This work is part of a ‘Gordon Childe’ project, started many years ago in collaboration with the late Peter Gathercole and Bill Peace. It is based on a huge collection of primary and secondary sources collected from libraries and archives in Britain, North America, Europe and Australia. In the course of the research we discovered an enthusiastic band of Childe obsessives, and there has been much sharing of sources and findings among us, and many publications have appeared as a result, including in my case an edited book with Gregory Melleuish and Gathercole, a bibliography with Margarita Díaz-Andreu and Gathercole, dictionary entries, articles and book chapters. From time to time other projects, and life, have got in the way of the Childe project, but it has now reached the stage where I am writing the definitive account of Childe’s political thinking and practice. As I expect to have to revise the arrangement of the material I am not including the footnotes in this draft for the internet.
SYDNEY AND BRISBANE, 1917-1919: ‘ONE OF OUR BEST PEOPLE’
The Sydney Morning Herald reported Gordon Childe’s arrival on 22 October 1917, alongside news of the last sputters of a failing mass strike: workers arrested in Wollongong for attacking ‘loyalists’ (a.k.a. scabs); militant seamen in Melbourne delaying a vote to return to work even though many seamen were signing on; defeated waterside workers in Sydney begging the employers to take them back although a union of scabs had first call on jobs at the pick-up. The strike, often incorrectly called a general strike, began in early August, when railway and tramway workers in Sydney walked off the job over the introduction of a speed-up system using cards to record the duration and execution of tasks. As other workers refused to provide ‘black’ services or handle ‘black’ goods that might weaken the position of the railway men, it grew and grew until almost 100,000 were refusing to work, especially on the docks, railways, mines, ships, and gas works. Recent scholarship by Robert Bollard explains this surprising growth: the strike triggered ‘an explosion of solidarity’ that ‘revealed the depths of underlying anger and bitterness’ generated by the war. Moreover, this ‘was not a passive bureaucratic strike, but a tumultuous carnival of protest’, driven from below. For intellectuals on the left it was a liminal moment. Gordon’s friend, the Sydney University Librarian, John le Gay Brereton, thought that even if such a strike were defeated, it would ‘knit the workers more strongly together for the coming revolution’.
But fail it did. The timing was off (there were huge stockpiles of coal) and the spontaneity demonstrated by the strikers was a weakness as well as a strength. Their leaders - the union officials, the tiny bands of organized socialists - and the labour intellectuals had no idea how to guide a mass strike. What were its aims? How could it be sustained? While the cadres of the working class dithered, the federal and NSW governments were acting. Laws were passed, police were deployed, but most importantly middle-class strikebreakers were mobilized. They were called ‘loyalists’ and my 50 year-old grand-father was one of them. Together with thousands of other volunteers he camped at the Sydney Cricket Ground waiting for deployment before he was sent to the southern coalfields. From Bellambi he wrote of the ‘black work’ he was doing and the refusal of local shopkeepers to serve his fellow strikebreakers. By early September the ad-hoc Defence Committee from the Trades Hall was looking for a way out. Undergraduates were driving the trams, unqualified firemen were driving the trains, new laws stole the job benefits of strikers, and scabs would get preference for employment when the strike was over. On 9th September the Defence Committee at the Trades Hall called off the strike. The miners, wharf labourers and some of the seamen were furious; they held out until November – a few until December. My grandfather came back to Sydney and resumed his business as a commercial traveler. He framed the illuminated certificate the Government sent him, praising his ‘patriotic action’ during ‘the recent industrial crisis’ as a ‘National Service’ in defence of ‘Constitutional Government’, and hung it in his lounge room where it remained for the rest of his life. [illustration: Certificate issued to my grandfather for his loyalty to constitutional government in the 1917 mass strike]
The decision to call off the strike made Sydney’s labour radicals angry about the inadequacies of leadership and disillusioned by the divisions in the working class. Among them were some who would become Gordon’s comrades. Henry Boote, the editor of The Worker, worn out from walking every day because he refused to catch trams or buses manned by scabs, felt ‘wild’. What was the sense of the struggle? Luke Jones, the secretary of the new Social Democratic League, was almost in tears describing to Boote how he was abused at a meeting of strikers for suggesting the strike was lost. Jennie Scott Griffiths, Texas-born feminist and socialist journalist, who had campaigned in support of the strike in the coalfields with another of Gordon’s friends, Vance Marshall, a left union official, was knocked sideways by the capitulation. She detected a ruling class conspiracy to provoke labour into a strike it could not win. Labour’s leaders were stupid to fall for it, but having endorsed the strike they were gutless to call it off. Even a year later the radical mood was pessimistic, and Childe shared in it. He noted the ‘charges and counter-charges after the defeat’ that distorted the truth about the strike and divided the left, confusing the task of understanding what it meant for working class politics, one of the tasks he would set himself in How Labour Governs. In the meantime he joined the exodus of radicals to Queensland, where the last remaining government controlled by the Labor Party had earlier in the year been re-elected with an increased majority.
* * *
With details of his academic success at Oxford appearing in the daily press Gordon began to look for employment. He discovered that his old school, Shore, had a vacancy, and went to an interview. Perhaps forgetting that he was not in Oxford, and that Sydney could be primly provincial, he dressed untidily. He was also more honest than necessary, mumbling that he was unfit for the job but would like to try it; he was not hired. Then the Principal of St Andrew’s College in the University of Sydney rescued him, creating the post of Senior Resident Tutor and appointing him to it. This was more to his liking and it made use of his knowledge. He was a popular with the students, according to the College magazine, for his ‘scholarship was of the first order and his tea and cigarettes were second to none’. But elsewhere in the University it was a different story.
John Le Gay Brereton reported that in the upper levels of the University he was called ‘that swine’, and regarded ‘with shuddering dismay and horror’. It was rumoured that he had been sent down from Oxford. Campus gossips repeated the defiant phrase from his March 1917 letter to the High Commissioner in London, about not helping ‘however indirectly, in a war which I believe to be destructive to civilization and true liberty’. The letter was provided by Australia’s Military Intelligence, which had placed Childe under surveillance from the moment he stepped ashore, having been tipped off by MI5. There was a close relationship between Military Intelligence and the top echelons of the University, which had released some of its staff to work for Intelligence as censors, including a son of Professor Mungo MacCallum (the Dean of Arts), and Professors Wilson, Holme, Todd and Nicholson. Childe would later name MacCallum and Professors Todd and Holme, together with the Warden Barff as those making ‘violent statements’ against him at the University Club and elsewhere. Any one of them could have been the conduit through which the letter reached the campus.
Meanwhile Gordon was putting his mark on the left. Like many an antipodean traveler he found an audience interested in his experiences in the northern hemisphere. He joined the Labor Party and met a young Labor parliamentarian, William (Bill) McKell, whose speeches used information from Childe about the effect of conscription in England on workers’ rights, for Gordon had returned a few weeks before Prime Minister Hughes announced a second referendum to test public support for conscription. Childe would have been relieved when the referendum in December was defeated, and by a larger margin than in 1916. In January 1918 Childe gave a Sunday night lecture for the Labor Party on ‘The Policy of the British Labour Party in Wartime’, and began writing anonymously for The Worker. In April he started teaching a course on political philosophy for the labour movement under the auspices of the Workers’ Educational Association.
He was also assisting the trade union left. For five nights in May and June 1918 he attended the weekly meetings of the Trades and Labour Council [TLC] to advise delegates opposed to the federal Government’s latest attempt to involve the unions in a national campaign to boost military recruitment. The secretary of the TLC, W. Morby, proposed that the Council support the resolutions on recruiting adopted at a conference called by the Governor-General. Led by the socialists Ernest Judd and Henry Boote, the left was determined to make the debate revolve around the question of supporting or opposing the war. Then Labor’s leader in New South Wales, John Storey, intervened, and the results were unexpected. Thinking to strengthen the case for the recruiting campaign he revealed that at the conference Labor had offered to support recruiting if the conservative governments stopped exploiting their victory in the 1917 mass strike by victimizing workers and de-registering unions. Instead, it produced uproar and wild scenes, as pacifists joined with ‘industrialists’ (as the militant unionists were called) to accuse the politicians of another sell-out. The debate was adjourned week after week as each side jockeyed for control, with Gordon providing ‘private advice’ to ‘the pacifist section’. Finally, Judd’s motion to oppose both the war and recruiting was passed by a small margin. Two developments followed quickly, revealing the divisions entrenched by the debate. Judd was charged with ‘encouraging disloyalty to the Empire’ for moving his resolution, and in the election for secretary of Council, Morby was defeated by Jock Garden, a future foundation member of the Communist Party.
Gordon was proud of his behind-the-scenes role, writing to Murray that he was now convinced of the importance of socialist societies and liberal intellectuals in the class struggle: they mediated between classes and prevented revolutionary clashes. Was this written with tongue in cheek? After all, Murray was a prominent Liberal as well his mentor. But Childe was no longer in Britain where everything to him seemed so bloody because of working class passivity. In Australia, the militancy of the ‘industrialists’ had swept many hundreds of thousands of workers into a mass strike. It was possible that Australia’s different balance of class forces and Labor’s experience of governing might provide a non-violent but still revolutionary transition to socialism. As from this time his own intermediations increased, he was clearly serious.
He was becoming a well-known figure on the Labor Party’s left. He conscientiously attended the meetings of his branch in Darlinghurst to support the left’s campaign to get the June 1918 Federal Conference in Perth to adopt resolutions advocating a negotiated peace and an end to recruitment. When the Perth Conference adopted the left’s line, he was quick to portray it a pacifist victory, sending an unsigned article, ‘Australian Demand for Negotiation’, to the newspaper of the Independent Labour Party in England. In another sign of his standing, the State Labor Executive and the Social Democratic League asked him to lead a deputation to the Minister of Justice seeking indulgences (for example, more visitors and better food) for Vance Marshall and other ‘political prisoners’ in line with those in Britain for ‘First Class Prisoners’ – a topic on which Childe was knowledgeable because of his work in support of conscientious objectors in England. Marshall was serving his second term for making speeches detrimental to recruiting.
He also met up with his university friend, Bert Evatt, and introduced him to William McKell, the three of them frequently lunching together. McKell, who had entered the state Parliament for the seat of Redfern earlier that year, had left school when he was thirteen to become a boilermaker, so when he decided to study for the Bar he needed help. Gordon tutored him in Latin and made précises of the books McKell had to read for the qualifying examinations. Childe, who was already suspicious of the ‘fatal lure of [parliamentary] politics’, kept in contact with them both as they rose to eminence in state organisations. McKell became Premier of New South Wales and Governor-General of Australia; Evatt became a High Court Judge, Minister of External Affairs, President of the United Nations General Assembly, and Leader of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party in Opposition.
Gordon was also active in the peace movement proper. He joined the Australian Union of Democratic Control (AUDC), and when it amalgamated with the Australian Peace Alliance he became the Assistant Secretary, that is, he organized the meetings and sent out the circulars. He was particularly associated with the push to persuade peace activists towards involving workers’ organisations. In July he gave a paper to the Australian Peace Alliance on ‘The Manchester Guardian and The Nation: What they are saying’. Not being a liberal internationalist like the better-known pacifists, his role has been neglected, but when he moved to Brisbane, his fellow socialist and anti-war activist, Isabel Swann, lamented that Sydney was losing ‘one of our best people’.
Most nights Gordon would go into the city to Mockbell’s Café on Elizabeth Street where a group of young rebels met, ‘Frank Nelson, Jim Bell and Turner’ among them. Lost now to history, they were at the time sufficiently active – rank and filers from the Industrial Workers of the World, perhaps - for Childe to record their names. He was writing to Russell Pearce, a medical student at Sydney University, encouraging him to join the group. Russell had already done Gordon a favour, sending him an application form for teaching in Queensland public schools. In their letters they exchange thoughts about the war and socialist tactics, but Rationalism was another common interest. Russell’s father, George Pearce, was Brisbane’s leading Rationalist and it was probably George who obtained the form. Childe’s Rationalist contacts also included William J. Miles in Sydney, who had founded the Rationalist Association of New South Wales, 'a peppery, authoritative little man with a strong nose, heavy moustache and booming voice'. Russell Pearce’s trajectory was to the left – in later years he had an ASIO file as a Communist Party sympathizer – but Miles shot off to the right, publishing a pro-fascist monthly that he passed on to Percy Stephensen. As we shall see, Gordon’s life intersected with Stephensen’s on several occasions.
Also among his friends was Fred Williams, another medical student, but at Melbourne University. During the second referendum on conscription in 1917, when offices, printeries and homes were being raided by police searching for subversive material, Williams hid the leaflets of a left group calling themselves the Militant Propagandists of the Labor Movement, possibly at Melbourne Hospital. In 1918 he helped to set up a Public Questions Society at Melbourne University. According to the Censor this effort showed the ‘skillfully manoeuvred and … insidious methods of the Socialist Pacifist Groups’. When Williams came to Sydney, Gordon put him up at St Andrew’s. The Censor also noticed the overlapping circles that made up the radical community, and in Sydney that overlap was secured by their making use of the newspaper and meeting rooms of the Social Democratic League. Formed after the expulsion of the conscriptionists from the Labor Party, its promotion of ‘Internationalism, Anti-militarism, Industrial Unionism and the recognition of the class struggle’ attracted activists from a range of campaigns, but without posing a direct challenge to the Labor Party. Childe was probably a member, because many of the names of League members turn up in his correspondence, or they refer to him in theirs, including Percy Brookfield (the Socialist MLA from Broken Hill), Rev. A. Rivett (President of the APA in Sydney), Isabel Swann, Jennie Scott Griffiths, Luke Jones, and Vance Marshall.
* * *
We saw earlier that in 1914, before he left for Oxford, Childe had joined the Workers' Educational Association (WEA), an organisation that was meant to reach out to working class adults and bring them an advanced education based on liberal pedagogical principles. At the same time the University was committed to an extension program for non-matriculated students, so following the English prototype the University partnered with the WEA to deliver its ‘tutorial classes’. Controlling the program was a Joint Committee for Tutorial Classes made up of WEA and University representatives.
In March 1918, in response to the hostility to Childe among the University elite, David Stewart, the secretary of the WEA and an opponent of the war who had been a vice-president of the Union of Democratic Control, decided that an act of solidarity with a fellow WEA member was necessary. He suggested informally to the Joint Committee that Childe might be appointed to a Tutorship in Ancient History, and because there was no evidence of his teaching ability the WEA would form a class for him so that the Acting-Director, Jerry Portus, could inspect it. This was done and in due course Portus reported that Childe was a satisfactory tutor. One of the University's representatives, and the Chair of the Joint Committee, was Professor Francis Anderson, who had taught Childe and persuaded him to join the WEA, so Childe looked to be a shoe-in as far as the Tutorial Classes people were concerned. But would the University allow the appointment of a socialist? Portus was doubtful. Meanwhile, Childe, according to his friend Brereton, wandered the campus like the ‘lost spirit’ of one of the gargoyles on the University's faux-Gothic main building.
Meanwhile the anti-war forces were mobilising, and over Easter 1918 the Third Inter-State Peace Conference took place in the Friends' Meeting Hall in Foveaux Street. There were 100 delegates, including Gordon who was one of three from the Australian Union of Democratic Control. He delivered a paper on ‘Peace, Imperialism and Internationalism’, and his influence may also be seen in the conference resolution against Australia retaining the captured German colonies in the Pacific, about which he had earlier published a letter in The Australian Worker. Vance Marshall remembered him from this time, perhaps at this conference:
In those days, when the fiery spirits of war antagonism were gathering together, he would rise in ungainly fashion to his feet … His speech was slow, measured, scholastic – no vigour, no fire, but insistent, relentless, hammer-like. … One theme alone marked the tenor of his logic – “No compromise! No compromise! No compromise!”
Privately a ‘lost spirit’ perhaps, but in public Childe could not easily be ignored.
At the end of April Gordon's enemies struck. Somebody complained to the Principal of St. Andrew's, Dr Harper, about his participation in the Peace Conference. Harper then spoke to the University's Warden (equivalent to a Vice Chancellor today) who showed him the copy provided by Military Intelligence of Childe's letter to the High Commissioner in London, and told him that the University objected to Childe's presence in the University and would never employ him. Harper conveyed this to Childe, saying that Childe's continuing membership of the College would jeopardise financial support from the City and embarrass the College in its dealings with the University. He then offered Childe the chance to resign.
Gordon's first reaction was an indignant refusal, pointing out that he had been given ‘no reasonable, just or legal grounds’ for dismissal. He thought of embarrassing the University by asking his Oxford academic contacts to write letters of support. But in the meantime, he had to respond to the Principal. Further thought persuaded him that Harper’s concerns about the College’s prospects if he continued as a member of College were realistic, and that as he had no desire to harm the College he should resign. So he started to negotiate. He asked for his salary to be paid to 1 October, and when the College agreed, he offered his resignation. The College released him from 1 June. His letter of resignation was not bitter but, for the enlightenment of members of the College Council, it did set out the principle they were violating: that a public teacher was entitled to express political opinions. It was regrettable, he wrote, that by giving in to ‘the machinations of a secret junta within the University’ the Council had ‘become partners in the guilt of suppressing freedom of thought in the University’.
Childe decided that he would only let his letter of resignation become public if it were used against the University, not the College. Accordingly, the University was his target when he put his case to his federal Labor member, James H. Catts. Nothing came of this, but he found a more sympathetic advocate in his friend, the Labor member for Redfern, William McKell. On 27 June McKell placed three questions on the notice paper of the Legislative Assembly for the Minister of Public Instruction. The first sought to establish that under the Act governing the University and its Colleges no political or religious tests should be imposed on the selection of public teachers in the University. The second question sought to show that such a test had been applied in Childe’s case and that in consequence he had been forced to resign from his position at St Andrew’s. The details in this question clearly came from Childe:
… The Warden and Registrar of the University stated that the Senate would refuse to employ Mr Childe because he was believed to hold views on war and peace similar to those affirmed by the Australian Labor Party in conference assembled in June 1917, despite the fact that Mr Childe’s academic record at Oxford surpassed in brilliance that of any former Sydney scholar, and that his work on Greek archaeology has gained him a European reputation?
In the third question McKell asked the Government to ‘proclaim an immediate election of the Senate’ if it were found ‘to have abused its trust in this manner’.
The Government could not have been unaware of the falling out between the College and Childe, for the Colonial Secretary, George Fuller, was a member of the College Council. But how should McKell’s implicit point that Childe was forced to resign because his views were those of the Labor Party be answered? As it was clear this had happened, either it was morally wrong and should be condemned, or the Government would be seen as supporting the right of anti-Labor conservatives to dominate the University. Unwittingly McKell had given the Government a way out. He had focused his attack on the University, not the College, as Childe had wanted. The Minister of Public Instruction seized on this distinction, replying that he had no control over appointments to the College, and suggesting McKell refer to the College Council. He added that Childe’s name ‘had not been before the University for employment or for any other purpose since the extension of his scholarship for a third year in 1915.’ And in answer to McKell’s first question he simply affirmed the principle: ‘no religious or political tests are ever applied.’ Six weeks later Childe would discover how hollow that affirmation was. That these answers were prepared at the University, by either Barff or MacCallum, underlines the duplicity involved in this exercise. Childe was being victimized by conspirators whose self-belief in their right to rule was unassailable by evidence or a sense of justice.
Uncertain about his chances for the Tutorial Classes position, Gordon investigated other possibilities of employment. He thought he might approach the Miners and other unions about setting up a Labour College, similar to the Victorian Labour College, just recently started, which was modelled on the Central Labour College in London. He wrote to the Very Reverend M.J. O'Reilly, Rector of St John's, the Catholic College in the University, seeking his endorsement for teaching in religious schools 'even though I am not a Catholic'. O’Reilly replied that he would try to help in the future, but he could not at present. Childe thought there might be a current of political sympathy flowing between them because O’Reilly had publicly opposed conscription and earlier that year had invited Cardinal Mannix, an Irish nationalist and opponent of the war, to lay the foundation stone of a new wing at the College. The Chancellor wrote a rude letter to the Rector about Mannix and the University elite boycotted the event, but in attendance, under the red flags displayed in solidarity by some of Sydney’s pacifist left, was Childe’s friend Brereton. More promising was the possibility of finding a job with or through Australia’s only remaining Labor government, so he interviewed the Queensland Treasurer, Ted Theodore, but that possibility would take time to come to fruition.
In the meantime Gordon formally applied for the Tutorship in Ancient History. He had been consulting his supporters since Stewart first mooted the appointment in March, fully aware that his candidature was a challenge to the most powerful men in the University. His supporters would need ammunition. As the date approached for the meeting that would consider his application he prepared for the Director of Tutorial Classes ‘a true and unvarnished statement of the facts’ to counter the ‘false or exaggerated rumours’ about his ‘heretical views on certain questions of national and international importance’. It was not a defence of those views but a comparison of how they were received in Oxford and in Sydney. In Oxford, the College Provost and ‘others of the Fellows’ accepted his ‘unorthodoxy’ whereas in Sydney Dr Harper asked him to anticipate the Council’s decision to sack him by resigning. At the meeting of the Joint Committee to consider his application Portus reported that he had inspected the WEA class on political philosophy and found that Childe was a satisfactory tutor. He then revealed that he had received a statement from Childe, but the Chair of the meeting, Professor Anderson, advised him not to read it ‘unless the question should be raised’. Anderson obviously knew the reason for Childe’s written statement, as did another member of the Joint Committee, Professor Irvine, the pro-Labor economist, who said as he was leaving the room before the agenda reached the matter of Childe’s application, that he thought the meeting might recommend Childe, despite the ‘young man’s radicalism’. Portus was also ready to recommend Childe, believing that it was not the responsibility of the Committee to consider Childe’s political opinions. As the WEA members supported Childe, it seemed as if the statement would not be read. But then one of the University’s representatives, Professor Todd disagreed. He said he objected strongly to placing ‘in an office of trust in the University a man whose opinions are contrary to the national interest’, and giving such a man the opportunity ‘of infecting the students in his classes’. Nonetheless the Committee voted to recommend Childe.
Known as ‘the Metternich of the University’, Frederick Augustus Todd (1880-1944), Assistant Professor of Latin and Assistant Censor, unmarried at the time, enlisted in the AIF just 26 days before the Armistice. His was the sole vote against Childe. So outraged was he that Childe might persuade students not to fight for the empire that he wrote a letter of protest to the Chancellor. At that time the Chief Censor for Sydney’s military district was G.G. Nicholson, the University’s Assistant Professor of French. Sir William Cullen, C.J., would have known whom to turn to for advice. Nicholson after contacting his Military Intelligence counterpart in Victoria, wrote to Professor MacCallum that ‘Col. McColl says the Secretary of the Department of Defence will probably communicate with the Chancellor about C.’ The form suggested was: ‘It is not considered desirable that … should be appointed … during the war.’ At its August meeting, the Senate, with MacCallum an ex-officio member, rejected the Committee’s recommendation, its minutes recording no evidence of dissent or argument.
After this knockback Gordon’s contempt for the University’s leaders hardened, and he stepped up his campaign to shame them. He had already written to academics in Oxford asking them to protest to the University of Sydney. The Provost of Queen’s, John Magrath, gave him the brush off: ‘I’m sorry you don’t get on better with the authorities. The fault in these cases is seldom wholly on one side.’ The Camden Professor of Ancient History at Oxford, Francis J. Haverfield, havered: it is always difficult to discover ‘the real reasons’ for actions; it is bad to mix politics with learning; I have little contact with the Sydney University authorities; and one should not expect anything different if one articulates unpopular views.’ Now Childe went public. He provided details of his victimisation by the ‘junta of jingoes’ to the Australian Peace Alliance, which issued a press release. He persuaded his political friends to write to the press. Although the Government, advised by the University, refused to act, Childe remained defiant. On 8 September he delivered a lecture for the Labor Party on ‘Freedom of Speech’.
Gordon was spending his last 100 pounds slowly. He had now decided to apply to the Queensland Public Instruction Service for a teaching post, and to make his case he persuaded Brookfield, who thought Childe was ‘head and shoulders above any other tutor’, and Miles, to write to Queensland Labor politicians. Certain now that his chances were better in Queensland he departed for Brisbane on 18 September 1918. On the same day, he wrote to the Chancellor, whom privately he called ‘a deep-dyed ruffian’: ‘As the University of Sydney has set its face against all freedom of the teacher, and ignoring academic merits, enquires into the private views on politics of its professors and teachers, you will be relieved to hear that the enclosed section of my will whereby the University stood to gain about 2500 pounds has been altered in favour of a more enlightened body.’ The favoured body was the Labor Council of New South Wales.
* * *
Arriving in Brisbane, Childe did not quite know what to make of its political atmosphere. There were many positives. He was exhilarated by its ‘refreshing air of revolutionary optimism’, coming as he was from Sydney, where the industrial mood was defensive since the defeat of the mass strike of 1917. He also felt he had more freedom because there were no secret policemen taking notes at the regular Sunday night gatherings of radicals in the Trades Hall. He asked himself what was different about Queensland. He noted the more ‘harmonious’ relations between the Labor party and the unions, a consequence of the absence of a split in the party over conscription. He applauded the impact of the left-wing newspaper run by the radical unions, the Daily Standard, which was ‘doing good work, even on the war’. And Premier Ryan was a big asset. His implied support for the Perth conference resolutions enabled the party in Queensland to take a more definite stand against the war. Most important was his adroit handling of industrial disputes, of which there were many at that moment, especially among government employees in the railways, the state hotels, and the state butchers’ shops. Ryan appeared ‘to give way every time but to hide his surrenders even from the Tories’.
Yet he was uneasy. Militants were coming to Queensland – the pacifists Margaret Thorpe and Arnold Holmes, the anti-war feminist Jennie Scott Griffiths, the socialist Cleeve Ullman – because they thought that if there were to be an Australian revolution it would start in Queensland. Gordon anticipated the revolution too, signing off his letters, ‘Yours for the revolution’, but he was contemplating two questions: what kind of revolution? And would it succeed? His answer to the second question revealed his thinking about the first. He foresaw a ‘sinister outlook’ for Australia: the revolution defeated by working class ‘bone-heads and bourgeois university students’ – the same forces of scabbery that had cruelled the ‘Great Strike’ in New South Wales. And there was another problem. As he wrote to his friend in Sydney, John Le Gay Brereton, ‘I now realise that ideals are an expensive luxury that should be left to poets and visionaries of independent means but no sort of authority’. It was a comment on the costly effect of ideals in his own life, but it also applied to his comrades, blinded by their unrealistic enthusiasm for revolutionary ideals. He found it hard to square the Trades Hall radicals’ revolutionary optimism – which he partly shared - with his intellectual conviction that the working class, trained in servility, preferred pragmatism to idealism. One Sunday night at the Trades Hall he pointed this out, in order to counter the ‘absurd optimism’ of Norman Freeberg and the other would-be Lenins. Exposed now to the possibilities for socialism provided by Queensland Labor’s more unified and intellectual movement he was changing his mind about the form that the revolution would take. As the Brisbane-based censor noted, with more insight about Labor politics than most censors possessed, since coming to Brisbane Childe had been converted ‘from ‘direct’ to ‘political’ action, and his Sydney friends are astonished by the change.’ It was all very confusing to Gordon: ‘I don’t really know why I’ve been transformed from pessimism to optimism.’ In Brereton’s view, he was consumed by ‘despondent irony’. Meanwhile he was suffering from the heat (’97 degrees with a hot wind on Monday’) and he had not been ‘tight’ since he left Sydney.
Gordon stayed for a few days with Russell Pearce’s father, George, who was the secretary of the local branch of the Rationalist Press Association, before moving into the bungalow of Rev. T.C. Witherby, an Anglican with High Church leanings like Childe’s father. An activist in the WEA and Director of Tutorial Classes at the University of Queensland, the Oxford educated Tom Witherby had a reputation for eccentric behaviour. On one occasion, during a boring meal with two ladies at a restaurant he disappeared under the table to read. He was also a supporter of the Russian revolutionaries of 1917. Gordon and he would have recognised that they had much in common.
After a month without a job, Gordon accepted a position as classics master at Maryborough Grammar, arranged for him through the Department of Public Instruction, to commence in 1919. No doubt he was hoping for something more demanding – as a government advisor or researcher – because his earlier stint as a schoolmaster in Glen Innes in 1914 had been a disaster. But his funds were running out. Then, in late October, his patrons in the government told him that he could start teaching in Maryborough at once. Four days later the local Labor MP escorted Gordon into the school and announced to the surprised Headmaster that Childe was the school’s new classics master. Earlier that year the Labor government had reconstructed the school’s board of trustees. Grammar Schools, run by local businessmen and professionals, supported by state funds but charging fees affordable only by wealthy families, were an affront to Labor, which was trying to promote public secondary schools. The President of the party’s Central Political Executive, Billy Demaine, lived in Maryborough, owned a local newspaper, and was prominent in town affairs, so its Grammar School was an obvious target, especially because the school was not performing well. The new board of trustees, which included Demaine and other Labor sympathisers, gave the masters notice that their contracts would end on 31 December. Morale among the staff dropped and misconduct among the pupils increased. So when two teachers resigned unexpectedly the Minister for Public Instruction contacted Demaine, who in turn contacted the chair of the board of trustees, who contacted the Head. Along the line the message passed: appointing Childe would be ‘a good thing’. That was how Childe had reached the school: propelled into the job by the government’s policy of reforming secondary education, and the party’s desire to exercise its patronage.
By this time Gordon’s radical past was no secret. His political friends were using it privately in Labor circles to help him find employment, and publicly to expose the prejudices of their political opponents. The Daily Standard reported his imminent arrival in Brisbane under the heading ‘University Intolerance – Tutor Victimized’. His friends, however, were unprepared for the other side using this information in a campaign of deliberate mischief against him. The fuse was lit by an article in Demaine’s Maryborough newspaper, The Alert. A few days after he arrived, under the heading ‘Class Bias’, it provided its readers with the phrases that would be bruited around by conservatives. The article stated that Childe had been turned down by the Senate of Sydney University, that he happened to be a labour man, an anti-conscriptionist, a member of the peace alliance, and a speaker at the peace conference last Easter. It was read by Mr G.Y. Harding, who had two sons at the school and wanted their education to continue ‘on British lines’. He wrote to the Maryborough Chronicle the day after Childe’s appointment was announced to ask if this ‘Mr Child’ was the person referred to in The Alert. He then repeated the phrases so the readers would know what he meant. Harding attacked again a few days later in another letter, this time focusing on Labor interference in the running of the school. In Brisbane, a conservative Member of Parliament used the phrases when asking the Labor Minister of Public Instruction, Herbert F. Hardacre, what he knew about Childe. (The Minister, in an answer that came close to misleading Parliament, told him to ask the trustees of the school.) In the town, recruiting sergeants made allusions at rallies to a traitorous teacher in their midst. Meanwhile, in the classroom, Childe’s pupils, whipped into patriotic fervour, were uncontrollable. They drowned out his words by singing ‘Rule Britannia’, and they peppered him with shots from their peashooters. It was a difficult, perhaps dangerous, time for Gordon, and finally he had had enough.
Under the heading ‘Who is Mr Childe?’ he wrote to the Maryborough Chronicle, which published his letter on 29 November 1918:
Sir, -- To anticipate further repetition of this question, may I be allowed through your columns to address a few words to the critics who, fastening upon my alleged personal convictions in politics, and ignoring the scholastic record on which I was appointed to a temporary post here, have seen fit to prejudge my academic fitness.
He went on in ironic vein, likening his enemies to the anarchist followers of Kropotkin and Bakunin who created chaos with the aim of subverting the established order, an order that he identified as the school and his role in it. Despite the disorder his enemies had created he had persisted with the task of teaching the pupils, who had been deserted on the eve of their examinations. That task fulfilled, he resigned:
I do not feel it the business of a scholar to struggle against the violence of reaction learnt at home.
If in future the political opinions of masters instead of their academic qualifications are to be made the subject of inquisitional researches by persons who once boasted the name of ‘liberal’, the future of education here will indeed be dark. If, moreover, when the persons in question are found to fail in the standards of political orthodoxy set up by this unseen tribunal, the methods of secret incitement to unruly pupils be continued, Maryborough may yet boast so unique an institution as a school for anarchists. I am, etc.,
V. Gordon Childe.
B.A., B.Lit (Oxon)
November 28, 1918
Ex-Scholar and Medalist of Sydney University, formerly Research Student of Queen’s College, Oxford.
This defiant letter vindicated his role. As for the role of the Labor party and the government, privately he was very angry, telling Brereton: ‘It exemplifies if nothing else how not to do things.’
When Gordon returned to Brisbane from Maryborough he stayed at 'Gowrie', a guesthouse in Wickham Terrace, Spring Hill, on the northern edge of the city. It was a street of big houses and medical suites, high enough to catch the breezes and perfectly situated for Childe, who could walk down the hill and across the centre of town to his job clerking in the Lands Department, and on Sunday nights to the socialist gatherings in the Trades Hall in nearby Turbot Street. He was still assuming that his stay in Queensland would be temporary, and he had his eye on several possible jobs in Sydney. He had applied for a teaching post at Newington College, a Methodist school in Sydney. Indeed, in January 1919 the Headmaster wrote to Childe that he could start either at Easter or in June. Two weeks later the offer was withdrawn. On the intercepted letter the Censor noted that the Headmaster had presumably ‘become acquainted with Childe’s eccentricities’. He had no need to name the clandestine body that did the acquainting. So Childe kept on clerking in the State Land Department, where he had been since late December, after an interview with Treasurer Theodore. It was ‘very, very dull mechanical and monotonous work’, mainly sorting papers, for which he was paid 10 shillings a day. When a Labor man, John English, was elected Lord Mayor of Sydney in December 1918 Childe contemplated working for him, perhaps as a private secretary cum advisor. Bert Evatt was keen for this to happen, but nothing came of it, perhaps because English died suddenly in March 1919. Childe also advertised that he would coach students for university and bar examinations, ‘Logic and psychology a speciality’. As Gordon entered the private education market that medal in philosophy had become an unexpected asset.
While at Maryborough Grammar, Gordon’s chief tormentor, the organiser of the pea-shooting and jingoistic rowdiness, was Percy Reginald Stephensen. Tall and fair-haired, the seventeen year-old Percy attracted Gordon’s attention. Was Percy surprised to receive Christmas greetings from ‘V. Gordon Childe’ on the back of a postcard showing the head and shoulders of a youth, described as ‘Bas-relief trouvé à Achlada Crete’? Perhaps not, because there had obviously been some earlier non-curricula conversations between them. In 1957, Percy told Gordon that his radicalisation began in 1918 when ‘ideas you then [at Maryborough] planted helped me to attain a satisfactory contra mundum outlook, which I still retain in some measure’. Presumably these ideas could not have been imparted in the classroom. A friendship quickly developed, one that was close enough to support a regular correspondence between them, using their private addresses. A few days after Christmas, Gordon again wrote to Percy, referring to their previous correspondence. Gordon congratulates Percy on passing the Senior examination in Latin, and then proceeds to tell him about his ‘projected history of the Labor Movement in Australia’. Percy was one of the first to know about this. Gordon signs off with, ‘Hope to see you if and when you come to B’bane. Meanwhile long live Anarchism. Yours sincerely, V. Gordon Childe.’
Percy’s political education continued at the University of Queensland, but in a decidedly un-anarchist direction, for in 1921 he joined the Communist Party. At the University he was introduced to the bohemian left by Jack Lindsay, a year ahead of him in the Arts faculty. Jack, the eldest son of the artist Norman Lindsay, met Witherby through a family friend, and Witherby gave him a course on English literature to teach at the WEA in 1919. Before long Jack met Gordon, and because Jack was a student of Classics, a friendship between them soon developed. Jack would visit Childe at ‘Gowrie’, and both of them were often week-end guests at Witherby’s shack on Mount Tambourine, about XX kilometres south-west [CHECK] of Brisbane. From the train station one had to walk ‘across the flats to the slopes and then wind one’s way up’, an expedition that Gordon enjoyed. In his autobiography, Jack describes Gordon on these mountain walks ‘bent a little, listening equally to the noises of the earth and my meandering hypotheses …’:
I remember him in those days as a bubble-pricker, a mildly caustic iconoclast, whose glasses took on an unholy glimmer as he demolished somebody’s illusions with sardonic kindliness. He was the most detached person I knew, and yet one felt all the while there was a warm core to his gently spoken and deadly sarcasm.
On another occasion, Jack recalls him standing on the edge of a cliff, ‘staring with vague intentness into immensity, swaying a little with bent shoulders and sliding his glasses down to the end of his nose’. In the 1940s Jack and Gordon resumed their friendship, drawn together by their common interest in Marxism.
Gordon kept his distance from the Bolshevik supporters among Brisbane’s socialists. Perhaps he was glad to be in Maryborough when his comrades organised a meeting to celebrate the first anniversary of the revolution, and even gladder that he escaped the possibility of injury when it was attacked by returned soldiers. He certainly took no part in the ‘red flag’ riots. In March 1919 there were three days of street violence against the left, instigated by police and right-wing mobs, encouraged by the conservative daily newspapers, directed by a conspiracy of military officers and wealthy men, and connived at by Acting Premier Theodore. On the first day, the soldiers attacked a small procession of socialists, industrial militants and pro-Bolshevik Russian exiles marching from Trades Hall to the Domain with red flags (which had been banned in September 1918). That evening a larger mob attacked an open-air meeting of industrial militants and then surged into South Brisbane to lay siege to the hall of the Russians, who drove them off with gunfire. On the second day a huge mob of perhaps 7000 clashed with armed police in South Brisbane before destroying the Russian hall. On the third night the mob rioted in both South Brisbane and the city centre, where they attacked the offices of the Daily Standard. At this point their leaders decided that further vigilante violence was not necessary, especially because the police were arresting prominent industrial militants and Russian Bolsheviks and raiding the homes of others, including Jenny Scott Griffiths.
On the day after the first riot, however, the Daily Standard published a letter from Childe, and a month later another. Both were occasioned by the riots, yet neither defended the right to fly the red flag. Instead their focus was on the response to the riots by the ruling class and the government. The first letter was published under the heading, ‘Is it the Black Hundred?’ He explained that in Czarist Russia, when the regime was threatened with popular rebellion, the secret police worked through ‘a notorious organization’ called “The Black Hundred” to inflame the ‘ignorant populace’ against the Jews. Similarly, Australia’s ‘real rulers’ – the ‘trusts and combines’ - faced with ‘a stiff opposition’ from ex-servicemen, ‘bitterly disappointed’ at being deceived by promises of reinstatement, were using ‘secret agents’ and ‘agents provocateurs’ to divert this legitimate anger against Brisbane’s Russians, ‘refugees who have sought asylum on our free shores’. The second letter, headed ‘Treatment of Political Prisoners’, appealed to the government to ameliorate the conditions of the ‘red flag’ prisoners. After the riots, although there were many arrests only the Russians and members of the IWW were gaoled, 15 of them, now treated ‘on the same terms as thieves, drunken brawlers and wife-beaters’. In Britain and New South Wales, however, political prisoners were separated from common criminals and allowed indulgences in the form of visits, letters, clothes and food. Using his own experience of advocating for war resisters in Britain and of leading the deputation on behalf of Vance Marshall to the Minister for Justice in New South Wales, Childe suggested the arguments that the Home Secretary could use to reform the prisons to achieve the same result in Queensland.
Gordon was moved to write these letters by two of his deepest impulses: to expose the exploitation of difference and to decry the oppression of idealists, in both cases by governments and business. In the first letter he is shocked by ‘the unreasoned hate of the unknown and strange’ on the part of the ‘pimps’ and ‘the yellow press’ who mislead ‘the masses’. In the second, thinking about the war, he rails against the ‘pretext that full political and religious toleration exists in Britain’. How can that be when Nonconformists are forced into ‘passive resistance’ and suffragettes, ‘inspired with altruistic ideals’, have to embrace violence? Both impulses were on display during Gordon’s time in Oxford when he was constructing his identity around difference and conscience as he opposed the war and defended those who resisted it. His letters thus are pointing to a continuing personal concern with these markers of his identity. But in what way was he different? Why was he so insistent that conscience must not be compromised? The Censor in Brisbane, who read Gordon’s correspondence forensically, thought that he was simply arrogant, motivated by pacifism and ‘unbounded intellectual pride’, but also by ‘some burning sense of injustice’. With that last comment, the Censor came close to the truth about Childe’s politics. It was injustice, not inequality that moved him – the unwillingness of the ruling class to tolerate difference and respect conscience.
Amongst Brisbane’s most ardent non-Russian Bolsheviks was Norman Freeberg, who managed to combine sub-editing the pro-Labor Worker with writing the weekly editorials for the pro-Bolshevik Knowledge and Unity. Born in Germany in 1892 he changed his name to Freehill in the 1920s, as he pursued a long association with newspapers published by militant unions and the Communist Party. In his later life he was the partner, until her death in 1981, of the left-wing Australian author, Dymphna Cusack. In 1918, Childe and Freeberg soon got to know each other, as fellow socialists and exact contemporaries. When Freeberg exhorted the One Big Union to throw off its apathy and seize control of industry, Gordon thought Freeberg was absurdly optimistic. He could support the idea in the abstract, just as he could another of Freeberg’s schemes, to sever the connection between the WEA and the University, because he thought that when the working class was mature enough it should control its own education, but in practice he expected neither to work. Nonetheless he allowed Freeberg to nominate him to the State Council of the WEA and at the Council voted to support his proposal. Perhaps he was playing a super-militant game and then changed his mind, for subsequently, at the annual WEA conference, he voted against it. As Gordon later explained to Brereton, Australian workers were ‘too inert’ to follow Freeberg’s lead. Moreover, in the meantime, something had happened to make Childe more sympathetic to the WEA.
This was the result of Theodore extending his protection of Childe. At the annual conference of the WEA in March, Gordon made quite an impression on the University contingent, particularly Professor Mayo, who proposed to the Department of Tutorial Classes that he be hired to teach a class in economics. The patronage run around began: money was provided by the Department of Public Instruction (Hardacre again) and earmarked for his course; and at the crucial University Senate meeting, Theodore, who had been lobbied by Gordon, attended, and the Senators ‘accepted my name like lambs’. According to Gordon wherever Theodore went his presence was awesome. At the previous meeting, when the Senators were ‘plotting vengeance’ against Witherby for a public lecture in which he compared the Red Flag to the crucifix, Theodore unexpectedly turned up and ‘terrified them into sense and silence’.
The Senate and the professoriate, however, were not finished with Childe. They kept secret that there was a vacancy for a lectureship in classics until the very last moment. The professors had already decided whom they wanted to appoint by the time Gordon heard about the position and applied. The decision of Senate was predictable: to appoint a less qualified ex-soldier on the grounds that as Childe had no record of military service his ‘fitness personally for dealing with university classes’ was ‘open to grave doubt’. This travesty of academic reasoning was written by Professor of Classics, J.L. Michie, after whom the Arts building in the University is named.
Within a week of learning of his failure to get the job Gordon had left Queensland for Sydney, so he probably indicated his acceptance of his next position, as NSW Labor leader John Storey’s private secretary, before the Senate made its decision. Obviously, he wanted the political job more than the academic job. Jack Lindsay recalled that Gordon 'never gave the least impression of a wish to return to the archaeological world' in 1919, a return that the lectureship would have facilitated, so we may assume that his application was only half-hearted. In fact, he took the opportunity to lambast his political enemies in the university. On 19 September the Daily Standard published an unsigned item headed, ‘University Bias – A Staff Appointment – Brilliant Scholar Turned Down – Crime of Being a Laborite – The Case of Mr V.G. Childe’. The details of the application process, and of Childe’s publication in the Journal of Hellenic Studies, could only have been provided by him, and the article finished with Gordon’s customary acerbic dash. The University of Queensland needed to be re-organized to make it a genuine democratic body, because at present it was ‘a dispenser of shoddy intellectual wares and an advocate of reactionary notions’.
Childe’s twelve months in Queensland had consolidated his reputation as a labour intellectual. Politically he was highly visible, in person and through his writings. He had lobbied the President and Secretary of the Central Political Executive to prevent the party declaring the One Big Union heretical. To the Sunday night radical gatherings at the Trades Hall he had delivered two lectures, one on Guild Socialism and the other on developments in the labour movement in New South Wales, after travelling to Sydney to attend the party’s annual conference. A warm endorsement of Witherby and the WEA at its conference led to his election to the WEA Council. He had joined a trade union, the Australian Clerical Association. Meanwhile he was publishing regularly in the labour press, eleven items in total. Soon after he arrived he published an article in the Brisbane Worker, ‘The Irrepressible Class Struggle’, explaining that the end of the industrial truce in Britain was not the product of workers’ idealism, it was not like the strikes to end the war in Germany, or the strikes to bring down capitalism in Russia, but just the commonplace, materialistic class struggle over pay and conditions breaking out again. In January 1919 he published two long articles in Daily Standard on labour ideals and strategies. These were tweaked and reprinted in Sydney’s Labor News. He sent four letters for publication to the Daily Standard on topical issues in the labour movement. And for British readers he sent via Dutt two articles on the Perth conference resolutions against the war; these formed the basis of articles in Labour Leader, the Herald, and the Socialist.
Childe was quite proud of having these articles published in the British labour press. His attitude to the ‘world of labour’, as Douglas Cole called it, was ambivalent, on the one hand impressed by Australian labour’s progress and the possibility of socialism in this country (his country) on the margin of the international workers’ movement, but on the other hand desperate for Australian labour to be recognized by the larger and more intellectual British movement fighting at the centre of world capitalism. So when he left Maryborough for Brisbane at the end of 1918 he sat down to write ‘a monograph on the Political and Industrial Labor Movement in Australia’, which he hoped the Fabian Research Department in London would publish. This manuscript would become How Labour Governs, and it was indeed published in London by a press associated with the Labour Research Department, as the Fabian Research Department was known after being taken over by Cole and the left.
But Gordon was also writing a pamphlet that was never published. In this manuscript he wrote about the specific advantages enjoyed by the labour movement in Australia for making the move to a socialist society, as compared to other countries. The manuscript is now lost but he refers to it in a letter to Brereton in May 1919, and he discussed it with Witherby. We know that it was completed because Witherby tried to get the WEA to publish it. Luckily from these references, and from a summary of its argument in a pamphlet published by Witherby in 1919, Who Shall Control Industry, we can reconstruct Childe’s argument that ‘in Australia, and because we are under a Labor government, the wage-earners’ position has elements of strength unknown in Europe.’
In Sydney, where he arrived in mid-September 1919, he would be in an ideal position to test this argument, a socialist intellectual working for a parliamentarian expecting to become the Premier of the next Labor government.