It is an honour to speak to Sven Lindqvist and Jenny Wrangborg today. More than an honour, a joy, I have read them. That should be said. That said, I want to bring up something general and essential. Now that these awards are given out for the fourth time, with the names of the laureates, a clearly visible contemporary Swedish social cultural profile is beginning to emerge for the first time in a long time:
Mattias Gardell, Roy Andersson, Kajsa Ekis Ekman, Maj Wechselmann, Martin Schibbye, Sven Lindqvist, Jenny Wrangborg.
That cultural profile takes the form of an unfolded hand fan. Not narrow, not ideologically pure or possible to put a common label on. However, just like an unfolded hand fan with clearly marked boundaries.
That I myself see the specifics of this in the present at once broad and defining Swedish cultural profile does not mean that what I see is thus general and valid for others. To what extent it is will eventually be seen. However, I now wish to present my view.
A radical and positional ambivalence, I say, to use the big words first. Dialectical insight, according to Hegel. With him realize both that it is as impossible to take the leap from one’s time as to run from one’s shadow and that we as humans create ourselves and that it thus becomes possible for us to turn life on its head, on reason; revolution it is called.
Take the name of one of today’s awards: the Robespierre Prize. There is more than two centuries of dirt and prejudice on the name, but those who go to the sources can read Maximilien de Robespierre’s democratic declaration of rights from 1793 for themselves.
With its section 10, he abolished the absolute right of ownership in the 1789 Declaration. The right that is still neoliberally used today to preserve exploitation and monopoly oppression. He wrote:
“Society has a duty to provide for the subsistence of all its members, either by providing them with work or by guaranteeing the livelihoods of those who are unable to work.”
Sick, incapacitated, old and orphaned children would be cared for by society and society would provide both elementary and higher education. The costs of all this would be paid proportionally according to wealth by the citizens of society. Slavery would be abolished and the right to vote would be universal.
This is how Robespierre formulated the basic principles that in Europe after the Second World War became the core of the reformist aspirations for a social welfare state.
Of course, the politicians and ideologues in our countries who worked for this project in the profession did not recognize the legacy of Robespierre. They had probably never read him. Now they also make a living by neoliberally dismantling what in our country was just recently called the People’s Home.
But for those who are able to see ambivalently, with depth, ambiguously, the Maximilien de Robespierre of the bourgeois left appears for better or worse behind the reforms that our people fought for during the twentieth century.
Fought for, were the important words. The defining of the last five thousand years or so of class society is not the action at the top of the social pyramid (which has been praised in official epics and poetry and history writing), but how the course of events is carried on at the base. Both this year’s laureates have in their work concretely shown that it is from below – as Lenin wrote to Gorki – that the great overview becomes possible.
I was in India in February and March to launch the editions of my new book: Red Star over India. It is part of the duality of the Indian state that I obtained a visa for this. Although one limited to one month in time and that I was under proper police surveillance. But in the Dandakaranya jungle, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Ludhiana, Delhi, it was one question my hosts, the naxalite leaders in the jungle, political rights activists, radical students, Indian left from old ghadar party members to Maoists wanted an answer to:
– How do the working class, the working people and those who call themselves left in the western countries react to the ongoing colonial and imperialist wars?
The question was very difficult for me. Peace work and solidarity work in our countries exist. Self-sacrificing and sometimes almost successful. However, behind that, the serious and heavy questions open up; of which a decisive one was asked at the beginning of our era of imperialist wars:
It was in August 1914 that the then European popular future collapsed. Unanimously, the strongest world organization history had seen so far – the Workers’ International – at its extraordinary meeting in Basel 24-25 November 1912 had analysed in detail the coming war and the representatives of parties and trade unions around the world had unanimously adopted the resolution on how to act in the event of a war to make war impossible and crush the capitalist system that gave rise to it.
When the according to the theories clearly foreseen war two years later became real, those elected leaders of this International did not do as they promised in Basel but voted for the war and led their voters and members out into the death of the trenches, the mass death. There were very few exceptions that fall – Lenin was one of them.
But why this mass-deadly and total moral collapse? On March 3, 1915, Lenin (reprinted in Gegen den Strom 1918) pointed out that the official revolutionaries in the German parliament voted for the war so that 11,000 German Social Democrat officials would not lose their livelihood and the party risk the 20,000,000 marks it had in its newspapers.
The dead died for institutional reasons; they were killed. What they had built up for their defence became the instrument of their death.
This is how it has worked in our time too, during this time of the new wars. The instrument Lenin himself sought to shape overturned and led to degradation and collapse of a state which, however, was able to withstand the Hitler troops. Our own labour movement wielders, in Sweden as well as the Nordic countries as in Europe, have in recent years also not been able to keep away when new imperialist wars have begun, they put their people in line and send soldiers. The left in our countries is like German social democracy during the First World War. Now it is also not even member-financed but state-financed.
E pur si muove. However, she moves. In our lifetime, we experience how the imperial wars continue, but at the same time colonialism collapses and large popular counter-movements force the empires, which are increasingly wildly clawing during the recession, to retreat.
However, behind that a more awful truth, one that Sven Lindqvist has worked with. Our societies are based on mass murder.
In India, I took two examples. The first example, one – especially on the so-called left wing – does not want to admit; the second is not known. I will now mention them briefly. From the internationally monitored Saar poll on 13 January 1935, it became clear that the German people actually supported Hitler. 97.9 percent of those eligible to vote voted. Of these, 90.36 percent voted for Hitler; for immediate accession to the Third Reich. Not out of ignorance of the crimes of Hitler fascism, they were obvious even then, and not for ideologically / psychologically strange reasons such as nationalism and anti-Semitism but for simple material reasons. “First comes the grub, then morals.”
Look at German unemployment statistics 1933 to 1938! The rearmament of a new war gave the people bread. But more than that! When the Hitler troops ruled over most of Continental Europe, the people of the conquered countries were pushed deeper and deeper into poverty to keep the standard of living up for the master people. In addition, the German soldiers not only murdered and looted on orders, but they also stole on their own behalf. Bertolt Brecht described this in “Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife”. Yes, after all the goodies from France and Denmark, it was from Russia that she received the widow’s veil. Or as the verse reads in Jan Hammarlund’s version:
“Tell me what the soldier’s wife got
from the wintry Stalingrad
from Russia she received a widow’s veil,
a funeral veil and a widow’s veil.
That’s what she got from Stalingrad”
But that did not make the widows aware! And what about the comrades of the dead? The ordinary German trooper in the east had himself taken part in the great genocide crimes, dipped his hands in blood, had become an accomplice. Out of cowardice for the possible consequences, he supported Hitler. In addition, there was strong German propaganda about secret weapons and the extremely well-organized Nazi people’s aid for the victims of the air war (read Klemperer’s diary).
As far as I understand, Hitler had won the general secret ballot in Germany in the New Year 1945. Something we did not say then for tactical reasons. Now that Germany is once again dominating the continent, the lips are even more tightly sealed about that truth.
What we call our Western culture rests on genocide. I, too, have written about it before, here I will only bring up one question: the mass murder of the indigenous people of North America. Now, I’m not talking about twenty million dead in Mexico, I’m talking about the massacre of “Indians” in what became the United States.
The genocide took its legal form when President Andrew Jackson signed The Indian Removal Act on May 28, 1830. It concerned the land. The “Indians” had then started modern agriculture. The slave-owning states wanted the land of the “Indians” as their own cotton cultivation sucked out the soil until they in Georgia had to start switching to the production of slaves in slave farms. The conflict over this land became intense and continued into the Civil War when, on May 20, 1862, President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, which gave anyone, white or coloured, who had not taken up arms against the United States, the right to “Indian” land.
That law was progressive. It gave refugees from Europe’s autocracies the opportunity to gain land and freedom. It created a class of independent farmers. One of the foundations of a Republican United States in North America. That is true but true is also that it was a genocide law that ended with the massacre at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890 when the “Indians'” armed struggle reached its final defeat.
Notice the dichotomy. Those fleeing from Europe’s despotism reached their freedom through the genocide that then allowed them to form large socialist mass movements in the United States from the time of the First International through victories and defeats to the great defeats of recent decades.
We know this. It is our time and our world. But it is precisely in this world that we have to work. We know what the ones we could call ours have constantly been struggling against. Remember the abolitionists of the 1850s, remember the few who with Marx stood up for the rights of the Indian people in what the British called the “mutiny” in 1857, remember the handful who refused the war hysteria of 1914 and think of such today as the group just arrested after peacefully seeking to storm the NATO headquarters in Brussels.
We know that the permanent is only temporary and that dominating truths inevitably turn into their opposite. The power of today is a paper tiger. But paper tigers have real claws as Chairman Mao pointed out and will use them our time out and far beyond that.
But there is a danger with the grand perspectives. It will be easy to simplify. Art is not simple either. We can talk about the literary struggle against the meaninglessness of war and the importance of literary depictions such as Remarques All Quiet on the Western Front. Then we read Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel. That depiction of disgusting mass death is even harsher – and in addition literary far more brilliant – than Remarque. However, it works in the opposite direction. It was not burned in 1933. Hitler loved it. Not because Jünger was a Nazi but because of his inspiring depiction of the meaninglessness of death.
And if we go to ourselves, use the self also in art, then we realize – or are driven to realize – that we ourselves are governed by strong forces far down in the personality structure. At best, we can become aware – for example, take help from Freud or Reich or another theorist. In the thirties, several of our predecessors did. I myself knew both Erik Blomberg and through Nic Waal Sigurd Hoel. (Read Sigurd Hoel and Nic Hoel’s correspondence!)
At almost eighty-five years of age, I know that I too have been guided and am guided by emotional waves far heavier and perhaps darker than those I can hear described in benevolent consumer information programs such as Screw with P3 where I can learn how semen tastes, how girls do when they masturbate or the risk of getting a Spanish collar if you have a tight foreskin. Our real passions are more complicated than that. Heinrich Mann did not portray “a tyrant’s downfall” through Professor Unrath in 1905 (the film The Blue Angel came in 1930) from the outside alone. He wrote about himself and took the feeling out of the marriage he would enter into thirty years later with Nelly. (Pursued by the finer brother Thomas and his scheming wife.)
Awareness I have said. Certainly. But also, the insight that there are strong governing forces deep down in the personality. Not only Sven Lindqvist but I – like so many, many others of us – have tried to write about them.
Taken together, I believe all of this creates a cultural profile of a different kind than the one that is officially accepted academical.