These five stories—rich in event and grand personalities—would be worth telling in themselves. But do they really have that much to do with each other? Surely, Britain’s first female prime minister has nothing in common with Iranian Shiism’s leading militant cleric. And what could possibly unite the bishop of Rome, the budding Islamists of Afghanistan, and the leader of the Chinese Communist Party? The fact that they lived through the same historical inflection point, one might argue, does not mean that their stories are linked. Coincidence is not correlation.
In fact, though, they have much more in common than at first meets the eye. The forces unleashed in 1979 marked the beginning of the end of the great socialist utopias that had dominated so much of the twentieth century. These five stories—the Iranian Revolution, the start of the Afghan jihad, Thatcher’s election victory, the pope’s first Polish pilgrimage, and the launch of China’s economic reforms—deflected the course of history in a radically new direction. It was in 1979 that the twin forces of markets and religion, discounted for so long, came back with a vengeance.
Not all of the historical figures whose fates converged that year necessarily thought of themselves as conservatives, and none of them tried to turn back the clock to some hallowed status quo ante. This is precisely because they were all reacting, in their own ways, to a long period of revolutionary fervor that expressed itself in movements ranging from social democracy to Maoism—and it is striking that they were all variously denounced by their enemies on the Left as “reactionaries,” “obscurantists,” “feudalists,” “counterrevolutionaries,” or “capitalist roaders” who aimed above all to defy the march of progress.
There was a grain of truth to these accusations. The protagonists of 1979 were, in their own ways, participants in a great backlash against revolutionary overreach. Deng Xiaoping rejected the excesses of Mao’s Cultural Revolution in favor of pragmatic economic development—a move that, despite Deng’s disclaimers, entailed a gradual restoration of capitalist institutions. Khomeini’s vision of an Islamic state was fueled by his violent repudiation of the shah’s state-led modernization program (known as the “White Revolution”) as well as the Marxist ideas that dominated Iran’s powerful leftist opposition movements. (The shah, indeed, denounced the Shiite clerics as the “black reaction” in contrast to the “red reaction” of the Marxists.) Afghanistan’s Islamic insurgents took up arms against the Moscow-sponsored government in Kabul. John Paul II used Christian faith as the basis for a moral crusade against the godless materialism of the Soviet system. And Margaret Thatcher aimed to roll back the social democratic consensus that had taken hold in Great Britain after World War II.
At the same time, it was easy to underestimate just how much these leaders had actually absorbed from their opponents on the utopian Left. A conservative can be defined as someone who wants to defend or restore the old order; a counterrevolutionary, by contrast, is a conservative who has learned from the revolution. John Paul II, who had spent most of his adult life under the Communist system, knew the Marxist classics intimately and devoted considerable intellectual and pastoral effort to countering their arguments—knowledge that helped him to shape his program of moral and cultural resistance. (It also left him with an intense interest in the politics of the working class that informed his patronage of the Solidarity movement—as well as feeding a deep skepticism about Western-style capitalism.) 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 nationalization and state management later played a large role in the Islamist government’s postrevolutionary economic policy. (One historian describes the resulting synthesis as “revolutionary traditionalism.”) Afghanistan’s jihadists borrowed from the Communist playbook by building revolutionary political parties and comprehensive ideological systems to go with them. Margaret Thatcher, who studied at Oxford when Marxism was the reigning political fashion, fused her conservative instincts with a most unconservative penchant for crusading rhetoric, ideological aggression, and programmatic litmus tests. It was precisely for this reason that many of the Conservative Party comrades-in-arms who accompanied her into government in 1979 questioned just how “conservative” she really was. As for Deng Xiaoping, he insisted on maintaining the institutional supremacy of the Communist Party even as he charted a course away from central planning and toward state capitalism. Cold War historian Odd Arne Westad describes Deng’s reform program as “a counterrevolution in economics and political orientation the likes of which the world had never seen.”
It was entirely in keeping with this spirit that Thatcher proudly reported to a Conservative Party rally in April 1979 that her political opponents had dubbed her a reactionary. “Well,” she declared, “there’s a lot to react against!” It was, indeed, precisely this peculiar spirit of defiance that gave the year its transformative power. The decisions of these leaders decisively defined the world in which we live—one in which communist and socialist thought has faded, markets dominate economic thinking, and politicized religion looms large. Like it or not, we of the twenty-first century still live in the shadow of 1979.