It was my generation which famously – or notoriously, depending on your point of view – invented the international student revolution. Back in the day at Berkeley, this was not a Marxist revolt in its first incarnation. It began as an expression of outrage at the banning of all political activity on campus property announced by the university authorities at the beginning of the 1964 academic year, almost certainly at the behest of local businesses tired of being picketed by University of California students protesting over their racially discriminatory employment practices. 

The shutting down of all political activity (even the distribution of leaflets and the wearing of badges), not only on civil rights issues but on the Vietnam War and American foreign policy, was a clear breach of the constitutional liberties of people who happened to live and work on university premises. So, in the first instance, this campaign may have been driven by people who had Left-of-centre political views but it was not a specifically Marxist – or even socialist – movement. It was, in the true sense, a fight for free speech and the right of assembly as guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Why did that neo-Marxist position retain such a hold over so many, when it had apparently failed as a political system in all the countries of the world where it had actually been installed?

When, exactly, did this change? When did the student rebels at Berkeley, and later at the LSE and the Sorbonne and eventually throughout the universities of America and Europe, begin to identify themselves with a much more hard-core ideology which came to be called the New Left? And perhaps the more difficult question: why did that neo-Marxist position retain such a hold over so many, when it had apparently failed as a political system in all the countries of the world where it had actually been installed?

The first puzzle – when did demands for simple freedoms turn into systematic (if schismatic) Marxist commitments? – is fairly clear in my recollection. The brutal reaction of the police to peaceful demonstrations was a tipping point. The sight of students who refused to desist from gathering in areas which had once been open arenas for political meetings, or who staged non-violent sit-down protests, being hurled down the stairs of buildings or summarily arrested produced a mass epiphany: a revelation of what the Left would call the repressive nature of the capitalist state. It was all too credible to see the oppressive actions of legal authorities as malign: a conspiracy of the rich and powerful determined to protect their own interests. From that shocking disillusionment, it was not a huge leap to the conclusion that the political and economic system under which you lived was incorrigibly unjust.

But the second part of this historical examination is more problematic. Why did so many veterans of those early uprisings remain in the Marxist fold even after grotesque revelations about Soviet gulags and Chinese tyranny were common knowledge? When it became apparent that the great Leninist and Maoist revolutions had produced persecution and terror, or at best, simply economic poverty and political corruption – in the face of all the available evidence, how did those considerable numbers of acolytes maintain their belief? 

There are two quite different kinds of answer to this. The first is historical. Almost all of the influential Marxist activity in the 1960s and ’70s was led by Trotskyists: the old diehard Communists who remained attached to the official Soviet state interest were regarded as absurd.

Ironically, what Marx created and Lenin brought to fruition was not an antidote to religion which they saw as oppressive superstition, but a new variant of it: a belief system which cannot, in its own terms, be disproved.

What followed from this was that the Soviet Union and all of its crimes and failings could be discounted. Stalin had destroyed the integrity of the revolution and therefore what went on in Russia and its satellites was a betrayal of the true goals and values of the Marxist cause. ­­A good many comrades went even further than this in their analysis, arguing that the revolution had happened in entirely the wrong place. Marx had never advocated a Communist take-over in Russia because it was a totalitarian country which had not passed through a period of bourgeois freedom. What he had expected was that those Western nations which had passed through democratic revolutions would proceed to Communist rule as the next phase of historical progress, their populations realising that popular ownership of the economy was as important as popular control of government. (What did not seem to occur to him was that once people had experienced the “bourgeois freedoms”, they would be unlikely to give them up, even temporarily, for a dictatorship of the proletariat.) So it was relatively easy to conclude that empirical evidence of Soviet infamy was neither here nor there. The revolution – properly speaking – had not failed: it had never been tried.

But there was another, more abstract reason why the facts did not get in the way of true belief. Marxism is not a product of scientific observation: it is theological. Once you accept the premises, it realigns your perception of the human condition. If the workers do not accept its diagnosis, then they are in a state of “false consciousness” which can only be altered by action. If facts seem to contradict the Marxist analysis, then they must be dismissed as a mass delusion: “objective truth is a bourgeois construct”. Ironically, what Marx created and Lenin brought to fruition was not an antidote to religion which they saw as oppressive superstition, but a new variant of it: a belief system which cannot, in its own terms, be disproved.