Gunnai Myrdal came as the featured speaker at the annual meeting of the Lutheran Council in the USA—yet another public atheist called to give moral guidance to yet another demoralized band of American religious leaders. I saw his presence as a godsend. In a sense, he was to be my dissertation project. The chance to serve as his aide-de-camp and gofer for the whole two days opened glittering research opportunities to a young church bureaucrat and would-be scholar.
His speech to the church leaders was long and occasionally splendid. A discourse on what it meant to be a “cultural Lutheran” and, more broadly, on the American challenge, it was full of historical allusions and philosophical meanderings seldom encountered in religious after-dinner talks. The Philadelphia ballroom was hot, the churchmen and their ladies full of wine and intolerant of ideas beyond the expected social-justice pieties. After the first hour had passed, the mutters and shuffling grew quite audible. Yet Gunnar Myrdal, slightly deaf, puttered on to his conclusion, in the singsong English of an old, pleasantly senile Swede.
My timing proved to be perfect. A feminist scholar in Sweden had just published a book claiming that Alva and Gunnar Myrdal’s work on shaping Swedish family and population policies in the 1930’s had been a betrayal of true socialism. Their open pronatalism, she hinted, smelled of nationalism and racism. Their advocacy of minor changes in Sweden’s antiabortion law, instead of its complete scuttling, showed a lingering attachment to patriarchy. I indicated to him my intention of demonstrating how thoroughly socialist, modernist, and feminist their work actually was, and how it had radically altered the modern social-democratic consciousness. He was pleased with the project and granted me full access to his family papers in the Labor Movement Archives in Stockholm, along with letters of reference to the restricted archives of the Swedish Social Democratic Labor Party, and a promise of interviews.
I spent the summers of 1976 and 1977 in Stockholm, either immersed in the Myrdals’ letters and enormous newspaper collection (starting in 1934, the young couple sensed they were making history and subscribed to a clippings service) or in extended conversation with one or both of them.
It soon became clear that Gunnar, the master social engineer of Sweden, North America, and South Asia, had now given himself over to the normal pursuits of old men everywhere: tinkering daily with a project he would never complete (a new version of An American Dilemma), telling the same stories to young listeners, nodding off in the midst of talk, and letting go of his inhibitions. Alva, the first woman who truly had it all (devoted husband, children, and her own Nobel Prize), served coffee and cakes with the gracious hospitality that marks the vanishing Swedish husfru.
Gunnar explained that his chosen career was to have been a country lawyer, in the picture-book village of Mariefred—a practice dominated by boundary disputes, real estate transactions, and small deals in grain and livestock. His vague political allegiances then lay with böndeförbundet, The Farmer’s Party, which promoted the interests of the Swedish peasantry and small towns against both the urban proletariat and the great capitalists. Indeed, Farmer’s Party leaders had seen the budding law student as a rising prospect and had approached him to run for the Swedish Senate as a representative of the free peasantry. (In a curious way, this ruralism would pass from father to estranged son. Jan Myrdal, the great celebrator of Mao Tse-tung’s Cultural Revolution, was less an orthodox Marxist than a radical ruralist, a proto-Green, opposed to modernity and bourgeois progress, whatever their form. In recent years, he has turned his wrath against the Western welfare state, lamenting its role in promoting the destruction of village life and the corrosion of Christian communitarian values.)
Then Gunnar met Alva Reimer. The embodiment of Nordic beauty, she was a slender Sonja Henne, golden-haired, blue-eyed, red-lipped, with a pert nose and a shy, inviting smile. She was also a committed socialist, trained in ideology by her doctrinaire father, as well as a budding feminist, educated in a women’s collective built as an alternative to the local gymnasium which refused to admit girls.
Gunnar fell deeply and irrevocably in love. Thereafter he lived for Alva. His subsequent correspondence with his often-absent wife fills many restricted boxes in the Myrdal Archive and is marked—I was told—with moving professions of love and pain at their separation.
She helped guide the young lawyer into his new profession—economics—and his new political allegiance— Social Democracy. Their marriage became the modern prototype, first for Sweden, then for the Western world. Early on, there were already photos of the young scholar-lovers at their desks, face to face, pausing in their writing to gaze upon each other. In 1929, when Gunnar was offered a Rockefeller Fellowship to spend a year studying in the United States, he negotiated another, equal grant for his wife. “His and her” Nobels were the natural cap to this rigorously egalitarian bond.
Yet even in this unity there remained differences. Gunnar never wholly shook off his rustic attachment to the Swedish soil and to Swedish tribalism. When the couple turned their energies to crafting a socialist response to Sweden’s sharply declining birthrate, Gunnar’s advocacy of pronatalist policies was sincere. When pressed by critics to his left, he confessed to a “mild form” of Swedish nationalism. His hundreds of speeches and articles from the period sparkle with real affection for “Sweden’s children” and a stirring promotion of larger families (five children per couple was the target he finally settled on).
For Alva, the family issue and pronatalism were important political opportunities. By invoking motherhood, babies, and the vanishing nation, she hoped that socialists could lure the “bourgeois parties” to support policies they had heretofore opposed: nationalized health care focused (at first) on maternity and infants; “family services” such as state day care and summer camps; state allowances for children’s clothing; school meals; and so on. Feminist goals could also be woven into the program, using the argument that married-women-at-work was a new reality that could not be reversed and that the state should use its power to allow women to be simultaneously workers and mothers. In her shift to pro-natalism, Alva also realized that public hypocrisy must be avoided and did her duty by bearing her third child in 1936. Yet the subsequent maternal tasks did not suit her, and the care of her children was turned over to the professionals. (Son Jan would have his revenge a halfcentury later, charging in a searing book and a serialized radio production that his mother had abandoned him and his sisters, in the pursuit of fame and career.)
Old men, like small children, often say things they shouldn’t. After one interview, Gunnar invited me to join him for dinner. We left his townhouse on Västerlånggatan, the famed Medieval street in Stockholm’s Old City, walked the cobblestones for several blocks to a small cafe, and feasted on strumming, a delicate fresh Baltic herring.
The local news that week concerned a series of mob attacks on recent immigrants to Sweden: Assyrians, North Africans, Turks. The assailants were raggare, bands of young Swedish toughs who normally shocked the adults by sewing U.S. flags on their worn denim jackets and by cruising the roads in specially imported ’69 Lincoln Continentals. In wake of this racial strife, government officials were sputtering in frustrated rage; Swedish media pundits engaged in the kind of self-flagellation (“where did we go wrong?”) usually confined to their cousin professionals in North America.
Myrdal raised the topic over herring. These immigrants, he said to me, were a growing problem for Sweden. The newcomers didn’t keep their apartments tidy and proper, like Swedish people did. They were often dirty and unkempt. Their boys tried to date Swedish girls, causing much trouble. Yes, he sighed as he shook his head, the immigrants were a problem.
As an amateur Swedish sociologist might have remarked, in another decade and land: Old attitudes die hard, much harder than old socialists.