27 August 2020

Since the publication of Fatal Lure …, Professor Hanmo Zhang, of the Department of History at Renmin University, Beijing, has sent me a Chinese article discussing the correspondence in the early 1950s between Childe and Wang Zhenduo, a leading Chinese archaeologist. Their correspondence, as far as I can discover, is unknown to Childe scholars outside China. I am very grateful to Professor Zhang for sharing this article with me and identifying the Chinese scholars involved.

Childe initiated the correspondence with this letter:

[University of London, Institute of Archaeology, Inner Circle, Regent’s Park, London, N.W.1.]


Dear Colleague,

Though essentially an European prehistorian, I always try to remember the cultural unity of Eurasia going back into prehistoric times and so to keep myself informed of the discoveries of Chinese colleagues relating to the earlier periods. I was therefore delighted by an article in China Reconstructs, 1952, 4 which, though essentially popular allows one to recognise both the immense scientific importance of the recent discoveries and the superb technical skill with which they have been excavated. Particularly strikingly was this demonstrated by a photograph of ‘remains of chariots and horses of the Warring States period” from a tomb at Liuliko near Hueihsien. To me it was of special interest since I am working on early vehicles (see enclosed paper). But excellent though the photograph is it does not settle one crucial point, and my friend Dr. Joseph Needham suggests you might be willing to advise me thereon. I gather that in Yin times horses were harnessed as in Western Asia on either side of a central POLE while by Han times a pair of SHAFTS had already been introduced. What I should like to know is whether POLE or SHAFTS were used in these earlier Warring States chariots. The photograph suggests POLES, but it does not seem quite certain. No photograph of the [page 2 begins] tomb would be likely to show this, but it can be explained in a word.


It would be nice too to have a print of the excellent photograph for reproduction in an English archaeological periodical as a concrete demonstration of the high technical level of Chinese excavations attained even when our colleagues are threatened so badly by the aggression of American imperialism.

With warm congratulation,

yours very truly,

[signed in Cyrillic]


V. Gordon Childe

At the bottom of page 2 of the letter, Childe sketched the two different ways of harnessing, ie, with a POLE or with SHAFTS. The article he referred to in the letter must have been ‘The first wagons and carts – from the Tigris to the Severn’, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society (NS), vol. 17, pp. 177-194, 1951. Clearly, Childe had a scientific interest in early vehicles, and, as we shall see, he knew that the author of the article in China Reconstructs was an important figure in Chinese archaeology. On the surface Childe’s letter seems to be purely professional in intent.

Yet, there is much about this letter that points to a political motive behind its composition. The journal China Reconstructs, was neither scientific nor independent of the Communist government of China. Why was Childe reading such a journal? What was he thinking when he responded to the article in it? Why is he flattering Chinese archaeologists about their superb technical skills when his only evidence is a ‘popular’ article and some blurry photographs? For the answers, let us consider the message of the article, the date of Childe’s letter, the politics of a mentioned friend, the anti-American rhetoric of the last sentence, and the signing of the letter.


The article that Childe read in the July-August 1952 issue of China Reconstructs was about ‘New Archaeological Discoveries’. The author was Hsia Nai, who was the head of the Institute of Archaeology, Academy of Chinese Social Sciences. Since the Chinese Revolution in 1949, Hsia Nai wrote, archaeology had been expanded and re-oriented: ‘Archaeologists no longer dissipate their energy on problems of academic interest only. Instead, their activity is centred on the reconstruction of the history of Chinese society, with every discovery described and explained to the working people … In brief, archaeology has come into contact with life.’ This would have charmed Childe, a long-time proponent of the ‘democratisation’ of archaeology in order to equip ordinary people with tools to understand their history. He would also have been pleased by Hsia Nai’s next assertion, that by applying ‘new scientific methods based on historical materialism Chinese archaeologist had achieved outstanding results’, for Childe had been using the discoveries of Western archaeologists to provide scientific foundations for historical materialism since the mid-1930s.

Let us turn now to the date of Childe’s letter. In 1952 the People’s Republic of China was just three years old, but for two years it had been fighting a proxy war in North Korea against an anti-Communist alliance led by the United States. In 1951, as the war turned against the United States, evidence emerged in Manchuria and North Korea of mysterious illnesses in the general population. The governments of China and the Soviet Union accused the United States of biological warfare. While this was denied by the United States, the World Peace Council (a Communist front) set up an International Scientific Commission of distinguished scientists and doctors. Its report, based on evidence from eyewitnesses, scientists and some American POWs captured in Korea, confirmed the allegations that the United States was experimenting with germ warfare in Korea. The report, which was released just a few weeks before the date of Childe’s letter, was publicised by the left all over the world.


A prominent member of the Commission was the renowned biochemist and sinologist, Joseph Needham, who was an open supporter of the Chinese revolution. In 1952 he was President of the Britain-China Friendship Association. The Vice-President was Vere Gordon Childe. Because Needham was close to the Chinese government (he was a friend of Zhou Enlai, the Premier) he would have informed Childe of Hsia Nai's official position. When Childe called Needham a friend he meant to convey to the Chinese archaeologists that he supported Needham’s international political stance against the role of the United States in Korea, a sentiment reinforced at the end of the letter by his reference to threat posed to archaeologists in the region by America’s imperialist aggression.


Finally, the signature: by signing his correspondence in Cyrillic, Childe was thumbing his nose at Cold War anti-Sovietism. It was a joke he shared only with friends, with people he could trust. His Cyrillic signature in this case, however, is on a letter to someone not known personally, to an unknown ‘Dear Colleague’. It is, as with the examples above, an indication of his supportive feelings for the Chinese people and their revolution. It was an indication that he regarded the Chinese people as his friends.


In fact, the entire letter may be seen as a gesture of political solidarity. The technical question of whether poles or shafts were used during the period of the Warring States was merely a pretext. Moreover, in the light of this letter, a passing remark made by Childe in another connection is now understandable. Six years after this letter and eight years after the Chinese revolution, as Childe was contemplating how he would die, he wrote that if he were fitter he would like to travel in China. Childe scholars usually ignore this remark. It shows that the practice of revolutionary politics was among his last thoughts.


On an entirely different tack: it is also interesting that at the beginning of the letter Childe declares his belief in the cultural unity of Eurasia in prehistory - a statement that I read as an attempt to distance himself from the colonialist 'orientalism' of much western scholarship. I shall contemplate this further, especially in relation to Childe's interest in the Asiatic Mode of Production in Marxism. The AMP may also be used in an 'orientalist' way, but I think the AMP served a different role in Childe's thought. I shall write again on this matter.


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]


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.

 © 2020 Terry Irving.