Tyee Books

Four Who Changed the System from Within

'Strange Rebels' club of 1979: Deng Xiaoping, Ayatollah Khomeini, Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher.

By Crawford Kilian 6 Jan 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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Deng Xiaoping survived trouble with Mao and Communist party's left wing.

For most of us living in 1979, it didn't seem like the birth of the 21st century at all; it was one damned thing after another, like any other year: trying to make a living, pay our bills and bring up our kids. Even now, with the benefit of hindsight and this book, I'm not persuaded that the events and leaders of 1979 set our course for the next 100 years.

Still, Christian Caryl makes a persuasive case that Leonard Cohen was wrong. They may sentence you to 20 years of boredom for trying to change the system from within, but his four leaders put up with boredom and worse -- and changed their systems out of all recognition.

Each of the four was an outsider within his or her system. Deng Xiaoping's career as a loyal Communist went back before the Long March, but he was repeatedly in trouble with Mao and the party's left wing. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was an intellectual cleric in the determinedly secular Iran of Shah Reza Pahlavi -- too political for his fellow-clerics and far too political for the Shah, who exiled him.

Another intellectual, Archbishop Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, was in endless political trouble with the Polish government long before he became Pope John Paul II. Margaret Thatcher, the daughter of a Methodist grocer, was on the fringe of the Conservative opposition to a seemingly invincible Labour government. She was also a woman in a party ruled by an old-boy network.

Yet each of these fractious outsiders found a way overturn a seemingly permanent status quo, and to impose his or her own vision on the world.

Welcome to the new order of things

For each of them, 1979 was a decisive year, if not of taking power then of consolidating their position and creating what Machiavelli famously called difficult, doubtful and dangerous: a new order of things.

Caryl does a good job of keeping the strands of his narratives distinct and easy to follow. He must go into each leader's back story, and readers of modern history will find themselves often in familiar territory -- especially, perhaps, with Thatcher and Deng. But he offers surprises as well: I hadn't realized that Wojtyla lost both parents in the Second World War, or that the church rapidly recognized his intellectual gifts and talent for languages (as did the Polish security bureau). And he is extremely good at portraying the uncertainty of the Iranian revolution, when countless factions were contending for power in the streets of Tehran.

Caryl uses his histories to prepare us for a contentious thesis: three of the four leaders represented a revolt against the secular state. Only Deng could be said to have restored secularism to a state half-ruined by the radical idealism of the Mao cult.

John Paul II was not an opponent of communism simply on religious grounds; he also had a PhD in philosophy, and published a book on the value of the individual's integrity. Hence his opposition to a collectivist state. From the little that Caryl tells us about the pope's philosophy, it seems regrettable that his celebrity status has obscured his status as a thinker.

Stealing the communist narrative

Khomeini was a thinker also, but his philosophy saw Islam as intrinsically theocratic; when religion teaches believers exactly how to live, those who rule should be those most versed in that religion, and the faithful should submit to their guidance. Like John Paul II, Khomeini studied the communists very carefully, and brilliantly stole their narrative: Islam, he argued, was far more progressive than left-wing secularism -- or the kind that the Pahlavi dynasty had espoused for decades.

Both religious leaders were far from hidebound. John Paul II adroitly applied a kind of nonviolent resistance that left the communists with much to disapprove of but nothing to punish for. Khomeini first opposed votes for women; but when he saw how strongly Iranian women supported him, like any smart politician he welcomed them.

Margaret Thatcher, Caryl argues, based her political and economic views not on ideology but on moral and religious values like individual responsibility. The economics of Hayek and Friedman were a means to the end of encouraging such values. She too could be flexible: she might break the coal miners' union, but she left the National Health Service intact.

These three figures clearly have much in common. But what about Deng Xiaoping? He too was flexible, and survived by following Mao's whims for decades. But he was far from religious, and clearly did not appeal to the Chinese people's better angels. If John Paul II, Khomeini and Thatcher sensed a spiritual hunger in their peoples, Deng sensed the material hunger in his.

A political Jackson Pollock

Mao had become a kind of political Jackson Pollock, splattering human lives across a vast canvas for the sake of some abstract vision. By the late 1970s, a billion people wanted nothing but peace, quiet and a chance to get on with their lives. Deng provided it, while maintaining rigid government control.

Here Deng seems less of an innovator than the other three: he got out of the country, studied other economies and saw how Singapore's authoritarian government, in particular, could spur enormous growth. Caryl argues persuasively that Deng also understood how Japan had modernized in the Meiji Restoration. Hence the baby steps like the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, in 1979 a farming backwater next door to Hong Kong that is now home and workplace to over 10 million people. (I remember it in late 1983 as the high-rises were going up, wrapped in bamboo scaffolding.)

He may have been imitative, but Deng outdid his teachers. No one else has ever raised so many out of poverty, or turned their country into a world power in half a lifetime. Deng Xiaoping kicked down the so-called Bamboo Curtain and made China the top trading partner of countries from Australia to India to Brazil.

Deng seriously weakens Caryl's thesis that political leaders need to exercise spiritual leadership as well. Granted, even in 1983 I saw my Chinese students flirting with Christianity as an exotic and radical idea from overseas. But Deng and his successors have clamped down hard on Tibetan Buddhists and the Falun Gong sect, while maintaining careful control of more familiar religious groups. As well, a recent IPSOS survey found that 71 per cent of Chinese measure success by what they own, compared to 20 per cent of Canadians. Deng Xiaoping knew his people.

Toward the end of the book, Caryl reveals his affection for Margaret Thatcher and her mentors like Antony Fisher, who founded Vancouver's own Fraser Institute in 1974 along with scores of other such "think-tanks." He also points out the influence his strange rebels had around the world: Thatcher inspired Ronald Reagan and India's Manmohan Singh, not to mention any number of Canadian enthusiasts like Stephen Harper.

As well, Ayatollah Khomeini's example triggered a powerful revolt against the secular-left rulers of 1970s Afghanistan. The anxious Soviets were dragged into a doomed war to protect their clients, while the U.S. funded the zealots who would become the Taliban and al-Qaida. Similar Islamist movements, many supported by Iran, are now the nightmares of the House of Saud and the U.S. National Security Agency.

Subverting the subversives

But nothing breeds complacency like success, and the subversives like Thatcher and John Paul II prepared the ground for their eventual successors.

Tony Blair's "New Labour" (really the Kinder, Gentler Thatcherite Sect) had to work within the terms set by the Iron Lady, and so have the austerity-crazed Conservatives under David Cameron. But Thatcher's legacy is a widening income gap and a level of social alienation that Disraeli and Marx would recognize on sight. Some malcontent in Labour or the Conservatives will eventually stage a coup that changes the terms again. (And how has "morning in America" worked out since Reagan doddered offstage?)

John Paul II took the measure of the Polish communists, but his own conservatism limited Catholicism's post-Cold War success; it also postponed the needed purge of church-protected sexual abusers. Now, after the Benedictine interregnum, Pope Francis I looks encouragingly subversive.

Deng Xiaoping made China safe for billionaires, but the billion ordinary Chinese who create the wealth are choking in the smog of Deng's prosperity and awaiting the next subversive in the party to clear the air. And while Khomeini transformed Iran and Islam itself, he led both into a blind alley. The new president, Hassan Rouhani, could lead them out of it.

The moral I draw: Don't hope for salvation from some pure and noble outsider. Look for the Canadian Tory backbencher who keeps his own counsel, not for Justin Trudeau or Tom Mulcair. Look for the U.S. Democrat who actually believes in the America that Barack Obama talked about. Look for some competent Russian and Chinese apparatchiks who will see the current gangsters to the door.

And hope they turn up soon.  [Tyee]

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