Tom Reifenheiser will lead this book club discussion of “Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century” by Christian Carrel
Review by Isaac Chotiner a senior editor at The New Republic:
If Christian Caryl had set out to write a book about 1968, showing how the many convulsions and uprisings of that astonishing year were connected, his task would have been an easy one. It might be difficult to prove cause and effect between, say, the May events in Paris and the chaos at the Democratic convention in August, but as people might have said at the time, something was in the air. It wasn’t mere coincidence that led to youth revolts all over the world. In the case of 1989, such connections are even more obvious.
Caryl, a contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine and a former Newsweek correspondent, is faced with a much harder task in “Strange Rebels,” his engrossing new book of five case studies from 1979. This was the year Deng Xiaoping initiated the reforms that would spur the Chinese economy; the year an anxious Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan after its Communist allies faced resistance from local “freedom fighters”; the year Pope John Paul II made his momentous trip to Poland; the year Margaret Thatcher overturned an etiolated Labour government; and the year Iranian revolutionaries overthrew the shah, Our Man in Tehran.
As Caryl writes, in an effort to link stories that don’t, at first glance, hold together: “It was in 1979 that the twin forces of markets and religion, discounted for so long, came back with a vengeance.” Indeed, the power of both markets and religion registered in places beyond those covered in his main narrative. On the religious front, Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, the Pakistani military dictator who did so much to aid Afghanistan’s rebels, ordered his predecessor to be hanged and sped forward the Islamicization of his country. And as Caryl briefly mentions, the Moral Majority was formed in 1979. The following year saw the election of Thatcher’s ally Ronald Reagan and — compared with what preceded them — the relatively free-market policies in Indira Gandhi’s India.
The problem for Caryl is that concepts like “religion” and “markets” are much too broad. John Paul II may have helped undermine the Communist regime in Poland, and the young religious Muslims of Afghanistan may have forced complacent observers to realize that faith wasn’t going to disappear from the world. (The upheaval in Iran, where a theocracy replaced an autocrat, makes this point even more forcefully.) But it’s difficult to draw comparisons between the forces motivating the Polish pope’s admiring countrymen and Iran’s student revolutionaries.
As for markets, it’s true that Thatcher preached their virtues, and that Deng took advantage of China’s awesome economic capacities. “The forces unleashed in 1979 marked the beginning of the end of the great socialist utopias that had dominated so much of the 20th century,” Caryl writes. But what does he mean by “socialist utopias”? Presumably he’s being ironic, but either way, it makes little sense to compare postwar Labour governments (which were certainly subject to diminishing returns but which also gave birth to a highly successful welfare state) to the pathological murderousness of Mao’s China. Caryl notes that Thatcher’s “belief in individual responsibility and the primacy of personal freedom had its roots in a spiritual stance rather than an economic theory” — an attempt to link the free-market “fundamentalism” of the prime minster with the religiosity on display in some of the book’s other sections. But the men Caryl terms the “religious thinkers” of the Iranian Revolution would hardly be conceptual allies of Margaret Thatcher.
“Strange Rebels” is a well-written and thorough work of history whose elements don’t really cohere. About one thing, however, Caryl is certainly right: “The political experiments of 1979 continue to define our world.” It has become something of a cliché to remark on the consequences of these various events, especially — post‑9/11 — the decision of the Soviet Union to invade the future haven of Osama bin Laden. But sometimes clichés exist for an appropriate reason. Noting that things didn’t have to play out the way they did and recognizing that contingencies are a large part of history, Caryl concedes that “to study 1979 is also to study the tyranny of chance.” The clearest conclusion of this book is that 1979 happened, by chance, to be a monumental year.