Books

Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century

Few moments in history have seen as many seismic transformations as 1979. That single year marked the emergence of revolutionary Islam as a political force on the world stage, the beginning of market revolutions in China and Britain that would fuel globalization and radically alter the international economy, and the first stirrings of the resistance movements in Eastern Europe and Afghanistan that ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. More than any other year in the latter half of the twentieth century, 1979 heralded the economic, political, and religious realities that define the twenty-first.

In Strange Rebels, veteran journalist Christian Caryl shows how the world we live in today—and the problems that plague it—began to take shape in this pivotal year. 1979, he explains, saw a series of counterrevolutions against the progressive consensus that had dominated the postwar era. The year’s epic upheavals embodied a startling conservative challenge to communist and socialist systems around the globe, fundamentally transforming politics and economics worldwide. In China, 1979 marked the start of sweeping market-oriented reforms that have made the country the economic powerhouse it is today. 1979 was also the year that Pope John Paul II traveled to Poland, confronting communism in Eastern Europe by reigniting its people’s suppressed Catholic faith. In Iran, meanwhile, an Islamic Revolution transformed the nation into a theocracy almost overnight, overthrowing the Shah’s modernizing monarchy. Further west, Margaret Thatcher became prime minister of Britain, returning it to a purer form of free-market capitalism and opening the way for Ronald Reagan to do the same in the US. And in Afghanistan, a Soviet invasion fueled an Islamic holy war with global consequences; the Afghan mujahedin presaged the rise of al-Qaeda and served as a key factor—along with John Paul’s journey to Poland—in the fall of communism.

Weaving the story of each of these counterrevolutions into a brisk, gripping narrative, Strange Rebels is a groundbreaking account of how these far-flung events and disparate actors and movements gave birth to our modern age.

Praise

“The forces unleashed by this remarkable year continue to shape the world . . . Anyone who wants to understand how this new world came into being needs to read Mr Caryl’s excellent book.”
The Economist (read full review)

“At the end of the 20th century, two coiled forces, religion and markets, sprung onto the world stage. From China’s reforms to Margaret Thatcher’s rise to Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution, they all began in 1979 and have been shaping international life ever since. Christian Caryl tells the story of that pivotal year – and its consequences – with intelligence, grace and lucidity.”
Fareed Zakaria

“If you haven’t thought much about the year 1979, it’s time you should: In this provocative work of scholarship and reporting, Christian Caryl argues that this was the year when a counter-revolution – led by Margaret Thatcher, John Paul II, Ayatollah Khomeini, and Deng Xiaoping – changed the course of history. After reading this book you won’t think the same way about the 20th century again.”
Anne Applebaum

“Christian Caryl’s book is eloquent, elegant, and persuasive. It makes a connection that is obvious once he points it out – about the transformations in the Middle East, central and east Asia, and Europe from West to East whose after-effects shape our politics, culture, and economy even now. After reading this book, I will always think differently about developments in Iran, Afghanistan, China, and elsewhere, because of the connections Caryl has drawn out. This is a very valuable and readable work combining the best elements of history and high-end contemporary reportage.”
James Fallows

“Christian Caryl takes a series of seemingly disparate events that shook the world of the late 1970s and uncovers the strands that bind them together. The result is an amazing story that illuminates the world we live in.”
Dexter Filkins

“We knew something was happening in 1979. And now, thanks to Christian Caryl, we know what it was. A hands-on reporter with global experience, Caryl follows the common thread running through the seemingly unrelated upheavals in Afghanistan, Britain, Poland, Iran, and China that year, revealing a powerful revolutionary traditionalism that continues to shape the world we live in today. An eye-opening and deeply sobering book.”
Mark Lilla