- Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century by Christian Caryl
Something major happened in 1979, or around 1979, or in any case sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s. Orthodoxies crumbled, as did regimes, and the world was never the same. The centrality of the date is universally accepted, although no one can agree on when these changes began and when they were fully realized. In 2008 several historians organized a conference at Harvard University about the 1970s and eventually published an edited volume, The Shock of the Global: The 1970s in [End Page 248] Perspective (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 2011), which tried to tackle these questions from different disciplinary and geographical perspectives.
Christian Caryl’s Strange Rebels is another attempt to grapple with these tremendous changes, but where Shock of the Global did so (inconclusively) by approaching the issue from different angles (and with different sets of questions), this book tries to put together a narrative involving four key personalities (Margaret Thatcher, Ayatollah Khomeini, Pope John Paul II, Deng Xiaoping) and one more amorphous group of actors (the mujahideen in Afghanistan who fought the Communist government and Soviet forces in that country). Interweaving the protagonists’ biographies with the broader changes taking place in their respective societies, Caryl tries to show what made these leaders decide to play their respective roles, what conditions made their actions possible, and what effects their leadership had.
Caryl is a fluid and informed writer and tells his story well. Despite the title and focus on personalities, his book is not just “great man / great woman” history. In each of the cases, Caryl takes a long-term view and draws on extensive literature (at least what is available in English) to explain the unsettling effects of the shah’s modernization program and the different responses to it, as well as the seeming failures of the postwar consensus in Britain that spurred Thatcher’s rise within the Conservative Party and ultimately to her transformative leadership of the UK. Readers will no doubt find this book informative and useful for understanding the background of China’s transformation since the late 1970s, or the power of Khomeini’s vision, for example. This is one of Caryl’s primary aims.
What is not clear is how these disparate threads link together. Caryl says that 1979 “marked the beginning of the end of the great socialist utopias that dominated so much of the twentieth century.” I doubt anyone would call post-Beveridge Britain a socialist utopia, and I am certain that neither Pahlavi Iran nor Afghanistan under the Musahiban would qualify as one, either. Afghanistan’s Communists may have thought they were starting to build one, but they did not get far. Caryl further says that in 1979 “the twin forces of market and religion, discounted for so long, came back with a vengeance.” This sounds suspiciously like teleological thinking and once again does little to explain how the protagonists of the story are connected. Were the Afghan mujahideen fighting for the market? Was Deng Xiaoping inspired by religious motives? Perhaps in Ronald Reagan’s mind.
Strangely, some other key leaders are left out. Mikhail Gorbachev more than anyone else is probably responsible for the beginning of the end of one of the socialist utopias, yet he is not part of this story. True, Gorbachev did not come to power until 1985, but his political rise is firmly associated with the late 1970s. He was first elevated from his provincial leadership post in Stavropol to the Soviet Politburo in 1978 precisely because some key officials in the leadership recognized the need for serious changes. Nor is either Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan in the picture, despite their role in dismantling the New Deal consensus in the United States, their embrace of religion and moralism in politics, and their vision of themselves as outsiders shaking up the status quo. For that matter, why not include Pakistan’s Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, [End Page 249] who did...