map.

Once again it became time to listen to the voices on the bus, and to observe fishes and beetles and other creatures. So, a salute to Doris Lessing, winner of that prize for literature named after the man who invented dynamite, Alfred Nobel.

* * *

A last word about the dung beetle. Led by Marie Dacke of the University of Lund, Stockholm, a team of beetle watchers announced in 2003 that they had discovered that Scarabaeus zambesianus (the African dung beetle) was capable of navigating at night merely by the polarization of moonlight. The beetles’ goal evidently is to make as straightaline getaway as possible from the shitpile, surrounded, as it is, by lurking thieves. It was the great French entomologist, Jean Henri Fabre, who discovered in the 19th century that the helpers were not helping at all but trying to steal the ball. Hence the necessity of a quick exit from the scene. Male and female having found a hatching place, they then mated underground, the subsequent brood secure for a time inside the warmth and nutrients of the excremental truffle.

PETER LINEBAUGH teaches history at the University of Toledo. He is the author of two of CounterPunch’s favorite books, The London Hanged and (with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. His essay on the history of May Day is included in Serpents in the Garden. Linebaugh’s new book, The Magna Carta Manifesto, will be published in February by the University of California Press. He can be reached at:



Peter Linebaugh is the author of The London HangedThe Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (with Marcus Rediker) and Magna Carta Manifesto. Linebaugh’s latest book is Red Round Globe Hot Burning. He can be reached at: