By Rowan Cahill
What follows is in part a review, but also a commentary, and it benefits from the perspective of an insider. As Terry Irving notes in his Acknowledgements to The Fatal Lure of Politics: The Life and Thought of Vere Gordon Childe (2020), I encouraged his “political intentions for the book” and read every page ”carefully and sympathetically”. Terry and I have been friends and comrades since when we were amongst those who founded the radical Free University experiment in Sydney in 1967. That said, however, I’ll proceed by referencing him as ‘Irving’. And it helps at the outset if we grasp the ironic nuance of the book’s title: towards the end of WWI, after a political career in Australia, Childe privately expressed the desire to remake himself and quit what he called ‘’the fatal lure of politics’’. As Irving’s book demonstrates, he never could or did.
It has taken a long time for The Fatal Lure to get out of Irving’s head and onto the shelves. All up some thirty years of research and nine years of writing. It is a significant tome – 303 pages of text, 22 pages of bibliography, 20 illustrations. The footnoting is detailed, properly located at the foot of each page, and many are of what I like to call the Thompsonian kind – where multiple sources are referenced, much of these the fruits of original research.
Why so long in coming? Well, in a nutshell, between Irving’s 1980 classic Class Structure in Australian History (co-authored with Raewyn Connell) and Fatal Lure there were eight other books, and a personal life, and a professional life as a teacher and historian. In terms of research, the book is not grounded in the ‘chained-to-the-desk/dig it up with a data base search’ kind of research encouraged in the modern academy. As the footnotes and bibliography make clear, the research involved trawling and deep diving in multiple archives and holdings in Australia, the USA, the UK, and in Europe. Often these holdings were not always rigorously catalogued, meaning Irving had to read and dig in almost an archaeological way, fitting given Childe’s career as an archaeologist.
Moreover, Childe was a voluminous correspondent with many contacts, and a prolific author in a public intellectual way. His work and its paper trails are not neatly confined/contained, neither archivally nor in terms of publications (21 books; 281 articles/chapters, 236 book reviews, in 99 periodicals). Some of Childe’s output was in publications that have been lucky to survive the ravages of time. So Irving had to seek, search, follow leads successfully and otherwise, and find, all time consuming processes. What we have in Fatal Lure is a work that is the product of slow and long research, a type which sadly the modern academy with its neoliberal bent and fast productivity demands, neither encourages, nor facilitates.
Writing the book was no pushover, hence the long-time taken to write it. Irving experimented numerously with form, seeking to blend biography with intellectual history. There was a point when he was just over half way through when he scrapped the lot and began again, salvaging some of what he’d written and junking the rest; simply, the book was not going in the direction he wanted, because as he wrote he came to new understandings that demanded a different beginning. Fatal Lure is best seen as a creation, rather than a formulaic history constructed on a generic template. Further complicating matters was Irving’s search for his writing ‘voice’. Part of the creative challenge, one which we aimed for in our collaboration Radical Sydney (2010), was to write in a way that combined scholarship with accessibility, avoiding the niche languages, styles, and assumptions of shared understandings. These are factors that work to limit much academic writing in the humanities to niche audiences. In Fatal Lure, Irving aimed for a wide readership beyond scholarly confines, inviting readers, while preserving scholarship and intellectual integrity. Luckily, In Monash Publishing he found a publisher willing and able to produce such a book commercially and affordably. The sort of time it took Irving to produce this book, the creativity involved, the false starts, the experimentation, the intended audience, are all processes, and aims, unwelcome and not encouraged in the neoliberal academy, much to its detriment, and to those of society and culture.
So, why bother about Vere Gordon Childe (1892-1957)? Well, he was born and raised in Australia, and became radically involved in politics as a young man. His first book, How Labour Governs: A Study of Workers’ Representatives in Australia (1923), was the world’s first study of parliamentary socialism. It has attracted significant discussion in Australian labour history circles, and Irving corrects a lot of misunderstandings. Quitting Australia in 1921 Childe went on to spend most of his working life in the UK as an archaeologist. During the first half of the twentieth century he became the most influential prehistorian in the world, and a best-selling author. Because he was a lefty, a gamut of security organisations and spies in Australia, the UK, the USA, probably the USSR too as visited there professionally, kept voluminous tabs on him. The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation continued to file reports on him post-mortem. For sociologist Raewyn Connell, Childe is a lost leader “of Australian sociology”. For Indiana Jones in the film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), Childe is the archaeological touchstone, advising students that if they want to understand archaeology then “consult the works of Gordon Childe”. In modern archaeological circles, there are scholars upon whom Childe still exercises an influence. All of which is credit enough for Childe to warrant serious and lengthy biographical interest. In Australia a galaxy of lesser lights have made the grade.
Biographically it is usual practice to treat Childe as though he were two people – the Australian socialist radical, and the later UK-based academic prehistorian/archaeologist. It is as though once he quit Australia and went to the UK, Childe underwent some sort of complete sea change and transformation. The beauty of Irving’s study is to convincingly demonstrate that these two Childes were/are in fact one. He carefully puts the divided-Childe-self back together, showing the continuities and linking threads in the life and work of ‘both’. This is achieved by exhaustive biographical research, and by careful reading of Childe’s private and public writings. The linking key is How Labour Governs, which Irving places contextually in the cauldron of late 19th and early 20th century Australian radical democratic politics in which Childe was a participant observer. The book was written in Australia, about Australia, but published in the UK in the context of radical socialist debate there; it was part of that debate, and Childe was again a participant observer. In Sydney, well before the Bolshevik revolution, Childe became aware of Marx. In the UK, as Irving shows, Childe became an early participant in the development of Western Marxism. He forensically demonstrates Childe’s understanding of materialism and shows how this threads through Childe’s total corpus. Simply, Childe never escaped the ”fatal lure of politics”. In a sense the ”life and thought” in Irving’s title is an inversion of what is present in Fatal Lure. Irving gives primacy to Childe’s thought, grounding it in social, political and cultural contexts, with Childe’s biographical life the spring and ferment from which it developed. That said, Irving details more biographical material re Childe than exists anywhere else to date.
People familiar with Childe’s life knows how it ends – with his retirement from academia in the UK in 1956, his return to Australia in 1957, and later that year his lonely death in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. The coroner at the time concluded it was death occasioned by a fall, and there has been much speculation and nonsense written since about this. Irving documents instead death by a carefully and rationally planned suicide, presenting a case watertight enough to satisfy any coroner, drawing on material not available in 1957. It is in this latter part of Fatal Lure that the voice of the book subtly changes, and Irving creates its most moving part. In a sense he abandons the careful narrative/historian distance he has maintained throughout the book, and sort of biographically enters the book himself, as if Childe and Irving share a common voice.
Fatal Lure now poses big questions: What is the meaning of life? In particular, what is the meaning, of a scholarly/intellectual life? What is the role of ideas in human society? And if one comes to believe that one’s work is done, and that an empty and dehumanising future awaits, is it rational and right to call it a day and check out? While the early parts of Fatal Lure could have been written by a young(er) person, the latter part could only have been written by a person who, like Irving, is close to his own use-by-date (Irving is in his early 80s) and has given serious thought to his own mortality and also asked the questions Childe was asking towards the end of his life. It also helps, as Irving has, to have led a productive and full life as a scholar/intellectual.
Irving sets the stage for Childe to have the last say. And what Childe concluded back in those Cold War end-days is a view of scholarly/academic/intellectual life totally at odds with that currently framed, taught, imposed on modern intellectual/academic life in the neoliberal academy, with its emphasis on citation measurements, the zealous ego-career-driven me/mine ownership of ideas, and the religious veneration of niche academic publishing. But it will be familiar to those who have some understanding of the democracy of an intellectual commons. As Irving shows, for Childe in his end days the work of an intellectual/scholar is to create ideas and set them free in society, independent of ownership and personal ego, where they can variously make their way, becoming part of an otherness independent of the materiality of the creator, achieving in the process a sort of immortality that lives beyond and independent of the creator’s physical being/remains. It helps immensely, of course, if the ideas-creator works in ways that deliberately seek to liberate ideas into society, as Childe did, rather than consistently work, as modern academic/scholars tend to, in niche ways in niche publications, adhering to the notion of a cultural trickle-down effect into society at large – which only serves to keep academic knowledge confined to academic ghettoes. If the trickle-down effect is a nonsense in the world of economics, so too is its cultural running mate in academia.
Overall, Irving’s study of Childe and his thought is a mature, moving, and major biographical intervention. In short a finely crafted tour de force, and in one word, outstanding.