Dr. David Martin Jones

Dr. David Martin Jones

Director of Research (2022-2024)

Farewell, David

Eric Hendriks
Visiting Fellow, Danube Institute


We have lost our friend and inspiration, Dr. David Martin Jones, at the age of 73. The Welsh intellectual historian and geopolitical theorist from Cardiff, who also eventually assumed Australian citizenship, raced through the centuries and the continents with books on 17th and 20th-century ideological upheavals and professorships in Singapore and Malacca at the University of Tasmania and the University of Queensland in Australia, and at King's College London. In his last two years, he was Research Director at the Danube Institute in Budapest, Hungary, a think tank for geopolitics and conservative thought. In that role, he supervised a dozen researchers, including myself, and wrote regularly for this magazine, The Hungarian Conservative. But he also continued to write for his Australian home base, the literary magazine Quadrant. In Budapest, he was reunited with his old boy John O'Sullivan, the President of Danube, who likewise belongs to the British-Australian axis of conservative thought.

I met David in 2018 in Utrecht, the Netherlands, at a conference on populism, a topic that David approached in a multi-tiered critical manner: yes, populism can be just a “paranoid style” (David was referring to Richard Hofstadter's The Paranoid Style in American Politics), but is also today a response to a failing leadership class that is stranded ideologically. David was a master of critical thinking and never spared the powerful; poking up was his credo. He seemed to like me, possibly because, as a working-class boy from Wales, he had a general fondness for the Dutch (and for Australians); we Dutchies are simple creatures, always blue-collar in our hearts. David’s book The Image of China in Western Social and Political Thought became my favourite China book, and I taught it in my sociology course at the University of Bonn. We kept in touch via email. When I came to the Danube Institute in early 2023, I worked directly under David—how fortunate—and we grew close. David looked a bit like my half-Welsh, half-Dutch father outwardly, but he was too rebellious and playful to be a father figure. He was my beloved older brother.

My big brother was a brave warrior: David was active as a public intellectual until the last days of his life. He made almost daily contributions to panel discussions, seemingly tirelessly; had always quietly published a new essay; spoke with profound expertise on 17th-century philosophy, poet John Milton, the history of terrorism, East Asian international relations, and the mistaken logic of progressive historiography; and did not get nervous when others thought differently or tried to challenge his ideas.

David was an adventurer, forever moving across the earth’s surface, looking for surprising perspectives, colourful encounters, and trouble, lots of trouble. He shouted “Yes!” to the world. One only had to ask him: students and young researchers received his patient feedback, and he gave lectures and interviews wherever he was invited. When I once remarked that it was striking that, as a British conservative scholar, he appeared with some regularity as a geopolitical pundit on China Global Television Network (CGNT), he said the Chinese state broadcaster had not yet censored him. No censorship? Well, then, it was fine.

David believed in the open contest of ideas, did not want to be censored, and would never censor anyone himself. I once advised him to slightly modify an article on the Danube Institute website because the article (more specifically, its headline and attached photo) could create the appearance that Danube was endorsing a certain, dubious, Western European politician, which is bad for the institute’s brand value. David waved away my media strategic council. Brand value? He didn't care about all that sort of superficiality.

David lived for ideas and for adventure, not for image, marketing, or external status confirmation. Later, when it turned out that the article I had flagged (the photo combined with the headline) had indeed caused unnecessary misunderstandings about the Danube Institute, and I pestered him with my “I told you so,” he was cavalier enough to admit that. But of course—and thankfully—David’s noble starting position remained unchanged: that is, David and strategic self-presentation are eternal enemies. He didn’t use social media, never bragged, and his eleven monographs, true treasure troves, lie buried somewhere underneath the basements of a handful of academic libraries. Some are out of print or available only for astronomical amounts. (Fortunately, some of David's books have been leaked to Library Genesis.)

David’s romantic-individualistic aversion to the primacy of presentation also had a visual component. His socks were invariably too short, so during panel discussions on stage in Danube's theater, the cameras always captured a piece of his naked leg, which made Melissa O’Sullivan, Danube's event manager, chuckle. Jo Cohen—David's wife and the stepdaughter of David’s Ph.D. supervisor, Kenneth Minogue, a well-known Australian conservative political theorist—thought her much-loved David could improve his shirt choice. David, however, stuck to the concept of black or dark red shirts under a dark suit or blazer.

But anyone who did come into contact with him or his writings was impressed. David was taken far more seriously than he could have imagined. He was, after all, the erudite British professor, overflowingly intelligent, and cosmopolitan in the fullest sense, with an eye both for our shared humanity and for the depth and multiplicity of cultures and perspectives. In one of our conversations, David spoke in passing of “the Chinese mind,” a phrase that concentrates an awful lot of worldly knowledge and wisdom but will be dismissed out of hand as an absurd anachronism by today’s liberals.

David was consciously out of step with the prevailing progressive-liberal zeitgeist of the post-1989 era, as well as with all the trends among conservative intellectuals. National conservatism? Too national, David thought. Hip right-wing substackers? Never heard of them. Roger Scruton, the big star of twenty-first-century conservative connoisseurs? OK, but Less good than Oakeshott and Minogue.

David’s polemical energies always targeted the dogmas that were most influential in the institutional setting in which he found himself. In the 1990s, he got into trouble with the authorities in Singapore for writing moderately critically about Singapore's illiberal model of governance. Also, along with New Confucian philosopher Daniel A. Bell, who likewise had an appointment at the National University of Singapore at the time, David expressed open support for an academic colleague who had been fired for writing critically. Later, David was eventually unwelcome in the Australian social sciences because of his subversive deconstructions of progressivism. He rebelled against authority with boyish passion all the way into his seventies, when he himself had long since become an authority figure to many around him.


Contrarian and philosopher

Still, he was more than a mere contrarian; David's historiographical and philosophical monographs and essays polemicize against the most powerful ideologies of our time. He pulls blocks from the Jenga towers of world interpretation. His The Strategy of Maoism in the West: Rage and the Radical Left (2022, with co-author M.L.R. Smith) disrupts the facile depiction that the horrors of Maoism took place in relative isolation far away, and that Mao's influential fans in the West and the Third World have left no activist and intellectual legacies. His History's Fools: The Pursuit of Idealism and the Revenge of Politics (2020) diagnosed the ideology of post-ideology. This is the dogma emerging after the end of Cold War that progressive liberalism, free trade, and abstract justice cannot be legitimately challenged by possible ideological alternatives. David was thoroughly imbued with the fact that this dogma deeply trivializes non-Western others and their cultural and political traditions—which is detrimental to the West’s strategic intelligence because, though trivialization is a fine business model for end-of-history charlatans in publishing and punditry, it blinds the West to what is moving in the wider world.

In my opinion, his best book is The Image of China in Western Social and Political Thought (2001, $110 for the paperback). In it, he shows how, from the Jesuits’ first missions to China in the 16th century, the changing images Western intellectuals had of China were constantly reflective, not only of a changing China but especially of a changing West. Whereas 18th-century Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire praised China and identified with the Confucian mandarins, the philosopher-kings of the East, the more democratic, Romantic Europe of the 19th century, which had also become much more powerful in relation to the Orient because of its industrialization, often saw in those same mandarins a backward despotism. The whole book, but especially the last section on the 20th-century social scientific theories of China, offered me self-reflective, historicizing insight. I discovered that how I looked at China since my years in Beijing did not simply stem from empirical facts and experiences; no, I was and am looking through the lens of historical interpretive traditions that I previously did not even know existed.

The critical thrust of David’s oeuvre (including his shared publications with Prof. Smith) is that it consistently manages to think together intellectual history and geopolitical analysis, philosophy and polemic, ideals and power relations. What was David’s recipe? That he was a realist in geopolitics but an ‘idealist’ in social ontology, i.e., in terms of his understanding of the substance of society. ‘Idealism’ here means that David believed that ideas move society. Especially crucial are strategic ideas, ideas that intertwine with interests, are embedded in ideologies, and polemicize against ideological rivals. David saw a society formed by competing ideologies: strategically embedded modes of thought that try to outdo each other or even deny each other’s existence. Despite those denials of plurality, all are there, though.

In this view, the strategic and the ideological are brought very close together: ideologies are strategic, and strategies are ideological. As David Martin Jones and M.L.R. Smith write in The Strategy of Maoism, “Ideologies [are] systems of thought and beliefs that endeavor to move society in a particular direction and toward prescribed ends. ... Consequently, all ideologies function strategically. That is to say, they seek to manipulate their environment to achieve their ends.”

The above is certainly not spectacular as a simple definition, but David (partly in collaboration with Smith) developed this thinking into a comprehensive critical-theoretical approach. One renders strategic reflection possible by transcending solipsism, that is, by grasping the multiplicity of ideologies in their polemic and historical contexts. Philosophical and historical self-reflection is thus indispensable for strategic competence in geopolitics, while the strategic landscape itself is a clash of ideologies. Everyone has their situatedness, but the trick is not to sink into a valley of provincialism from which one sees little but instead to overlook the vastness from a high peak—or better still, to hang-glide along the mountain ridges of human ideological plurality.

Those who think progressive liberalism is humanity’s final, definitive answer are staring down at their noses. A new nomos of the earth is about to break through; things will be evaluated differently; geopolitical power will recentre perceived legitimacy; celebrated will be other kinds of unworthy individuals for other superficial reasons. There is no end to history because the Other, the existence of alternative possibilities of thought, will never disappear; there is never only the Self; there will always be a multiplicity of possible perspectives and open futures, David knew.

Yes, David lived the philosophical life, which, from the viewpoint of philosophy, is the supreme accomplishment.



Because such a lofty philosophical idealism departs from the conventional, it goes well with a systematic disregard for smaller virtues. A “naughty boy”—that’s how David once described himself to me. One-on-one with me, he sometimes slid into the role of the jovial lad, referring to women as “birds” and joking that it is a man’s telos to buy houses to lose them to exes. He stated, exaggeratedly, that he has lost three houses: one to an ex-wife and two to ex-girlfriends.

In rules, ranks, and formal procedures, David saw the opium for the conformists, or even a hypocritical betrayal of all higher principles. If David had to sign something, he scribbled indifferently; those who take bureaucratic formalities seriously only feed into the illusion of a functioning whole. Yet, the world is chaos and contingency. David also sometimes published the same articles in different places without the permission of editors. Certainly, this minimal infraction against publishing etiquette is nothing compared to the existential plagiarism of the average humanities scholar who merely recycles popular dogma over a lifetime. Oh, you shouldn’t have your edited volume proposal peer-reviewed by a buddy who you know will automatically give the green light? Please. Everyone cheats with those things. The standards are fake, especially where they seem best upheld. The individuals and institutions most highly regarded in the academy and the intellectual public sphere have earned it the least; they just cheated harder than everyone else by streamlining their entire worldview for career success. Being celebrated by the system, moreover, has never reflected worse on one’s character given that intellectual narrowing, end-of-history provincialism, and leftist rage have taken hold of our knowledge institutions, David charges.

In short, many of David’s mischiefs were in honour of the Higher. He denigrated the small integrity, the hoops of a twisted system, out of respect for what really ought to matter.


Eyes, star-cross’d

But those who knew David well know that he also had a seriously self-destructive side, expressed earlier, for example, in a period of LSD use. Looking out into the world, David saw an overpowering plurality, a storming of ideologies, but it also stormed within. His mind was more of a mysterious force field than a coherence. If David were a wine, he would have high complexity. If he were a sauce, he would be sweet and sour.


In the photo he used for his website (see image), he looks friendly and relaxed, provided you perceive the whole fleetingly. Yet, if you cover one and then the other side of his face with your hand, you can see that his two eyes have different expressions. The right side of his face (left in the picture) is warm and gentle; the left side (right in the picture) is more intense and emotionally ambivalent.

David’s psyche was possibly in conflicting moods when the photo was taken—which may sound ridiculous but isn’t. Humans are much more split than we are aware, propelled by impulses that pull us in differing directions. Our egos do their best to pull the threads together with only shadows to alert us to what lies beneath. On the outside, the split is not noticeable also because the left brain, which confusingly controls the right side of the body (including the right side of the face), does the talking, creating an overstated sense of unity; the language function is on the left. This means that when we humans speak to each other, our left hemispheres (more precisely, the left’s language-related parts) are in conversation, so to speak, while the right hemispheres, home to hidden drivers, silently exert a subliminal influence.

We have all been in conversation only with David’s left hemisphere, with that right eye looking at us so gently; but who was his right hemisphere, looking so intensely from the left side? We will never know.

But whatever was the deal with David’s hemispheres, his wife Jo always had his heart and soul. That we do know.

In December, when David and I were in Uppsala, Sweden, for a conference visit, he summarized his life to me. We were walking in the evening cold to our hotel. Passing through dark streets, David began to recount his life, which has been dedicated to adventure. At one point, I interrupted him, “Are you leaving us?” David smiled. I found the conversation slightly ominous, but I gave it little weight since David would be with us for at least another ten years. Right?

It was not to be.

Vale, David. We love you. We miss you.


A review of “The Strategy of Maoism in the West: Rage and the Radical Left,” by David Martin Jones and M.L.R. Smith