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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.

In the case of the shah, by contrast, it was not the stifling state control of the economy that ultimately undid him. The oil money was rolling in, and his showy programs of modernization could have rolled on too. The shah was doomed not by his economic hebetude, but by the irremediable phoniness of his regime.

Nowhere was this more grotesquely illustrated than in the gargantuan fiesta he laid on at Persepolis in October 1971 to commemorate the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian monarchy. What a splendiferous assembly of rogues was quartered in the tents by the tomb of Cyrus the Great, from whom Reza Pahlavi was in no sense descended (his father had been a gunnery sergeant): Spiro Agnew, Marshal Tito, Imelda Marcos, Joseph Mobutu, President Nikolai Podgorny of the USSR. The catering was by Maxim’s of Paris, limos by Mercedes-Benz, the whole shindig designed by the man who redecorated the White House for Jackie O. As Caryl writes, “It was, arguably, the jet-set event of the century—notwithstanding the abject poverty on display in villages just a few miles away from the site of the festivities.”

It was left to the Ayatollah Khomeini to point out that the secularizing shah was celebrating the nation’s pagan past as the real source of national glory. The centuries during which Persia had been the heartland of Shia Islam had been rudely leapfrogged.

The barefaced inauthenticity of the Persepolis shindig was emblematic of the shah’s long reign. He had been installed at the age of twenty-one by the UK and USSR, who had thrown out his father for being pro-Nazi. Then a decade later, an Anglo-American coup had brought down the elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, for nationalizing the British oil companies. Thereafter the shah reigned in bogus independence, festooned by US armaments and cushioned by US troops. The King of Kings was the Puppet of Puppets. His White Revolution was a playboy version of a People’s Republic: heavy on state intervention and secret police, with political life reduced to two fake parties and then in 1975 to a one-party state.

Kanan Makiya, the Iraqi dissident and author of Republic of Fear, described to Caryl how he and his fellow left-wing radicals were blindsided by the Islamic revolution:

Here we had these forces that we thought we had consigned to the dustbins of history that reappeared and turned out to have nothing to do with what we had always expected. The working classes were nowhere to be seen. All the categories through which we had viewed the world had fallen apart.

Makiya was a strong supporter of the Iraq war in 2003. Because of his loathing of the Saddam regime, he forecast that the American liberators would be greeted with sweets and flowers.

That shows that even he had not yet understood the underlying impulses at work in these overturnings. Iraqis might be glad to see the back of a secular tyrant, but why should they rejoice to see their land and their pride trampled over by another foreign army? Such resentments are not new or obscure. Colonel John Low, British Resident at Lucknow in the 1830s, wrote to his bosses in Calcutta: “There is a common feeling which exists all over the known world, viz: a dislike of foreign masters and new usages.”

In India then, as in Iraq in the twenty-first century, the stationing of foreign troops imposed a double burden on the occupying power: it provoked the resentment of the natives and imposed a crippling ongoing cost. By the 1970s, Moscow was spending something like a quarter of its gross domestic product on defense. In Iran, after the shah had fled, Caryl writes, Khomeini declared that “the end of foreign domination…is more important even than the eradication of the Pahlavi dynasty.” The precise form of the Islamic Republic was the outcome of the flinty will and tactical agility of the ayatollah. Before the shah’s downfall, none of the parties had called for any such thing. But the emergence of a nonsecular, nonaligned state was the predictable outcome of so much accumulated longing and resentment. (It should be added that the Khomeini regime executed as many as 20,000 people during the following decade and tortured many more.)

Those who profess bewilderment at the resurgence of a “medieval” creed such as Khomeini’s version of Islam undervalue both how much foreign occupation hurts and how much a shared national religion can offer in the way of collective hope and individual self-worth. Caryl reminds us that “many of the young intellectuals, indeed, rediscovered Islam through their political engagement, not the other way around,” and even after the Islamic Revolution the mullahs were again complaining about their lack of religious observance. In Poland, where membership in the Catholic Church was almost universal, the recourse to religion as the embodiment of national identity had always come easy, as waves of foreign invaders swept to and fro across the country, partitioning and repartitioning the territory, leaving the Polish language and the Catholic Church as the abiding markers of Polishness. Pope John Paul, Caryl tells us, during his nine-day visit to Poland in June 1979, gave twelve sermons and many shorter speeches heard by more than eleven million Poles.

It was an illusion, mostly seen on the left, that religion is a waning superstition that can hold no sustained grip on modern minds whereas secular ideologies are robust and durable engines of indoctrination. Surely we should have learned something from the way fascism and Nazism melted away so fast at the end of World War II.

There is a matching illusion, seen mostly on the right, that “totalitarian” regimes are incapable of real reforms, whereas “authoritarian” regimes, for all their faults, are capable of improvement and even of transforming themselves into democracies. This dis- tinction was most memorably set out in the article “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” by Jeane Kirkpatrick, in the November 1979 issue of Commentary magazine. The article made her name in what were not yet called neoconservative circles. It made her name in particular with Ronald Reagan, who was to be elected a year later and who lost little time in appointing her as US ambassador to the UN, where she had the unusual privilege for an academic of putting her big idea into practice soon after she had first published it.

What Kirkpatrick urged was that we should not abandon those moderate autocrats who had been or could be America’s regional friends, such as the shah and President Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua and General Leopoldo Galtieri of Argentina. Such regimes were not only forces for stability; they were themselves malleable and improvable. So it was a great mistake to destabilize them by premature human rights policies such as those then being pushed by Jimmy Carter.

But within ten years the amazing events of 1989, some of them described by Caryl, suggested that her dichotomy was not merely overdrawn or simplistic. It was just wrong. The ideological foundations of the totalitarian regimes, so formidable, so daunting, crumbled overnight. The whole shabby Soviet-controlled edifice crashed to the ground without a finger being laid on it, like a highway bridge constructed out of dodgy cement. The remarkable thing was that, for the most part (not in Romania for example), the ruling elites slunk away without putting up a show of resistance, some even with a certain dignity.

By contrast, the autocracies in which Kirkpatrick placed such hopes simply went smash, one after another: Galtieri, Marcos, Somoza, and of course the Shah, who had already fled months before her article appeared. No question of transformation. They were simply booted off the stage, to be succeeded in the case of the shah by a regime that conceived an undying hatred of the United States for propping him up so long.

What we need to proclaim is not the End of Ideology, as Daniel Bell put it, still less the End of History. What we need to advertise is the fragility that ideology shares with all human mental constructs. Even the most apparently monumental dominant ideology is vulnerable to erosion or fracture. By contrast, the underlying customs of the country may live longer because they lie closer to our hearts.

Throughout his fascinating and original enterprise, Caryl insists on the moral quality of these great turning points. The hope and intention, if not always the outcome, are to offer a sense of purpose and validation to millions of unvalued lives. As Caryl writes, the pope’s sermons during his visit to Poland in 1979 were addressed precisely to this undertaking:

It was enough for his listeners that John Paul had chosen to offer an individualist, Christian alternative to the Marxist depiction of workers as a homogeneous “class” marching toward a bright proletarian future.

If Caryl had taken his survey further to include South Africa, I have no doubt that he would not have rested content with the materialist explanation—that the Afrikaners took fright at the commercial damage they would suffer from the US Congress’s sanctions on investment; he would also wish to point to the change of heart within the Dutch Reformed Church and the steady light coming from Robben Island.

Caryl does not, I think, place enough emphasis on something else. Long-running nationalist and socialist ideologies do often bequeath to their successor regimes the valuable legacy of effective central government. The shah left the ayatollah a governable country; the Turban took over from the Crown. So did the Communists in Eastern Europe and, after a hectic transition period, in Russia. So indeed did the Afrikaners in South Africa. The one exception in Caryl’s cast of seventy-niners is Afghanistan. Though they fought three Afghan wars in the nineteenth century, the British never managed to establish a durable central authority. Over the past thirty years, the Russians and the Americans have all attempted the same task with no better luck. Effective central authority is the least sung of political achievements. But for inheritor regimes, it is the most vital.

Just before the 1979 British general election, the outgoing Labour prime minister, James Callaghan, told his policy chief that this wasn’t just the periodic handover from one party to another. They were witnessing “a sea change” in politics, an epochal shift of a kind that comes along once in a generation and this time “it is for Mrs. Thatcher.” It was Callaghan too who, after receiving Sir Anthony Parsons’s brief advising Her Majesty’s government to stick with the shah rather than “re-insuring” with the opposition, scribbled on the paper: “On the basis of this I wouldn’t give much for the Shah’s chances.” A week later, a mob torched the British embassy.

Similarly, conservative journalists (including this one) were apprehensive when Thatcher said after meeting Gorbachev that “we can do business together,” and when her first trip to Eastern Europe was organized. Was she not being naive, in danger of being duped by what were only enticing slogans and devices to secure the long-term future of the Soviet regime? Conservatives in the United States felt equally nervous when President Reagan set out on the same path.

What we see here is not so much analytic power as the politician’s nose at work—“nose” both in the sense of sniffing a change in the air and in the sense of nosing through the undergrowth in search of an opening. It is, after all, the politician who has the most intimate experience of the shakiness of things, of the fluidity of dogma, and of the shameless ease with which his or her colleagues will slip into something looser.

Political scientists need to be both more materially and more psychologically aware: to attend more exactly to the financial and political debts that are weighing down the regime in question, and to listen more carefully to the loyalties, longings, and resentments of its citizens. Without such finer discriminations, our chances of foreseeing future upheavals will continue to be slim. Indeed, unless we tune our instruments better, we may find ourselves tumbling into another Age of Astonishment.