In the year 1979, a great many lies were exposed.
By Charles Moore
Certain years make a difference: not for nothing is our most famous comic account of British history called 1066 and All That. Obvious more recent candidates for such pivotal roles, on a global scale, include 1789, 1917 and 1945.
Christian Caryl’s book states the claim of 1979 to join this gallery. It was the first year that heralded the 21st century, he argues. Partly, perhaps, because I was young then (“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!”), I agree with him. The author’s method is to intertwine five stories of that year – the Iranian revolution, Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in China, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, John Paul II’s first visit to Poland as Pope and Margaret Thatcher’s first general election victory.
Occasionally, the links are strained. It can be almost hilarious to switch from, say, an account of the Soviets murdering people in the presidential palace in Kabul to Jim Callaghan’s difficulties with the prices and incomes policy. Not everything can be made to fit.
But I think Caryl captures something important. One way that I judge this is by the fact that I can vividly recall precise moments of the ''Where were you when…?’’ sort in all the main stories that he describes (except for the Chinese one, the least event-specific of the five). I remember, for instance, sitting in my college library, staring at the grim features of the Ayatollah Khomeini on the cover of The Economist, and suddenly realising that something was happening for which the secular West (including that mighty magazine itself) was almost completely unprepared.
Similarly, in my last year at university, I got into the bath, turned on the radio, and heard that a Pole with a name that no one could pronounce had become Pope. It was immediately obvious that the history of divided Europe was about to change.
When, a few months later, John Paul II set off to visit his native country, I hired a television to see it covered. As Caryl well relates, the visual images were poor, because the Communist state media controlled them. The cameras tried to avoid the enormous crowds, but it was impossible to conceal the fact that 11 million people turned out to see the Pope in person that week. In Victory Square in Warsaw – a place which, since it had been so renamed by the Communists in 1946, had never seen a Cross – John Paul explained that Christ “cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the globe”.
It is not fanciful to trace from that visit, as Caryl does, the course of the end of Communism – through the Solidarity trade union in Poland, via the rise of Gorbachev, to the fact that the Berlin Wall came down without violence.
And it is fascinating to compare this with the power of religion in a very different guise. This book tells us how the Ayatollah Khomeini managed to adopt Communist revolutionary methods and wrap them in the turban of Islam. Just as John Paul’s sincere desire for peace spread through the Christian world, so did the Ayatollah’s longing for violence through its Muslim counterpart. The author points out that the year 1979 in the Western calendar was 1400 in the Muslim one. This was exploited by Khomeini supporters to make him seem almost apocalyptic. They hinted that he was the hidden Imam of Shi’ite belief. Revolution had become religious and religion had become revolutionary.
Though dressed in medieval garb, this was actually a modern phenomenon. Khomeini enlisted the Prophet to control the proletariat in best Bolshevik style. His political theory of the “guardianship of the jurist” was just like Lenin’s “leading role of the party”: it gave him supreme power.
Why were these disparate events of 1979 so striking? Because they struck at the particular notion of “progress” with which we in the West had been brought up. The idea – expressed in the then-popular phrase “the mixed economy” and in the love of détente with the Soviet Union – was that socialism was basically good, and had won a permanent moral victory, but that capitalism was a grubby but necessary mechanism for producing the money socialism required. By the Seventies, this “progress” of humanity was visibly faltering. Inflation, labour unrest, social breakdown and growing terrorism and extremism saw to that.
So if you felt discontented with the progress dogma, you were alert to those who questioned it. Mrs Thatcher, for example, is best known for her economic doctrines, but Christian Caryl is right to see that her global effect (he writes well, for instance, about her legacy in modern India) was not technical, but human. She was preaching about what people can do if only the state will let them.
For all his continuing political repression, Deng Xiaoping came to understand this truth. In 1979, the Chinese city of Shenzhen did not exist. By 2005, it provided the fourth busiest port in the world. On the 69th floor of one of its skyscrapers, says Caryl, the local museum tells its story. Waxwork figures of Deng and Mrs Thatcher are depicted drinking tea with Beijing and Hong Kong in the background, like tutelary deities.
Caryl has a nice story about Deng’s visit to America in January 1979. At dinner in the White House, the Left-wing actress Shirley MacLaine gushed about her trip to a rural collective in Mao’s China. A professor there had told her how much happier he was now that he had been forced to go and live among the people. ''Deng looked at her scornfully and said: 'He was lying.’” In the year 1979, a great many lies were exposed.