Afghanistan’s Communist Revolutionaries, 1978

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2221-2259:

Taraki and Amin both belonged to the PDPA’s other faction, known as Khalq (“the People” or “the Masses”). Khalq’s ethnic basis was narrower than Parcham’s: Khalqis were overwhelmingly Pashtuns, and more often than not they hailed from a particular subset of the Pashtuns. Taraki and Amin were both members of a particular Pashtun tribal confederation, the Ghilzais, that had long chafed under the domination of more powerful Pashtun groups—and especially the Durranis, the dynasty that had dominated Afghanistan for centuries, right up until the Communist coup. (Both Daoud and Zahir Shah were Durranis.) The Khalqis tended to be far less vested in the existing system of ruling elites, and this helps to explain the radicalism that dominated their thinking.

Khalqis were, above all, dutiful Leninists. Like so many other would-be Third World modernizers, they detested their country’s backwardness, and they believed that the only reasonable cure was to frog-march it into the twentieth century by brute force, if need be. To be sure, Afghanistan didn’t really have a proletariat, and though many aspects of its agricultural system appeared backward and traditional, most peasants actually owned their own land. But no matter. There was one institution that could still serve as a revolutionary vanguard, and that was the army. For years the military had been one of the few structures in the country—along with the monarchy and a steadily expanding state educational system—that managed to coalesce the notoriously unruly Afghans around a sense of shared national destiny. The military was one Afghan institution that offered opportunities for advancement even to those who weren’t part of the traditional elites. And the upper ranks were filled with officers who had studied in the Soviet Union, which offered them a clear example of a primitive rural society that the Communists had mobilized into a modern industrial power.

The ideological differences between Parcham and Khalq were just part of the problem. There were also intense personal feuds at work. Karmal, the Persian-speaking patrician, despised Taraki and Amin as upstarts, and they were happy to return the favor. In the old, prerevolutionary parliament, Amin had been famous for his easy joshing with his opponents among the religious conservatives, who gave their atheist colleague the joking nickname of “Satan.” Karmal, a formidable orator once imprisoned for five years by the king, had emerged to become a political heavyweight courted even by Daoud himself, and he cultivated a self-regard that alienated just about everyone. As the new Communist regime got under way, Amin couldn’t help reminding the Parchamis that they had spent the “revolution” cringing in prison while the Khalqis got on with the job. The Parchamis, in turn, regarded the Khalqis as bumbling zealots who needed a bit of adult supervision.

The Afghan public at large knew little of this, of course. What they saw instead were slogans, revolutionary parades, and a burgeoning personality cult centered on Taraki. There is little doubt that the vast majority of Afghans—most of whom had no access to television or newspapers—regarded all this with bemusement, apprehension, or apathy. But the state almost immediately denied them the luxury of disengagement. Within weeks of seizing power, the new revolutionary government announced a series of far-reaching edicts that would tip Afghan society into a maelstrom from which it is still struggling to recover.

Decree Number One proclaimed land reform. The proclaimed intent was to uproot the supposedly feudal underpinnings of Afghan society, stripping power from traditional landlords and canceling unfair lending arrangements that had kept millions of people indentured to local power brokers. The political aim was to give the majority of Afghans—who overwhelmingly lived in the countryside—a reason to love the new government. A flurry of other new reform measures followed. A literacy campaign taught the benighted how to read and write. Women received full civic rights. It was a program that bore a striking resemblance to the shah’s White Revolution [in Iran].

It all sounded wonderful, on paper. The problem was that this blizzard of reforms, and especially the realities of their implementation, bore little or no relation to the society they were intended to change. Of course, everyone believed in the goal of literacy, but the catch was that the government had little in the way of resources to accomplish the task of educating the rural poor. So it relied, as Communist regimes so often had in the past, on a mixture of mobilization and brute force to fill the gap. Zealous young schoolteachers dispatched to the villages, invariably without proper textbooks or teaching materials, often ended up haranguing the locals on their backwardness. What particularly inflamed the locals was the newcomers’ insistence that women should take part in the courses, in classrooms that mingled both sexes. Mobs drove the arrogant outsiders away. In some cases the do-gooders then returned with escorts of government troops, and literacy classes then proceeded at bayonet point.

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Afghanistan in the 1970s

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 997-1035:

Afghanistan in the 1970s thus offered a textbook example of what the economists like to call a “rentier state”—one that lives by exploiting the advantages of good fortune (natural resources or favorable strategic position) rather than capitalizing on the talents and skills of its people. There were deep-seated historical reasons for this. Afghan rulers had long governed according to a somewhat minimalist philosophy, dictated, to some extent, by the country’s bewildering ethnic diversity and its fantastically rugged terrain. Roads were few and far between. The high mountains and deep valleys fragmented the population, exacerbating differences of language and custom. When the Soviets finally completed the Salang Tunnel in 1964, the world’s highest traffic tunnel at the time, they supplied the missing link to a road that connected the northern and southern halves of the country for the first time in its history. The Americans, meanwhile, had already built the first east-west highway, from Kabul to Kandahar. This new infrastructure transformed Afghanistan’s economy and dramatically simplified the government’s ability to communicate with the interior.

Even so, the average Afghan’s dealings with Kabul remained shallow and infrequent. The primary function of the local administration was less to provide people with public services, few of which were available in the countryside to begin with, than to prevent them from organizing opposition. Most people correspondingly regarded officials as a remote and somewhat unnecessary presence, better avoided than engaged. American anthropologist Thomas Barfield, who conducted field research in Afghanistan in the mid-1970s, noted that, for most Afghans in the countryside, “government” meant not a concept but a place, namely, the local government compound. “On passing out its front gate, and particularly after leaving the road that led to it, ‘government’ ended,” he wrote. (And this, in turn, helps to explain why literacy rates in the country were so shockingly low. In the 1970s, only 10 percent of the population could read or write—and only 2 percent of women.)

The real power in most communities came from traditional leaders, usually tribal notables or landowners. The local khan might provide jobs, adjudicate disputes, or allocate resources (especially water, that scarce but vital commodity for this overwhelmingly rural population), and his authority rippled through the intricate networks of kinship that structured most of society. The leader’s followers judged his legitimacy in part according to his success at distributing wealth. In the old days, that might have meant the booty from battle, but in the 1960s and 1970s, this often translated into access to a cushy government job or a place in the university in Kabul. Afghanistan is often described rather loosely as a “tribal society,” but the reality is more complex, given the fantastic ethnic and social diversity of the place. The word Afghans use for the defining characteristic of their society is qawm, which can refer not only to networks of blood relationships but also to linguistic, religious, and geographical traits that shape the group to which an individual belongs. A Turkic-speaking Uzbek might define himself above all by the dialect that he speaks, a Persian-speaking Tajik by the district that he hails from, a Pashtun by his tribal affiliation.

If anything could be said to unite them all, it is religion. Virtually all Afghans are Muslims, most of them Sunnis. (The most prominent exception are the Hazaras, an ethnic group, descended from the Mongols, who happen to be Shiites.) Even in the 1960s and ’70s, observers often remarked upon the simple piety of the people in Afghanistan. All activity stopped whenever the call to prayer sounded from the local mosque. References to God and the Prophet punctuated everyday speech. Public figures were expected to invoke the supremacy of the Almighty at every turn.

Yet this did not mean that religion and politics seamlessly overlapped. Throughout their history, Afghans had known rule by kings, not religious leaders. Village mullahs, who performed a variety of religious services in exchange for fees, were often regarded as corrupt or buffoonish, the butt of jokes rather than figures of respect. There were, of course, some religious figures who enjoyed privileged status—Islamic scholars, perhaps, or pirs, Sufi spiritual leaders. But none of these individuals had any clearly defined institutional power over the others. The diffuse quality of Afghan Islam was also a product of practices that many other Sunni Muslims would have regarded as heterodox—such as the veneration of saints, whose graves, beflagged and decorated, were treated as holy places. In Iran, the Shiite religious elite presided over a clearly defined hierarchy, which greatly increased the power of the clerics. In Afghanistan, there were no central religious institutions to speak of. Islam was flat, localized, and fragmented.

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Britain on the Eve of Thatcher, 1970s

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 360-398:

The postwar consensus endured because it worked—at least for the first few decades. The British economy grew steadily through the 1950s and 1960s, widely spreading the benefits of expanding national wealth. But by the 1970s, the bloom was off. Rising global competition had revealed the structural rigidities of Britain’s social-democratic system. The oil shock hit at a moment when traditional British manufacturing industries were already affected by painful decline. Once-proud working-class cities had turned into landscapes of blight, factory ruins defaced with graffiti. In the 1970s, the British economy tottered from one crisis to another. In 1974, in the wake of the Arab oil embargo, Conservative prime minister Edward Heath was forced to introduce electricity rationing and a three-day workweek. Unemployment surged and productivity sagged. British business seemed to have lost its way. Entrepreneurs fled punishing tax rates for more hospitable climes. Strikes punctuated the national news with benumbing regularity; the trade unions repeatedly demonstrated their enormous political power, contributing mightily to the fall of Heath’s government in 1974.

These were the problems that confronted James Callaghan as he assumed the office of prime minister two years later. His Labour Party had won the 1974 election under the leadership of Harold Wilson, who returned to Number Ten Downing Street after an earlier stint as prime minister. But Labour’s margin of victory in the election was narrow, and the best that Wilson could do was to form a minority government with his party in the lead. His administration soon foundered as it struggled to deal with the aftereffects of the energy crisis and the intensifying demands from the unions, his party’s most powerful constituency. By the time Callaghan stepped in to take the beleaguered Wilson’s place, inflation had reached a staggering 25 percent. Outside investors lost confidence that the British government would ever regain control over its finances, and the pound became so anemic that London found itself facing a full-blown balance-of-payments crisis. Put simply, the British state had run out of the foreign exchange it needed to pay for imports. Bills were coming due that the United Kingdom was not in a position to pay.

To his credit, Callaghan did not soft-pedal the causes. He inherited stewardship of the economy at a moment when the old sureties were crumbling. His chancellor of the Exchequer, Denis Healey, declared that Britain couldn’t go on spending its way out of crises. Callaghan’s son-in-law, an influential journalist by the name of Peter Jay, had even become a convert to the economic school known as “monetarism,” which deemed strict control of the money supply to be the only remedy for inflation. This flew in the face of the Keynesian principles of Britain’s postwar consensus, which placed a premium on combating unemployment through government spending. The speech that Callaghan gave at the 1976 Labour Party conference, authored by Jay, turned into something of a elegy for Britain’s postwar economic system:

For too long this country—all of us, yes this conference too—has been ready to settle for borrowing money abroad to maintain our standards of life, instead of grappling with the fundamental problems of British industry. . . . [T]he cozy world we were told would go on forever, where full employment would be guaranteed . . . that cozy world is now gone. . . . We used to think we could spend our way out of a recession and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting government spending. I tell you in all candor that that option no longer exists, and that insofar as it ever did exist, it only worked on each occasion since the war by injecting a bigger dose of inflation into the economy followed by a higher level of unemployment as the next step.

Finally, in November 1976, the United Kingdom was forced to ask the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a $3.9 billion loan to tide it over through the crisis. The conditions included brutal spending cuts and across-the-board austerity measures. Back in 1945, the United Kingdom had been America’s partner in creating the international economic system that had brought the IMF to life. Now London was calling on the fund for help in an existential crisis. It was the first time that one of the world’s developed countries had ever asked for IMF support. (Nothing comparable would happen again until 2008, when Iceland was forced to follow suit during the global financial crisis.)

This was a humiliation of epochal proportions. A country that had been at the heart of the Western economic and political system found itself reduced to the status of a banana republic. Callaghan diagnosed the problems but was unable to come up with a remedy. Something always seemed to get in the way: the resistance of the unions, the global economic climate, the accustomed way of doing things. The old ideas no longer worked—that much was clear. But where were the new ones? Britain was waiting for something to give.

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Poland’s Greatest Saints, 1079 & 1979

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 1902-1919:

John Paul II had begun to think about making a pilgrimage to Poland within days of becoming pope. The coming year of 1979 offered a perfect occasion for a visit. It was the nine hundredth anniversary of the martyrdom of Poland’s greatest saint, Stanisław Szczepanowski. He was the Polish equivalent of Thomas à Becket, a man who stood up to the highest power in the land in the name of his faith. In 1072 Szczepanowski became the bishop of the city of Kraków. What we know of him is blurred by legend, but it is clear that he must have been a man of strong will and stubborn principles. He soon became embroiled in a feud with the king of Poland, a brutal character by the name of Bolesław the Bold. (As is so often the case in history, the nickname “bold” was really a euphemism for “psychopathic.”) Bolesław refused to put up with the churchman’s challenge to his authority, and he demanded the death of Stanisław. But no one would carry out the order, so Bolesław did the deed himself. He is said to have cut the bishop down while he was conducting a mass. Few of the king’s deeply Catholic subjects were willing to countenance the killing, and Bolesław soon lost his hold on power. Stanisław, on the other hand, quickly achieved sainthood as one of Poland’s greatest martyrs.

Though many of the details of Stanisław’s death remain mysterious, one thing we do know for certain is that it happened in 1079. A thousand years might seem like a long time to most of us, but the particulars of the story—the principled stand of a bishop of Kraków laying bare the moral bankruptcy of untrammeled state power—gave it unnerving relevance to Poland’s situation in 1979. The Communists certainly thought so, in any case.

So the announcement that John Paul II intended to return to Poland to celebrate the nine hundredth anniversary of Stanisław’s martyrdom sent a shiver of dread through the ranks of the United Polish Workers’ Party. “The cause of the bishop’s death was a conflict with the king,” one internal party memorandum noted in late 1978. “We see no sense in invoking the memory of the bishop’s head and the royal sword, because they symbolize the sharpness of church clashes with the government. We are for cooperation and create favorable conditions for this.”

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Democracy Wall as Proto-Internet, 1978

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2721-2761:

Most of these malcontents were incapable of articulating their demands. But someone was prepared to do it for them. In September 1978, the editors of a magazine called China Youth, which had been prohibited from publishing during the Cultural Revolution, decided to relaunch it. They decided to mark its return in style by publishing some poems commemorating the Tiananmen Incident of 1976. Party censors intervened and thwarted the editors from going ahead with their plans. The frustrated literati refused to give up, so they resorted to a time-honored technique of Chinese mass communication: the dazibao, or “big-character poster.” They decided to print the poems in poster form and paste them up in a public place. They needed a venue where a big audience was ensured, so they opted for a spot that other unrecognized writers had been using for a few months. This was a long stretch of brick wall under a row of leafless sycamore trees next to a bus depot in Xidan, a spot in downtown Beijing, just a few blocks from the Jingxi Hotel, that tens of thousands of commuters passed through every day.

China Youth’s decision to use the site dramatically boosted its notoriety. Crowds of readers quickly formed. To everyone’s surprise, the authorities declined to interfere. Posters proliferated. Soon people were coming from all over China to take a look. Crowds gathered, eager to experience the heady atmosphere of a place where a myriad of views competed for attention.

This was Xidan Democracy Wall. Young Chinese described it as their version of Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park. For a few weeks in the winter of 1978–1979, it would become a key strategic asset in the battle for China’s soul.

At some point in late November, a poster appeared on the wall criticizing Mao by name. No one could recall such a thing ever happening before. The author of the poster, who called himself Work Permit Number 0538 (and gave the address of the motor repair shop where he worked), wrote: “In 1976 after the Tiananmen Incident, the Gang of Four made use of the prestige and power of Chairman Mao’s mistaken judgment on class struggle and launched an all-out attack on the cause of revolution in China.” During the Cultural Revolution, one man had been sentenced to fifteen years in a labor camp for absentmindedly scratching his back with a copy of the Little Red Book during a mass meeting. Now everyone waited to see what would happen to the author of this shocking text. Would he be shot? Surely, at least, the poster itself would be torn down. But two days later it was still there.

The posters that followed pushed the boundaries even further. One wondered how the all-knowing Mao had failed to notice that his own wife, Jiang Qing, was actually a “traitor.” Another called on the party leadership to observe the rule of law. Another demanded the rehabilitation of party leaders who had been purged by Mao in the early 1960s. Not all of the provocations were political. “Why can’t the national economy catch up with the one in Taiwan?” one poster asked. “How can the United States, a capitalist country only 200 years old, be the most developed in the world?”

By now the wall was besieged by visitors, day and night. People read, expostulated, and listened “with an openness unprecedented in the history of the People’s Republic.” Some visitors spoke their messages through bullhorns. The foreign correspondents and diplomats who came to see what was going on found themselves besieged by curious locals. During the years of the Cultural Revolution, ordinary Chinese had done whatever they could to avoid even the most cursory contact with citizens of other countries. Now, liberated by the air of candor around the wall, they peppered the foreigners with questions. Roger Garside, a Chinese-speaking British diplomat who wrote one of the most vivid accounts of the early reform period in China, recalled the scene:

They bombarded me with questions on democracy and human rights: “Can you really criticize your Prime Minister? Who owns the newspapers in Britain? How do they decide their editorial policy? How is the BBC controlled? How are elections organized?”

Some were by no means ignorant but wanted to check out the information they had acquired one way or another; others were simply thirsty for knowledge.

In Garside’s description, Democracy Wall functioned like a sort of proto-Internet: posters with derivative content were quickly papered over, while those that had something new or powerful to say were left uncovered. Readers wrote comments on some of the posters with ballpoint pens; when a popular one was torn by accident, visitors quickly glued it back together. Some of the texts were written on scraps of paper torn from notebooks, while others were composed on sheets of paper three feet high with brush and ink. Some authors used paper in pink or green to attract attention.

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Hua Guofeng and the Two Whatevers, 1977

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2594-2619:

In the wake of Mao’s death, the colorless Hua surprised everyone with a sudden show of initiative. Allying himself with two established party elders, Army Marshal Ye Jianying and veteran functionary Li Xiannian, Hua engineered the arrest of the Gang of Four. It was a startling gambit even by the Byzantine standards of twentieth-century Communist conspiracies. Hua had started by splitting off one of the Gang’s key allies, a man by the name of Wang Dongxing, who had risen with the Gang’s help to become the head of the party’s Praetorian Guard, the 8341 Special Regiment, which provided for the security of top officials. Hua and Wang arranged for two of the Gang’s leaders to be called to a special session of the Politburo. They were arrested at gunpoint as they stepped into the room. Jiang Qing, Mao’s widow and the Gang’s leader, was taken into custody in her bedroom; one of her personal servants is said to have spat on her as she was led away. Under orders from Hua, the People’s Liberation Army quickly moved to disarm the heavily armed militias and the powerful media machine that Jiang’s faction had built up over the years. The Cultural Revolution was finally coming to an end.

Yet what was Hua offering in its place? This was not immediately clear. Hua certainly understood that the country could no longer afford permanent revolution. Adopting a strategy originally envisioned by Zhou Enlai, he declared that China should push ahead with “the Four Modernizations” (science and technology, industry, national defense, and agriculture). He moved to restore the economy’s animal spirits by ordering a huge surge of investment in industry and agriculture. Like Gierek in Poland, Hua seemed to believe that part of the solution involved taking big foreign loans for flagship projects; also like Gierek, he seemed to have few concrete ideas about how these loans would be paid back.

Hua’s program did result in tangible growth. But it also led to big budget deficits and scandalous waste, since it failed to tackle many of the serious problems of management and organization bequeathed by Maoist excess. Hua had the right idea, but he was still, in essence, relying on mobilization and slogans rather than substantive economic policy. Some of his critics belittled the program as another Great Leap Forward, a utopian exercise with little practical foundation. Hua, for example, urged a rapid increase in the output of steel, which duly materialized. But to what end? What, precisely, was the underlying economic strategy?

Hua had eliminated the Gang of Four. He tried to revive the economy. But he seemed hesitant to put an end to the broader legacy of the Cultural Revolution. In February 1977, a few months after Mao’s death, Hua’s supporters published a statement containing a conspicuous quote: “We will resolutely uphold whatever policy and decisions Chairman Mao made, and unswervingly follow whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave.” This credo came to be known as the “the two whatevers,” and its adherents, “the Whateverists.” Like many factional nicknames, this one contained a large grain of truth. Hua’s legitimacy stemmed from the fact that he was Mao’s chosen successor. That counted for a lot. But it also limited his freedom of maneuver. He could not chip away at the memory of the Great Helmsman without undermining himself.

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Quoting Mao Against Mao, 1978

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2656-2682:

In May 1978, the prominent national newspaper Guangming Daily published an article with the innocuous title “Practice Is the Sole Criterion for Judging Truth.” The piece was quickly picked up by a series of other publications, including the leading army newspaper. The title sounds dull enough, but it went off like a bomb. The article, collectively authored by a team of academics working under the direction of rising party reformer Hu Yaobang, argued that Communist ideology was not the only yardstick for determining what was true. If Marxism was indeed a scientific theory, as it claimed to be, its findings ought to be tested through experiment: apply them to reality and see if they worked. Marx had said that the social and political prescriptions derived from his theory had to be subjected to constant empirical testing to make sure that they coincided with the dictates of historical materialism. And just to be sure that everyone got the point, the authors of the article undergirded their argument with a slogan from Mao himself—the one they used as the article’s title.

They were, in short, using Mao’s own words to undermine the central Maoist postulate of the Cultural Revolution, namely, the idea that the imperative of “revolution” overrode all else, including professional expertise, scientific knowledge, or economic efficiency. To many Chinese, the article’s paean to pragmatism sounded like a healthy dose of common sense after years of hysteria. Yet this was exactly what the Whateverists did not want to allow. After all, during the Cultural Revolution, Mao and his adepts had followed a rather different principle: for them it was revolutionary zeal, directed against the entrenched establishment, that had become the decisive litmus test for the correctness of policy. It was this same mind-set that had led to the persecution of countless engineers, managers, scholars, and scientists on the grounds of insufficient “class consciousness”—with devastating consequences for the Chinese economy.

Prioritizing “practice,” as the authors of the new article demanded, thus represented an implicit challenge to those who considered themselves to be the keepers of the chairman’s flame. If this new argument won the day, unwavering loyalty to Maoist slogans would no longer be the deciding factor in career advancement or political struggle. Professional skill, managerial competence, or scholarly acumen would come to the forefront. Deng, who does not appear to have been directly involved in the publication of that article, was quick to see its uses in his reckoning with Hua. Since his return to the center of party life, Deng had already been putting a different Mao quote at the center of his speeches: “Seek truth from facts.” This, of course, was a dig at Hua and his adherents, who continued to stress that truth was whatever Mao had said it was. Among the things that Deng had learned from his long years of involvement in party intrigues was the importance of defining the terms of debate. He now set out to deploy his “good,” pragmatic Mao against the “bad,” doctrinaire one of the Cultural Revolutionaries. Would the party cling to the Mao celebrated by the Gang of Four, inflexible, rigid, and dogmatic? Or would Chinese Communists reach back to the earlier version of Mao that was now held up high by Deng and his friends—a Mao who had (allegedly) celebrated the virtues of practicality and sober realism?

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