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.
INTRODUCTION: A DEATH IN THE COLD WAR
When Gordon Childe died in 1957 reactions to his death were framed by the Cold War. Childe would not have been surprised. Because of his political beliefs and activities he had been under surveillance by security intelligence organisations in Britain, the United States and Australia since 1917, and probably in the Soviet Union as well. This is a book about the centrality of politics in Childe’s life, from his embrace of revolutionary-democratic politics in the lead up to the First World War, to his death during the Cold War, a long period of gradual decline of this form of politics.
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Outside the Great Hall of the University of Sydney a small group listened through the side door as the Chancellor bestowed the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters on Gordon Childe. After the ceremony we waited on the asphalt outside the main entrance to see him walk in the academic procession, the collar of his green shirt just visible behind the academic gown and his heavy woolen suit. We were the campus radicals, gathered by the Labour Club to honour a fellow socialist on that warm April day in 1957. I remember all this except the green shirt.
The previous year I had bought a copy of Childe’s Progress and Archaeology (1944) because it promised to ‘describe the progressive tendencies of mankind during the last 50,000 years’. It was number 102 in The Thinker’s Library from the Rationalist Press Association (RPA), a series of cheap hardback reprints that I recognized because there were several titles on our bookshelves at home, books by three of the great secularists and materialists, Thomas Huxley, Winwood Reade, Ernst Haekel - and now Childe. He was part of something with which I could identify, a movement of forward thinkers who, as the RPA asserted, believed that ‘the relentless test of Reason’ would eradicate superstition and ignorance while advancing human progress and welfare.
But as for Childe’s politics, we undergraduate radicals had only the vaguest idea: just that he was a Marxist scholar. Was there anyone among us who had heard of Childe’s first book, How Labour Governs – A Study of Workers’ Representation in Australia (1923)? It was out of print and rarely recommended in courses on Australian history, for in those dog days of the post-war boom we learnt about Australia only as a peripheral topic in British imperial history. In my Australian history class we took bets on the date the lecturer would get to the moment when the first fleet sailed out of Portsmouth, usually a few weeks before the exam. Change was coming though, and a few years later I was part of the radical re-direction of the humanities and social sciences liberated by the social movements of the sixties. In 1960 the first issue of the journal, Labour History, appeared, and in 1964 there was a second edition of How Labour Governs – as a paperback. Meanwhile, Cold War emphases on consensus and conformity kept us in ignorance of our radical past.
In an interview at the time Childe referred to working in the 1920s as the private secretary to the Labor Premier, John Storey. Who? Storey didn’t figure in our sketchy knowledge of labour history. Confusingly, The Bulletin, a right-wing magazine, reported that Childe had worked for Premier William Holman, which didn’t seem right because Holman was a Labor renegade, expelled by the party for supporting conscription in the First World War. We certainly had heard of Holman and Prime Minister Hughes and the other labour rats; they were part of labour’s folk memory of defeats and setbacks. Subsequently I learnt that Childe did not work for Holman. Moreover I discovered that this mistake has a curious provenance, for it turns up in the file compiled in 1957 by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) on Childe. Perhaps the same informant, as ignorant as we were about labour history, misled both the magazine and the security service.
Five months later the newspapers carried the story of the finding of Childe’s body a thousand feet below a lookout in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. Early on the previous day a taxi had driven him from the Carrington hotel in Katoomba, where he often stayed, to Govett’s Leap at the western edge of the Grose Valley. The taxi driver waited, as he usually did, but at mid-day went looking for Childe and discovered his hat, compass and glasses outside the fence at Luchetti’s lookout. Receiving no answer to his calls, he drove to Blackheath to alert the police. Constable Morey returned with the driver to Govett’s and descended into the valley but had to suspend his search at dusk. The following day Childe’s body was found on a ledge near the Bridal Veil Falls. The news was on the front page of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph: ‘Seventeen men took five hours to get the body to the valley floor, then carry it up 6000 steps hewn from the rock to the top of Govett’s Leap.’
I followed the story not only because I had a comradely interest in Childe but because I was familiar with that part of the Grose Valley. In January, with two adults and three other young men, I had walked to the Blue Gum Forest from the end of Hat Hill Road. We scrambled down 900 feet at Perry’s Lookdown, lunched and swam at the junction of the Grose River and Govett’s Creek before following the creek to Junction Rock. Here we turned west and followed Govett’s Leap Brook to the base of the Bridal Veil Falls. Just east of here Childe’s body was found. Then we climbed the cliff track to Govett’s Leap.
Since then I have discovered many more coincidences linking Childe to my experiences on that expedition. We were staying at ‘Rosstherne’, owned by the family of George Arnold Wood, who was the first Professor of History at the University between 1891 and 1928. During the South African War (1899-1902), as the founder and President of the Australian Anti-War League, Wood was vilified in the press and censured by the Senate of the University. Sixteen years later, when Childe was victimized for opposing the First World War his supporters in the peace movement used Wood’s trials to publicize the existence of a tradition of jingoistic intolerance in the University. Another coincidence: in the Blue Gum Forest we had swum naked just as Childe’s friend, John Le Gay Brereton, and his friends had done in the mountain streams every summer fifty years earlier. We took a taxi from Blackheath to ‘Rosstherne’. The driver was Stefan Siedleckie, whose daughter, Dr Stefania Siedleckie, carried out the post-mortem and signed Childe’s death certificate. Both Stefan and Stefania were socialists: the father in the Labor Party, the daughter in the Communist Party, which I had just joined. Stefania was a prominent advocate of family planning and birth control in the early 1970s, helping to found the Leichhardt Women’s Health Centre.
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The obituaries duly appeared, but their content was not always as the left would have wished. In The Times of London Rajani Palme Dutt protested that its obituary had omitted any mention of Childe’s Marxism. Dutt had good grounds for talking about Marxism and Childe. In 1917 he had shared digs with Childe in Oxford: ‘There in the somewhat cramped surroundings of a tiny common working and sitting room we pursued our arguments on Hegel and Marx far into the night.’ Childe was ‘in the forefront of archaeologists of our time’, Dutt wrote, precisely because of his Marxism, ‘since archaeology is by its very nature compelled to use consciously or unconsciously the methods of Marx, and build up the history of civilization from the records of tools and material objects’. Although Dutt, who was a founding member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, did not claim that Childe became a party member, he insisted that Childe ‘remained … heart and soul with the Marxist movement.’ There was another weakness detected by Dutt in the obituary, its neglect of Childe’s first book, How Labour Governs (1923), ‘a very striking analysis of the limitations of a reformist Labour Government.’
In Australia, where there were no obituaries in the daily press, it fell to the left to commemorate Childe and incidentally to expose the impact of Cold War ideological struggle on Australian historians. Since the early years of the century the labour press and worker education movements had nurtured a distinctive tradition of historical writing – anti-imperialist, radical and class-focused. It had produced scholarly histories of importance by Bert Evatt, Lloyd Ross, and Brian Fitzpatrick, all path-breaking in their own way and worthy successors to the seminal work, Gordon Childe’s How Labour Governs. In the 1940s and 50s this radical and nationalist tradition was gaining acceptance among university historians, as revealed in publications by Robin Gollan, Bob Walshe and Russell Ward. In the meantime the political environment changed with the election of the conservative Menzies government in 1949 and the retreat of the labour movement, weakened by internal fighting over Communist influence in the unions. The moment was favourable for a counter-attack, especially on historians, by conservative intellectuals. So puffed up were they by the turn of events, and by CIA money, that the main organizer of the attack claimed to be fighting ‘a counter-revolution in Australian historiography’, and of course the phrase suggested ever-so-subtly that left historians were promoting a Communist agenda.
Those under attack could see the political dimension of what was going on and two of them took the opportunity to strengthen their position in their obituaries for Childe. In Overland, a left wing literary magazine, Brian Fitzpatrick, whose anti-imperialist economic histories were being criticized by conservative historians, got straight to the point:
It may not be obtrusive to remark now, as I did when I made a little speech in praise of Childe last September, that Dr Evatt and I are proud to find ourselves placed in Childe’s company when detractors of the labour movement and its historians offer their MA and PhD theses on labor to university examiners.
Fitzpatrick, the author of a short history of the labour movement and a regular contributor to The Rationalist, reminded his readers of Childe’s ‘rationalist, socialist convictions’. Fitzpatrick, a working journalist, praised Childe’s commitment to popularizing the story of man’s evolution. Then he summarized Childe’s academic career, but he ended by scorning the Melbourne dailies for failing to carry an obituary for Childe, who was ‘among the greatest Australians, men who made substantial contributions to knowledge’.
Russell Ward published his obituary in Outlook, Helen Palmer’s independent socialist magazine, which already had an indirect link to Childe, for Helen’s uncle, Esmonde Higgins, had been an associate of Childe’s in London’s Labour Research Department in the 1920s. Ward began in Fitzpatrick’s manner, by striking a political note:
About forty years ago V. Gordon Childe and H.V. Evatt were close friends at Sydney University. A couple of years ago Mrs Evatt told me that she was often warned by her elders to have nothing to do with either young man, as they were too much given to dangerous thoughts. Such visionary dreamers would come to nothing.
When, some weeks before his untimely death, I told Professor Childe the story, he hooted with laughter, and went on to recall how he had been “persuaded” to leave the University as a result of his public support for the anti-conscription campaign during World War I. By bestowing an honorary degree on him this year, the University of Sydney did, perhaps, more honour to itself than to Childe, who had in no way recanted his unpopular principles in the interim.
His work will always have special interest for socialists … because it is an all too rare example of how to apply Marxism to a specific problem. Childe was a life-long Marxist, but one for whom Marxism was always a method of attack and never a ritualistic incantation or a set of holy dogmas.
And that was virtually all his obituary did: claim Childe as a fellow socialist who ‘like other really first rate scholars’ found it ‘quite unnecessary to shield his work from the common gaze behind a smoke-screen of pretentious and polysyllabic jargon.’ Ward made thereby an argument for the kind of approachable radical history that was under attack by academics and conservatives. It was the kind of history found in his The Australian Legend, published the following year and reprinted 15 times, through three editions, since then.
There was an unstated personal motivation behind the obituary, arising from an experience of discrimination not dissimilar to Childe’s. Two years earlier Professor R.M. Hartwell had recommended Ward for a lectureship at the University of New South Wales, but the Vice-Chancellor Baxter and Chancellor Wurth, vetoed his appointment because Ward ‘had been active in seditious circles in Canberra.’ Hartwell resigned in disgust and went to Oxford. It was not until Hartwell broke his silence about this act of covert political interference that we learnt that Wurth unofficially but routinely consulted ASIO about appointments. Meanwhile, Ward had accepted a lectureship at the University of New England and begun a distinguished academic career.
A third person went public with praise for Childe, his old friend Bert Evatt. They were still close. Childe had spent a few days at the home of Evatt when he first arrived in Sydney in early April, and Evatt, as a member of the Senate of the University, probably had a lot to do with the decision to award Childe an honorary degree. When Childe’s death was announced Evatt issued a press statement saying Childe was one of the University of Sydney’s most distinguished graduates. Evatt was also feeling the anti-communist winds of the Cold War. A secretive conservative Catholic organisation known as ‘the Movement’, set up in the 1940s, was using opposition to Communist influence in the trade unions to infiltrate the Labor Party. In 1954 Evatt publicly exposed their machinations, a move that resulted in the expulsion of Movement members. Beginning in Victoria, these former Labor party members campaigned against Labor on an anti-Communist platform. By 1957 ‘the split’ in Labor had reached Queensland. In the issue of the Sydney Morning Herald reporting Childe’s honorary doctorate the main story was that the Labor Party in Queensland had expelled its leader, the Premier Vince Gair, for his right-wing policies. Within a few months his followers had joined the small anti-Evatt groups in other states to form the Democratic Labor Party. For the next 15 years the DLP would direct its supporters to give their second preference votes to the conservative coalition, thus keeping Labor out of office federally until 1972.
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One of the main things that the Cold War meant for most people in the 1950s was espionage. A series of sensational exposures of British and American citizens who had passed information to Russian intelligence agents captured the front pages: Klaus Fuchs in 1950, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean in 1951, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed by the Americans for spying in 1953, and Kim Philby in 1955. In Australia the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation was set up in 1949 after the United States counter-espionage operation, code-named Venona, revealed the existence of a Russian spy ring within the government and public service. Then in 1954 Vladimir Petrov, the acting head of intelligence in the Russian Embassy in Canberra defected, and the Menzies Government set up a Royal Commission to investigate Petrov’s material on Soviet espionage. Evatt believed (incorrectly as we now know) that Menzies and ASIO had timed Petrov’s defection to harm Labor’s chances in the 1954 elections, and when it became known that Petrov’s material mentioned several of Evatt’s staff, he was convinced that the whole affair was an anti-Labor conspiracy. He decided to appear for them before the Royal Commission, but the Commissioners withdrew his leave to appear. Later, Evatt would show in Parliament that the Commission was a legal disgrace, another political stunt. No Australian was ever charged with spying for Russia as a result of the Royal Commission. In fact it damaged ASIO, for in subsequent years the left in the labour movement took every opportunity to discredit the organisation. The role of ASIO in the Russell Ward case, for example, was made public when Jim Cairns, the left-winger who would become a doughty leader of street protests against the Viet Nam war, raised it in Parliament in 1960.
Suspicion as to the kind of Australians who might spy for Soviet Russia fell of course on the Australian Communist party and its associated organisations. The party was beholden to the Russians financially and ideologically, although after the Khruschev made his notorious speech at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956 many members regarded Stalinism with revulsion and the Russian version of state socialism with distaste. We also know now that Wally Clayton, a high ranking but elusive member of the party, ran a spy ring of public servants passing material on to Russian intelligence agents at the Embassy. But for most party members, certainly by the 1950s, the Soviet Union was not central to their adherence to communist ideals. Yes, there had been a proletarian revolution in Russia in 1917; it was world-historic if you accepted the simplistic version of the materialist conception of history then current in the party; but it was not necessary to suppose that Australian revolutionaries had to slavishly follow the Russian path. Such was the comforting rationalization of most Australian communists as they digested the revelations of Stalin’s crimes in Khruschev’s secret speech. Complete rejection of the militaristic, manipulative model of communist politics that produced the Stalinist ‘cult of the individual’ and the police state – that would not occur until the collapse of the Soviet Union more than three decades later. In the meantime there was a steady exodus of thoughtful members, including most of its intellectuals, some of whom were expelled for demanding an open discussion of Soviet communism.
Revolutionaries expect surveillance; they are after all intent on overthrowing the capitalist state. They will accept assistance from allies at any time and from wherever, but in the last analysis they are only as authentic as the support they receive from the oppressed in their immediate social space. As for ASIO, according to its official history, it responded to directions from the Government but was also a deeply conservative organisation that equated the Communist Party with the interests of the Soviet Union. All Communists, in its view, were psychologically capable of espionage, and that applied to those who sympathized, the ‘fellow travellers’, as well. Indeed they were even more dangerous because they could hide behind a façade of liberalism. Many artists and academics were targeted unjustly, and some such as Russell Ward suffered harm to their careers. Hence the oft repeated depiction of ASIO as an enemy of civil liberty, harassing individuals who are acting within their rights. But this misses the point. When anti-capitalist ideas are in the air, as they were in the fifties and sixties, ASIO’s basic function, its real importance to the state, is gathering information about, and in the process disrupting, movements of revolutionary change. And that was the situation in 1957 when Childe returned to Australia. The main issue for the state ought to have been subversion, but although ASIO had separate departments to counter subversion and espionage, for as long as conservative politicians exploited the fear of espionage for electoral purposes, ASIO found it difficult to stop looking for Soviet spies, although said spies were working fairly fruitlessly in country at the periphery of capitalist power.
Gordon Childe was accustomed to surveillance. He had had a dossier with the British intelligence service, MI5, since 1917. He would have been aware of this because his application to travel home via the United States in that year was refused. Arriving in Australia (via the Cape) the censorship of his mail began immediately, military intelligence having been tipped off about his ant-war activities by MI5. He knew this too, because he joked about it in his correspondence and attacked the Censors publicly. When he returned to Britain in 1921 the MI5 dossier was re-opened, remaining active until left for Australia in early 1957. In the 1940s he turned down invitations to lecture in the United States because he expected the State Department would deny him a visa. Just before he embarked on the ship to Australia he revealed that he was annoyed that he would be spied on in the country of his birth. Sure enough ASIO opened a file on him.
In Childe’s file there is a memorandum that reveals clearly the Cold War espionage frame in which ASIO placed revolutionaries. On the day after Childe’s body was found, the Director General of ASIO wrote to the Regional Director in New South Wales:
Local press reports indicate that Professor Childe recently met his death near Katoomba in circumstances which suggest that he may have committed suicide. If there is any justification for this view, and in the light of earlier allegations against him, we should be glad if you could discover whether his action in taking his life could have been influenced by factors of counter-espionage significance.
The press reports, however, when they tried to explain Childe’s death assumed it was an accident – as the subsequent inquest did. Why did the head of Australia’s counter-espionage organisation assume that the cause of death could be suicide? And if an unnatural death by someone with a security record has to be treated as suspicious, why did the suspicion fall on espionage?
The Russian embassy in Canberra had been closed since the Petrov affair so Soviet spooks would have had to have very good cover indeed to keep operating in Australia. Nor is there any evidence in Childe’s ASIO file that he had made contact with foreign intelligence operatives. But that was the possibility raised by the Director General’s memo. The possibilities are so unlikely as to be delusional. Perhaps Childe jumped to escape exposure as a Soviet agent of influence? Did he jump to get away from a Soviet agent? The memo was also an instinctive response by an official with Cold War paranoia.
The Director General was not the only person to be paranoid about Childe’s death. When Mary Alice Evatt, Bert’s wife, heard the news she immediately concluded that he had been murdered, because he knew too much. About what and by whom? We don’t know, but the context in which she came to that conclusion is easier to imagine, given Bert’s suspicions that ASIO had become a dangerous and reactionary force in Australian politics. In which case perhaps Mary Alice thought that ASIO had done the wicked deed.
There was also a strange and uncomfortable echo of his death in a 1964 novel. In The Dangerous Islands, Russian agents are secretly installing devices in remote places along the Celtic Fringe – the Hebrides, Ireland and the Scillies - to allow their satellites to guide nuclear-armed rockets with greater accuracy. A Russian fishing trawler nearby carries technicians and spies to maintain the devices, but they are also reliant on the local knowledge of an archaeologist, old and white-haired, Professor Burbage, who is excavating a bronze age burial site on one of the western islands. The Russians are blackmailing him because in 1936, while digging in the USSR, he had an affair with the wife of a high-level Russian official. The climax of the novel occurs on a cliff on Bryer in the Scillies. Burbage has worked out that the heroes of the novel, an MI5 man and his girlfriend, want to question him, and he is determined to avoid this. A chase ensues along the cliffs, observed by a Russian spy who has come ashore from the trawler. Burbage slips and falls to his death, whereupon the Russian shoots him twice to make sure he is dead. Later the body of the would-be assassin washes up on a beach, murdered by his own comrades. The MI5 man ensures the Russian has a proper burial with a headstone reading “A communist, known to God”.
Was the unfortunate Burbage based on Childe? He had made a visit to Russia in 1935 and he had excavated archaeological sites in Ireland and Scotland, including the Neolithic village at Skara Brae, in the Orkneys. This was public knowledge at the time, but the author of the novel knew Childe personally. The name on the title page was Ann Bridge, but her real name was Lady Mary Dolling Sanders O’Malley. She was an amateur archaeologist, and archaeology turns up in several of her novels, one of which, And Then You Came (1948), includes an archaeologist, Professor Porlock. She dedicated this novel to Childe, who had provided her with archaeological information to help with her ‘romantic reconstruction’, as he called it, of the legend of Deirdre of the Sorrows. Childe told her he did not see much of himself in Porlock but he was grateful for the dedication:
To Professor V. Gordon Childe, D.Litt., D.Sc., F.S.A., F.S.A. Scot., Professor of Prehistory at London University, who more than any other man has made their own prehistory live for the people of Britain. With very great respect.
This respect is perhaps the source of her sympathetic treatment of the character, Professor Burbage, in The Dangerous Islands. The heroine describes Burbage’s pro-Russian activities as ‘silly’ but ‘innocent’, and discounts the value of his unwilling assistance to the Russians.
Childe and Lady Mary had a mutual friend, Mansfield Forbes, a lecturer in English at Cambridge who had dug with Childe at Old Keig and Finavon in Scotland. Another connection was between her husband’s cousin, Angus Graham, a Scottish archaeologist who worked with Childe on the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments of Scotland. A still further connection was through Mary’s flat mate in her single years, Ethel Graham, the sister of Angus Graham, who married the historian R.G. Collingwood, whose writings on Roman history Childe admired and whose theory of history challenged Childe to develop his own ideas. Nothing untoward here: it was a typical friendship and professional network of the British elite.
There was however another connection, one with Cold War overtones, through Lady Mary’s husband, Sir Owen St Clair O’Malley. With strong anti-Soviet views, he was a high level diplomat and Foreign Office counselor who was knighted in 1943. Earlier that year, on the discovery of a mass grave of nearly 22,000 Polish officers near Katyn, he wrote the report for the FO that pointed overwhelmingly to Russian guilt – a verdict confirmed in 1990 by Mikhail Gorbachev. There is a distinct possibility that O’Malley would have known that his wife’s friend had an MI5 dossier, and that in 1941 this friend was under suspicion because of an excavation near a defence site in Orkney. During the Cold War, O’Malley’s important diplomatic role in Europe was followed in the press, so he was precisely the kind of person to whom the FO’s Information Research Department would have fed its propaganda. He might have known, and told his wife, that in 1949 George Orwell had ‘fingered’ Childe, along with others, as a Communist sympathizer who was therefore an untrustworthy British subject.
Childe was never a spy, not even an agent of influence consciously collaborating with Soviet power. As we shall see, he was skeptical of the benefits of that power for science and liberty. But as his ASIO file pointed out, in Britain he was a member of several Communist Party front organisations and his ‘recent utterances have generally been in accord with the prescribed Party line.’ In 1957, in the context of the Cold War, this was sufficient for a chief of the Australian counter-intelligence organisation, the wife of a Labor political leader tormented by hostile political and security forces, and a conservative novelist married to a ruling class diplomat to wonder about his loyalty. What each of them missed was a simple truth: that Childe was a revolutionary intellectual, and that this was why he was under surveillance.
In Europe and North America he witnessed the struggles for popular democracy that electrified radicals in the years before the Bolshevik revolution, and he recalled his own opposition to militarism in Oxford, Sydney and Brisbane. He set himself the task of understanding working class interests, whether a parliamentarist labour party could represent them, and the nature of popular democratic alternatives. Like other modernist thinkers he believed in historical progress and in revolution as a necessary stage of it. He observed the signs of an old state-order, with its hateful colonialism, collapsing around him, and as a result decided to work for a more humane and democratic order of which the Russian revolution claimed to be the precursor. And he saw the rise of Fascism that threatened to prevent it emerging.
He became a revolutionary intellectual because of his experiences and the framework that he used to understand them. But when he died, this trajectory was obscured by Cold War passions.
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How this book is organized
When he was planning How Labour Governs in 1918 Childe decided that he was not going to write about labour’s successes and failures, its election results and legislation. Although he called it ‘a connected account of labour history from 1910’, his book is not political history in the conventional sense, but political analysis in the form of history. I have adopted a similar approach. Although I seek to present an account of Childe’s life, especially his ‘first life’ in the 1910s and 20s, I have not written a conventional biography but political analysis in the form of biography. In Kevin Morgan’s monumental three-volume study of Bolshevism and the British left in the first half of the twentieth century he uses the biographical form to analyse the political culture of non-party communism:
‘Through the reconstruction of wider milieux, political environments and forms of intellectual exchange, the individual life may thus be regarded as a site on which the social in all its complexity is played out’.
In similar vein I seek to use the connected life histories and parallel intellectual work of Childe and his associates to analyse their struggle against the fatal lure of politics and their commitment to the ideas and practices of radical democracy.
We will see Childe in Sydney and Brisbane moving in the same circles as Texas- born feminist journalist and agitator, Jennie Scott Griffiths. In London he knew Melbourne-born Esmonde Higgins who promoted How Labour Governs there and would at the end of his life write a thesis that tried to extend its argument. We also encounter William Astley, who wrote about democracy in the Labor Party thirty years before Childe did; Bert Evatt who proposed to Gordon that they write a book ‘renouncing bourgeois radicalism’; Rajani Palme Dutt, a founder of the British Communist Party, with whom Childe discussed Marxist philosophy in Oxford; Vance Marshall, union organizer, arrested under the War Precautions Act, on whose behalf Childe led a delegation to the Minister for Justice; Henry Boote, editor of The Worker, who shared Childe’s scepticism about parliamentarism; John Storey the Labor Premier who picked Childe to be his minder and researcher; and socialist public servant David Stead and his daughter Christina, whose novel, Seven Poor Men of Sydney, lets us see the restricted material lives of radical intellectuals and workers while Childe was using his gold pass for free rides on the government railways.
Part 1 of this book consists of five chapters describing Childe’s ‘first life’, from his birth in Sydney in 1892 to 1927 when he took up his first academic position in archaeology. In chapter one we see him move away from the conservative politics and religious ideas of his family to become a radical student at Sydney University. Then we follow him to Oxford, where the British Home Office decided he was ‘a very dangerous person’ (Chapters 2). Back in Australia in 1917 he throws himself into anti-war and socialist agitation in Sydney and Brisbane, becoming in the words of a militant feminist, ‘one of our best people’ (Chapter 3). Then he becomes a Labor staffer in Sydney in 1919, working for the leader of the parliamentary party (Chapter 4). In 1920 he is inserted into the Premier’s Department, before being sent to London in 1921 to keep the Government up to date on the latest progressive legislation in Europe and the Americas. The Government loses office in 1922 and Childe is cut loose from the public service. He survives in London through part-time political secretarial work, meanwhile resuming his archaeological studies (Chapter 5).
In Part 2, ‘The Fatal Lure of Politics’, the emphases are contextual and analytical. Childe intended How Labour Governs to be about labour’s ideals, its movements, worker militancy, and the contrasting reactions of Labor governments in Queensland and New South Wales to working class politics. His plan has provided the framework for this part of my book, but I begin with a chapter about representation and proletarian democracy (Chapter 6). In Chapter 7, I discuss labour’s public sphere to which Childe contributed as lecturer and writer. Chapter 8 on Australian socialism deals with labour’s ideals and the intellectual sources of Childe’s thought in this area. This is followed by two chapters on movements: Chapter 9 on pacifists and feminists and Childe’s connections to them, and Chapter 10 on working class militancy, the violence that surrounded it, and the revolutionary and radical democratic ideas that it encouraged. This chapter also deals with Childe’s decision to write How Labour Governs. Then there are two chapters about the responses of Labor governments to ‘the revolt against politicalism’, the first on Childe’s experiences of Labor in office (Chapter 11) and the next on his thinking about radical democracy in the light of those experiences and the reception of those ideas when How Labour Governs was published (Chapter 12).
Part 3 deals with Childe’s years in Britain and his last year in Australia, the years that were the pinnacle of his career in archaeology and prehistory but in the terms of this book, a second life in which the balance shifts from politics to scholarship. Chapter 13 deals with his career as ‘a red professor’ in Edinburgh and London, while Chapter 14 discusses his reactions to an Australia that was ‘far from a socialist country’ when he returned in 1957. Finally Chapter 15 deals with the reception of the second edition of How Labour Governs, and the important questions that his first life raises for us. Is there virtue in political life when it is lived apart from the state? Ought the masses to be self-governing or governed by their betters? Is it better to release or to tame the savage instincts of democracy?