Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Does Catherine Deveny embarrass the left?

The destructive, self-loathing, suicidal aspect of left-liberalism has never been better revealed than in the columns of Catherine Deveny.

Deveny writes a regular column for The Age, a newspaper which claims to be Melbourne's quality broadsheet. Her latest effort is an argument against the baby bonus, a payment of $5000 to mothers on the birth of a child.

This is Deveny's gentle introduction to the issue:

From July 1 our Government will be bribing nice white, or almost white, women with $5000 to have a baby. When I say white or almost white, I'm referring to breeders born here or breeders deemed by the Government as acceptable to live here.

Deveny is shocked that white women might be encouraged to have children. It would be better, she thinks, if they were paid not to have kids. Why would you encourage white women to have families of their own when there are non-white families who could be brought here? The answer must be the evil racism of whites:

I see the baby bonus as an extension of the White Australia Policy ... What I don't understand is why the Government is trying so hard to get the Aussie girls breeding when there are hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers with young children gagging to live in Australia ... No one has any answers for me. Here's my answer. Racism.

Deveny herself is a white woman with three children. Is she therefore an evil white breeder? Her answer is very close to a yes:

To be honest, had I known about the environment what I know now, I never would have had three children ... I've met many people who've decided not to have kids ... Whatever the reasons, good on them. Give them a "no baby bonus" I say.

Having just made clear her opposition to family formation, Deveny then offers advice to the Government on how best to support families. Despite being an anti-market leftist, she wants family roles to be commodified:

If government was committed to families, it would be setting up low-cost, high-quality child care in conjunction with fully paid parenting and paid grandparenting ...

Read the whole piece if you want to get the ugly tone of it. Two things are particularly striking about the article. First, it doesn't matter to Deveny that both major parties are committed to very high levels of non-white immigration. In her mind, whites are the dominant oppressor group and therefore society is structured in a systemic way to maintain their privilege. Ideology trumps reality.

The second striking thing is the disdain and contempt for her own coethnics that this ideology produces. She is troubled by the thought of white babies, despite having several herself. Why would any self-respecting white person sign on to such a self-destructive leftism?

What's really happening in Deveny's mind? I suspect that she has absorbed the theory that a white ethnicity was artificially constructed for the purpose of power and domination. Whiteness is therefore to be treated as a uniquely evil phenomenon.

It's not a difficult theory to challenge. It's much more likely that the different Western ethnic groups developed over time in much the same way that the non-Western ones did. In both cases, ethnicity was valued primarily as a source of identity and meaning. Although Western ethnic groups have dominated others at various periods of history, so too have non-Western groups been dominant over others.

Deveny is an end product of an unlikely ideology. The first impression on reading her column is a sense of what is unhealthy and unviable in her mentality. It's difficult to miss, too, the inconsistency in what she herself has chosen to do (have a family) and what she suggests it is politically correct to do (remain childless).

It seems reasonable to doubt the moral authority of a writer like Deveny and to choose instead to subject her political beliefs to critical scrutiny.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Baillieu's negative identity

We recently had a debate here in Victoria on a "Relationships Bill" which permits same sex couples to officially register their partnerships. The leader of the Liberal Party opposition, Ted Baillieu, spoke in favour of the bill. What he said has a wider significance:

For me, this bill is about respect. We are a nation and a state of different people. Indeed, our diversity is at the heart of our collective identity - different people, different views, different lifestyles.

If you read this casually you might skim by the truly radical element of what Baillieu is saying. Baillieu has no problem using the term "collective identity", but consider carefully what he means by this concept. It is not a "positive" identity, in the sense that it represents a set of positive characteristics shared by a community of people. Instead, it is a negative identity, in which people identify with the absence of shared characteristics.

Baillieu has come very close to jettisoning a collective identity. All that he has retained is a very limited negative collective identity. It's little more than the bare bones of a communal identity.

What are we to make of this? On the one hand, I think he is representing the liberal position honestly. There are Liberal Party leaders who claim that you can have mass, diverse immigration over many generations and still retain the strength of the older collective identity. It doesn't seem to me to be a likely outcome.

There are problems, though, in giving up on a collective identity. There are practical concerns like a lack of social cohesion; a decline in altruism; and a weakening motivation to defend the society you live in.

More importantly, there is a loss of the communal setting for people's lives. We gain much as individuals from a strong collective identity in which we enjoy a sense of shared history, of a common culture, of closely understood manners and mores, of a widely shared calendar of festivals and celebrations, of a distinct tradition linking generations to each other, and of art and architecture expressing the character of our own community.

Baillieu's position might be more candid than that of other Liberal Party leaders but it is also profoundly deracinated: it represents the mindset of the rootless, modernist individual who has become disconnected from his own communal tradition.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Leading English feminist: our big mistakes

Rosie Boycott is a big name in English feminism. Back in 1971 she founded the feminist magazine Spare Rib with Marsha Rowe and in 1973 the pair founded the publishing house Virago Press.

So it's significant that Rosie Boycott is now rethinking the feminism she did so much to promote. In an article for the Daily Mail Boycott renounces key aspects of feminist patriarchy theory.

Patriarchy theory assumes that autonomy is the key good in life, the good which confers our status as humans, and that men have organised society so that they get autonomy (the power of doing as we will) at the expense of women. If you believe this then logically the traditional male career role will appear to be the truly human one which everyone should aspire to. Furthermore, if society is organised to maximise autonomy for men, then it's logical to believe that men get to do what they want and have easy, privileged lives compared to beleaguered, oppressed women.

Rosie Boycott had such beliefs as a young woman:

When I first became a feminist, back in the 1960s, I thought the male ways of life were the gold standard, the way life was meant to be ...

Unlike women, who were tied to the kitchen sink by their apron strings, enmeshed in childcare from sun-up to sun-down without the time or scope to advance their own careers and intellectual pursuits, men were free of all these onerous responsibilities.

They were free to pursue intellectual goals, to work, to succeed, above all to be leaders of the world.

I believed, along with so many others, that women, deep down (or not so deep down), wanted to do all that as well.

We believed we were prevented from doing so only because men, and the sexist world they created, prevented us.

They kept us out of the club because otherwise their power base would be threatened, and if women didn't stay at home with the kids, ready with the supper, slippers and sherry, then their world would be a much poorer place.

In this view men haven't worked hard for the benefit of women; instead, they have organised in a deliberate way to exclude women from the good life. Little wonder then that second wave feminism damaged relations between the sexes.

Rosie Boycott then explains that she believed that sex differences were the result of conditioning and that being a woman (the non-human role) wasn't something that girls were born into, as a biological destiny, but something they were merely brought up to be:

Girls have started to outperform boys at GCSE and A-levels: they get more places in university and better degrees.

In the U.S. between 1969 and 2000, male undergraduates increased by 39 per cent, whereas female ones increased by 157 per cent.

The trend continues beyond education and into the workplace.

In their early 20s, recent reports show, women are actually out-earning men in many instances.

All this proved to me, and to other feminists, that biology in no way dictates your destiny.

In her book The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir says: "One is not born, but rather one becomes, a woman."

I agreed.

We were all born equal: it was only what happened in the nurturing process that decided the differences between men and women.

And we women were all destined to become desperate housewives - desperate to break out of the rigid roles society had accorded us.

But her expectations were confounded. Women who were "high flyers" in their 20s, elected to scale back their work commitments in their 30s. Was this simply due to discrimination at work? Rosie Boycott once thought so, but now thinks that discrimination cannot adequately explain what is happening - not when women are being actively encouraged in the workplace.

She has read a book by Canadian academic Susan Pinker, called The Sexual Paradox, which discusses some of the hardwired, biological differences between men and women. After briefly listing some of these differences Rosie Boycott writes:

What Pinker has done, in fact, is to have proved how and why girls are different from boys right from the womb, when they are pumped full of different hormones.

You can see these differences from very early on - and they cannot be "overridden".

Nature wins over nurture every time.

I've had many feminist friends who have relentlessly presented their tiny daughters with bright-red fire engines to play with, only to be aghast when they throw them aside in favour of a Barbie doll.

The converse is true for boys.

Above all, the hormones women receive in the womb mean that, by nature, they do not want to be manic, one-dimensional workhorses who invest all their energies in one thing: their job (or hobby).

Overall, they are less extreme than men.

The social critic Camille Paglia once wrote: "There is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper."

Men are simply more variable - there are more really stupid ones and more very smart ones than women; more extremely lazy ones and more who are willing to halfkill themselves with overwork.

Women, by contrast, are steadier, less risk-taking.

As a consequence, they live longer.

In other words, because of their biological make-up, most women want to limit the amount of time they spend at work and to find "inherent meaning" there ...

Boycott then describes her former understanding of equality:

When I set out into the world as a working woman, I believed the quest for equality with men was a quest for the right to have the same life as a man: a full-time job (an obsessive one at that), a fulltime hobby, a partner who really did split the child-care neatly down the middle, plenty of time for "me" to do whatever I wanted.

Again, note here the contradiction generated by patriarchy theory: the belief that the male career role, as demanding as it is, is the desirable autonomous human one, combined with the belief that men, with their privilege of autonomy, get easy lives in which they are free to do what they want.

Rosie Boycott has redefined her understanding of what true sex equality means. She wants a concept of equality which allows womanhood to be valued, so she suggests that men and women be thought of as equal but different:

Our values, Pinker asserts, are based on the simple fact that the world of men (i.e. success and drive) is the correct model.

While society continues primarily to value skills that emphasise money as the only currency of success, the skills that women have will always be seen as second-rate - and women will be seen to be failing.

The tragedy is that it is women who end up paying the price for this misunderstanding.

Too many of us struggle on in jobs we do not like, simply because the fiscal rewards are seen as the marker of achievement.

I realise, of course, that there is a danger here of over-simplifying the debate: affording a home often requires two full-time incomes.

Yet, it is equally undeniable that all of the women whom Pinker spoke to who had decided to step off the career ladder - whether to devote more time to their children or to develop their own businesses - report far greater degrees of satisfaction.

What we need to do, she asserts, is to stop rating women according to men and accept that the sexes truly are different ...

To make men and women genuinely equal, we have to accept and honour difference, not mark everyone's scorecard according to the same set of standards.

So has Rosie Boycott become a traditionalist? Not really. She is still enmeshed in the modernist principle that what matters is getting what you want, creating your own self and being unimpeded in your choices. She does recognise, though, that today it is the impediment of ideology which is most likely to restrain a woman's free choice in life. So her conclusions, even if they are framed in modernist terms, still seem radically at odds with feminist orthodoxy:

I also believe that Pinker's book should mark a watershed.

Sexual equality is all very well.

But real equality comes from making your own choices, not just following the well-trodden path towards careerism, simply because it has been signposted by society as the only path to success.

Liberation must always be about being yourself, not simply a clone.

The battle of the sexes is over.

Let the fight for women to be women commence.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Alexandra Kollontai: overcoming love

What does modernity mean for women? Last century a radical thinker named Alexandra Kollontai attempted to answer this question.

She was born a member of the Russian nobility, but later became a communist activist. After the October Revolution in 1917, she became a commissar in the Bolshevik government. She was a diplomat in the 1920s and managed to survive the purges in Stalinist Russia in the 1930s.

Kollontai's great cause was women's liberation. She wanted women to remain, above all, independent of men. There's nothing surprising about this attitude: it fits "correctly" with the basic ideas underlying modernism.

According to modernism, our humanity is never secure. We can lose our human status if we are not self-determining - if we don't shape our own selves and our own lives according to our individual will.

This sounds nice, but the devil is in the detail. Kollontai's setting out of the logic of this theory is a warning to us of what it really involves.


In her autobiography Kollontai claims that she knew even as a girl what the struggle for women's liberation required:

That I ought not to shape my life according to the given model ... I could help my sisters shape their lives, in accordance not with the given traditions but with their own free choice ... I wanted to be free. I wanted to express desires on my own, to shape my own little life.

Similarly, Kollontai wrote approvingly of the "new woman" that "she is independent inwardly and self-reliant outwardly".

So the aim for moderns like Kollontai was to throw off whatever seemed to impede or restrict individual autonomy for women.

The first thing to go was the sex distinction. Kollontai saw the traditional male role as the autonomous human one, so she wanted to be defined not as a woman but, in more gender neutral terms, as a human.

In giving up the sex distinction, Kollontai readily abandoned the traditional feminine virtues. She wrote of women that:

it is not her specifically feminine virtue that gives her a place of honor in human society, but the worth of the useful mission accomplished by her, the worth of her personality as a human being.

In a similar vein, Kollontai described modern woman as having "broken the rusted fetter of her sex" in order to become "a personality," a "human being" (note how being female and being human are set in opposition here). She even gave public lectures in which she:

longs for the female body itself to become less soft and curvy and more muscular ... She argues that prehistoric women were physiologically less distinct from men ... Accordingly, sexual dimorphism may (and should) again become less visible in a communist society.


The abandonment of femininity is striking enough. Kollontai took the logic of modernism even further, though, by rejecting love.

For Kollontai, love between men and women was an expression of an older, oppressive order which women in modern social conditions would gradually be overcome. Love was oppressive because the instinct to be 'blended' with a man inevitably caged a woman's autonomy. It was a waste of a woman's energies which ought to be directed to the achievement of her life goal, namely her career.

Kollontai praised the "new women" whose "feelings and mental energies are directed upon all other things in life but sentimental love feelings." She herself, though, was still influenced by oppressive tradition and so had to struggle in life to overcome love:

this motive was a leading force in my life ... to shape my personal, intimate life as a woman according to my own will ... Above all, I never let my feelings, the joy or pain of love take the first place in my life ...

I still belong to the generation of women who grew up at a turning point in history. Love ... still played a very great role in my life. An all-too-great role! It was an expenditure of precious time and energy ... utterly worthless ... We, the women of the past generation, did not yet understand how to be free. The whole thing was an absolutely incredible squandering of our mental energy, a diminution of our labour power.

It is certainly true that we ... were able to understand that love was not the main goal of our life and that we knew how to place work at its center ... It was, in fact, an eternal defensive war against the intervention of the male into our ego ... Our mistake was that each time we succumbed to the belief that we had finally found the one and only in the man we loved, the person with whom we believed we could blend our soul, one who was ready fully to recognise us as a spiritual-physical force ... [Note how Kollontai can't help but use non-materialist terminology to describe the love experience: "blend our soul", "spiritual-physical force".]

But over and over again things turned out differently since the man tried to impose his ego upon us ... the inevitable inner rebellion ensued, over and over again since love became a fetter ... after the eternally recurring struggle with the beloved man, we finally tore ourselves away and rushed toward freedom. Thereupon we were again alone, unhappy, lonesome, but free - free to pursue our beloved, chosen ideal ... work.

When commenting on a novel by the French author Colette, Kollontai writes of the heroine that:

Freedom, independence, solitude are the substance of her personal desires. But when Rene, after a tiring long day's work, sits at the fireplace in her lovely flat, it is as though the hollow-eyed melancholy of loneliness creeps into her room and sets himself behind her chair.

"I am used to being alone," she writes in her diary, "but today I feel so forsaken. Am I then not independent, not free? And terribly lonely?" Does not this question have the ring of the woman of the past who is used to hearing familiar, beloved voices, to being the object of indispensable words and acts of tenderness?

For Kollontai it is the "woman of the past" who hears at home beloved voices and experiences acts of tenderness. Love is not an enduring quality or an important value for her, even if she sought it in her own life. She describes it as a fetter to individual autonomy, just like womanhood.

The experience of great love is an old quality for Kollontai, something not fit for modern conditions, a part of a woman's own self to be dramatically overcome:

The old and the new struggle in the souls of women ... Contemporary heroines, therefore, must wage a struggle ... with the inclinations of their grandmothers dwelling in the recesses of their beings ... The transformation of the feminine psyche, which is adjusted to the new conditions of its economic and social existence, will not be achieved without a strong, dramatic overcoming.

Marriage and motherhood

Kollontai wanted autonomy above all else, which makes it difficult to accept marriage. She states in her autobiography that although she loved her husband she thought of marriage as a "cage" (like "fetter" a word denoting restriction). And so she left her husband to become a political activist:

But as great as was my love for my husband, immediately it transgressed a certain limit in relation to my feminine proneness to make sacrifice, rebellion flared in me anew. I had to go away, I had to break with the man of my choice, otherwise (this was a subconscious feeling in me) I would have exposed myself to the danger of losing my selfhood.

In other words, if her love for her husband became too great, she began to give of herself in the marriage, which then left her panicking that she might lose autonomous selfhood.

And what of motherhood? Kollontai wanted motherhood to be free, in the sense that women could freely choose the father of their child (i.e. it could be any man, not necessarily one they were in a relationship with). Motherhood wasn't to be restricted by requiring a relationship to a man; fatherhood was to be optional, only practised in particular circumstances. Motherhood was also to be socialised, with childcare being provided by the state.

Kollontai thought well of the newer fictional heroines who had "freedom of feeling, freedom in the choice of the beloved, of the possible father of "her" child ... Contemporary heroines become mothers without being married." We are told in one source that Kollontai:

approvingly describes the possibility of maternity now becoming "an aim in itself," distinct from the mother's relations to the child's father. (In this essay and elsewhere, Kollontai only addresses fatherhood in passing as an option interested men could engage in for educational purposes.)

Finally, Kollontai's novel Red Love ends happily, with the heroine Vasya light-heartedly telling her friend that she has left her husband and that she doesn't need a man to raise her child:

“But I haven’t even told you the biggest news of all, Grusha. I saw the doctor. I’m expecting a baby.”

“A baby?” Grusha clapped her hands. “Really? Then how could you let your husband go? Will you let the baby be fatherless, or are you going to be fashionable, and have an abortion?”

“Why an abortion? Let the child grow. I don’t need a man. That’s all they can do – be fathers! Look at the Fedosseyev woman with her three children – they didn’t keep her husband from going to Dora.”

“That’s all very well; but how will you bring it up all by yourself?”

“All by myself? The organization will bring it up. We’ll fix up a nursery. And I’ll bring you over to work there. You like children, too. Then it’ll be our baby. We’ll have it in common.”

Again they laughed.


Alexandra Kollontai was brought to such positions by a modernism which is also orthodox in our own liberal societies. So it's no surprise that the West has moved toward the positions Kollontai took several generations ago.

This is especially true of the socialisation of child care; the attempt to make sex distinctions not matter; the "optionalisation" of fatherhood; the priority given to careers as a life aim; and the deferral of marriage in favour of a single, independent lifestyle.

There has not been such an explicit rejection of heterosexual love as that made by Kollontai, although at various times the emphasis has been, as Kollontai would have approved, on short-term casual relationships rather than on more serious commitments.

And if you don't like these trends? Then the response must be to question the principles which generate them. If freedom, understood to mean individual autonomy, is the sole overriding aim, then modern trends will continue. The alternative is not to damn autonomy, but to see it as one good amongst many, and not always superior.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The springs of human action

I had intended to finish up with Jean Devanny, but I found a story of hers on my bookshelf which I can't resist writing about.

It's called "The springs of human action". Devanny uses the story to identify a flaw in her own communist politics. It's the same flaw that struck me on reading Devanny's biography: the failure to hold to the theory consistently.

The theme of the story is sexual liberty. A New Zealand communist, Jimmy, is working as a miner, perhaps in the early 1920s. He exhorts his fellow workers to apply the logic of communist theory to their own homes and marriages:

'Isn't it possible for you to follow a thing out to its logical conclusion?' he demanded hectoringly. 'You can't limit science! You can't annihilate a fact by denying it or refusing to recognise it!'

When he is quizzed about what he means he replies that the miners have two options:

'You can arrogate to yourself every freedom your economic position allows and restrict your wife in the same proportion ... Or you can do as I do - apply the morals of the future regime to your own individual case today. Refuse to make a woman your chattel by tying her to you legally; regard her as a human being like yourself with all the rights and privileges of a human ... she might be the sort of woman that wants a lot, needs a lot from life. She might need other men, for instance ...'

We are told later that:

He and his kind believed in the absolute sex equality of man and woman, believed in freedom of action for the individual.

You can recognise the basic ideas of modernism in such thoughts. According to modernism we are not secure in our status as humans. We only achieve a human status if we are autonomous in the sense of being self-determining individuals. Therefore, it's important to modernist theories, Marxism included, that we not be restricted in what we choose for ourselves.

That's why Jimmy the communist believes that women are being treated as less than human if they are tied to one man and lack the "freedom of action" to take other men as lovers when they desire to do so.

After berating his fellow workers, one of the miners makes a remark suggesting that Jimmy's own woman might be putting his theory to the test. Jimmy picks up on the hint and reacts angrily. He is later forced to admit to himself that he acted from jealousy.

He walks home intending to confess to his de facto, Margie, his own infidelities and to give her the option of leaving him if she wishes. But, arriving home early, he disturbs her with another man.

At this point, Devanny makes some telling points. It's not just that Jimmy struggles with "the fire of his jealousy". Devanny suggests that Jimmy has a transcendent sense of what Margie is as a woman - of her loveliness and goodness - and that he feels deceived to think of her now in lesser terms as just another player. It makes her less special in his eyes, more mundane:

'... you should have told me before you did it ... we always agreed that you would tell me if you liked another man better than me. I'd have let you go.' She dropped her eyes from his.

'I don't like him better than you. I don't like him at all really.'

This turned him cold. He looked away from her and tried to get what that admission meant. It was not hard to get. It means that she was just another - Mrs Phillips ... The Socialist's soul filled with an anguish unspeakable, the anguish of broken trust in something he had reverenced ... His Margie, so good, so kind, so sweet and loving! He knew so much about women. Too much not to recognise now that Margie was an 'old hand' at this game.

(Note how Devanny, supposedly a scientific materialist, once again reaches for words like soul and reverenced to impart meaning to a situation.)

Jimmy tries to apply reason and principles to the situation. He cannot do as other men might and punish her by calling her a bad woman - after all, he believes in sexual liberty as a defining point of a person's humanity. So he has nowhere to go: he cannot bear her betrayal but cannot condemn it either. His principle of liberty hasn't brought him freedom; Devanny writes simply that "He was caged."

Margie then suggests a way out. The answer is to make sex not matter. If it's treated as a meaningless physical act, not expressing anything beyond itself, then the infidelity won't count for much. A relationship between a man and a woman could instead be founded on comradeship or friendship:

... she was right; her attitude was the only one if they were to continue living together. He must conquer himself. What was she saying? - "Make too much of this silly sex act. It doesn't mean anything, really. It is the smallest thing in life. It takes up only a moment or two out of millions of moments. The things that matter are comradeship, congeniality, friendship and kindness ...

(I was reminded when reading this of the modern day feminist who, when it comes to sex, "puts the act itself on a par with sneezing").

Devanny has spelled out the logic of sexual liberty for us. For sexual liberty to be made practicable, sex itself must be made not to matter. It can be made free by being made unimportant. Relationships are to be reconceived in more platonic and mundane terms as expressions of friendship and not of romantic or sexual love.

Jimmy tries to accept the new dispensation:

'She must be right. I must apply reason. If reason can't triumph over emotion, mind over matter, there is no hope for the world. No hope!'

He continues, though, to feel caged and tormented. He comes to think of his situation as hopeless and in a mad despair kills Margie.

So the politics of sexual liberty fails spectacularly in Devanny's story. Why then did she continue to promote this politics? Why stay with a system of thought which you know can't work as it's supposed to in practice?

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.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Jean Devanny & sexual liberation

In my last post I wrote about the life of Jean Devanny. She was a communist writer and activist from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Devanny believed ardently in her politics, but wasn't able to live consistently by her views. This is especially true when it comes to the issue of sexual morality.

You would expect Devanny, as a radical, to promote the modernist view of sexual morality, in which marriage and traditional forms of sexual morality are thought to be oppressive limitations on the individual and artificial barriers to "free love".

In some respects Devanny did follow the modernist line. She had married a fellow political activist but pursued affairs with an array of other men, including the married leader of the party in the 1930s and 40s, J.B. Miles. Devanny wrote proudly of Miles that,

there was no Presbyterianism - or puritanism, call it what you like - about Leader where the love-life of Party members was concerned. His relationship with myself was proof enough that he stood for the right of the individual to free choice in mating.

Edna Ryan, a fellow communist, spoke of "very enlightened" members of the party in the 1920s in these terms:

Higgins was sexually liberated and so was his wife Joy, and they led separate lives ... Higgins and Kavanagh said, when the revolution comes almost every housewife will leave her husband, will leave home.

According to Edna Ryan, Devanny went further in promoting the cause:

Looking back in 1983, Ryan identified the radicalism of Jean's position: "Unlike Hig and Joy who thought of it as a personal issue, Jean Devanny advocated sexual liberation, particularly for women, as a political issue."

Devanny also pushed the idea of sexual liberation in her novels and short stories. She often chose transgressive themes; one story featured a relationship between a priest and a prostitute. As a result, her works were often criticised for their crudity:

Certain terms recur in the reviews .... an emphasis on "the raw", the "brutal" and "the unpleasant" ... "crude and raw at times" (p.40)

"crude slabs of distasteful sex stuff" (p.37)

"a great deal of unnecessary crudity" (p.292)

Devanny wasn't alone in pursuing the transgressive. One of the heroes of Australian communism in the 1930s was Egon Kisch, a Czech communist who literally jumped off a ship to gain residence in Australia. He broke his leg and was visited by Howard Daniel in hospital:

He took off his pyjama top and exposed his torso. In addition to the tattooed dagger, his right shoulder carried the tattoo of a viper gliding down towards his belly. On the outside of his right arm was the figure of a dancing negro. The inside of his left forearm bore the image of a kind of Fu Manchu head, the left temple pierced by a knife. The girl's head which I had already noticed belonged to a classic whore figure who was lifting her skirt to expose herself.

Kisch became a star speaker for the Australian communists; he and Devanny spoke to 15,000 people at one rally:

The rally ended spectacularly; a call to form a bodyguard for Kisch was 'responded to by thousands of men and women marching alongside, cheering, shouting, singing the "International" again and again.'

This, though, is only one side of the story. In reality it wasn't so easy to cast aside sexual morality. The party found it necessary to set at least some limits on sexual behaviour: Devanny was expelled in 1941 for "sexual indiscretion" and another writer, Dorothy Hewett, was hauled before a party committee, "in considerable moral trouble", for having deserted her husband and children to live with another man.

Even Devanny wasn't consistent. She criticised Dymphna Cusack's novel Southern Steel for containing "great gobbets of crude sex" and Dorothy Hewett's novel Bobbin Up for its "crude sexiness" which "shocked and disgusted" its working-class readers.

Nor did Devanny's abandonment of her marriage in pursuit of affairs work out for her. She writes of an encounter with her husband Hal in 1940:

As he stood beside the carriage window, a wave of regret for the disunity between us swept over me. I fell to weeping.

By 1949 she was ready to make a plea to Hal:

I proposed then that he ... spend the rest of his life making a home for me. And without much hesitation, to my amazement, he agreed ... We were back now to where we started ... I found myself singing occasionally. I would stand at the front gate of an evening, watching for him to come home from work.

So in her own personal life, Devanny chose to return to something quite traditional.

It is difficult to convey in a post like this the inconsistent attitude to sexual morality amongst the communists during this period of time; reading Devanny's biography you find every chapter riddled with contradictory views. Theory and practice were never successfully brought together.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Jean Devanny & gender

I've just finished reading a sympathetic biography of Jean Devanny, a communist novelist and activist.

Devanny was born in New Zealand in 1894, married young and had three children and then embarked on a life of political activism. She moved to Australia in 1929, joined the Communist Party, was expelled in 1941 and spent much of the last period of her life in north Queensland. She died in 1962.

What I found most interesting about the biography, Jean Devanny: Romantic Revolutionary, were the contradictions and inconsistencies in Devanny's attitudes, and in those of other communists of the period.


We are used today to political radicals who claim that gender is an oppressive social construct which society is progressing beyond.

As you might expect, Devanny as a Marxist revolutionary did take such a theoretical line. Her biographer, Carole Ferrier, tells us that,

... just before she left New Zealand, Jean was still working on and revising this manuscript which argues overall, as Marxists of the period habitually did, for the diminution of sexual difference being desirable ...

Devanny's argument was that gender conflict was being ended as women became more like men:

Sex war is rapidly retiring from the field ... Woman is being brought by capitalism into industry on equal terms with men, earning her own living independently of him. Therefore she is learning to think, to act and to talk like a man. (p.45)

But could Devanny really live consistently by such ideas? The biography suggests the answer is no. For instance, the following anecdote shows Devanny unsuccessfully trying to repress her femininity:

According to Kay Brown, Jean ... would sometimes ask her to go (mainly window-) shopping. '"I can't say it to anybody, but I just love a shopping tour," Jean told her, "and we'd go in and finger lovely materials and things, and I said, "Why are you ashamed of it? I like femininity." And she said, "Well, I think it's rather shocking."' (p.107)

It's interesting too that she chose to describe the ugliness of a shanty town on the natural landscape as being "like a cancer on the breast of a lovely woman" (p.240); she did, then, at some level appreciate feminine loveliness.

Nor did she follow the theory of the "diminution of sex differences" in her romantic life. She went for strong, alpha type men. She had a long affair with J.B. Miles, the general secretary of the Australian Communist Party in the 1930s and 40s, who she referred to simply as "Leader" in her autobiography. One of Jean's fictional heroes is described in a story as "a big man in the world of political economy, the biggest in Australasia indeed" - the heroine "knew him at once for a leader, for a warrior, by reason of the extraordinary virility that broke through every nuance." (p.31)

Similarly, in a public lecture praising communist Russia Devanny:

talked about this magnificent man in the wheatfields with rippling muscles and how magnificent he was, and she said that she could assure us that sex was a delightful experience in the Soviet Union. (p.128)

The communists may have promoted "the diminution of sex differences" as an ideal, but they didn't carry through with the theory in the political imagery they used. Communist imagery in the 1930s and 40s followed this pattern:

Workers are depicted as particularly strong and muscular. The enemies of the workers, be they scabs or capitalists, are shown as small and effeminate.

In World War II, the enemy was represented by the communists:

as feeble, weak, cowardly and almost emasculated, in the presence of the robust, brute and supreme soldier. (p.128)

Next instalment: Devanny & sexual liberation

Friday, April 04, 2008

If you really believed in feminism ....

What would you really commit yourself to if you took feminism seriously?

Let's go through it step by step. Feminism begins with the liberal idea that we can be more or less human depending on how autonomous (self-determining) we are. Therefore, if women as a group are less autonomous than men as a group, if they don't have the same "agency" as men, their status is not fully human.

Second, autonomy means being unimpeded in choosing what to do or be. Our sex is something we don't get to choose, so gender becomes something that makes us less human. If you believe that women are an oppressed class, deliberately denied autonomy, then it makes sense to think that women are the "sex class" - the ones who bear the burden of having a "sex" attached to them, unlike men who form the "human" class.

Third, if you believe that men have more autonomy than women, and are therefore a dominant class, it's reasonable to think that men have organised society to uphold their own power and privilege over women. Why would men do this unless they harboured negative feelings toward women? And how could women assert true self-determination in a society organised in a systematic way to deny them autonomy? And how could things change without a revolutionary, radical overthrow of the whole system?

Enter "Twisty", the "spinster aunt" who runs a popular radical feminist website called "I blame the patriarchy". Her great virtue is her willingness to take political positions which flow logically from the theory. She is an intellectually consistent feminist.

When Twisty tells us that women who attempt to be physically attractive "get sucked into the Femininity Hole, never to be human again", she means it. It fits the theory, that gender is something which impedes our autonomy and that this loss of autonomy deprives us of human status.

There is a logic, then, in Twisty insisting that women ought to reject femininity. Similarly, there is a theoretical consistency in Twisty maintaining that women in a patriarchy, lacking agency as they must, cannot truly consent to sex. Twisty herself explains this as follows:

... in a patriarchy, the cornerstone of which is a paradigm of male dominance and female submission, women do not enjoy the same degree of personal sovereignty that men do. This oppressed condition obtains a priori to all other conditions, and nullifies any presumption of fully human status on the part of women. A woman, therefore, cannot freely "consent," because her will is obviated by her status as a subhuman.

But if sex is rape then men are ... rapists:

all humans are conditioned to despise women. A woman ... can never be humanized. The American legal system, as a matter of fact, effectively outlaws humanity for women. It does this in many ways ... One of the most insidious is its assertion that women are in a perpetual state of 'consent' ... It is by this cunning method ... that the future of rape as the cornerstone of human social order is secured.

... It is by popular demand that, decades after American women were first deemed "liberated", the countryside remains infested with unjailed rapists. These freely roaming rapists are patriarchy's enforcers.

Now, as admirable as I find Twisty's commitment to theoretical consistency, she has arrived at a difficult position. First, it's not an easy politics to sell to young women. Twisty herself is fully aware of the problem; she says of the idea that women cannot freely consent to sex that,

I suspect that the rampant unwillingness among young feminists to deny this grim truth stems from the wholly untenable position into which it thrusts'em. They're young, they're fit, they wanna boink; who can blame them if they just aren't ready to accept that nothing short of an exhaustive, uncompromising overthrow of the social order will put them in complete control of their own selves?

Similarly, Twisty explains the existence of an alternative "sex positive" feminism as follows:

It reassures women who fear the burden of true liberation that femininity is a legitimate identity.

The burden of true liberation? Can you really have a burdensome liberation? Isn't that a tautology which suggests that the wrong sort of liberation is being aimed at?

There's another problem with Twisty's consistency of theory. It's not only difficult to live by in practice, and unappealing in what it demands, but it doesn't seem to correlate well to reality. This is what the more moderate feminists object to. A feminist blogger named Holly wrote a post criticising Twisty, partly because it's just not her own experience that the average man is a woman hating, privilege enforcing rapist:

Some of my best friends are men. The vast majority of the men I see every day are kind, hard-working, intelligent people who respect women. In my world at least, hooting fratboys or growling wifebeaters or crazy fundies are outnumbered 10 to 1 by ordinary Joes doing the best they can to be decent people.

Nor does she feel like she's a member of an oppressed subhuman class:

Call me a rich white het cis privilegebunny, but I don't feel very oppressed. Sometimes insulted, sometimes worried, sometimes concerned for the oppression of people in other places, but in my own life I just don't feel the boot on my neck. At work, at school, socially, nobody acts like I'm less than human or tries to enforce the Patriarchy on me directly. For me, in my daily life, I don't feel like being female is difficult or painful.

So Holly is more of a realist than Twisty. Unfortunately, she lacks Twisty's intellectual rigour. She sticks with the feminist theory, even as she rejects the political positions drawn logically from the theory.

For instance, she welcomes a comment from a male commenter on the basis that,

Your hereditary membership in traditional oppressor classes doesn't make you personally a bad person unless you choose to be, and it shouldn't exclude you from dialogue.

Holly believes, therefore, in the underlying theory that men have acted as an oppressor group dominating women. She writes too that the proper focus of feminism is "advancing the cause of female strength and independence" (i.e. autonomy) and that gender is a source of oppression:

I'm a feminist. I really am, dammit. Our culture is permeated with weird ideas about femininity (and masculinity!) and it desperately does need to change.

So we're back with men as an oppressor group denying women autonomy via an oppressive construction of gender. This despite the fact that Holly has just told us that she herself doesn't feel oppressed as a woman and that the men she meets personally are hard-working people who respect women.

Holly doesn't want the political positions drawn from the theory to become unpalatable or unrealistic; she's more of a pragmatist than Twisty. She nonetheless shares with Twisty the same basic political theory.

I don't think that conservatives should rush to support a Holly type feminism just because it's more pragmatic and less overtly hostile to men. In some ways, a Twisty feminism teaches us more by unfolding the logic of feminist theory for us.

If we don't like where the theory takes us, then we ought to critique the theory itself, rather than the political positions it leads to.

We ought to consider the following questions:

a) Is it true that our status as humans fluctuates, or is it something permanently invested in us?

b) Is autonomy really the one overriding good? Is it the organising principle of society? Or is it something to be held in balance with other important human goods?

c) Are human relationships really structured around a contest for autonomy and power? Is this the core meaning of family relationships? Of communal traditions? Of manhood and womanhood?

d) Have the actions of men throughout history really been to the detriment of women and for selfish purposes?

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Lords report blunt on economic cost of migration

From the Daily Mail:

Labour's justification for mass immigration was torn to shreds by experts last night.

The experts are the members of the House of Lords economics committee, which includes two former Chancellors, economists and captains of industry. They delivered a report which found that mass immigration to the UK had:

a) reduced the wages of workers in low-paid jobs

b) not improved average living standards

c) increased the cost of housing, keeping young families off the housing ladder

Importantly, the commitee rejected the argument that mass immigration was needed to fill skilled labour shortages. It noted that despite a massive influx of labour (700,000 from Eastern Europe alone since 2004), the number of vacancies remained above 600,000, due to the fact that the immigrants consume as well as provide services.

A Conservative Party spokesman let another cat out of the bag. He pointed out that relying on immigrant labour was hazardous in the long-term because it meant that the training of local workers could be overlooked. According to David Davis, the Shadow Home Secretary, the report showed,

unequivocally that the benefits of the current immigration policy to ordinary UK citizens are largely non-existent.

There are a series of long-term risks to the economy, not least the disincentive to train, and it presents absolutely no answer to the pension crisis.

And the Labour Party response? The Immigration Minister, Liam Byrne, said of the report that:

It proves we were right to set up the independent Migration Advisory Committee to tell us which workers our new Australian-style points system should keep out or let in.

We're glad to see the committee welcome the system as well as our ban on low-skilled migration from outside Europe.

An Australian system won't really fix the problems identified in the report. In Australia we still have mass immigration; like the UK we're stuck in a cycle in which mass immigration is used to fill labour market shortages, but then creates more shortages; like the UK we're suffering from a "disincentive to train" which is most obvious in our increasing reliance on overseas doctors; nor does our system prevent low-skilled migration, with a return to Islander labour schemes now being discussed by the Rudd Government.

If the British elite is serious now about the costs of immigration then it must insist on following the report's recommendation that a cap be set on the numbers of immigrants accepted into the UK.