I have a special reason to welcome this award. Swedish Leninists have not always been as fond of my efforts.
My debut as a social critic was the little polemical publication Advertising is fatal that came out in 1957 and still sells well.
I was newly married when it was written, in the summer of 1956.
I had just debuted as a writer,
got a job as a critic at DN,
queued my way to an apartment in Gröndal,
moved out from my parents and would have my own household.
We had nothing. We needed a bed of course, kitchen utensils, a kitchen table, chairs, glasses and crockery, vacuum cleaner, bookshelves – in short: EVERYTHING.
I already had the feeling that much of what I bought I would be stuck with my whole life. And very accurate – I still eat at the same kitchen table and with the same cutlery that I bought then.
Bought without any reliable information.
Bought on the basis of one-sided and biased promotional arguments, because nothing else existed.
It made me furious.
So much social resources used on what we did not need – advertising – and almost no resources at all on what we really needed: relevant information.
But what caused my wrath above all was the obligation to buy.
I thought the market was trying to squeeze curtains, carpets, couch, a whole lifestyle onto me – the lifestyle of the couch.
The market tried to force me into a life that I did not want.
I wanted time. Time to write, time to think, time to love, time to live.
I did not want to be compelled to earn a lot of money to pay off on a couch.
I did not want to sell life to buy a couch.
There I thought I had found the evil core of the consumerism around me:
To sell life to be able to buy things.
That’s what it was all about.
And I refused. I did not want to participate in that deal.
I sat down to write a raging attack on advertising.
“Advertising is in the capitalist society what the political propaganda is in the communist”, I wrote. “The same contempt for the victim’s coupled with the same explicit focus on the victims’ best.”
From childhood, our subconscious is tattooed with the notion that product consumption is the value and meaning of life.
We do have the freedom to refuse to obey the commands of advertising. But advertising has the freedom to portray our environment so that we actually obey it, to a profitable extent.
It is coercion and in order for us to not react “unfavourably” to it, the rope that is laid around our neck must be a silk string.
Therefore, the world of advertisements becomes so weird. While people starve a few hours away, we must be forced even deeper into the overflow. In the midst of war and aftermath, among accidents and dangers, in a world that screams, this pleasant promotional existence blossoms where everything offered is unprecedented.
Seemingly, different advertising messages compete with each other. But the overall effect of all the different campaigns is the belief in consumption.
The underlying message is that any problem you have, you can BUY your way out of it.
You can be beautiful,
you can be strong,
yes, even loved.
But only for money. Only by buying.
It’s not true.
The message is a lie.
Therefore, advertising is fatal.
This message was published in the magazine Vi on 26 February 1957 and was broadcast at the same time as a radio lecture.
The first reaction came in DN, “my own newspaper”. I was executed with a few lines in a prominent place, as so senseless that I did not have to be refuted.
Practically, my employment at DN was now over.
I never received any more books to review.
The articles I offered the newspaper were always rejected – “of care for my own good” as it was called.
Less than a year after the wedding, I had lost the source of income on which our economy was based.
And because “my own newspaper” had publicly abandoned me, I became an outlaw throughout the press.
Everybody attacked me.
It was not entirely unexpected. The press lives on their ads.
What amazed me was the criticism from the Leninist left. There, my advertising criticism was found superficial and naive. It was bourgeoise to criticize advertising, the entire market economy should be rejected.
I spent a few years in China, among other things to investigate a society without market economy. My reports from there were largely characterized by the famine resulting from the collectivization during the Great Leap Forward 1959-60.
Again, I received criticism from Leninists who downplayed the negative consequences of the Great Leap Forward. On the other hand, of course, they were right that it was not famine but increasing prosperity that constituted the long-term trend in Chinese development.
The sharpest Leninist criticism focused on two “no” at the end of The Myth of Wu Tao-tzu (1967).
The question was at that time “Is liberation possible without violence?”
The question seemed to assume that liberation was possible with violence. But is that so certain? Is it really liberation that comes after the violence?
And without violence? In Europe, the working class gained political power at a time when capital still needed labour. That time will soon be over.
In a society where robots produce robots, capital has become self-generating.
An increasing proportion of the labour force becomes economically redundant and consequently powerless. I wrote:
“The world proletariat is about to become unnecessary.
Big parts of it are already just a burden
For the small groups of high-performers and high-consumers
Whose leaders rule the world.
There is no need for prudery here.
The ABC weapons have taught us to think straight into the unthinkable.
Tell me what’s going to happen.
When the larger part of humanity has become technically and economically redundant.
At once rebellious of hunger and economically meaningless.
What will then prevent a definitive solution to the world problem?”
By a strange chance, The Myth of Wu Tao-tzu came out the day Che Guevara was shot dead in Bolivia.
I stayed with my wife and child in a peaceful hotel in Cochabamba. Suddenly, the place was flooded by victorious American officers who celebrated Che Guevara’s death.
We got in the car and reached Vallegrande before he was buried.
The peasants came flowing from the surrounding countryside. They came on horses and on mules in dark clothes and black hats. They came on foot and their women had long black shawls.
What did they think? “The peasants are impenetrable like stones”, Che wrote in his diary.
From the radios comes victory music and reports of triumph. But in the faces in Vallegrande I only see solemnity, sadness, almost longing.
The primitive mortuary has only three walls. Che is lying on a military stretcher with the upper part of his body exposed and the narrow shoulders protruded. He seems exhausted but happy, as if he did not dream about battle but about love.
The bare feet are without a scratch. The delicate hands seem to never have touched a tool or a weapon. Seven large-calibre bullet holes, one of which is in the heart, have magically disappeared. Only faint bruises remain.
Next to the head stands a soldier on guard. The solid farm boy is sweating, although dusk is already on its way and it is quite cool in the air.
While the sweat flows from his own stocky sunburnt face, he slowly wipes, almost tenderly the dead man’s brow with a white handkerchief.
It was a powerful experience. But it could not change my analysis of Che Guevara’s revolutionary experiment in Bolivia.
He tried to use the guerrilla war as a strategic weapon for continental and intercontinental purposes. He wanted to “create one, two, three Vietnams”.
But a strategic revolutionary must also, if he chooses guerrilla war as a weapon, lay his life in the hands of the peasants. And Che Guevara had nothing to offer them.
He could not distribute land; the peasants already had it. He could not nationalize mines; it had also been done, without results. He had nothing else to come up with than a great war.
Of course, he couldn’t say that to the farmers in Vallegrande.
He had to say something else.
And he wrote down in his diary that in the depths of their eyes they did not believe him.
That’s why he failed.
This message was not what the Swedish left, especially the Leninist left, was waiting for. I remember indignant voices on the phone:
– Sven has betrayed the revolution! Sven has betrayed the revolution!
I had drawn conclusions that did not match the preconceived opinion of the left at the time.
I have continued to do that.
And so, I am particularly pleased to receive the Lenin Award.
I see in this a recognition from the Leninist left.
Of an opponent of Lenin and most of his teachings.
Of a feminist, traditional social democrat like me.