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Jan Myrdal’s speech 2011

About ambivalence and the healthy lack of obedience

For the third time, I have been honoured to speak at the award ceremony for the big prize, the Lenin Award, and for the second time to the smaller prize, the Robespierre Prize. Now with five recipients, it is starting to be possible to see the meaning and direction of the award. I have a lot to say about this. However, my wife, who is usually wise also in this, has told me that I should not be long-winded and in addition, if possible, funny. The former I will try, the latter I will take another time.

For, as many times before, it is now the case that the majority also among the Swedish intellectuals, the cultural workers as we are called, think in troops, and stand in line. Anyone who has been around for a few decades recognizes this. The others can read about it.

Right now, it smells again like Europe 1914. The summer/autumn of 1914 therefore gives us excellent examples of precisely cultural worker behaviour. It’s not that strange. The ruling thoughts are the thoughts of the rulers, and it is we who become pipes through which the wind of power blows. Together, we then often turn into a mighty roaring organ in the public eye. But we are pipes with the peculiarity that we can modulate ourselves. Some do. As in Germany in 1914. Also, a Thomas Mann honked imperially but his brother Heinrich did not. He never received the Nobel Prize either. The Swedish academy never forgave him for “Der Untertan”.

Well, Heinrich Mann was not completely alone in his opposition. He was a democrat, a bourgeois democrat, one might say, and remained so even against Hitler and during World War II. But also in the German Social Democracy, which with phrases about socialism, freedom and homeland followed Kaiser Wilhelm into the imperialist war, there were honest people. For example, Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, Franz Mehring and Clara Zetkin turned directly against their warring party as early as September 10, 1914, and as the only Member of Parliament Karl Liebknecht voted against the war credits on December 2, 1914.

Why remind you of this? Well, for two reasons. Do not forget history; what is happening now has happened before. In addition, remember that it is not just the lonely – the chosen righteous ones – who take a stand.

This time, too, I am pleased with the Board’s choice of award winner. For even though Martin Schibbye and I can be assumed to have agreed when we worked together in Folket i Bild, Maj Wechselmann and I have presented different views on several issues over the years. This is important to keep in mind. These awards are not awards for any correct ideological uniformity.

Mattias Gardell, Roy Andersson and Maj Wechselmann as well as Kajsa Ekis Ekman and Martin Schibbye are deeply different and yet similar. For while the work of these five laureates intellectually and artistically differs in temperament and opinions, they also have something fundamental in common. That which in the words of the board is called disobedience.

Disobedient is a good word, an old and ambiguous one. The Academy’s dictionary provides many examples in almost two columns. Not only of the general as disobedient, defiant, and stubborn but of the other and in the sense of the awards more concrete disobedience: “which does not show obligated obedience to the authorities or legal order.” The law of 1734, Chapter 6 of the Code of Misdeeds, the first paragraph, presented the view of the authorities that still applies in all countries – apart from the, for us personally important, fact that it does not kill in our country right now – when it stipulated:

“Whoever incites and strengthens common men to disobey the King, or the one, who on behalf of the Government bids and commands; lose his life.”

It is not just Strindberg who points out that what “the government bids and commands” is precisely the public lie that one from the direction that can be called ours should reveal. Ask yourself “who gains?”. When – and why – a governing “common opinion” changes words and meaning. This applies to politics, but it also applies to what is called morality.

This is not new. Anyone who wants to understand how the political figures behave and what happens in Sarkozy’s France should read Stendhals’ “Lucien Leuwen”. The love story is interesting, but the political depiction is so disobediently true that the text could not be published until 1894, sixty years after it was written.

The Swedish Academy’s now permanent secretary Peter Englund, who was also at least pink as a piglet as a young man before he started helping the king shake hands, announced that he was upset that the big prize was named the Lenin Award. Had he been less preoccupied with adapting his provincial academic career and engaged more with societal realities outside the Western tradition of government, he would have been able to see for himself that Lenin’s analysis of imperialism and war is still valid.

I do not know if Englund has said anything about Robespierre. But if the Jan Myrdal Society with this naming could contribute to Robespierre’s texts being published in Swedish, then a young reading generation would see with their own eyes that what they had learned about him was a lie. Simply put: his texts provided the floor plan for what became the twentieth-century reformist class compromise; “new deal” or the people’s home. What is now being demolished. It is not the case that academics are inevitably turned into Englunds. There are those who, despite the surroundings of the universities, are able to develop – especially then in the natural sciences – just as there were monks in the medieval monastery who really contributed to an intellectual liberation, but in principle I think – like Strindberg in Sweden and Mao Zedong in China – that the academic tradition causes atrophy. You think – paint, sculpt, cut woodcuts – worse when, for the sake of study grants and academic success, you are forced to adapt to what is prescribed from above and its supervisors.

Why say this? Well, what distinguishes our, the ambivalently positioning intellectual and artistic tradition from the academic preservation of society tradition is partly that we go to the sources, the texts, the images; thus, see for ourselves and then act accordingly and partly that we have realized that it is from below that we get the great view of the events of society. Incidentally, the latter is what Lenin said to Gorki if any Englund in the audience wonders.

My wife will argue that I should have been funnier. But the time is not really such that I feel like bursting into laughter. On the other hand, it is a personal as well as intellectual and political pleasure for me that Maj Wechselmann is given this year’s Lenin Award and Martin Schibbye this year’s Robespierre Prize!