Delivered on 14 November 2020 to the Blackheath History Forum, its 9th annual “VG Childe Lecture”.
Terry Irving (https://www.terryirving.net/) is a radical educationist and historian whose ASIO file begins in 1953. He helped found the Free University in Sydney, and was a prominent New Left figure in the labour history movement. With Rowan Cahill he runs the blog Radical Sydney/Radical History (http://radicalsydney.blogspot.com.au/). He is an Honorary Professorial Fellow at the University of Wollongong.
It is hard to think about Vere Gordon Childe, the Australian socialist and pioneering Marxist archaeologist, without thinking about his death. As a man, as a scholar, as a socialist, he is rarely presented as if his death was inconsequential, something natural – because it wasn’t. He jumped off a cliff at Blackheath in the NSW Blue Mountains. And as we struggle to understand that wilful ending of life in the spring of 1957, to replace a fading full stop with an incandescent question mark, we can take two paths.
Taking the first path, one gathers arguments about Childe’s experiences in the last few months of his life, because, on this path, suicide is regarded as such a denial of life’s worth that something must have happened near its end to upend it; some existential crisis must have occurred. For example: he must have been suffering from depression because he was old, ill and without family. Or, he was politically disillusioned by the events of 1956 because Khrushchev’s secret speech about Stalin’s crimes, and the Soviet invasion of Hungary, had killed his communist faith. Or, he was experiencing an “epistemological crisis” because younger scholars were undermining the foundations of his contribution to archaeology. Or, more mundanely, that he was suffering intellectual burn-out, having completed his life’s work, and as there was nothing else in his life, he might as well end it. You will notice that each of these explanations assumes that Childe’s suicide was the result of private issues. The focus is on Childe as an individual in 1957.
The difficulty with this path is that the biographer can find evidence in Childe’s final months that contradicts, or at least weakens, the assumptions of these arguments. The alternative path is to try to understand his death in relation to his whole life – as a man, as a scholar and as a socialist. In tonight’s lecture I will talk about his socialism. This is not, however, as limiting as it may seem, for my book, The Fatal Lure of Politics: The Life and Thought of Vere Gordon Childe, clarifies, for the first time, that Childe was a revolutionary socialist before he was an archaeologist, and that his socialism influenced his archaeology.
I think that there is a direct line between his early political life and his final – and fatal – political act at Blackheath. And Childe thought so too, writing calmly and rationally a suicide note that is not just about himself but about a social problem.
When did Childe become a socialist? There were some early shaping moments. He grew up in the rectory of St Thomas’s Church of England in North Sydney. The rector, his English-born father, leant towards the Oxford Tractarians in Church politics; his colonial-born mother was from a family, the Gordons, who were important members of the colony’s Anglican establishment. They supported the opposing Evangelical tendency. So, there was, possibly, a culture of theological argument in the rectory that may have sparked a young boy’s interest in ideas. As far as we can tell there were no political arguments; Childe grew up in a conservative family in a conservative suburb.
It may have been religion that began Childe’s radicalisation. His mother died when he was in his last year at the Sydney Church of England Grammar School (known as “Shore”). A few months later he translated from Greek an elegy by Xenöphanes of Colophon, a religious sceptic who lived in the sixth century BCE. Childe’s translation put the emphasis on the immorality of religion when it upheld the power of the state. Appearing in the school magazine, it was his first publication. A few years later, as an undergraduate at Sydney University he was the secretary of the Social Service Department of the Men’s Christian Union. His religion, it seems, was drawing him away from state-worship and into a critique of social arrangements.
The year before Childe enrolled at Sydney University, the first majority Labor governments in the world were elected in New South Wales and in the Commonwealth. His years as a student – 1911 to 1913 – coincided with the failure of the New South Wales government to implement those elements of party policy most desired by working-class militants, and, in response, there was an explosion of unofficial strikes that revealed the depth of working-class disaffection. When Labor politicians and union officials condemned the strikes, many workers turned away from parliamentary politics altogether, embracing syndicalism; some of them set up industrial labour parties to compete with Labor. Here we see the roots of the 1916 split in the labour movement.
From How Labour Governs – the first of his 21 books, published in 1923 – we know that Childe followed these developments closely, and that, at least by the time of the book, his sympathies were with the workers, not the politicians. He wrote scathingly in that book about the state’s Labor Premier, James McGowen, who called for scabs to break the gas strike of 1913.
Childe’s best friend on campus was Bert Evatt, the future leader of the ALP. By 1913, Childe and Evatt were campus characters, known for their careless dress and socialist principles. His future wife, Mary Alice, also a Sydney student, would later recall that she was warned off both Gordon and Bert because they were “visionary dreamers”, and would come to nothing. While they were students, a university socialist club – Australia’s first – was active, and it was through this club that Childe met one of its invited speakers, Harald Jensen.
Childe read his book, The Rising Tide: An Exposition of Australian Socialism. The exposition was Darwinian; the socialism was evolutionary. Childe rose on the tide. At a debate in the Men’s Union he led the case for the nationalising of medical services (but the proposition was defeated); he campaigned for Labor at the State elections; and he became a foundation member of the Workers’ Educational Association of New South Wales. By the end of 1913, there were clear signs that Childe had committed to a socialism that was Christian, meliorist, and evolutionary.
In Oxford, where Childe arrived in September 1914, his political education continued, and very quickly, too, because in 1915 he declared to the authorities in his College – Queen’s – that he had become “thoroughly unorthodox”. By the time he returned to Australia in August 1917 he had an MI5 file, in which he was described as “thoroughly perverted and probably a very dangerous person”. Between these two dates he had been part of a secret group in the Oxford University Socialist Society studying revolutionary politics. He had become an activist, lobbying on behalf of conscientious objectors to the 1914-18 war. He had been a delegate to the “Great Labour, Socialist, and Democratic Convention” in Leeds that voted to set up Soviets in Britain. Among his comrades in the Socialist Society and the Oxford Union of Democratic Control – in each of which he held the position of secretary – he was known for his leadership and outspokenness. Despite his “manifold activities” – a phrase used about him by one of his friends – he left Oxford with a First in Greats (Literae Humaniores).
The socialist orthodoxy that Childe brought with him to Oxford was that the state should be the locus of working-class politics. Laborists wanted to govern through the state; Fabians wanted to permeate it; Marxists wanted to smash it. In Oxford, however, he discovered a group of rebels within the Fabian Society who pointed out that the combination of capitalist ownership and an elected socialist government would actually lead to less power for the workers, to a “servile state”. They advocated that the socialist movement should turn away from state-centred “collectivism” in order to encourage the spirit of self-government in the working class through the trade unions. This would allow the emergence of a “Newer Unionism” that would agitate for workers’ control of industry. If economic resources were vested in co-operatively run, industry-based occupational groups, an ideal society would emerge characterised by devolved self-government, civil society pluralism, and a state representing consumers rather than dominant capitalists and subordinate workers. The name for this vision of pluralist democracy was Guild Socialism.
The leader of the Fabian rebels was GDH Cole, an Oxford don (at Balliol). A few months after Childe joined the Oxford University Fabian Society, Cole persuaded it to commit to political and industrial democracy through class-conscious unionism. As this was a clear rejection of the strategy of permeating the state, a break with the central Fabian Society was inevitable. In 1915, Childe followed Cole into a new organisation, the Oxford University Socialist Society. Cole was also the theoretician of Guild Socialism, and here too, Childe became a follower. Childe’s journalism in Australia is full of phrases and ideas from Cole’s 1913 book, The World of Labour. Through Cole, Childe was able to connect to the fashion in British political philosophy for pluralist thinking about diminishing the power of the state, and about popular sovereignty. In particular, Childe learned to base his approach to democracy on Rousseau’s radical concept of the general will rather than the liberal concept of representation.
A second intellectual influence on Childe was Hegelian Marxism, to which he was exposed through his friendship with Rajani Palme Dutt. They had much in common: both highly intelligent; both opposed to colonialism and war; and both kind of foreign. Dutt’s Indian father was a medical doctor in Cambridge, while his mother was Swedish. For his part, Childe never forgot that in Britain he was regarded as a colonial. After meeting in the Socialist Society, they became close friends. Almost every day they walked, organised and socialised together. As Dutt recorded in his diary for Thursday 9 November 1916: “Out with Childe in afternoon and much pleasant philosophy”. When Dutt was conscripted and then jailed for refusing to serve, Childe ran a campaign to obtain his release from the army. He was released, because the governments feared that making Dutt a martyr would arouse nationalist disaffection among the Indian troops.
In 1917, Childe and Dutt shared digs in Oxford. According to Dutt: “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”. For his diary he summed up their shared experiences: “Living with Childe’s pleasant and constant companionship” made it “without question the best term I have ever had…it went off perfectly…[and] we did not tire of each other’s company”. For Childe, it was also significant. It was his closest relationship as an adult; it was certainly the only one involving a domestic arrangement. They remained friends, continuing to spar about Hegel and Marx into the 1940s.
Out of these discussions Childe developed an attitude to Marx that would place him, today, in the Western – ie non-Soviet – tradition of Marxism. He was very explicit about his kind of Marxism, describing himself as a follower of the Italian neo-Hegelian philosopher, Benedetto Croce. Childe said that Croce engaged critically with Marxism, bringing together its insights into cultural practices with its historical theory of changing economic structures – that is, changes in the mode and relations of production. In particular, Childe was impressed by the way Croce removed the concept of the supernatural, the idea that there were transcendental laws of history, from Hegel’s “grand conception” of the dialectical movement of history. In its neo-Hegelian iteration, Marxism remained a theory of economic domination and subordination but with an emphasis on the resistance to domination by the subordinate class. Marxism was thus on the way to becoming a theory of agency as well as structures.
Arriving back in Sydney with a theoretical suspicion of the state, Childe soon discovered its actual power. It was not just a dead-end for socialist strategies, but a force to punish those who acted against its interests. Childe was punished five times, over a period of eighteen months. He was forced to resign from the post of senior resident tutor at St. Andrew’s College in the University of Sydney; he was vetoed by the Senate of the University for a position as tutor in Ancient History; he was forced to resign after a month from the post of Classics master at Maryborough Boys’ Grammar School in Queensland; the offer of a teaching position at Newington College in Sydney was mysteriously withdrawn at the last moment by the headmaster; and he was passed over for a lectureship in Classics at University of Queensland because, according to the professor, having no military experience, “his fitness for dealing with university classes was open to grave doubt”. Apparently, in Queensland you had to know how to use a rifle in order to take a University class.
Meanwhile, Childe continued to involve himself in “manifold activities”, performing a range of tasks for labour and left movements. He lectured to the Labor Party, to the Australian Peace Alliance and to the Queensland Socialists. He carried out secretarial duties for the Sydney branch of the peace movement. He published letters in the labour press in Sydney and Brisbane on various topics. He ran classes for the Workers’ Educational Association on Labor’s philosophy (in Sydney) and Marx’s Capital (in Brisbane, in this case, as he said with tongue in cheek, he was “applying Croce’s idea with brilliant results”). He led a delegation on behalf of the NSW State ALP Executive to the Minister for Justice in order to seek prison indulgences for socialist trade union leader, Vance Marshall, and he advised the left unions in the Sydney Labor Council, helping them pass a resolution committing the Council to support calls for a negotiated peace and an end to military recruitment. In 1919 he successfully lobbied the Labor leadership in Queensland to persuade them that the One Big Union idea was compatible with party policy. It was a topic that he also promoted in a series of articles about the benefits of industrial democracy, published in Sydney and Brisbane. Clearly, Childe was not a socialist dilettante, paddling on the edge of the wave of working-class militancy, but an eager surfer.
Vance Marshall has left us a picture of Childe in action in those years. At meetings where “the fiery spirits” were gathering,
he would rise in ungainly fashion to his feet… His speech…was slow, measured, scholastic – no vigour, no fire, but insistent, relentless, hammer-like. Like others who, though not born of the working class, come to the working class knowing that therein lies the pulsating heart of humanity’s progress, he out-Heroded Herod in the espousal of its ideals. One theme alone marked the tenor of his logic – “No compromise! No compromise! No compromise!”
After a year in Sydney, followed by a year in Brisbane, Childe returned to Sydney to work as the private secretary of the New South Wales Labor leader, John Storey. When Storey became premier in 1920 he inserted Childe into the premier’s department to provide research dedicated to the needs of a Labor government. The public service mandarins were horrified.
It’s not hard to imagine why he took the job, having been blocked so many times from earning a steady middle-class income. The more interesting question is: did it help him develop his understanding of Australia’s path to socialism? Was he able to help Labor take a few steps down that path? Or was it an unexpected moment of compromise?
Did he compromise? Oh, yes. The militant workers, whom he had championed in Brisbane, were calling for revolution in Sydney: “invade the food stores”. Childe found himself advising a government that did not have the parliamentary numbers nor the required solidarity to respond. He was moreover complicit in the government’s failure to fulfil its pre-election promises, unable to stop it cutting wages and increasing the state debt. Childe was shocked that under a Labor government unemployment continued to increase. He admitted all this later, in London. He knew that he was on the wrong side.
Was he able to insert a little socialist consciousness into the workings of this Labor government? No. He tried hard to promote the state enterprises, especially their economic and social contributions to the state, but to no avail.
Did he learn something about the impediments to a parliamentary transition to socialism? Yes, he did. He discovered that the public service establishment would not tolerate a radical socialist in its midst.
But what kind of socialist was Childe at this moment? The question at the root of Childe’s thinking in Australia was: how could a socialist movement, with its strength in the working class, develop and come to power in this country? You may be surprised to learn that this was not an unusual question at that time, and that How Labour Governs (1923) was not his last word on it.
In fact, he moved through three separate but related positions on this question. When he arrived back in Australia in 1917, he was more interested in the power of the unions than Labor’s parliamentary strategy. His friends even detected that he leant towards “direct action”. By early 1919 he could see syndicalism’s limitations, and having moved to Queensland, he could see what a progressive Labor government could do, especially when key workers, organised on “industrial union” lines, were prepared to act militantly, thus pushing the party to the left. He started to campaign to get the Labor Party to support the One Big Union movement and workers’ control in the state enterprises.
This, his second or “politicalist” moment, was when he began to write How Labour Governs. He continued to write it while he was a political minder and researcher for the Labor premier in New South Wales, John Storey. At the end of 1921 the Labor government sent him to London to keep it up to date on “advanced democratic legislation”.
By the time he got to England, he was thoroughly disillusioned with politicalism. So, the mood at the front of the book is positive, but by the end it is negative. He begins by describing how an Australian “proletarian democracy” set out to form a political party that would represent the working class in a bourgeois parliament. Then he shows how the mechanisms that it used – pledge, conference and caucus – were unable to achieve that form of “class” representation. He went on to show in the second half of the book that the revolt of the “industrialists” in the movement against the politicians also failed, leading not to the OBU but to union bossism.
The analysis in How Labour Governs was a major advance in our understanding of the impediments to parliamentary socialism. It was, however, lacking in one major respect: it did not provide the analysis of the class relations between capital and labour that would show the futility of parliamentary socialism.
In 1922, Childe published an article titled, “When Labour Ruled – in Australia – by an Ex-Ruler”. In it, he went far beyond the analysis in How Labour Governs, in order to refute the basic assumptions of Labor-Socialism. Capitalists, he wrote, can always circumvent Labor’s pro-worker legislation (by inflation; capital-strikes, etc); secondly, the state will always use violence against militant workers; thirdly, capitalist financial power will strangle the socialist enterprises of progressive Labor governments. Socialism will never be achieved through “duly compensated expropriation” enshrined in legislation. Childe had finally arrived at his third position: a class analysis of labourism. He published it in London in the Labour Monthly.
When Childe returned to London, he joined the Labour Research Department and hooked up with his friends, the former young Fabian rebels, many of whom were now members of the Communist Party, including Rajani Palme Dutt, the founding editor of the Labour Monthly.
In London, Childe was open to a new kind of political dynamic among socialists. In Sydney, that dynamic was skewed by the fatal attraction of parliamentarism; a revolution of the Leninist kind was barely on the horizon. In Britain, however, a large section of militant workers and many radical intellectuals were captivated by the Bolshevik revolution. Historian Kevin Morgan has coined the term “non-party communism” to describe this left culture, which survived into the mid-1920s. Through the Labour Research Department, which would publish How Labour Governs, Childe was soon immersed in this “non-party” culture of communism.
Childe remained a “non-party communist” for the rest of his life, happy to associate himself with Communist organisations and campaigns. Here’s a quick résumé of those associations. He renewed his friendship with Jack Lindsay, whom he had met in Brisbane. In the 1930s and ’40s, Lindsay was a leading figure in the British Party’s cultural activities. In the Association of Scientific Workers, Childe rubbed shoulders with famous Communist scientists including JD Bernal and Hyman Levy. He was part of the Communist Historians Group that established Past and Present, and subscribed to the Daily Worker, leaving his copy conspicuously on his office desk. He accepted the Communist Party’s invitation in 1937 to become a founding editor of its intellectual journal, The Modern Quarterly, and he remained on its board until 1951. And during the 1940s and ’50s, he was an open supporter of international Communist-led peace movements.
In the mid-1920s Childe published a series of works in archaeology, and in 1927 he was appointed to the position of Abercromby Professor of Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh where he worked until 1946. As a professor whose scholarship was recognised by awards and distinctions, Childe was able to lend his high status to Communist and left organisations simply by associating with them, but he did more, taking on “honorary” official roles. Two such connections of long standing were with the Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR, and the Association of Scientific Workers, but he was also an office-bearer in the Left Book Club, the India League, the Marx Memorial Library, the Britain-China Friendship Society and the National Council for Civil Liberties.
Fundamental to Childe’s willingness to associate with the Communist Party was his support for the idea of revolutionary change. He called the Bolshevik revolution “a grand and hopeful experiment”. He supported Communist efforts in the 1930s to protect the state that emerged from this revolution, the Soviet Union, through an international movement against war and fascism. In 1942, at a critical moment in the war, he supported the Communist call for the opening of a “second front” in Europe to take the pressure off the Soviet forces. At this fraught moment for the survival of the Soviet Union he concluded What Happened in History with these words:
Progress is real if discontinuous. The upward curve resolves itself into a series of troughs and crests. But in those domains that archaeology as well as written history can survey, no trough ever declines to the low of the preceding one, each crest out-tops its last precursor.
For Childe, progress was not a metaphysical idea but an aspect of historical change. It was discoverable by the science of history in the material traces of human activity, in the knowledge created by that activity, and in the obstacles that it had to overcome. Hence the need for revolutionary transformations. His materialism in short was dialectical as well as historical. One of the great themes of both Man Makes Himself and What Happened in History is the stagnation of civilisation after the urban revolution, its collapse into war, slavery and oppression. He explained that the emergence of a ruling class and a totalitarian form of the state created this collapse.
Considering his own times Childe warned that the conduct of the war should not be left to politicians; instead “every citizen had to be a politician”. And after World War II, he supported the world peace movement, because the alternative – a Cold War – threatened the free exchange of scientific knowledge and the political rights of citizens.
So, why did he not join the Communist Party? In fact, during these years he was often critical of it. In the 1920s, he was disappointed by its failure to insert itself more widely into working-class life and politics. This he thought was due to its bureaucratic ethos and anti-democratic style of leadership. In the 1930s, he disagreed with its “Third Period” line that seemed to equate social democrats and fascists. In 1939, he was aghast when the British party endorsed the Nazi-Soviet Pact and delayed its support for the war against fascism until Germany attacked the Soviet Union.
In short, there were two main reasons why he kept his distance from the party: one, because he was a democrat, but the CP was not, and Stalinism, as he said, was a form of totalitarianism; and two, because he was a Marxist and could not stomach the party’s mechanistic and formulaic rendition of Marxism. We will get to that in the next section.
In 1946, Childe moved to London and became Professor of Prehistoric Archaeology and Director of the Institute of Archaeology. London was also the centre of British Communism’s intellectual activity, and Childe was quickly assuming national roles in organisations where the Party had influence, in particular the Association of Scientific Workers and the Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR. He was even invited to attend discussions organised by the Party’s Cultural Committee.
He moved into a tiny flat in the Isokon Building in Hampstead – a building which incidentally had been Soviet spy-central in the 1930s. Designed by Wells Coates, it was one of London’s earliest examples of domestic modern architecture, “a machine for living”, with built-in cupboards, cooking and washing facilities. It was also an experiment in communal living. There were gardens and other common spaces and a club-room-cum-restaurant, where Childe loved to entertain. The first meetings of the Past and Present editorial board were held in his Lawn Road flat.
In 1938, Childe and Dutt had a falling out. The Communist Party, wanting to make Childe’s sympathy with communism into a more public connection, asked Dutt to persuade him to join the faculty of Marx House, the Party’s educational arm. Childe reacted angrily: “The only practical effect would be to tie a label around my neck, and I don’t like labels”. Worse, this label would be misleading because he and the Party disagreed about Marxism: “To the average communist and anti-communist alike…Marxism means a set of dogmas – the words of the master from which one must deduce truths”. Then Childe clearly stated his own understanding: “To me Marxism means effectively a way of approach to and a methodological device for the interpretation of historical and archaeological material and I accept it because and insofar as it works”. And he underlined “works”. He was, he said, a scientist who used experiment and observation to get at the truth.
Yet, concerning the materialist conception of history, Childe was as evangelical as the Communist Party – but his understanding of it was different. He wanted to give the Marxist conception of history a scientific basis, drawing on the discoveries of archaeology, and then he wanted to spread his understanding as widely as possible – to introduce it to “wider democratic circles” – a phrase that he used in 1942. And so, he discussed his ideas about prehistory in many of the non-academic periodicals read by the left: The Plebs, The Rationalist Annual, The Anglo-Soviet Journal, Scientific Worker, Labour Monthly, The Daily Worker and The Modern Quarterly – the last three published by the Communist Party.
He was also careful to avoid the jargon of Marxism-Leninism, telling Rajani Dutt in 1938:
I want to get good Marxist ideas across to my colleagues and students, and in that I have had some success, but they would not listen if I began as a Marxist (in Man Makes Himself the class struggle is disclosed as a deduction from an imposing looking array of facts).
He called this “white-anting” (an Australian labour movement term) or “sugaring”. Predictably, Dutt, who was by this time a defender of Communist loyalty and Marxist orthodoxy, treated the idea with contempt.
Man Makes Himself, published in 1936, and What Happened in History, in 1942, are often mistakenly labelled as popularisations, but they are also works in which he begins an exploration of historical reasoning. They form part of a series of works including The Story of Tools (1944), “Rational Order in History” (1945), History (1947), Social Worlds of Knowledge (1949), and Society and Knowledge (1956) which draw on archaeology to provide a more robust, scientific basis for historical materialism.
In terms of Childe’s career, this project of connecting archaeology and historical materialism and of introducing the result into “wider democratic circles” lasted from 1936 to 1956, or two-thirds of his academic life. Among archaeologists, Childe is mainly known for works that he wrote before 1936, but as Timothy Champion has recently pointed out, these later works are “still relevant to current debates about archaeology”.
Archaeologists often assume that the explanation for this series of works is that Childe discovered Marxism in the mid-1930s. But, as we have seen, Childe was actually a labour intellectual who took his already well-established theory of revolutionary change into the study of archaeology. Even in the book that launched his reputation, The Dawn of European Civilisation (1925), he can be seen thinking structurally about “the several stages of the transformation of the world of food-gatherers” during the Bronze Age. By the time he published New Light on the Most Ancient East in 1934 he is referring to the “two great revolutions in human culture”. The first is named as the Neolithic Revolution in his 1935 presidential address to the Prehistoric Society. And then in Man Makes Himself the familiar terms Neolithic Revolution and Urban Revolution appear as chapter headings.
Childe arrived in Sydney on his 65th birthday in April 1957 and was soon as busy writing, travelling and lecturing as he always had been. He finished the manuscript of his last book, The Prehistory of European Society, and wrote articles for Past and Present and Antiquity. He also wrote an autobiographical essay and a valediction to archaeology, setting out his ideas about the “main tasks confronting archaeology in Britain”, which was a very communist thing to do. He criss-crossed the country, writing in trains and in hotels for he was hardly in one place for more than a few days. He reconnected with family in Sydney and the Darling Downs. He visited archaeologists (notably John Mulvaney in Melbourne and James Stewart in Bathurst), and leftists (including the Evatts in Sydney, Russell Ward in Armidale, Bob Gollan in Canberra and Brian Fitzpatrick in Melbourne). He lectured to history societies in Sydney and Adelaide, and to undergraduates in Canberra and Melbourne. He lunched with Percy Stephensen in Sydney before going to a performance of Hamlet. He delivered a “guest of honour” talk on ABC radio, and accepted an honorary doctorate from the University of Sydney.
He was interviewed by the Daily Telegraph in Sydney and the Age in Melbourne. He hiked in Tasmania and looked for lyrebirds in the Dandenongs. And, in between, he spent several short breaks at Katoomba, staying at the Carrington, from where he travelled to Jenolan Caves, the Southern Highlands, and his childhood family retreat overlooking Wentworth Falls – Chalet Fontenelle.
Then in October 1957 his body was found at the bottom of a cliff near Govett’s Leap in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney.
Surely his death was an accident. A few weeks later a coronial inquiry considered the manner of his death. Witnesses showed that Childe was in good spirits, that he was contemplating new intellectual projects and that he had money in the bank. There was no suicide note, and on the cliff, his hat, spectacles and compass were near the edge, suggesting that he slipped and fell while taking a compass reading of Pulpit Rock on the other side of the Grose Valley. The coroner’s finding confirmed the expected and comforting view that Childe’s death was accidental.
But then, in 1980, Antiquity published a short essay that Childe had written a few days before his death. He had sent it to a colleague at the Institute of Archaeology in London with a covering letter asking that it not be published until 1968. It was in effect a suicide note.
When it became clear that Childe had deliberately chosen to die by jumping off that cliff, the search for explanations began. The underlying assumptions of this search were that we should concentrate on the period just before his death, and that we would be looking for signs of instability.
My approach to understanding his death is different. We should place it in the context of his whole life, and we should focus on his political thought and submit his suicide note to intellectual analysis.
In fact, he had contemplated suicide on several occasions during his life. In 1939, watching the advance of the Nazi armies across Europe, and believing that he was on a “Nazi death list” because of his public attack on the Nazi minister of the interior, he determined that he would take his own life rather than let the Nazis execute him. He had calculated his chances of survival in a dire political situation. He made sure his best friends knew about his decision. He was contemplating suicide as a political act.
He made another calculation as he thought about retirement in 1956. He began to worry about the effects of ageing on his health. Suicide once again offered a solution. As he wound up his affairs in London, he told two colleagues separately that he would jump off a cliff in Australia. Next year, back home in Australia, he startled a dinner party of left-wing academics by stating, when asked about his plans, “I think I’ll go over a cliff at Katoomba”. When news of his death was reported in the English press, his friend OGS Crawford assumed immediately that it was a suicide.
Looking at his whole life also helps us to take a more balanced view of Childe’s reaction to the double-whammy of 1956, the year when socialists were forced to face up to the crimes of Stalin and the reality of Soviet imperialism. About Childe’s reaction to Khrushchev’s secret speech, we have no direct knowledge. Perhaps he wasn’t surprised at its revelations, as he had characterised Stalin as a dictator in 1939. We also know that he reconfirmed this assessment on a trip to Russia in 1956 when he discovered how Stalinism had damaged the personal lives of his Russian colleagues in archaeology.
As for Hungary, in a letter to his cousin Alexander in Sydney, he wrote about his deep disgust at the Russian invasion. And at the end of the year he wrote a damning letter about the appalling deficiencies of Soviet archaeology, a private letter that he copied and distributed to a handful of the leading Russian scholars in his field. So, for a long part of his life, Childe had lived with the knowledge that while revolutions might release creativity in working people, in Russia’s case the revolution had produced a totalitarian regime.
So much for being flayed by the revelations of 1956: Childe was protected by the calluses formed by long exposure to the failures of the left. What about 1957? Did his contact with the Australian left suck him into a whirlpool of despair? In September, he delivered a lecture in Melbourne to the Australasian Book Society, a left-wing group of writers and intellectuals formed by the Communist Party. His opening words were: “Australia today is far from a socialist society”. He went on to explain that, although workers had “got what they wanted” – the material benefits of a better standard of living and the power to influence government through a strong labour movement, Australia was not a socialist society. There had been no proletarian revolution, and the alternative that the labour movement had created, a wage-earners’ welfare state, existed only because the ruling class permitted it. Moreover, if a labour leader threatened this uneasy compact, he would be savagely attacked. This was Childe’s take on the vicious campaign in the press against his friend, the parliamentary leader of the Labor Party, Bert Evatt (then fighting to prevent the party being captured by a secret anti-communist organisation). So, Childe was disappointed that Australia had not fulfilled the revolutionary socialist potential that he had written about in the 1920s. He realised now that he had been too idealistic. But it is clear from this lecture that he was still committed to Marxist class analysis, and therefore to the possibility of socialist revolution.
When he went to dinner with Percy Stephensen, he made sure to tell him that he was “a near Commy”. So, it does not seem that he was losing his political faith. But maybe he was mourning the failure of Marxism to accommodate new directions in archaeology? Well, no. He wrote, just before he died, a long review of archaeology as he had observed it over forty years, reaffirming his materialist vision for it: “what Marxists call the relations of production” must be a central inference for archaeologists.
Finally let us turn to the suicide note itself. Hardly a “note”, for it is over 1,000 words, and hardly about Childe, for he appears only in the last two paragraphs. In it he adopts a radical humanist position. He writes not about himself but about society. How should society deal with the aged, “the horde of parasites” created by advances in medical science?
Why are they parasites? Because: the aged can’t look after themselves, they get in the way of younger people and they have nothing new to say. The solution?
I have always considered that a sane society would disembarrass itself by offering euthanasia as a crowning glory, or even imposing it in bad cases…
He writes next about his own situation. He is forgetting things, his savings are disappearing, every cold turns into bronchitis. What will be the outcome? That he will become a burden on the community? He refuses: “I have always intended to cease living before that happens”. Then he signals how he will carry out his intention: “An accident may easily and naturally befall me on a mountain cliff”. Followed by the intellectual justification:
The British prejudice against suicide is utterly irrational. To end his life deliberately is in fact something that distinguishes Homo sapiens from other animals even better than ceremonial burial of the dead.
This is certainly a suicide note with a difference. It is positive, not despairing. Childe says he is actually quite well at the moment. He invokes our common humanity by reminding us that our lives will end with many desires unrealised. In Childe’s case, he sees no prospect of solving problems in prehistory that interest him most, and he lacks the willpower to face the discomforts and anxieties of travel in the USSR and China. Why did he mention Soviet Russia and Communist China? As a gesture of socialist solidarity, but also as a reminder of the revolutionary processes that we should be desiring.
Then he expresses his love of his native land. He has returned to the Blue Mountains:
Now I have seen the Australian spring; I have smelt the boronia, watched snakes and lizards, listened to the locusts. There is nothing more I want to do here; nothing I feel I ought and could do. I hate the prospects of the summer, but I hate still more the fogs and snows of a British winter.
He had already explained that he did not want the manner of his death to hurt his friends. Hence that careful arrangement of artefacts on the edge of the cliff and the embargo placed on the suicide note. Now he concludes with words that cannot be twisted to suit an argument about either existential despair or mental instability: “Life ends best when one is happy and strong”.
As his suicide note shows, at the end of his life Childe was not just happy, he was strong in his life-long commitment to reason and humanity, qualities that for him were the foundational values of socialism.