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FP: 1979: The Great Backlash

Author: Christian Caryl
June 22, 2009


If you want to understand the surge of politicized religion, post-communist globalization, and laissez-faire economics that has defined our modern era, forget 1968. Forget even 1989. It's 1979 that's the most important year of all. A remarkable chapter in international affairs-and intellectual history-began that year, and it had the strangest group of authors imaginable.

It was in 1979 that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seized power in Iran and showed once and for all that "Islamic revolution" is not an oxymoron. The Soviet Union made the fateful decision to invade the poor backwater of Afghanistan, sparking a different kind of Islamic uprising that hammered the first nails into the coffin of the communist empire. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher blazed a conservative resurgence in Britain that not only changed the rules of politics in the West but also shaped the subsequent age of market-driven globalization. Pope John Paul II's first pilgrimage to his Polish homeland in the summer of 1979 emboldened freedom-loving peoples throughout Eastern and Central Europe and set events in motion that would culminate in the nonviolent revolutions of 1989. And throughout 1979, a stoic and unlikely visionary named Deng Xiaoping quietly took the first steps to prepare communist China for its long march toward the age of markets.

Thatcher seems to have nothing in common with the ayatollah and Deng, and even less with the pope. Yet there was something that connected these seemingly disparate people. They all set out to overturn, in their unique ways, the defining spirit of their age-the progressive, secular, materialist order that had, until then, dominated the political landscape of the postwar 20th century. Theirs were not just political movements, but moral rearmaments that passionately rejected what they saw as the decay, malaise, stagnation, and suffocation that resulted from heavy-handed technocrats trying to accelerate humanity's march toward the end of history. In this way, the transformational events of 1979 were linked by the impulse of counterrevolution, whether against Soviet communism, social democracy, modernizing authoritarianism, or Maoism run amok.

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