Jan Myrdal, the brooding bad boy of Swedish letters, agreed to meet with me on a Sunday afternoon, at his home near the village of Mariefred. I went to ask this iconoclastic celebrant of China’s Cultural Revolution (Report From a Chinese Village), merciless public critic of his famous parents Gunnar and Alva (Childhood), and author of 70 other books (including Confessions of a Disloyal European) about nationalism and modern Sweden. In my own volume on his parents’ role in shaping the Swedish welfare state in the 1930’s, I had noted Gunnar Myrdal’s “mild” nationalism. But I was unhappy with my characterization, feeling I had missed something important. I hoped Jan Myrdal might help solve the puzzle.
Heavy snow was falling when I arrived, and the narrow country road proved treacherous. Gun Kessle, artist, photographer, and Myrdal’s companion for several decades now, stood at the door, waving to warn me about the sharp dropoff to the lake below. Then Myrdal, dressed in German hunting knickers and a heavy Norrland sweater, strode out into the snow, a character out of Strindberg.
He guided me into his cottage, painted the Falu red common to the Swedish countryside. We sat in a room with pine paneling, pine ceiling and floor, and he waited for me to start. I asked about the remark in his book Childhood that anyone wanting to understand Sweden’s Social Democrats, the architects of the famed “Middle Way,” would do better to read Rudolf Kjellén than Marx. His eyes lit up. “Yes, of course,” he said, and he sprang to a circular stairway that led to his vast library below. Soon he returned with a 1909 essay, “Nationalism och socialism,” by Kjellén.
This professor of geography at the University of Lund pioneered the idea of geopolitics and was among the first thinkers to advocate a “national socialism” unifying Sweden’s economic classes, as opposed to the “international” proletariat socialism of Marx. As an undergraduate, the story goes, Gunnar Myrdal had fallen under Kjellén’s spell, deeply impressed by his commitment to God, king, and soil; his opposition to democracy and equality; his advocacy of economic autarchy; his attention to the health and fecundity of the Swedish population as the literal “body” of the nation; and his embrace of a program of old-age pensions and social insurance that would bring peace to the warring Swedish classes. (In this period, the 21- year-old Gunnar Myrdal would write such memorable passages as: “Democratic politics is absurd and it is irresponsible. . . . [W]omen’s entrance onto the political field turns the masses still more to the mass, increasing their susceptibility to suggestion and sinking further their sense of judgement—if that is possible. Indeed, one might even ask if this increase in [the masses’] suggest-ability might not have an erotic coloration.”) Gunnar Myrdal reportedly showed particular interest in Kjellén’s 1916 book The State as a Life-Form, where the author argued for the literal truth of his title.
But Kjellén, I said, is widely regarded as a precursor to the German Nazis, the first architect of the Lebensraum justification used by the Germans in World War II. Could his organic statism really be Gunnar Myrdal’s quiet inspiration? Jan Myrdal responded by another bolt to the library downstairs. He returned with a copy of Our Fatherland and Its Defense, the 1930 edition of a book given to each new Swedish soldier. He showed me the section on “Var folkstam,” or “Our Tribe,” which openly declared the racial superiority of the Swedish people. “Racism was official state policy in Sweden,” he said, and I noted that the late 20th-century mind relishes the distortion of the past, including a denial of the truth that national socialism took many forms in the 1930’s. But he replied: “Of course, Gunnar could never be a real Nazi. He couldn’t stand the discipline.” And he told the story of how his father, on seeing a door marked “No exit,” would invariably stride boldly through, telling his children: “Such rules are not for Gunnar Myrdal!”
Gun Kessle joined us, bearing the obligatory coffee and cakes. I asked them both about Sweden’s pending application to join the Common Market and what this might mean to Swedish identity. Myrdal again dashed to the library and returned with the 1720 text of the Swedish peasants’ memorial to their new king. At the end of a ruinous war against Russia, the peasants asked their sovereign to impose no more foreign masters over them, specifically citing the Germans and the French. And understanding that in war it is always the peasantry that pays dearest in blood and treasure, they urged their king to secure “peace . . . peace . . . peace.”
That sounded like Sweden’s modern neutrality policy, I said, and his eyes sparked: “Exactly! And that is what is at stake in the E.G. question.” Myrdal outlined the course of what he called “Swedish specificity,” which deliberately kept this land to the north out of step with the Continent. Sweden’s long commitment to autarchy at home—including, in this century, homegrown automobile, airplane, and defense industries and a heavily subsidized farming sector—grew out of a fear of being swallowed up by a “great power” to the east, south, or west. “Small nations can trust no large nation,” he said. “Remember, it was Olof Palme who argued in the late 1950’s for a Swedish A-Bomb.” Publicly, this future socialist prime minister worried about the Russians. Privately, he worried about the Germans.
So what did they think of Carl Bildt, the youthful, conservative prime minister of Sweden who has placed union with Europe at the heart of his political program? There was a strange silence. Then Myrdal said: “Bildt, like everyone in his social class for a hundred years, seeks to turn Sweden over to the Germans.” Gun Kessle hissed: “Bildt is a traitor!”
Myrdal explained that like every small country Sweden cannot trust “the international community.” “Will the Italians really come to our aid if the Russians again start to march?” He sneered at the United Nations and its phony legal framework and promises. The U.N. Convention on Human Rights, he said, directly threatened the historic rights and equalities of Swedes, such as the ancient Germanic concept of “everyman’s right” of access to privately held forests and lakes. I asked: Did Sweden’s contemporary Social Democrats, now enjoying a strong revival in the opinion polls as the conservatives take the fall for decades of socialist mismanagement, understand this? No, he replied, the “populist left” in Sweden had died in the early 1960’s, replaced by a “so-called left” that was committed to smashing morality, to destroying the family, and to crushing traditional institutions. “Alva had much to do with this,” he volunteered.
Today, he continued, the socialist party leaders were fat with power, cut off from the common people, and committed to a false concept of equality. The intellectuals, too, were selling out. I noted that in America, the going rate for an intellectual’s soul and pen seemed to be the cost of a round-trip ticket to Paris, as the Unification Church had discovered 20 years ago. Myrdal said that the price of a Swedish intellectual was cheaper still, and he ticked off the names of journalists and professors who had sold out to the internationalists.
He talked with great affection of the days of Per Albin Hansson, Sweden’s socialist prime minister in the 1930’s, who had recast his party’s ideological message in a populist, “folkish,” nationalist way through speeches such as “Sweden for the Swedes” and concepts such as folkhemmet (“the people’s home”). Gunnar and Alva’s “population policies,” seeking more marriages and more births, fit well into this framework.
Did he have hope for the renewal of a “tradition-oriented left”? Yes, he thought that the war of the “false leftwing” against the family was faltering. This time, leading me down the spiral staircase into his library, he produced copies of Smabrukaren, the magazine of Sweden’s contemporary small-farmers’ movement, which is struggling “to reattach the Swedish people to the land.” He cited the young intellectuals (including his son, a historian of agrarian Sweden) centered around the magazine Folkets Historia (The People’s History). He hoped that the looming conflict over entry into the Common Market, to which polls showed a majority of Swedes opposed, might help recreate a “left” at peace with nation and tradition.
What was wrong with the faltering Swedish economy? He showed me a recent book of his, Mekana, on the history and “ideology” of the Swedish erector set. Sweden’s economic troubles, he said, came from the loss of its people’s ability to innovate. “The Swedish children who played with Mekana knew how to create.” Along with the children of the farmers, these tinkers had built modern Sweden. But such things were no longer encouraged in the schools, where American-style “democratic equality” had triumphed.
Myrdal seemed to be getting tired. Some of his sentences began to trail off. I needed to be back on the road, to Stockholm. I thanked him for his time. “You know,” he said as I left, “Gunnar never could understand my fascination for mechanical things, or for animals.”