excerpt from "Laboratories of Social Change"
a lecture delivered by Doris Lessing in 1985.
Sometimes it is hard to see anything good and
hopeful in a world that seems increasingly horrific.
To listen to the news is enough to make you think
you are living in a lunatic asylum.
But wait . . . we all know the news is presented
to us for maximum effect, that bad news seems, at
least, to be more effective in arousing us than good
news—which in itself is an interesting comment on
the human condition. We are all regularly presented,
day after day, with bad news, the worst, and I think
our minds are more and more set into attitudes of
foreboding and depression. But is it possible that all
the bad things going on—and I don't have to list
them, for we all know what they are—are a reaction,
a dragging undertow, to a forward movement in the
human social evolution that we can't easily see? Perhaps,
looking back, let's say in a century or two centuries,
is it possible people will say, "That was a time
when extremes battled for supremacy. The human
mind was developing very fast in the direction of self-knowledge,
self-command, and as always happens,
as always has to happen, this thrust forwards aroused
its opposite, the forces of stupidity, brutality, mob
thinking"? I think it is possible. I think that this is
what is happening.
Let us look at something that is extraordinarily
encouraging. In the last twenty or so years [1965-1985] quite a
few countries that were dictatorships, tyrannies,
have opted to become democracies. Among them are
Greece, Portugal, Spain, Brazil and Argentina. Some
of these are precarious—democracy is always precarious,
and must be fought for. But countries that were
in the grip of single-minded, simple-minded, stulti-
fying systems of thought have chosen to attempt the
more complicated, many-choiced balances of democ-
In the balance against this hopeful fact, we must
put a sad one, which is that large numbers of young
people, when they reach the age of political activity
adopt a stance or an attitude that is very much part
of our times. It is that democracy is only a cheat and
a sham, only the mask for exploitation, and that they
will have none of it. We have almost reached a point
where if one values democracy, one is denounced as
reactionary. I think that this will be one of the atti-
tudes that will be found most fascinating to historians
of the future. For one thing, the young people who
cultivate this attitude towards democracy are usually
those who have never experienced its opposite: peo-
ple who've lived under tyranny value democracy.
It is not that I don't understand it—I understand
it only too well, having lived through the process
myself. Democracy, liberty, fair play, and so forth
these have been stuffed down one's throat, and sud-
denly you see the most appalling injustices all around
you, and shout: "Hypocrite!" In my case, it was
Southern Rhodesia, where democracy was for the
white minority, and the black majority had no rights
of any kind. But when people are in that state of
mind, what is forgotten is that a democracy, no matter
how imperfect, offers the possibility of reform,
change. It offers freedom of choice. It is this freedom
to choose that is the new idea, historically speaking.
I think we tend to forget how new these ideas are,
that an individual should have rights, that a citizen
should be able to criticize the government.
How new is it? When was this concept born into
the human community for the first time? At this
point, there are people who start muttering about
ancient Greece, forgetting that it was a slave state
that allowed certain minimal freedoms to a male minority.
For argument's sake, it would be safe to say
that our concepts of liberty, of the rights of the individual,
were born in the English Revolution, in the
French Revolution, and in the American Revolution.
Very young ideas indeed. Very frail. Very precarious.
That an individual should be entitled to the rule
of the law—why, three or four centuries ago, they
wouldn't have known what you meant by it. Now it
is an idea so powerful that strong and ruthless governments
are brought down by it.
An idea seems to have taken root that there is
such a thing as civilized government, even that there
is a general consensus what civilized government is.
How otherwise could the citizens of Argentina have
agreed that they wanted to sue their deposed government
for wicked and cruel behaviour? For improper
behaviour? This seems to me the most extraordinary
and encouraging thing—that it could be happening
at all, proving to us all that in the world mind there
is an idea of what government ought to be. Has there
ever been an example before, of citizens wanting to
sue a government for improper behaviour? I am no
historian, but it does seem to me that this is a new
thing in the world.
Yet I think we may very well see countries that
take it for granted they are democracies losing sight
of democracy, for we are living in a time when the
great over-simplifiers are very powerful—Communism,
fundamentalist Islam. Poor economies breed
But good ideas don't get lost, though they may
be submerged for a time.
An example. I have been talking about what we
call the "soft sciences," social psychology, and social
anthropology and the rest, and their contribution in
understanding ourselves as social animals, and how
these young sciences are denigrated, patronized, put
down. As everybody knows, public money is getting
very short in Britain, university departments are clos-
ing, all kinds of studies are being cut. This type of
science has been badly affected, is often the first to
be cut'—yet I have just read that in various universi-
ties, departments studying social psychology, social
science and so forth have been reprieved, because of
their usefulness to industry. In other words, they are
proving their value where it counts.
There is another hopefulness, not now but for the future.
Because Communism has turned out so
badly, proved itself not only one of the bloodiest tyr-
annies ever, but also so inefficient that any type of
regime, no matter how bad, is preferred to it, we
forget that Communism was born out of the ancient
dream of justice for everybody. It is a very powerful
dream, a powerful engine for social change. Because
Communism is at this present time equated with barbarism,
inefficiency and tyranny, that doesn't mean
that the idea of real justice will not be reborn.
Meanwhile there is no country in the world
whose structure is not of a privileged class and a poor
class. There is always a power elite with the mass of
the people excluded from wealth and from any sort
of political power.
In my more gloomy moments, I do brood about
the fact that it took the Communists' Soviet Union
only a couple of generations to develop a power elite
as rich and as privileged as any in the world. Communist
China is reported to be going the same way
and so are some of the new African states. But if this
is some kind of an inevitable process, for this time at
least, that all types of society produce privileged
elites, then at least we should acknowledge it and
work for as much flexibility as possible inside the
There is no group or party setting itself up against
this state of affairs that does not see itself as an elite,
whether it be the dictatorship of the proletariat,
headed by the Communist party, or terrorist groups,
or the political parties of the democracies, which by
definition know what is best for everyone else.
Elites, privileged classes, groups better educated
than others . . . this seems to be the stage at which
the world is now, or at least, nothing else seems to
be visible anywhere.
There are all kinds of elites, some retrograde and
useless that only act as brakes on social change, while
others, I believe, are productive. If I say that I think
elites, privileged groups, are often useful, then that
makes me reactionary, but it depends on who the
elite is: as I said before, if you call it the vanguard of
the proletariat, then that changes things, doesn't it?
Or, if I say I think ginger groups, pressure groups,
are invaluable because they prevent a society from
going sleepy and unself-critical, then that is all right
too—no, it is the word "elite" that is suspect. Very
well, let's discard it: we live in a time when people
may murder for the sake of a word, or a phrase. .
There is a certain social process that is known and
very visible, but perhaps not acknowledged as much
as it should be. It is that one where a new idea (or an
old one in new form) is accepted by a minority, while
the majority are shouting treason, rubbish, kook,
Communist, capitalist, or whatever is the valued
term of abuse in that society. The minority develop
this idea, at first probably in secrecy, or semi-secrecy,
and then more and more visibly, with more and more
support until . . . guess what? This seditious, impossible,
wrong-headed idea becomes what is known as
"received-opinion" and is loved and valued by the
majority. Meanwhile, of course, a new idea, still seditious
etc. and so forth, has been born somewhere
else, and is being cultivated and worked out by a
minority. Suppose we redefine the word "elite," for
out present purposes, to mean any group of people
who for any reason are in the possession of ideas that
put them ahead of the majority?
When you get to my age—I was bound to say
this at some point, you'll agree—when you get to my
age, watching this process continuously at work in
society is one of the more entertaining ways of pass
ing one's time. It is an entertainment on the whole
denied to all but a few of the more reflective young,
because the young are still able to believe more easily
in permanence. What! That the beautiful ideas they
cherish are destined for the dustheap? Of course not!
But suppose we got to the point where at least
enough of us could agree that this is a process continually
at work—even in societies that outlaw new
ideas, like the Communist ones—making it inevitable
that today's treason is tomorrow's orthodoxy.
Would that not make us more efficient than we are
now, less punishing and bloody-minded, and ready
to resist change? I think it would, and that there must
come some point when this, like other mechanisms
in society, will be used, instead of resisted or ignored.
They can be ignored only by people who do
not study history.
Which brings me to another quite remarkable
phenomenon of our times. It is that young people are
not interested in history. In a recent survey in Britain,
young people who were asked what they thought
were useful subjects of study put history very low:
only 7 per cent saw any value in it. I think one reason
for this is psychological, easy to see and to understand,
particularly, again, if you've lived through
that stage yourself. If you are self-consciously
"young," and by definition progressive, or revolutionary
or whatever, but in any case, in the right
(young being against the old who are stupid and reactionary),
then the last thing you want to do is to
look at history, where you will learn that this attitude
on the part of the young is perennial, part of a permanent
social process. You do not want to read any-
thing that upsets your view of yourself as a gloriously
new and amazing phenomenon, whose ideas are
fresh, in fact just minted, and probably by yourself,
or at least, by your friends, or by the leader you revere,
an altogether new unsullied creature destined
to change the world. If I sound mocking, then I am
only laughing at my own young self—but that is the
I think that this attitude, that history is not worth
studying, will strike those who come after us as quite
After all, what we have seen since the French
Revolution (some would say since the Utopian and
Socialist groups of Cromwell's time) has amounted
to a laboratory of experiment in different types of
Socialism, different types of society, from the thirteen-
year-long war regime of Hitler, which called
itself National Socialism, to the Labour governments
of Britain, from the Communist states of Russia and
China, to Cuba, to Ethiopia, to Somalia, and on and
on. You'd think that people dedicated to production
of new'types of society would fall on these examples,
of what has actually happened, in order to study and
learn from them.
I repeat: one way of looking at the last two and a
half centuries is that they have been laboratories of
social change. But in order to learn from them one
needs a certain distance, detachment; and it is precisely
this detachment that makes possible, I believe,
a step forwards in social consciousness. One learns
nothing, about anything, ever, when in a state of
boiling ferment, or partisan enthusiasm.
I think children should be taught about history
not as is usually the case now, that this is the record
of long past events, which one ought to know about
for some reason or other. But that this is a story from
which one may learn not only what has happened,
but what may, and probably will, happen again.
Literature and history, these two great branches
of human learning, records of human behaviour,
human thought, are less and less valued by the
young, and by educators, too. Yet from them one
may learn how to be a citizen and a human being.
We may learn how to look at ourselves and at the
society we live in, in that calm, cool, critical and
sceptical way which is the only possible stance for a
civilized human being, or so have said all the philosophers
and the sages.
But all the pressures go the other way, towards
learning only what is immediately useful, what is
functional. More and more the demand is for people
to be educated to function in an almost certainly temporary
stage of technology. Educated for the short
We have to look at the word "useful" again. In
the long run what is useful is what survives, revives,
comes to life in different contexts. It may look now as
if people educated to use our newest technologies
efficiently are the world's elite, but in the long run I
believe that people educated to have, as well, that
point of view that used to be described as humanistic
—the long-term, over-all, contemplative point of
view—will turn out to be more influential. Simply
because they understand more of what is going on in
the world. It is not that I undervalue the new technicians.
On the contrary. It is only that what they know
is by definition a temporary necessity.
To my mind the whole push and thrust and development of the world is towards the more complex,
the flexible, the open-minded, the ability to entertain
many ideas, sometimes contradictory ones, in one's
mind at the same time.
We are-seeing now an example of the price a
society must pay for insisting on orthodox, simpleminded,
slogan thinking: the Soviet Union is a
creaking, anachronistic, inefficient, barbaric society,
because its type of Communism outlaws flexibility of
thought. "Life itself"—to use the phrase the Communists
like using—"life itself" is showing just what
happens to societies that allow themselves to ossify
in dead patterns of thought. (The new ruler Gorbachev
is trying to remedy this.) We may observe
how the Chinese, always a clever and pragmatic people,
are allowing themselves to change. We may see
how fundamentalist Islam creates societies that will,
because of their inflexibility, soon be shown up for
what they are, while other societies, more flexible,
more open, race ahead.
In the long term, I think the race will go to the
democracies,, the flexible societies. I know that if one
looks around the world at the moment, this may
seem a rather over-optimistic view, particularly when
we see that the new information about how we work
and function is used so skilfully and cynically by governments,
police departments, armies, secret services
—all those functions of administration that can be
used to diminish and control the individual.
But it is my belief that it is always the individual,
in the long run, who will set the tone, provide the
real development in a society.
It is not always easy to go on valuing the individual,
when everywhere individuals are so put down,
denigrated, swamped by mass thinking, mass movements
and, on a smaller scale, by the group.
It is particularly hard for young people, faced
with what seem like impervious walls of obstacles, to
have belief in their ability to change things, to keep
their personal and individual viewpoints intact. I remember
very clearly how it seemed to me in my late
teens and early twenties, seeing only what seemed to
be impregnable systems of thought, of belief—governments
that seemed unshakeable. But what has
happened to those governments like the white government
in Southern Rhodesia, for instance? To
those powerful systems of faith, like the Nazis, or the
Italian Fascists, or to Stalinism? To the British Empire
. . . to all the European empires, in fact, so recently
powerful? They have all gone, and in such a short
Looking back now, I no longer see these enormous
blocs, nations, movements, systems, faiths, religions,
but only individuals, people who when I was
young I might have valued, but not with much belief
in the possibility of their changing anything. Looking
back, I see what a great influence an individual may
have, even an apparently obscure person, living a
small, quiet life. It is individuals who change societies,
give birth to ideas, who, standing out against
tides of opinion, change them. This is as true in open
societies as it is in oppressive societies, but of course
the casualty rate in the closed societies is higher.
Everything that has ever happened to me has taught
me to value the individual, the person who cultivates
and preserves her or his own ways of thinking
stands out against group thinking, group pressures.
Or who, conforming no more than is necessary to
group pressures, quietly preserves individual thinking
I am not at all talking about eccentrics, about
whom such a fuss is made in Britain. I do think that
only a very rigid and conforming society could have
produced the idea of an eccentric in the first place.
Eccentrics tend to be in love with the image of eccentricity,
and once embarked on this path, become
more and more picturesque, developing eccentricity
for its own sake. No, I am talking about people who
think about what is going on in the world, who try to
assimilate information about our history, about how
we behave and function—people who advance humanity
as a whole.
It is my belief that an intelligent and forward
looking society would do everything possible to produce
such individuals, instead of, as happens very
often, suppressing them. But if governments, if cultures,
don't encourage their production, then individuals
and groups can and should...
We live in an open society... We are fortunate in that we are able to teach ourselves what we will, if our schools seem to us deficient; and to reach out anywhere at all for ideas that seem to us valuable.
I think that we should make more use of these freedoms than we do....
By using our freedoms, I do not mean just joining demonstrations, political parties, and so on and so forth, which is only part of the democratic process, but examining ideas, from whatever source they come, to see how they may usefully contribute to our lives and to societies we live in.
from Prisons We Choose To Live Inside, by Doris Lessing,