Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Doris Lessing, feminism, secular religion

Doris Lessing was a celebrated novelist, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007.

She was born to English parents and grew up in Rhodesia in the 1920s. She moved back to England in the 1930s, got married, had children and then divorced in 1943, leaving the children with their father.

She became part of the great shift of Western intellectuals toward communism at this time, although she left the Communist Party after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. Later in life she became interested in Sufism.

I found an interview with Lessing in the New York Times from 1982 that raises some interesting themes.

The interview begins with Lessing distancing herself from feminism:
The idea that she has abandoned feminist concerns particularly irks her, since she never wrote from a consciously feminist point of view but was adopted by feminists in search of a heroine: ''What the feminists want of me is something they haven't examined because it comes from religion. They want me to bear witness. What they would really like me to say is, 'Ha, sisters, I stand with you side by side in your struggle toward the golden dawn where all those beastly men are no more.' Do they really want people to make oversimplified statements about men and women? In fact, they do. I've come with great regret to this conclusion.''

There are three themes here. First, Lessing identifies feminism as being hostile to men and as setting men and women apart from each other. I think that's worth noting as you sometimes hear the argument that feminism was somehow friendlier in the past than it is today. That is not how Lessing experienced it, despite being supportive of leftist causes herself.

Second, there is the utopianism of the radical left, the idea that human nature can be acted on, perhaps through education, or the dismantling of oppressive social norms or institutions etc., to create an ideal society  - a "golden dawn" in which an ideal of freedom and equality will be realised. This helps to explain the first theme - the hostility to men expressed by feminists. If it is men, acting through the patriarchy, that are the brake on achieving utopia, then men become the enemy of humanity and the villains holding back the realisation of humanity's ultimate purposes. Little wonder, given this world view, that feminists would be so hostile to the opposite sex.

Third, there is the idea that leftism is, to some degree, a kind of secularised religion. Lessing goes on to draw out this point:
''There are certain types of people who are political out of a kind of religious reason,'' she says, digging dirt ferociously out of the kitchen table. ''I think it's fairly common among socialists: They are, in fact, God-seekers, looking for the kingdom of God on earth. A lot of religious reformers have been like that, too. It's the same psychological set, trying to abolish the present in favor of some better future - always taking it for granted that there is a better future. If you don't believe in heaven, then you believe in socialism.

''When I was in my real Communist phase, I and the people around me really believed - but, of course, this makes us certifiable - that something like 10 years after World War II, the world would be Communist and perfect.''

''I was once an idealistic and utopian Communist,'' she said, ''and no, I am not proud of it. The real politicos are a very different animal, and I'm angry that I didn't notice that very evident fact.

I think it's worth pointing out here that the alternative to being a utopian socialist is not to be unconcerned with "the city of man". It is to recognise that human nature is flawed, and therefore social institutions and norms have an important role in limiting the ill effects of the baser aspects of our nature (as well as fostering the nobler ones). You do not make progress in society by abolishing all restraints on human nature; the task is a more complicated one of making some sort of good order out of the biological, social and spiritual nature of man, a task that draws more on the steady accumulation of wisdom, the making of culture, and the fostering of virtue than on simplistic political formulas.


  1. Third, there is the idea that leftism is, to some degree, a kind of secularised religion.

    You could argue that since the beginning of the 20th century all politics is secularised religion.

    The kind of outlook that horrified Lessing is found today across the political spectrum. Far right factions such as the alt-right exhibit the same disconnectedness from reality, the same utopianism, the same emphasis on building heaven on earth, and the same seething hatred for anyone perceived as an enemy.

    There are people on the American far right who genuinely believe they're going to create an all-white earthly paradise. To do this they're going to have to somehow remove millions of non-whites and they're going to have to deal with their political enemies. Achieving their objective would almost certainly involve a bloodbath that would make the horrors of the mid-20th century look like a Sunday school picnic.

    But a worrying number are not bothered by this. Many are looking forward to what they see as the coming civil war. They see it as a kind of Armageddon, a final battle between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness. They see it in starkly religious terms - the unrighteous must be destroyed.

    1. I get your point, but it's different to leftist utopianism I think.

      For countless generations Westerners thought that you made a good society by fostering virtue, enculturating the young in the best traditions of the past, respecting the limits of God's laws/natural law. There was an awareness of how easily individuals and societies could become disordered, which threatened a loss of freedom.

      Leftist utopianism upturned this. It asserted a natural state of freedom and equality, ruined by the social norms, the institutions, the restraints & limits that previous generations had thought necessary for the making of a free society.

      It's extraordinary when you think about it. Lessing's communists believed that in a decade you could reach an "end state" - the end of history - in which people would be "naturally" free - existing without restraints, or social norms, or a sense of divine/natural law.

      It's preposterous, but some form of it so gripped the collective mindset of Western intellectuals that the previous approach is now foreign to us and has to be reclaimed.

      If sections of the alt right believe they can seize territory by force from the American state, then I agree that they are disconnected from reality. At this stage they would be better off simply getting together at the local level, getting to know each other, making real life connections. If they can do this, then maybe they can find ways to start to build community - and grow from there.

      The temptation is to try to find a quick fix solution. "If we do this, then things will be put right, and we don't have to worry about politics anymore, things can go back to normal". What's needed instead are men who see "polis life" - a commitment to political life - as being a normal part of masculine commitments, in any age or time.

    2. It's extraordinary when you think about it. Lessing's communists believed that in a decade you could reach an "end state" - the end of history - in which people would be "naturally" free - existing without restraints, or social norms, or a sense of divine/natural law.

      Libertarians are even worse. At least Marxists believed that a transitional phase of socialism would be needed before communism could be achieved. Libertarians think they can achieve their utopia instantly.

      Perhaps that's the problem with the American far right - there's a definite libertarian influence.

    3. Perhaps that's the problem with the American far right - there's a definite libertarian influence.

      I've been reading about this. After WWII there actually were some traditionalists on the American right. But they seem to have made a serious error. They knew that they would have to combine with libertarians within a mainstream right party. But instead of making a strategic alliance, they instead attempted to come up with a "fusionist" political philosophy. The basis for the fusion was that in order to have genuine virtue in society, the government itself should be libertarian, as virtue is only virtue if it is strictly self-chosen. There was one traditionalist who wrote a searing criticism of this fusionist philosophy, L. Brent Bozell Jnr, and there are some new wave traditionalists today who are also critical, but "fusionism" led to libertarians taking the lead on the American right from the 1970s onwards.

      (Salden, I agree that libertarians are a type of liberal, specifically they are a modern version of classical liberalism. They take the limited government/free market principle seriously. In recent years, some of them have started to break with liberal orthodoxy on certain issues (race/nation, marriage/family). I'm not sure where this will take them - whether or not they will end up questioning the classical liberal principles which underpin libertarianism.)

  2. Lawrence Auster wrote frequently on libertarianism-- its nature and what it is in practice. Here are two that I have found useful:



    From the second link:

    "It should never be forgotten: a libertarian is a type of liberal, he is not a conservative. A libertarian doesn’t believe in a cultural or moral order; he believes in equal freedom. And the consistent pursuit of equal freedom requires the destruction of all cultural and moral order, which is done by calling the defenders of any cultural or moral order “haters.” "

    1. Auster had it spot on. Classical liberalism made an alliance with aspects of traditionalism post world war 2 in order to compete against the liberal offshoot/heresy of Marxism. They had to do it as their ideas simply weren't popular with the hoi polloi and so forced them to hold their nose and adopt postures traditionalists would support mixed with their own free market nostrums.

      But they always sneered at and hated the conservatives they were forced to cohabit with. And in the wake of the cold war with the old Marxist enemy supposedly defeated they assumed they could abandon their unfashionable allies. The joy that rodents like Christopher Pyne and Malcolm Turnbull took in marginalizing conservative voices inside the liberal party spoke to a feeling amongst the classical liberals akin to release, as though they had finally shed an unwanted weight long endured.

      Now that the beast of socialism is stirring again you can see some of them furiously trying to backtrack, but I think it may be too late.