Luleå Biennial 2018
It’s election year. It's summer. I am practicing hopefulness. I’m writing the editorial for Flamman – which I have been working for since 2016 – about abortion rights in Northern Ireland. At the same time, I’ve read that EU leaders have agreed to further strengthen the borders, read that they want to set up dedicated, closed camps for refugees in both Europe and North Africa. Is this what we call dark times? The night refuses to come. The sky is a flat, white field.
– The darkness, my dear Burman, weighs on me, it feels like it’s pulling me down towards the ground. And now, now it’s happening! In Ann-Marie Ljungberg's fictional interpretation of the attack against the newspaper Norrskensflamman, Darkness, Stay With Me, two adult men chase after a little boy they suspect is a communist. Wilhelmsson, a journalist, seizes the boy and shouts at him: “Do you know what your ideology wants, little communist, do you know?”(1) He doesn’t let him go until an adult man and a group of children intervene. The dense, seductive darkness of the book is both real and metaphorical: we move through the black winter to a black spring. In the end, Wilhelmsson and the other attackers are completely devoured by the darkness.
As I put down the book, I cannot stop thinking of the political and creative potentials of darkness. How much have people not been able to do precisely because of the night, the darkness? How many raids, uprisings, revolutions have not taken place just because the darkness has allowed them to? Also, I can’t let go of the scene in which the boy is confronted by the two men. How many scenes of abuse, assault, crime have not been prevented because a collective has come between?
The attack on Norrskensflamman happened during a period when fascism not only spread across Europe but was also supported within and by the Swedish government. As Maria-Pia Boëthius shows in Honour and Conscience: Sweden and the Second World War, Swedish neutrality was anything but neutral. Still, that neutrality has become part of Sweden’s understanding of itself; to not interfere is considered responsible and apolitical when in reality it only serves to obscure ideology, violence, and internal affairs. If we look at the present, and the Swedish government's actions in relation to financial capital, arms trade, and migration, its stance are also far from neutral, but (at best) compliance with a unified Right advancing those positions.
The attack against Norrskensflamman occurred because the newspaper took an active stance, threatening the power and the men who held it. When the other Flamman editors and I, almost eighty years after the event, are still writing, the story of the newspaper – those who worked with it, sold it, read it, and argued in its favor – stays with us. Whether we write in the dark, about the dark or against it, we never do it alone, but with former colleagues, standing at a left angle behind us, breathing down our necks. The poem “Danko” by Ragnar Jändel has been engraved on the memorial stone for those who died in the terror attack. It describes how the young man Danko rips the heart out of his chest for it to light up the night: “Even when the night bites and the storm howls / the sparks of the heart flutter over the soil of the earth”.
It is only in the dark that the light shone by the heart even becomes visible.
The fanatic anti-communist sentiment in Sweden during World War II – expressed by everyone from social democrats to Nazis – is a relatively hidden chapter in Swedish history. In a number of ways, it contradicts the perception of Sweden as neutral in times of war and conflict. That the state cooperated with and supported the Nazis, while limiting the freedom of expression of communists, is not a comfortable fact to acknowledge. That the hatred of communists ultimately led to one of Sweden's worst terrorist attacks isn’t either.
But if we look at the present, it becomes apparent that there is currently a similar view of political organisation on the left. In late May, the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI) released a report on violence-endorsing left-wing extremism, that included among other named organisations the Anarcho-syndicalist Youth Federation and the anti-racist newspaper Expo(2). The space for left-wing political – or even anti-racist and anti-fascist – activity appears to be shrinking. Parallel to this trend, support for the Swedish Democrats is on the rise, fascist movements in Europe are growing and organising themselves, and, according to the Swedish Security Service, Säpo, the number of Nazis is increasing(3). It is during such times that it becomes especially vital to remember how steady Norrskensflamman operated in the 1930s and 40s, despite being opposed, arrested and attacked. Hegemony has always met resistance – and will always continue to.
Are we in dark times now? If the answer is yes, the follow-up question must be: what kind of resistance is required by such times?
In comparing contemporary Sweden to the time of the terrorist attack against Norrskensflamman, we risk simplifying the specific circumstances of both periods; today, fascist violence does not happen against the backdrop of a world war. But it has to be said: This is a time when the number of reported hate crimes is increasing when racialised Swedes are held under suspicion, and one in five Swedes consider voting for the Sweden Democrats, the party who, already in 2015, suggested mapping the political views of Muslims. If communists, before and during World War II, were considered traitors by the wider public and met with state violence and repression, a similar view is now held of refugees, especially those who are both refugees and Muslims.
In 2016, there were ninety-two reported cases of arson on refugee residences in Sweden. Of them, fifty-three are said to be acts of an unknown offender(4). Terrorists, you might have called them, if the term terrorist was not currently so ubiquitously associated with Muslims and Muslim offenders, while the extreme right is allowed to demonstrate and agitate under police protection. At this time, it is more relevant than ever, both as a writer and a human being, to take a firm anti-racist position that is grounded also in class analysis. When the part of the working class racialised as non-white is said to be lazy, unable to speak the language, or without the appropriate set of values, these views must be addressed and opposed. The problem is not people crossing borders, but money concentrated in ever fewer hands.
The night has not come yet. A slit of the sky outside the window is bright and blue.
It is election year. It is August. It is possible that the future will be difficult. But I return to the image of a group of children that suddenly appear when a boy is assaulted by a grown man, the children that come in between and the heart lighting up the night.
What kind of resistance does the dark enable? Perhaps precisely such a coming in between. Perhaps taking collective action, persisting, making sure that solidarity results in concrete political measures rather than stopping at mere expression of intent. There they are: the sparks.