Vere Gordon Childe was among the most influential archaeologists of the twentieth century but his connections to the intellectual worlds of the British and Australian Left have, until now, received less attention. In a major new biography, Terry Irving sheds light on Childe’s life as a political theorist, radical intellectual and pre-historian. History PhD student Jimmy Yan spoke with Terry Irving about The Fatal Lure of Politics: The Life and Thought of Vere Gordon Childe (Monash University Publishing, 2020).
Congratulations on the publication of this important work of radical political biography. Let’s begin by talking about what first brought you to Vere Gordon Childe’s life. How did you first begin researching Childe’s biography?
My interest in Childe began in the mid-1980s as a result of teaching a course on working class politics in the Department of Government at the University of Sydney. My students’ quizzical reaction to How Labour Governs (1923) prompted me to find out more about Childe’s political ideas in the 1910s. I was surprised to discover significant articles by him in the labour press of Sydney and Brisbane, and, copies of his correspondence during the First World War with fellow socialists and pacifists in the archives of the military censors. It became clear to me that there was much more to Childe’s politics than the condescending – and factually inaccurate –account by F.B. Smith in his introduction to the 1964 edition of How Labour Governs. I described these discoveries in an article in Politics in 1988. I was now hooked on establishing the facts about his life and dissolving the misconceptions about How Labour Governs – that it was cryptic, juvenile and anti-working-class.
How did Childe’s early political experiences as a student in Sydney and Oxford influence his subsequent trajectory as a radical intellectual?
In Sydney, Childe became a Christian Socialist; in Oxford a revolutionary socialist. In both places, his mind registered the impact of modernist ideas and the subversive power of militant action by workers outside the university. When Childe arrived at Sydney University in 1911, he joined the Socialist Society and the Men’s Christian Union; by the time he left he was a member of the Workers’ Educational Association and campaigning for the Labor Party. The rebellious mood of the working class even had a faint echo on campus, when undergraduates threatened to strike if their leaders were rusticated. In his second year, however, when Sydney was blacked out during a strike of gas-workers, he was shocked that the Labor Premier of the state called for scabs to break the strike.
The British Government’s attack on civil liberties during the First World War, which broke out just before Childe arrived in Oxford, and the insurgency of rank and file workers in Britain climaxing in 1917, pushed him further to the left. Joining the Oxford University Socialist Society, he discovered anti-militarist and revolutionary ideas. He immersed himself in the history of the world socialist movement. By 1915 he was declaring to the College authorities that he was now thoroughly ‘unorthodox’. In the University he became a well-known opponent of the war and defender of the rights of conscientious objectors, some of whom were his closest friends. As a delegate of the Union of Democratic Control he attended the 1917 Leeds Convention which voted to set up soviets in Britain. In the summer vacations he volunteered in London at the National Council for Civil Liberties and the Fabian Research Department, which was then controlled by the extreme left. By the time he departed for Sydney he had embraced a version of Marx’s historical materialism.
Back in Australia, Childe became active in the Workers’ Educational Association before becoming an advisor to New South Wales Labor Premier John Storey. I was wondering if you could talk about some of the intellectual influences upon Childe’s political thought in these years. What, in particular, was Childe’s intellectual debt to the British Guild Socialist G.D.H. Cole?
In Oxford during the war and in London after returning from Sydney, Childe was closely associated with Douglas Cole. At first, Childe was attracted to Cole’s exposition of Guild Socialism, but this did not survive his exposure to the realities of Labor politics in Australia (1917-21). A far deeper influence was Cole’s pluralist political philosophy that de-centred the role of the state, an idea that L.T. Hobhouse also promoted by attacking the German theory of ‘the God-State’. Childe read Hobhouse carefully, and also J.A. Hobson. He was particularly interested in Hobson’s critique of imperialism from an economic-determinist position, and his promotion of radical democracy. With Rajani Dutt, he discussed Marxist dialectics and its history of the relations of production. From these sources, Childe was developing an economic understanding of social change, and an approach to democracy in working class politics, an approach that that relied on Rousseau’s concept of the general will rather than the liberal concept of representation.
Another strand in Childe’s intellectual life at this time began with his embrace of the Italian neo-Hegelian philosopher, Benedetto Croce, one of the sources for ‘Western’ (as opposed to ‘Soviet’) Marxism. From Croce, Childe took the idea of Marxism as a theory with something important to say about cultural and historical structures, and of historical knowledge as practical, furnishing rules for action. Here we see the origins of Childe’s unorthodox view of historical materialism. As he told Dutt in 1938, he approached Marxism not as a set of universal laws but as a methodology that would help him infer truths from experiment and observation. The historical process, he insisted to the end of his life, is ‘the actual creation of genuinely new values’.
What was the relationship between ‘direct’ and ‘political’ action in Childe’s understanding of trade unionism, labour politics and the state? Did this change over the course of his life?
The question at the root of Childe’s thinking in Australia was: how could a working-class socialist movement develop in this country? You may be surprised to learn that this was not an unusual question at that time, and that How Labour Governs (1923) was not his last word on it. In fact, he moved through three separate but related positions on this question. When he arrived back in Australia in 1917, he tended towards a syndicalist or ‘direct action’ position. By early 1919 he could see its limitations, and having come to Queensland, he could see what a progressive Labor government could do, especially when key workers, organised on ‘industrial union’ lines, were prepared to act militantly, thus pushing the party to the left. He started to campaign to get the Labor Party to support the One Big Union movement and workers’ control in the state enterprises.
This, his second or ‘politicalist’ moment, was when he began to write How Labour Governs. He continued to write it while he was a political minder and researcher for the Labor Premier in New South Wales, John Storey. By the time he got to England at the end of 1921 he was thoroughly disillusioned with politicalism. So, the mood at the front of the book is positive, but by the end it is negative. He begins by describing how an Australian ‘proletarian democracy’ set out to form a political party that would represent the working class in a bourgeois parliament. Then he shows how the mechanisms that it used – pledge, conference and caucus – were unable to achieve that form of ‘class’ representation. He went on to show in the second half of the book that the revolt of the ‘industrialists’ in the movement against the politicians also failed, leading not to the One Big Union but to union bossism.
The analysis in How Labour Governs was a major advance in our understanding of the impediments to parliamentary socialism. It was, however, lacking in one major respect: it did not provide the analysis of the class relations between capital and labour that would show the futility of parliamentary socialism. This Childe rectified in London, writing in 1922 a closely argued article in Labour Monthly, the journal founded and edited by his friend, Rajani Dutt. This article showed that capitalists can always circumvent Labor’s pro-worker devices (by inflation; capital-strikes, etc); that the state will always use violence against militant workers; and that capitalist financial power can strangle the socialist enterprises of progressive Labor governments. Socialism will never be achieved through ‘duly compensated expropriation’. Childe had finally arrived at his third position: a class analysis of labourism. His short refutation of Labor-Socialism in this article has rarely been bettered.
As a student at Oxford, Childe formed life-long political friendships with prominent British Communists including, most notably, Rajani Palme Dutt. How might we situate Childe within the transnational networks of interwar Communism?
This is a complicated matter because the Communist movement changed, and so did Childe. Let’s start with his friendship with Dutt, which began in Oxford when they shared digs. Their discussions of Hegel and Marx ensured that Childe would never adopt the mechanical materialism that became orthodox in the Stalinist communist parties. Moreover, his exposure in Australia between 1917 and 1921 to left-wing social democracy and industrial syndicalism inured him to vanguardist and centralist ideas, that were also characteristic of Communism. So Childe was never a Communist Party member. In fact, he was contemptuous of the British party during the so-called ‘Third Period’ when the Comintern defined labour and socialist parties as ‘objectively’ fascist because they supposedly stood in the way of a working-class uprising. The savagery of ‘real’ Fascist regimes put an end to this stupidity on the left.
Childe’s hatred of fascism had its roots in his observations of the reactionary riots against the Left in Brisbane and Sydney in the years immediately after the First World War. From the mid-1930s, in the period of the ‘Popular Front’ against fascism, when the Communist Party reached out to Childe he was happy to co-operate with it as an anti-fascist force. He was already Chair of the Scottish-USSR Society, because he regarded the Soviet Union ‘as a grand and hopeful experiment’. He agreed to join the editorial board of the Party’s Modern Quarterly. He was dismayed, however, when the Communists refused to support the British Government’s declaration of war against Germany in 1939. Only later in the war, when the Soviet Union became an ally and the Communists were advocating a ‘united front’ against fascism, did his relationship with the Party grow warmer. The Communists continued to cultivate him during the Cold War, and Childe went along with them, because he was convinced that the West was planning war against the Soviet Union, and that the Iron Curtain was a barrier to the free exchange of scientific ideas. In the 1950s he travelled twice to the Soviet Union and several times to the Eastern Bloc for research.
Yet despite his public closeness to Communism, Childe was privately critical of Stalin’s totalitarian regime and world Communism’s distortion of Marxism. In 1939 he made this clear to Dutt, as he did in his correspondence with archaeologists O.G.S. Crawford in Britain and Hallam Movius in the United States. In 1945 he supported Jack Lindsay‘s critique of orthodox Marxism’s reliance on the idea that the intellectual and moral superstructure of society merely reflected society’s economic base. At the end of his life he wrote a devastating review of the unscientific aspects of Soviet archaeology.
Gordon Childe is most well-known today as a pre-eminent archaeologist of the Bronze Age. To what extent did his political thought influence his pre-historical research?
I think we can see this in two – maybe three – ways. First: academics often assume that Childe was an archaeologist who discovered Marxism in the 1930s, whereas he was actually a labour intellectual who took his already well-established theory of revolutionary change into the study of archaeology. Even in the book that launched his reputation in archaeology, The Dawn of European Civilisation (1925), he can be seen thinking structurally about ‘the several stages of the transformation of the world of food-gatherers’ during the Bronze Age. In successive works these transformations are called revolutions, until in 1936 the familiar terms ‘Neolithic’ and ‘Urban’ revolutions appear as chapter headings in Man Makes Himself.
Second, the tension between democracy and autocracy always preoccupied Childe. It can be seen in his Australian political writings. From them we can observe him rushing almost instinctively to the defence of ‘the democracy’ and warning against its enemies, whether militarists, bureaucrats, capitalists or union bosses. From Marx he learnt of the despotic ‘Asiatic mode of production’ in which a centralised state controlled the key productive forces. From the moment of the Bolshevik revolution he developed a concern about totalitarianism in communist regimes. Thus, when he looked at prehistory, he was bound to develop an analysis that counter-posed Asiatic or Oriental despotic regimes with the greater degree of creativity – ‘democracy’ – that archaeology discovered in Europe. Understanding that tension was a major theme in his archaeological thought, from The Dawn to his last book, The Prehistory of European Society.
Third, with only a small leap of the imagination we might make a link between Bronze Age Europe’s specialised metals craftsmen, whose independence from the emerging urban class structure ensured that Europe’s prehistoric civilisation would not be despotic, and the Australian tradition of economically independent colonial workers. This tradition was the source of Australia’s ‘proletarian democracy’ that Childe apotheosised in How Labour Governs. Also in that book, he was much taken with the positive features of Australia’s nomadic bush workers. Was it coincidence that he nailed the role of Bronze Age smiths in class terms only as the ship on which he was travelling approached Australia in 1957?
Childe’s life came to an end on a cliff in the Blue Mountains in October 1957. In your book, you note that ASIO framed his death as non-accidental. What was Childe’s relationship to Cold War politics and state surveillance on the eve of his death?
Surveillance of Childe by security intelligence organisations began in 1917 and continued until his death. From the beginning, surveillance impeded his career; in Australia in 1918–19 he was forced to resign one academic job and passed over for two others because of hostile intelligence reports. During the Cold War, surveillance prevented him from accepting an invitation to lecture in the United States. He was hated in the British ruling class; rumours circulated that he was a Russian spy, and George Orwell volunteered to the Foreign Office in 1949 his own view that Childe was a Soviet ‘fellow traveller’.
As soon as Childe arrived in Australia in 1957, ASIO, knowing his surveillance history, opened a file on him. Not surprisingly, therefore, while the press and the Coroner treated his death as an accident, the head of ASIO, wanting to make sure there were no counter-intelligence factors involved, had to consider that Childe might have taken his own life in order to escape the humiliation of a possible imminent exposure of being a spy. But there was no exposure for there was nothing to expose. In one sense, however, ASIO was correct. Childe intended to commit suicide, an intention that only became known in 1980 when an ‘essay’ (which he had sent to a colleague in London) about aging, death and society was discovered and published. I think we can assume that he jumped off that cliff.
Do Childe’s life and political thought hold any lessons for today? Is our present political pessimism comparable to Childe’s?
Let’s get this straight: Childe ended his life in a positive frame of mind. That is the message of his ‘essay’ on aging, death and society: ‘The British prejudice against suicide is utterly irrational … Life ends best when one is happy and strong.’ A day or two after he wrote those words his body was found at the bottom of a cliff. What reasons might we impute if we assume that he jumped? Perhaps he was horrified by Khrushchev’s exposure in 1956 of the extent of Stalin’s crimes, but would that be enough to make him commit suicide? I doubt it, because we know he was critical of Stalin’s regime as early as 1939. In the ‘essay’ he does admit that he is disappointed that Australia – the ideal country for a socialist society, as he said in 1929 – is not more socialist, but he also wrote in the essay that, if he were younger, he would set out on a trip to Communist China. So, had he become anti-socialist? No. In fact, in 1957 he told ‘Inky’ Stephensen that he remained ‘a near Commy’. Perhaps he was bereft at losing his Marxism? No – in another document written in his last days he advises his fellow archaeologists ‘that what Marxists call the relations of production’ must be a key inference.
We should understand his ‘essay’ as the statement of a rationalist who has thought about the deleterious effects his aging will have on society. He explains that he has no family to look after him. His savings will soon be eaten up by inflation. His capacity to contribute new ideas to his profession is diminishing; in fact, his continuing to live may actually impede younger scholars making new discoveries. In other words, he is about to become a burden on society and scientific progress. He writes plainly: ‘I have always intended to cease living before that happens’. These are the words of a man who loves his world, not hates it.
As to our ‘political pessimism’: I wish only to say that I am not politically pessimistic – and for much the same reasons as Childe was not. Let me quote the last lines of his What Happened in History: ‘Progress is real if discontinuous. The upward curve resolves itself into a series of troughs and crests. But in those domains that archaeology as well as written history can survey, no trough ever declines to the level of the preceding one, each crest out-tops the last.’ I believe that ordinary people can make a history that is ‘the actual creation of genuinely new values’.
In your view, what is the place of intellectual history within the history of labour and social movements?
My understanding of intellectual history is that meaning emerges from the dialogue between text and context. So, for example it is simply wrong to assume that Guild Socialism meant the same for Childe in Australia as it did for him in Oxford. I show that in the book. It is simply misleading to use the term Guild Socialism in reference to Australian labour as if its meaning is self-evident from the discussions about it in Britain in the 1910s. One always has to ask what a term means in its specific context.
I hope my book will be seen as evidence that intellectual history can be an important part of labour and social history. In Australia, this has not been the case. Of course, overseas there has been no doubt on that score since Edward Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963) and Jesse Lemisch’s essays on the history of the working class in the United States in the 1960s.
What is your next project?
I hope it will be a book on Esmonde Higgins and his left-wing intellectual environments.
Thank you for your time!
The Fatal Lure of Politics is available from Monash University Publishing.