1979 Was the Year

by Jonah Goldberg

In my column on Margaret Thatcher I quote a column by William F. Buckley, written in 1979 right after Thatcher won her election. Here’s a fuller excerpt:

Here is why the British experience is important to all of us. For over a generation we have been assaulted—castrated, is probably closer to the right word—by the notion that socialism is the wave of the future. That explanation is given us, sometimes patiently, sometimes impatiently, in those accents of ineluctability that tend to drown out dissent. It is a statement that has indulged those little oscillations between social democracy and Christian democracy in Europe. Tory and Labor in Great Britain, Republican and Democratic in the United Slates. But it has always been possible for the leftward party to say about the rightward party that its platform is roughly identical to the platform of the leftward party one or two elections back. There is no doubting the truth of the observation. Roosevelt would have considered the Republican Party platform of Richard Nixon as radical beyond the dreams of his brain-trusters.

British socialism, it is widely accepted in the critical world, had no place left to go short of a quantum leap into the ethereal world of the Tribune group, of the Tony Benns, whose défi extends, really, to root concepts about human liberty. We had in Great Britain a government which had turned over effective power to a few militants who dominated a single institution,the trades unions. The trades union leadership represented the best interests of the British workers in the same sense that Carnegie-Morgan-Vanderbilt represented the best interests of American enterprise three generations ago. A handful of men constructed a theology around the paramount rights of labor unions. Under their aegis, the mother of parliaments began to surrender what had been the distinctive feature of political life since the glorious revolution of the seventeenth century: the supremacy of Parliament.

The more I think about this, the more right it seems to me (which is sort of the point of my column). Obama’s stated desire to become a transformative president — unlike Bill Clinton — stems from an ambition to return to the pre–Thatcher-Reagan era when conservatives were expected to agree with liberals in principle, but have small business-like quibbles about the details. That’s why he so often waxes nostalgic for Eisenhower and the old Republicans who played the “me too” card on domestic policy. His idea of a reasonable Republican, to borrow a term from WFB, is a castrated Republican.

But when you think about it, 1979 was even more significant. That was the year that Deng Xiaoping introduced market reforms in China, in effect beginning the era of “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” that replaced the horrors and ineptness of of Mao’s “Marxism with Chinese characteristics.” Of course, the Communist party kept a good amount of its Leninism, lest its leaders lose the ability to boss people around while becoming billionaires. Still, if you look back on the almost inexorable rise in intellectual and political respectability for statism, 1979 looks increasingly like the moment when the arc of history started to bend away from the inevitability of socialism.