The red notebook focuses primarily on Anna’s ambivalent relationship to communism, which she agrees with in theory but finds difficult to support in practice, because she finds the British Communist Party unnecessarily dogmatic, stuck in the past, and unable to cope with communism’s transformation into authoritarian terror in the Soviet Union. Many of the novel’s communists blindly defend the Party and others become so disillusioned that they lose faith in politics altogether. Anna herself tends to oscillate between these two extremes until she finds a way to toe the line between participating in and critiquing the Party; by the end of the book, she manages to understand the limits of leftist institutions while continuing to believe in the values underlying leftist politics, and her gradual transformation toward a less radical, but more practical, political orientation mirrors the predicament and trajectory of the Western left at the crucial turning point when this novel is set, the mid-1950s.
Anna becomes disillusioned with politics simply because communism has begun to fail her: it has become obviously untenable in England and openly authoritarianism in the Soviet Union. From the 1930s through the 1950s, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin ruthlessly persecuted his political enemies, including many inside his own Communist Party, executing hundreds of thousands of people and sending millions to prison camps in Siberia. As rumors of these crimes reach England, Anna notices that most of her fellow Communists simply deny them, insisting that the Soviet Union could not have possibly been responsible for such atrocities. When these rumors are openly confirmed after Stalin’s death, Communist Parties break down throughout the West, where it is already clear that revolution would never occur. Most of all, even in England, Anna notices that communism proclaims a belief in egalitarianism, but communist institutions actually end up completely anti-egalitarian because of their demand for consensus and centralized power. She and Molly criticize the Party’s orthodox support for the Soviets, air of secrecy, strict hierarchy, low editorial standards, and suspicion toward intellectuals. Most of all, there is no remaining space for dissent—everyone who agrees with the Party’s ends but disagrees with its means gets shunned, which makes it difficult to reform a political project gone awry. Because Anna and Molly believe that the Communist Party has become anti-Communist, they end up “bored” with it and mired in conflicting feelings: they know they should celebrate when Stalin dies because the Party will have to change its thinking, but instead they agonize because they recognize that his death threatens the end of Communism everywhere; Anna realizes that it is illogical for her to feel more incensed about the Rosenbergs’ execution that the executions of dissidents within the Party in Eastern Europe, but cannot bring herself to feel differently.
Because they feel stuck to a party line they do not agree with, many of the book’s communists actually do nothing political—they dream of a better future but so completely lament the failures of the present that they lose all faith in political action. Most of Anna’s socialist friends in Africa gradually move from planning meetings and protests to mocking their own previous revolutionary zeal. They realize that they can do nothing about colonial racism, and the Oxford-educated airmen in the group make fun of Willi’s deep commitment to socialist theory—Paul Blackenhurst even openly brags about his future in the business world. Party meetings in London also inevitably lead to internal divisions and ambiguous conclusions—like when the reading group concludes that Stalin’s writings on linguistics make no sense, or when the canvassing group uses humor to deflect their question about whether it is better to advance their own candidate or support the Labour Party candidate who is more likely to win the election. Anna notes that such discussions are generally fruitful when limited to two people, but usually stale and mechanical when any larger, because people fear breaking from political dogma.
While Lessing believes that blind faith can be a self-sabotaging political attitude, given that reality inevitably fails to live up to leftists’ expectations, she also seems to show that a more measured, realistic kind of faith—one that recognizes the improbability of its own fulfillment—can both encourage people to pursue incremental progress and make radical social transformation more possible. Anna realizes that the Party “is largely composed of people who aren’t really political at all, but who have a powerful sense of service,” or who are lonely and seeking community. The happiest Party members are not satisfied because of society’s progress, but rather because of their everyday personal contributions to the movement. It is accordingly unsurprising that, having been motivated by service rather than community, Anna decides at the end of Free Women to campaign for Labour (a progressive mainstream party) and teach children, prioritizing practical, tangible acts of service above the endless, circular discussions and blind hope she finds in the Party. In the golden notebook, Anna and Saul come up with a metaphor from the Greek myth of Sisyphus: the great majority of leftists are busy pushing a boulder up a “great black mountain” toward the “few great men” at the top, who have already figured out what it means to live in freedom. More practical, less idealistic politics might perhaps achieve only an inch of progress, an incremental advancement in collective knowledge, but it is progress nonetheless. While Anna leaves the Party and Molly marries a businessman, they never stop fighting for justice—regardless of whether they believe in communist revolution or not, they do not confuse radical faith with realistic expectations; they recognize that socialism is fragile and unlikely but still do what is in their power to improve the world.
In the years after she published The Golden Notebook, Lessing insisted that she sought to be descriptive, not prescriptive: she wanted to capture the spirit of a time when communists were realizing their project would not be viable in the West, well before it started to seem impossible in the whole world. While she recognizes that the left had to scale down its expectations out of historical necessity, she laments communists’ tendency to give up a notion of the common good altogether because their particular hopes were dashed. Anna and Molly’s final, ambivalent political stances in Free Women suggest that they were still disappointed by the death of the communist hope for a radically transformed society, but still managed to find more realistic, limited ways to effect change.
Communism and Disillusionment ThemeTracker
Communism and Disillusionment Quotes in The Golden Notebook
“The point is,” said Anna, as her friend came back from the telephone on the landing, “the point is, that as far as I can see, everything’s cracking up.”
Most novels, if they are successful at all, are original in the sense that they report the existence of an area of society, a type of person, not yet admitted to the general literate consciousness. The novel has become a function of the fragmented society, the fragmented consciousness. Human beings are so divided, are becoming more and more divided, and more subdivided in themselves, reflecting the world, that they reach out desperately, not knowing they do it, for information about other groups inside their own country, let alone about groups in other countries. It is a blind grasping out for their own wholeness, and the novel-report is a means towards it. Inside this country, Britain, the middle-class have no knowledge of the lives of the working-people, and vice-versa; and reports and articles and novels are sold across the frontiers, are read as if savage tribes were being investigated. Those fishermen in Scotland were a different species from the coalminers I stayed with in Yorkshire; and both come from a different world than the housing estate outside London.
George said: “No, it’s the responsibility. It’s the gap between what I believe in and what I do.”
Five lonely women going mad quietly by themselves, in spite of husband and children or rather because of them. The quality they all had: self-doubt. A guilt because they were not happy. The phrase they all used: “There must be something wrong with me.” Back in the campaign HQ I mentioned these women to the woman in charge for the afternoon. She said: “Yes, wherever I go canvassing, I get the heeby-jeebies. This country’s full of women going mad all by themselves.” A pause, then she added, with a slight aggressiveness, the other side of the self-doubt, the guilt shown by the women I’d talked to:
“Well, I used to be the same until I joined the Party and got myself a purpose in life.” I’ve been thinking about this — the truth is, these women interest me much more than the election campaign.
15th September, 1954
A normal day. During the course of a discussion with John Butte and Jack I decided to leave the Party. I must now be careful not to start hating the Party in the way we do hate stages of our life we have outgrown. Noted signs of it already: moments of disliking Jack which were quite irrational. Janet as usual, no problems. Molly worried, I think with reason, over Tommy. She has a hunch he will marry his new girl. Well, her hunches usually come off. I realized that Michael had finally decided to break it off. I must pull myself together.
He smiled, as dry as she, and said: “Yes, I know what you mean, but all the same it's true. Do you know what people really want? Everyone, I mean. Everybody in the world is thinking: I wish there was just one other person I could really talk to, who could really understand me, who'd be kind to me. That’s what people really want, if they're telling the truth.”
Very few people really care about freedom, about liberty, about the truth, very few. Very few people have guts, the kind of guts on which a real democracy has to depend. Without people with that sort of guts a free society dies or cannot be born.