Jan Myrdal

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Jan Myrdal, 2007

Jan Myrdal (born 19 July 1927 in Bromma, Stockholm) is a Swedish author, leftist-political writer and columnist. He is an honorary doctor of literature at Upsala College in New Jersey, US, and a PhD at Nankai University in Tianjin in China. He has lived at various times in the United States, Afghanistan, Iran and India. He is the son of the Social Democrats and Nobel Laureates Alva Myrdal and Gunnar Myrdal; he broke completely with both at an early age for personal reasons while keeping them in esteem for their public achievements. He was married to Gun Kessle, a photographer, graphic artist and writer, until her death in 2007. She illustrated many of his works.

In 1982 Myrdal went back to the Chinese village he reported on in 1962 and recorded his observations in Return to a Chinese Village (1984), in which he expressed his disappointment at the changes that had occurred, and his continued support of Mao's programs, including the Cultural Revolution.

Written production[edit]

Myrdal is a prolific writer, both of books and newspaper columns; he was first employed as a journalist at a local newspaper, after having dropped out of gymnasium to concentrate on his writing. He got his breakthrough in 1963 with the book Report from a Chinese Village, an anthropologic study of a Chinese village in Mao's China. Subsequently he has written many similar "reports" and travel notes from Asian countries, including India, Afghanistan and the then-Soviet Central Asian republics, in collaboration with his life partner, Gun Kessle. His 1968 book Confessions of a Disloyal European was chosen by the New York Times as one of that year's 'ten books of particular significance and excellence'. [1]

Myrdal's best-known works include his many autobiographical books, I novels, mainly about his childhood and his complex, conflicted relationship with his parents, Alva Myrdal and Gunnar Myrdal. The first of these books caused scandal when they were first published in Sweden, due to the bad light they cast on Alva and Gunnar, who were among the most esteemed public intellectuals and politicians of their time.

Myrdal is an eclectic author, who has developed a wide range of special interests in topics deemed obscure by many, and who seeks to place art, literature and popular culture in an ever-political context of historical and social forces. He has written books on such diverse subjects as Meccano, wartime propaganda posters and French 18th-century caricature art; he even edited a wine column for the Tenants Association for a short while. The line dividing art, literature and politics is thin and fluid, if at all existent, in Myrdal's works, and he will regularly dive into far-reaching historical and cultural exposés in his political agitation.

Political views[edit]

Jan Myrdal in an open-air meeting against a Swedish involvement in the war in Afghanistan, 27 October 2007

Politically, Myrdal is an adherent of or associated with Maoism and other forms of third worldist anti-Soviet communism, in addition to Hoxhaism (see Albania Defiant); he has been a fervent advocate of anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist causes. His influence on the cultural and political life of Sweden was most prominent during the 1970s, when he was one of the main intellectuals of the radical left of the time, which culminated in the Vietnam war protest movement, of which he was a central figure. However, unlike many of his former supporters, he has maintained his views up to this day, regardless of their diminishing popularity. Today, his direct political influence is less evident, outside radical leftist circles, but he remains a notable figure in political and cultural debate and a popular author; his visibility is enhanced by the aggressively contrarian positions he take to much conventional political wisdom.

Freedom of speech and civil liberties[edit]

He is strongly opposed to limitations on free speech, and argues in favor of the rights of everyone, including racists, Nazis and radical Islamists to make whatever political statements they want. This, perhaps coupled with his strong position on Middle Eastern issues (see below), has led to allegations of anti-Semitism against him, something he protests. Instead, he argues that his defense of civil liberties is in the liberal tradition, saying that in the absence of a truly socialist state, bourgeois constitutional democracy must be defended at all costs by the workers' movement, because it represents a historical achievement and a stepping-stone towards even more advanced social and political models.

Middle East and anti-colonialism[edit]

His views on the Middle East has met with strong opposition from some quarters, and equally strong support from others. He vigorously opposes US influence, claiming it is driven by a quest for oil and hegemonic power; he further describes Israel as a colonial settler state, which must be replaced with a state for all faiths and ethnicities (Jewish, Arab, Muslim, Christian etc.), and argues that Zionism is an ideology linked to Imperialism.

In his opinion, it is necessary to support those groups that are authentic movements for national self-determination or popular liberation, regardless of the ideological or cultural forms these movements take on; such differences as there may be are superficial and temporary in a historical and social perspective. While himself a leftist and atheist, he argues that it is right and just to make common cause even with conservative religious movements in so far as they are authentic representatives of popular aspirations. He takes a long term historical view on these matters: just as one can identify progressive and democratic advances achieved by e.g. religion-driven farmers' rebellions in the European Middle Ages, such as the Jan Huss or Engelbrekt uprisings, so one should attempt to support authentic popular forces and anti-Imperialist movements today, without attempting to impose one's own time-and-place-specific political agenda on their struggles.

In 2006 he gave an interview to Hezbollah's magazine al-Intiqad, in which he summed up this aspect of his world view, and defined the relationship that Western supporters should have to what they consider authentic liberation movements in the Third World:

The Second World War was both a war between different imperial interests and of people fighting for their independence. In Europe the Norwegians, the French resistance, the guerrillas of Northern Italy struggled for their national liberation as do the Palestinians, Iraqis, Afghans today.
Where there is oppression people will rise in revolt. The ideologies will be different according to the time and the history but if people are oppressed they will react and revolt and their struggle will be just.
Today in many countries of the world – especially in Asia – Muslim or Islamic ideology has become a driving force in the popular resistance against oppression. The situation and thus the ideologies were different for the patriots of Europe or China during the second World War. But then as now: To revolt against oppression is just. [...]
The question of international solidarity is in fact very simple. We formulated it during the war against US aggression in South East Asia:
- Support the Liberation front on their own conditions![1]

Tiananmen Square controversy[edit]

In 1997 he faced controversy on another front, as he publicly defended the Chinese government's (of which he is not a supporter, post-Mao) intervention during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, on the grounds that it was a necessary action to preserve east-Asian stability. Responding to critics, he stated that the original student protests were in fact well-founded and directed at corruption and other ills in Chinese society, and that the Communist Party failed to respond constructively to their demands. The party's intransigent and non-cooperative attitude, as well as provocations from some demonstrators, aggravated the situation, and this eventually, and tragically, led to a crisis in which the state's stability was at stake. At this point, all other options than a violent resolution were blocked. Originally, he sympathized with the students, but in 1997, he had changed his view and now regarded the crackdown as a necessary evil to preserve Asian stability.

He stated that

"I have now come to the conclusion that China in June 1989 was faced with a situation that could have evolved into a political meltdown; a Bosnia of gigantic proportions, and the risk of a new great war in the Pacific area. That is why I now feel that the intervention that time was necessary"

, and also that

"[t]he question can not be whether it was moral or immoral to shed blood on the square of Heavenly Peace in the summer of 1989, but whether it was necessary or not, to prevent a Bosnia in billion-size proportion, and a possible Pacific war. If it was necessary, as I now believe, then it was right and moral. If it was not necessary, then it was wrong and criminal."

Same-sex marriages[edit]

Myrdal was early on an activist for women's rights and argued in favor of the rights of gays and lesbians in the 1950s. More recently, however, he has been criticized for his stance towards homosexuality, due to his opposition to same-sex marriages. Gay marriage became legal in Sweden in 2009. Opposing gay marriage is today a highly unorthodox thing to do on the Swedish left.[2] He argues that marriage (as traditionally defined, between man and woman) is a "historically determined form of co-habitation" in this era, which has a crucial role in organizing social relations. He also presents marriage, in contemporary society, as a key support for children's rights, since—in his view—gay marriages and gay couple adoption rights will lead to a disintegration of the natural link between parenthood and childhood, to the detriment of children who will be disconnected from their roots.[3]

In an article in Folket i Bild/Kulturfront, March 2012, he comments the accusations of homophobia after being questioned by a reporter from BBC why he was "against the homosexuals". He rejects such accusations and seems to slightly modify his earlier stands on same-sex marriage: "Same-sex marriage is not any stranger than mine and [earlier wife] Gun's", since that marriage also was child-less. Without regretting his earlier opinions, he now claimed that he only was rejecting the fact that the law of same-sex marriage was a way of the state to interfere with the religious communities, but: "To call this objection to gay marriage is senseless."[4]

External links[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Al-Intiqad's interview with Swedish intellectual and writer Jan Myrdal" (in English (original Arabic)). Intiqad. 28 February 2006. 
  2. ^ "Kommentar: Vad har du i fickan, Jan?" (in Swedish). Expressen. 17 March 2006. 
  3. ^ "Kalla mig gärna heteronormativ" (in Swedish). Svenska Dagbladet. 23 October 2007. 
  4. ^ Folket i Bild/Kulturfront, No 3/2012 "Om könet och politiken", s 44–45: "Äktenskapet är – numera – en enkel juridisk form för att reglera inbördes ekonomi och arv och faderskap. Samkönade äktenskap är inte konstigare än mitt och Guns som av enkla skäl (hennes tioåriga sanatorietid) från början var medvetet barnlöst." (...) "Att kalla detta för motstånd mot homoäktenskap är vettlöst."