Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Christian Caryl, _Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century_

ONE OF THIS summer's projects is to finish as many as possible of the books I started last summer, and the summer before that.  (I think I can fairly claim to be one of the leading starters of books in Lancaster County.) I started this in the summer of 2014, being something of a fan of Caryl's pieces in the NYRB and also intrigued by the thesis.

We often hear of 1968, and of 1989, but Caryl decided to look at a counter-revolutionary moment, and 1979 was the year Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, the Ayatollah Khomeini, and Deng Xiaoping came to power. Much of the 1960s and early 1970s were about cracking things open, shaking things up, letting one's freak flag fly, etc., and these four ushered in a period of rolling back, cracking down, cleaning up: Thatcher taking on the welfare state, John Paul II taking on Vatican II, Khomeini taking on westernizing secularization, Deng...

...okay, so here is one rough patch in the thesis.  Wasn't Deng about liberalizing, opening up, rather than restoring something?

Caryl does, however, make explicit that being an effective counter-revolutionary is not just being a reactionary, not just vainly trying to restore some status quo ante. An effective counter-revolutionary learns the revolution's tricks, figures out what it got right, then exploits its blind spots, complacencies, inefficiencies, hypocrisies...so Deng may be a counter-revolutionary in that he undid a lot of what Mao created without bringing back the emperor? Well, maybe.

Generally, Caryl's arguments tend not to work equally well for all four figures. He thinks that reclaiming religion was important--obviously that was crucial for the Pope and the Ayatollah, in a way for the Iron Lady, but for Deng? Similarly, when he says that the counter-revolution was about the renaissance of the free market and the invisible hand, you can see that working for Thatcher, certainly, and Deng, and the Pope if we see him as a campaigner against Communism... but the Ayatollah? Was Khomeini an Adam Smith kind of guy?

The main part of the book, though, is more historical than grand-theoretical, narrating the advent, accomplishments, and long-term impact of the four figures, vividly and energetically. I finished the book persuaded that there had been a spirit of '79, and that it had done a lot to create the world we live in now.

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