Monday, July 25, 2022

Terry Irving - The Fatal Lure of Politics: The life and thought of Vere Gordon Childe

If you spend much time in the history sections of secondhand bookshops, two books frequently appear - Vere Gordon Childe's Man Makes Himself and his What Happened in History. Both books were enormous bestsellers. In them Childe gives a materialist account of human history, culture and social change. As Terry Irving explains, Childe "was an intellectual who had committed himself to the idea of historical progress and the role of revolutions in history". Childe's books were a popularisation of his ideas, and were extremely popular among non-specialists. But Childe was also committed to the idea of revolutionary social change in his own lifetime. Irving's biography is the first substantial attempt to link Childe's revolutionary socialist and radical politics to his life in the world of archaeology.

Chile was born in 1892. His early life was marked by a world on the brink of imperialist war and growing class struggle, a "pivotal period in Australian politics". While he was at university in Sydney in 1913 a major strike broke out. The strike itself ended quickly, but it shaped Childe's lifelong political thinking. In 1923 he published a book called How Labour Governs, a study of the limitations of Australian Labour in government. In it he would refer to Labor's Premier, Jim McGowen, a lifelong trade unionist calling on the public to "scab" on the 1913 strike. This contrast between the class struggle and parliamentary politics deeply affected Childe, who was by now involved in all the campus radicalism. Childe went to Oxford University in Britain where, despite the conservative nature of the university, its staff and student body, Childe was shaped by a radical milieu. While few Oxford students were Marxists, there was certainly much discussion of Hegel and radicalism, pacifist politics and debates about freedom, democracy and idealism. Childe returned to Australia a more convinced socialist even if he was not yet clear what that meant. 

One of the great strengths of Irving's book is that he places Childe's politics in the context of wider political events. He remarks, "when Childe returned to Sydney he was philosophically a Marxist and therefore a revolutionary. Revolution, however, when applied to Marxist political practice in the early twentieth century, was a capacious term". Irving notes how Marxist (and socialist politics generally) in the period were pulled by different political trends - the reformist ideas of German social democracy and the revolutionary politics as exemplified by Lenin's Bolsheviks. But while Childe was scornful of the "parliamentary road", he was simultaneously unconvinced by Leninism. As Irving writes:
Childe dismissed the orthodox Marxist and anarcho-syndicalist understanding of revolution as 'alluringly vague as far as its initial stages are concerned. But what was the alternative? While he was in Australia he was not impressed by the Bolshevik example. Rather, as he was drawn into the anti-war movement, he discovered the militancy of the industrial unionists, and Labor's experience of government. He was no longer in Britain where everything to him seemed so bloody because of the Labour Party's 'loyalty' to parliament and constitutionalism. In Australia, the militancy of the 'industrialists' had swept many thousands of workers into a mass strike. Was it possible that forming the Labor party might provide a non-violent but still revolutionary transition to socialism?
These were questions that would shape Childe's politics intellectually and practically. Reading Irving it becomes clear that in fact Childe never succeeded in squaring the circle of his rejection of Bolshevik style revolutionary practice and his understanding of the limitations of parliamentarianism. In part this comes from Childe's own lack of surety about his own role as an intellectual. Irving quotes an interesting letter written by Childe in 1918:
When in England I was I'm afraid inclined to be impatient with a certain vacillation of the intellectual liberals. Now I can appreciate the enormous service such a class renders when I see the deplorable results of its absence. In many ways I am delighted with the growing radicalism of the Labor Party and the Trade Union Movement here [in Australia], but I would infinitely prefer reconciliation and compromise to revolution. If the latter is forced upon the Labor Movement it will be entirely due to the unscrupulousness and bigotry of the professional and educated classes.
From this one gets a sense that Childe saw "revolution" at that time as a failure, the consequence of enlightened intellectuals being unable to direct the radical movement to a peaceful transition. But it also reflects a naive understanding of how radical change could be won. This I think reflects Childe's reading of Marxism, from which he failed to gain an understanding of the capitalist state. He was unable to grasp that a "non-violent" transition to socialism was not possible because of the state and thus failed to see the importance of Bolshevik strategy. This limitation also made it through to his theories of historical change, and I'll return to that shortly.

Firstly however it is important to explain that Irving wasn't rejecting class struggle, or militant politics. Indeed, as Irving emphasises, quite the opposite. On arriving back in Sydney Childe "welcomes the growing radicalism of the working class" and is shocked by the violence of the capitalists in return. It is a moment of personal development where, as Irving says, Childe "imagines middle-class socialists and pacifists as missionaries to the ruling class, explaining the inevitable victory of the 'world of labour'." The role of the intellectual as a "mediator" in the class struggle is clearly significant to Childe. Childe himself tried to play such a role during struggles, writing to the press to protest the treatment of political prisoners and the violence of government repression in the aftermath of the September 1918 red flag riots.

But it is clear that Childe was taking an idealistic position on the class struggle. While understanding the limits of parliamentarianism, Childe's rejection of revolution essentially forces him into a reformist position. It is notable, for instance, that Childe didn't attend the 1919 celebrations of the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. He never joined the Communist Party in Australia or later in England, but such nuances were lost on his critics and political opponents (and the Secret Services) who denounced him as a Communist revolutionary. 

In Childe's How Labor Governs he sets out to examine the limitations of reformism. It focuses, as Irving says, on "the likelihood of a labour party governing in the interest of the working class". He started from "an understanding of capitalism's class dynamics and their expression in the system of liberal representative government". As such How Labor Governs was one of the first attempts by a Marxist to grapple with the nature of reformism through studying the reality of Labour in government. Rosa Luxembourg had explored the economic basis of reformism in her book Reform or Revolution, but few other Marxists had the experience to develop these ideas. The lack of parliamentary politics and legal trade unionism in Russia prior to the Revolution of 1917 meant that the Communist International didn't really comprehend the political problems associated with parliamentarianism and trade union bureaucracy. As such Childe's book was of great importance. 

Childe shows how a reformist strategy cannot work, and how the workers' representatives can end up sucked into the system itself, more interested in "keeping his seat and scoring political points than of carrying out the idea that he was sent in to give effect to". But Childe is ambiguous on the political consequences of his own insights. In fact, Childe focuses on a syndicalist approach that sees industrial trade unionism as leading towards social change. Irving explains the "practical nature" of Childe's socialism in a revealing section:
One of the themes of [Childe's] intervention in the debate about the One Big Union was to caution the industrialists against relying on alluring but vague ideas about revolution. Instead he insisted on the value of practising collective self-management in state enterprises, even if it were only in the quarries at Bombo, a hamlet one the South Coast of New South Wales. Now we can grasp his idea of progress. This politics of revolutionary practice entailed an idea of progress that was not evolutionary, something emerging out of the preceding history of liberal self-government, as it was to the intellectuals of official labour. The idea of progress had to be taken away from them and reimagined as the creation of new values by a self-acting workers' movement, as a revolutionary and history making 'alteration in the social structure'. This was the view of progress that his four years in the Australian socialist movement reinforced, and which in time underlay his archaeological theorising.
Here we can see how Childe has broken with Labourism as a strategy, has a clear belief and desire for an "alteration in the social structure" but has no real clarity on what this means other than workers' making their own democracy and the nationalisation of industry. Childe clearly saw the class struggle as a vehicle for this change, but failed to see that class struggle on its own will not bring revolutionary change. The movement will have to defeat the state itself. Essentially Childe was hoping for peaceful change, even though he could clearly see that would not happen through parliament. Indeed Childe could be damning about this: "the Labour platform can give the workers no real improvement in position under capitalism, it offers them no escape from capitalism".

Irving argues that the framework outlined in the quote above is echoed in Childe's first breakthrough work on prehistory that appeared at a similar time, The Dawn of European Civilisation. In this work Childe argued for a "materialist concept of progress, and of history as a story of progress, a process created by practical activity, by human labour". 

When I first read Childe's What Happened in History I was enthused by this materialist approach, but dismayed by his framing. He essentially says that human history was, and would be, a process of gradual upward development. But because Childe cannot grasp the role of the state as an instrument of class rule that arises out of the unavoidable struggle between exploiter and exploited he fails to see that positive historical progress is not inevitable. The state is a break on progress, and can - as Childe must have seen in the archaeological record - lead to civilisations stagnating or disappearing. In the capitalist epoch it is a barrier to the development of socialism which must be "smashed". Childe, however, sees the state as neutral in this struggle. He was very much the "neo Hegelian" he described himself as. It is an ambiguity that Childe was never able to shake off. As Irving says about Childe's vision of socialist democracy:
For Childe, proletarian democracy described something elemental: the desire for self-government of the working class. In this respect Childe was not at odds with Lenin. His framing idea, however, did not have the Leninist aim of protecting and extending the proletarian revolution. Rather... Childe frames the problem of proletarian democracy as one of developing a form of representation that would protect its integrity within the existing bourgeois parliament.
Irving cautions that despite the limitations in Childe's approach we shouldn't see Lenin as a "bold revolutionary and Childe as a cautious dabbler in working-class politics". He argues that Childe had "a growing affinity with Lenin's revolutionary perspective". This is probably fair, but Childe did not take the next step which would have been to become an open partisan for revolutionary politics inside the fledgling Communist Parties of the 1920s. 

That said it is important to defend Childe. He was an intellectual dedicated to a vision of socialism and trying to understand the type of organisation and movements needed to achieve a socialist society. Despite his later success as a populariser of archaeology and Marxist history, his career was badly damaged by the principled positions he took, and there is no doubt he understood the consequences of his sacrifices. It is sad then that the recognition he has today is mostly around his historical work, which is sanitised and divorced from his politics - the very thing that he devoted his life to.

Terry Irving's book is then a very important contribution for several reasons. He rescues Childe the revolutionary and ties this to Childe the archaeologist. He also takes the reader on a journey through the political and intellectual milieu that shaped Childe, in particular the class struggle of the early 20th century. By placing Childe's near forgotten book How Labor Governs at the heart of the story Irving will also show a new generation of intellectuals and activists the limitations of parliamentary politics and that there are radically different ways of approaching the question of social transformation. 

On a personal note I was privileged to finish reading The Fatal Lure of Politics the day before a visit to Skara Brae, a neolithic site in Orkney where Childe made some of his most important excavations. While the museum there makes no comment on Childe's politics it was personally moving to see his work and put it in the context of his hope for a better, socialist, future. It is very much in this spirit that Terry Irving has written this political biography and I hope many socialists and archaeologists pick it up.

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