On Political Books

May/ June 2013 The Year of Living Historically

What Deng Xiaoping, Pope John Paul, the Ayatollah Khomeini, and Margaret Thatcher had in common.

By Jacob Heilbrunn

Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century
by Christian Caryl
Basic Books, 432 pp.

Most books about a single year are iffy enterprises. More often than not, they are held together by a tenuous thread or overstate the case for the significance of the year they focus on. This is emphatically not the case with journalist Christian Caryl’s new book, Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century. Caryl, who is currently a contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine, was a longtime correspondent for Newsweek who has reported from some fifty countries and knows his way around the world in an intimate way that many authors of books about foreign affairs do not. His insights are not confined to any one place, but extend from Europe to Russia, Japan, China, Central Asia, and even Myanmar, where he recently reported on its move away from authoritarianism for the New York Review of Books. Caryl unites his extensive travels with keen analysis, arguing that 1979 was a hinge moment in the history of the twentieth century, one that continues to exert profound effects upon both Europe and the United States. The resulting work is beautifully written and, to borrow a phrase from the late Robert Bork, an intellectual feast.

The genesis of this marvelous book was in January 2002, when Caryl happened upon the Behzad Book Store in Kabul. After the collapse of the Taliban regime, the Afghan capital was efflorescing. But for Caryl it was the past that caught his eye. Old cars. Eight-track tape players. Intact vinyl records in the basement of the old U.S. embassy. But the best time capsule of all was a local bookstore, where Caryl was transfixed by a wall of postcards showing an Afghanistan in happier times. One image in particular haunted our foreign correspondent. It was of a glamorous woman sitting on the grass: “Her loose, flowing dress was all folkloric swirls, purple and black, a fusion of 1970s psychedelia and ethnic chic. Her head was uncovered, and a cigarette was dangling from one casual hand.” What happened to her? he wondered. Why did the Westernizing, secular, sometimes even hedonistic Afghanistan and Iran vanish? What occurred in 1979 that led to such profound changes? Who were the counterrevolutionaries of 1979 who upended their societies and decisively shifted historical events?

Caryl identifies four key figures who were rebels with a cause. Each displayed a missionary zeal to promote either a restoration of religion (Catholicism and Islamism) or capitalism. Caryl singles out Pope John Paul II, the Ayatollah Khomeini, Margaret Thatcher, and Deng Xiaoping as the authors of what amounted to a series of counterrevolutions against modern social engineering, either in the form of socialism, communism, or a ruthless authoritarian social order like Iran under the shah. In Poland, Europe’s most Catholic country, communism had always been a poor fit—in Stalin’s colorful phrase, it was rather like trying to put a saddle on a cow. The elevation of the Polish-born John Paul to the papacy and his subsequent visit to Poland in 1979 triggered a moral revolt against communist autocracy. In Iran, the ascetic Ayatollah Khomeini, too, drew on religion to topple the shah’s efforts to construct a modern Persian society in the heart of the Islamic Middle East. In what had become a decidedly unmerry England, Margaret Thatcher, who came from a Methodist household, tried to lead a capitalist insurgency against the social welfare state that was based on morality and the virtues of individual initiative, thrift, and self-reliance. Finally, in the wake of Mao’s death, the Chinese became, under Deng Xiaoping’s rule, what Mao had once scorned: capitalist roaders.

Caryl’s account offers very detailed and probing insights into each of these societies. He is hardly the first observer to note that the Iranian revolution had a cataclysmic effect upon the Middle East and Islam, but he explains with remarkable clarity why what might seem (to Westerners) an obscurantist ideology carries, or at least carried, great attractiveness. He notes that a number of young Iranians had turned to Marxism as a form of protest against the shah’s modernizing but repressive monarchy only to conclude that “adopting leftist ideologies merely meant exchanging one brand of imported Western intellectual tyranny for a different one.” In short order they began to look at religious thinkers who espoused anti-colonialism and national self-awareness.

The Iranian religious establishment had historically served as a source of opposition to the state. Khomeini’s innovation, however, was to move from opposition to argue that religious figures should actually oversee the state. In exile he formed a Combatant Clergy Association that inculcated young clerics with his precepts. They returned to Iran, where they disseminated his teachings on cassette recordings—a small but potent sign of how modern technology could effectively be deployed to spread medieval (and mostly mendacious) ideas about the true nature of Islam. As Caryl emphasizes, Khomeini’s imposition of an Islamic theocracy did not happen overnight. Instead, he proved to be a wily leader who capitalized on events such as the student seizure of the American embassy in Tehran in November 1979 to outmaneuver his nominal secular allies and more moderate religious figures to consolidate power—he had already announced the theory of clerical rule known as “guardianship of the jurisprudence” in Najaf in 1970—for his own camarilla. The consequences have been frightful both for Iran and its neighbors.

Khomeini was not the only religious leader preaching a return to traditional values. Caryl brilliantly chronicles the threat Pope John Paul posed to the communist bloc, emphasizing that he spoke not just for Poland but for the Eastern European nations in general. Caryl examines writings such as the papal encyclical Redemptor Hominis. It demonstrated the extent to which John Paul’s thinking was shaped by the horror of both Nazi concentration camps and the Stalinist dictatorship, prompting Caryl to conclude that it “displays a profound anxiety about the rising threat posed to individual human rights by various collectivist systems, including totalitarianism, imperialism, and colonialism.” The Soviet Union suffered an intellectual and moral defeat in Poland from the church no less than it experienced a military one in Afghanistan at the hands of militant Islam.

Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of the National Interest.


  • Anonymous on May 06, 2013 5:02 PM:

    "Temerarious"! Thanks for the word, though I'll probably never use it.