THE FATAL LURE OF
The Life and Thought of Vere Gordon Childe
Renowned Australian-born archaeologist and prehistorian Vere Gordon Childe (1892–1957) had a lifelong fascination with socialist politics. In his early life he was active in the Australian labour movement and wrote How Labour Governs (1923), the world’s first study of parliamentary socialism. However, he decided to pursue a life of scholarship to ‘escape the fatal lure’ of politics and Australian labour’s ‘politicalism’ – his term for its misguided emphasis on parliamentary representation.
In Britain, with the publication of The Dawn of European Civilisation (1925), Childe began a career that would establish him as preeminent in his field and one of the most distinguished scholars of the mid-twentieth century. At the same time, he aimed to ‘democratise archaeology’ and involve people in its practice. What Happened in History (1942), his most popular book, sold 300,000 copies in its first 15 years.
Politics continued to lure Childe, and for forty years he was spied upon by security services of Britain and Australia. He supported Russia’s ‘grand and hopeful experiment’ and opposed the rise of fascism. His Australian background reinforced his hatred of colonialism and imperialism. Politics was also implicated in his death. There is a direct line between Childe’s early radicalism and his final – and fatal – political act in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney.
The Fatal Lure of Politics is a new and radically different biography about the central place of socialist politics in Gordon Childe’s life, and his contribution to the theory of history that this politics entailed.
'Finally, we have a definitive study of world-renowned prehistorian Gordon Childe, Australia’s most famous left-wing intellectual. Terry Irving’s extraordinary, investigative scholarship is enlightening and enthralling. This is an important book and biography at its very best.’
Verity Burgmann, Adjunct Professor of Political Science, Monash University
‘Deeply researched and eloquently written, this is a compelling study of a formidable socialist thinker and his intellectual milieux. The Fatal Lure of Politics is a work of prodigious scholarship: penetrating, engaging and authoritative.’
Phillip Deery, Emeritus Professor of History, Victoria University
'Terry Irving’s The Fatal Lure of Politics is a powerful work of immense scholarship that firmly situates V. Gordon Childe’s life and work within his commitment to revolutionary politics. This is a well-written, remarkable piece of research that sheds important new light on one of anthropology’s most daring minds and revolutionary figures. It is required reading for anyone interested in Twentieth Century intellectual history.'
David H. Price, Professor of Anthropology, St Martin’s University
'Is science neutral? Why should Security Intelligence Services consider an archaeologist ‘a very dangerous person’? Surveillance, espionage, and censorship were all part of the life of a young Australian, V. Gordon Childe, who became the most famous archaeologist of all time. This book offers a masterful account of the political context of his oeuvre and casts new light on his most famous book, What Happened in History. We have been waiting for a book like this for years.'
Margarita Diaz-Andreu, Research Professor, ICREA & Professor, Universitat de Barcelona
‘An excellent book, with a compelling narrative that is very entertainingly told. Irving has done an excellent job in describing Childe’s political journey and mapping it onto his prehistoric archaeological scholarship in a way that enhances both. Fans of early twentieth century and leftist history will enjoy his evocation of the machinery of politicking and who was in and who was a sell-out, and you can almost taste the cigarette smoke. Highly recommended.’
Denis Gojak, Archaeologist, Transport for NSW
Australian Historical Studies, 54:1 (2023)
‘Certainly, the best biography I read in 2022 and possibly the best non-fiction book in any genre, is Terry Irving’s comprehensive and incisive examination of the varied and controversial life of archaeologist, political theorist and leftist practitioner Vere Gordon Childe. … [Irving] is an astute biographer. … This is a scholarly book but a very readable one. It should be compulsory reading for anyone interested in freedom of thought, the intellectual underpinnings of the left, and in the study of archaeology, palaeontology, and history.’
Dr Tony Smith, commentator on public affairs
‘Terry Irving’s book is a very important contribution for several reasons. He rescues Childe the revolutionary and ties this to Childe the archaeologist. He also takes the reader through the political and intellectual milieu that shaped Childe, in particular the class struggle in the early twentieth century. By placing Childe’s near forgotten book HOW LABOUR GOVERNS at the heart of the story Irving also shows 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. … 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.’
Martin Empson, historian and socialist ecologist
‘It’s a page-turner: cold-war thriller, rich social history, workerist tract, elite gossip, existential enigma.’
Paul Gillen, independent scholar and author
'This is an extremely impressive book. Irving has ranged widely across a diverse collection of sources to tell as much as we can know of Childe’s life. Almost every time the reader begins to think of a question not yet answered Irving provides one in the next few pages. Irving is concerned to define Childe as an intellectual whose life was defined by his commitment to Marxism. The work reflects Irving’s decades-long preoccupation with the role of intellectuals. The Fatal Lure of Politics is more than the story of a fascinating individual it also provides a unique perspective on the course of socialist and Marxist politics in a catastrophic century.'
Geoff Robinson, Senior Lecturer, Deakin University.
Australian Journal of Biography and History, no. 6, 2022
'Now at last we have the first extended study of of the development of Childe's political thinking and the pattern of his political activity. ... What has emerged is a triumph of archival research and fully documented presentation. ... This is a superb biography of a remarkable individual, detailed, nuanced, sympathetic but not uncritical. It is a major contribution to Australian social and political history, but also to the history of archaeology and our understanding of the most intellectually challenging scholar who has worked on European prehistory and more widely on human social evolution'
Timothy Champion, Professor of Archaeology, University of Southhampton, UK.
'This is an outstanding biography … What Terry Irving has demonstrated, beyond any reasonable doubt, is that there was only one Gordon Childe, not two, not the brilliant academic as against the Marxist activist, but a man who was a brilliant academic because he was a Marxist activist. … The author's fixing of Childe's theory of history onto its Marxist foundation is way ahead of anything attempted before. … This is one of the most brilliant biographies I have ever read. The author demonstrates complete mastery over a wide range of sources. It has the feel of a book long in preparation. It is also notable for its consistent integrity, for the absence of any hint of polemic or apologetic’
Dr Neil Faulkner, European Journal of Archaeology, vol. 24, no. 3, 2021
‘This is a wonderful book, thick in description, analysis and suggestion. It plays with the idea that there were two lives, early and late, political and archaeological. And it seeks to listen out for the echoes across these fields, for associations and continuities.’
'What Irving conveys with consummate skill is the swirl and mix of arguments and positions that were combined in these early years: Fabianism, Guildism, pluralism, elements of new liberalism, Marxism, syndicalism, social democracy, Christianity and ethical socialism and, of course differing subsequent enthusiasms for Bolshevism and communism.’
‘This book is a labour of love, as well as, in a particular sense, a love of labour. Terry Irving is a stalwart of labour history and of Labour History. This book is a monument to his life and contribution.’
Professor Peter Beilharz, Curtin University and Sichuan University, Labour History, number 120, May 2021
'Terry Irving has written an outstanding biography of a complex and elusive man. ... [He] offers a judicious and lucid exploration of Childe’s life. He teases out possibilities from the available sources and acknowledges their limitations. … This creatively employed rigour is inspired by his own experiences. … Irving would be amongst those who were ‘part of the radical redirection of the humanities and social sciences liberated by the social movements of the 1960s’. From his own experience he reflects on Childe’s complexities, the options forgone and the choices made.'
David Howell, Emeritus Professor of Politics, University of York
Socialist History, 60 (Autumn 2021)
‘Terry Irving’s monumental biography … serves centrally to demonstrate that Vere Gordon Childe did not operate with a bifurcated mind or dual personality … Rather, as Irving shows, Childe’s political commitment theoretically infused all of his academic speculations about historical cultures; just as his material discoveries of preliterate existences and change firmed and expanded his Marxist understanding of society and its evolution. … [The result is] a complex and incisive intellectual biography.’
Raymond Evans, Adjunct Professor, Centre for Public Culture and Ideas, Griffith University.
Queensland Journal of Labour History, issue 33, 2021
'In Irving’s portrait, Childe’s identity is framed around “difference and conscience”, his politics “anchored in individualism but veering towards collectivism”. Invested in “movements” and capable of gestures of intellectual “bravery”, his experience remained shadowed by ostracism, introversion, and caution. These are powerful themes. ... Among this book’s particular strengths are its reflective, questioning engagement with the many dimensions of, and ambiguities in, Childe’s significance. Resisting easy synthesis, Irving concedes the combative, calculating sometimes inconsistent elements of a life equally uncompromising in its values and closed in some of its most intimate aspects. ... In a neat complementarity, Irving’s account matches the materialism that Childe insisted on in all of his work.'
Professor Nicholas Brown (ANU), History Australia, vol. 18 (4), November 2021
'This is a truly wonderful biography of a very significant figure in Australia’s intellectual life. It is exhaustively researched, written with great verve, and illustrated with well-chosen photographs. [Interleaving] chapters of narrative with chapters exploring both his political convictions and his archaeological research, Irving’s biography is an engrossing exploration of Childe’s life and mind.
Dr Douglas Newton, ISAA REVIEW (Independent Scholars Association of Australia), Volume 19, Number 1, 2023
'Terry Irving’s The Fatal Lure of Politics is the biography of a remarkable intellectual, Vere Gordon Childe, who is definitely one of my heroes. … This new book shows how intimately Childe’s scholarly and political lives were connected. It’s a dramatic and tangled story, but Terry Irving catches its complexity in a deeply researched, illuminating and emotionally moving biography.'
'Terry Irving’s extraordinary, investigative scholarship has provided an enlightening and enthralling account of the life and thought of Australia’s most famous socialist intellectual. Irving’s treatment is nuanced and sophisticated, producing perceptive historical and philosophical analysis, as well as a compelling narrative. ... Sensitive to the heart and soul as well as the mind of this exceptional man, Irving’s important book is biography at its very best.'
Verity Burgmann, Recorder, 298, July 2020
‘All of his academic career, Professor Irving has been fascinated by Childe. In this book, he has discharged a debt with honour. Politics was indeed ‘the fatal lure’, words in a title that summarises a life of achievement so very well. The result is a book worthy of V.G. Childe. There is no higher praise.’'
Rodney Cavalier AO, Hummer (vol. 14, no. 2, 2020), Journal of the Sydney Branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History
'Childe the fellow socialist, not the esteemed archaeologist, is the subject of this lovingly crafted biography. … It is hard not to detect a hint of autobiography in this engaging book. Irving no doubt sees in Childe’s story the complications he himself has faced as an activist historian, committed to producing ‘usable history’ for the workers’ movement, but employed by increasingly corporatised, impersonal universities. This productive relationship between subject and author has produced a work that ought to be read widely, and should inform our struggles for knowledge that serves people, not profits.'
‘Engrossing biography of eminent archaeologist with a revolutionary impulse … In its meticulous coverage of the stages of Childe’s political development, this book ... deserves its place in the definitive library of left-wing political biographies.’
‘Irving’s study of Childe and his thought is a mature, moving, and major biographical intervention. The sort of time it took Irving to produce this finely crafted tour de force, the creativity involved, the false starts, the experimentation, the intended audience, are all processes, and aims, unwelcome and not encouraged in the neoliberal academy, much to its detriment, and to those of society and culture. ... In short, and in one word, outstanding.’
'Terry Irving’s ‘radical portrayal showcases the two lives of Vere Gordon Childe, himself a radical archaeologist-Marxist political activist and perhaps one of Australia’s greatest intellectual exports. … It’s an extremely compelling portrayal of a unique Australian.'
Brian Dale, Law Society Journal, issue 70, September 2020
'I immensely enjoyed this new biography. … It explores the development of Childe's thought through the political philosophy of Marxism and convincingly makes the case that his life's trajectory and work is best understood through this prism. …But most of all this is a very human story of a person who negotiated his way through a world overwhelmingly opposed to his fundamental principles. … Even his apparently tragic end (leaping from a cliff in the Blue Mountains) may not be as tragic as it seems in light of his own principles as Irving relates them. … This is an astoundingly insightful and detailed look at Childe's innermost thoughts, but as good biography does, those thoughts illuminate the events of history. … The history of 20th century left politics … is all the richer for its publication.'
Ben, Good Reads, May 29, 2021
'Readers will be enthralled by Irving’s rich investigative research. He uncovers the life of one of the world’s most important intellectuals, who challenged archaeologists, historians and socialists, and defied attempts by wartime states to deny civil liberties and academic freedom. It is a remarkable and different style of biography. As the world once again moves toward reaction and social democratic parties disappoint, Childe’s anti-determinist Marxism remains relevant for socialism in the 21st century.'
Judith McVey, International Socialism, issue 169, January 2021
'One particularly good feature of Irving's work is that it reminds readers of the big upsurges in working-class militancy leading up to the Great War (which continued during and afterwards). …This is an excellent intellectual biography which will be of especial interest to those in or with an interest in working class and revolutionary politics.'
John Nebauer, Good Reads, October 11, 2020
'Terry Irving’s biography of Vere Gordon Childe is an unusual one. It is a blend of the traditional ‘life and times’, a detailed exploration of Childe’s ideological development, and a history of radical left politics in Australia and Britain. ... While Irving’s personal beliefs and sympathy for his subject are undisguised, this does not compromise his meticulous research and superior scholarship.'
David Clune, University of Sydney, Australasian Parliamentary Review, vol 35, no. 1, 2020
'Terry Irving has written ‘an absorbing political biography of [Vere Gordon] Childe’. He ‘makes an extensive contribution to our understanding of early twentieth century Labor history and Childe’s continuity of a left-wing analysis throughout his life of opposition to imperialism, fascism, oppression and injustice, and his contribution to a historical materialist understanding of societies past.’
Liz Ross, Marxist Left Review, number 21, Summer 2021
'Irving discusses the historical, social and political contexts of Childe's life, his ideas and the content of his books in fine detail ... Irving's work therefore is commendable'
Dr Bobbie Oliver, Western Worker, no. 10, September 2021
'Terry Irving charts the politics of early twentieth century Australia through the life of writer and polymath Vere Gordon Childe ... [He] is to be congratulated for the extent of his research and scholarship in drawing our attention to one of Australia's early outstanding scholars and public intellectuals. He also provides valuable information on developments in Australian universities and Australian historiography.'
‘In 1957, as a teenage campus radical, Terry Irving witnessed Childe receiving an honorary degree at Sydney University, Childe’s alma mater. … Irving has recreated Childe’s life, work and thought with great care and precision. ... Childe’s involvement in significant events and matters makes for compelling reading. The odd personal touch – such as Childe’s brush with the 1919 pandemic – adds to the book’s readability. That brief academic encounter in 1957 has paid off handsomely.’
'Terry Irving gives us a good sense of Childe the person … [and his] discussion of Childe’s experience of labour politics is densely researched and immensely detailed'
'Well worth reading, this biography of world-renowned Australian archaeologist, historian and socialist idealist, Vere Gordon Childe … Childe authored numerous works on an array of topics … Irving gives a full account not only of the details of publication but also of the intellectual and political setting in which Childe produced his work. … The text is supported by detailed footnotes that together with an extensive bibliography reveal meticulous research.'
Ian Dodd, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol. 107, part 1, June 2021