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

  • Christian Caryl
  • Basic Books
  • 407 pp.
  • Reviewed by Jon Sallet
  • June 10, 2013

Examining such diverse leaders as the Ayatollah Khomeini and Margaret Thatcher, the author sees in the passing era a triumph of the individual over the forces of collectivism.

What do Margaret Thatcher and the Ayatollah Khomeini have in common? Most people who lived through the 1970s and 1980s would probably answer “nothing.” But Christian Caryl sees it very differently in Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century.  

The front cover of Strange Rebels tells the story: four very different leaders — Deng Xiaoping, the Ayatollah Khomeni, Pope John Paul II and, center stage, Margaret Thatcher — who each emerged on the world stage circa 1979 and who together, Christian Caryl argues, introduced the key concepts of the 21st century. There’s much to recognize in that portrayal, including the British and Chinese emphasis on market economics, the Islamic Revolution and the forceful leadership of a new, vigorous pope.

But that’s not the real story that Caryl, a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, sets out to tell. For this volume is more about the end of the 20th century than the beginning of its successor.

What did these four people (and the Afghan rebels who defeated the Soviet Union and whose story is also included) have in common? Caryl sees, at least, a shared assortment  of opponents, a set of collectivists who espoused Communism, Marxist political tactics and/or European-style socialism — collectivists who favored public ownership of production, created the modern welfare state, put little emphasis on individual action or religion, and emphasized materialistic achievement over moral values.

The Soviet Union stands at the center of this narrative, of course, undermined from the West by the spiritual leadership of Pope John Paul II and the courage of the people of his native Poland, and defeated in the East by Afghan rebels. China occupies a critical place as well, as it begins its journey in the late 1970s toward economic liberalization. 

The scope of Caryl’s narrative is not, however, limited to the collapse or economic conversion of Communist states or to the reliance on free markets that epitomize the reputations of both Thatcher and Deng. 

Back to the similarity between Margaret Thatcher and the Ayatollah Khomeini: As different as those leaders were, Caryl finds parallels as well. Thatcher was not just an opponent of the welfare state (albeit one who, as Caryl notes, left intact institutions like the National Health Service). Caryl emphasizes that she “defined her politics through values, ideals and moral categories.” And, although clear-eyed about the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Caryl targets as well a similar aspect of Khomeini’s approach: “Though the Iranian Revolution was fueled by mainly economic concerns, its ultimate impulse was a moral one.” 

Similarly, it is no surprise that Pope John Paul II found his motivation in the importance of moral values. But readers might be surprised to learn that “many of those who lived through it in China depict the turnaround of 1979 in moral terms rather than strictly economic ones.”  

The forces of collectivism arrayed against the individual, and the triumph of the individual —that is the story of the end of the 20th-century that Caryl depicts, although he is careful to note the limits of his conclusions (for example, the strict requirement of one-party rule in China).

The emphasis on individual rights doesn’t extend, however, to a full discussion of the rights of women. Consider: Khomeini opposed women’s suffrage in the ’60s and described the shah’s decision to allow women to vote as part of a Zionist plot for “the spread of prostitution.” The right to vote was ultimately preserved, but other women’s rights were curtailed in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution. 

In Afghanistan, a 1970s dictator was unpopular in part because he endorsed “equal rights and educational opportunity for women.” The subsequent Communist government awarded women full civic rights. Caryl’s critique of the Communist government’s “ill-considered measures” includes the decision to open “new institutions to women.”

By contrast, Thatcher was the first female prime minister of the United Kingdom. And in a country that circumscribes political processes, the Communist regime in China has asserted that women should have rights equal to those of men.  

In a closing passage, Caryl traces the genesis of his book to a 2002 experience in an Afghan bookstore that, he said, haunts him still. The store had preserved its pre-Taliban inventory, including a postcard with a glamorous photograph of a woman from the 1970s. What, he wondered, was her fate? A refugee? A life hidden beneath a burka? 

The author’s emotional response is authentic, but limited. Would a greater emphasis on the rights of women have scrambled the similarities that Caryl seeks? After all, it was the “collectivists” in Afghanistan and China and the shah’s regime in Iran whose views more closely resembled the treatment of women’s rights in Thatcher’s United Kingdom. Conversely, the Catholic Church under Pope John Paul II continued to ordain men only. How might that view of individuals affect Caryl’s thesis? In other words, a fuller appreciation of the quest for civic rights for women might have led to the conclusion that these four leaders had less in common than Caryl suggests.  

Then there’s the future. Despite his title, and except for the book’s final two paragraphs, Caryl does not directly link the changes wrought by the year 1979 to the trajectories that are likely to shape the remainder of the 21st century. That’s not actually a criticism; Caryl realizes that counter-counter revolutions can follow the changes that he characterizes as the counter-revolutions of 1979, but he wisely doesn’t try to predict their course. 

If one were to indulge such speculation, it might center on this: To what extent will the China model, as epitomized by Deng’s embrace of both economic liberalization and one-party rule, be a beacon for other countries’ development in the coming decades? As China regains its historical position as the world’s largest economy, that question will test the global appeal of the kind of political process that elected Thatcher and that came to Poland in the wake of Pope John Paul II’s leadership.

It is often tempting to suggest that an author could have broadened a book’s discussion, but of course, the choice of what to focus on is an individual decision. Caryl’s attention to the shift away from what he regards as collectivism is an important analysis of one of those moments that, to use Churchill’s expression, turned out to be a hinge of history.

Jon Sallet is a partner in the law firm of O’Melveny & Myers, L.L.P. He served as a law clerk to Associate Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. and worked in the Clinton administration as director of policy and planning at the Department of Commerce.

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