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“Keep Close to the Earth!” The Schism between the Worker and Nature in Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Novels

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journal contribution
posted on 2017-05-21, 05:00 authored by Karen Barker
“It’s good to keep close to the earth,” Sophie Roumanoff tells her husband Potch in Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Black Opal (1921; Sydney: Caslon House, 1946). Prichard’s own reasons for wanting to keep close to the earth were ostensibly Communist and Marxist. In the year prior to the publication of Black Opal she had been a foundation member of the Com- munist Party of Australia, and shortly afterwards established a Labor Study Circle in Perth where she lectured a mainly working class audience on Marxist notions of historical materialism and industrial organisation. Marxism for Prichard was closely connected to the human relationship with nature, or “the earth.” But this was neither early recognition of the Marxist concern with ecological sustainability nor the sort of environmentalism or eco-Marxism which attributes environmental disruption to the capitalist accumulation of wealth. Prichard’s primary concern was not to protect the environment against the ravages of capitalist exploitation but to improve human welfare. Although her novels reveal a clear awareness of the environmental impact of large scale industrialisation and mechanisation, her first reference point is always human well-being. She considered stronger links to nature to be a fundamental prerequisite to improved social conditions and an essential component of her industrial reform agenda. Only under a socialist system, she believed, would Australia’s vast natural resources be mobilised in support of a broader “human welfare,” rather than the financial profits of a few.


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