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FEW today will know the name Vere Gordon Childe, but, during the first half of the 20th century until his assumed suicide in 1957, he was a world-renowned and key figure in the worlds of archaeology and European prehistory as well as being a radical Marxist.
He wrote more than 20 books, including the popular What Happened in History, which sold 300,000 copies, as well as numerous articles and essays. His scholarly reputation rests largely on the work he did in Britain from the late 1920s until 1957.
Leaving aside the contribution he made in the field of archaeology, Terry Irving’s fascinating portrait of Childe is, as he himself says, “a political biography,” and it means that a vital aspect of his life is absent.
Childe was born in Sydney into a middle-class conservative Anglican family, his father the vicar of a large parish church serving better-off citizens in the north of the city.
He went to university in Sydney and there began to drift away from the family’s religious conservatism and to examine socialist ideas. He first became involved in social-justice campaigning from a reformist Christian perspective but soon realised that more revolutionary action was essential for real change.
He opposed Australia’s involvement in the first world war and became interested in working-class political struggle. Active in the young Australian Labour Party, he became an influential adviser to John Storey, the Labour premier of New South Wales in 1921.
After completing his degree with first-class honours, despite his brilliance he was blacklisted and denied an academic post in Australia as a result of his radical politics. He was spied upon by the secret services of not only Australia but those of Britain and the US.
In his first book, How Labour Governs: A Study of Workers’ Representation in Australia, he looked at the class struggle in the country within an imperial context. He had been born in 1892 into an era pivotal in Australian politics, with an emerging working-class militancy, a series of great strikes and lockouts throughout the country and draconian government repression. This undoubtedly had an impact on his life, but at this stage only at a distance.
After being blacklisted in Australia, Childe emigrated to London in 1921, went to Oxford University to take up postgraduate studies, and joined the Fabian Society. He met and became intimate friends with Rajani Palme Dutt and Raymond Postgate, both later foundation members of the Communist Party of Great Britain.
They would influence his thinking profoundly and propel him towards Marxism. He visited the Soviet Union on several occasions and was a supporter of the Bolshevik revolution but never an uncritical supporter of Stalin.
He held the professorship of archaeology at Edinburgh University for some 20 years from 1927 and, from 1947, was director of the Institute of Archaeology in London, where he remained until his retirement in 1957.
During that period he oversaw the excavation of archaeological sites in Scotland and Northern Ireland and became one of the best-known and most widely cited archaeologists of the 20th century.
Marxism steered his approach to history throughout his life. But it never became a dogma into which reality had to fit but a methodology for investigating the evidence of human development, and he used Marxist ideas as an interpretative framework for archaeological data.
He returned to Australia in 1957 and died that same year.
While perhaps too detailed for the average reader in its meticulous coverage of the stages of Childe’s political development, this book nevertheless deserves its place in the definitive library of left-wing political biographies.
The Fatal Lure of Politics: The Life and Thought of Vere Gordon Childe is published by Monash University Publishing, £30.99.
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