Vere Gordon Childe and prehistory: a way of thinking, and much more

Issue: 169

Judy McVey

A review of Terry Irving, The Fatal Lure of Politics: The Life and Thought of Vere Gordon Childe, Monash University Publishing (2020), £25.99.

World-renowned archaeologist, prehistorian and linguist Vere Gordon Childe’s career spanned three decades from 1925 until 1957. He was the first exponent of Marxist archaeology in the Western world and he remains today the most widely read archaeologist. According to this new biography by Australian radical historian Terry Irving, “His concepts of the Neolithic and Urban Revolutions rank among the most important theoretical advances in the study of human cultural evolution.” Childe published 21 books, 281 articles or chapters and 236 book reviews in 99 periodicals. As Irving records:

His reputation was not confined to the English-speaking world. His books were translated into 21 languages, and he travelled widely, finding appreciative audiences in Europe, Russia, Turkey and India, as well as North America and Australia.

He featured in two novels, three poems and even a 2008 Indiana Jones film.1

Yet Childe’s was a controversial career. It began with innovatory ideas about cultural change and the development of European civilisation. He argued in The Dawn of European Civilization that the West was:

Indebted to the Orient for the rudiments of the arts and crafts that initiated man’s emancipation from bondage to his environment and for the foundation of those spiritual ties that coordinate human endeavours… But the peoples of the West were not slavish imitators; they adapted the gifts of the East and united the contributions made by Africa and Asia into a new and organic whole capable of developing on its own original lines.2

In 1927 he became the first Abercromby Professor of Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh. He organised 20 Scottish excavation sites in the 19 years between 1927 and 1946, including the internationally famous 5,000 year old Neolithic village at Skara Brae on the Orkney Islands (1928-30). Edinburgh’s elite elected him to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1935. In 1946, he was appointed director and professor of European prehistory at the Institute of Archaeology in London, where he remained until his retirement in 1956. According to Katie Meheux, the Institute’s librarian, in the context of the Cold War:

As European archaeology expanded post-war, archaeologists became uneasy about the potential inaccuracies and inadequacies of pan-European narratives written by one man and sceptical about the survival of Childe’s elaborate chronologies in the face of independent radio-carbon dating.3

Two earlier biographies in the early 1980s revived interest in Childe’s contributions in relation to his “diffusion” model.4 This model traced the spread of different cultures and ideas between societies via communication networks.5 After a period of considerable controversy over his legacy, a number of conferences uncovered and clarified more details about his life and career, and his commitment to revolutionary politics.6

In 2016, the Institute of Archaeology (now part of University College London) renamed its annual lecture the Gordon Childe Lecture, open to both qualified and non-academic participants. In 2017, the Institute celebrated its 80th anniversary by digitising Childe’s The Dawn of European Civilization, including each of its six editions that were published over 30 years, from 1925 onwards, reflecting developments in archaeology and in Childe’s theories. The book remains an “ancestral text” for the study of European prehistory and is widely used today.7 Childe would have approved. He democratised archaeology, making certain published works accessible to laypeople, starting with Man Makes Himself (1936). This was followed by What Happened in History (1942), which sold 300,000 copies in its first 15 years. Both are still in print.

The fatal lure of politics

Childe actually had two careers: the first was as a labour intellectual in Australia and Britain until 1924. Irving’s biography brings to life the whole person, exploring a complex intellectual and personal life, and unequivocally confirming Childe’s place in left politics.8 It recognises his historical materialist “way of thinking”, which provides an unorthodox Marxist thread linking his practice as an archaeologist to that as a socialist campaigning against war and racism.

Childe was born on 14 April 1892 in Sydney into a conservative Christian family; his father was an Anglican Minister and Childe attended an elite school. He began to develop his version of Marxism from 1913 when, at the University of Sydney, he was a student of Francis Anderson, a Hegelian professor of philosophy. He achieved excellent results during his education in classics at the University of Sydney (1911-13) and won a scholarship to Oxford University. There he studied classics and archaeology (1914-17), achieving a Bachelor of Letters for his thesis, “The Influence of Indo-Europeans in Prehistoric Greece”.

Childe cut his radical teeth as a supporter of 2,000 gas workers who took illegal, unofficial strike action against the Australian Labor Party (ALP) government in New South Wales, when many students scabbed. The period leading up to the First World War is part of the somewhat hidden history of Australia’s working-class militants, which is unearthed by Irving’s other works. Rank and file rebelliousness, combined with political experience in the labour movement, would shape Childe’s thinking. In Oxford, Childe learnt about guild socialism, a movement advocating workers’ control of industry and cooperatives, from its most well-known advocate, libertarian socialist G D H Cole. He became a close life-long friend of Rajani Palme Dutt, founder and long-standing leader of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). He joined the revolutionary wing of a socialist club, whose members, such as Raymond Postgate, broke with Fabianism during the war and also went on to become founders of the CPGB. These relationships deepened Childe’s Marxism; he defended jailed conscientious objectors during the First World War and took part in supporting the strikes by 200,000 engineering workers across Britain in May 1917.

A Home Office report to MI5 declared Childe “thoroughly perverted and probably a very dangerous person”.9 He paid a high price for his radical ideas and activity and was effectively blacklisted and unable to find paid work in academia before 1925, living in the shadow of state surveillance in Australia and Britain for his entire political life. He returned to Australia, where he stayed until late 1921, now a recognised labour intellectual and ALP member. In 1919, he witnessed a massive strike wave during the influenza pandemic and became adviser to Labor leader John Storey, who became the New South Wales premier from March 1920. He also heard about the revolutionary waves in Europe, with Britain itself on the brink of revolution in 1919.

“A movement that will have to go further”

In 1923 Childe published the most authoritative analysis of the Australian instantiation of what socialists today would call parliamentarism and labourism. How Labour Governs: A Study of Workers’ Representatives in Australia remains available in print and online. It offers a forensic study of the ALP and trade union movement, showing the need for revolution to build a “proletarian democracy” to end the “exploitation and enslavement of the workers”.10 It also castigates the failure of “politicalism”, a term he coined to criticise the experience of labour movement representation. Although Irving does not explore this, How Labour Governs also opposed racial prejudice, and the nationalism and jingoism of the times, which, Childe wrote, “found its natural political exponent in the Labor Party”.11 The book sympathetically analyses the radical syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the One Big Union movement, which attracted tens of thousands of working-class people during the period up to 1920. Radical workers in 1916, led mostly by the IWW, defeated a federal ALP government plebiscite supporting conscription for the British war effort. The ALP split and lost office; a second plebiscite in 1917 also lost.

In the context of discussions at a left-wing summer school in England about the failure of British workers to make revolution, which took place as How Labour Governs was being published, Childe developed his analysis further, recognising the “futility of capturing ‘political power’”. He argued that “it was fatuous to promise, as Labor did, to transform capitalism by evolutionary means”.12 Even the most radical left-wing governments could not control the economy and the state. The movement that created the ALP with the objective of eliminating exploitation “would have to go further”.13 He did not analyse the trade union leaders as a separate bureaucratic layer with their own interests in opposition to those of the working class and, unlike Lenin or Antonio Gramsci, Childe had not participated directly in workers’ revolutions or in building new revolutionary parties. However, like both, Childe developed ideas that differed with the more orthodox Marxist movements of their times. Politically, he was closer to syndicalism in his opposition to the state socialists of the social democratic parties of Germany, Britain and Australia. It is unclear whether Childe endorsed Bolshevism as appropriate for Australia. Irving writes:

As the First World War was ending, Childe wrote to an academic mentor in Britain that he intended to return there “to escape the fatal lure of politics” in Australia. Ten years later he was well into an academic career in Britain that would bring him great esteem, but throughout that career politics continued to lure him.14

Revolution in archaeology

In the 12 months after May 1922, Childe began research into prehistory, visiting museums in Central Europe and writing six authoritative articles on Indo-European influences on Greek prehistory. His reputation would be established with the book, The Dawn of European Civilization, published in 1925.15 That year, he was appointed the librarian at London’s Royal Anthropological Institute, and in 1927 as the first Abercromby Professor of Archaeology. He went onto assume his position at the Institute of Archaeology in London in 1946.

In Marxism Childe found a “realistic” analysis of human society—based on real, rather than abstract, laws—which he applied to archaeology. Marxism had already taken an interest in these questions. Many readers of this journal will be familiar with Friedrich Engels’s book Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) and his theory of the evolutionary development of societies. First proposed by the 19th century American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, this theory envisions an evolutionary passage from foraging or hunter-gatherer societies (labelled “savagery”), through agricultural “barbarism” to the urban-based civilisation of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome. As archaeologist Neil Faulkner summarises:

Childe posited two revolutionary breaks in the sequence, comparable in significance with the Industrial Revolution that had given rise to modern capitalism. These were the Neolithic Revolution, marking the transition from hunting and gathering to an existence based on cultivation and stock raising, and the Urban Revolution, marking the further transition to city-based “civilisation”. The implication was that long periods of relative stagnation could be followed by sudden leaps forward. An accumulation of innovations…could provide the basis for a sudden “revolutionary” advance to a new, higher stage of society.16

For Childe, nothing was fixed, including human nature, and change was dialectical, and sometimes accidental, resulting from internal and external social—structural—contradictions. Childe did not theorise class struggle separately from his explanation of cultural change.17 His theory that knowledge and culture accumulated in human societies encouraged a belief in the possibility of “progress”, as a measurable expression of development. He never thought socialism was inevitable, but believed human culture would still advance:

Progress is an indivisible whole in which the invention of a new way of hafting an axe formed a necessary prelude to the invention of the steam engine or the aeroplane…and the first steps on the path of discovery were the hardest. Thus the achievements of our nameless forerunners are in a real sense present in our cultural heritage today.18

His 1936 work Man Makes Himself popularised a non-discriminatory conception of progress. This was illustrated when he wrote about Aboriginal Australia (which he did not formally study) and asked:

Why assume that, when the Arunta had created a material culture adapted to their environment, they at once stopped thinking altogether? They may have gone on thinking just as much as our own cultural ancestors, although their thoughts followed different lines…19

He wrote in 1938 that the most important task of prehistory was to “trace out in ever greater detail the paths and mechanisms whereby the great discoveries of the Ancient East…were transmitted to the savages and barbarians” of Europe south of the Alps.20 Although he did not acknowledge the advanced cities of other continents, this was an important insight when, in the 1930s, many European scientists were embracing pseudo-scientific ideas to justify racism and white European superiority.

Irving’s book outlines Childe’s role, in collaboration with Communists, in attacking the British government’s complicity in the eugenics movement and the rise of Hitler’s Nazi regime, which championed a supposedly superior Aryan “race”. Childe assisted refugee scientists fleeing Nazism. He strongly opposed false explanations of human development in terms of preserving purity of particular ethnic groups, as argued by racists and also by official archaeologists in the Soviet Union. Instead, he demonstrated societies’ success in terms of the mixing of ethnic origins combined with evolutionary change.

A way of thinking

By focusing on a historical study of the role of a political intellectual, Irving allows the reader to appreciate the development of Childe’s “way of thinking” and the significance of his Marxist methodology. According to Irving, Childe used the idealism of G W F Hegel, Benedetto Croce and Giovanni Gentile to help develop a non-determinist theory of history based on Marx’s historical materialism. Later he moved beyond Hegel because, Childe wrote, “Hegel could conceive of the unity of the process only as transcending it… The absolute was just raised above the process like a sort of deity”.21 Childe developed a historical materialism centred on the process of human creativity—reality as a creative process.22

In the 1930s and 1940s he stopped short of joining the CPGB but remained a fellow traveller and collaborated on various political and theoretical projects, especially with members of the Communist Party Historians’ Group. His attitude to both the Soviet Union and Stalinism was inconsistent. Childe felt he was in a different tradition and never used Stalinist jargon, although Irving does not mention any sympathy with Trotskyism, the most prominent revolutionary alternative to Stalinism. When in 1956 Stalin was denounced as a monster by the then Russian leader, Nikita Kruschev, and Russian tanks rolled into Hungary to crush a genuine workers’ uprising, he responded less with outrage than resignation. He did not live to see the widespread rejection of Stalinism in the 1960s with the emergence of the New Left. Irving locates Childe within the broad tradition of Western Marxism, which consists mainly of cultural and philosophical theorists who distinguished themselves from defenders of the Soviet Union.23 This is perhaps accurate, because Childe lacked a consistent approach to workers’ revolution—something compatible with Western Marxism but not with the Bolshevism of 1917. His intellectual home was among dissident CPGB members such as Jack Lindsay, an Australian communist writer and cultural activist who lived in Britain.

Irving states:

This is a book about the central place held by socialist politics in his life, and his contributions to the theory of history that it entailed. It is also about the conflict in socialist politics between radical revolutionary democracy and parliamentary social democracy, for Childe decided that “politicalism”…was fatal to socialism.24

Childe’s Marxism was never just a “way of thinking”—he was part of the struggle, supporting militant workers, opposing war, racism and fascism, identifying with labour socialism, communism and the Soviet Union, albeit with an equivocal attitude towards Stalinism. Irving’s book offers a comprehensive but complex account of all this, crammed full of detail. It represents 30 years mining various sources, including Peter Gathercole’s uncompleted work on a political biography. Childe destroyed most of his papers in London, causing Irving to rely on a range of other sources such as friends’ correspondence. A letter sent in 1919, for instance, remembered the Oxford University Socialist Society for its “recent ‘rows’ with government and university authorities” and Childe as “more outspoken than any other”.25 Irving has given us a valuable account, revealing Childe in a new light and rescuing the life of a “probably dangerous man” that the security services would have preferred we forget.

The most cited Australian author in the world, Childe was finally recognised at his first university in April 1957 when the chancellor bestowed on him the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters, just months before his death. Childe committed suicide on 19 October 1957 in the Blue Mountains, New South Wales, but it was not an act of despair. In a letter he requested not to be opened until January 1968, he wrote: “To end his life deliberately is in fact something that distinguishes Homo sapiens from other animals even better than ceremonial burial of the dead”.26

In one of his final statements, published posthumously in Antiquity and entitled simply “Retrospect”, he wrote, “The most original and useful contributions that I may have made to prehistory are certainly not novel data…nor yet well-founded chronological schemes nor freshly defined cultures, but rather interpretative concepts and methods of explanation”.27 An excellent example of Childe’s method at work is in Chris Harman’s A People’s History of the World. Harman applies and critiques this “way of thinking” in parts one and two, which explore the history of the earliest human societies.28

Readers will be enthralled by Irving’s rich investigative research. He uncovers the life of one of the world’s most important intellectuals, who challenged archaeologists, historians and socialists, and defied attempts by wartime states to deny civil liberties and academic freedom. It is a remarkable and different style of biography. As the world once again moves toward reaction and social democratic parties disappoint, Childe’s anti-determinist Marxism remains relevant for socialism in the 21st century.


Judy McVey is a Melbourne-based socialist, a member of Solidarity, and the author of a pamphlet, Abortion: The Fight That’s Still To Be Won (2019). Currently, she is completing a PhD at the University of Sydney.


Notes

1 Irving, 2020, pix. Irving was a long-time editor of Labour History—A Journal of Labour and Social History. His website and blog can be found at www.terryirving.net

2 Childe, 1925, pxiii.

3 Meheux, 2017.

4 These two books are archeologist Bruce Trigger’s Gordon Childe: Revolutions in Archaeology (1980) and Sally Green’s more personal text, Prehistorian: A Biography of V Gordon Childe (1981).

5 For more on the diffusion method, see Tringham, 1983.

6 Derricourt, 2014. A conference on Childe’s life and thought, held at the University of Queensland, is reported in Gathercole, Irving and Melleuish, 1995.

7 Meheux, 2017.

8 Irving was part of the New Left of the 1960s, helping to set up the Free University outside Sydney University in 1967. His first book, with Raewyn Connell, Class Structure in Australian History (1980), is now a classic. Recently, he has written about 19th and early 20th century workers’ struggles, including The Southern Tree of Liberty: The Democratic Movement in New South Wales before 1856 (2006).

9 Irving, 2020, p70.

10 Childe, 1964, pxi.

11 Childe, 1964, pp72-73.

12 Irving, 2020, p266.

13 Irving, 2020, p267.

14 Irving, 2020, pxi.

15 Irving, 2020, p224.

16 Faulkner, 2007, pp88-89.

17 Faulkner, 2007, pp97-101.

18 Childe, 1925, p xv.

19 Childe, 2003, p46. The Arunta are the original people of what is now known as “Central Australia”.

20 Irving, 2020, p280.

21 Irving, 2020, p317.

22 Irving, 2020, pp341-343.

23 Irving, 2020, p251.

24 Irving, 2020, pxi.

25 Irving, 2020, p79.

26 Irving, 2020, p371.

27 Childe, 1958, p69.

28 Harman, 1999, pp 3-100.


References

Childe, V Gordon, 1925, The Dawn of European Civilization (K Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co).

Childe, V Gordon, 1958, “Retrospect”, Antiquity, volume 32, number 126.

Childe, V Gordon, 1964 [1923], How Labour Governs: A Study of Workers’ Representation in Australia (Melbourne University Press).

Childe, V Gordon, 2003 [1936], Man Makes Himself (Spokesman).

Derricourt, Robin, 2014, “The Making of a Radical Archaeologist: The Early Years of Vere Gordon Childe”, Australian Archaeology, volume 79, number 1.

Faulkner, Neil, 2007, “Gordon Childe and Marxist Archaeology”, International Socialism 116 (autumn), https://isj.org.uk/gordon-childe-and-marxist-archaeology

Gathercole, Peter, Terry Irving and Gregory Melleuish (eds), 1995, Childe and Australia: Archaeology, Politics and Ideas (University of Queensland Press).

Harman, Chris, 1999, A People’s History of the World (Bookmarks).

Irving, Terry, 2020, The Fatal Lure of Politics: The Life and Thought of Vere Gordon Childe (Monash University Publishing).

Meheux, Katie, 2017, “Digitising and Re-examining Vere Gordon Childe’s Dawn of European Civilization: A Celebration of the UCL Institute of Archaeology’s 80th Anniversary”, Archaeology International, volume 20, number 5.

Tringham, Ruth, 1983, “V Gordon Childe 25 Years after: His Relevance for the Archaeology of the Eighties”, Journal of Field Archaeology, volume 10, number 1.