David Runciman reviews Christian Caryl’s Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, in the LRB:
What was the most significant year of the 20th century? There are three plausible candidates. The first is 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution and America’s entry into the First World War, which set in train a century of superpower conflict. The second is 1918, the year that saw Russia’s exit from the war and the defeat of the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires, which set the stage for the triumph of democracy. The third is 1919, the year of the Weimar constitution and the Paris Peace Conference, which ensured that the triumph would be squandered. What this means is that it was the dénouement of the First World War that changed everything: a messy, sprawling, disorderly event that spilled out across all attempts to contain it. Its momentous qualities cannot be made to fit into the timeframe defined by a single year. History rarely can.
That is the problem with Christian Caryl’s fascinating and frustrating book, which identifies 1979 as the year that gave birth to the 21st century. Caryl builds his case around five overlapping stories, four about individuals and one about a country. The people are Thatcher, Deng Xiaoping, Ayatollah Khomeini and Pope John Paul II. The place is Afghanistan. The year 1979 mattered to all of them. It was the year Thatcher won her first general election. The year Deng embarked on the economic reforms that would transform China. The year the Iranian Revolution swept Khomeini to power. The year the new pope visited his Polish homeland, sparking vast public outpourings of support in defiance of the communist regime. The year Afghanistan was invaded by the Soviets. These were all momentous events. Caryl weaves them together into a single narrative that tags 1979 as the year that the myth of 20th-century secular progress started to unravel. What joins the different bits of the story together is that each one represents the revenge of two forces that the 20th century was supposed to have seen off, or at least got under control: markets and religion.