HISTORIANS have a professional fondness for “turning-points”: years that act as hinges of history rather than numbers in a sequence. Some of these hinges turn out to be anything but: 1917 proved to be a bloody dead end and 1848 proved to be, in A.J.P. Taylor’s phrase, “a turning-point in history when history failed to turn”. But others, such as 1789 (when France’s ancient régime collapsed) and 1517 (when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door), resound down the ages.
Later this month Christian Caryl, a veteran foreign correspondent now based in Washington, will publish a timely new book, “Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century”. In it he argues that 1979 belongs to the select club of real turning-points: years in which one era ended and another was born.
This was a year in which a series of momentous figures appeared on the world stage. Margaret Thatcher won the general election and became Britain’s first woman prime minister, staying in power for 11 years. Deng Xiaoping began to liberalise the Chinese economy. Ayatollah Khomeini established an Islamic republic. Karol Wojtyla travelled to Poland as the first Slavic pope. And in Afghanistan the mujahideen rose up against Soviet rule with the tacit support of the United States.
It was also a year in which the twin forces of the market and religion, suppressed and discounted for decades, returned with a vengeance. Mrs Thatcher came to power determined to dismantle Britain’s nationalized industries, discipline its over-mighty trade unions and restore its quiescent faith in entrepreneurship and self-reliance. Deng embarked on the world’s biggest-ever poverty-reduction programme, ending the country’s disastrous experiment with collective farming and establishing special economic zones where both foreign and domestic companies could flourish away from the direct supervision of the state. In a vivid example of just how backward China was, Mr Caryl describes how one factory in Shenzhen celebrated its new-found freedoms by killing and eating a dog.
Even more surprising than the revival of the market was the revival of religion. The Islamic revolution brought millions of people onto the street—and rapidly turned one of the Middle East’s most secular countries into one of its most orthodox (one wag joked that before Khomeini Iranians drank in public and prayed in private but after Khomeini they prayed in public and drank in private). Pope John Paul II demonstrated that religion was even more popular in the atheist East —or at least in Poland—than in the capitalist West. Mrs Thatcher spoke for the entire group of “strange rebels” when, in response to the accusation that she was a reactionary, replied, “Well, there’s a lot to react against!”
These twin revolutions sometimes cancelled each other out. Khomeini fused religious fundamentalism with third-world leftism: the Iranian state extended its grip over the private sector and strangled the country’s economy. Deng fused pro-market reforms with the rule of the atheistic Communist Party. But they often proved to be mutually reinforcing. The revival of religion in both Poland and Afghanistan hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union. The reassertion of market liberalism in both Britain and China contributed to a general sense that the old order was folding up.
Mr Caryl tells this story with great skill. He moves effortlessly from one scene to another in this tumultuous year—from Mrs Thatcher’s election victory to Khomeini’s relentless extension of his power, from John Paul’s visit to his homeland to Deng’s emergence as the most powerful politician in China after the Communist Party’s third plenum. He fills in both the back story and the fore story: how China came to be in the mess that it was in after the Cultural Revolution, for example, and how Deng’s reforms relentlessly turned China into the economic powerhouse of today.
Mr Caryl also sprinkles his fast-paced narrative with plenty of striking details. For example, at a state dinner to mark Deng’s first visit to the United States the grizzled Chinese statesman was placed at the same table as Shirley Maclaine. The actress gushed that she had visited China during the Cultural Revolution and that everything had been wonderful. She was particularly struck by a professor who told her how grateful he was that the party had decided to send him and his fellow academics to the countryside. Deng looked at her scornfully and said that “he was lying”. Professors should be teaching university classes not planting vegetables.
The forces unleashed by this remarkable year continue to shape the world. China is well on its way to becoming the world’s biggest economy. For all the damage wrought by the financial crisis the Thatcher-inspired privatisations, which spread from Britain to the rest of the world, are unlikely to be reversed. On the negative side, Iran remains an Islamic republic and the mujahideen continue to wreak havoc in Afghanistan—this time harassing not a decaying Soviet empire but an overextended American one. Anyone who wants to understand how this new world came into being needs to read Mr Caryl’s excellent book.