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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Kavanagh, John Patrick Marcus (1879–1964)

by David Akers and Margaret Sampson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

John Patrick Marcus Kavanagh (1879-1964), political activist, was born on 12 July 1879, probably in Ireland, son of Thomas Kavanagh and his wife Ellen, née Quinn. His childhood was marked by disruption and loss. The family moved to Liverpool, England, and Thomas later worked as a foreman in a Cornish copper refinery. Jack's father died when he was 8 and his mother when he was 11; he was left to the care of an elder brother. Given a rudimentary Catholic education, Jack subsequently regarded organized religion as a danger to the working class. After several unskilled jobs around Liverpool, he enlisted in the King's Royal Rifle Corps in 1898. He served in Ireland, fought in South Africa in 1900-02, was invalided home with a shrapnel wound and was discharged as a corporal in 1906.

Emigrating to Canada in 1907, Kavanagh settled at Vancouver and learned tile-laying. The Socialist Party of Canada introduced him to Marxist theory. He held office in trades and labour organizations, and from 1917 worked on the wharves. In 1921 he helped to found the underground Communist Party of Canada. He had a daughter by his first wife Hilda and another by his second wife Louise (d.1919). In 1925 he and his companion Mrs Edna Louise Hungerford (née Hay), sailed for Australia, accompanied by Jack's elder daughter and Edna's son; they travelled under the surname Kavanagh and arrived in Sydney on May Day.

The police were soon informed that Kavanagh's 'oratory and knowledge of Marxist principles' had overwhelmed the small and poorly organized Communist Party of Australia. Within three months he was its chairman and editor of the Workers' Weekly. In line with the 'united front' policy promoted by the Communist International, he founded the Militant Minority Movement which sought to work within the trade union movement while maintaining the separate identity of the Communist Party. The success of this strategy was evident in his election (1928) to the Labor Council of New South Wales, a position of influence which he would find difficult to surrender when the Comintern changed its policy.

At the end of the 1920s the Comintern directed that all links with the 'social fascists' in trade unions and national labour parties were to be severed. Kavanagh responded by advocating 'exceptionalism', denying the relevance of the new policy to Australia. At the party's conference in December 1929 he was condemned as a 'glaring example of right deviation' and voted from the central committee, but it took time to eradicate his influence from the Sydney and State committees. He stood unsuccessfully for Newtown in the Legislative Assembly elections of 1930 and 1932 (receiving less than 1.5 per cent of the vote), and led the local branch of the Unemployed Workers' Movement. In 1934 he was finally expelled from the C.P.A. for alleged Trotskyism.

Kavanagh's influence on Australian communism was greater than his period in office would suggest. Using the motto 'understand capitalism to abolish it', he had attempted to steer the Australian working class towards Marxism through education. As a result, he was accused of pursuing theory and proletarian enlightenment at the expense of revolutionary practice. He had schooled the cadre who toppled him from power and, in Stalinist fashion, they suppressed his contribution to party history. Moving closer to Trotskyite groups, he helped to form an anti-war committee in 1935 and remained involved in left-wing activity during World War II.

In old age Kavanagh was 'still a communist' and a leader of the pensioners' movement. Edna's marriage had been dissolved in 1927 and Jack married her on 18 January 1946 at the district registrar's office, Randwick. Survived by his wife and daughters, he died on 6 July 1964 in his home at Loftus; his body was bequeathed to the University of Sydney and later cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Davidson, The Communist Party of Australia (Stanford, California, US, 1969)
  • F. Farrell, International Socialism and Australian Labour (Syd, 1981)
  • Labour/Le Travail (St John's, Newfoundland, Canada), 30, Fall 1992, p 9
  • Kavanagh papers (Australian National University Archives)
  • J. N. Rawling papers (Australian National University Archives).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

David Akers and Margaret Sampson, 'Kavanagh, John Patrick Marcus (1879–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 25 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

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