I was 13 years old in 1979, and from a family that only bought the newspaper on Saturday, so my father could read the car classifieds. So I wasn’t exactly immersed in or aware of political events, but I do have some vague memories that have stuck. Those are the television footage of the Ayatollah Khomeini arriving back in Tehran to unimaginably large and excited crowds, and the election of Margaret Thatcher, which as a budding feminist struck me chiefly from the gender angle.
It was thus fascinating to read Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, a text that looks at the events of that year, what led up to them and what came immediately after, through the view of key states. And this is an unusually globally focused book for its kind: the key states are not just the UK, but China (this is the year Deng Xiaopeng came to power), Iran, Afghanistan, and the Vatican (with the election of the Polish John Paul II).
The author, Christian Caryl, comes very clearly from a political perspective not mine – he’s worked for Foreign Policy – and it’s telling that in the final chapter, when he brings concluding comments up to in some cases 2012, there’s no focus on the global financial crash and what it might mean. His theses – that there has been a coalescence of revolutionary leftist theory with traditional Muslim teaching, producing something entirely new, and that the late Seventies saw the end of a general acceptance of a social democratic welfare state as the Western standard, are not original.
What he’s really good at is researching and telling the story of great events, from a truly localised perspective in these very different states, which is no mean feat, and doing so in a way that is both gripping and memorable. He really has a fine line in anecdote, whether it is the fact that it was an Air France steward who assisted Ayatollah Khomeini down the steps in Tehran because the competing individuals on the plane with him couldn’t decide who’d get the honour and the potentially resulting influence, or the fact that the plane had been stuffed with Western journalists in a bid to ensure the Shah’s regime didn’t shoot it down, as it had threatened to do.
The machinations of the Afghan communist party, and the coup that saw it take power, which Moscow learned about from Reuters, and the account of the dangerously see-sawing career of Deng (who I learnt loved croissants from an early stint in France!) bear the hallmarks of an experienced foreign correspondent and a power of research.
Other reviews have questioned how these events all fit together – Iran and Afghanistan are easy, as are London and Beijing, but the complete package is less obvious.
Nonetheless, it is clear that this was a year of rapid change, in which old, seemingly solid, certainties dissolved with the swoosh of limescale hit by lemon juice. That makes it a timely read, when so many of the certainties established in the era of Thatcher, Reagan and even Deng, the ruling neoliberal “consensus” that replaced unchallenged theories of social democracy, are clearly on the way out. I’m not sure there’s many lessons here about what comes next for us — the gap of more than three decades is too great — but that change tends to happen in big leaps, rather than gradual evolution, is one lesson to be taken here.