Back to the future: 1979-1989
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1979 and the birth of the 21st century

The events of 1979 and their global importance today.


  • Author:
  • A staff writer
    National Library of Scotland

Some years are bigger than others, acting as watershed moments: 1789, French Revolution; 1929, Wall Street Crash; 1939, outbreak of the Second World War. And then there's 1979 …

1979: the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom; the Iranian Revolution and foundation of the Islamic Republic of Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini; the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union and commencement of the Soviet-Afghan War; economic reform in the People's Republic of China under Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping; and the visit of Pope John Paul II to Poland. This is no doubt a list of important events, especially if you are from one of those countries, but is there anything to hold them together other than they all happened in 1979? Furthermore, do their simultaneous occurrences make 1979 a particularly significant and influential year? I say yes, and so does Christian Caryl.

Christian Caryl is an academic and writer, a regular contributor to the 'New York Review of Books', a former 'Newsweek' correspondent, and a senior fellow of the Center for International Studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is also the author of 'Strange rebels: 1979 and the birth of the 21st century'. Published in 2013, this impressive book tells those five stories of British politics, Polish Catholicism, Islamic Revolution, Afghan nation building, and Chinese market liberalisation with aplomb. The storylines are kept spinning simultaneously, and for some of the book's reviewers this seems to be the main drawback with the book; the storylines and leading protagonists are simply too different to intertwine. But I personally think the potency of these storylines is not in their coalescence, but in their coexistence.

Towards 1979

Caryl sets out the agenda in the Prologue, quoting Margaret Thatcher in April 1979 when dubbed by her opponents as a reactionary: 'Well … there's a lot to react against'. Chapter one follows with an account of Britain struggling to fulfil its post-war ambitions of a welfare state, with an established political consensus and class running out of ideas to address what was beginning to look like terminal decline. In case there should be any doubt as to how bad things were, Caryl reminds us that at the end of 1976, Britain was forced to ask the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a $3.9 billion loan, making it the first 'developed' country to seek support from the IMF, and the only one to do so until Iceland requested a loan in 2008.

Britain's loan came with strings attached, namely spending cuts and austerity measures. The economic policies pursued by Margaret Thatcher are indeed an area of study entirely of their own (Stuart Hall, the Marxist sociologist and cultural theorist was quick off the mark with his article 'The great moving right show' in the January issue of 'Marxism Today' in 1979). Caryl sets the scene in more general terms by depicting a country in the mood for change; but how radical and rapid that change ought to have been was where the debate took place.

it is often the voices of more minor characters that give weight to what was actually happening

Caryl quickly introduces the other four storylines. As a British reader, it was useful to see British problems in a wider context. Difficult though the three-day week was (I remember seeing jars of emergency candles in our house), they were nothing compared to rule under dictatorships and secret police. By the end of the chapter, Caryl has introduced a cast of characters, and key themes such as the shift towards market forces, the rise of populations against the establishment, and empowerment through religion, are well defined.

There are excellent accounts of Deng Xiaoping's character, his years in the shadows, and his skill at political survival. There are fascinating accounts of Ayatollah Khomeini's ideological grounding, and the Shah's inability to keep Khomeini's vision at bay. There is a good presentation of the innate conflict between political Islam and the West, and of the development of Islam as a complete methodology for existing in the late 20th century and beyond. There is an excellent account of Pope John Paul II's background as Bishop Karol Wojtyła, and his political significance in Eastern Europe. And there is an evocative description of the fascinating political and cultural landscape of Afghanistan in the 1970s.

But it is often the voices of more minor characters that give weight to what was actually happening on the streets. On page 45, we hear from Farman Farmaian, a social worker in Iran, who says by the 1970s 'an almost delirious admiration for things Western had seized the country …. Many people felt that we were not only trying to catch up with the West, but to become the West, while an entire older generation of parents, even among Persians of my class, was shocked and outraged at what these Western ways were doing to their children, culture, and what Iranians considered moral behaviour …. Even the poor immigrants in the Teheran shantytowns, who deeply disapproved of the garish billboards … craved Pepsi-Cola and Levi's'.

Waves of change

By the late 1970s the modern globalised world meant that consumer-driven monoculture could transcend national cultures and borders; not something every country would welcome. This tension is described in Alvin Toffler's book 'The Third Wave' (which addresses the shift from the industrial Second Wave to the post-industrial Third — a separate essay has been written about that book which you can find in the essays list) and creates precisely the conditions for resistance against both the economic imperialism of the Second Wave, and the social progressivism of the Third. But how do you hold back a wave? And what do you do when people like the taste of cola but hate what it stands for and the people who are selling it? This conundrum reappears in different guises in the chapters about China and Afghanistan too, but it's always roughly the same idea: the accelerating changes of the modern world putting existing systems of control under pressure; those systems either need to be re-enforced, learn to bend, or they break.

Something that becomes apparent in Caryl's book is the usefulness of exile. To varying degrees, all of the main players in 'Strange rebels' spent time in political or physical exile. Ayatollah Khomeini's exile to Iraq and then Paris was very visible, Deng Xiaoping's exile to rural China decidedly invisible by contrast. Key Afghan Marxists and Islamists took refuge in Pakistan, and Karol Wojtyła (ever vulnerable whilst in Poland) took up residence in the world's smallest independent state in 1978 as Pope John Paul II. It is stretching things too far to describe Margaret Thatcher as being a person in exile, but on account of her gender, her ill-fit with British politics at the time, and her association with fringe free market economists, she was well outside of the traditional circle of power.

Exile brought benefits to the protagonists in 'Strange rebels': they were able to mix and think more freely than they could under the gaze of their enemies; they were also removed from the domestic scene and therefore could not be blamed for the bad decisions of the remaining leaders; and they were spared the energy-sapping and unrewarding business of actually running a government or country. For their followers, their absence made the heart grow fonder.

As the stories progressed I began to make my own connections between the main characters. Caryl describes the future Pope's second doctoral thesis and his deep interest in phenomenology and the primacy of individual freedom and experience. The language resonates with the philosophies underpinning Milton Friedman and Margaret Thatcher. But whereas individual freedom for those people tended towards expression through economic policy, for the future Pope, his personal experience of both Nazism and Stalinism set individual freedom in a deeply spiritual context. Caryl explains on page 74 that Karol Wojtyła's work had 'led him to the conclusion that the philosophy of the Enlightenment had, at its worst, spawned materialist ideologies that ran roughshod over individual freedom and responsibility, and in so doing opened the way to totalitarianism'. In a book that sets out as a collection of biographies, economics and religion quickly emerge as the key themes.

The rise of religious consciousness

It is very unlikely that Ayatollah Khomeini would have described himself as an economist. Although not referenced in Caryl's book, many of Khomeini's statements about the economy can be found online: 'economics is for donkeys' and 'I cannot believe that the purpose of all these sacrifices was to have less expensive melons' are often quoted.

These sentiments feel similar to me to the thinking that underpinned Karol Wojtyła's second doctoral thesis. Pope John Paul II and Ayatollah Khomeini were clearly extremely different people, but they shared a devout belief that material pursuit was a dangerous distraction from spiritual devotion. But is a disinterest in the price of melons an economic theory? Well perhaps so when money and its management are seen to be a distraction from religious devotion, and when religious devotion remains the central underpinning characteristic of your society.

it is a story of factionalism, temporary alliances, and untrustworthy relationships

Caryl captures the essence of matters in Afghanistan on page 104: '[Ahmed Shah Massoud] knew about the burgeoning Islamist movement in Egypt and other faraway corners of the Muslim world …. The new Islamists were reminding believers that their religion offered an answer to all of life's questions, that it was better at addressing the problems of modern life than Marxism or liberal democracy …. Few in the West were paying much attention'. This general lack of awareness and understanding on the part of the West is present in the book and cannot be overstated. Khomeini, a lifelong student of Irfan mystical tradition, was written off by Jimmy Carter as simply 'crazy'. It was not a good reading of a different culture, and is precisely the sort of irreverence — accidental or deliberate — that tends to intensify bad relationships.

For both Iran and Afghanistan there are detailed accounts of the interplay between Marxism, Communism and Islamism as forms of anti-imperialist regime change. A complex mix in itself, nationalist, tribal, and sectarian politics also played a huge role, complicated further by the internationalist worldview of political Islam held by people like Ayatollah Khomeini. In the years up to and including 1979 it is a story of factionalism, temporary alliances, and untrustworthy relationships. Afghanistan stands out as particularly complex, making Geoffrey Howe's inflation-busting policies or Deng Xiaoping's revisionist thinking feel relatively straightforward by comparison.

In the early 1970s, Afghanistan was a place of 'laid back exoticism' with the trappings that non-alignment to the two main superpowers typically brought. Kabul was the cosmopolitan hotspot in an otherwise socially conservative nation. Although Islam bound the nation together, there was nothing like the system of clerical hierarchy that existed in Iran. Affiliation based on ethnicity, dialect, and tribe was, however, key to Afghanistan's culture. Things started to change in 1973 when King Mohammed Zahir Khan was overthrown by his cousin, Mohammed Daoud Khan, in a bloodless coup that aimed to accelerate modernisation. Daoud made himself President.

The result of this was to unleash two simultaneous energies into the country at the same time: factional Communism, and factional Islamism. The briefest summary of the key characters and events in the Communist plotline is as follows. President Daoud was himself toppled (and killed) by the Saur Revolution in 1978, which was led by Marxist-Leninist group the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). The PDPA was itself deeply divided into two opposing camps: the radical Khalqs, led by Nur Mohammed Taraki and his deputy Hafizullah Amin, and the moderate Parchams, led by Babrak Karmal. Following the Saur Revolution, Karmal was exiled to Prague. Taraki and Amin fell out, and Taraki returned from the 1979 Non-Aligned Movement summit in Havana to be arrested and smothered by a pillow, by all accounts on Amin's orders. Amin was killed during a Soviet-led attack on the Presidential Palace on 27 December 1979 amid deteriorating relations that resulted in a full-scale Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, after which the leader of the USSR, Leonid Brezhnev, installed Karmal as President.

Those are just the key points of Communist factionalism in Afghanistan in the late 1970s, and although these personnel changes were of great interest to the Kremlin, there was something of even greater significance to ordinary Afghans. The revolutionary politics of the PDPA had introduced a raft of modernising social reforms, including literacy, women’s rights, and land reform. The reforms were deeply unpopular: 'The land-reform program similarly ignored the complex skeins of social relations that bound Afghans together in the countryside in a million site-specific ways' (page 100). The removal of green (the colour of Islam) from the Afghan flag was a deeply offensive move that demonstrated a further failure by the PDPA to understand the mood and culture of the nation they were trying to create.

Economic revolution

Prior to reading this book, Deng Xiaoping was not someone who I had ever really thought about. But Deng Xiaoping is in a global context an utterly crucial individual, and his impact on the 21st century is, dare I suggest, perhaps more significant than anyone else. That is a statement that I ought to substantiate. So, in a nutshell, here it is: since Deng's economic reforms, for a period of 30 years up to 2015, China was the world's fastest growing economy with average annual rates of growth of over 6 per cent (and in some years much higher than that). The statistics and images that chart China's industrial and economic growth are jaw-dropping. I doubt there will ever be a personality cult around Deng Xiaoping as there has been around Mao Zedong, but in 2019 it feels to me that it is the China of Deng Xiaoping that the world has a relationship with, not the China that came before.

Caryl describes the legacy of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution as having tarnished Mao's reputation, even if nobody was allowed to say so. But after Mao's death in 1976, an atmosphere of change began to emerge. 'Truth from facts' was resurrected by Deng as a way of considering possible flaws in the way China was run. Although very cautiously explored, even the possibility of revisionist thought gave energy to popular movements on the streets. One of the best examples of this was the emergence of Democracy Wall in Beijing, where large font posters discussing rights and freedoms were pasted on walls in public places. It ran, largely uncensored, from November 1978 to December 1979. It is fair to say that although economic reform continued through the 1980s, political reform did not, and the dominance of the state was restated for the world to see on 4 June 1989.

During the immediate post-Mao years, Deng worked strategically with other leading figures in the Communist Party to influence both economic change and his personal standing. By the end of 1978, China's official leader, Hua Guofeng, had effectively lost control of the future direction of the Communist Party and indeed of China, and it was Deng Xiaoping who was leader of China in all but name, with 'Time' magazine declaring him, not Hua, as Man of the Year. He made it clear that although China would retain Mao and his Thought as the unifying glue of China, modernisation of the economy and of industry and production would be the new focus for the country. The work would begin in 1979, which it did.

Theocracy, or a secular state?

Although the United States doesn't have its own storyline in 'Strange rebels' it does feature with regard to Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms, and most strongly in chapter 17 with regard to the Iranian Hostage Crisis. The crisis began on 4 November 1979 when Islamic student activists took control of the US Embassy in Tehran. 52 hostages were held for 444 days, and by the time they were released, Ronald Reagan had replaced Jimmy Carter as President. But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the Crisis wasn't the setting of terms for the next 40 years between Iran and the US, but what happened in Iranian politics as a consequence.

Throughout 1979, debate was still taking place inside Iran as to the form of government that would replace the toppled regime. Grand Ayatollah Shariatmadari, who had saved Khomeini from execution in 1963, did not share Khomeini's vision for a theocratic state; nor did Mehdi Bazargan, who Khomeini appointed Prime Minister after the February Revolution. Khomeini returned from exile to a heady mix of Islamo-Marxist blends. The Hostage Crisis provided the opportunity for him to assert his vision of a theocracy at home, and expose American impotence to the world. Shariatmadari denounced the taking of the US Embassy, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest; Bazargan resigned the day the Crisis began, but remained an open critic of Khomeini within Parliament. The totality of Khomeini's theocracy, the unifying effect of a cultural and diplomatic war with the US, and an eight-year war with neighbouring Iraq (1980-88) conceals a far more complex domestic scene.

The benefits of exile are quickly used up. Once in power, the realities of running a country are unavoidable. A key component of the divide between Khomeini and other clerics such as Shariatmadari was the extent to which religion should blend with politics. Caryl suggests with regard to the Iranian Revolution that 'there is an inescapable sense that the revolution has instead brought religion down to the grubby level of everyday politics' (page 295).

The dawn of Thatcherism

One of the benefits I gained from reading the stories of these strange rebels simultaneously was that peculiar links and similarities between otherwise very different people began to emerge: 'The 1979 Conservative election manifesto began by declaring that 'the balance of our society has been increasingly tilted in favour of the State at the expense of individual freedom' (page 159). This statement from Margaret Thatcher could equally be a line from the future Pope's thesis, or even a summary of the private economic thought of Deng Xiaoping. Caryl quotes an extract from her last speech before the election: 'Of course it has been about prices and jobs and standard of living and all the economic things, but this election is about even more than the cost of the shopping basket,' she told her audience. 'It really is about our fundamental freedoms and the future of our whole way of life in this country'. It is fascinatingly close to Khomeini's disbelief about the importance of the price of melons, appealing to the moral case for action, rather than simple household economics.

Behind Margaret Thatcher's moral case, however, was some very specific economic thinking and discussion. Caryl charts the development of the economic policies of Thatcherism from Friedrich von Hayek and his book 'The Road to Serfdom' to the Mont Pelerin Society, to Milton Friedman, to British business man Anthony Fisher and the establishment of the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA). It was the IEA which served as the seedbed for new monetary policies and as a meeting ground for kindred spirits like Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph, who himself had turned the Centre for Policy Studies into another think tank aligned to this new way of thinking. Keith Joseph's role in the ascendency of Margaret Thatcher in her party and into office should not be overlooked.

It was a brutal sight, with bankruptcies and unemployment skyrocketing

That they shared an identical economic vision for the country is clear, but what set Margaret Thatcher apart from Joseph, and indeed from almost all of her other fellow travellers, was her ability to present these ideas differently. Caryl explains: 'Instead of asking what thinkers like Hayek and Friedman gave to Thatcher, we might be better off turning the question around: what did she do for their ideas? The answer soon revealed itself. What Thatcher contributed to the cause of the free marketeers was the unstinting force of her convictions. Ordinary politicians had programs. The grocer's daughter had a mission' (page 167).

Caryl details that mission in the chapter 'The Evangelist', explaining that she took just two days to assemble her new Government. To the surprise of many, she made Keith Joseph her Secretary of State for Industry and did not give him the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer. That job went to Geoffrey Howe; a skilled economist, he turned out to be an excellent choice. The more ideologically committed Joseph was better suited in her opinion for going into battle with the unions.

In the event, Geoffrey Howe's first budget was far more radical than anyone expected. Caryl tells us: 'It slashed the rate of income tax for top earners from a punitive 83 percent to 60, and took the basic rate from 33 percent to 30. It also unveiled the first steps toward the elimination of exchange controls. Howe also announced deep cuts in public spending — though he boosted funding for the military and the police, in line with Thatcher's election pledges' (page 167). Attention then moved to control of the money supply and the delivery of Milton Friedman's monetarist philosophies. Interest rates rose from 12 to 14 per cent. A few months later, Howe raised them again from 14 to 17 per cent, the largest one-day rise in British history.

It was a slamming-on of breaks on a globally relevant level — a demonstration for the rest of the industrialised world of how to break with Keynesian practice. It was a brutal sight, with bankruptcies and unemployment skyrocketing. Advice was coming in from all quarters to turn down the intensity of austerity and monetarism, but Margaret Thatcher was unmoved. For this was about something far more profound than control of inflation. Caryl explains: 'Shirley Robin Letwin, one of Thatcher's most persuasive apologists, argues that the key to understanding Thatcher is not ideology but a core ideal. … Thatcherism, she argues, was above all an effort to promote certain "vigorous values"' (page 187). This was about getting the nation to learn to take its medicine.

The end of fear

On 2 June 1979, Pope John Paul II arrived at Warsaw Airport. He celebrated an open-air mass in Victory Square, attended by one million congregants. 'Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the globe … Let your Spirit descend and renew the face of the earth, the face of this land,' he said. There is a language available to religious leaders that is usually not available to political leaders. Margaret Thatcher's evocation of St Francis of Assisi ('Where there is discord …') shows how religious language can be employed for effect, but it is not the same as channelling the Divine into the hearts of the faithful. Throughout the first week in June, Pope John Paul II transmitted the message of Christ again and again, whilst the authorities of the Communist Party stood powerless to intervene.

The Pope's sermons were more political than perhaps had been expected, with messages of support to Catholics elsewhere in Eastern Europe. By 5 June, Caryl tells us: 'the topics of his sermon [had] acquired a more directly political character, as he argued the case for 'the rights of each nation' with startling frankness' (page 203). It wasn't just what the Pope said that mattered, but the undeniable visibility of it, as Caryl acknowledges: 'There was, above all else, the plain social fact of the millions who gathered to see their beloved John Paul II — and discovered each other in the process … No one had ordered them to be there; whether they came at all was entirely up to them. And it turned out, millions of them — a visible and undeniable plurality — were determined to show up'.

Estimates are that 11 million people out of a population of 35 million attended mass with the Pope that week. Caryl makes a final crucial observation about the Pope's pilgrimage: 'He had shown that he was not afraid to touch upon delicate topics and repeatedly invoked the people's right to choose their own government as they saw fit. He balanced that frankness with a persistent invocation of the spirit of nonviolence …. Nothing could have been more ominous for the future of the Communist regime. Fear held the Soviet empire together, and the Poles, inspired by a Polish leader who lived in Rome, had declared an end to fear' (page 208).

Caryl describes how the legacy of the Pope's visit went on to have genuine political impact in Poland. By the late summer of 1980, strikes that broke out in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk had become an international story. The Solidarity movement brought together 10 million Polish workers and were led not by the Communist Party but by devout Catholic and electrician Lech Wałęsa. The Solidarity movement was characterised by its non-violence and moral discipline, with daily mass and a ban on alcohol notable features. Caryl is not alone in seeing the papal visit of 1979 as being of profound geopolitical significance. On page 287 he quotes Timothy Garton Ash who says 'Without the Pope there would have been no Solidarity movement; without Solidarity, there would have been no Gorbachev; without Gorbachev there would have been no 1989'.

The significance of Afghanistan

Whilst the Soviet Union had been distracted by the Communist conundrums in Kabul, an equally complex situation was developing in the rest of Afghanistan. PDPA attempts to reassure the devout of the government's respect for Islam had failed to quell mounting hostility. A month after the Iranian Revolution, a full-scale rebellion in Afghanistan's third city of Herat (not far the border from Iran) gave public face to the antipathy that was felt towards the new political regime. Page 214: 'The ferocity of the uprising and the extent of the force needed to quell it made it clear that this went far beyond the usual local tribal rebellion'.

As with Communist factionalism, so Afghan Islamism was riven with factions. Ahmed Shah Massoud and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar were particularly prominent in a group of individuals and organisations which tried to shape Afghanistan as a nation based on Islam, with the former representing a more moderate vision to the radicalism of the latter. They disliked each other intensely. The complexity of competing Islamic visions was further complicated by the not insignificant fact that for the entire decade of the 1980s all of those rival factions were united as the Mujahedeen against the Red Army in a brutal war. Furthermore, the sectarian and ethnic tensions around Pashtun nationalism meant that both Pakistan and Iran maintained a keen interest in Afghan affairs throughout the decade because of the Pashtun populations in their own countries.

By the end of the 1980s and the end of the Soviet-Afghan war, the complexities within Afghanistan had only intensified further. The events of 1979 and the decade that followed set the terms not just for Afghanistan's relationship with the rest of the world, but in large part also for the terms of geopolitics more generally in the 21st century.

1979 — a watershed year

1979; a busy year, potent even, but does it mark the birth of a new century? Well, yes, it literally does: 'In the Islamic calendar … the Western month of November 1979 coincides with the dawning of the new year of 1400. According to certain traditions, that is the year that the Mahdi, the Islamic messiah, is supposed to reveal himself to the faithful and usher in a new age of eternal justice' (page 223). Could there be a more succinct expression of the departure of West and East from each other that year?

Caryl's book by necessity stays with the key details of events in the five nations in scope. Nonetheless, his book makes a compelling case for 1979 as being a watershed year for the entire globe. In the epilogue Caryl writes: 'If the experiences of 1979 suggest one conclusion it is that we should never underestimate the power of reaction'. As Margaret Thatcher said: 'There's a lot to react against'. It led me to look beyond his book for other events from that year that suggested that this was a year of shift.

On 1 March 1979, referendums took place in Scotland and Wales on the issue of devolved power. The Scotland Act and Wales Act both required that at least 40 per cent of the total electorate in each referendum should vote in favour of the proposal. Whereas the rejection of the proposal for an Assembly in Wales was fairly clear, in Scotland a small majority of 51.62 per cent voted in favour. However, because turnout in the referendum was only 63.72 per cent, this only translated to a vote of 32.9 per cent of the registered electorate, and therefore the Act was repealed. The immediate effect of this was for the Scottish National Party to withdraw its support for the minority Labour government, thereby triggering the 1979 general election. The broader impact was to set the debate in motion about devolved power and independence, and to place a question mark over the long-term future of the United Kingdom.

In the autumn of 1979, Paul Volcker, the new chief of the United States Federal Reserve launched a tight money policy aimed at reducing the high rate of inflation (Caryl does in fact refer to this on page 187 of his book). The impact of introducing high federal fund interest rates was significant with regard to the economy of the United States in the 1980s, and was therefore significant for the entire world. It created immediate and catastrophic conditions for some domestic industries in the US leading to the recession of 1980-1982, and introduced Japanese products to supermarket shelves. Along with Thatcherism and the period of Reaganomics that was soon to follow, Volcker's policies set further terms for the new age of neoliberalism.

In most Western countries, 1979 began to the sound of the Village People singing 'YMCA' as it topped the singles charts. On 12 July that year, more than 50,000 people gathered at Comiskey Park in Chicago to detonate a huge pile of vinyl disco recordings. 'Disco Demolition Night' as the event was called, was the work of Steve Dahl, a young DJ with a personal animus towards disco. The anti-disco event has become the subject of academic interest because of the demographics at play — the 'Disco Sucks' movement attracted primarily white people who were stadium-rock and baseball fans, whereas disco music was associated with black, Latin-American, and gay communities. Anti-disco protest in 1979 attaches to something far more profound than The Village People; it shows that the same departures that took place globally in 1979 were also taking place within nations.

On 28 March 1979, following a partial meltdown of Reactor Number 2, a radiation leak occurred at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The incident was rated as Category 5 — 'An accident with wider consequences'. The clean-up operation lasted until 1993, costing at least $1 billion. The impact on the health of human and livestock populations in the vicinity of the reactor is still debated. Three Mile Island was just the first of increasingly damaging human impacts on the environment that were to follow during the '80s, which included the Bhopal gas leak (India, 1984), the Chernobyl nuclear reactor explosion (Ukraine, 1986), and the Exxon Valdez oil spill (Alaska, 1989).

Fission and fusion — the forces at work in the '80s and since

That there should be an accident at a nuclear fission reactor in 1979 is befitting. Fission, the splitting of an atom to release dangerous levels of radioactive energy, feels like a metaphor for the year, and times ever since. Within nations, and globally, the things that held the status quo together were blown apart by the forces of accelerative change. What is interesting is how quickly the forces of fusion came back into play in the decade that followed. Military repression, neoliberalism, nationalism, and theocracy emerged as methods to keep nation states together.

Some nations, like China, found a way to bend economically in order not to break politically. Others, like Iran and Afghanistan intensified the forces of social conservatism. Elsewhere, some former Eastern Bloc countries mixed social conservatism with nationalism to recover after the collapse of the USSR. In Britain, home ownership and market forces gave enough people a stake in the emerging neoliberalist model that they have voted for that system ever since, despite any misgivings they may have had.

Leaders and parties can force or entice their populations into remaining (or becoming) a national entity under their terms, but can they ever truly know they have conquered individual hearts and minds? The repressive nature of doctrinarian states makes it difficult to know whether popular support for the state is authentic, but we should assume that billions of people the world over enjoy a sense of national pride for a multitude of reasons and will continue to do so irrespective of the form of government they live under.

The most memorable passage of Caryl's 'Strange rebels' for me was the account of American anthropologist Stephen Mosher's visit to China as the economic reforms started to take effect: 'When one woman heard that the party might soon allow a return to household farming, she immediately began making plans to start cultivating her own mulberry patch … "You can't do that now because people are careless when they work," she explained to the American. "They would step on them when they are spreading [fertilizer] or picking mulberry leaves. But I'll be careful, because they'll be mine"' (page 254). What do you do when, despite 30 years of an imposed state-controlled economy, deep down people can't wait to get back to tending their own patch? The grandest visions of the strangest rebels are ultimately put to the test at the level of basic elementary motivation.

The point of writing this essay (and the convenience of doing so through Caryl's book) has been to open up this retrospective of the 1980s beyond the British experience; to provide a sense of what was happening beyond the shoulder pads and pop culture of that decade. The image that many people in the West have of the '80s as a decade of decadence and liberalising attitudes does not reflect the global picture, nor even the range of experiences within the West itself. I'm aware that I have written an essay about five countries, only one of which I have any personal experience of, based primarily on a book written by a man who isn't from any of those nations. The Library contains at least tens of thousands of other accounts of these countries worthy of further investigation. This is our invitation to you to do just that, using our collections either online or at our buildings.

In the same way that people in Britain may be irritated if people in Poland, China, Afghanistan, or Iran thought that Margaret Thatcher represented our collective worldview or personal lives, so we should guard against thinking of other nations in terms of their leaders. Under the leadership of these strange rebels these nations developed in a particular way. But behind these rebels are also, of course, billions of others. Some are dancing to disco, some are watching baseball, some are tending their mulberry, some are reading holy texts, while others are conversing with neighbours. 1979 began a process of atomisation that is still taking place. Perhaps knowledge and learning can in some way bring us closer together.

See also:

Reading list

  • 'Discophobia: Antigay prejudice and the 1979 backlash against Disco' by Gillian Frank in 'Journal of the History of Sexuality', Vol. 16, Issue 2 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2007) [National Library of Scotland online resource].
  • 'The Economist' (London: The Economist Newspaper Ltd, 1979) [National Library of Scotland shelfmark: QJ9.727 SER and online resource].
  • 'The Great Turning Right Show' by Stuart Hall in 'Marxism Today', Vol. 23 (London: Communist Party of Great Britain, 1979) [Shelfmark: QJ8.299 PER].
  • 'More than just a soft drink: Coca-Cola and China's Early Reform and Opening' by Charles Kraus, in 'Diplomatic History', Vol. 43, No. 1 (Cary, NC: Oxford University Press, 2019) [National Library online resource].
  • 'Now' (London: Cavenham Communications, 1979-1981) [Shelfmark: HJ8.78 PER].
  • 'Strange rebels: 1979 and the birth of the 21st century' by Christian Caryl (New York: Basic Books, 2013) [Shelfmark: PB8.218.415/7].
  • 'The third wave', by Alvin Toffler (London: Collins, 1980) [Shelfmark: Q4.80.295].
  • 'Time' (New York, NY: 1979) [Shelfmark: QJ8.907 SER].


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