What do Thatcher, Ayatollah Khomeini and Pope John Paul II have in common?by James McAuley / June 24, 2013 / Leave a comment
Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, By Christian Caryl (Basic Books, £18.99)
“Like it or not, we of the 21st century still live in the shadow of 1979.” So concludes Christian Caryl’s introduction to his eloquent new book, Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century.
For Caryl—veteran journalist, former Newsweek Moscow bureau chief, and the first to interview Mikhail Allakhverdov, the US-based Islamist accused of radicalising the Boston Bombers—the world we live in today, post-1979, is “one in which communist and socialist thought has faded, markets dominate economic thinking, and politicised religion looms large.”
The 20th Century’s final two decades, he argues, were fundamentally concerned with combating the progressive and social democratic impulses of the pre-war decades and, of course, the postwar consensus. Most importantly, however, 1979 was the year that unleashed what Caryl calls “the twin forces of markets and religions”—attacks on the revolutionary self-assuredness of the 1960s, when drastic, programmatic overhauls of society were seen as inevitable as they were indisputable.
Strange Rebels is ultimately a joint portrait of strange bedfellows, political actors from a diverstiy of national and ideologoical contexts who seem—at least at first—to have little in common. What, after all, does the newly appointed Pope John Paul II, using the Catholic Church as a moral weapon against Soviet materialism in Poland, have to do with the Ayatollah Khomeini, who led the violent establishment of an Islamic state in Iran? What unites Deng Xiaoping, an economic reformer but a loyal Communist nevertheless, with Margaret Thatcher, the lady who wasn’t for turning? What does a contingent of Islamic insurgents, fighting off the Soviet satellite government in distant Kabul, have to do with any of the above?
The answer comes in the distinction Caryl draws between “counterrevolutionary” and “conservative.” The latter, he tells us, “can be defined as someone who wants to defend or restore the old order,” but the former is “a conservative who has learned from the revolution.” That, essentially, is the unifying conceit in Strange Rebels, the strand that stiches Margaret Thatcher, Deng Xiaoping, the Ayatollah Khomeini, Pope John Paul II, and even the Afghan insurgents into the same story of upheaval.
Each of these characters, Caryl writes, won victory “by mastering a central contradiction that resonates…