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‘What would Olof Palme do?’

Twenty-five years after the influential politician’s death, the Swedish left is gripped by crisis and nostalgia.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics World

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Not two weeks after the Swedish Social Democrats’ crisis commission submitted a 118-page report to parliament, the media here in Sweden were caught up in commemorating, and in some cases lamenting, an all-together more confident era in the history of Social Democracy. Because at 23.20 on Monday 28 February, exactly 25 years had passed since the assassination of Olof Palme, the former Social Democrat leader who was prime minister twice and was instrumental in constructing the Swedish welfare state in the 1960s and 1970s.

Predictably, therapeutic pundits have over the past week described the killing in central Stockholm, just a stone’s throw away from the Social Democrats’ headquarters, as a ‘collective trauma’, a ‘paradigm shift’ which left deep wounds that have yet to heal. When, on their way home from the cinema, Olof Palme and his wife Lisbet were hit by two separate bullets fired by an as-yet unknown gunman (Lisbet survived), it was as if the image of Sweden as an open, safe society was shot down, too. Swedes lost their sense of trust in society; they started to feel unsafe and fearful. Politicians could no longer, as Olof and Lisbet had done, take the underground to the cinema on a Friday night and move about without bodyguards. And Swedes could no longer claim to live in a uniquely secure country. Or so the story tends to go.

But, as Lisbet Palme complained in a rare interview on Swedish public radio last week, when it comes to Olof Palme, the murder has in many senses come to overshadow the man. Indeed, between the shambolic police investigation into his assassination and the mythological air shrouding his career, Palme’s achievements and ideas have in some sense become submerged; they have become secondary to The Symbol Palme.

It is impossible to imagine another Swedish politician spawning so many biographies as Palme has. In fact, in the past few years there’s been a renaissance of Palme books on everything from his engagement in women’s equality and his foreign policy to a whodunit about his murder. One of the most heavyweight books from last year, both in the physical and authorial senses, is called Underbara Dagar Framför Oss (‘Wonderful Days Ahead’) by journalist Henrik Berggren. It refreshingly demystifies Palme, and shows that there was a continuity to his political ambitions and his personality.

The cliché has it that Palme was a ‘man of contradictions’. As the back cover of Berggren’s book says, he was ‘[t]he aristocrat who became a socialist. The individualist who became the leader of Sweden’s largest political collective. The literature lover who fell out with authors. The America-friend who attacked the US government. The anti-communist who embraced Fidel Castro.’ Yet, as Berggren also explains, ‘Olof Palme’s contradictions are the contradictions of his times’. Berggren places Palme in the context of the tumultuous twentieth century. He’s not a riddle, but a man of his eventful times.

Today, it is not surprising that some are looking back at those times with a sense of nostalgia that was anathema to Palme’s forward-looking, pro-progress attitude. As a woman in her sixties who passes by the scene of Palme’s murder every day told Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter: ‘I wish I lived in a Sweden that no longer exists.’

Now, having suffered their second consecutive electoral loss in 2010, with news last weekend that nearly every single Social Democrat press officer has resigned, and with polls showing that most of the new party leadership candidates are unknown to a majority of Swedes, Palme has become a bit of a lost guru. The crisis commission’s report included a celebration of the party’s foreign policy: ‘The opposition to Apartheid and the Vietnam War, the policy of non-alignment, the ambitious aid policy, the struggle against colonial oppression in Africa and south-east Asia.’ These were all core issues for Palme.

Inadequate as Google searches are as social barometers, type ‘What would Palme have said?’ into the search engine and it becomes clear that many lefties are asking that very question today. As the chief political editor of left tabloid Aftonbladet said, ‘it’s a bit like when deep Christians ask themselves what Jesus would have done when searching for guidance’. She continued: ‘Right now, Palme is particularly missed… The longing for Palme is a longing for seriousness… Today’s Social Democrats have something to learn [from Palme]. Maybe not as much from his politics as from the optimism, the go-ahead spirit and the faith in one’s own ideas.’

Yet while the Palme era looks like a more clear-cut place when observing it through rose-tinted glasses, there is also a great deal of suspicion today towards strong-handed, charismatic leadership. After all, over 50 people contributed to the crisis commission’s report A Restart for Social Democracy and under the Obama-esque headline ‘Change’ on its website, the party declares: ‘We Social Democrats have made up our minds. We’re going to change. We know that many like our ideas about freedom and justice. But we also know that we have to listen in order to change. What do we need to do to win your confidence?’

This politics by committee, the notion that ideas should be generated through online polls and focus groups, has a democratic whiff to it, but it is in fact a reflection of deep insecurity, political waywardness and a bureaucratisation of the political process. Even lefties promoting a more radical agenda have in fact been arguing for much of the same. For instance, Göran Greider, editor of the social-democratic newspaper Dala-Demokraten and author of the newly published Ingen Kommer Undan Olof Palme (‘No One Escapes Olof Palme’), said at a commemorative seminar on Saturday that the key is not ‘to find a new Palme’ but to ‘build new social movements’, for instance through social media, as this is where ‘the ideas will be born’. He complained that at a time when the workers’ movement has withered, the media agenda takes precedence: ‘Palme spoke to the members, Sahlin [the outgoing Social Democrat leader] was forced to relate to the media.’

There is a truth in this of course. The Social Democrats have never been so disconnected from the electorate and PR has never been so central to policymaking. In the past, as explained previously on spiked, the cradle-to-grave welfare state, which Palme helped shape, also encompassed people’s political lives – from involvement in the labour movement’s children’s organisation Unga Örnar (Young Eagles) and the Swedish Social Democratic Youth League (SSU), to membership in the trade union confederation. In other words, the Social Democrat Party was bound up with a political identity, influencing people’s personal and professional lives. Yet this state of affairs was not a result of a spontaneous process, of disparate ‘social movements’ deciding what issues should be on the political agenda and the leadership simply administering their multiple wishes. Instead, this society had been moulded through a form of politics that combined ‘thought with deed’, as Berggren characterises Palme’s approach.

Palme’s vision was of, as Berggren explains, a classless society with a strong state and self-realising individuals. In Berggren’s portrait, Palme emerges as a man steeped in Enlightenment ideals, a passionate believer in the benefits of technological progress, modernisation and liberty. But his vision of ‘the strong society’, in which the state would create autonomous citizens who would be non-dependent upon one another, has had particularly freedom-quelling, anti-choice and socially alienating consequences.

Another cliché about Palme is that he was either loved or loathed. Regardless of where you stand on that, one thing that would be worth retrieving from his world vision is the importance of learning from the past while always looking to the future. In that spirit, now that Social Democracy is de facto history, the question is how do we get rid of the ideology-lite technocrats who are trying to resurrect its corpse.

Nathalie Rothschild is an international correspondent for spiked. Visit her personal website here.

See an interview with Olof Palme from 1969:

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