Jean Devanny: pioneer Marxist feminist
Jean Devanny: Romantic Revolutionary
By Carole Ferrier
Melbourne University Press
Melbourne, 1999, 393pp., $49.95
Review by Jim McIlroy
Jean Devanny was a leading figure in the Australian left in the 1930s and 1940s. She was an author, Communist orator and women's liberationist. Carole Ferrier has produced an excellent biography, after 20 years of study and research, of one of the important pioneers of Marxist feminism in this country.
Born in the south island of New Zealand in 1894, Devanny was raised in a small mining town. Early on she began to support the struggle against class exploitation and to resist the restrictions placed on women. She had the distinction of having her first novel, The Butcher Shop, banned by the NZ government on the grounds of obscenity.
Married to a miner, Hal Devanny, Jean Devanny and her family moved to Australia in 1929. She joined the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) and became a renowned public speaker in Sydney's Domain and around the country.
As CPA veteran Jack Beasley noted, "Within the party, Devanny was invariably recalled as a brilliant agitational speaker, and as a stirrer who refused to accept hypocrisy".
While the CPA leadership was always ambivalent about Devanny, she was widely recognised by the rank and file of the party as a leader of the movement. Around the end of 1934, for example, a "revolutionary workers' song" circulated which compared Devanny to Rosa Luxemberg.
Ferrier writes: "A series of extraordinary conflicts was played out through and around Devanny's intrepid figure, particularly during the decades she spent in Australia. She was a key pioneer in the history of women's liberation, and attempted to live out an unfettered sexuality in environments, within and without the Party, of differently inflected intolerance."
Another CPA veteran, Fred Thompson, considered that, "... the turmoil that she created" was due to her being "a totally free spirit", with "no inhibitions about the restrictions of conforming to the norms of society at all".
"She does seem to have been comparatively discreet about her decade-long relationship with the CPA's general secretary, J.B. Miles — or a veil of discretion was drawn over it by the Party", Ferrier notes.
The CPA at that time, in line with the Stalinist politics which had taken over the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in the 1930s, and operating within a sexually oppressive Australian society, did not see women's liberation as a "special question".
"Further complicating Devanny's relationship to the Party was her profession of creative artist — viewed with ambivalence by Communists and habitually considered more of a liability than an asset", Ferrier points out. Devanny's best known novels were Sugar Heaven (1936) and Paradise Flow (1938), written during her time in north Queensland in the mid-1930s to 1940s.
In 1942, she described Sugar Heaven as the "first really proletarian novel in Australia". It dealt with the struggle of the cane-cutters in north Queensland for action against the dreaded Weil's disease, and with it the fight by the CPA against the right-wing ALP leadership of the Australian Workers Union.
"Besides celebrating industrial militancy", Ferrier notes, "Sugar Heaven also sets out to combat ethnocentrism and racism (then called 'chauvinism')". In particular, the novel defended the Italian workers who were the largest migrant group in north Queensland, many of whom were Communists who had escaped from Mussolini's fascism.
In 1941, while living at Emuford, a tin-mining town near Cairns, incidents involving several male members of the CPA led to Devanny being expelled from the party, supposedly for her sexual activities. In truth, a number of CPA members resented her intervention to defend women at Emuford who were the victims of sexual assault.
Beasley said later, pointing to the suppressed facts of the matter and the lack of support for Devanny from the central party leadership, that probably "nothing more depressing and deplorable happened in the Communist movement in Australia".
The expulsion and the slanders which had accompanied her expulsion devastated Devanny and affected her political career permanently, even though the party did "cancel" the expulsion and readmit her in 1945.
Devanny was bitter about her treatment, and sought vindication. She wrestled with the problem of how to present these events in her autobiographical writings, conscious of the danger that the growing anti-Communist forces in the new period of the Cold War would use any revelations to attack the CPA in general. "I have remained unswervingly loyal to the Communist Party for the best part of two decades because I have had increasing reason to believe that lasting peace and progress may be attained only through Party channels", Devanny wrote.
Nevertheless, Devanny resigned from the party in 1950, settling in Townsville. There she continued her writing, but had increasing difficulty getting her novels published in the reactionary and morally conservative climate of the 1950s.
Devanny rejoined the party in 1957, at a time when a flood of members, especially intellectuals, were leaving the CPA, disillusioned by the Khrushchev revelations about Stalin's crimes in 1956. She remained a member until her death from cancer in 1962.
Throughout her career as a writer, Devanny debated with friends and colleagues, such as Katherine Susannah Prichard, Miles Franklin, Frank Hardy and Beasley, about issues such as "socialist realism" in art and literature, the tension between political activism and writing, and the key questions of race, gender and sexuality. She strongly supported Aboriginal rights, including land rights, and helped expose the scandal of the stolen generations.
Maintaining the balance between writing and activism was a life-long battle for Devanny, who had helped lead organisations like the Workers' International Relief, the Movement Against War and Fascism, and the Fellowship of Australian Writers in the 1930s.
Recalling that period in a letter to CPA leader Lance Sharkey in the 1950s, Devanny wrote: "Remember, Lance, how in the old days we worked in a half-dozen different organisations 16 hours a day, studying at daylight, coming home dog-tired at 11 at night to start studying again to meet requirements on the morrow? I myself, in addition, wrote books."
The heavy pressure of her speaking and writing labours affected Devanny's health throughout her life, causing her to suffer periods of severe mental and physical exhaustion.
Her views on "socialist realism" were probably summed up in an essay she wrote in the June 1960 Communist Review: "Capitalist realism presents a picture of the chaos, confusion, misery and decay of the economic of capitalism — and leaves it at that. Working class realism depicts the chaos and decay of capitalism and the struggles of workers against its demands. Add to working class realism the revolutionary way along which workers are travelling to their final emancipation from class slavery, and we have socialist realism."
Whatever the complexities and contradictions of Devanny's writing and her political and personal life, she remained a committed communist to the end.
Carole Ferrier has created a rich biography of one of the unsung heroes of the Australian feminist and socialist movements by using material from people who knew Devanny, as well as drawing extensively on unpublished archives and manuscripts.
Considering the serious challenges facing the Marxist and women's liberation movements in this country, we would do well to study the lessons of Devanny's life and her important contribution to the progressive movement.