Romance and Stalinism

Jean Devanny: Romantic Revolutionary, by Carole Ferrier, Melbourne University Press.

Reviewed by Janet Burstall.

 

Jean Devanny was a writer about romance and desire, as well as her other passion - class struggle and communist politics, the romance of hope for the future. Her best-known book, Sugar Heaven, is a novel based on the epic North Queensland sugar cane cutters' strike of 1935.

'The upheaval of 1908-13... was decisive in the making of New Zealand's working class' (p19) and in Jean's early political education. She migrated to Australia in 1929, and joined the Communist Party of Australia in 1930. Jean became furiously active in front groups such as Militant Women's Movement, Workers International Relief (WIR) and the Writers' Association, a hugely successful paper seller and a charismatic public speaker.

In the 1930s the CPA leadership went underground. In 1940, while the USSR had a peace pact with Hitler, the CPA's publications were made illegal. The sexual puritanism which had obstructed the publication of Jean's books in the '20s and '30s, was compounded by the anti-communist climate in the '40s and '50s. Even publishers with Party connections or left sympathies were unhelpful in the '50s.

Jean's relationships with the men who led the Party were ambivalent. She was for many years the lover of the main party leader, J B Miles, yet during part of that time she was expelled from the CP. Despite her ability and contributions, she was considered unreliable and was never considered for a leadership position. She argued her point of view, regardless of the line of the time, over the role of writers, and the needs of women, especially in terms of sexual relationships, birth control and abortion.

During the 1930s, Devanny made the first of many visits to North Queensland. There the most shocking episode of the book occurred, in 1941. Coming into conflict with a group of CP men about how they treated their wives, and with some of their wives for being unconventional, Jean was pack-raped. Mateship proved thicker than comradeship or a sense of justice. The men made allegations of 'depravity' against Jean to Party leaders, and she was expelled without being allowed to defend herself, let alone seek action against her attackers. She was not readmitted to the Party until 1945.

Ferrier provides material to explore many questions. One of these is the relationship between the personal and political in Jean's life, especially the double-standard applied to Jean's sexual behaviour as compared to Party men. The men's sexual privacy was respected because standards allowed men to follow their desires. Jean, who did not accept the different standards imposed on women, and who advocated women's needs for birth control to support their sexual freedom, suffered scrutiny, disparagement and rape.

Another big question. How did Devanny, sharp and energetic, standing up to Party leaders on issues nearest to her heart, weave her way through the '30s and '40s with no apparent need to challenge the ill-explained twists and turns of the Moscow line, from the claim that social-democrats were 'social fascists', to popular front with anyone anti-fascist; from supporting the Stalin-Hitler pact to opposing strikes which might undermine the Allied War effort?

Since Ferrier's politics are anti-Stalinist, she has probably included everything she could find on this topic. Which means that there is almost nothing. Devanny's access to other analysis was limited. 'Discussion was free and democratic except for one point. No one was allowed to say, Trotsky is Right! Berating Trotsky was a must' (p110). Devanny stuck with the CPA, leaving in 1950 but rejoining in 1957. In 1961, Devanny, sick with leukaemia, learnt about some men shot trying to escape from East Berlin along the Berlin Wall. When a friend 'remarked 'Fancy trying to escape from Heaven!' [Jean] burst out laughing' (p310). Devanny had heroically held onto her romantic hope for the future, unlike thousands who had given up. But the political basis for that hope had deteriorated to tragicomedy.