Monday, April 14, 2008

Jean Devanny: liberty, science and more

This is the last in a series on Jean Devanny, a communist writer and activist of the 1930 to 60s. Having read her biography, Jean Devanny: Romantic Revolutionary, I was struck by the number of unresolved inconsistencies in her beliefs. In this post I'll list several more.


The communists of the era were big on pacifism. Devanny, for instance, had helped to establish a Peace League in Cairns in 1935 (p.130); in 1934 she had undertaken a propaganda tour for a movement against war (p.129).

Yet in her May Day speech in 1935 she "launched into a paean of praise for the Red Army". Reminiscing about a military parade she had witnessed in Russia she said:

I never before thought the bayonet a beautiful weapon. Depends on whose body it is intended to be used, doesn't it ... Then the loveliest sight of all. The tractors drawing big guns ... (pp.127-128)

Free speech

The communists peppered their speeches with references to free speech. We learn in the biography of Devanny that:

During 1934, the Workers' Weekly and the Party organisers widened the scope of their agitation on a range of issues, particularly freedom of speech. (p.118)

In that year, Devanny spoke to a large demonstration in the Sydney Domain on the issue of free speech, an event commemorated in verse:

The workers in great numbers gather'd on that afternoon
To pledge their right for freedom and for liberty of speech (p.118)

However, the party didn't defend free speech for its own members. At a meeting in 1942, Jim Comerford asked the party leader "to stop interjecting and to give him a fair go". Shortly after "a few of J.B.'s "loyal" followers threw Jim into the street." (p.197)

Another member, Joyce Batterham, recalled of this time that "When you were directed to do things, you just did it! ... There was ... not much freedom of choice." (p.197)

Devanny herself was not tolerant of opposing views; Hilda Essen wrote of her that "There's no argument, she's simply right." (p.161) According to the historian Stuart Macintyre, Devanny was the first in Australia to use the term "politically incorrect" in rejecting someone's views (p.161).

The climate within the Communist Party is suggested too by Devanny's fear of repercussions in publishing her autobiography. She wrote to Miles Franklin:

Sometimes I feel so sick about the whole thing, the shock to my family, the fear of what they might do to me (the P[arty] I mean) that I wish I had never started on it. (p.269)

Science & materialism

Marxists pride themselves on being scientific materialists and Devanny was no exception. A journalist, Nelle Scanlan, interviewed her in 1926 and was struck by Devanny's "preoccupation with 'scientific socialism'". Devanny told Scanlan that her most recent novel was based upon "the materialistic conception of history." Scanlan recorded that "Greater faith in the infallibility of science could not be found". (pp.38-39)

Yet throughout the biography we find evidence that Devanny perceived the world in other terms; she didn't write as a strict materialist examining "matter in motion", but instead chose to describe things using a "spiritual" vocabulary, and when praising individuals she took the inherent value of character as a real given.

For instance, she describes a visit to a tropical island as a day of "rapture" (p.259); she later declares that she is "a primitive soul" (p.275); she praises a friend as being "Utterly trustworthy, concentrated on things of the mind and spirit, the Doc's sagacity and sincerity could not but be an uplifting influence" (p.205); and she complains that after WWI people were "soul-emasculated" (p.44).

She doesn't seem to have been far from experiencing the transcendent through nature. For instance, in the following passage she writes of an ecstatic feeling aroused by the "unearthly" magnificence of a tropical sunset:

The sunset of this last day was of a nature to make one quake half in ecstasy, half in pain. So clear was the atmosphere that separate trees on the forward part of the mainland ranges stood out plainly ...

An incredible quiet and stillness fell: a glowing stillness, in which the world changed to the colour of old-gold.

Then, in one last ecstatic burst, Woody was let to even greater splendour ... A soft diaphanous veil of rose touched the waters of the main lagoon, the outer sea turned to forget-me-not blue and then dusk, moonless dusk, fell down as though some lordly hand, unable to bear longer the unearthly magnificence of it all, had clapped down a colossal lid. (pp.220-221)

Liberty & fraternity

Communism was supposed to be a movement for liberty and fraternity. However, once again communist theory didn't turn out well in reality. For much of the biography Devanny seems to have been most oppressed and tormented by her callous treatment by the party, rather than by the larger society.

Devanny wrote in 1953, having spent a few years away from the party that, "I am regaining the good humour which horrors and terrors deprived me of for about twelve years." (p.275)

She did have reason to complain. In 1941 Devanny was living in a small settlement at Emuford in Queensland with a group of communist workers. Some of the workers' wives began to spread rumours about Devanny; when she threatened to complain to HQ she was punched in the face by a male comrade. She then travelled to HQ to lodge a protest, but on her return to Emuford a group of comrades assaulted her so badly that she was taken by ambulance to hospital. There's some evidence that she was sexually assaulted.

Devanny was then ostracised by the party; when she had recovered she wanted to return to Sydney but the party wouldn't send the fare. It was finally a businessman who felt sympathy and gave her the money to return home. (p.190)

Not surprisingly, the idealism of the party workers tended to fail over time. The novelist Dorothy Hewett lamented of herself and her partner that "our original political idealism and belief in ourselves [had been] corroded by time, and bitter experience". (p.297) Devanny for her part confessed to Miles Franklin in 1953:

No good assuming that I have any ideals left, Miles. They are as dead as a doornail. (p.268)

My own surprise is not so much that Devanny lost her ideals, but that she lived for so long with such inconsistencies of theory and practice.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting story.

    The internal workings and dynamics of socialist groups usually stand in stark contrast to their ideals when it comes to sexual equality, freedom of expression, absolute equality etc.