Childe and Australia: Archeology, Politics and Ideas
Edited by Peter Gathercole, T.H. Irving and Gregory Melleuish
University of Queensland Press, 1995. 245 pp., $16.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon
Vere Gordon Childe is renowned as the internationally respected pre-historian and archaeologist who also wrote a scathing book, in 1923, on the Australian Labor Party which has become a minor classic, at least amongst the Australian left. Childe and Australia presents a number of new essays which expand our understanding of Childe and his contribution to pre-history and Australian politics.
Born the son of an Anglican minister late last century, Childe soon developed signs of, to the authorities, dangerous ideological drift. As a university student and academic, he became an atheist and a materialist, and his socialist sympathies and pacifism during World War I brought him to the attention of the Australian military censors — "another academic gone wrong", wrote one in exasperation.
A persecuted left-wing academic, black-listed by the University of Sydney, he fled to Queensland in 1918, hoping that the ALP government there would fulfil his hopes for socialism. He was sorely disillusioned as the state labor government presided over the police murder of striking meatworkers whilst stirring up anti-Bolshevik hysteria.
Trying his luck back in NSW as private secretary to the NSW ALP premier in 1919-20, he suffered further disillusion, grimly contemplating the way all his experience of Labor in office seemed to point towards Labor behaving just like the conservatives as soon as their bums hit the cushy seats of parliament.
In 1923 Childe wrote How Labor Governs, giving vent to his indignation over "the selfish and cowardly opportunism which has distinguished the workers' parliamentary representatives". Inspired by the Russian Revolution, the Wobblies and other radical labour trends, How Labor Governs sparkled with sarcasm and wit as he probed the "corruption of Labor politics" which set in when labour movement idealists, in order to win votes and retain their seats, diluted any initial aspirations they may have had to better the lot of the working class.
Childe punctured many fond myths about the ALP. The ALP did not start out purely as the political arm of the union movement with a socialist head of steam — it had all sorts of woolly liberals, nationalists, small employers, shopkeepers and others who had no necessary common interest with the union movement. Any hopes some of the ALP's sincere socialist founders may have once had towards the "evolutionary transformation of capitalism", says Childe, were blocked by the "grasping lust for autocratic power" of Labor politicians and trade union bureaucrats, the comfort of perks of parliament and other cholesterols which clogged up the socialist spirit.
Childe came close to, but never systematically embraced, an analysis of Labor sell-outs based on the more systemic corruption of Labor politics — the weight of reformist political logic. The ALP, by attempting to manage capitalism and balance competing class interests, was drawn remorselessly into the orbit of the capitalist class, which held the reins of economic power and whose support was essential for Labor to stay in the parliamentary game.
Most of the essays in the book pay homage to Childe's splendid critique of Labor in office but they also explore his political weaknesses. If Childe rejected Labor's (increasingly mythical) evolutionary road to socialism, he also rejected the revolutionary road. Although Childe abhorred the poverty, militarism and other pathological symptoms of capitalism, and accepted the Marxist diagnosis of class conflict, he did not accept the Marxist cure of revolution. He thought the working class incapable of running society (much of his correspondence contains slighting references to "boneheaded workers") and that intellectuals were necessary to mediate between the classes.
Although Childe the pre-historian accepted a basic Marxist framework because it made sense of the past, explaining human society's progress through "vast revolutionary transformations" from the neolithic (agricultural) to urban (towns) to industrial, he did not endorse the logic of revolution beyond this to contemporary politics.
Childe also rejected the strategy of socialist revolution which involved organising workers in socialist parties. He was enamoured of fashionable sociological theories which insisted on an "iron law of oligarchy" which applied to all parties (conservative, reformist or revolutionary), causing them to become bureaucratised, their leaders to take power from the ranks, subvert inner-party democracy and negate democratic change in society.
This was true of the ALP and, to a lesser extent, the trade unions. But the closer a union or party is to pursuing the interests of its working-class members and supporters independently from other, antagonistic, class interests, and fostering the democratic and active participation of its members, the less likely it is to succumb to the organisational disease of bureaucratism.
Rejecting revolution, disillusioned by the ALP, despairing of the political potential of the working class, it seems likely that Childe's death in 1957 — falling from a cliff in the Blue Mountains — may have been suicide.
Childe will be remembered for his strengths — his enduring Marxist-influenced contribution to pre-history, and the historical socialist benchmark of How Labor Governs, his critique of Labor in office. The mayor of Maryborough in Queensland delivered a blast to Childe in 1918 — a bad type with "no flag, no God and no country" who "preached class war" — which can still serve as a fine accolade for today's socialists.