Most books about a single year are iffy enterprises. More often than not, they are held together by a tenuous thread or overstate the case for the significance of the year they focus on. This is emphatically not the case with journalist Christian Caryl’s new book, Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century. Caryl, who is currently a contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine, was a longtime correspondent for Newsweek who has reported from some fifty countries and knows his way around the world in an intimate way that many authors of books about foreign affairs do not. His insights are not confined to any one place, but extend from Europe to Russia, Japan, China, Central Asia, and even Myanmar, where he recently reported on its move away from authoritarianism for the New York Review of Books. Caryl unites his extensive travels with keen analysis, arguing that 1979 was a hinge moment in the history of the twentieth century, one that continues to exert profound effects upon both Europe and the United States. The resulting work is beautifully written and, to borrow a phrase from the late Robert Bork, an intellectual feast.

Strange Rebels:
1979 and the Birth of the
21st Century

by Christian Caryl
Basic Books, 432 pp.

The genesis of this marvelous book was in January 2002, when Caryl happened upon the Behzad Book Store in Kabul. After the collapse of the Taliban regime, the Afghan capital was efflorescing. But for Caryl it was the past that caught his eye. Old cars. Eight-track tape players. Intact vinyl records in the basement of the old U.S. embassy. But the best time capsule of all was a local bookstore, where Caryl was transfixed by a wall of postcards showing an Afghanistan in happier times. One image in particular haunted our foreign correspondent. It was of a glamorous woman sitting on the grass: “Her loose, flowing dress was all folkloric swirls, purple and black, a fusion of 1970s psychedelia and ethnic chic. Her head was uncovered, and a cigarette was dangling from one casual hand.” What happened to her? he wondered. Why did the Westernizing, secular, sometimes even hedonistic Afghanistan and Iran vanish? What occurred in 1979 that led to such profound changes? Who were the counterrevolutionaries of 1979 who upended their societies and decisively shifted historical events?

Caryl identifies four key figures who were rebels with a cause. Each displayed a missionary zeal to promote either a restoration of religion (Catholicism and Islamism) or capitalism. Caryl singles out Pope John Paul II, the Ayatollah Khomeini, Margaret Thatcher, and Deng Xiaoping as the authors of what amounted to a series of counterrevolutions against modern social engineering, either in the form of socialism, communism, or a ruthless authoritarian social order like Iran under the shah. In Poland, Europe’s most Catholic country, communism had always been a poor fit—in Stalin’s colorful phrase, it was rather like trying to put a saddle on a cow. The elevation of the Polish-born John Paul to the papacy and his subsequent visit to Poland in 1979 triggered a moral revolt against communist autocracy. In Iran, the ascetic Ayatollah Khomeini, too, drew on religion to topple the shah’s efforts to construct a modern Persian society in the heart of the Islamic Middle East. In what had become a decidedly unmerry England, Margaret Thatcher, who came from a Methodist household, tried to lead a capitalist insurgency against the social welfare state that was based on morality and the virtues of individual initiative, thrift, and self-reliance. Finally, in the wake of Mao’s death, the Chinese became, under Deng Xiaoping’s rule, what Mao had once scorned: capitalist roaders.

Caryl’s account offers very detailed and probing insights into each of these societies. He is hardly the first observer to note that the Iranian revolution had a cataclysmic effect upon the Middle East and Islam, but he explains with remarkable clarity why what might seem (to Westerners) an obscurantist ideology carries, or at least carried, great attractiveness. He notes that a number of young Iranians had turned to Marxism as a form of protest against the shah’s modernizing but repressive monarchy only to conclude that “adopting leftist ideologies merely meant exchanging one brand of imported Western intellectual tyranny for a different one.” In short order they began to look at religious thinkers who espoused anti-colonialism and national self-awareness.

The Iranian religious establishment had historically served as a source of opposition to the state. Khomeini’s innovation, however, was to move from opposition to argue that religious figures should actually oversee the state. In exile he formed a Combatant Clergy Association that inculcated young clerics with his precepts. They returned to Iran, where they disseminated his teachings on cassette recordings—a small but potent sign of how modern technology could effectively be deployed to spread medieval (and mostly mendacious) ideas about the true nature of Islam. As Caryl emphasizes, Khomeini’s imposition of an Islamic theocracy did not happen overnight. Instead, he proved to be a wily leader who capitalized on events such as the student seizure of the American embassy in Tehran in November 1979 to outmaneuver his nominal secular allies and more moderate religious figures to consolidate power—he had already announced the theory of clerical rule known as “guardianship of the jurisprudence” in Najaf in 1970—for his own camarilla. The consequences have been frightful both for Iran and its neighbors.

Khomeini was not the only religious leader preaching a return to traditional values. Caryl brilliantly chronicles the threat Pope John Paul posed to the communist bloc, emphasizing that he spoke not just for Poland but for the Eastern European nations in general. Caryl examines writings such as the papal encyclical Redemptor Hominis. It demonstrated the extent to which John Paul’s thinking was shaped by the horror of both Nazi concentration camps and the Stalinist dictatorship, prompting Caryl to conclude that it “displays a profound anxiety about the rising threat posed to individual human rights by various collectivist systems, including totalitarianism, imperialism, and colonialism.” The Soviet Union suffered an intellectual and moral defeat in Poland from the church no less than it experienced a military one in Afghanistan at the hands of militant Islam.

If John Paul and Khomeini were antipodes, then so too were Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping. Caryl provides an insightful précis of Deng’s career, which involved several rises and falls from political grace before he finally ascended to lead China toward capitalism. Deng never shrank from viciousness, not in 1957 when he ran the Anti-Rightist Campaign that sent hundreds of thousands of Chinese to jails, concentration camps, or into exile, nor in 1989 when he presided over the crackdown at Tiananmen Square. But Caryl suggests that he always had a pragmatic streak—as he told a party assembly in 1961, “I don’t care if it’s a black cat or white cat. It’s a good cat if it catches mice.” Mao had identified Deng early on as a canny future leader of China. But that didn’t stop Mao—who, like Stalin, constantly feared that subordinates were plotting against him—from demoting Deng and subjecting him and his family to physical torments during the Cultural Revolution when the young Red Guard ran amok during the 1960s. After he backed the adoption of a hybrid capitalist system—a free market with the party remaining in control of the commanding political heights—Deng ushered in what Caryl says is justifiably termed the largest poverty-reduction program in history, and did “more than any other individual” to bring about the demise of Marxism as an idea.

What about the late Margaret Thatcher, depicted by Caryl as a kind of revolutionary in defense of tradition? Caryl displays a remarkable inside knowledge of British politics, down to Tory MP Norman Tebbit’s line on the hustings in 1979 that the Iron Lady was a talented leader in Westminster—“She’s the best man among them.” Caryl is very good at teasing out the intellectual background to Thatcher’s rise, noting that, unlike Ronald Reagan, she loved to wade into intellectual disputes about figures such as libertarian economist Friedrich Hayek and diligently read many classic economic texts. Caryl highlights the importance of a wealthy businessman named Anthony Fisher who figured out how to popularize the ideas of Hayek and Milton Friedman in England. He formed what was the equivalent of the American Enterprise Institute in London—the Institute for Economic Affairs. It was supposed to be the counterpart to the Fabian Society, which had, more or less, dominated intellectual thinking about the British economy for decades. “Socialism was spread in this way and it is time we reversed the process,” Fisher declared. According to Caryl, the choice that Britain faced in 1979 was between a “freer state that ensured personal liberties and economic initiative—or the one envisioned by Labour, where the state played an ever-increasing role. This was not the voice of Britain’s postwar consensus. This was something verifiably new.”

Whether Thatcher ever lived up to the hopes reposed in her by her early admirers is another matter. In painting Thatcher as a revolutionary, Caryl is probably at his weakest. To be sure, Caryl is quick to observe that Thatcher never attempted to topple the welfare state—she was too pragmatic for that. She did slash public outlays and curb the power of the unions and divest the state of ownership of many enterprises. Much of this was to the good, as even her detractors have begun to acknowledge. Writing in his memoirs, for example, the late Christopher Hitchens confessed that the “worst of ‘Thatcherism,’ as I was beginning by degrees to discover, was the rodent slowly stirring in my viscera: the uneasy but unbanishable feeling that on some essential matters she might be right.” What she did was to alter the fundamental direction of British politics, setting the stage for the man Caryl correctly deems, as have many others, her true disciple—Tony Blair. But whether that served Britain well over the decades is another matter. How well does Thatcherism serve Great Britain today? Is slashing the budget really the right answer during a recession or has it, in fact, compounded the United Kingdom’s difficulties? The country appears to be headed toward a third recession. Free market economics, at least the sort promulgated by Thatcher, have once more come into bad odor as the reckless side of capitalist speculation has become glaringly apparent.

Nevertheless, this is not the province of Caryl’s temerarious study. While 1989 will always loom as the more sensational year—when communist regimes, despite conservative predictions that they would always remain repressive dictatorships, toppled one after another—Caryl has made a very strong case indeed that 1979 was a pivotal year, one whose significance has perhaps not been adequately appreciated. His closing remarks alone about the lessons of 1979, which focus on the illusion that social and material advancement are inevitable, are worth the price of admission. In his book, then, Caryl has staged his own rebellion against humdrum writing and conventional analysis. It is a profound accomplishment.

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Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of The National Interest and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.