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Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher: Kindred Spirits

AFP/Getty Images

Americans tend to have three preoccupations about the recent past: the rights revolutions of the 1960s; Ronald Reagan, his conservative movement, and its legacy; and American-led globalization.1 Remarkably, to an American reader, Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, the new book by the distinguished journalist Christian Caryl, does not explore any of these American preoccupations. America is itself a footnote to Caryl’s book, as are the Soviet Union and the European Union. Globalization may be Caryl’s subject, but he does not see it as a process advanced by American foreign policy and the American economy. Globalization reflects “the twin forces of markets and religion,” most vividly, the Chinese market and political Islam.

The book’s temporal frame is intended to provoke. Caryl accords the Paris or Berkeley or Prague of 1968 no lasting political stature. Nor is 1989 the year in which everything happens. Those years imply a Eurocentric emphasis, too rooted in the socialist dream or too disconnected from the salience of modern religion. Caryl argues that market capitalism and political Islam were the primary forces shaping the past 34 years. Embodying these forces were Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, and the Ayatollah Khomeini. The successive collapse of Western-style modernization and of Soviet-style communism in Afghanistan completes Caryl’s story.

By amalgamating distinct geographic areas and seemingly disparate historical forces, Caryl uncovers new and vivid questions. Why is it that an enthusiasm for the market arose almost simultaneously in countries as dissimilar as the United Kingdom and China? Why did this enthusiasm appear at the end of the 1970s? And why did secularism wear so thin at this time? Why was it that the Shah’s Iran could not restrain a religious movement that seemed, to the Shah and his American backers, to have come from nowhere? Why was it John Paul II who undid the Soviet empire? These rich questions are made richer by their presentation as pieces of the same historical puzzle. Strange Rebels implies that the puzzle fits together.

If so, it is through chronological description rather than analysis. Caryl does little to fuse his questions into an explanation of political change or to explore the intricacies of cause and effect in religious and economic history. An impressionistic canvas of images gathered from a momentous year, it charts the surface of things, leaving the job of going beneath the surface to others.

A virtuoso of connection, Caryl joins Poland and Afghanistan into a single cold war narrative. Challenges to Soviet power in both Afghanistan and Poland were fortified by religious emotion, channeled in one instance by a Polish Pope and in another by the pioneers of global jihad. (Muslims from across Asia and the Middle East poured into Afghanistan in the 1980s.) The two distant countries were curiously entangled. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, “the strains of the occupation of Afghanistan constrained Soviet policy toward Poland in 1980 and 1981,” Caryl contends.

Jihad in Afghanistan, meanwhile, coincided with the fashioning of an Islamic Republic in neighboring Iran. The Shah’s Iran—“one of the world’s great economic success stories,” Caryl writes—was not expected to become the cradle of political Islam. Yet this is precisely what came to pass. Behind the Iranian Revolution were “decades of intellectual ferment,” encompassing philosophers and ideologues from Egypt to India. The revolution’s consequences were far-reaching: a lasting anti-American bulwark in the Middle East, the emboldening of anti-Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabian efforts to compete with Iran by projecting its version of political Islam globally, etc. Iran’s prosperity, in the 1970s, did not tether it to Western models of development.

The lure of non-Western political forms links Iran, circa 1979, to China. When Mao died in 1976, the Chinese Communist Party had several options. It could have remained Maoist, radical in its opposition to capitalism. It could have experimented with less authoritarian styles of governance, possibly drawing closer to the United States, with which China established formal diplomatic relations in 1979. Or it could retain the Party as the sole political authority, officially maintain fond memories of Mao, while incorporating elements of capitalism into a system still designated communist. Subtly and quietly, Deng Xiaoping set China on the course to state-controlled capitalism. Deng liberated “grassroots commerce” in China, and, obscure as his strategies might have seemed in 1979, their effect is self-evident in 2013—another of the world’s great economic success stories.

Caryl then pairs Deng with Thatcher. Both acknowledged the potential of the market; both devoted themselves to economic reorientations; both couched these reorientations in a moral as well as economic language; and both even consulted with Milton Friedman about the proper course of economic policy. Deng wanted to overcome the economic depredations of Maoism. Thatcher’s less dramatic quarrel was with British social democracy. These were not equivalent politicians, to be sure. Thatcher’s skepticism about government had its mirror opposite in Deng’s commitment to the Communist Party. Arguing past their differences, Caryl portrays Deng and Thatcher as partnered architects of globalization and of Asian globalization in particular. “Thatcherism had no greater consequence than in India,” Caryl notes.

Caryl’s juxtapositions trace patterns: the disappearance of Soviet communism, the easing of state control that spurred globalization, the tenacity of religious belief at a time when many intellectuals were enamored of secularism. Economics and technology are limited in their explanatory capacity, Caryl concludes in his epilogue. Hence, “politics is ultimately a category unto itself. And we cannot understand political dynamics without recourse to the ideas that motivate people to action.” Religion is the deepest motivation, especially when it activates “the cherished sources of identity that give meaning to [people’s] lives.”

These patterns and claims challenge the current journalistic obsessions with economic statistics and with social media’s promise to gild the motors of globalization. Caryl brings forward a fierce contest over ideas, religious beliefs, and methods of government. The twenty-first century has not escaped from the age of ideology bequeathed to it by the twentieth century. It has perpetuated an ideological age, no longer in the name of socialism but often enough in the name of religion. The largest personalities of this age, from Thatcher to Khomeini and beyond, were men and women of transformative conviction. We must struggle to understand their convictions as much as their policies.

To concede Caryl’s point about politics and conviction is to beg the question of America’s ability to impose its will and thereby to build a democratic world order. This ability has always been limited. Woodrow Wilson experienced the bitterness of limits in Paris and then back at home: Too few wished to join him in making the world safe for democracy. Fascism also limited American hopes. When fascism was vanquished, American negotiators felt obliged to honor Soviet terms atYalta and Potsdam, confining their sphere of influence to Western Europe. Vietnam was a study in American limitation, as Iraq would be for George W. Bush and Afghanistan for Barack Obama.

What, then, of 1979 in America? One could write about it as the transition from Carter to Reagan, as the oscillation from a Democratic to a Republican president. This transition is small, however, compared to the conviction that Carter and Reagan shared: America must do what it can to advance democracy. Their conviction was hardly novel in 1979, hardly captivating, hardly notable, a conviction that resembled a cliché, and a conviction that has nevertheless endured into the twenty-first century, no less potent than the convictions of Popes, Ayatollahs, and the true believers in the market.

  1. Globalization can be construed as an American creation, a system of commercial exchange embedded in American rules and norms, enlivened by an American love of technology, given its coloration by American popular culture and tending toward the old American aim of global democracy.