This is an edited extract from a dinner speech to the Liberal Club of the University of Melbourne, delivered on 10 December 2021
About a decade ago, I sat down with a group of men, all a few years older than me, for dinner. We had all gone to the same primary school, we had all come from old Catholic Democratic Labor Party (DLP) families, we had all found that we had wound up working in, or on, China and that we had become largely secular in our beliefs.
I’d brought along copies of my book Thunder From the Silent Zone: Rethinking China and gave each of them a copy before we ordered our meal. To my fascination, one of them remarked, as he took my book in hand, “Of course, it’s well-known that you’re an extreme right-winger.” I was astonished. “It is?!” I exclaimed. “Well known to whom? Based on what?”
He didn’t answer my questions. I went on: “I’m pretty much a John Stuart Mill kind of chap. If that makes me an extreme right-winger, we’re in serious trouble!”
I think we are in fairly serious trouble, and I think we need to define our terms rather carefully if we are to get out of that trouble.
Mill made less of an impression on me as a young man than he should have done, or perhaps would have done if I’d had a liberal upbringing. It was Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Trotsky, Sartre and Camus who revolutionised my adolescent thinking after leaving Catholic secondary school. I had not had a liberal upbringing. I’d had a conservative Catholic one and I threw it over a...