The Year of Living: Historically What Deng Xiaoping, Pope John Paul, the Ayatollah Khomeini, and Margaret Thatcher Had in Common
Heilbrunn, Jacob, The Washington Monthly
Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century
by Christian Caryl
Basic Books, 432 pp.
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.
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 psycheclelia 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 readers.
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. …