Gordon Childe on Lang and the Revolution in 1931

Terry Irving

How close was Australia to a soviet-style revolution in March and April 1931 ? Evidence that this question was exercising the minds of revolutionaries and intellectuals at the time is provided by the following letter from Gordon Childe. In New South Wales ~e refusal by the Labor Premier, J.T. Lang, to pay the interest on the state’s overseas loans made an opening for revolutionary politics. In an historic move the annual conference of the New South Wales branch of the Labor Party, which began on the very day that Childe wrote his letter, pledged itself to ‘socialism in our time’ through a five-year plan of socialisation.

Vere Gordon Childe was Professor of Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh in 1931, but in 1923, just after he had been sacked by a conservative New South Wales government from his post in London as adviser to the previous state Labor government, he had published his classic study of the failure of parliamentary socialism, How Labour Governs.

Childe’s continuing interest in working class politics is revealed by this letter. More particularly it highlights his belief, enunciated in 1918, that intellectual leadership for the working class was essential. Notice that questions of organisation, of the need for a disciplined, Leninist vanguard party, are not asked by Childe in his discussion of the prospects for revolution. He asks instead, who has ‘the brains to do it’?

When Childe concludes in the letter that the Australian workers are not in a revolutionary mood this also reflects his earlier estimation of the character of working class politics in Australia. It is the specifically Australian nature of labour movement politics that is important, notwithstanding the oft-quoted last sentence of How Labour Governs: ‘Such is the history of all Labour organisations in Australia, and that not because they are Australian, but because they are Labour’. Childe had elsewhere elaborated an argument about the cultural pragmatism and strategic advantages of the Australian workers that differentiated Australian from European working class politics. His reference here to D.H. Lawrence’s view in Kangaroo underlines this point. This is the more supportable Childean view of Australian labour politics; problems and opportunities arise not because the politics’ are labour but because they are Australian labour.

Childe wrote this letter to Rajani Palme Dutt, his close friend at Oxford in 1916-17 and foundation member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Dutt had solicited an article from Childe for Labour Monthly, which had published two earlier pieces on Australia by Childe. Allen Hutt was a radical historian and trade unionist. ‘Higs’ probably refers to Esmond Higgins (Nettie Palmer’s cousin) who had worked with Childe in the Labour Research Department in London before returning to Australia and becoming an official of the Communist Party in the ‘twenties.

My thanks are due to George Matthews, of the Communist Party Archives in London, who gave me permission to publish the letter, and to Peter Gathercole, whose political biography of Childe will be published soon, for drawing my attention to the letter. Readers who are curious about the basis for my arguments above should go in the first instance to my article in Labour History, 58, May 1990.

Childe, who had an ironic humour as well as a penetrating analysis of the weakness of the A.L.P., would have appreciated the fact that at the New South Wales Labor conference, Lang, the man who created the opening to the left, voted against the ‘socialism in our time’ proposal and eventually had it rescinded.

V.G. Childe to R.P. Dutt, 4 April 1931, from the Royal Societies Club, St. James’s Street, London, S.W.1

My dear Raji,

I was awfully bucked to hear from you again. The only one of your colleagues I meet nowadays is Allen Hutt and that rarely. As you see from the notepaper I’ve become bloody bourgeoise, at least externally. I even hold some of Lang’s stock, but I write to congratulate him on his courage.

I’m too much out of touch with recent Australian developments to do you an article such as you suggest – tho I’d gladly do one gratis if I could. But there are many new developments since I left and new names that I do not know.

Australia as you know has lived for years on very cheap loan money. With this she has financed public works to absorb the unemployed unskilled and semiskilled and also imported machinery etc. Lang’s policy means the abandonment of that scheme but very likely the supply would be dried up anyway. The question is can she carry on without it: in other words are her secondary industries sufficiently developed to make her independent of real foreign capital. If the answer is in the affirmative (I’ve no means of judging) then the only sensible course is a bold Soviet policy – repudiate foreign loans and take over the secondary industries like the BHP steel works etc., Lang is now ([Sun. ?]) proposing this.

But even so is there anyone with the brains to do it? Lang is (or was) a very honest man and strong willed (or at least obstinate). But I doubt whether he was really very brilliant, and now and then a very small quantity of liquor used to make him drunk. He was pretty steady but may have grown less so. I know none of his backers. T J. Garden is an ex-parson and a mere gas-bag.

Ted Theodore is another strong man but really rather conventional. He is more or less capitalised too. For a politician he is honest, ie., he is clever enough only to take bribes for what he would do anyway, but remember how he capitulated over the Pastoral Leases? As to the workers I can’t imagine [them?] getting constructively revolutionary. A real reduction in standards of living affecting all grades might have that effect. The present Federal policy however is to keep the big mass of the skilled and the railwaymen and such like reasonably comfortable. They would certainly be worse off for a while under a Soviet regime (unless run by a super Lenin) and probably guess this. I gather the unemployed are numerous and really in distress but there are still lots of skilled men comfortable to a degree unknown even in England. But really one can’t tell. Can you not get hold of Higs?

To me the questions are (i) state of secondary industries (ii) leaders (iii) temper of proletariat, and I’m really unable to answer them. Australia is an ideal country for a Soviet system when the economic conditions are ripe but as long as the Tories can rely on the active co-operation of (a) the small farmers (b) the blackcoated proletariat and (c) a section of the skilled unionists they would probably win if it came to fighting. The ‘cockies’ are hefty chaps and the capitalists generally have better organising power and better leadership.

At any rate one State is helpless. Only the whole Commonwealth (or at least the three eastern States together) could carry through an effective revolution.

I suppose you’ve read D.H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo. He diagnosed the Australian temperament with uncanny insight. Well I’m sorry I can’t do your article. I haven’t even time to go to Australia House and read up the Labor Daily for I must go down to Devon and look at monuments next week and then return to lecture in the chilly north. In any case without knowing the people one can’t do much.

All best wishes. Yours ever