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Posted on 25 Aug 2020 in Non-Fiction | 1 comment

TERRY IRVING The Fatal Lure of Politics: The life and thought of Vere Gordon Childe. Reviewed by Braham Dabscheck

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Terry Irving charts the politics of early twentieth century Australia through the life of writer and polymath Vere Gordon Childe.

Vere Gordon Childe (1892–1957) was one of Australia’s most distinguished scholars and public intellectuals in the first half of the twentieth century. The son of an Anglican minister, Childe was a brilliant student and won scholarships to both Sydney University and Oxford. He made a major contribution to Australian politics in 1923 with the publication of How Labour Governs, which provided a stinging critique of the relationship between the political and industrial (trade union) wings of the labour movement; it was a lament of labour betrayed.

He is also an important figure in archeology and prehistory, publishing major, seminal works over a 30-year period. Childe was a polymath with a holistic approach to knowledge and produced major writings on the relationships between archeology, history, politics and science. His What Happened in History, published in 1942, was a bestseller and introduced archeology to a popular audience.

Author Terry Irving was a student listening through a side door when Childe received an honorary degree from Sydney University in 1957. In The Fatal Lure of Politics Irving set himself the task of situating Childe’s writings in the context of broader intellectual currents in the first half of the twentieth century. Possibly because he is a labour historian, and Australian to boot, Irving devotes more time to How Labour Governs than he does to Childe’s archeological scholarship, an approximately 70 to 30 per cent split.

Childe was an independent free thinker possessed of an acute, critical mind. As he was finishing his studies at Sydney University, he and fellow student Bert Evatt, a future High Court judge and leader of the Australian Labor Party, campaigned for Labor in the 1913 state election. Childe spent most of World War I in Oxford and was an outspoken critic of the war, especially conscription, censorship and the loss of civil liberties. This brought him to the attention of security services, first in Britain, then Australia, who kept him under surveillance throughout most of his life. Irving has drawn on these files.

Because of his anti-war stance Childe found it difficult to find employment in Britain after completing his studies at Oxford. He returned to Australia, but his attempts to establish a career at Sydney University were thwarted by interference from security services. Childe travelled to Queensland and secured low-level clerical work in the office of Edward Theodore, premier of Queensland from 1919 to 1925, who later had the misfortunate to be federal treasurer at the beginning of the Great Depression. While in Queensland, Elton Mayo of Hawthorne Studies fame, originator of the human relations approach to managing (or more correctly ‘manipulating’) workers, recommended Childe for a tutoring position at Queensland University, a position he didn’t take up.

Childe returned to Sydney and obtained a job as private secretary to New South Wales Labor leader John Storey, who was premier of a minority Labor government from 1920 to 1921. Childe was subsequently appointed as a research and publicity officer in the office of the New South Wales agent general in London. Childe lost this position following the formation of the Nationalist government of George Fuller at the end of 1921. Following his dismissal, he spent the next three or so years anxiously looking for regular employment in the UK.

Childe turned his mind to archeological research – he had studied the subject at Sydney University and Oxford – and turned out a number of publications that established his career. In 1925 he published The Dawn of European Civilization and in 1927 was appointed the Abercromby Professor of Archeology at Edinburgh University, a position he held until 1946. He then became director and professor of the Institute of Archeology in London. While in London Childe lived in the same apartment block as Agatha Christie, with whom he played bridge. He resigned his London post in 1956 and returned to Australia where he died the following year.

Irving situates Childe in the maelstrom of socialist ideas of the first half of the twentieth century. He says:

This is a book about the central place held by socialist politics in his life, and his contributions to the theory of history it entailed. It is also about the conflict in socialist politics between radical democracy and parliamentary social democracy, for Childe… the latter… was fatal to socialism.

Irving examines Childe’s intellectual relationship with socialism, communism and Marxism, and paints Childe as a heretical Marxist. By this he means Childe used Marxist insights to understand the world and processes of change, rather than seeing it as a doctrine that one followed with religious fervour. Childe’s basic approach was to research and collect information and draw conclusions from it; what scholars call induction. He saw history as an ongoing series of struggles between protagonists that created new ways of interaction. Irving says of Childe:

… the future was open, historical materialism was incomplete, and Marxist intellectuals needed freedom from party diktat… History should not be interrogated with predetermined ends in mind.

Irving quotes Childe as saying, ‘Magic is a way of making people believe that they are going to get what they want, whereas religion is a system for persuading them that they ought to want what they get.’ Childe rejected the views of utopians, Marxist and non-Marxist alike, while embracing Marxist notions of agency and struggle.

Irving sees Childe’s major contribution to socialist thought in How Labour Governs as his engagement with the reality of a Labour Party in power and its ability, or more correctly, inability, to help pave the path to socialism. Childe had the advantage of having been an insider to party political events in both Queensland and New South Wales and brought this knowledge to such debates.

Given this, the book may have benefited from an introductory chapter on the broad themes Irving wanted to pursue. However, if there is a weakness in The Fatal Lure of Politics it is that Childe is a vehicle to examine socialist thought during these years rather than providing an understanding of his inner life. Childe only appears briefly in the first 80 pages, with a pronounced bias to contextual background. (The book comes more interesting as World War I ends.) This omission may be because Childe destroyed his personal papers when he retired. But Irving has not indulged in the type of induction that Childe himself would have employed to try to understand the person as well as his thought.

The Fatal Lure of Politics begins with an account of Childe’s return to Australia in 1957 and his suicide – he threw himself off a cliff in the Blue Mountains. In the final chapters Irving provides more information about this. Childe had an overriding inferiority complex, was socially awkward and never seems to have experienced love. Given the absence of any women in his life, some contemporaries speculated he was homosexual, but Irving dismisses this. In his early teens Childe spent two years suffering from polio, and while Irving doesn’t speculate, it may be that this period was when Childe developed his life of the mind and chose to hide himself in thinking and writing. On his return to Australia he was suffering ill health. He had never saved or owned property – his indulgences were cars, a sweet tooth, some alcohol, tennis, bridge and walking – was running out of money on an inadequate pension and had no one to care for him. So, he threw himself off a cliff. His suicide note spoke of the old being parasites, blocking the young, and supported euthanasia. This left me with an overwhelming sense of sadness; he seems to have spent all his life feeling lonely and unloved.

Terry Irving is to be congratulated for the extent of his research and scholarship in drawing our attention to one of Australia’s early outstanding scholars and public intellectuals. He also provides valuable information on developments in Australian universities and Australian historiography. I suspect, though, that The Fatal Lure of Politics will only be of interest to specialists with an interest in labour history, archeology and those well versed in the nuances of socialist thought in Britain and Australia in the early decades of the twentieth century.

Terry Irving The Fatal Lure of Politics: The life and thought of Vere Gordon Childe Monash University Press 2020 PB 424pp $39.95.

 Braham Dabscheck is a Senior Fellow at the Melbourne Law School at Melbourne University who writes on industrial relations and sport. He recently completed a history of the Rugby League Players’ Association.

You can buy The Fatal Lure of Politics from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.


1 Comment

  1. I would like to correct some factual errors in Braham Dabscheck’s review of my book, The Fatal Lure of Politics: The Life and Thought of Vere Gordon Childe. In 1919, Childe did not work in the office of the Premier of Queensland (but in the State Land Tax Office), and nor did he fail to take up a tutorship at the university for which Elton Mayo had recommended him. (Childe did take up the tutorship.) These are small mistakes. Dabscheck also states that I dismiss the speculation of some contemporaries that Childe was homosexual. If he is wrong on this point it is a serious matter, because it undermines the reliability of his judgement that I have not tried to understand Childe as a person. And he is wrong. In various places in the book, I provide additional evidence (not just contemporary speculation) about Childe’s sexual orientation, which was very clearly homosexual. I point out, however, that there is ‘no evidence in Childe’s life of a homosexual relationship or lifestyle’. I consider whether the lack of this kind of evidence may be attributed to the fact that it was a criminal offence to engage in homosexual acts at that time. I am making a common distinction here that Dabscheck has failed to grasp.
    Childe’s death left Dabscheck ‘with an overwhelming sense of sadness; he seems to have spent all his life feeling lonely and unloved.’ Dabscheck is entitled to his feelings, but as a reviewer he might have pointed out that I present Childe’s friendships and his death in a different way. I devote a chapter to sentiment in Childe’s life; I show his capacity for intimate friendship; I give examples of his gregarious nature. As for his death, I let Childe have the last word, quoting at length his moving essay on death, an essay that was in effect his suicide note. It is a positive statement of humanist ideals: ‘The British prejudice against suicide is utterly irrational. To end one’s life deliberately is in fact something that distinguishes Homo Sapiens from other animals …’. The essay puts the social before the personal in the individual’s reckoning of their life’s worth: ‘a sane society’ would offer ‘euthanasia as a crowning glory’. The essay ends on a note of uplift: ‘Life ends best when one is happy and strong’. Would someone who was lonely and unloved write like that?
    I like Childe as a person, and I like him as a socialist intellectual. That’s why my book is a study of both his life and his thought. A reviewer does not need to share my sympathies but acknowledging them might help them produce a deeper account of the book.