[Marxism] Another Australian rebel: Jean Devanny

Tom O'Lincoln suarsos at alphalink.com.au
Sun Nov 6 14:49:22 MST 2005

Jean Devanny: red revolutionist 
Tom O’Lincoln
"Socialist Alternative" Issue 97, November  05

“Jean Devanny”, wrote novelist Miles Franklin, “is a red revolutionist and
ranter, but I like her very much.”

Devanny, a New Zealander, became a writer and married a union militant. Her
first novel The Butcher Shop, full of political and erotic themes, was
banned – being considered “disgusting, indecent, communistic”. She joined
the Labor Party, but was sceptical about parliamentary strategies,
believing socialists needed to smash the state.

Moving to Australia in 1929, Jean found Sydney in a ferment as unionists
defended their organisations against an employer onslaught. Arrested at an
unemployed demonstration, she announced in court: “I am here on a trumped
up charge. When I come out of jail I shall join the Communist Party.”

According to fellow writer Kay Brown: “She always reminded me of a knight
at arms galloping to a crusade, and her crusade was her passionate love of
Communism.” She was also a rebel inside the party.

In earlier years the party had been open-minded about sexuality, but with
the rise of Stalin’s dictatorship in Russia, Communist ideology became more
repressive. Devanny refused to be stifled. Left activist Edna Ryan later
remarked that “Jean Devanny advocated sexual liberation, particularly for
women, as a political issue. She was far in advance of the Party at that

A noted platform agitator in Sydney’s Domain, Devanny “prowled the platform
like a hunting lioness.” Here she confronted Adela Pankhurst Walsh, a
former Communist who had moved to the right and founded the anti-union
Women’s Guild of Empire. Journalist Miriam Soljak reported that Devanny
“completely floored” Pankhurst “in a debate on the rights of the workers.”

She was arrested in 1933 for selling seditious material. “I can see her
now”, said an eyewitness, “kicking a couple of detectives in the face when
they tried to drag her off the stump”. When a free speech rally in 1934
attracted a big crowd, police charged the platform and again Jean was in
the thick of the fight.

Jean’s 1934-35 anti-fascist speaking tour of Queensland brought her into
contact with industrial ferment in the sugar industry. She was active in
supporting the 1935 strike over Weil’s disease, “not a struggle for wages
but for life”, which provided the material for her novel Sugar Heaven. The
book combined classic Devanny features: militancy, class consciousness,
anti-racism and an open treatment of sexuality. The Communist Party found
it disconcerting.

Her relationship with the party was always difficult, but became traumatic
after an incident at Emuford, near Cairns. Accounts vary, but it’s clear
she was assaulted, perhaps raped by male party members, who then spread
slanders about her sexual behaviour to cover their crime. The party
expelled her for “moral indiscretion”, and that injustice took two years to

Jean returned to the party, left it, then joined again. She concentrated
more on her literary work, which included 14 novels, a play, stories and
sketches, and an autobiography. In addition to the personal issues, she
considered the Communists narrow and dogmatic in the cultural sphere, yet
her basic left wing convictions were unshaken.

The party, for its part, was always lukewarm about her novels, preferring
the safe party-line work of other writers such as Katherine Pritchard.

Devanny died on International Women’s Day 1962, having lived to express her
scepticism after the party endorsed a parliamentary road to socialism, and
having written to the papers from her deathbed protesting about nuclear
Railway workers observed a minute’s silence, as did the IWD rally in
Sydney. It was a fitting tribute for a red revolutionist.

For the full story see Carole Ferrier’s biography, Jean Devanny, Romantic

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