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Monash University Publishing

Publication: May 2020
Format: Paperback
ISBN (hb):  978-1-925835-74-8
ISBN (e-book): 978-1-925835-75-5
Series: Biography



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



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

'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.'

Braham Dabscheck, The Newtown Review of Books, 25 August 2020

'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

'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'

Judith Brett, ‘Twin Passions’, Inside Story, 8 July 2020

'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.'

Jon Piccini, Australian Book Review, 6 July 2020

‘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.’


Stephen Holt, Honest History, 19 April 2020

‘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.’

John Green, Morning Star (London), 14 April 2020

‘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.’


Rowan Cahill, ‘Childe Unbound’, Radical Sydney/Radical History, 14 April 2020

'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.'

Raewyn Connell, Professor Emerita, University of Sydney


 © 2020 Terry Irving.