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When Our World Turned Upside Down

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Pope John Paul II with a group of children in Czestochowa during his first papal visit to Poland, June 1979

We have lived through an Age of Astonishment, and have now come out on the other side, still a little bewildered about how we got here. Never before have so many savants—economists, political scientists, diplomats, sociologists, and commentators alike—been quite so stunned by the turn of events. In 1789 and in 1848, the intelligentsia had a pretty good idea what might be coming, even if the actual scale of the mayhem exhilarated or dismayed them. But in 1979 and 1989, onlookers and indeed some of the leading participants were utterly surprised by what happened. This was not the trahison but the ébahissement des clercs. As Christian Caryl makes clear in his book on how the world changed in 1979, those who had an answer for most things were left open-mouthed.

Not merely did the experts not have the faintest clue about the series of turning points that were in store. In most cases, they would have struggled to identify who would be the leading actors in those turns. How could they? Only five years before 1979, Deng Xiaoping was in disgrace and living in a tractor repair shop, on the run from the rampaging Red Guards. The Ayatollah Khomeini was in exile in Iraq, soon to be shunted on to the Paris suburb of Neauphle-le-Château. In Britain, Margaret Thatcher was a rookie education minister, familiar to the public only as Thatcher the Milk Snatcher for having deprived younger pupils of free school milk. She had been promoted to the Cabinet mostly because she was a woman; the prime minister, Edward Heath, despised her as a garrulous nuisance. Karol Józef Wojtyła was archbishop of Cracow. The chances of his becoming the first non-Italian pope since Adrian VI in 1522 seemed slim.

The Catholic hierarchy, always cautious in its dealings with dictatorships, would surely shy away from provoking a Communist regime that had already imprisoned one cardinal. Nor did it seem likely that an unemployed electrician from the Gdańsk shipyards would go on to become the first president of post-Communist Poland. Last and anything but least, Nelson Mandela was halfway through his twenty-seven years in jail and looked likely to spend the rest of his life on Robben Island.

It seems plausible, to put it no more strongly, that there might be some systemic defect in our crystal balls. Now that another twenty years have passed, and the new status quo has bedded down as much as it is ever likely to, it is surely an intellectual duty to revisit the scene and attempt to salvage something from the wreck of our predictions.

In Strange Rebels, Christan Caryl concentrates on the overturnings occurring during the year 1979 in China, Poland, Britain, Iran, and Afghanistan. Here and there, he casts an eye forward to the momentous events of 1989–1990 in Eastern Europe. He does not extend his gaze to events in South Africa in that year. (Mandela met President F.W. de Klerk in December 1989 and was released from Victor Verster Prison in February 1990.) This, I think, is a pity, because our failure to predict the end of apartheid, that gloriously improbable event, is surely relevant to our misreadings elsewhere.

Caryl does not attempt to weave these stories into a single narrative. On the contrary, he sets out in consecutive chapters a detailed separate history of events in each country. Nor does he tug the reader toward hard-and-fast conclusions. His brief introduction and epilogue tend rather to deter than to encourage sweeping explanations: “To study 1979 is also to study the tyranny of chance”; “those who would mock the ‘naive’ nostalgia of conservatives forget that the past has an authenticity with which disembodied utopias cannot easily compete”; “important parts of the 1979 story argue strongly against any streamlined, simplistic view of historical progress.”

Strange Rebels has its imperfections. The writing is sometimes slapdash in a Newsweekly way. There are occasional word fluffs: “eulogy” for “elegy,” “autarchy” for “autarky,” “ascribed” for “subscribed.” And now and then, there are background slips. For example, in the UK chapters: Harold Wilson was scarcely “aged” when he returned to power in 1974, being fifty-seven (though he was exhausted); Margaret Thatcher’s father was not a greengrocer but sold a variety of household and other goods in his shop; Peter Jay, Callaghan’s son-in-law who wrote his protomonetarist speech for him in 1976, was not a politician but economics editor of the London Times; and the firebrand Michael Foot could scarcely be described as “a compromise figure.” His election as leader of the Labour Party was a triumph for the left and an uncovenanted bonus for the Conservatives.

But these are minor flaws that do not impede Caryl’s thoughtful and nuanced narratives. The switching between countries does bring with it the odd inevitable repetition as we return to events in a country we last heard of three chapters earlier. It is an eccentric method, but an oddly effective one. The accumulation of detail allows us to do our own comparing and contrasting. This is a book that, by its diligence and restraint, really does help us to think, as opposed to telling us what to think.

First, I think we need to dismiss one or two possible causes of our myopia about, say, the fall of the Pahlavi and other regimes. It will not do, I think, to accuse the intelligentsia simply of inattention or intellectual laziness. The closest and sharpest observers were just as liable to be mistaken as the saloon pundit. British government papers released at the end of 2008 show that, right to the bitter end, the British ambassador in Tehran, Sir Anthony Parsons, one of the smartest diplomats I have ever met, was predicting that the shah would manage to hang on. A year earlier, he had reported to the foreign secretary, David Owen, that “I do not foresee any serious trouble in the near future.” Even in May, when there was serious rioting in the streets of Tehran, he told Owen: “My honest opinion is that the Pahlavis, father and son, have a good chance, and my guess is that they will make it.”

Nor can we blame wishful thinking for scrambling our perceptions. On the contrary, the fiercest opponents of these regimes were just as convinced as their warmest supporters that they would endure, probably for a very long time.

I have two personal memories of being on the receiving end of such certainties. The first was a sandwich lunch at the offices of Encounter magazine in St. Martin’s Lane in London in the 1970s. The editor, Mel Lasky, had invited among some younger contributors several gurus of anticommunism, including Brian Crozier, then the director of the Institute for the Study of Conflict, and Shirley Robin Letwin, the feisty Chicago and Cambridge philosopher. Were there not hopeful signs of reform inside the USSR, perhaps even of a weakening of the ideology? No, said Crozier, these were merely tactical feints and propaganda gestures. Whatever genuine element of reform might be detectable in them was trivial beside the enormous inbuilt stamina of the regime. But surely, said Letwin, never one to let an argument die without a fight, in the end such a repulsive and inefficient system must begin to crumble in the way of most human institutions. No, said Crozier, it won’t, because there has been nothing like this sort of totalitarian regime before.

In the same way, I remember hesitantly suggesting to several distinguished South African exiles that they must be encouraged by the recent news from South Africa. I cannot now recall what the news was—the slackening of the pass laws perhaps, or the stiffening of UN sanctions. The point is the answer that the exiles gave: no, the Afrikaners will never change, because they cannot afford to. For them white supremacy is a matter of survival or extinction. A genuine change of heart is inconceivable.

It is true that authoritarian regimes of all sorts are deliberately opaque. What goes on inside them is as carefully hidden from outside view as is humanly possible. Observers have to clutch at any straws that blow or are blown in their direction. In Britain, the few intelligence experts who maintained their skepticism about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction before the invasion in 2003, such as the admirable Dr. Brian Jones of the Defence Intelligence Department, were cut out of the loop for that very reason.

It is true too that dictators tell lies. After their fall, it often turns out that their worst lies were their economic statistics. Caryl does not spend much time on examining the systematic mendacity of these doomed regimes although it is a fascinating subject. What he does remind us of, no less valuably, is how eager Western experts were to swallow those statistics. The predisposition to believe Soviet claims of staggering rates of growth extended far beyond those thought of as fellow travelers to professed realists. As late as 1989, the new edition of Paul Samuelson and William Nordhaus’s Economics was still proclaiming that “the Soviet economy is proof that, contrary to what many skeptics had earlier believed, a socialist command economy can function and even thrive.” Earlier editions of this classic textbook had even included a range of dates at which the GNPs of the US and the USSR would reach parity. The notion that the Soviet Union might in reality be more like “Upper Volta with rockets”—the phrase attributed to Helmut Schmidt—was rather slower to take hold.

What had taken hold at a deeper level was the idea that we were living through “late capitalism.” It is remarkable how many economic classics of the 1930s and 1940s had predicted a short shelf life for capitalism as we knew it. Although no longer a Trotskyist by then, James Burnham in The Managerial Revolution opined that “the capitalist organization of society has entered its final years.” John Maynard Keynes predicted “the euthanasia of the rentier” and the disappearance of shareholder capital. Joseph Schumpeter predicted that, faced with the increasing hostility of the legislative and administrative environment, entrepreneurs and capitalists would eventually cease to function.

With the ground so thoroughly prepared, it is not surprising that the claim that the Soviet system would soon bury ours should find such a receptive audience. Nor was the admiration for the achievements of a state-led economy confined to the Communist world. The admiration extended to the shah’s Iran as well as to Honecker’s East Germany.

There was, besides, an unconsciously patronizing assumption that, while Westerners might be inclined to “possessive individualism,” most people in the second and third worlds were more collectively minded. The Chinese were thought to be especially well adapted to real socialism, and there was much fascination with the progress of Mao’s great experiments, as shown by the success of William Hinton’s book Fanshen and David Hare’s play drawn from it. The go-getting behavior of the overseas Chinese seemed to have escaped notice.

In retrospect, what is so startling is the breakneck speed with which the mainland Chinese took to the market once Deng let them off the leash. As Caryl writes, only two years after Mao’s death Deng became supreme leader and was telling his confidant Yu Guangyuan that “we must work in the spirit of Meiji Japan and Peter the Great.” In no time at all, 98 percent of peasant holdings had in effect gone over to private operation. Throughout the 1980s China’s economy grew by nearly 10 percent a year. Today the percentage of economic assets in private hands in China is higher than in some European countries. With all China’s internal repression (on which it now spends more than it does on external defense), this was a genuine leap forward such as the world has seldom seen.

By contrast, the belief that the free market might still have something to offer stagnant economies was rather slower to take off in some Western countries. In Britain, the conventional belief remained that the nationalized industries were simply too entrenched to be disturbed. The constitutional expert Sir Ivor Jennings had pronounced that the labor unions were now an inviolable part of the British Constitution. Nor was it thought practicable any longer to run a modern economy without some sort of state supervision of prices and incomes. Reform of all these things might be desirable, but it was “politically impossible.”

Almost nothing that Margaret Thatcher advocated to the contrary was novel; many of her arguments had been anticipated by Conservative spokesmen opposing the 1945 Labour government. “During her first prime ministerial campaign,” Caryl writes, “she was known to cite the Australians, the New Zealanders, and the Scandinavians who had already started comparable reforms in their own countries.” What was fresh was her zest, her optimism, and her sense of possibility. She was fortunate at coming in just at the moment when almost everyone felt that the nation had run out of road.

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