Archives for posts with tag: Monash

Tsootsoo lay dozing by the orange glow of the electric fan heater, the one my mother says brings sleep (φέρνει ύπνο), soaking up its warming rays through her big fat pink belly. From the angle of the sun piercing through the curtains onto my eyes, I figured it had to be well after four. My wristwatch said quarter to five, which meant I had slept for close to two solid hours. It was a deep, incapacitating kind of sleep, free of dreams, what my mother calls φυσικό φάρμακο, and now I felt thoroughly rejuvenated. 
    It was also that time in the afternoon when Tsootsoo usually had her dinner, and in case I forgot, she had twisted her head up off the floor and was looking directly at me with her big, brown, beckoning eyes. In anticipation of my getting up, or perhaps to prompt me into action, she propped herself up onto her backside, but sensing I was in no hurry to get up off the couch, she forlornly slumped back down onto the carpet with an audible thump, letting out a deep sigh, before rolling back on her side, while I continued to bask under the blanket in the sweet languorous after-glow of nature’s best medicine.

    With my sister out of the house and not likely to be back for another hour, I knew at some point I would have to get up and make her dinner, because to deny her at her accustomed hour would be sheer cruelty. Why couldn’t she open the refrigerator, I wondered, dice up a portion of dog loaf into her bowl, mix in some dry pellets, and feed herself? Then again, there was no guarantee she wouldn’t eat the entire loaf at once and make herself thoroughly sick. Dogs are like that; they will eat whatever is placed in front of them, to maximize their chances of survival in case of sudden scarcity. And Tsootsoo is no different. She has such a voracious appetite, she eats everything she’s given, to the point of regurgitating what her stomach cannot accommodate.

    She wasn’t always like that, but after she was neutered following the birth of her first and only litter of seven pups, sired by a beady-eyed red heeler-cross from the gas station across the highway in Five Ways where my parents used to have a small farm growing flowers, her gluttonous tendency gradually took hold, and in the ensuing years she gained so much weight that she now has to be lifted onto the couch and the back seat of the car whenever she goes for a ride. But she didn’t attain that portly state all on her own, and some of the blame must lie with my father. With her big, brown, beckoning eyes, she had little trouble seducing him into surrendering to her every nuanced demand, and with a simple bat of her eyes at dinner, he would shove half his plate into her bowl and slip it to her under the table, to the chagrin of my mother who had to watch her fine cooking on which she’d slaved hours in the kitchen preparing, being fed to a dog. But now that he’s gone, she’s turned her beguiling ways to the next available sucker who happens to be me.

    In fact, it was he who came up with the name Tsootsoo. I think it came from a female character in one of those black-and-white film comedies set in Athens in the 1960s, a “κορίτσι του εξήντα,” as they say. That was before the military junta seized power and brought the frivolity and exuberance of the times to an abrupt end. And within a year, my father and mother had immigrated to a strange new country on the other side of the world, and dragged me and my sister off with them. But that’s another story.

    It must be said my father had a particular knack for assigning apt nick-names not only to pets and people, but also to cars and various other inanimate objects. These included our utility bills for electricity and gas, which he named “Βασίλη”, as in “μικρός Βασίλης” and “μεγάλος Βασίλης” depending which was larger, a cross-lingual play on words for the name Bill in Greek, and the English word for the payment owing. But I always thought his choice of name for Tsootsoo was particularly fitting, because it had that coquettish ring to it which perfectly captured her flirtatious disposition, from her dreamy, Greta Garbo eyes, down to her overgrown toenails, and the way she liked to toy with his emotions.

    With her hunger mounting, Tsootso lifted her head up off the floor again, and stared directly into my eyes, this time with added purpose. In that primal mode of communication mutually comprehensible to higher mammals, she was telling me her hunger was becoming insufferable, and she would not stop staring into my eyes until I was so stricken with guilt, I would have no choice than to get up and make her dinner, or else risk falling ill. Now there’s a thought: can guilt actually make one physically sick? What about the pernicious curse of “the evil eye”? There must some truth in it, seeing it’s so deeply embedded in the folklore of so many cultures.

    I guess it’s possible, by suppressing the immune system through the hypophyseal-adrenal axis which mediates the body’s responses to stress, both physical as well as psychological. In fact, there’s quite a large body of literature on the subject, which comes under the general head of “psychosomatic illness”, although serious-minded scientists are still loath to acknowledge its legitimacy. Apparently, a particularly debilitating form of psychological stress whose effects have been well documented in mammals is “subjugation stress.” This results in the suppression of the subservient animal’s immunity, causing it to fall victim to various opportunistic infections, as well as driving it to self-harm. And in terms of psychological impact, it would fair to assume that stress occasioned by guilt and shame would not be all that dissimilar in it’s sequelae, depending, of course, on the degree to which the subject actually “feels” guilt or shame, or any other deeply conscience-troubling emotion. Therefore, in response to Tsootsoo’s imploring, guilt-inducing stare, my own immunological defenses could well be knocked out, and I too fall victim to some opportunistic disease. That’s on top of the neurophysiological effects on my brain to make me more pliant and submissive to her demands in the future, and avoid sickening guilt.

    I guess from an evolutionary perspective, guilt-induced stress may have arisen among social animals to ensure the group’s survival as a self-perpetuating unit. It may do this by acting as a disciplinary mechanism to enforce docility and cooperation among compliant members so they don’t stray from their assigned rôles in the division of labor, thus helping maintain the group’s functional cohesiveness. The present case, however, involved not an extended kin group, but two individuals from different species, albeit sharing a common ancestor in their distant past; that is, a neutered female canine using her wiles to induce an unattached and somewhat weak-willed human male in her eyes, into acting in her favor. This relationship was more akin to parasitism, or perhaps some kind of symbiotic codependence, than anything directed towards hierarchy enforcement, and alludes to advanced cognitive functions in dogs. Or does it?

    Maybe their brains are just wired to respond to sensory cues from humans with behaviors that appear perceptive, but which are nothing more than an elaboration of their in-born instincts for self-preservation within their social group. And conversely, our own brains are wired to recognize behavioral cues in them, as surrogates for human companions in our lives, and to respond accordingly, without any high level cognitive exchange. Nevertheless, perhaps my getting up to feed Tsootsoo had some hidden benefit(s) for me as well, apart from warding off any potential guilt-induced suppression of my immune system, although in her present physical condition, with her refractory obesity and signs of senility setting in, her ability to keep watch on the house and alert me of unwelcome visitors, is not what it once was.

    As I lay there pondering over the behavioral strategies of dogs vis á vis humans, suddenly, something a fellow student once said in my zoology class, came to mind, back when I was an undergraduate at Monash. We were having an informal discussion on the ethics of using animals in scientific research, when girl, I think her name was Cath, declaimed with the unshakeable confidence of a confirmed scientist-in-the-making, that the only reason people felt any empathy towards animals, especially mammals, was simply because they were “anthropomorphic.” She followed this by saying that no-one ever cried over a snake or toad left for dead on the road, and that was because they weren’t soft and cuddly like cats and dogs or guinea-pigs, and then smugly sat back for the rest of us to digest her succinct summary of the central delusion at the core of the animal liberation movement, which was starting to make waves on campus.

    Like the others present, I thought her argument made perfectly logical sense, not least because I couldn’t stand animal liberationists either, with their holier-than-thou sanctimoniousness, and their persecuted herd mentality. Moreover, we were rational scientists, or on the way to becoming ones, and we couldn’t allow such puerile sentimentality to get in the way of our search for knowledge and enlightenment. It was our duty to study nature objectively and dispassionately for what it was, a vast interplay of forces, actions and reactions, governed by immanent laws and relationships which it was our task to identify in the biological context. Purely subjective factors like emotions and feelings for animals had no place in our noble quest, because in the end, as human beings, we were distinguished from them by being uniquely conscious of our own consciousness, whereas they were incapable of reflection, let alone higher concepts like morality and ethics.

    I can’t remember whether I mentioned this to the class, as my contribution to the discussion, but I recall the issue had brought to mind my uncle in Greece, whom I had just visited the previous year, and how he put down tens of cows each day at the abattoirs with a single shot of his stun gun between their eyes, and yet he was the most even-tempered person in the world who would never intentionally harm another human being, or animal for that matter. But there he was slaughtering tens of cows each day, because to him they were just another source food that had to be harvested and processed to supply the people’s needs. Therefore, it was ludicrous to think that scientists who sacrificed animals in the course of their experiments were inherently evil, because it was all done for the greater good of humanity.

    On reflection, however, as I lay there in my cozy post-nap inertia, savoring the attendant clarity of mind, I now wasn’t so sure about this girl’s reasoned defense of animal experimentation. It wasn’t because I had since forsaken meat, with the exception of some fish and poultry, not for any ethical reasons, but simply because I developed a distaste for meat in general. I remembered there was something about her comment that had piqued my sensibilities that day, but because I was so taken by her apparent maturity and her succinct eloquence, like everyone else, I put my reservations aside and voiced my agreement. But some ten years later, I now recognized why I felt that twinge of resentment. It was because her argument was too glib. It was something a naive undergraduate would say, having heard it from others, without fully understanding its philosophical subtleties. It betrayed a firmness of mind in one who had yet to experience the vicissitudes of life’s fortunes, and in the absence of any vitiating self-doubt, she was fully convinced of its surface logic, and content to espouse it for her own self-aggrandizement.

    As for the logic of her argument, that purely emotive factors were at play in people’s objection to animal experimentation, and one could dismiss them as peevish, and their reasoning as false; well, I now questioned that as well, because the term anthropomorphism merely described the condition by which animals and humans shared recognizable physical similarities, and it was wrong and presumptuous to conclude that those similarities were to blame for the distorted views of animal liberationists and their like, simply because they could read in those anthropomorphic features signals that had the power to move. Her dogmatic belief in the truth of her own convictions had prevented her from contemplating the possibility that those signals may be a harbinger or warning of imminent calamity for society on its present course, even if the nature of the threat was not immediately clear. In other words, she had no appreciation of the absurd.

    As to why I might have recalled her comments that afternoon, while musing over my relationship with Tsootsoo, and the extent to which I was her slave, and she mine; I suspect it had to do with the fact that a few weeks earlier, I was looking for the telephone number of someone in the Department of Zoology at Melbourne University to discuss something they’d published, and I came across her name on the list of faculty, not knowing she worked there. And when I saw it, the first thing that came into my head were her comments in our zoology class, which were still floating around in my head just below the surface, on the off-chance they might inform some relevant thought.

    In any case, it appeared she’d found a comfortable niche for herself among fellow mockers of the psychic connectedness between humans and anthropomorphic animals. I say this in all facetiousness, because I’ve always regarded zoologists as these strong-willed, staunchly atheistic dogmatists who eschew mystical contemplation like it was the plague. And like the over-zealous, godless crusaders for nature they like to play, never having outgrown their penchant for cutting up dead animals and pulling the wings off flies and the legs off insects, they seem perpetually obsessed with classifying them down to their minutest details, to discover where they came from, and why they are what they are, and why they live where they live. And something told me she was not different and her views hadn’t changed in the intervening years, not that I knew her that well.

     What I did know, because she had told everyone, as is the wont of proud products of middle-classes everywhere, who draw self-affirming inspiration from their parents’ achievements, and those of their parents’ parents, including heroic exploits in World Wars, was that her father was a retired commercial airline pilot and her mother a teacher of some sort, and that she grew up on a large rural property, surrounded by farm animals and those native to the surrounding bush. Given that background, I assumed she had had a good, thorough education which had instilled in her at an early age a deep fascination for the natural sciences, so that the mere mention of the words “science” and “nature” conjured up a warm and welcoming place, in contrast to the cold “other worldliness” these same words evoked in my own mind.

    And true to her academic calling, and the implicit desideratum in its disciples for ideological constancy and resolute defense of one’s convictions, personal and professional, in all likelihood she still firmly believed that humans and animals could never have true intellectual intercourse. Ergo, like any other natural resource, they were at man’s disposal to be studied and exploited for the greater good of society, regardless of what some bleeding heart animal liberationists believed.

     With my memory jogged, something else she said on another occasion now came to mind, reinforcing my suspicion that her views had fundamentally not changed, given that people’s views in general rarely change, especially if there’s no reason.

    Anyhow, a few years later, we were reunited as graduate students in the Department of Physiology. And one morning she burst into the common room we all shared looking very excited and full of energy, and began to relate with manic glee how on the way back from a field trip with her colleagues to the koala sanctuary on Phillip Island the night before, they struck and killed a particularly plumb rabbit in their Landrover. She said they stopped and picked up the dead animal, still in one piece, put it in a box, and when they got home, they skinned and cleaned it, and cooked it for dinner, and it was the best free meal they’d ever had. Her story, however, left me annoyed, because I sensed she was using it to assert her superiority by implying that her research was much more important than ours and had wider significance, because it entailed going on extended field trips and studying animals in their natural habitat, whereas the rest of us were largely confined to our laboratories, slaving away on esoteric topics that no-one care about. Moreover I found her vain machismo somewhat repellent in someone who was ostensibly female. It was as if she was still out to prove her imperviousness to puerile anthropomorphic sentimentality, and debunk the perceived mental softness and emotional lability in her gender.

    By now, the animal liberation movement had become more vocal on campus, holding rallies and demonstrations, demanding an end to the use of animals in scientific experiments, especially primates. And as was her wont, Kath didn’t hide her visceral dislike of them, deriding their tactics and threats to sabotage laboratories with plans of her own to derail their efforts; whereas for me, I had grown indifferent to the whole issue. In fact, secretly I wished they would succeed in shutting down all the animal facilities, because I had begun to lose faith in science, and was struggling to maintain an interest in my own research project which entailed recording electrical signals from tissue samples dissected from the intestines of rodents, humanely sacrificed, of course, in accordance with the guidelines set out by the University Animal Ethics Committee. Moreover, with my increasing politicization in regard to the rôle of science in society, and exactly where I fitted in as a product of the immigrant working class, seeking to transcend my station, I figured there were bigger issues on the intellectual horizon to concern myself with, and the ethics of using animals in scientific research didn’t figure prominently.

    In retrospect, perhaps she was just trying to express in the only way she knew, the fact that the anthropomorphic lagomorph they had accidently struck and killed on the highway that night belonged to an introduced species that had done enormous damage to the environment, and had displaced many native animals in the process. Therefore, she or anyone else for that matter need not feel guilty about killing such an animal, when it would likely have been killed by foxes anyway. But as I thought over her story again, I remembered that what had annoyed me more than her dogmatic stance against the animal liberationists and her machismic bravado was what I perceived as her hypocrisy in regard to her views on anthropomorphism and the sentimentality it inspired.

    This had to do with the fact that her research project was concerned with finding a cure for a chlamydia-like infection that was rendering female koalas infertile. As such, it threatened to wipe out the colony on Phillip Island which was a popular tourist attraction, especially among big-spending Japanese tourists who flocked there to see these lovable, furry creatures unique to Australia. Thus, while she could belittle others and arrogantly accuse them of being irrational in their opposition to the exploitation of animals in scientific research, and in whatever other legitimate use sanctioned by society, duped by their anthropomorphic features, she herself, through her research project, had a vested interest in their continued anthropomorphic appeal to gullible tourists.

    I suppose in her mind curing koalas of a devastating disease was fully consistent with her views, because in doing so she wasn’t motivated by any particular anthropomorphic sentimentality inspired by these furry creatures, although she wouldn’t have objected if it came across that way. Her actions were fully in line with her beliefs that animals existed for man to exploit for his own benefit, humanly of course, even in the wild, and in the end, her work was intended for greater economic good of Australia, by ensuring the commercial viability of a key tourist attraction, which benefited everyone, including herself, through the research funds her laboratory received from the government through the taxes it collected from tourists and associated business activity they stimulated.

    Although, seen from this angle there was no contradiction between her beliefs and her actions, I wondered whether in working to save those koalas from dying off didn’t unwittingly betray her own anthropomorphic feelings towards them, given that the diseased animals were females, and as a woman and a future mother, one thinks, her faculty for empathy had driven her to reify that psychic connection between humans and animals, as loath as she would be to admit. Still it bugged me that I never once heard her express any skepticism or doubt about what she was doing, nor did she evince any interest in topics outside the realm of science, like politics, except in a strictly polemic sense, as it pertained to her own field, as per her views on anthropomorphic sentimentality and animal liberationists.

    It was if she was incapable of or didn’t allow herself any degree of deep thought outside her narrow field, lest it might undermine her beliefs and shatter her view of the world, and where she fitted into it. Moreover, since to me she represented the dominant class that underpinned the power structure in Australian society, her seeming arrogance had succeeded in provoking my burgeoning antipathy towards the wider social formation in which I found myself, concerning its historical foundations and the sociopolitical forces that had shaped it. Thus, it followed that I should project onto her my increasing rejection of that society.

    In her I could see glimpses of the conquerious mindset of those who had come before her to take possession of this ungoverned land inhabited by backward savages, and proceed to “improve” it unhindered, and install on it a society created in their own exalted image, based on strict property relations and the pursuit of profit. In her, that plundering spirit of her forebears had been transformed and refined into a desire to take possession of its heart and soul by extracting from it as much knowledge as she and others like her could, about all the resident life-forms, its flora and fauna, its geographical features, and everything else on which the sun shone within its shores, in the name of scientific progress, and thereby make the conquest complete. As such, she and her kind were anathema, and I saw in her proud exaltation of nature and science a sign of the inherited psychopathology and intellectual shallowness of a people too afraid to contemplate their own insignificance.

    If I had to say, in the end, I didn’t much like Cath. Not because she was completely bereft of any endearing qualities, because there was a certain tom-boyish charm about her, and at times she displayed a raw honesty, free of pretension, that was refreshing. But she seemed devoid of any engaging metaphysical bent, which I guess had served her well in her chosen academic field, helping her conform to the accepted archetype of a zoologist. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so critical, because Rosa Luxenburg was also a materialist and a devoted student of nature, and it didn’t affect her commitment to the revolutionary struggle. But she was a naturalist, as opposed to a zoologist. Her view of nature was informed by the material interconnectedness of everything in the physical realm, humans, animals, plants, and everything else, where countries and national boundaries had no place; whereas zoologists, to my mind, are hyper-vigilant narrow-minded philistines who, fearing loss of their fragile identity, under the threat of shame and ostracism by their peers, dare not question or transgress the defining principles of their discipline, whatever they are. Moreover, as academics, they are beholden to the whims and dictates of the state educational apparatus, and their views are necessarily informed by crass nationalism that stifles intellectual exploration and revolutionary thinking.

    On a more personal level, perhaps my dislike of Cath betrays my envy of her success, having secured for herself a tenured academic position, whereas I’m a mere research scientist on a soft-money, back at Monash, I’m embarrassed to admit. Moreover, if I were to be honest, I would also have to admit that at the root of my dislike was my jealousy of her outgoing, self-confident, and apparent freedom from self-doubt, while I was, and still am, constantly tormented by deep skepticism, and crippled by the fear that I didn’t know what I was doing, trapped among people I couldn’t relate to.

    It was different, however, when I first entered university. I was so relieved to be finally rid of the hellish trauma of high school, and took to my classes with enthusiasm to learn as much as I could. Despite not knowing anyone, except for one or two students from high school with whom I was never really friends, I felt I was now part of a privileged group of like-minded young adults who would one day assume the reins of power in society and guide it according to our own collective vision. In retrospect, my optimism was driven by a mixture of naive, post-adolescent pride in my modest scholastic achievements, and oddly enough, in Australia itself, the nation and the society, to which I felt a sense of belonging like never before.

    But after a few months, even though I had made a couple of new friends, I was beset by debilitating alienation and I began to question what I was doing here, not just at university, but in Australia itself. I sensed there was something fundamentally false about my eagerness to assume for myself an identity to which I believed I had a just claim, when the undeniable fact was that I really didn’t belong among these people, and had only fooled myself into believing I did. And once that idea firmly established itself in my mind I became increasingly preoccupied with finding a way of extricating myself from that horribly stifling environment.

    I ended up deferring the year and went to work in a refrigerator factory. I did that for about six months during which time I earned enough money to buy a 35mm SLR camera with wide-angle and zoom lenses, and pay for a trip back to Greece with the aim of discovering my true identity to fill the gaping void. There I stayed for about two months, hosted by my relatives, before returning to Australia, thoroughly dejected and disillusioned by the experience, and the following year I re-enrolled at university to continue my studies. To overcome the conflicting emotions and confused cultural loyalties, I threw myself into my work, determined to finish my degree, and not think about such intractable questions like where I belonged, until I had graduated.

    It paid off because I quickly settled into the routine of university life and started doing fairly well academically. And so long as I continued to mimic my fellow students and conformed to what was expected of me, it was easy to believe that I was expanding my intellectual horizons by participating in such discussions as the ethics of using anthropomorphic animals in scientific experiments, and that everything would turn out well, and I would do my parents proud. But that niggling feeling of being an outsider was always there, lurking below the surface.

    It was starting to get a little nippy and Tsootsoo needed to be fed. A hot cup of coffee would wake me up and warm my insides quite nicely. Pulling the cover aside, I put on my slippers and made my way to the kitchen, with Tsootsoo following, tapping out a pitter patter rhythm on the kitchen floor with her overgrown toenails. As she watched me preparing to grind some coffee, she slumped against the sliding door. Temporarily distracted by a flea on her hind leg, she began grunting and gnawing at it with her front teeth, but stopped and moved when I prodded her so she wouldn’t break the glass panel with the jerky movements of her fat rump. Turning to her, I reassured her in my dog pidgin, a mixture of Greek and English, spoken in a childish tone, in deference to her less advanced intellect, that as soon as I had set up the coffee maker, I would start on her dinner. She seemed to understand and lay down to wait patiently.

    While the coffee brewed, I diced up some dog loaf into her bowl, as Tsootsoo gave out a few plaintive yelps for me to hurry up. To remind her just who was boss, I teased her by lowering the bowl just above her nose and then pretended to take it away, at which she became agitated and let out a low disapproving growl. Then, as if scared into submission, I immediately put down the bowl and she leapt at it, covering it with her head and shoulders, in case I changed my mind. I filled her water bowl and then poured myself a hot cup of black coffee.

    It had to be regular dark roasted “Columbo Supreme.” I liked it straight black, drunk from my white porcelain mug, stained brown, because I rarely washed it, except to rinse out the grounds, since soap residue, even trace amounts, affected the flavor, not to mention my brain. I emphasize regular because of a rather nasty experience I had one time in Reno, where I went to work after I got my doctorate in 1987.

     Unbeknownst to me, I had bought a bag of hazelnut flavored coffee beans. The packaging on the regular and the hazelnut flavored varieties was almost identical, except for the flavor printed at the bottom, which I never bothered to read, having assumed from the label on the shelf that all the bags in that particular row were of the regular, unflavored variety. But when I got home and unpacked the groceries, I could smell a weird but vaguely familiar aroma coming from the coffee beans which I recognized as hazelnut. I assumed the bag must have been stored next to hazelnut flavored coffee somewhere along the way, and the packaging had absorbed some of that aroma.

    As I prepared to make coffee, I noticed the smell of hazelnut got stronger when I snipped open the bag. Ignoring it, I scooped some beans into the grinder and ground them up. But after taking off the lid, realizing the source of that abominable smell was the coffee itself and not the packaging, my heart sank in my chest. And picking up the bag, sure enough, right there at the bottom, the label confirmed its contents: two pounds of hazelnut flavored dark-roasted coffee beans.

    It appeared that someone at the supermarket had deliberately placed it among bags of the regular, unflavored coffee beans so that unsuspecting customers would buy it, since the stock wasn’t moving and they had to sell it somehow; it was the only explanation. I tried to calm down by telling myself that hazelnut flavored coffee wasn’t all that different from regular coffee, and my senses would soon become desensitized to it, and after a few days I won’t be able to tell the difference. So I went ahead and brewed some coffee and reluctantly drank it down.

    Next morning I ground up some more beans and brewed up a fresh pot, and sat down to have breakfast. However, with each sip, that nauseous aroma of sweaty socks was becoming increasingly intolerable. It was nothing like the invigorating coprous stink of regular dark-roasted Colombian coffee beans I was accustomed to. But I persisted, in the expectation that my senses would soon get used to it in the coming days, and in the meantime I just had to endure this minor irritation. But after I had drunk about half the cup, I promptly got up, went straight to the kitchen and poured the remainder down the sink and then emptied the entire pot after it, before thoroughly rinsing out both under hot running water to get rid of that ghastly aroma. In fact, I could only relax after I had taken the bag from the pantry cupboard, sealed it up, and disposed of it in the dumpster outside, so that no hint of that dastardly smell would remain in my apartment, forfeiting the $10 refund had I returned it to the supermarket. I took some solace in the fact that at least it wasn’t vanilla flavored, an even worse abomination I once drank out of curiosity at an airport and spat out all over myself.

    I’m sure there are others like me who abhor flavored coffee. Perhaps with the increasing penetration of chemical additives and flavorings in our food to trick us into eating more than necessary, and help the big food manufacturers increase their profits, we will eventually become extinct, there being nothing for us to eat. Or perhaps, under the mysterious guidance of an evolutionarily stable strategy encoded in our genes, we will organize ourselves into small sequestered communities up in the hills, growing our own food, eschewing all unnatural and chemically modified food products, and breeding among ourselves to preserve our recessive taste and smell alleles, so that when everyone else is dead from all the nice tasting artificial poisons accumulated in their bodies, which they happily consumed thinking they were harmless, we can re-populate the earth with a new breed of human beings, living in harmony with nature, and thus, the meek will finally reap their just rewards.

    I took a few aniseed biscuits from the cupboard and went back to the living room with my coffee. Tsootsoo, having cleaned her bowl had come and planted herself between me and the heater, oblivious of her fat backside sizzling away, as she stared at me imploringly with her big, brown, beckoning eyes. To tease her again would be too patronizing and lead her to question my fidelity and reassess her loyalty. So I promptly broke off half a biscuit finger, dipped it into the coffee, checked it wasn’t scalding and presented it to her supplicating eyes. Delicately, she picked it out of my outstretched fingertips with her front teeth, and in one quick gulp made it disappear.

    After I finished my coffee, it would be time for her constitutional, pausing at her leisure at every tree and telegraph pole on the way to the park to sniff for scent left by others. Somewhere along the way, she would drop her load which I would be obliged to collect into a black plastic bag, in case anyone was watching and reported me to the municipal authorities if I failed to do so. There would be no forgetting it, because she would sit by the door and stare at me until I was so racked with guilt, I had no choice than to get up, fetch her collar and allow her majesty to lead the way.

    Drawing the curtain aside, I could see the shadows getting longer in the low sun. In less than an hour it would be dark. I thought how easy it would be to leave if it weren’t for Tsootsoo. To take her with me at her age would be much too cruel.         

(Melbourne, 1992.  I had just returned from my father’s funeral in Thessaloniki. I was staying at my sister’s house in Chadstone, while my mother remained in Greece. Tsootsoo was now nine years old. But within a few months she’d be dead, from complications of surgery to remove a tumorous growth in her pancreas)

The obstinate and ungrateful Mr. M

Australia is a strange place. It’s the least populated country in the world and yet it’s where in vitro fertilization, IVF for short, was born. These two facts are connected even if they appear contradictory. I mean, you wouldn’t expect a scientific breakthrough of this type to occur in, say, China, or India. There, there’s no need to artificially conceive human beings, since there are more than enough produced by natural means to meet the demand. In fact, in China married couples are restricted to one child! And the practice of infanticide of healthy female babies is prevalent in the provinces where girls are deemed a burden on the family.

In Australia, it’s as if the very sparseness of the population inspired a scientific discovery that has the potential to supply the deficiency. Thus couples who would otherwise go childless can now contribute to solving the nation’s “population or perish” quandary by having their very own children. An interesting fact about IVF is that the technology was actually developed in sheep of which Australia has the highest population of any country in the world!

I recall all this from my days as a graduate student at Monash University, and one day in particular. That day, my department was abuzz with talk of the upcoming seminar by the scientist who was credited with a breakthrough discovery that made IVF possible, an alumnus of both the university and the department. Therefore it would have been tantamount to treason not to attend, and would have assured my ostracism. I was already on the margins for failing to be properly overjoyed at Australia’s win in the America’s Cup, when the entire Department of Physiology went ape-shit, prompted by the declaration of the then Prime Minister of Australia that any boss who sacked a worker for failing to turn up on time that day, and academics were workers after all, was a bum!

There were Australian flags everywhere, at the entrance, in the main office, in the corridors, and people were going around with glasses of champagne in one hand and a little Australian flag in the other. I felt uneasy confronted by this spontaneous show of nationalism first thing in the morning, and not wishing to spoil the party I put on a wide grin and happily accepted a glass of champagne from one of the secretaries. But I guess my feigned joy couldn’t hide my inner revulsion, not least because I couldn’t see the connection between the bourgeois leisure sport of yachting and the physiological sciences. But unbeknownst to me, the skipper of the victorious Australian yacht was in fact a Monash alumnus, and had a past connection with the department, which was reason enough for everyone, including the chairman, to stop what they were doing and celebrate. Had I known this, it still would not have altered my attitude, because there was something repugnant about people’s collective exultation that morning. It was like blind folk pride devoid of any mythistorical foundations, which was perfectly encapsulated by the “Men at Work” song they kept playing and singing over and over, with its familiar refrain, “I come from the land down under, where beer does flow and men chunder.” It both lauded the larrikinism and irreverence at the mythical heart of the Australian character, while at the same time acknowledging its unenlightened inspiration.

The seminar was held in the main medical building, and when lunch-time came round, off I went to hear this now world-famous reproductive biologist who had put Monash University on the map. When I arrived, the auditorium was literally packed to the rafters, with people crowding the front entrances trying to get a look inside where there was only standing room along the walls. I managed to get in via the late entrance at the back and found a spot to stand at the top row. From there I had a good view of the podium and could just make out the back and the side of Prof. A.T. He was sitting in the front, unperturbed that he was the center of attention of this large crowd who had come from all over the university and beyond to hear him speak.

Although seated, he looked on the short side, a bit stocky and swarthy with thick lips, but not “ethnic” looking. Perhaps it was his French-sounding surname, but to me he could well have passed for a peasant in a Zola novel, although with his silver-framed glasses, it appeared that in his present incarnation he had transcended the lowly origins of his forbears. He was somewhere in his early forties, young for a professor, and his face seemed a little flushed in the hot and stifling atmosphere of the over-crowded auditorium. He gave one the impression he wanted people to think he had little interest in his personal appearance. Thus he wore a plain open-necked shirt without a tie, sleeves rolled up to his elbows, ready for work, and his mop of curly, pepper colored hair which covered his ears and came down to his glasses was in bad need of a trim. His maverick persona was completed by a noticeable shadow around his jaw and face.

Seeing the time had arrived, the dean got up to the podium to introduce the speaker and the noisy din turned to a polite hush and then an attentive silence. He began by going through the speaker’s biographical details, as Prof. A.T. listened with studied indifference. As the dean explained, his breakthrough contribution to the IVF revolution was to develop a method for a critical step in the process which involved the safe freezing and thawing of human eggs. He had developed this particular trick in sheep and then in collaboration with endocrinologists in Britain, they were able to tweak it and apply it to human ova which enabled their safe storage. The dean, who was a medical doctor by training, went on to say this invaluable discovery made it possible for infertile couples around the world to experience the joy of parenting their very own children, something undreamt of until now.

As he sat listening with head bowed at this long-winded introduction, Prof. A.T. could not have failed to pick up on the hint of condescension in the dean’s praise. He not only resented this pompous ass trying to pass himself off as some kind of patron of the medical sciences, he was thinking of some less than flattering remark with which to return the compliment, something that conveyed his disdain for his host and everything he stood for, which his fellow scientists in the audience would pick up on and be reassured he had not “sold out” to these mockers of their oath.

Perhaps I was trying to channel my own prejudices through Prof A.T., but I couldn’t suppress my own disdain for the people in dark suits seated alongside him. Invariably they were all educated in proud imitations of English public schools which turned out these anachronistic defenders of British culture to fill the higher levels of administration in tertiary educational institutions in this colonial outpost. In any case, I sensed a definite tension there, but being the professional that he was, at the end of the dean’s introduction, Prof. A.T. rose from his seat, flashed a perfunctory smile at his host, and to huge applause, assumed the podium with the affected nonchalance of one who was master of his domain.

As I stood listening to him detailing the history and development of IVF, I was struck by a sense of futility. Although I was mildly intellectually engaged by the science, I had no real interest in knowing how eggs could be taken from a woman’s ovary, fertilized in a dish with donor sperm and then inserted back into her womb, or that of another woman, for implantation, gestation and ultimately birth of the fetus. Or in the subtext of his talk, that the climactic paroxysms of ecstasy that informed human sexual relations that had evolved over tens of thousands of years so people could procreate by following their instinct for sexual gratification was now superfluous. The real reason I was there was because I’d been caught up in the mob hysteria of wanting to be witness to a supposedly historic event which had more symbolic significance than any practical import as far as my own research was concerned. It was intended to inspire people’s pride in Monash, and bolster Monash’s rapidly growing reputation as one of the world’s leading institutes of higher learning, as paltry and vacuous as that sounded.

Moreover, I couldn’t really empathize with childless couples, now given the opportunity to become biological parents. There was no logical reason to expect their children would be any happier, because children, regardless of how they’re conceived, have no say in their creation, and I dare say, given the choice, many would not want to be born in the first place. That is, unless the parents of test-tube babies lavish them with so much more love and affection that they develop much more advanced emotional and intellectual faculties than normally conceived children, and grow up to become model citizens. Unlike “crack” babies, for example, who are born unwanted to drug addled whores and start life with severe brain damage, unable to adjust to the world, and end up criminals themselves.

In retrospect, my cynical view of IVF reflected a creeping cynicism and skepticism about science which began in my undergraduate years. I mean, I was always questioning new ideas and concepts from a young age. But at university this inquisitiveness assumed a wholly new dimension, to complement my wider politicization. If I was to attribute my antipathy to any root cause I’d say, indirectly, it had to do with my being brought up in an anti-religious household, or rather one that was riven by conflict over religion and politics. Had I been brought up in a more structured and disciplined, Christian-based environment at home, for example, I feel my mind would have been much better conditioned to receive concepts from above, and the transition to adulthood would have been smoother. But as it was, the fallow field that was my adolescent brain was so overrun by weeds and wild flowers that any new, cultivated species of thought had to compete and overcome this dense undergrowth of skepticism and disbelief before it could find a niche and take root.

Despite this, in high school I had a very avid interest in science and enjoyed reading and learning about how things worked, whether it was in physics, biology or chemistry, and my questioning attitude, although annoying to some of my teachers, I feel helped me grasp concepts by bringing out my misunderstanding. But when I entered university, I realized it wasn’t enough to be wide-eyed and curious. Now I had to be more serious in my approach and regard science with more awe than fascination. Unlike my teachers in high school, my lecturers were all PhDs, with titles like Doctor or Associate Professor or plain Professor, whom one couldn’t address by their first name.

Moreover, they didn’t seem to care whether or not I understood anything. It seemed that their aim was not so much to impart knowledge, but to make students like me feel worthless. Thus, their standoffish attitude instilled in me early on, not only a deep antipathy towards self-centered and arrogant academics like them, but a stubborn cynicism and skepticism about what they taught, that is, about science in general. This was because in my mind, science was now inextricably linked to these horrible people, and as a result, my desire to learn suffered, and even the word “science” took on a horrible tone, and conjured their horrible images whenever I came across it. Instead of being an invitation to enter the doors of knowledge and explore nature, this innocuous word now engendered hostility and exclusion.

In retrospect, I could have spent my years at university more profitably had I studied languages or literature. Even though I enjoyed learning about logical explanations behind natural phenomena, largely through my own efforts, some of the most petty and superfluous excuses for human beings could be found among academics in science departments at Australian universities, and Monash University was one of them. With the exception of one or two, who had an internationalist outlook and made no assumptions about the background of their students, most were completely lacked the basic capacity to inspire, and rather than enlighten, they were simply content to mystify and confuse.

As I stood listening at the back of the auditorium, I didn’t know which was more annoying: the smug arrogance of Prof. A.T., who despite his anti-establishment airs, no doubt was conscious his discovery could one day secure him a Nobel Prize if he played his cards right and sucked up to the right people, or have someone pay them off; or the university administrators and clinicians who stood to gain financially in one form or another. Then there were the scientists in the audience, eager to line up for collaborations, like the cheap little whores they are, and have some of his glory rub off on them as well. In the end, none of them gave a fuck about infertile couples and concealed their selfish self-interest behind a crass, cock-hardening nationalism, derived from the fact that this was an “Australian” discovery. They were also well aware that to cringe at such puerile provincialism would be un-Australian and could potentially harm their chances of promotion, so it was best they played along. So much for IVF and Prof. A.T. The seminar ended and I went back to being an outsider.

My cynicism and skepticism assumed a more virulent and selective form as I progressed through university, and by the time I was a graduate student, it bordered on an irrational obsession, perhaps even a psychosis. It was directed especially against those lecturers and instructors who projected an air of unassailability so as to keep students like me from getting too close and discovering their intellectual insipidness they tried to hide by arrogantly dismissing opposing scientific views that were too revolutionary for their own narrow thinking, with self-professed authoritativeness that didn’t extend beyond the walls of the lecture theater.

It was enough motivation to make me take up the cause of the proponents of these opposing theories and defend them. I was convinced the criticism they received from my shitty lecturers was based on personal factors, like their nationality, because generally the authors of these articles were non-English, and by implication, the veracity of their data could not be trusted. Strangely enough, even Americans were not immune from their suspicions. Canadians, however, were given the benefit of the doubt because Canada belonged to the British Commonwealth of Nations which automatically accorded its institutions a much higher degree of trustworthiness that those in America which lay outside this holy covenant, and had chosen to go it alone.

At times, my vigilance against signs of blatant chauvinism became so consuming that I ignored key arguments disproving the validity of the work I was trying to defend, just for the sake of not aligning myself with my asshole instructors. As a result my grades suffered, as well as my having to put up with ridicule for my obstinate defense of discredited theories and lost causes as much from my lecturers as my fellow students. However, I drew satisfaction from the fact that my actions riled my instructors, because in my opinion they lacked the basic qualification for intellectual enquiry, which was an open mind. They didn’t seem to understand that one needs to explore all alternative possibilities, however ridiculous they may be, before one came to a final understanding by a process of elimination, i.e. reduction ad absurdum. They were too stupid to realize that the role of scientists was to question everything, even themselves, and as far as I was concerned, they were all guilty of the most heinous form of narrow-mindedness, and worse.

However, what really lay beneath my contrariness was something much deeper than mere disenchantment or disagreement with the opinions and attitudes of my instructors over the scientific process, and their chauvinism with regard to the integrity of scientists they liked to put down. And this was a deep resentment of a society and a culture which I saw as responsible for having transformed me into a mere object increasingly stripped of any identity. And as loyal representatives and agents of that society and culture, I saw not only my instructors, but anyone I suspected who vaguely shared their values and ideas as fair targets of my scorn. That subterranean anger threatened to break through the surface one day in an incident which to an outsider would seem not only trivial but just plain silly.

The issue centered round the meaning of a simple word which to a normal person held no significance outside its express usage. But to me, it was like a red rag to a bull, and its impact was particularly strongly felt in its spoken form. That word was migration, and variants thereof, especially when applied to people, as in, “they migrated to Australia,” or “they’re migrants,” etc. The occasion was an informal seminar given to our research group by an invited speaker (I had then just started my doctoral studies and had joined this particular group in the department). Throughout his talk, the speaker kept using the word migration to describe how nerve cells in the intestine of newborn mice spread distally along the intestinal wall as the animal matures until they covered the entire gut. At first, I sat there listening enthusiastically to what he had to say, but soon my attention would be disrupted whenever he uttered the word migration, or variants thereof, and with each successive utterance, I could feel this non-descript tension and anger building up inside me. Eventually it got the point where I could no longer concentrate on his talk, as I sat there getting angrier and angrier.

Having ceased listening altogether, I began to formulate a rational objection to his use of that word which I could put to him when he finished. What’s more, I had now taken a personal dislike to him for thinking that, just because he was a general surgeon and a scientist at that, this gave him license to misuse words like this one so flippantly, without regard to their negative connotations which others might find offensive. After running several versions through my head, I came up with what I thought was a watertight argument why migration was inappropriate and misleading in the context he was using it. This was because the process he was describing didn’t actually involve migration per se, because the nerve cells, once they spread out from their source in the upper small intestine, did not return to their place of origin. Whereas migration, by definition, implied that the subject concerned can go back to where he came from, and does so periodically, just like migratory birds, for example, whereby in winter they migrate to warmer climes, and then return to their habitats with the arrival of spring. I was even prepared to offer a few suggestions as alternative descriptors for the process he was describing, like translocation, or colonization, or invasion.

At the end of his presentation, however, I was so stricken by nerves that I kept my hand down, and with my heart pounding from my last-minute abandonment of my attempt to enlighten the speaker, I listened to him answering others’ questions, none of which touched upon his misuse of the word migration. I was still shaking inside when I left the room because I realized just how close I had come to making a complete fool of myself over such a trivial matter, and then lamented over my stubborn tendency to always “see the red line”, as one of my supervisors accused me of one day, fed up with my captious attitude to everything, in his opinion. “Why couldn’t I just rid myself of my ridiculous obsessions and prejudices and be normal like my fellow students, and not read sinister motives into everything people said?” I asked myself. The reason was that my obsession was not a whimsical stand I took for the sake of being different. It was a manifestation of a deep-seated emotional conflict raging in my head, one which the word migration had now stirred up with particular efficacy.

This was because the word was pregnant with deprecation and hostility when applied to certain people, people who were very close to me, as close as you can get. They were people who were prepared to sacrifice their dignity and identity, and transplant themselves to far-off countries they knew nothing about, to work as wage-slaves. They were people who believed the shortest route to happiness was through amassing money and material riches, and when they had amassed enough, they could return to their own countries where, like vulgar boors, they could parade their hard-earned riches to the envy of their countrymen. But most never got the chance, because in the process they were transformed into imbecilic dullards and left to die on their own, in a foreign land. Among such people were my own parents, and as such, I couldn’t accept the fact I was a child of people who had forsaken their home and dignity for the triteness of “a better life.” In short, I hated being reminded that I too was a migrant.

As for the surgeon, I actually came to like him after he came back to work in our laboratory on a short sabbatical. In fact, I relented and started using the word migration quite freely in our research-related discussions, hoping that by repeated use I could inure myself to its derogatory connotation. I guess the fact that he was a Jew and married to a Korean woman, herself a doctor, took the edge off its harshness, because as one with knowledge of the “migrant experience” and what it’s like to grow up in Australia as an outsider, I couldn’t imagine he meant any offense by it. Therefore, I thought he could be excused for misusing it. I had in mind to explain to him my “problem” one day, but I never got the courage to do so, and I wonder if he suspected anything.

In some way, my reaction to the word migrant is akin to the reaction of African-Americans to the word nigger, because among themselves that particular word is fairly benign. But if a non-African-American uses it to refer to an African-American, the word automatically takes on a much more seriously racist tone. I think it’s because among themselves, African-Americans are all niggers, and whatever negative connotation is attached to the word in wider society, is automatically negated. Actually, the word itself changes meaning, because, whereas from a “white” mouth, the word nigger is used to vilify blacks, when used by a black person against a fellow African-American, it’s intended to humiliate him or her for trying to deny their “blackness,” either jokingly or in a half-accusatory manner.

The same applies to the word wog in the Australian context, when used in reference to those people of southern European heritage, mainly Greeks. Thus, it’s an insult for an Anglo-Australian to refer to a Greek as a wog, but much less so for a Greek to refer to a fellow Greek as a wog, although I find the word quite grating under any circumstances, no matter whose mouth it comes from. Thus, if a fellow Greek calls me a wog, I feel slightly insulted not because I feel belittled for personifying all the negative qualities Anglo-Australians attribute to wogs. But because I’m made to feel guilty for trying to deny of myself those same qualities, which in the eyes of my fellow Greeks I should be proud of, as an act of defiance. The word migrant has a similar socio-linguistic particularity associated with its use. But because of its apparent benignity, being applicable to a wider cross-section of the population, an ambiguity persists over its exact meaning under different circumstances, which nevertheless, to me makes it all the more insidiously corrosive. So much for linguistics.

Another feature of my obsessive cynicism at university was the problem of accepting the received wisdom that science was a noble profession and that the pursuit of knowledge was its own reward. It sounded so pompous and pretentious to hear someone refer to themselves as a scientist, as if they were selfless, humble servants of society, striving for truth and knowledge, with little or no expectation of pecuniary rewards, satisfied with the simple recognition of their peers and society. But from my observations, scientists were nothing more than venal, self-centered hypocrites, eager to sell themselves to the highest bidder, just like Prof. A.T., because while they affected selflessness and humility, the entire structure around them that supported and enabled their endeavors was dependent on the systematic exploitation of the mass of people who were largely kept in a state of perpetual stupidity and ignorance.

By the end of my first year of my doctorate, my obsession with the “personal” aspects of science and of university life were beginning to wear on me to the point where it began to seriously interfere with my ability to focus on my studies. I started to question whether my involvement in science was as futile as it seemed. But at the same time, I felt I had to stay the course in the hope that all this overbearing discontent and disconsolateness weighing down on me was a product of my specific circumstances, and once I graduated and left Australia which this degree would allow me to, I would be rid of all that negativism and be able to see the world from a completely new perspective, free of the silent taunts of being a wog and a migrant.

With this new perspective on my situation, it was only then that I seriously began to think about science as an intellectual pursuit that could provide me with a lifestyle into the future, a career as it were. But at the same time, I couldn’t resist being drawn into the politics of it and the nature of the science establishment, so as to put my cynicism and muddled skepticism into some sort of perspective. I could see that my views were quite irrational at times, colored by personal prejudices against certain people and society. But I was convinced they were not entirely unfounded, and I needed to address them, because, after all, the degree I was studying for implied I should have knowledge of not only the basic scientific methodology and principles, but also an understanding of the nature of science from a philosophical perspective. That is, to know what it means to know.

Since my degree didn’t include any course specifically on the topic, I took it upon myself to try and educate myself on the philosophy of science. To this end I started reading various books by authors such as Kuhn, Popper and Feyerabend, and whilst they made sense while I was reading them, I guess because I had no-one with whom to discuss the various ideas they expounded, my understanding was necessarily superficial and evanescent. In the course of my extra-curricular readings, I also came across various references to the writings and philosophy of Hegel and to Marx in regard to the dynamics between competing forces in nature and society, and the contradictions involved, at the level of theories and ideas, including the underlying causes of revolutionary change as it pertained to human societies, which immediately piqued my interest.

You see, throughout my undergraduate years I had been dallying on and off with Marxism, to try and come to grips with the meaning of communism and socialism from an economic as well as a political perspective, and thus give my half-baked leftist views, a legacy from my aunt, a firmer theoretical foundation. I had already read various works including “The Communist Manifesto” and other historical texts by Trotsky and others, but to be honest, although I could understand the basic premise that “communism” was a system of organizing society on the basis of equality, where workers owned the means of production and ran society according human need and not greed, without the profit motive of capitalism, my understanding was still largely dominated by emotional and moralistic appeals, as opposed to the “scientific” analysis that communism was inevitable heir of capitalism which would soon collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. But now that I discovered a philosophical convergence between science, politics and economics in the writings of Marx and other leftist thinkers, I was keen to explore this area anew and get to the bottom of socialism and communism, and how it pertained to society and culture, and the role of science therein.

Having completed my first year of my doctorate working alongside people I once regarded as unapproachable, but with whom I was now colleagues, my harsh, unrefined opinions of academics had softened somewhat, and I felt I knew them well enough to express my views openly on various topics. Invariably these touched upon items in the news, and whenever a discussion ensued, I found myself more often than not adopting the contrary, or as it was seen by my senior colleagues, the radical position, while they remained guarded in theirs, and when they did say anything, it usually reflected a very conservative viewpoint. This was most evident whenever the subject broached politics, that is, outside the acceptable topics of local or federal elections, and the political parties contesting them, and their policies. It was obvious they were extremely reluctant to address any questions relating to the nature of political conflict itself at the philosophical level, especially as it pertained to the sphere of economics and social issues and classes, as if it were taboo.

Their obduracy, however, only increased my determination to bring up thorny intellectual issues relating to science and politics, especially after I joined a socialist group on campus, with the aim of gaining a more structured understanding of Marxist philosophy as it pertained to science and society. Having already labeled me a “communist” for sticking up for the U.S.S.R., China and Cuba among other “socialist” countries in our tea-room discussions, my colleagues became even more wary and began to marginalize me inside the laboratory, especially they saw me selling the group’s newspaper in front of the Union building at lunchtime. But by now I was familiar with their conservative views. Still, the vigor of their reaction surprised me a little, because Marxism was a legitimate subject which was taught in the Politics faculty, and therefore sanctioned by the university no less. Moreover, as academics, or as a pre-academic in my case, I thought we were all protected by academic freedom to think and say whatever we liked.

As for this socialist group, it wasn’t exactly with boundless enthusiasm that I joined up. I had bought some of their literature in the past and was intrigued why they were allowed to operate on campus whereas other leftist groups had very limited access. From my impromptu discussions with some of the members, I discovered to my surprise that they were strongly opposed to the Soviet Union and China in every respect, and their slogans had a sophomoric, rebellious ring to them, lacking the usual glorification of workers and the Communist Party. Nevertheless, piqued by their unusual position on the two strongest “communist” powers in the world, I decided to take up their offer and go along to one of their meetings to find out more.

These were held on the fourth floor of Curtin House, a turn-of-the-century, mock-Victorian building on Swanston Street in the city. Apparently, they passed themselves off as a “history club” in case the landlord got cold feet about renting out rooms to socialists and kicked them out. There, I got to talk to quite a few people that evening, and seeing they had views that generally were aligned with mine, with the exception of their position on the U.S.S.R. and China, they seemed friendly and welcoming enough for me to go back the following week.

Soon I was a regular weekly attendee, and by listening to the various speakers each week and engaging in political discussions with people there, members and visitors alike, I discovered that not only did it improve my ability to articulate my thoughts more coherently, but enabled me to comprehend more clearly some of the more theoretical concepts. Moreover, it seemed the more I learned and understood about the Marxist analysis of capitalist society, the more I realized just how relevant it was to explaining my own circumstances, including my views on science in society. Armed with this new way of looking at the world, I felt there was no argument my colleagues in the laboratory, or my fellow students could throw at me that I couldn’t shoot down into pieces, and in the process, subvert their own smug, conservative world view.

As far at this socialist group was concerned, many of the members were students like me, and most of the older and established members had once been students in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Those who worked, since many were jobless, generally had clerical jobs, although there were some who worked as laborers in factories. But there were also some professionals, including medical residents, teachers and at least one accountant who turned up to meetings in his suit and tie, in contrast to the more casual attire of the others. He was always accompanied by his wife who seemed to be his minder, or carer, and rarely said anything. I don’t think he was ill or anything, but his breath always reeked of alcohol, and despite being slightly unsteady on his feet, I was struck by how articulate he was in his London accent, and by his insight into national and international politics. I suspect his drinking had prevented him from taking a more active role in the group, because he had a much broader and deeper knowledge of Marxism than any of other members. As for those involved in running the organization, many had trained as journalists and wrote for the group’s newspaper and magazine, and I assumed the monthly dues paid by the regular members were enough to cover their living expenses.

Although I attended meetings regularly, I was hesitant about formally joining the group. It wasn’t just because of their stance on the U.S.S.R. which I found difficult to accept. But I couldn’t countenance having to openly endorse their imbecilic mission, as it were, which was “to change the world.” It was the first question they asked potential recruits, as in, “Do you want to change the world?” to which invariably they answered, “Yes” with a baffled smile and an uncertain shrug of the shoulders. But after a few months, and feeling the pressure to either join or leave, I decided to take the plunge and answered their pledge question in the affirmative, after which I was accepted as a provisional member. I never enquired why this was so. But I suspect it was to determine during this probationary period I could comply with the rules of the organization, and espouse their brand of socialism, and they could assure themselves I wasn’t some kind of saboteur.

But not everyone was equally welcoming, like this girl with a quavering nasal voice, who affected the look of a junkie, and could well have been, and dressed like a “Led Zeppelin” groupie. She was about my age and said she worked as a house-maid in Toorak where she helped herself to the liquor cabinets of the mansions she cleaned. But I couldn’t quite picture her as a maid, unless she was one of those maids who supplied her employers with drugs or something illicit. Or else her employers were rich relatives, because I had a deep suspicion she was Jewish from a well-off family and was trying to pass herself off as a rebel by assuming this most menial of job descriptions. She also had an extremely toxic personality and tended to look down her nose at whoever she was talking to, especially those she sensed could see through her act. For that reason, she took an instant dislike to me from the very first day, and always contradicted whatever I said, as if it was her role to aggravate newcomers she suspected might be impostors.

Then there was the middle-aged ex-student activist who would boast of dropping acid before exams at Monash University in the 1970s, and how a number of his friends had jumped to their deaths from the top of the ten-storey Menzies Building, because “they thought life was shit.” There was something fundamentally phony about him too, and his hip nihilism, and I suspect he knew what a shit-head I thought he was. There were others too who, for no reason, would come up and surround me at meetings and start patting me on the back, all smiling, to show how friendly they were and to cheer me up when I could see no reason for it because I was feeling just fine. It all felt rather creepy, because as far as I was concerned, I was there to learn and not necessarily to be loved.

I figured, however, that once they realized I was no threat, they would accept me as equal and treat me normal. For my part, I had nothing to hide, and seeing I was now among fellow socialists, I openly talked about my family’s history. Deep down, I knew their slogans were so hyperbolic and absurd that only an imbecile would actually believe in them, yet, there I was uttering the same trite phrases when called upon to preach to the unconverted at rallies and at bookstalls at university, or in the Bourke Street mall on Friday nights. At times, it felt like I was stepping into a different character, one who fully believed in all the prophecies about the imminent fall of capitalism and the need to prepare for the revolutionary moment by building a worker’s party NOW, before the world descended into barbarism.

There were even times when I indulged myself in the delusion of progressing up through the ranks of the organization to become a fully-fledged revolutionary socialist serving on the executive committee, one who could stand up confidently before a crowd and expound on the contradictions of capitalism, and exhort the masses to rise up and seize power. But when I was back home, in the solitude of my own thoughts, my suspicions about the group would resurface, as if to remind me I needed to be cautious. I realized no-one could be stupid enough to believe that as a member of this group they had the ability to “to change the world.” This was nothing more than a cathartic dare, akin to the evangelical entreaties of street preachers for sinners to give themselves to Jesus and repent, and be saved from eternal damnation. Moreover, from the passionate declamations of the more dramatically trained members to “smash the State”, intended to rouse the fervor of newer ones like me, it was obvious that the firmness of their convictions was in direct proportion to their disingenuousness. One evening, the seriousness with which they took themselves came into question from an unlikely source, and I couldn’t help but be amused myself.

That particular evening, a union delegate from South Africa was attending the meeting as a guest, and I happened to be standing nearby listening to a discussion between him and some senior members. He was sharing his views on the labor movement in South Africa and the involvement of leftist parties, and comparing it to the situation in Australia, what little he knew of it. He seemed in a jovial mood, sipping on a beer, and had a habit of referring to our organization as a “tendency” with a polite, though slightly condescending smile. As I listened in, I couldn’t help but smile myself because here was someone who knew what he was talking about. He didn’t just go around with shitty students pasting up posters on campus walls to publicize lectures on the Kornilov coup in pre-Revolutionary Russia, or the role of the Leninist party during the economic downturn. He was a “real” practicing socialist and knew what it was like to face the full force of the State’s repressive apparatus for putting his political beliefs on the line. And if he thought our group was nothing more than a “tendency”, then that’s all it was. Seeing we new members were listening with interest, the senior ones quickly led him away before he completely undermined our faith in the organization.

That was another aspect I had trouble adjusting to, namely the rigid hierarchy, and the gap between the executive committee and the rest who were subdivided into ranks known only to one another. I had always equated socialism with egalitarianism and transparency, but from what I saw, there was a definite separation between the new members and the established ones, and very little open communication between them. However, this was defended by the need to maintain discipline and clarity of purpose, and since I was not yet fully acquainted with the concepts as “democratic centralism” in the context of a Leninist party, I deferred to their authority. But inside, I faced a moral dilemma, because on the one hand, I couldn’t overlook the crypto-dictatorial nature of the organization, but on the other, I felt indebted to them for allowing me into an environment where I could learn about Marxism in a much more structured manner than I would ever have achieved on my own. However, the more I thought about it, I couldn’t ignore the fact that my involvement smacked of “bad faith”, on their part as well as mine, and I could see that my continued involvement would be problematic.

My suspicions about the nature of the group were also fed by the fact that those higher up came from wealthy middle-class families, largely of Anglo stock. They liked to boast of their privileged petit-bourgeois upbringing, and how their parents were managers or company directors who disowned them when they found out they’d run off to join a socialist organization. One such person was a guy about my age, I was then in my mid-twenties. I guess because he was of Dutch heritage and his parents had immigrated to Australia in the early sixties, he didn’t fully conform to the middle-class pedigree of his comrades, and thus spoke with a hint of humility, which perhaps is why I felt some rapport. Nevertheless he was keen to hold up his father as his own reason for becoming a socialist. He said he was a greedy capitalist who owned two dozen rental properties all over Melbourne, rented out to welfare recipients and poor people, and in every second one kept a mistress. Such was depth of capitalist depravity in his family, he would have you believe, that he had no choice than to rebel and become a socialist.

At times it seemed they were competing with one another to see who had lost the most in having forsaken their middle-class privileges for the insecurity of life as a revolutionary socialist, thereby demonstrating their whole-hearted commitment to the organization and its mission of radical social change. There was even a daughter of an ex-Governor-General who was a member, although she seemed rather shy and tried to remain inconspicuous, saying very little and smiled whenever she talked. Suffice it to say, I could barely conceal my growing disdain.

After about a year and a half, and still a provisional member, it got to the point where I could barely tolerate their imbecilic rhetoric and amateurish urban activism, and I was looking for an excuse to get out. I realized I had nothing more to learn from them about Marxism, politically or philosophically, and from here on in, my involvement would require me to undertake more propagandist duties to which I wasn’t all that agreeable. Then there was their crypto-Australian nationalism that riled. It seemed to inform in one way or another, all political discussion. On top of that there was the atmosphere of secrecy and paranoia that got on my nerves. By now, I had grown to dislike almost everyone in the group, and rued the day I ever got involved, stupidly consenting to want “to change the world”, like some lame-brained idiot. At times it felt like I was among a bunch of angry adolescents playing a game of grown-up in which I was obliged to join in, for fear of being ostracized, or beaten up.

Inside, I felt deeply embarrassed for failing to heed my father’s admonitions about joining, when I came home from one of the first few meetings. All charged up and excited, I explained to him and my mother how as workers they were at the forefront of the class struggle and the only true agents of change. I shocked even myself with my zealousness and how easily the rhetoric flowed from my mouth, as I told them how they needed to start building workers’ committees in their factories, independent of their trade unions which were in collusion with their bosses and didn’t truly act in their interests. That way they could develop the necessary class consciousness to seize control of the means of production and overthrow capitalism when the time came.

I was so fired up, I couldn’t see the seething anger under my father’s taciturn countenance while telling him that, as workers, he and my mother were the source of all profits, because their employers didn’t pay him them the equivalent of what they produced, and profited on the difference. When I declared how grateful I was to this organization because I’d finally made some real friends who thought just like I did, that was the cue for my father to burst out and tell me I was a complete fool for allowing myself to be sucked in by the empty words of pampered idiots who were using me for their own ends.

He said, one day they would betray me and think nothing of it, and I’d be left alone with no-one to turn to. Hearing this, I got angry and retorted by accusing him of trying to sabotage my political education, because he was envious I’d found like-minded people with whom I could exchange informed views on the world based on a Marxist analysis which he didn’t understand, because if he did, he would know I was right. As I stormed out of the house, his comments still reverberating in my head, little did I know they would now come back to haunt me.

It would be many years later, after he had passed away, I would learn the reason for my father’s stern rebuke that evening. My mother said my “communist” rant had rekindled bitter memories of his own involvement with the Greek Communists in the Civil War, specifically the actions of the intellectual cadres who recruited people like my father into the guerrilla movement. In the end, these leaders betrayed the rank and file by capitulating to the Americans and the British, who with the Russians carved up the Balkans into their respective spheres of influence, at a time when the Communists in the north of Greece were on the brink of seizing outright power. Subsequently, many guerrillas who turned themselves in were executed or imprisoned, or else fled to the Eastern bloc countries to work in the factories and mines until they could return to Greece after the fall of the military junta in 1974. She said my father had seen the writing on the wall and quit the guerrillas before they sold him out, and in disgust, joined the National Army of Greece, from where he was sent off to Korea as part of the U.N. Expeditionary Forces to fight the Communists. Coming from my mother, this was probably an approximation of the truth, but still there was a ring of truth of it. Only my father new the real story.

His angry words now resounded in my head. My so-called comrades were not the innocent, altruistic idealists I first thought. They had ulterior motives in opening their door to me. They wanted to use me for my “ethnic migrant background” to boost their “internationalist” credentials and appeal to a wider, more worker-derived demographic. It was all too obvious when I thought about it, and I had no choice than to get the fuck out of there. Moreover I had nothing to thank them for; it was the guilt trip they’d laid on me that made me think I did. It then got me thinking: if they weren’t what they purported to be, then who were they? At most they sold only a dozen copies of the paper each week, and most members were not in a financial position to pay dues, being students or unemployed, with my own contribution coming out of my scholarship. All of which raised the question: where did the money come from to pay all the bills? Were they nothing more than a history club after all? But why the secrecy and seriousness and with which they took themselves?

With each passing week, the rhetoric at meetings and rallies began to sound more and more absurd. I became increasingly self-conscious that my querulous attitude had aroused suspicions, especially after I declined to go away with them on a group-bonding camp, because of a prior family commitment I purely invented. It was about this time that a faction headed by some disaffected senior members split off over differences in strategy and political orientation, or so they made out. It was preceded by a heated debate at one particular weekly meeting, very orchestrated and highly theatrical, evocative, or perhaps imitative of a pre-revolutionary meeting of Bolsheviks arguing over how to seize power in post-Tsarist Russia. The stakes here, however, were nowhere near as high, but you could have been mistaken they were, with speakers channeling Lenin, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, or lesser known revolutionaries whose personalities they had assumed from too close a reading of their biographies. There was something tragic-comic about the entire proceedings and the way speakers truly believed power was within their grasp, but for the right strategy.

I wondered whether others shared my doubts, or were they so stupid as to believe all they were hearing? Or were they forcing themselves to believe the rhetoric, because they didn’t want to relinquish their tenuous connection with the group and the sense of belonging they drew from it, having opened up their souls, so to speak. Otherwise they could well find themselves adrift with nothing to believe in, with the added blow of having to face the fact that they’d been deceived so fraudulently that their trust in people was forever shattered. In the end, it felt like a sect which exercised similar group psychology to instill guilt in its followers in order to keep them in line.

The denouement as far as my own involvement was concerned came when I was asked to give a 15-minute talk on socialism in the Eastern bloc (this was the mid-1980s and the Soviet bloc had not yet broken up). I figured they thought I’d been in the group long enough, albeit still as a provisional member, to have absorbed the core ideas of their particular brand of socialism, with its emphasis on the state-capitalist nature of the bureaucracies in the Eastern bloc economies, and my presentation was to be a review of my progress, if not an audition for admission to full membership. Moreover, I suspected the subject was chosen to assess my residual “Stalinism”, because I got the impression they still considered me a doubter, since I had never openly condemned the Soviet Union at meetings, like my peers had done.

Nevertheless, I took up the challenge and went and researched the history of East Germany, and how it was established as a “people’s democracy” after the Second World War along so-called socialist principles. The group had their own sources of material they expected everyone to use. But I found them too blatantly propagandist and their analysis was too simplistic and lacking in intellectual rigor for my liking. Instead I went to the university library and picked out a book written by an American academic. It laid out clearly the circumstances and the events that led to the establishment of the German Democratic Republic and the economic and political influence of the Soviet Union, and I took it home and promptly read it from the first page to the last.

The book presented the topic from a realpolitik perspective, juxtaposing the geopolitical and economic interests of the West versus those of the U.S.S.R. and its allies, and avoided taking sides; it was unbiased, one might say. So I dutifully summarized the relevant events, citing the protagonists involved and their motivations, in a chronological and logical manner, and then practiced my talk at home so that it didn’t run over fifteen minutes. Even though I knew it wasn’t as overtly anti-Soviet bloc as the senior members would like, I was quite pleased with my effort. My conclusion was that both the Americans and the West on the one hand, and the Soviet Union and the regime in East Germany on the other, were responsible for the political stalemate that followed the end of the Second World War, which came to be known as the Cold War, and how the respective “ruling classes,” the capitalists in the West and the bureaucratic elites in the East, benefited from the situation.

A few days before my presentation, a member, someone about my own age who had already been in the group for a number of years, asked if he could have a look over my talk. Since I had no objections, I gave him a copy and he came back the next day and said it was fine, although he didn’t sound all that enthusiastic, and suggested some changes to improve it. I agreed to incorporate some of them, to get across the notion that the Soviet bloc countries were not truly “socialist”, but I told him that was as far as I was prepared to go because the point was clear enough. Otherwise, I said, it would come across as too pedantic.

On the evening of my presentation I was a quite nervous, with the result that I talked so fast, I finished well under fifteen minutes. I noticed during my talk that while most people seemed engaged and were listening, some of the senior members appeared disinterested, looking up at the ceiling or down at their notes. I knew I wasn’t the most exciting orator, but fifteen minutes wasn’t long enough for anyone to start spacing out. Nevertheless, I was pleased and relieved when at the end I received mild applause. The member who reviewed my talk and the “leader” of the executive committee came up to congratulate me, but I knew from the tone of their voices, of what little they had to say, they didn’t like it at all. They said it could have been more “polemical” to emphasize the “state capitalist” nature of the Soviet bloc economies, because as it was, my presentation was too dry. I nodded to acknowledge their criticism, but inside I was seething with anger that I should have been so stupid to do what they were suggesting.

When I got home that night, I was still angry that my talk wasn’t good enough for them, that is, that I wasn’t critical enough of the Soviet Union. I figured that was why their applause was muted; no one wanted to be seen endorsing my dissenting view, which was more in line with the Spartacists’, their arch enemies, who held that the Soviet Union was a degenerated worker’s state that could be salvaged politically, while the International Socialists saw nothing redeeming about it. It finally dawned on me that I was never going to fit into this organization, or “tendency”, because I wasn’t prepared to be told how I should think and act. I simply had to leave this cartoon show as soon as possible, but something told me it wasn’t going to be as easy as walking away from it. In the meantime I continued attending meetings and rallies, still as a provisional member, gluing posters on the walls of buildings and selling newspapers to the ones and two’s, but I was politely kept away from any new recruits, in case I corrupted them.

My focus and suspicions increasingly turned to the main personalities to try and figure out just who and what this group really was. People like the “leader”, since I can’t remember his official title. He was somewhere in his forties, short and thin, perhaps anorexic which might have explained his blithe and detached aloofness. There was something disconcerting about the way he avoided all eye contact, suggestive of paranoia that if he and the other senior members didn’t keep a tight rein on proceedings, there was a danger the organization might be exposed for what it really was. Then there was the acid-dropping ex-student activist whose impassioned visions of revolution and the end of capitalism at each meeting were as uninspiring as they were silly. He said that he was a manager at a branch of the state unemployment office, which seemed to explain his reveling in the role as agent provocateur at demonstrations, climbing on fences and jumping on top of cars, while call on members to run amok.

Then there were the overly passionate literary types inspired by “Ten Days that Shook the Wolrd” to follow in the footsteps of John Reed and write their own best-selling account of a workers’ socialist revolution from within. But in the meantime they had to be content with honing their journalistic skills by writing bit pieces for the paper. Then there were the sober-minded “bureaucratic” types, usually older members, who like Marcus, the superannuated student radical, also worked in government departments. One could always count on them to make prepared and articulate contributions at meetings about the need for a workers’ party with a clear political position and vision, united by a common goal “to change the world.” They effused that disinterested nonchalance of people who had no real faith in their convictions, which nevertheless had to be stated because proper process demanded it. They all irritated me, like a bad case of hives.

But there were also those who actually “believed” in the socialist cause, the bleeding hearts, as it were. To them, the organization was more or less a “church” which provided a needed sense of belonging. They had long ago accepted they would never likely to witness the coming of socialism in their own lifetime, but nevertheless were content to put their faith in the organization to lead “the struggle” forward. In the meantime, there was the ongoing struggle to convince the masses which gave their life meaning and served to placate the contradictions they had to live under. Much like the Christian movement in its struggle against Roman rule, they too were driven by a kind of persecution complex. And like the Christians, their struggle too was divinely ordained, not by God, but by a steadfast belief that eternal virtue and justice will one day come through the agency of socialism, and then communism, which required the pre-existence of an organization to receive and spread “the word” among the masses. The whole group was just one frightening collection of deceivers, of themselves and others, and was enough to make one thoroughly sick just thinking about it.

One evening my shit detector started ringing especially loud. The “leader” was giving a talk on the role of the workers’ party as a vehicle for instilling the necessary class consciousness in the working masses. In the middle of it, he broke off to remind everyone that during an economic downturn, as was then the case, when the membership of the party tended to decline, and it was necessary to throw open the doors for survival of the organization. Being one who had joined during this period, I naturally wondered whether he was referring to people like me, who might otherwise not have measured up, but were admitted to make up the numbers.

He then lamented that unavoidably, among those admitted were bound to include police spies and informers whose aim was to disrupt and bring down the organization. He said the best strategy was simply to ignore these people, because they would quickly become discouraged and leave of their own accord when they realized the discipline and patience required to be a functioning member of the group. Instead, he said, we should all focus on the task at hand, which was to develop a clear strategy and build the party so it would be ready to lead when the economic upturn arrived, and workers went on the offensive.

As I sat listening, I couldn’t quite understand the logic behind his argument. If spies and informers had indeed infiltrated the group, posing as willing converts or sympathizers, and they eventually dropped out of their own volition, why did he need to raise the issue at all? Or was he attempting to instill suspicion in the minds of members by pointing the finger at certain unnamed individuals who were not whole-heartedly behind the strategy and politics of the organization, and who might have doubts about its nature and purpose, and was inviting members to take their revenge on them, or make it so uncomfortable for those impostors that they’d leave. It was all starting to get very weird and fueling my own burgeoning paranoia. I needed to seriously find an exit, and quickly.

In deciding to leave, as weird as it sounds, I had to overcome my own deep disappointment that I lacked the necessary delusion to believe that a just and egalitarian society as espoused by these so-called International Socialists was possible and worth fighting for. Next came the anger I felt towards the group as a whole for all their deceit and subterfuge, and certain members for having led me along. In the end I took comfort in the fact that my shit-detector had come to my rescue, and I got out before they drove me insane with their imbecilic politics and guilt trips. I’m sure had I stayed, I would have been rewarded with further favors from the likes of Lucy and Judith. It was their way of showing their commitment, because Judith for one had no idea what she was doing there when I asked her in the midst of feeling her up in the front seat of my car one night.

As for Leslie, I don’t know what to say other than I became mysteriously attracted to her. It was something akin to the mild attraction you felt for that girl in high school, but one day you see her in a new light, and you’re completely infatuated with her.

She was about ten years older than me; it was hard to tell her age because she had a deep voice, yet quite a youthful appearance with a short, Pixie-style hair cut. What attracted me initially was her ability to articulate her views so clearly and succinctly at meetings, free of the usual hyperbole others too readily resorted to. But the more I saw of her, the more I detected an endearing vulnerability and sensitivity beneath that self-confident exterior which left an impression. It was as if she was conscious of the falseness of the façade she projected, and was trying to suppress her own doubts and uncertainty over her avowed beliefs.

That self-doubt was all too apparent at Christmas in 1986. A bunch of us were gathered at the club rooms in the city after a rally and were discussing our plans for the holidays to see who could help out with the house-keeping chores. Since I was going to spend Christmas at home with my parents in Melbourne, I volunteered to come in. This prompted Leslie to add that she too was going to spend Christmas at her parents’ place. But since it was interstate, she wouldn’t be able to come in and help. I noticed she seemed a little embarrassed by her admission, and quickly explained it was the only time of the year they ever got together, and by way of clarification, added that she was an atheist and it had nothing to do with observing Christmas as a religious event, and was purely a family gathering.

Some of the others then began talking about their own families whom they were also obliged to visit over Christmas out of family tradition, after which they all concurred with Leslie that after the revolution, the first decree of the workers’ central committee will be to revoke Christmas and replace it with a holiday that celebrated the “smashing of the State.” A more general discussion then ensued that verged on the banal and boringly nostalgic, as they all recalled their childhoods and the places they used to go for their Christmas holidays. Anyhow, Leslie, who was half-Dutch and half-Indonesian, being the most senior member present, then shared with us how she became interested in Marxist politics at university, back in the 1970s, in the manner of a wise master sharing parables with her acolytes.

As we listened with interest, she began by telling us how it all started with the student protest movement against formal assessment of university courses. From there, gradually all those involved moved more and more leftwards as they realized their own interests in abolishing formal assessment were aligned with those of workers fighting against their bosses, because in both cases, the aim was to prop up the exploitative capitalist system and the class structure that underpinned it. Thus the worker’s struggle was their struggle as well. She said her parents didn’t get in the way, because they thought she was merely going through a rebellious phase, and once she graduated, she’d go back to being a normal person, get married and have a family. But how wrong they were, she said, because ten years out of university she was as committed to Marxism as ever, which proved it wasn’t a fad, because it’s the only way of realistically analyzing the world and making sense of it.

Despite her candor, her confession sounded a little too rehearsed and slightly contrived. It was if she was trying to fire up our interest, in case we had begun to vacillate in our commitment, while at the same time, exorcise her own doubts over her involvement in the organization. From this and other occasions in which she reminisced about the history of the group, being one of its founding members, I got the impression she was too self-conscious to be an effective cheer-leader, and her interest in Marxism, well, now at least, didn’t really go deeper than an intellectual flirtation, perhaps not so much for her own self-aggrandizement, but for her sense of identity, because for her, the organization had become something of a substitute for family.

My suspicions were confirmed when one Friday evening after a rally I spotted her in the cosmetics section of a department store through which I was taking a short cut to the train station. She was seated in one of those high swivel chairs in front of a mirror on the counter, with bright lights all round. She was applying various shades of lipstick to her mouth, pouting her lips and smacking them together, admiring her reflection, as the assistant dressed in white looked on approvingly. From the angle she was seated, I don’t think she saw me transfixed by the image of her indulging her feminine vanity. In itself, it didn’t contradict the received precepts of Marxism, but there was something decadent and fetishistic in what she was doing, and for my part, I couldn’t help but feel a strong desire for her that was both liberating and illicit.

Then suddenly I realized why I was so transfixed by her. It was because she reminded me so much of my communist aunt in Greece. She too was a teacher, and both were about the same height and of a similar physique, and like Leslie, she too wore her hair very short, in the manner of Jean Seberg in Godard’s “A bout de souffle (Breathless).” In fact, my aunt was the first woman I ever saw naked, or consciously so, when I peeked through the half-open door of the living room as she was trying on a dress my grand-mother had sewn, in front of a full-length mirror. I must have been about six at the time, and was so fascinated by the sight of the naked body of a woman and that strange patch of hair between her thighs that I couldn’t look away until my grandmother saw me and told me to scram. As I discreetly stole glances of Leslie from afar while making my way across the store, I felt a similar guilty pleasure.

For a brief moment, the thought of the two of us escaping to some desert island to live together for the rest of our lives, away from all the crap, flashed through my head. And all the way home on the train, I couldn’t stop thinking about her, with her waif-like figure, dark brown-black eyes and glossy lips, and her deep sultry voice playing in my head, transposing her features onto my aunt’s nakedness. But alas, she was in it too deep, and I wasn’t prepared to follow her, no matter how many times she called me at work, reminding me to come to the meeting that evening.

It was now early in 1987 and I was quickly coming to the end of my doctorate. I had accepted an offer for work in the U.S. which I was keen to take up as soon as I handed in my thesis dissertation, so I could leave Australia for good and make a new start overseas. This dovetailed nicely with my decision to formally quit the International Socialists, which I no longer saw as a political organization that had anything to do with socialism, but a weird student sect that wielded mysterious power over its members through a guilt-laden Marxism-infused morality. I thought they would simply accept my written resignation, stating that I had no choice but to leave because I had accepted a job offer overseas, and they’d be only too happy to see the back of me, seeing I still harbored Stalinist sympathies. But in the month leading up to my departure in March of 1987, after I had already nervously stood up at a weekly meeting and announced my resignation in front of everyone, they began calling me up at home and at university, including Leslie, to talk about my reasons for resigning, unconvinced I was actually heading overseas.

For some reason, they were trying to persuade me to stay in Australia and become a full member, because the place I was going to, which was in Reno, Nevada, had no Marxist organizations, apart from the right-wing union representing casino workers. They warned me that if went there I would drift to the right and eventually lose all interest in Marxism and socialism, and I’d never be able to get it back. It seemed they were playing their last cards, laying the ultimate guilt trip, hoping to make me crack under the emotional strain and confess my real reasons for quitting. But all they achieved in doing was to incense me even further and increase my determination to remove these duplicitous, manipulative assholes from my consciousness, except for Leslie perhaps, who I was convinced I could turn if only she dropped her guard.

The final straw came when a member called me up one evening at home. It was the same guy who reviewed my talk on East Germany, believing he had my confidence. He was trying to console me by saying it was normal for new members to feel disillusioned after their first year. But he thought I had acted too rashly in resigning. He wanted to know whether my leaving had anything to do with the politics of the organization, and whether I had any fundamental disagreements with their strategy for winning over the one’s and two’s. As he said this, I realized it was the first time I had actually been asked my opinion on this issue, and something clicked inside my head. I thought, “What a strange question to be asking me at this stage of the game?” I realized he was trying to get me to tell him what made me see through their act. I paused for a moment and then answered by saying I had no problems at all with the group and was in full agreement with their strategy and politics.

He didn’t immediately respond, waiting for me to keep talking in the hope I’d say something revealing. Then in my most contrite tone, I confessed I just didn’t have what it took to be a reliable member of a Leninist party, and that “if it wasn’t already obvious, you asshole,” I thought to myself, “I’m a Stalinist through and through, and if it was up to me, I’d have all of you two-faced bastards, with the exception of Leslie, lined up against the wall and shot, and your bodies fed to geese.”

What I actually said, however, was that I had no truck with anyone, and I would do my best to remain a loyal sympathizer while overseas, and when I eventually returned to Melbourne, I would like to rejoin. Before I hung up, I apologized in my meekest voice, that I couldn’t be of any real use to them after all they had done for me, and further humbled myself by saying how very little I understood about Marxism before I joined, and had them all to thank for my education. After I hung up, I felt relieved to be rid of them at long last, and could now put the whole thing behind me. Or so I thought.

In the weeks leading up to my departure, I occasionally bumped into them on campus, but already they had forgotten about me, and more or less ignored me, which suited me just fine. I figured they were pissed off because they had failed to recruit a literate, university educated son of migrants who could attract more people from a similar demographic into their ranks, and enable them to build up their credibility outside their narrow middle-class Anglo student audience. And for all their efforts, I despised them like dog shit. But like dog shit that sticks to your shoes, it was difficult to get rid of their lingering stink, and for a while I had to contend with nightmares involving these horrible people, under strange and frightening circumstances, accusing me of treachery and crimes against socialism, in show trials at meetings.

Thankfully it stopped when I finally left Australia and had settled down in Reno. It seemed I had come full circle, having gone from being a skeptical, idiotic contrarian, to a semi-subscribed Fourth Internationalist revolutionary socialist, and then back to an angry, somewhat disillusioned realist contrarian who still idolized Stalin for the way he put his own spin on Marxism and made the U.S.S.R. into a superpower by implementing the most ambitious program for the primitive accumulation of capital in modern history in an industrially backward country, but in the process, led millions of people to their deaths.

In Reno I maintained an interest in the various intellectual currents within Marxism after I discovered there was quite a wide collection of literature in the university library. I even managed to contact a branch of the American counterpart of I.S. in San Francisco. But after I realized their politics were just as lunatic as those of the organization in Australia, and they both received their instructions from the “mother” party, as it were, in Britain, I decided it wasn’t worth my while to maintain contact. Nevertheless, I still consider myself a Marxist at heart, because, just like Leslie said, the Marxist analysis of history and capitalist society, and the nature of money, politics and economics, cannot be faulted, and doesn’t invoke such inanities as Adam Smith’s “hand of God.”

In the intervening years I have read all three volumes of “Capital”, the first of which three times at least and I consider it one of the best pieces of literature I’ve ever read. But the problem as I see it, is in extrapolating from this, because Marxism may well lay bare the workings of capitalism, the power relations inherent in money and the brutality and injustices that lie beneath “the market.” But that’s about as far as one can take it, and even though Marx and other political philosophers, indeed anyone with half a brain, came to the conclusion that capitalism was a system that dug its own grave, and would eventually be replaced by something different, which they dubbed “communism”, there was no clear time-line or process by which this was going to occur. Judging from history, something catastrophic will have to befall society for change to occur, if it can at all, because, in the end, human beings are animals and will resort to their base instincts when faced with life and death decisions for survival, regardless of how much of Marxism they understand.

“But,” I hear them countering, “real socialism can only be achieved when the means of production are sufficiently developed in all the countries of the world to ensure there is plenty for all, so that there are no material disparities between peoples, and there’s no need for wars. And we are very close to achieving that level of development. That’s why we must start to organize, or else society will descend into barbarism when capitalism finally collapses under the weight of its own contradictions!”

“Whatever! Yes, I know all about the premise that human beings can create a society free from hunger and war, is predicated on there being sufficient material wealth to support this new society which will be organized on socialist principles at first, where the state serves purely a transitional organizational role before communism establishes itself, and money and property become things of the past, and all peoples’ needs will be taken care of because everything will be planned and nothing will be wasted.” Who said that? “But the question is, what exactly are people’s needs? Can you tell me that?” “Well, we cannot possibly know until socialism is established and people’s fetishism for commodities comes to an end, and cooperation replaces competition. No-one can predict what “real” socialism will look like, or communism for that matter, because it’s never existed on the basis of material plenty. The so-called “socialism” of the former Eastern bloc was based on the exact opposite, that is, material scarcity, and that’s why it collapsed.” “No, I cannot accept your premise, Socrates. Socialism is what you make of it.”

When I returned to Australia in the early 1990s my bitter hatred for the International Socialists was still as strong as ever, and would resurface whenever I came across a flyer on campus for a meeting or rally. Sometimes, I would watch them from afar selling their newspaper in front of the union building, just like I used to do, and I’d be filled with such nausea and revulsion that the nightmares would return. Sometimes I wondered what happened to those who had joined along with me. I suspected some of them got disillusioned and left, and turned to drugs when they couldn’t face the fact they’d been duped, and lost all trust in people, especially those without a family safety net to cushion their fall. The more connected ones rose up through the ranks, internalized the rhetoric so it became second nature, and learned to regurgitate it without so much as a hint of self-doubt. And now they go around hypnotizing more suckers. Others took their “people skills” elsewhere and now enjoyed comfortable positions in upper-management in advertising companies, or employment agencies, or even in academia, as well as in government. The question, however, still remained. Just who were they, this ostensibly Marxist “tendency” targeting students, and given such free rein over university campuses?

Officially they belonged to the Fourth International which distinguished itself from other leftist movements by their steadfast denial of the possibility of any form of “socialism in one country”, and that so-called socialism in the U.S.S.R. and China was merely forms of state-capitalism where the profit motive still ruled, but where profits were reaped by the bureaucratic elite, as opposed to the bourgeoisie in openly capitalist Western countries. While their clarity of vision and action was admirable for avoiding the slippery slope of compromise and corruption which had tainted so much of the Left, their petty obsession with correctness smacked of academic analism which alienated them from the masses they sought to lead. But like latter-day Quixotic crusaders for truth and justice, they remained defiantly unapologetic. In the end, their political Puritanism could only serve to divide the workers’ movement, and perhaps that was their real raison d’etre, whoever was behind them. As for me, I blew my chance at becoming a respected member of the Australian bureaucratic elite. I will say no more!