When observing the state of our academic life and public culture, I have an uneasy feeling of déjà vu. When I started life as a historian, going to France to do a PhD in the 1970s, French universities were held in a tight ideological grip. The subject I was working on — the Paris Commune of 1871 — turned out, to my naïve surprise, to be a hot topic. Two older French academics who became my mentors were both convinced (I think with reason) that their careers had been blighted because they had written things that the then mighty French Communist party disapproved of. The Commune was the party’s pride and joy: the first proletarian revolution (it claimed) and hence the forerunner of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. This gave great kudos to the French Communists, who were strongly pro-Soviet, and even Stalinist. As one of my mentors had concluded that the orthodox version failed to fit the facts, he was reviled for ‘bourgeois objectivity’. In those days, Marxists controlled the unions, the student activists, jobs, promotions, and publications.
But I, being British, had no worries. Academic freedom in the English-speaking world was taken for granted. Taboo topics that prudent French academics steered clear of were explored and written about by British, American and Canadian historians. Pioneering research on France in the second world war — ultra taboo — was carried out by North Americans.
In those days it was possible to change historical understanding by exploring the evidence. The Marxist explanation of the French revolution —also a matter of great concern to the Communist party, which practically monopolised the relevant professorships in France — was overturned by American and British historians. The orthodoxy was that the revolution was carried out by a rising bourgeoisie overthrowing a feudal aristocracy — a crucial stage in the Marxist historical process.