Like the vast majority of Australians, I am the child of immigrants. My parents immigrated in the late 1950s, when the economies of north-western Europe were in a bad way (and when the Australian government was using propaganda to get people here). They met in Australia and I was born while they were still Dutch citizens. In fact, English is my second language, since the first language I learnt was Dutch. Since that time, I feel as though I have lived many lives.
My major interest is in Marxism, philosophy and religion. However, I came to Marxism via an idiosyncratic way: through theology! I was brought up in a clergyman’s household, since my father was a theologian and minister. So it is very much part of who I am, especially in terms of Reformed theology. Only later did I discover that Engels had a similar upbringing, since he was deeply influenced by the Reformed tradition. So it is perhaps not so uncommon to move from Calvin to Marx (while keeping Calvin very much present).
But in the late 1980s, I took a course in Political and Liberation Theologies (as part of my second degree – my first degree was in European Classics). The course made me want to study Marx rather than read about his work. So my Masters degree focussed on Marx and Hegel. Ever since then, I have explored the myriad permutations of the intersections between Marxism, philosophy and religion.
This has taken me to Marxist philosophy, biblical criticism, theology, political theory, cultural and literary analysis and history. I have become particularly interested in radically progressive religious movements, inspired by radical theology. In that light, I call myself a Christian communist.
It has also taken me to China, where I now teach and research for a semester each year. Why China? My work initially focused on Western European Marxism, resulting in the five-volume series, The Criticism of Heaven and Earth (2007-14). By this time, I became very interested in the Russian communists and the Soviet Union – after spending much time in Eastern Europe. A book on Lenin was the result, as well as a current study of Stalin, the only world communist leader to have studied theology (1895-99).
I was clearly heading eastwards, if one thinks in terms of the northern hemisphere. From my perspective, I was moving increasingly northwards, since I come from the global south. Hence China. I am learning Chinese, and soon I will be able to work with the extensive and innovative research in Chinese Marxism – in the language itself. I now have reasonably extensive links across China, with Marxists of many different hues. Of course, I have written some works on China and am planning some more substantial studies of Mao Zedong and Chinese Marxist philosophy after 1976.
At the same time, I am somewhat outside the whole university and academic system. Or rather, I have one foot inside and one foot outside, which I manage by keeping to a half-time position. This gives me the opportunity to do what I like to do rather than what I am told to do. While I supervise some high-calibre postgraduate students from around the world in Marxism, religion and theology, I find the whole pattern of assessment, metrics, grants, research outputs and so on quite alienating and prefer to keep out of such practices as far as possible.
To that end, I often disappear into the mountains and the ‘bush’, hiking on my own or riding my bicycle into the wilderness – away from any mobile phone contact or other people. I also like to travel by container ship, taking weeks to get to another place, arriving in a new country as human beings have done for millennia: slowly and gently. So also in China, where I like to get away from the cities and into the countryside (where it certainly pays to know a few words of the language).