How Everything Changed in 1979

The Radical Rightists of 1979

by Gwydion M. Williams

A review of Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl.  Basic Civitas Books 2014.

This book looks at five simultaneous events: Thatcher’s election in Britain; the new Polish Pope and his influence on anti-Russian sentiment in Poland; the Soviet invasion to overthrow an independent-minded leftist regime in Afghanistan; the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran and Deng Xiaoping’s move towards limited foreign investment and private enterprise in China.

To see these as parallel movements is a bit odd.  Shiite Iran and the mostly-Sunni resistance in Afghanistan became the West’s worst enemies, but are also hostile to each other.  Thatcher unintentionally but foreseeably helped spread Islamism by insisting that the West must do everything possible to destroy the Baath regime in Iraq.  And if Deng was indeed “following the capitalist road” away from Mao’s highly collectivised system, he also refused to follow it even as far as the Mixed-Economy or Keynesianism system that Thatcher was out to overthrow in 1979.  Keynesianism says that the state should intervene when necessary and otherwise let private capital flourish.  In China, private capital has only as much freedom as the state chooses to allow it, and though agriculture is mostly family-based, the land remains state-owned.

Deng never rejected the basics of socialism, and nor have his successors.  In many ways Deng was the more orthodox Marxist than Mao, accepting the need for controlled capitalism as a transforming force in a very poor country.

Deng stuck with the basics of socialism and China has been a brilliant success.  The others four movements covered in the book tried to find an alternative to socialism, won a lot of popular support but have achieved little.  Thatcher failed to shrink the state, was unable to match the average growth-rate of the 1950s and 1960s, and presided over the collapse of most of what was left of traditional British conservative social values. Iran hasn’t been a huge success, but it has created a stable political system based on its version of Islam, and with regular elections that settle significant differences to politics.

So it’s five very different movements.  And to my eyes – though it’s not what the book says – the connecting element to this set of odd happenings is the failure of the Soviet Union to become the nucleus of a World State.  And the damage it did by continuing with this mission well after it should have seen that it was not going to come off.

No political movement can afford to bad-mouth its own past and upset its own believers.  That was what Khrushchev did in 1956, without bothering to consult the rest of the global communist movement.  (If it had begun to resemble an expanded version of the Tsarist Empire under Stalin, it became much more so under Khrushchev and his successors.)

In the long run, you could not have a viable Communist movement when Moscow stifled all alternatives, but showed no sign of adapting to the modern world.  The official line down to Gorbachev was that Lenin was unalterable and that Stalin was both bad and inexplicable.  Yet there was no major change in methods between Lenin and Stalin: the big shift was that Stalin was able to massively expand the economy, which had been stagnating in the 1920s.

As I see it, the correct conclusions would have been:

  1. Revolutionary dictatorship gets things done but is also harsh and intolerant of rivals, including those with similar aims.
  2. Moderate reformers can only get things done when there is general consensus, often produced by the existence of a harsher alternative that scares the vested interests.

A few of us said something like this back in the 1970s, when the entire world was wide open to change in a socialist direction.  But in Western Europe, the prospect of serious left-wing reform got squeezed out between a Centre-Left that thought that everything could carry on much as before, and a Hard Left that believed they’d win power if they could successfully sabotage all attempts at moderate reform.

The all-or-nothing attitudes of the Trotskyists and pro-Moscow communists resulted in nothing, much to their surprise.

A determined Hard Left and the rather inert Centre-Left managed between them to successfully sabotage all attempts at moderate reform.  This was frustrating for many people, and paved the way for Thatcher to take power with a hard-line program for reverting to an older form of capitalism.

(Not that she really brought back the old world.  She successfully undermined the culture of the British working class, in part by allowing mass unemployment.  But for all the talk of “dealing with scroungers”, she allowed the development of an inert and reasonably contented stratum of unproductive people at the bottom of the society.  They are useful for annoying the working poor, but without jobs for them to do, there is no prospect of this stratum vanishing.  It has moved in the direction of becoming a US-style Underclass, though social links with the wider society still remain much stronger than in the USA.)

Regarding Poland and the Pope, I can’t help noticing the odd similarity between his election and a 1969 Hollywood film called The Shoes of the Fisherman.  This has a Bishop from Ukraine’s Roman Catholic minority survive imprisonment as a dissident and become pope, and then resolves a rather improbably crisis that threatens World War.  Could someone have seen how this could be adapted for Cold War purposes, encouraging dissent in Poland, always the most likely place for anti-Russian protest?  The US intelligence services might have had enough “pull” with secret details of sexual and financial scandals concerning cardinals to promote the election of a man who did in fact produced a small but definite revival for the global Catholic cause.

And what of Iran and Afghanistan?  Pro-Moscow communism also blighted what were once a number of substantial socialist and secularist movements in the Arab and Islamic world.  Trotskyist elements fancied themselves as a replacement but achieved nothing: no Trotskyist movement has ever had the political skills to grow beyond fringe politics.  There was for a time a substantial pro-Beijing movement in South Yemen, which drove out the British, briefly revolutionised the society and was making progress until its merger with the larger and more tribal state of North Yemen.  There was also a strong guerrilla movement in Muscat & Oman, but this was defeated by outside intervention, much of it British.  The British Left did far too little to protest against this war, which could have produced a very different future and aborted the growth of Islamism.

The book correctly notes that the Islamic movement borrowed a lot from the methods and rhetoric of Revolutionary Marxism, while also being seen as home-grown rather than a Western import and maybe a movement dependent on foreign powers.  Islamism could combing revolutionary protest with traditional religious and nationalist feeling:

“What no one foresaw was how the odd fusion of Islam and late-twentieth-century revolutionary politics – a formula whose mostly Sunni version in Afghanistan had much in common with the fervour stirred up by Khomeini’s Shiite followers – would combust into a strange new kind of religious conflict…  Within the space of just a few years, this religious insurgency would supplant Marxist and secular nationalism as the dominant ideology of the Middle East.” [A]

“A conservative can be defined as someone who wants to defend or restore the old order; a counter-revolutionary, by contrast, is a conservative who has learned from the revolution…Khomeini and his clerical allies appropriated Marxist rhetoric and ideas wherever they could, forging a new brand of religious militancy that railed against colonialism and inequality; socialist notions of nationalisation and state management later played a large role in the Islamist government’s postrevolutionary economic policy.” [B]

Actually “counter-revolutionary” means simply an intention to reverse a revolution that has already happened.  The correct term is Radical Right.  This is probably avoided because the term is best known from Fascism and Nazism.  But all of these movements are very different from Fascism, yet share the common element of being willing to overturn established social values with the intention of serving right-wing aims.

Whether the Radical Right can succeed in the long run remains to be seen.  European Fascism failed because it was militarily defeated after trying to take on too many foes at one time.  I’d say that New Right values are heading for a collapse in Europe, but they might even strengthen in the USA as the USA slides down the rankings in global power.  And Islamism is going from strength to strength, helped by a damn-fool Western policy of knocking over secular dictatorships that have been mildly anti-Western.

The Iranian and wider Islamist development was very different from what Thatcher did, or what Reagan did, or what happened in Poland.  Khomeini’s Iran and Afghanistan under the Taliban did reverse Westernisation and produced a radical puritanical version of Islam that seems entirely viable in the modern world.  Thatcher borrowed the rhetoric of reform and used it to restore older policies that had been abandoned for very good reasons; but she failed to halt the spread of liberal-left social values.  Reagan played on populist resentment at an “east coast elite”, while covertly undermining the interests of the blue-collar elements who voted for him.  He too failed to reverse the progress of liberal-left social values, supposing he was sincere in promising this, which is moot. Poland was something else: in Poland, Roman Catholicism was closely allied to nationalism, asserting a Polish identity against Russian rule.  But the growth of Solidarity trade union did include some left-wing notions, most of which were not realised after the Soviet collapse.

In Britain, most religious people were centre-left and against Thatcher.  Reagan had the support of a strong Religious Right in the USA, which however was based mostly on independent congregations.  Independent Christian congregations sound like a wonderful idea, but have not worked well in practice.  When the fervour declines, such bodies are chronically short of money except where they prostituted themselves to the service of the rich.

19th century Puritanism was mostly radical and concerned with the welfare of the poor.  In both the USA and Britain.  In England and Wales, it mostly collapsed in the 20th century.  The former Puritans either became secular or joining the established and well-funded Church of England, or occasionally switching over to Roman Catholicism.  (The mother of J R R Tolkien was one such convert, and one of her relatives of an older generation had seriously considered it.)  Meantime in the USA, there was nowhere much to go except to a secular liberalism that turned out to be rather weak and empty.  Some independent Christians stayed radical and concerned with social justice, but a much larger number discovered the benefits of serving Mammon under a veneer of serving God.

It’s a curious fact that the USA failed to notice the danger of Islamism even after the Iranian Revolution.  The Islamists were immediately useful against secular and left-wing forces, but it was foreseeable that they would eventually become enemies. Saudi Arabia had been strongly Islamic but broadly obedient to US interests, but this was because the regime retained many aspects of tribalism and was weak, scared of its secular Arab neighbours until the USA helpfully destroyed most of them.  But I think the USA was mislead by the extreme docility of its own “Fundamentalists”, applying the same name to utterly different social phenomena among Muslims.

What actually happened in the 1970s was a disintegration of the Modernist world outlook.  The liberal vision of “Inevitable Progress” had been damaged by the First World War, with Leninism rising as a serious replacement.  But with Moscow’s version of Leninism decaying, there was a lack of any strong replacement. China under Mao tried to be that replacement, but Chinese culture is very different from most of the rest of the world.  And China has a clash of nationalisms with both Japan and Vietnam, the main countries (along with Korea) that have strong cultural connections.

Mao by the early 1970s had effectively abandoned the idea of Beijing as a replacement for Moscow.  Nothing much had come of it, and he needed the USA as a balance against a hostile Soviet Union.  It would have been an excellent time for the Soviet Union to have “mended fences”, but they presumably still nurtured the idea of being the core of a future World State.  Perhaps they also hoped for chaos in China after Mao died.

(The current Western “China Experts” either aren’t aware of or chose not to mention the widespread expectations of both some sort of Sino-Soviet War in the 1970s.  Or else they expected a relapse into division and chaos in China after Mao’s death.  When it became clear that Deng had emerged as a very powerful leader, some of them switched to expecting chaos after Deng died, not expecting Jiang Zemin to be able to hold things together.  In fact Jiang Zemin successfully bridged the gap between the first two charismatic leaders of People’s China and the current system of an orderly hand-over of power every ten years.  He’s not been credited with this by Western sources, not that I’ve seen.)

The 1979 book is routine in its comments on China.  Concerning the reasons for Thatcherism, it has some half-sensible remarks.  Positively, it does mention the success of the system that Thatcher set herself to overthrow:

“The 1970s marked the end of a long period of extraordinary growth.  Virtually all of the countries of Western Europe as well as the United States experienced an enormous surge in prosperity for the thirty years after the end of World War Two.”  But after the oil shock there was a prolonged crisis.  ‘Stagflation,’ as this new phenomenon was called, defined all expert prognosis”.[C]

This leaves out the even more remarkable rise of first Japan and then the East Asian tigers.  And fails to mention that for much of this period, the Soviet Union was doing just as well, only falling into stagnation and relative decline in the 1980s. China too was growing quite fast under Mao, faster than the UK or USA, and in an economy that had been stagnant for centuries.  And Mao did this in the face of US hostility and considerable restrictions in such outside trade as Mao wished to continue with.

The system that had worked very nicely between the end of World War Two and the crisis of the 1970s needed re-balancing, not the sort of wholesale repeal that Thatcher and Reagan attempted.  Remarkably, though the 1970s was a step down from three decades of success, it was no worse overall in terms of economic growth than the Thatcherite 1980s.  (And Thatcher had a gigantic boost from North Sea Oil.)  Subsequent decades have been rather worse in the UK, leading onto the stagnation that began with the financial crisis of 2008 and shows no signs of ending.

The system that Thatcher rejected had been hit by a “double whammy”, both an economic crisis and a radical opposition that had a habit of bad-mouthing the post-war Western system without paying much attention to the possibility of a radical-right movement cashing in on this negative approach.

“In one (conservative) view, it was only in the 1970s that the radical notions advanced by the 1960s and cultural and political elites translated into a broad social upheaval.  The antiauthoritarianism of the sixties activists translated into a pervasive loss of faith in leaders, institutions and ideals across classes.”[D]

This actually repeats the New Right trick of blurring the differences between the dominant elite and left-wing rebels against that elite.  The technocratic elite that had dominated in the 1950s and 1960s lost control of their intended successors among the more gifted students in the 1960s.  A lot of the protest was hedonistic, often selfish and frequently rather mindless in its opposition to authority.  There was also a genuine fear of a revival of Fascism, a fear not justified by the rather pathetic showing of such fascist groups as existed at the time.  There was no anticipation that a very different sort of Radical Rightist creed might grow up in the West, one that was in many ways the inverse of fascism, mobilising popular resentment at state power and holding up finance as an admirable source of fortunes for lucky investors: ‘it could be you’.

Even among conventional socialists, there was a pervasive fear of “corporatism”.  In as far as the Western system of the 1940s to 1970s could be called corporatist, it was a huge advance on the older more strongly capitalist system.  But this was very seldom said, with socialists oddly eager to distance themselves from socialist successes and put all their emphasis on what hadn’t been achieved.

There was also an alienation of traditional working-class supporters from the left in Britain and the USA, as parties on the left felt obliged to support the liberal-left agenda of more sexual freedom and an end to “patriarchal” values.  It didn’t help that this process also produced a spread of drug addiction, unfamiliar and frightening –  and much more destructive than alcohol abuse.[E]

The growth of Islamism was very different from the Thatcher – Reagan development of a New Right.  It was and is in many ways analogous to European Fascism.  But it had the advantage of being able to plausibly present itself as the authentic version of Islam in opposition to conservative or moderate Muslims who had compromised with the West.  It lacked the uneasy relationship with popular faith that was one of the weaknesses of European Fascism, where the leaders were skeptics or occasionally neo-pagans.

Islamism has managed what the New Right promised but failed to deliver: it reversed the spread of liberal-left social values.  Of course it had the advantage of being able to label these things as Western imports, as well as a leadership that mostly did conform in private to what they preached in public.

As an account of the parallel processes in Britain, Poland, Iran, Afghanistan and China, the book is quite good.  It tries to be fair-minded, mentioning the massive inequalities brought about by Thatcher and Reagan: “The year 1979 marked the moment when income equality in the United States began to increase for the first time since 1945 – the beginning of a trend that has continued to the present day.” [F]

Regarding the difference between reforms in China and the Soviet Union, it says “it is worth noting that Deng was broaching these ideas ten years after the Soviet leadership had abandoned the cautious decentralising reforms of Nikita Khrushchev.  In November 1978 the government of Leonid Brezhnev was two years into its Tenth Five-Year Plan, which doggedly maintained the supremacy of central planning even as it implicitly acknowledged that the USSR was falling behind in technological innovation.” [G]  The Soviet system was far from doomed in the 1960s: it was Brezhnev’s decision to stick with a part-reformed system that was fatal.

What the book does not consider is whether the unreformed “work-points” system of Stalin and Mao might have continued to flourish if left in being.  Both systems were doing quite well overall at the time reforms began.  Even the problem with food in Mao’s China was related to the population having been allowed to double from what it had been in 1949.  Deng enforced a ruthless one-child policy to limit this, a measure that caused remarkably little protest in the West, which at the time supposed he was on their side.  But I’ve seen it argued that Deng’s harsh measures weren’t as significant as most people thing.  The big limitation on fertility all over the world has been education for girls, which had happened under Mao.

The book title speaks of “the Birth of the 21st Century”, sharing the New Right notion that socialist ideas had been made obsolete.  Very much moot.  The heirs of Thatcher and Reagan in the Anglosphere are waging war with the Islamists, and increasingly losing that war. Poland and most of the rest of Continental Europe is rallying to Social Market ideas. China may be re-affirming its Maoist legacy under the new leadership, condemning the Cultural Revolution as mistaken but affirming Mao’s role as creator of modern China.  Meantime Islamist governments have not done particularly well where they have power, and the Sunni-Shia split now seems unbridgeable.

More broadly, the world is still adjusting to the shift from agriculture to a more modern way of life.  Leninism was adapted to an intermediate stage, a world of vast factories and a fairly uneducated workforce.  It was not able to recognise or take credit for the collapse of actual bourgeois power, which seems separate from capitalism.  Marx had the same vision, which was fine for his time but is even less of a guide to the modern world.  But most of the left chose to idolise Marx and Lenin, while distancing themselves from any association with various socialists or communists who had produced solid results that were of benefit to ordinary people.  And then they are baffled that they have lost popularity!

My own belief is that the years since 1979 have been probably the last gasp of non-socialist radicalism, at least in the West.  Small independent property has not survived the political dominance of a creed that was officially intended to preserve it.  The promises of the New Right were not met and they have actually operated a modified Corporatism that is tuned to give maximum benefit to a small number of very rich people.  This is not a stable configuration.  I feel tempted to write a book about it, The Strange Death of Functional Conservatism, which I would also date to 1979.  With certainty, they have not done much more than boost the rich at the expense of the rest of us.

The time seems ripe for the emergence of wholly new politics better suited for the actualities of the 21st century.

[A] Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, page xi.

[B] Ibid., page xiv

[C] Ibid., page 2

[D] Ibid., page 1

[E] This is in terms of mental problems and death per thousand users.  Since alcohol has many more users, quoting the raw figures without adjustment for number of users can be very misleading.

[F] Ibid., page 4

[G] Ibid., page 133

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