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 today—the paradox facing those who aspire to safeguard the old by creating the new”. The strange bedfellows in Strange Rebels seem to have mastered that paradox. The Ayatollah’s Iran was a bizarre blend of revivalist Islam and 20th Century revolutionary tactics, just as John Paul II’s call for moral resistance to totalitarian excesses capitalised on the growing spiritual void in the communist paradigm. Deng’s economic restructuring was executed in the name of the Maoist ethic, and Thatcher’s reforms were initially presented as palatable to an electorate familiar with the welfare state and its programmes.
Although the history of a single year is inherently selective, a fact Caryl himself has openly acknowledged, his book is nevertheless a welcome addition to a growing bibliography on the remarkable rise and astonishing success of the neoliberal credo in the last 30 years.
Somewhat predictably, Caryl, a Senior Fellow at the Legatum Institute, is significantly more sympathetic to many of these developments than others, such as Angus Burgin and Daniel Stedman-Jones, have been in their respective interpretations, especially when it comes to market ideologies: his explanation for Margaret Thatcher’s appeal, to give just one example, is that she appealed to Britons’ “sense of agency and freedom rather than treating them as cogs in an impersonal machine of progress.” This should come as no surprise, however, given that Strange Rebels is, at it core, about counterrevolutionaries struggling against what Caryl insists on calling “revolutionary overreach.”
Thankfully, the book is a nuanced and balanced, but one does begin to wonder—when Caryl equates, say, “the idea of progress” with “the seeds of arrogance” or when he casts “mass slaughter, traumatic social turmoil, [and] ecological damage on a vast scale” as the inevitle by-products of social engineering—whether the narrative he otherwise deftly presents would have been better off without simplistic value judgments that undermine the book’s intricacy and weaken its power.
In the same vein, Strange Rebels ends with a critique of reformers like Beatrice and Sidney Webb, the Fabian socialists and intellectual progenitors of the modern British welfare state. “The engineers of social and material advancement, Caryl writes, “can easily succumb to the certainty that their program is scientific, inevitable, and indisputable.” Later on, he goes so far as to say that “if the experiences of 1979 suggest one conclusion, it is that we should never underestimate the power of reaction.”
Fair enough. But it is also true that the same “certainty” and even “arrogance” for which Caryl faults social revolutionaries is equally applicable to his cast of counterrevolutionaries and their descendants. Are those compelled by the “twin forces” of markets and religion not also convinced of the inevitable successes of their respective programmes? Are we really trapped in the world that 1979 hath wrought until someone can up come up with “answers to the nagging metaphysical questions or forge new sources of identity that fullfil deeply rooted human needs as effectively as the old faiths”?
Either way, Strange Rebels is a fine book which is bound to generate long overdue discussion on the reasons why 1979 continues to loom so large—whether or not the interpretations it offers should always be taken at face value.