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Jan Myrdal’s speech 2014

Another tradition


Now, at this sixth award ceremony, I address some principle issues. To this there are both personal and general reasons.

The personal ones include that at the age of 87 according to my doctors, I am, in the literal sense of the word, senile (of senex – elderly, old man) but not demented. I have age-related issues with knees and hips, although nothing serious has been found by doctors. I work every day. However, statistically, I should check out – or become demented and unreasonable – in the foreseeable future. So, it’s about time to summarize.

The general reasons include that I was forced by the circumstances to take consciousness before and during the Second World War and thus began writing publicly for a definite purpose seventy years ago. During this time of working with words, I have experienced how officially ruling truths in politics and prevailing aesthetics, morals and decent thinking vary and change year by year as well as at present given social norms for addressing words, nudity, costume, body hair and tattoos. That this furious change is not random but governed by socially tough structures during a constant class struggle, I realized then far back in the very earliest teens when I first started reading Freud (Psychopathology of Everyday Life) and Marx (The Communist Manifesto) and in the great legacy discovered writings by Diderot, Lenin, Mark Twain, Quiding and Strindberg.

The last seventy-five years have continuously confirmed the youth’s insight gained by this, that there is a driving antagonism beneath the constantly changing events. In Swedish, it was Jonas Love Almqvist who formulated its words, Nils Herman Quiding who gave them real content and August Strindberg who popularized them until every child now understands them: upper class and lower class. The words are not formulated scientifically correct and they are not used by official editorial writers or politicians around us, but they are surely accurate. Yes, we could recently read that according to Oxfam, a small group of individuals, 85 people, now owns as much as the poorest half, 3.5 billion, of the world’s population. No wonder that already the teenage Jan Myrdal, a couple of generations ago, stood on the living room floor and with Ibsen declared: With pleasure I put a torpedo under the Ark.

This sixth year’s award ceremony makes it increasingly visible that a certain cultural faction in Sweden emerges here. This year, Jan Guillou and Eija Hetekivi Olsson join Mattias Gardell, Roy Andersson and Kajsa Ekis Ekman, Maj Wechselmann and Martin Schibbye, Sven Lindqvist and Jenny Wrangborg, Maj Sjöwall and Gabriela Pichler.

But what faction and in which Sweden? It is not some kind of Myrdal faction; Both Maj Wechselmann and Sven Lindqvist, just to mention two names, have made this clear throughout the years. However, I am also part of it. And it is certainly not limited to these eleven. It is no difficult to name more. Nor is it an orthodox ideological unity, within Swedish culture it is broad as an unfolded hand fan, but with equally clear boundaries. It also has a long tradition. Faith and ideology have changed, but today we all still understand a saying of agrarian society like: “When I rest in the bosom of Abraham and you burn in Gehenna, we will speak again, said the crofter to the landlord who took his cow.”

I myself have used “refractory” to characterize it. That word fills a task and is needed. The fact that it in modern language have been restricted to a medical term has to do with what one can call the traditional Swedish misery. In English, and particularly in French, the word has retained its Latin charge as unruly, stubborn, rebellious, rowdy, ungovernable. It has for the last hundred and fifty years or so also had a radical and sensible overtone and therefore in literary and political context have been used both by writers like Jules Vallès (he who wrote the model to Strindberg’s The Son of a Servant) and by the young people who in occupied France refused to serve as ordered labour for Hitler Germany and went into armed illegality. Thus, a refractory faction.

But, the righteous object, the awards bear the names of the worst mass murderers, Robespierre and Lenin. For so they have read on our accepted editorial pages and around in the electronic gossip on blogs and websites. Sure, that’s how it is written and said. But it is mostly lack of education, ignorance and compliance. They think in troop. That is why they are paid. But why then is it we who choose these two names?

I have proposed Maximilien de Robespierre. Not because he was a socialist. He really wasn’t. But he opposed war politics and the idea of spreading the revolution to other countries with military force, and he was the first European politician to pursue universal suffrage, public education, society’s obligation to provide for the unemployed, the old, the sick and the disabled, and the necessity to pay for all this through taxes on the wealthy and well-off. Ideologically and politically, he was the one who formulated demands that social democrats driven by working class and petty bourgeoisie sought to realize throughout our countries after the Second World War. The aristocrats and aristocrat servants executed during the so-called terror were, as Mark Twain pointed out, a small number compared to the huge number of victims of their long and bloody dominion.

Lenin, I found to be a good choice of name. Hjalmar Branting, who was one of his most convinced opponents, ended his embracing obituary in Folkets Dagblad Politiken on January 22, 1924 with the words: “Lenin’s great deed will always remain as one of the most significant in this upset era, significant in its straightness and in its ruthless love for the social revolution.” To this only three remarks.

This year, a hundred years ago, the International imploded and the overwhelming majority of professional socialists and official democrats broke their promises and led their voters and contingent payers into the colossal mass murder. The First World War began the series of greed-driven genocides that characterize our time since then. Lenin was one of the few who not only stood firm but managed to provide a theoretically sustainable explanation for this collapse as well as initiate the necessary practical and theoretical work against the war of the masters.

Unlike the majority of the socialists of the time, he was in favour of the right to national liberation (such as Norway’s from Sweden and Finland’s from Russia) and, moreover, of the total liberation of the colonial and dependent peoples. Despite that the working class in the ruling states too largely believed in making a profit on the exploitation of others, he demanded that the new organizations in these states be obliged in every way, regardless of the laws of the masters, to work for this liberation. Sure, many have since failed as the French Communists when it came to Algerian freedom, but it would have surprised him as little as a Yeltsin or the collapse of the Soviet Union would have surprised him.

As far as the words are concerned, he was as exemplary broadminded as Marx had been. He took a stand for Tolstoy despite being ideologically alien to him, he demanded that the youth should read Plechanov, despite his deliberation with the French military mission on how to crush the Bolsheviks and he supported Gorky despite their differences of opinion and although Gorky during the revolution in his newspaper opposed Leninism.

But the award winners then? Those for whom this whole gathering has been arranged? Well, it’s about them I’ve been talking all along; about their artistic work in this country. Take Jan Guillou for example. Sure, I could talk about him as a person for a long time; it is forty-three years since we got to know each other and started working together, we have had a lot of fun and for the most part we have agreed though sometimes had different views. But the most important thing is his words during these more than forty years. For he has indeed been refractory: “unruly, stubborn, rebellious, rowdy” and that in a radical and sensible way. Without his work with his words, Sweden would have been a different and significantly inferior country. His literary work to raise awareness and change in novels, articles and TV has been and is important. However, if I should say something personal, it is that he has avoided to, in the usual Swedish way, become a noble author, but remained a writer, the exact professional title that fit both Brecht and Strindberg.

Eija Hetekivi Olsson’s “Ingenbarnsland” hit the literary Swedish establishment as a slap in the face. Of course, it depended on the attitude and the perspective. This was the underclassy suburban Sweden one had preferred to do social reports about to avoid taking it seriously. But one of the book’s real qualities is that she up until the breaking point – but not past it – has used exactly what separates the Swedish language from the stricter formalized ones as the French. A generation ago, we – Ivar Lo, Nils Andersson and I – discussed in “Past and Now” how the fact that the Swedish language had not been imprisoned in the academic straitjacket had enabled what in Sweden became the long-dominant “proletarian literature” that came to have such strong influence on the opportunity of the working people to influence politically. Eija Hetekivi Olsson’s literary style is liberating precisely because it helps to consolidate the norm-breaking freedom of our language that is driven from below.