Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century

Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century

Most historians would have us believe that the twenty-first century began in 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall. But the world we live in today and the problems that plague it can actually be traced back a decade earlier. 1979 was the year that the postwar order evaporated, reshaping the international system and making way for a new era of global history. Christian Car...

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Title:Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century
Author:Christian Caryl
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Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century Reviews

  • Peter Mcloughlin

    1979 as a twelve year old was concerned with getting introduced to FM music (what today is called classic rock in a few years I would come to the punk rock of the era) and movies like "Apocalypse Now". For the rest of the world there were major upheavals as economies in the west facing oil shocks and stagflation could not solve them with Keynesian solutions. Iran went through a tumultuous revolution as the Tyrannical (but modernizing) Shah was soon replaced by a Shia Theocracy. The Iranian revol

    1979 as a twelve year old was concerned with getting introduced to FM music (what today is called classic rock in a few years I would come to the punk rock of the era) and movies like "Apocalypse Now". For the rest of the world there were major upheavals as economies in the west facing oil shocks and stagflation could not solve them with Keynesian solutions. Iran went through a tumultuous revolution as the Tyrannical (but modernizing) Shah was soon replaced by a Shia Theocracy. The Iranian revolution and the fundamentalism that it represented was to become a major force in Islamic countries and (oddly enough) the U.S.

    The second development was the election of John Paul II to the papacy significant because he was a Pole from a Marxist-Leninist satellite state of soviet Union. His election help spur the Solidarity movement in Poland which a sign that communism might be weakening although no one would have predicted its implosion a decade later. Deng Xiaoping took control of the Chinese government at this time and lead to reforms in its system opening up to markets and getting rid of the old collectivism that would make it the number two GDP economy in 2014 and on track to becoming number one in the middle of the twenty first century.

    Afghanistan was also invaded by the soviets this year as well which would embroil it in a war that would cause the soviet Union's undoing and fuel radical Islam with Mujahedeen fighters from all over the world to fight for Islam with U.S. backing.

    The two main threads of the this was the erosion of centralized planning and the apotheosis of Free Markets (at the expense of those on the bottom) and the revival of militant fundamentalism as a reaction to modernity. I do not mourn the abolition of command economies behind the iron curtain and the end of Marxist Leninist totalitarianism. But the rise of fundamentalism and the dismantling of social welfare states in favor of neoliberalism that replaced it were definitely bad things to come from the watershed year of 1979. Excellent book on a much overlooked period in history.

  • Nils

    Caryl's narrative history focuses on the pivotal year of 1979, skillfully wending back and forth between five different locales where history turned on a diamond hinge: China, where Deng Xiaoping took political power and decisive action in favor of economic liberalization; Afghanistan, where a Marxist coup collapsed, precipitating a hamfisted Soviet attempt at repression and the rise of a jihadist islamism; Poland, where the advent of a crusading young Pope inspired an uprising against Communism

    Caryl's narrative history focuses on the pivotal year of 1979, skillfully wending back and forth between five different locales where history turned on a diamond hinge: China, where Deng Xiaoping took political power and decisive action in favor of economic liberalization; Afghanistan, where a Marxist coup collapsed, precipitating a hamfisted Soviet attempt at repression and the rise of a jihadist islamism; Poland, where the advent of a crusading young Pope inspired an uprising against Communism in the name of human rights; Iran, where the collapse of the Shah's legitimacy opened the door to Ruhollah Khomenei's imposition of a Shia theocracy; and Great Britain, where Margaret Thatcher's election heralded the end of the postwar consensus in favor of state- and union-based collective control over the commanding heights of the British economy. The strength of the book resides in its balancing of an account which shows the deep and unique structural fissures that were in play in each country that were all but forcing crucial changes, on the one hand, against stories that emphasize the great importance of individual actors in determining the particular way that these tensions resolved themselves. In each case, Caryl makes clear, things could have turned out very differently had different decisions been made by the leaders in question.

    Two central points become clear on reading this account, even though Caryl himself is never quite explicit about either point. The first is that the thread interlinking all five of these crises is the ideological collapse of the idea (or perhaps ideal) of socialist modernity—that is, of the idea that the goal of politics is to achieve material prosperity and that collectivist models of political economy represent the best way to achieve that end. By focusing on these five cases and their divergent responses to what comes "after" socialist modernism, Caryl implicitly undermines the simplistic narrative that casts the 1970s as nothing more than the birth time of "neoliberalism." Yes, neoliberalism was one possible response (the one arrived at in Britain), but in these other cases different choices were made. In Afghanistan and Iran, the rejection was of modernism as such, in favor of making the purpose of statecraft to enforce an invigorated (or arguably invented) set of religious traditions. In China, on the other hand, Deng was committed not to rejecting but to realizing sociotechnical modernity, and aimed to do so by moving decisively away from collectivism in favor of economic flexibility and openness, while retaining an unwavering commitment to the primacy of the Communist Party as China's political lodestone. Poland, by contrast, went precisely the opposite direction, rejecting the Communist Party (rightly seen as a foreign imposition) in favor of civil society institutions, again in the name of realizing rather than rejecting modernity. (Poland's turn towards economic (neo)liberalization would only come much later, in the 1990s, when Jeffrey Sachs and his IMF confreres decided to make the Polish people the subject of a mass "shock therapy" experiment unbounded by human subjects limitations -- policies unimagined by either the Pope or Solidarity in 1979-80.)

    The second key point the follows implicitly from Caryl's narrative of the diverse ways that various socialisms were collapsing in 1979 is that the end of the Cold War was not decided in Washington or Moscow. Although it is a work of journalistic rather that academic history, Strange Rebels in this respect exemplifies the recent globalist turn in international history, which has tended to question the causal primacy of the Great Powers and traditional diplomatic leaders in shaping world historical outcomes. Though Caryl never says so, the metahistorical point that he makes is that Reagan deserves credit for the end of the Cold War in the same way that the rooster deserves credit for the coming of daybreak. Indeed, Reagan's role in Caryl's narrative is almost non-existent, cast as a minor follower of Thatcher.

    Caryl's selection of key episodes ignores other events of this year that might have complicated the narrative. Why not also focus on the dramatic events in 1979 in Nicaragua, where the Sandanistas took power from a terrible forty year right wing dictatorship? Or Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia that same year, which put an end to the Khmer Rouge's genocide? Or on Cuba's adventures in Angola? Such stories, which were just as dramatic in their moment as the ones Caryl chose, would have complicated the picture of 1979 as the year that socialism died.

    What this latter point suggests is that it is not quite so simple to find "the seeds of our times" in the dramatic events across the periphery in 1979. Yes, it's true that the various forms of post-socialist utopianisms that are dominant in our own time did come to dramatic form in that year, it is also true that these alternatives were not yet sure to emerge as the keystones to the geopolitics of the early 21st century. For that to happen, it took the even more dramatic events of 1989-1991, as Caryl himself acknowledges by having the last five chapters of the book address revise this period in each of these countries. For it was in this crucial moment that the possibilities embedded in the events of 1979 found themselves consolidated. In Afghanistan, Communists continued to rule through the 1980s, and it was only the departure of the Soviet Union in 1989 that led in due course to the collapse of heir puppets and the ascension of the Taliban, providing a hinterland for global jihadis. In Poland, likewise, Solidarity appeared to have been repressed, as a military dictatorship under Jaruzelski held sway through the 1980s; only the collapse of the Soviet Union made possible he shock therapy that would ensure the inability of Communism ever to return. In China the decisive moment in favor of economic liberalization under continued CCP hegemony was only settled in the Tienanmen bloodbath in 1989. In Iran, it was only with the death of Khomenei (on the very same night as the Tienanmen massacre) that would reveal that the Iranian Revolution had succeeded in institutionalizing its form of Shiite theocracy. Indeed, it was only in Britain where the neoliberal die cast in 1979 can be said to have been definitively consolidated prior to the 1990s.

    None of this is to dispute Caryl's identification of 1979 as a decisive turning point in history, an argument that he makes in wonderful, fluent prose. Rather, it is to say that he seedlings that first emerged in different sites in 1979 only really flowered after 1989, when the indubitable institutional collapse of the Soviet alternative to democratic capitalism prompted Fukuyama to declare the end of history. Throughout the 1980s, Thatcher and her sympathizers had declared that There Is No Alternative, but this claim had found plenty of dispute among western intellectuals who could continue to point to "actually existing socialism" as an "actually existing" alternative. What Caryl shows, however, is that while the collapse of the Soviet alternative in 1989 led to the perception in the West that Thatcher had been prophetic and Fukuyama was right, elsewhere in the world the end of the Soviet antinomian alternative cleared the field to allow other forms of radical alterity to emerge in full flower without rival.

  • Chris Walker

    The central conceit of this book sounds a bit like one of those old jokes - 'The Pope, The Ayatollah and Margaret Thatcher walk into a bar...' - what could the above have in common with Deng Xiaoping's economic transformation of China and the rise if the Afghani Mujahideen? I came to this book both intrigued and suspicious. Intrigued because I knew a reasonable amount about the collection of historical individuals and events that are the subject of this book and was keen to see how the author li

    The central conceit of this book sounds a bit like one of those old jokes - 'The Pope, The Ayatollah and Margaret Thatcher walk into a bar...' - what could the above have in common with Deng Xiaoping's economic transformation of China and the rise if the Afghani Mujahideen? I came to this book both intrigued and suspicious. Intrigued because I knew a reasonable amount about the collection of historical individuals and events that are the subject of this book and was keen to see how the author linked them together. Suspicious in that the idea that these events of a single year could be defining in shaping the modem world seems a shade too convenient.

    In the end, although I wasn't entirely convinced - the weakest point is the argument for John Paul II's impact on the fall of Communism - there is a lot in the idea of the forces of reaction and counter-revolution (as opposed to conservatism - a distinction Caryl is keen to make) taking control and shaping subsequent decades, for better and worse.

    I found this a fascinating read and one that challenged a number of my assumptions about politics, economics and religion.

    The epilogue of the book is a brilliant read in itself. Here Caryl lifts the hood on the assumptions behind his work, raising questions about the idea of progress in history, the relative importance of religion in society and the idea of historical contingency, to name a few. There is a lot for the reader to ponder and discuss and I'll definitely be returning to this one.

  • Marks54

    This is an ambitious book that argues for 1979 as a critical year in which several important trends of the 21st century first became apparent. It is a story of five separate events that all happened during that year with consequences that changes the world. The events are - in no particular order - 1) the election of Margaret Thatcher to be the British Prime Minister; the election of John Paul II to the papacy; 3) the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; the Iranian revolution of Khomeini; and 5) the

    This is an ambitious book that argues for 1979 as a critical year in which several important trends of the 21st century first became apparent. It is a story of five separate events that all happened during that year with consequences that changes the world. The events are - in no particular order - 1) the election of Margaret Thatcher to be the British Prime Minister; the election of John Paul II to the papacy; 3) the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; the Iranian revolution of Khomeini; and 5) the return to power and introduction of market reforms in China by Deng Xiaop ing. The book proceeds by relating the context and background of each event, followed by the details, followed by the consequences. The narratives of each event are interwoven with those of the other events, with particular chapters focusing on one event or another. So it is sort of like a focused biography of the year 1979. OK, I admit it, it is an interesting premise for a book.

    The general line of the book's argument is that these events are best seen as reactions to dominant trends in the world of the 20th century and especially the world after WWII. Thatcher's victory and subsequent actions were a reaction against the welfare state. Deng's economic reforms were a reaction against decades of totalitarian chaos and economic stagnation under Mao. Pope John Paul was a reaction against the prior noninvolvement of the Catholic Church in world politics and a particular reaction against the stagnation of communism in Poland - since the Pope was Polish. The Iranian revolution was a reaction against both the modernizing development economics of the Shah and against the materialism and secularism of the West and Imperialism, as imposed on Iran by its ruler and his Western patrons. The invasion of Afghanistan was prompted by similar trends in Afghanistan and was a reaction by the Soviet Union to perceived threats to its empire and geopolitical position. The reaction to this invasion further galvanized militant Islam in the world and helped spawn global terrorism, especially by Bin Laden, who launched the 9/11/2001 attacks on the US from Afghanistan. The punchline of the book is to not discount the importance of reaction and counter-revolution, which can become real revolutions themselves.

    What to think about this? I enjoyed the book immensely and think Caryl was largely successful. Each case is fairly well documented, although all of these stories are very involved. None of the accounts in the book are definitive, but they are rich enough. The author is excellent at providing just enough detail and context to make this valuable even if you have read a lot about these events. The book made me think about 1979 much more than I did during the year itself, and it is interesting to juxtapose these different events and compare and contrast them. I personally did not remember 1979 fondly -- bad job, no money, student debts, etc. I also remember walking by the various "death to the shah" protests in DC at the time and viewed them more as a nuisance than a matter of world historical importance.

    Limitations? Sure. This is largely a journalistic account and the big meta questions are raised rather than answered. These five story lines are all important and defensible, although the Afghan story is the weakest of the five in terms of how it fits with the other story. I wish the author had tried some more engaged thinking about what this all means. I can do that myself, however, so it is not a big problem.

    It is interesting what was not included. 1979 was the year in which Saddam Hussein came to power in Iraq. Why leave him out? If 1980 had been chosen, then Reagan's election would have figured in with on impact on several of these lines of activity. These are minor issues, however.

    Throughout much of the book, I was wondering how the author would handle issues of individual agency (role of "great individuals") as compared with longer term issues of context and history. Caryl does not overdo the importance of individuals, although a few are especially important (Thatcher, John Paul II, Deng, Khomeini). It is harder to see how individuals dominated the Afghan situation, which appears to have been a mess forever. It is reassuring that the author is not pushing a philosophy of history here, but a more limited line of how events can occur and interact in ways that have lasting consequences.

    Some readers may feel dissatisfied with the limited accounts, but that is OK. For example, the story of Deng here will likely spur me to go back to Vogel's excellent (and huge) recent bio.

    Overall, this was a fine book.

  • Cora

    (Not for the first time, there was a longer version of this that got lost when Chrome crashed. Stupid Chrome.)

    STRANGE REBELS is based on an interesting idea: that 1979 marked a turning point from a more left-leaning political culture in the world (marked by Communism, social democracy in Europe, and New Deal liberalism in the United States) to a more right-leaning system marked by market reforms, globalization and the rise of political religion (particularly in the Middle East). Caryl makes his

    (Not for the first time, there was a longer version of this that got lost when Chrome crashed. Stupid Chrome.)

    STRANGE REBELS is based on an interesting idea: that 1979 marked a turning point from a more left-leaning political culture in the world (marked by Communism, social democracy in Europe, and New Deal liberalism in the United States) to a more right-leaning system marked by market reforms, globalization and the rise of political religion (particularly in the Middle East). Caryl makes his case by telling five parallel stories: the selection of John Paul II and the impact of his first papal visit to Poland; the Iranian Revolution; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; the election of Margaret Thatcher; and Deng Xiaopeng's market reforms in China.

    I should say that this is a classic instance of history written by a journalist, by which I mean, it is strong on narrative and light on analysis (which is shoved into a breezy epilogue). I found Caryl's individual accounts very interesting (although I did not have a lot of prior knowledge), and I thought that Caryl was a careful and insightful storyteller. He is particularly strong on the stories in Afghanistan and Iran, which lended themselves more naturally to a narrative approach. The series of betrayals and poor judgment calls that eventually prompted the Soviets to invade Afghanistan was darkly compelling; as was the account of roads not taken in Iran.

    I also felt sometimes as if there was an obvious question that he wasn't answering: why 1979? Why were market reforms appealing to Chinese elites and English elites at the same time? Caryl is very good at explaining the wide variety of beliefs that fell under the rubric of Islamist in Iran and Afghanistan, but he doesn't explain why political Islam should have been so appealing at that point. This is particularly striking when you consider that political Christianity was on the ascendance in the United States at around the same time.

    This raises something else that's striking. STRANGE REBELS seems to be obviously geared to an American audience (as things are often explained with analogies to current American politics), and yet there isn't even a chapter to tell the story of developments in the United States that parallel the stories that Caryl is telling elsewhere. The tax revolt took place in 1978; Carter embraced monaterism at around the same time, alienating liberal critics; and the Moral Majority was founded in 1979, signaling the rise of the Religious Right. This is an old hobby horse of mine, but it bothers me when American history is considered in isolation (crediting Barry Goldwater with the rise of conservatism, for example) when arguably larger forces played a role that Americans don't consider.

    I think the bottom line is that this felt like a introduction to the various stories that Caryl wants to tell. I enjoyed it, because I needed an introduction, but I don't know how it would play for somebody who already had a grounding in the subject matter.

  • Lisa

    I'd really prefer to give this book 3.5 stars really because of the journalistic style and because he offers too much detail about some events but really raises lots of unanswered questions about why all these economical, social, and political conditions aligned to make the events of 1979 occur. I am old enough to recall the events but not quite old enough to have followed the politics and economics of the time so the book was great at filling in gaps for me. The author outlined 5 major world ev

    I'd really prefer to give this book 3.5 stars really because of the journalistic style and because he offers too much detail about some events but really raises lots of unanswered questions about why all these economical, social, and political conditions aligned to make the events of 1979 occur. I am old enough to recall the events but not quite old enough to have followed the politics and economics of the time so the book was great at filling in gaps for me. The author outlined 5 major world events that occurred as reactions to what were current conditions. He presented: 1) Margaret thatcher's election as the British Prime Minister, 2) Pope JP2's selection, 3) the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and resulting Islamic uprising, 4) Khomeini's Iranian revolution, and 5) Deng Xiaoping's move to introduce market reforms in China.

    He reminded me that market and religious forces were in effect throughout the world in reaction to social democracy and had the effect of reversing progress in many ways. I don't know why he excluded Regan as a story. It is otherwise thorough in accounts but his thesis isn't very well followed through after an excellent prologue.

  • Laurie Anderson

    Fascinating look at a few trends in modern history (chiefly Communism, capitalism, and the rise of Islamic extremists) seen through the lens of the year 1979 and four political leaders: Margaret Thatcher, Ayatollah Khomeini, Deng Xiaoping, and Pope John Paul II. While the author's tone seemed to lean to the right a bit, his ability to give concise histories of these four and then trace how their decisions changed our world was impressive and very much appreciated. This is not light reading; I of

    Fascinating look at a few trends in modern history (chiefly Communism, capitalism, and the rise of Islamic extremists) seen through the lens of the year 1979 and four political leaders: Margaret Thatcher, Ayatollah Khomeini, Deng Xiaoping, and Pope John Paul II. While the author's tone seemed to lean to the right a bit, his ability to give concise histories of these four and then trace how their decisions changed our world was impressive and very much appreciated. This is not light reading; I often found myself re-reading paragraphs until I could ferret out the crucial details. But it was well worth the effort.

  • Simon Koefman

    A fascinating and original insight into 1979 -a momentous year of political and economic change. The book focusses on four key figures/events-the election of Margaret Thatcher, the Iranian revolution and rise of Khomeini, the impact of the Polish pope John Paul II and the rehabilitation and return to power of Deng Xiaoping.Caryl explores the backgrounds of each figures, their personalities and motivations and ideologies.

    His style is engaging and informative, and this helps to understand just ho

    A fascinating and original insight into 1979 -a momentous year of political and economic change. The book focusses on four key figures/events-the election of Margaret Thatcher, the Iranian revolution and rise of Khomeini, the impact of the Polish pope John Paul II and the rehabilitation and return to power of Deng Xiaoping.Caryl explores the backgrounds of each figures, their personalities and motivations and ideologies.

    His style is engaging and informative, and this helps to understand just how much impact these unique figures had on their respective countries. The main theme of the book is that modernising political ideologies such as Marxism and communism do not always lead to progress for mankind-hence Dengs economic reforms that lead to a huge increase of economic output following the catastrophic effects of collectivisation , the 79 election may have been a watershed in the UK in that Thatcher rolled back state intervention in the economy, and Blair/Brown did not reverse this .The book also explores the impact of religion and values, explaining why the Shah's Western modernising was rejected by Iranians and how the Pope's visit to Poland in 1979 lead the way to the eventual overthrow of communism.

    I think Caryl has a conservative viewpoint-the book skates over the socio-economic impact of Thatcherism for instance- but Its a very interesting exploration of the impact of political ideas that challenged prevailing consensus /Marxist politics.

  • Carlos Contente

    This definitely has sparked an interest in reading more about Margaret Thatcher. This is a very insightful book and Caryl is quite the wordsmith; however, it can get a little tedious and tiresome, at points.

  • Kevin Kazokas

    "Strange Rebels" is a good read, not a great read. Author Christian Caryl focuses on 1979 as a year of dramatic awakening, a volatile and pivotal historical nexus at which point traditional values became reborn and were melded both into new experimental systems of governance and new political ideologies. Caryl persuasively argues the effects of this transformative year still ripple within the tributaries of today's interconnected world. But his examination of the factors that led up to and were

    "Strange Rebels" is a good read, not a great read. Author Christian Caryl focuses on 1979 as a year of dramatic awakening, a volatile and pivotal historical nexus at which point traditional values became reborn and were melded both into new experimental systems of governance and new political ideologies. Caryl persuasively argues the effects of this transformative year still ripple within the tributaries of today's interconnected world. But his examination of the factors that led up to and were integral to 1979 as a year of change fails to connect the year's many divergent events into a cohesive thesis.

    Caryl explores the earthshaking events of 1979 through five disparate nonfictional narratives. He endows each narrative with a convincing protagonist. So we see how Margaret Thatcher managed to divest an entire welfare state of consensus thought and impact British values and politics for decades to come. We learn how Ayatollah Khomeini exploited the myriad of divisions among the Iranian religious and secularists to his advantage in forging an entirely new, almost mystical based theocracy with borrowed socialist elements. We see how China managed to meld a market economy with authoritarian rule under the discerning guidance of Deng Xiaoping. We come to understand how Pope John Paul II captured the hearts and sensibilities of Eastern European Catholics, long forgotten by the church and who became awakened and inspired by his election and visit to Poland in 1979 -- so much so that they dismantled the Iron Curtain not with ironclad force but with near silent resistance. And we discovered the mysteries that divide the people of Afghanistan yet had them incongruously united in staving off Soviet occupation in the late 1970s and 1980s.

    Yet as intriguing and profound as these events were, Caryl fails to demonstrate their connectedness. He posits that all of these events were led by these titanic counterrevolutionary historical protagonists. But he never sews the connecting thread. Granted there are parallels. For example, he effectively shows how free-market thought came to prominence both in Britain and in China thanks to events of 1979. And he also relates the mythical ethos that can sometimes dominate politics across segments of society, as evidenced in the Iranian revolution as well as in the jihadi resistance in Afghanistan and concessions made by Communist rulers as the Cold War waned in Poland. Despite traces of commonalities, Caryl fails to deliver a convincing overarching thesis. While there's certainly merit to his characterization of his protagonists as true counterrevolutionaries and agents of change, the reader seeking unifying traits or principles would be left searching. It seems these topics, these figures, may have been explored better if chunked out into two or three separate works. There's certainly enough detail and intrigue among their scenarios and personalities to substantiate deeper exploration. But jumping seemingly haphazardly from one's story to another loosens the powerful grip these figures should hold in the reader's mind and in the historical consciousness.

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