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For the average person the early death of Stieg Larsson must have come as a disappointment since that meant that the fourth Dragon Tattoo novel would remain uncompleted, the last in a series that were perfect reading on the bus or subway going to work. I understood how they might feel since I once missed my stop while reading the account of the petite but potent Lisbeth Salander beating up a 300-pound biker and stealing his Harley-Davidson.
But after reading Jan-Erik Pettersson’s “Stieg Larsson: the real story of the man who played with fire”, I felt a keener loss, that of a man who I never met but now miss as a comrade in the fight against a decaying capitalist system. I was always aware that Karl Stig-Erland “Stieg” Larsson, who died at the age of 50 from a heart attack on November 9, 2005, was a member of the Trotskyist movement–as was I–but never knew much about what he did in between the time he left the movement and began writing the novels that made him famous. I was under the impression that he made his living as a journalist but that would be like saying that John Reed did so as well. Like so many journalists with integrity over the last 100 years, Stieg Larsson aimed his words like a Molotov cocktail at the forces of capitalist reaction. If anything, the exploits of Mikael Blomkvist, the journalist hero of his novels, pale in comparison to the life that the author led.
I picked up Pettersson’s book (used copies sell for a penny on Amazon.com!) primarily to get a handle on how Sweden moved away from the welfare state in the 80s and 90s and on how those changes impacted the Marxist detective novel writers I wrote about in CounterPunch recently. While the book provided valuable information that allowed me to put someone like Henning Mankell, the creator of the Wallender novels, into context, the story of Stieg Larsson began to captivate me, so much so that I decided to write this article as a way of paying homage to this extraordinary human being. The facts about Larsson’s life that follow come from Pettersson’s book; the analysis you can blame on me as always.
Like me, Stieg Larsson, 9 years my junior, left home at the age of 16 never to return. In my case, it was to go to Bard College; in his case—craving independence—it was to live in a modest apartment across the street from his parents. Like others from our generation, Larsson started off as an antiwar activist but soon joined the Trotskyist movement in 1970 largely on the basis of its prominence in the antiwar movement. Pettersson also notes that he opted for Trotskyism since the socialist realism favored by the Maoists left him cold. His favorite movie was Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Ones”, a work that Stalin would have considered an executable offense.
By the late 80s he had dropped out, not for political reasons but like so many other people going through the revolving doors of such groups he felt the need to get on with his life when a socialist revolution no longer seemed imminent.
Through most of the 70s, Larsson surrendered to a wanderlust that took him to places where the class struggle was at its most intense. This included Eritrea, where he trained EPLF fighters on the use of mortars. As an army veteran, Larsson had technical skills that proved useful, just as my programming skills would be useful to the Sandinistas a decade later. Unlike the highly disciplined but ineffectual SWP in the USA, the loosely knit Swedish Trotskyist movement allowed its members to go and do as they please. This, of course, is the way that all genuine living movements should be organized.
In 1979 he went to work for Tidningarnas Telegrambyrå (Swedish for News Agency) as a graphics artist. It was there that he continued the work he had begun when writing for the Trotskyist magazine, researching rightwing conspiracies of the sort that would feature in his own fiction as well as that of other Swedish Marxists working in the same genre. Unlike much of the conspiracist left today that is obsessed with planned detonations at the WTC and the like, Larsson’s reporting was grounded in facts.
In 1983, Larsson became the Swedish correspondent for Searchlight, a British magazine launched by ex-CP’er Maurice Ludmer who had broken with the party over its equivocal stance on racism. To understand the magazine in its totality—something that Pettersson fails to do—it is best to see it in some ways as the British counterpart to Morris Dees’s Southern Poverty Law Center. Wikipedia states that Searchlight exaggerated the threat of anti-Semitism in order to raise funds. While this was reprehensible, the magazine was also responsible for exposing the British National Party, arguably a much greater threat in Britain than the KKK ever was during Dees’s ambitious fundraising campaigns.
None of this had much to do with Larsson’s dispatches from Sweden, where neo-Nazis were probably a bigger threat to democracy than the BNP was in Britain or the Klan in the USA. While there’s a tendency to regard Sweden as a benign and peaceful social democratic Eden, the truth is that Nazi roots go very deep in Swedish soil, a function in part of the country’s Aryan self-image, at least the part of the population that is predisposed to such myths.
Pettersson lays out this rightwing history in graphic detail, a history that hung over the Swedish Marxist detective novelists like a dark cloud.
It all seems to start with King Charles XII, who defeated the Russians in a landmark battle in 1700 and became a symbol of Swedish nationalism. Fed up with what he called “pharaoh worship”, playwright August Strindberg wrote a lacerating critique of the king and his place in the Swedish national mythos in 1910 that created a huge debate. Taking sides against him were two of the country’s most revered figures: Verner von Heidenstam, a poet, and world-famous explorer Sven Hedin. In 30 years the two would become Nazi sympathizers.
An important element of the emerging fascist movement in Sweden was its embrace of eugenics. After founding the Swedish Society for Racial Hygiene in 1909, Herman Lundborg would crusade against the presence of undesirables in Swedish society like the Roma, for whom sterilization was the final solution. Eventually a full-fledged Nazi party would emerge in Sweden. In distinction to Germany, it was much more the choice of the elites rather than a crazed middle-class. It was exactly this peculiarity that led Stieg Larsson to develop the notorious Vanger clan.
With the defeat of Nazi Germany, Swedish fascism went underground, evoking a novel like “The Odessa File”. As was the case throughout Europe, it reemerged in the late 1970s to exploit the rising fear and hatred of immigrants, a subject that has served as the theme for numerous episodes of the Swedish TV series I examined in my CounterPunch article.
A group called “Keep Sweden Swedish” sprang up, following the same strategies as the British National Front. It and other such groups that followed in its wake convinced Stieg Larsson to write a book documenting their origins and trajectory. Written in 1991, “The Far Right” generated a lot of attention, including from its targets. A fascist skinhead magazine published a list of 15 enemies that included their phone numbers and addresses. Larsson was one of those listed.
Like David Duke, the Klan leader who became a Republican, Swedish fascists made a turn toward “respectability” that was symbolized by the formation of a party innocuously called New Democracy. It received 7 percent of the vote in 1991 and sent 25 members to the parliament under the new Conservative Party government. While the New Democracy used its roost in parliament to champion a nativist agenda, the old-line militants struggled for the same goals in the streets. Using the same name as the American fascists, the Swedish White Aryan Resistance and other such groups might beat or kill anybody outside the master race.
Stieg Larsson had decided that a Swedish magazine in the spirit of Searchlight had become necessary. That was how Expo came into being in 1995, the obvious inspiration for the fictional Millennium that employed Mikael Blomkvist. Expo was a much more modest affair than the relatively glossy Millennium. The premier issue of Expo included an article on a rightwing intelligence network that would spy on Swedish activists and that had received seed money from Combat 18, a British fascist outfit. In many ways, this network followed in the footsteps of Lyndon Larouche who fed the Reagan White House information on the anti-nuclear movement.
Expo also covered the Swedish White Power rock music scene. Profits from record sales went into the coffers of fascist organizations. As was the case with New Democracy, hatred of immigrants and belief in Aryan supremacy went hand in hand—always combined with obscurantist beliefs in Nordic mythology. If the songs were nominally about Thor and Odin, the subtext was Keep Sweden Swedish.
In 1996 Larsson wrote about the National Alliance, the latest and most dangerous entry into the far right. The group reacted by threats against newsstands that distributed it and veiled threats against those who worked for the magazine. One shop had its windows smashed and the owner received death threats. This was what prompted Larsson, an early computer geek, into exploring security procedures such of the kind that would be reflected in his fiction, including the use of encrypted messages and files.
Initially complying with police instructions that Expo stay mum during an ongoing investigation of the attacks, Larsson decided at last to go public. He provided details of the terrorist threats to Nu, a major liberal magazine. The revelations proved so explosive that the circulation of Expo went from a couple of thousand to 800,000. Ironically, it was mounting threats from neo-Nazi hoodlums that led to a security measure that would rob his long-time partner of the rights to his estate.
He was probably the person most under threat in the whole of Sweden. His name appeared on neo-Nazi websites all over Europe. He was constantly receiving threats in the form of anonymous letters and telephone messages. He coped so well because he had learned to be careful and adopted strict safety procedures. When he knew he was being watched, he would deliberately arrive late for meetings. When he went to a café he preferred to sit with his back to the wall.
On one occasion during his time at TT, when the press agency had its offices on Kungsholm torg, a group of neo-Nazis were waiting for him in the park across the street, armed with baseball bats. But since Stieg took his usual rear exit from the office as a security measure, he spotted them in time and was able to slip back into the building.
This safety consciousness was also the reason he and his partner Eva Gabrielsson never married, so that they could avoid being traced through official registers. Even so, Stieg usually wrote under his own name in Expo, and in the autumn of 1999 the journal announced that in future the editorial staff would include their photograph with their byline to demonstrate that they would not be intimidated by perpetrators of violence.
The issues that animated Stieg Larsson remain very much with us. The New Democracy of the 1990s has been superseded by Sweden Democrats, another party with an innocuous name but an even more toxic program. In this month’s election, the Sweden Democrats got 13 percent of the vote, just enough to prevent the Social Democrats from forming a majority-led government. In a September 12 report on the elections, the NY Times explained why the fascist party could garner twice the number of votes that the New Democracy received in 1991. Polls indicate that 44 percent of Swedes want to decrease the number of immigrants, many of whom are seeking political asylum.
The NY Times portrayed the Sweden Democrats as victims of leftist harassment.
Intimidation of the party and its supporters has taken other forms as well. Last December, an organization of former militant leftists known as the Research Group collaborated with the prominent evening newspaper Expressen to discover and publish personal details about those writing under pseudonyms in online anti-immigrant chat forums. The list of those de-anonymized included private citizens, some of whom were later cornered by television crews in the doorways to their homes.
Being cornered by television crews hardly compares to the threats posed by a party that was the result of a merger between Keep Sweden Swedish and the Progress Party, an outfit that according to Wikipedia raised slogans like “AIDS comes from abroad” and “the woman back to the stove”. The Sweden Democrats sponsored concerts by Ultima Thule, a band that played the White Power circuit.
Like the New Democracy, the party made an effort to appear more “moderate” after the fashion of David Duke. Its members were ordered to stop wearing Nazi uniforms at rallies and a torch logo that had been inspired by one used by the National Front in England was ditched. The party’s “moderation” faction now in control decided that Le Pen’s party in France would be its model, a decision no doubt influenced by the funds it received from that party.
In addition to its xenophobia, the party stands for traditional values, including the belief that the family rests on having one father, and one mother, and rails against the “homosexual lobby”.
Like every other fascist party in Europe, Sweden Democrats voted against the pact between the EU and Ukraine in the European parliament arguing that their opposition to the EU and to immigration went hand in hand. Those inclined to see political patterns that defy easy left/right categorization might see this as further confirmation that the admiration for Vladimir Putin in such circles rests on his ability to put into practice socially conservative policies that to this point remain out of reach for a party that received “only” 13 percent of the vote. Giving the drift of the European economy and the tendency of the ultraright to scapegoat homosexuals and immigrants, it is entirely conceivable that the Sweden Democrats might become part of a coalition government down the road. This is something that Stieg Larsson would have resisted with every fiber of his mind and body. So should we.
Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.