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

If John Paul and Khomeini were antipodes, then so too were Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping. Caryl provides an insightful précis of Deng’s career, which involved several rises and falls from political grace before he finally ascended to lead China toward capitalism. Deng never shrank from viciousness, not in 1957 when he ran the Anti-Rightist Campaign that sent hundreds of thousands of Chinese to jails, concentration camps, or into exile, nor in 1989 when he presided over the crackdown at Tiananmen Square. But Caryl suggests that he always had a pragmatic streak—as he told a party assembly in 1961, “I don’t care if it’s a black cat or white cat. It’s a good cat if it catches mice.” Mao had identified Deng early on as a canny future leader of China. But that didn’t stop Mao—who, like Stalin, constantly feared that subordinates were plotting against him—from demoting Deng and subjecting him and his family to physical torments during the Cultural Revolution when the young Red Guard ran amok during the 1960s. After he backed the adoption of a hybrid capitalist system—a free market with the party remaining in control of the commanding political heights—Deng ushered in what Caryl says is justifiably termed the largest poverty-reduction program in history, and did “more than any other individual” to bring about the demise of Marxism as an idea.

What about the late Margaret Thatcher, depicted by Caryl as a kind of revolutionary in defense of tradition? Caryl displays a remarkable inside knowledge of British politics, down to Tory MP Norman Tebbit’s line on the hustings in 1979 that the Iron Lady was a talented leader in Westminster—“She’s the best man among them.” Caryl is very good at teasing out the intellectual background to Thatcher’s rise, noting that, unlike Ronald Reagan, she loved to wade into intellectual disputes about figures such as libertarian economist Friedrich Hayek and diligently read many classic economic texts. Caryl highlights the importance of a wealthy businessman named Anthony Fisher who figured out how to popularize the ideas of Hayek and Milton Friedman in England. He formed what was the equivalent of the American Enterprise Institute in London—the Institute for Economic Affairs. It was supposed to be the counterpart to the Fabian Society, which had, more or less, dominated intellectual thinking about the British economy for decades. “Socialism was spread in this way and it is time we reversed the process,” Fisher declared. According to Caryl, the choice that Britain faced in 1979 was between a “freer state that ensured personal liberties and economic initiative—or the one envisioned by Labour, where the state played an ever-increasing role. This was not the voice of Britain’s postwar consensus. This was something verifiably new.”

Whether Thatcher ever lived up to the hopes reposed in her by her early admirers is another matter. In painting Thatcher as a revolutionary, Caryl is probably at his weakest. To be sure, Caryl is quick to observe that Thatcher never attempted to topple the welfare state—she was too pragmatic for that. She did slash public outlays and curb the power of the unions and divest the state of ownership of many enterprises. Much of this was to the good, as even her detractors have begun to acknowledge. Writing in his memoirs, for example, the late Christopher Hitchens confessed that the “worst of ‘Thatcherism,’ as I was beginning by degrees to discover, was the rodent slowly stirring in my viscera: the uneasy but unbanishable feeling that on some essential matters she might be right.” What she did was to alter the fundamental direction of British politics, setting the stage for the man Caryl correctly deems, as have many others, her true disciple—Tony Blair. But whether that served Britain well over the decades is another matter. How well does Thatcherism serve Great Britain today? Is slashing the budget really the right answer during a recession or has it, in fact, compounded the United Kingdom’s difficulties? The country appears to be headed toward a third recession. Free market economics, at least the sort promulgated by Thatcher, have once more come into bad odor as the reckless side of capitalist speculation has become glaringly apparent.

Nevertheless, this is not the province of Caryl’s temerarious study. While 1989 will always loom as the more sensational year—when communist regimes, despite conservative predictions that they would always remain repressive dictatorships, toppled one after another—Caryl has made a very strong case indeed that 1979 was a pivotal year, one whose significance has perhaps not been adequately appreciated. His closing remarks alone about the lessons of 1979, which focus on the illusion that social and material advancement are inevitable, are worth the price of admission. In his book, then, Caryl has staged his own rebellion against humdrum writing and conventional analysis. It is a profound accomplishment.

If you are interested in purchasing this book, we have included a link for your convenience: Buy from Amazon.com.

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.