29 May 2020

There are many references to Childe’s odd looks. Sally Green reports that his fellow pupils at school remembered his ‘extraordinary looks’ – his thick spectacles, gingery hair, thin frame and awkward movements. Solly Zuckerman, the British scientist and administrator, who knew Childe in the 1930s, wrote about his strange appearance: ‘his squeaky voice came out from under a long wispy moustache’. In the 1950s, the Australian art historian, Bernard Smith, described Childe as ‘a small man hidden behind bushy eyebrows and large spectacles which perched mid-career on his nose.’ When he greets you ‘he holds out a small withered hand’ that gives the impression of having ‘been embalmed a thousand years.’

But was he ugly? If you call me ugly, I know you want to insult me. If you point to the buckling of the teeth in my lower jaw, I feel embarrassed that you have noticed one of my less-handsome features, but I am not insulted. Childe had many odd features, but after his death he was often described as ugly. The Scots archaeologist, Angus Graham, remembered Childe as having ‘notable ugliness of face’. Or his face was described in such a detestable manner that ‘ugly’ immediately springs to mind: ‘a high, narrow, sloping forehead which appeared to be chiselled out of marble. Two misty, pale blue eyes regarded one shiftily through round spectacles which rested half-way down his red-button nose. His mouth and chin were primatial, the teeth hidden behind a walrus moustache … he would hiss and spit out words after extending a limp hand with the fingers pointing down.’ This was how another archaeologist, Howard Kilbride-Jones, remembered Childe.

Why did people want to insult him in this way? A letter, written secretly by an enemy, contains a clue to the answer. The author was the head of Childe’s Oxford College, Edward Armstrong, and he was writing in response to a query about Childe from the Home Office during the First World War. Armstrong described Childe as ‘repulsively ugly, probably the ugliest man in the world’. But why? To Armstrong, Childe was ‘perverted’ because of his ‘romantic affection’ for a male student and his anti-war activism. Suspect sexuality and subversive politics: these were enough to justify slinging an insulting term at Childe.

‘The ugliest man in the world’ was the phrase used in relation to Childe in his MI5 file, and also in his ASIO file. It is not a description at all. Strange words indeed for spooks and pooh-bahs to use if your aim is to identify an enemy of the state.

The use of this phrase reveals, however, that Childe had the power to discomfort members of the ruling class. Everything about him was wrong from their point of view. He was a colonial; he was a pacifist; he was a revolutionary socialist; he was a Marxist scholar, and he was probably sexually attracted to men. On the other hand, in his chosen career his brilliance could not be dismissed. So as a person he had to be denigrated. He was ‘the ugliest man in the world’.

Armstrong coined this phrase just a few months after the cover photo for The Fatal Lure was taken. It shows a handsome face. You will find other images of him in the book. He had an odd face, certainly. But let’s not continue to insult him by calling it an ugly face – unless you want to identify with reactionaries disturbed by his politics and sexuality.


21 May 2020


Do history students read R.G. Collingwood’s The Idea of History (1946) these days? When I was doing history honours at Sydney University in the 1950s it was required reading for the compulsory historiography seminar. (Do history honours students even have to take such a course these days? I’d really like to know.) Collingwood has much to teach us. We all know that scissors-and-paste history is a no-no; the phrase was Collingwood’s. We probably think it refers to a case of crudely executed plagiarism, or of using primary sources out of context. Collingwood, however, meant by it something more philosophical, the practice of reasoning based on generalisations about the world as known, now, by the pseudo-historian who cuts out of history what is false by today’s standards. Instead we need to discover, he said, the meaning behind actions in the past, the reasoning of the past not of the present. How does the historian do that? According to Collingwood, taking a mis-step, we have to re-enact in our own mind the thoughts and motives of the actors of the past.

Collingwood was a philosophical idealist; Childe was a Hegelian Marxist: a materialist who acknowledged the role of consciousness. Childe agreed with Collingwood that the traces of the past, whose meanings historians seek to resurrect, were the result of purposive, reasoned actions. But he did not take the next step and conclude with Collingwood that history, philosophically, is the study of the mind. Instead he concluded, as the title of his 1949 Hobhouse Trust Memorial Lecture, Social Worlds of Knowledge suggested, that historical knowledge was a social creation, the result of reasoned actions in a social setting, a setting that those actions were creating.

In this lecture Childe explicitly refuted Collingwood’s view that history is the history of mind. I wish I had known of its existence in 1959 when I was doing history honours. My professors were keen that I read Collingwood, but not Childe, although he had delivered his refutation to a distinguished academic audience ten years earlier. It is hard to find Childe’s Lecture today (my copy was kindly given to me by Murray Goot, with the inscription: ‘the triumph of use value over exchange value’). So, I’m going to quote part of Childe’s refutation.

It is empirically impossible ‘to re-enact’ in one’s mind the ‘thoughts and motives’ of people in the past – those for example of Pythagoras as he invented his theorem. It is also, Childe writes, theoretically impossible: ‘Collingwood tells me in effect to empty my mind of all the ideas, categories and values derived from my society in order to fill it with the ideas of an extinct society. But this is doubly impossible. On the one hand the drainage process would not leave a tabula rasa, but nothing at all … On the other hand, there would be nothing to put into that nothing, since collective representations exist only for societies and would be extinguished with the extinction of the society for which they existed.’

And the alternative? What does Childe tell Collingwood? That: ‘our culture already incorporates the real thought of past societies. The best results of their thinking are already embodied in, and indeed constitutive of, our culture. They do not have to be translated into alien logical forms or fitted into foreign frames. The historian’s business is to locate in their proper social and chronological context these thoughts that are still living and active in our culture.’

When one thinks about historical thinking one should not think of Collingwood without thinking of Childe.

Collingwood in 1912, painted by his mother, Edith Mary Collingwood.


20 June 2020

At the University of Sydney – Childe’s alma mater, and mine – courses on fascism and slavery are designated to be cut from the History Department’s program. At the same time, the conservative federal government has devised a scheme to direct students away from courses in History, Politics and Sociology, where supposed ‘cultural Marxists’ are poisoning their minds, by more than doubling the cost of a degree in Humanities or the Social Sciences. Intellectual conformity, not free enquiry, will be the inevitable outcome of both developments.

Prime Minister Morrison has spoken of his love for the ‘quiet Australians’ - those who don’t noisily disagree with their rulers. Authoritarian thinking is typically conservative, but it is especially prominent when the rightness of capitalist rule is being questioned, when the consent of the governed can no longer be relied on. Then the choice for the ruling class is stark: do they opt for ‘hard’ fascism or ‘soft’? Do they opt for abandoning the pretence that parliamentarism equals democracy and unveiling the ‘hard’ police state that always lurked in its shadows, or do they maintain the political façade but corrupt its processes, criminalizing dissent, suppressing cultural difference, encouraging intellectual conformity? This is soft fascism.

Childe opposed the First World War not only because he was sickened by its ‘senseless slaughter’ but because he feared that censorship, conscription and other war-time controls on civil life would lead to ‘the complete destruction of liberty and justice’. During the 1930s he maintained his pacifist position, believing that another war would destroy all that remained in Britain of civilisation. But by the late 1930s he was also well-known for campaigning against Nazism, as both a threat to peace and a source of racialism, which in the form of ‘Aryan nonsense’ particularly affected his own area of expertise, archaeology.

In September 1938 Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was negotiating with Hitler about his territorial demands on Czechoslovakia, in the hope that by making concessions to Hitler, he would turn his gaze eastward and eventually attack the Soviet Union. On 24 September Chamberlain accepted German demands to occupy the Sudetenland. On the same day Childe wrote to the New Statesman and Nation: Chamberlain and the British ruling class had made war with Hitler inevitable. Worse, in the interval before it broke out, internal changes would leave only ‘a skeleton of civilisation’ in Britain.

Government pressure, Childe wrote, was already creating a docile press that endorsed the official line on appeasement and rubbished dissent. Childe imagined what might follow: each new war-threat would be manipulated to produce a state of patriotic unity; criticism of Hitlerism would be labelled disloyal; Marxists would be barred from Universities and the BBC; the distinguished anti-Fascist exiles ‘who are today enriching our science and our art’ would be expelled; the theory of relativity, discovered by a Jew, would be ‘quietly expunged from our scientific literature’; arts and letters would be similarly ‘purged of Semitism’; and ‘our debt to pre-Aryan Indians and Sumerians would be suppressed in histories adjusted to an anglicised version of Hitler’s racialism’.

Soft fascism has become the strategy of choice for anxious ruling classes in today’s globalized capitalist world. The names: Trump, Bolsonaro, Erdogan, Orban, Putin, Modi, indicate only the most egregious examples of soft fascist regimes. And Australia? That’s a subject for another time, but with Gordon Childe’s legacy in mind we would certainly want to look closely at the health of the country’s intellectual life, and ruling class attempts to control it. The term ‘soft Fascism’ had not been invented when Childe wrote, but he discerned that ‘denial of free enquiry’ would be at its grey core.

[I discuss Childe’s 1938 letter in chapter 19 of The Fatal Lure of Politics: The Life and Thought of Vere Gordon Childe, Monash University Publishing, 2020]

 © 2020 Terry Irving.