Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic, 432 pp., $28.99)
To the Western mind, 1979 may seem an unremarkable year. The year 1939 saw the start of World War II; 1969, the moon landing; 1989, the crumbling of the Iron Curtain. In comparison, it doesn’t look as if 1979 has much to boast about. But as Christian Caryl, a contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine, relates, 1979 looks a little different the farther you stray from the Atlantic: It was the occasion of five watershed moments in history that contributed directly, he claims, to the shape of our world today.
The five moments shed different lights on the same essential story: the global rejection of the socialist experiment. In each case, strong leaders and movements rolled back the status quo of statism. In England, Margaret Thatcher became prime minister and led her country back to free markets. In Poland, Pope John Paul II and his Catholic followers faced off against the Soviet empire. In Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini helped turn a revolt against the shah into a revolution against the monarchy. In Afghanistan, Islamist forces stymied the Soviet invasion and ended any possibility of a Marxist regime’s taking hold. And in China, Deng Xiaoping spearheaded his nation’s rejection of Maoism, leading to that country’s remarkable rise. In some of these instances, the new status quo became more oppressive than the preceding one, but Caryl does well to show how each watershed moment began with a sense of renewal or liberation.
When 1979 dawned, the Cold War was far from won. America had recently withdrawn from Vietnam, and the Soviet Union showed no sign of collapse. In their domestic policies, most Western democracies favored stifling levels of taxation, and many, including the U.K., provided for state control of major industries. As Caryl points out, John Kenneth Galbraith’s “convergence theory” — the idea that massive Western multinationals and Communist state enterprises would become indistinguishable, blurring the boundary between capitalism and socialism — reflected a belief that Communism not only was sound, but was actually an improvement on capitalism where industrial management was concerned.
What changed from 1979 on? Caryl’s five rebellions threw the status quo out the window. Each, in its way, had the temerity to take on the Evil Empire and its theories. But their leaders were no mere disgruntled hotheads. They shared beliefs that were global in their scope and radical in their effect on local situations. In William Wyler’s 1959 film Ben-Hur, the outgoing commander of the Roman garrison in Jerusalem, Sextus, asks his successor, “How do you fight an idea?” Messala’s answer — “With another idea” — applies precisely here: Each rebellion fought Soviet fate with individual destiny, and won.
Caryl’s account devotes a great deal of space to the two clearest reactions to the Soviet norm: free-market reforms (in Britain and China) and Islamist insurrection (in Afghanistan and Iran). Yet weighed in pathos, not pages, Cardinal Wojtyla’s return to Poland as Pope John Paul II makes the greatest impression on this reader. Caryl is at his best here as he captures the pope’s words and their effect in the streets of Warsaw:
“We no longer understand ourselves. It is impossible without Christ to understand this nation with its past so full of splendor and also of terrible difficulties. . . .
“And I cry — I who am a son of the land of Poland and who am also Pope John Paul II — I cry from all the depths of the Millennium, I cry on the vigil of Pentecost:
“Let your Spirit descend.
“Let your Spirit descend and renew the face of the earth, the face of this land.”
A cheer rose from a million throats, an enormous cathartic outpouring. Some of those present interpreted the pope’s call to the Holy Spirit as a call to individual action — a call to live life as it should be lived. The pope’s audience consisted of people who had spent the previous three decades concealing their private sentiments while being forced to parrot allegiance to official ideology. They had spent much of their lives watching television broadcasts or attending public rallies where the only language to be heard was the ponderous idiom of Marxism-Leninism. And now, suddenly, they found themselves at a public event where the speaker was expressing heartfelt beliefs in words of poignant immediacy. . . .
“Suddenly, the fear was gone,” [a Canadian journalist] wrote. “Eastern Europe was beating its way back to civilization.”
This sense of catharsis, and of pentecostal renewal, runs through the rest of Caryl’s book. The collectivist consensus had gripped the public square in dozens of nations, driving personal sentiment into a shrinking private sphere. In the shah’s Iran, devout believers looked askance as their ruler lavished resources on celebrating 2,500 years of Persian monarchy — a celebration that portrayed “Iran’s pagan past as the real source of national glory . . . [and] left little space for the role of Shiite Islam.” Afghanistan’s public squares were strangled in a more literal way, by Soviet-manufactured battle tanks. China’s college-age youth were sent to toil in fields instead of studying in universities or striving in the marketplace. Even in free England, ordinary people enduring the 1979 paroxysm of strikes known as the “Winter of Discontent” felt the power of the unions to threaten democracy itself.
Caryl’s explanation for his five rebellions is nuanced, drawing on a wide array of mechanisms to show why things happened as they did. His account acknowledges early on that the underlying forces were probably economic. He cites the notion that the industrialized world faced a “post-Fordist” crisis, in which factories and coal mines were losing their primacy in the face of relentless innovation. The world was becoming “a messier, more volatile place, one in which an elegant idea could end up counting for more than an army of assembly-line workers.” The capitalistic toolkit was fundamentally better at handling this world than the statist one.
But Thatcher’s and Deng’s reforms were not the only response to this crisis, as events in Afghanistan and Persia made clear, nor do leaders always conform to the logic of their epoch. Caryl makes the point best in his epilogue: “To say that historical or economic conditions predispose a country to embark on a particular path does not mean that its politicians will necessarily decide to take it.” Indeed, what makes Caryl’s book worth reading is the way he brings to life “our sense of the choices that historical actors faced at the time.” This honest inquiry makes his account of an exiled Khomeini seem almost sympathetic at times, even as Caryl later excoriates the Iranian revolution for its total failure to improve upon the shah’s dictatorship. The same evenhandedness helps explain how Deng Xiaoping could champion the cause of enterprise while crushing the dreams of would-be democrats in China.
Caryl’s thinking is unquestionably colored by the standard assumptions of international-relations theory. His analysis suggests that nation-states are all much alike and that national institutions mold the character of regimes indelibly, perhaps more than the stated beliefs of their leaders do. But Caryl does not allow this preference to erase the peculiarities of specific situations. For example, he highlights the “otherness” of the nascent regime in Iran, saying that the struggle between President Banisadr and Ayatollah Khomeini “was more than the usual constitutional feud between different branches of government; it was a conflict that expressed an inherent tension between the mutually exclusive worldviews that had been uncomfortably fused under the new system.”
Caryl’s analysis throughout is excellent, deftly balancing individual factors, such as Thatcher’s Methodist upbringing and Deng’s trips to other Asian countries, with situational factors, such as public opinion in Britain and domestic unrest in China. One wishes that the author might have been able to explain all five of his rebellions mainly in terms of the aggregate effects of many individuals’ striving for freedom — Poles demonstrating for Solidarity, Chinese entrepreneurs founding businesses, Britons voting for Thatcher — but the new regimes in Tehran and Kabul rather brutally contradicted that possibility.
Nonetheless, Caryl’s attempt to locate the birth of our young century in 1979 succeeds. His strange rebels set in motion tremors that ultimately cracked the Soviet edifice, animated by ideas that variously rejected that empire’s reason for existing and that continue to reverberate today. His final analysis suggests, hopefully, that the diversity of response that defeated Marxism will also save us from the monsters that have in some cases succeeded it.
– Mr. Mac Caba is an Irish composer studying at Trinity College, Dublin.