Academic journal article Hecate

A 'Red Revolutionist and Ranter': Jean Devanny in the Early 1930s

Academic journal article Hecate

A 'Red Revolutionist and Ranter': Jean Devanny in the Early 1930s

Article excerpt

You are our heroine, comrade good and true Sweet and so noble, pure right through and through Fighting so gallantly 'gainst capitalistic laws Suff'ring as Red Rosa did for the workers' cause.(1)

'Jean Devanny of the "struggle", leather-coated figure of the "Dom", fighting for what she knew was right', was a memorable presence for many at the huge rallies of the 1930s:

A lone woman towering above a multitude of men. One woman charged with dominant courage.... Vital, logical, vibrant, caustic, happy, humorous - yes, emotional Jean of the "Dom"; could we ever forget you?'(2)

All her life Jean would be seen as a 'fiery orator of the working class.'(3) An activist comrade recalled her as 'one of the best four women speakers in my time.'(4) 'Jean Devanny', wrote Miles Franklin to Alice Henry in 1935, 'is a red revolutionist and ranter, but I like her very much.'(5)

Through the 1930s, most on the far Left in Australia still believed Australia's socialist revolution was imminent. Mary Lamm recalled the early days of her relationship with Tom Wright:

If Labor council finished a little early we'd go for a walk around Sydney and he'd show me all the places he'd worked in - bits of the roof of the Queen Victoria Building and things like that - and we'd rebuild the city - what we'd do with that building, what this would be able to be used for. (After the Revolution?) - Oh yes, just around that beautiful corner - we took that very seriously.(6)

In November 1930, Labor had come to power in New South Wales, but Premier Jack Lang's rhetorically radical solutions to the Depression were irrelevant to both Left and Right. The choice was between socialism and barbarism, and it was starkly posed for activists in the early 1930s by the rise of fascism in Europe. In a speech on May Day of 1935, Jean would assert: 'World War, world revolution, either may happen before next May Day.'(7)

Jean had joined the Communist Party not long after coming to Sydney from New Zealand in 1929 with her husband Hal, her son Karl and her daughter Pat. The Party was growing in strength, visibility and credibility with the onset of the Depression and was central in the militant working class struggles of the 1930s, consistently and forcefully challenging the Right and its initiatives.

Edna Ryan, along with her husband Jack an early Party member, recalled that when Jean arrived in Sydney (at the age of thirty-four, and with a reputation as a sexual radical) there was 'a group of a dozen, even twenty or so women all of whom would have welcomed her.'

She came here of course as an author, and they had a lot more prestige then.... I can remember sitting in a group talking with Jean, and how warm it was, and friendly and exciting, really lovely.(8)

Kay Brown, later to write the Mount Isa novel Knock Ten (1976), first met Jean at this period also, and commented on her vast enthusiasm for the struggle. 'She always reminded me of a knight at arms galloping to a crusade, and her crusade was her passionate love of Communism (though everybody had that on their lips in those days, particularly if they were studying or writing).'9 Judah Waten confirmed the same image: 'she was on a charger and I'm sure that she was convinced that the revolution was around the corner.'(10) Edna Ryan remembered also Jean's close friendship with John Benjamin King, earlier member of the Industrial Workers of the World, and one of the group jailed during World War I. 'I used to say that J.B. King was going to lead the Revolution on a white horse, because the Party became very charismatic then. With people like Jean Devanny and J.B. King around, it gave them a great lift.' She added:

He and Jean of course would have got along famously, whether their relationship was more than friendly nobody knows, but they were certainly very much attracted to one another. They would have probably been the only two people at that time who had awareness about sexuality in the sense of sexual freedom. …

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