Christian Caryl: 1979 ... The Great Backlash

Roundup: Talking About History

[Christian Caryl is a contributing editor of Newsweek.]

If you want to understand the surge of politicized religion, post-communist globalization, and laissez-faire economics that has defined our modern era, forget 1968. Forget even 1989. It's 1979 that's the most important year of all. A remarkable chapter in international affairs—and intellectual history—began that year, and it had the strangest group of authors imaginable.

It was in 1979 that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seized power in Iran and showed once and for all that "Islamic revolution" is not an oxymoron. The Soviet Union made the fateful decision to invade the poor backwater of Afghanistan, sparking a different kind of Islamic uprising that hammered the first nails into the coffin of the communist empire. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher blazed a conservative resurgence in Britain that not only changed the rules of politics in the West but also shaped the subsequent age of market-driven globalization. Pope John Paul II's first pilgrimage to his Polish homeland in the summer of 1979 emboldened freedom-loving peoples throughout Eastern and Central Europe and set events in motion that would culminate in the nonviolent revolutions of 1989. And throughout 1979, a stoic and unlikely visionary named Deng Xiaoping quietly took the first steps to prepare communist China for its long march toward the age of markets.

Thatcher seems to have nothing in common with the ayatollah and Deng, and even less with the pope. Yet there was something that connected these seemingly disparate people. They all set out to overturn, in their unique ways, the defining spirit of their age—the progressive, secular, materialist order that had, until then, dominated the political landscape of the postwar 20th century. Theirs were not just political movements, but moral rearmaments that passionately rejected what they saw as the decay, malaise, stagnation, and suffocation that resulted from heavy-handed technocrats trying to accelerate humanity’s march toward the end of history. In this way, the transformational events of 1979 were linked by the impulse of counterrevolution, whether against Soviet communism, social democracy, modernizing authoritarianism, or Maoism run amok.

The counterrevolutionaries of 1979 attacked what had been the era's most deeply held belief: the faith in a "progressive" vision of an attainable political order that would be perfectly rational, egalitarian, and just. The collapse of the European empires after World War i and the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, and the triumph of wartime bureaucracy and planning during World War II all gave forward thrust to this vision; postwar decolonization and the rapid spread of Marxist regimes around the world amplified it. By the 1970s, however, disillusionment had begun to set in, with a growing sense in many countries that heartless (and in some cases violent) elites had tried to impose a false, mechanistic vision on their countries, running roughshod over traditional sensibilities, beliefs, and freedoms. As a result of the late 1970s revolt, we live today in a world defined by pragmatic and traditional values rather than utopian ones.

At the time, the success of these counterrevolutions was far from a sure bet. Most observers failed to comprehend their implications in 1979. And those who did just as often condemned them as retrograde forces of mass destruction. Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi's men accused Khomeini of trying to turn back the clock, while Deng’s enemies vilified the Chinese leader as a "capitalist roader." To the Soviets, the Afghan mujahideen were representatives of "the old feudal order," the pope a force of "neocolonialism." But these were labels that the accused, as often as not, wore with equanimity. On the campaign trail in April 1979, Thatcher proudly told a Conservative Party rally how her opponents had dubbed her a reactionary. "Well," she declared, "there's a lot to react against!"

Indeed there was. And perhaps there is again—for 30 years later, the transformations of 1979 have themselves grown into decadent established orders, the excesses of which may now be inspiring new reactionary movements and counterrevolutions...

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Arnold Shcherban - 6/30/2009

"To the Soviets, the Afghan mujahideen were representatives of the old feudal order," (as if they weren't.)
The reader has to realy take to heart
one of the traditional double standards constantly circulating in the West: the most vicious terrorists are named freedom fighters, as long as they don't attack us (US?), and terroristic "monsters" when they do.