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Jan Myrdal (born 19 July 1927 in Bromma, Stockholm) is a Swedish author. Well known and controversial in his native country for his strident Marxist-Leninist politics, he is also as a figure of considerable importance in Swedish literature and culture.
Born in Stockholm in 1927, Jan Myrdal is the son of two of Sweden's most influential 20th century intellectuals, Nobel Laureates Alva Myrdal and Gunnar Myrdal, and the brother of Sissela Bok and Kaj Fölster. He was married to Gun Kessle (1926-2007), a graphic artist, photographer, and writer, until her death in 2007. She illustrated many of his works.
As a child, Myrdal followed his parents to the United States during the Second World War, and would later, in several books, relate the importance that his time in New York had in shaping his intellectual evolution. As a youth and young adult, he dropped out of high school to focus on writing and politics, and married twice. He eventually settled on what he refers to in later autobiographical works as "the big life" with his third wife, Kessle: traveling widely in the Third World and dedicating himself to his intellectual pursuits and the role of an engaged public intellectual. He lived for a time in Afghanistan, Iran, and India, pioneered Swedish anti-colonial politics, and wrote of his experiences in developing societies that sought to liberate themselves from Western influences and pressures. An orthodox pro-Soviet Communist in his youth, Myrdal had by the late 1950s turned into an early proponent of a Maoist-style Communism infused with ideas of Third World solidarity. He became a stalwart defender of Mao Tse-tung's Chinese government and grew increasingly critical of the post-Stalin Soviet Union; several of his works were banned in the Eastern Bloc.
Both in its Stalinist and in its Maoist variety, Myrdal's radical Communism added to the already severe tension within the Myrdal family, as both his parents were leading figures within Sweden's ruling Social Democrat party. His ties with Alva and Gunnar would eventually be severed completely, dividing and scandalizing what had long been perceived as a "model family" in social-democratic Sweden. Myrdal went on to pen unflattering portraits of his parents in several autobiographical books, while acknowledging their importance as intellectuals.
Myrdal's major literary breakthrough was Report from a Chinese Village (1963), a semi-anthropological study of a village in Mao's China. In subsequent years, he would pen similar studies, drawing on material gathered during travel across the Third World.
In the mid and late 1960s, he also emerged as a highly influential figure within the new Swedish left, which went on the attack against a long-hegemonic Social Democracy and took up positions to the left of the Moscow-backed Swedish Communist Party, which had begun to moderate its stance and, in 1967, changed its name to the Left Party Communists. From 1968 to 1973, Myrdal headed the Swedish-Chinese Friendship Association. From 1971 to 1972 and again from 1987 to 1989, he was the publisher and chairman of the board of Folket i Bild/Kulturfront (FiB/K), a magazine "for freedom of speech and of the press; for a people's culture and anti-imperialism," which, in 1973, broke the IB affair scandal. For the most part, however, Myrdal's influence was of a more indirect nature, as the intellectual lodestar of a variety of small Maoist groups drawn from the university milieus – in particular the KFML, a small group whose role within the intellectual left vastly outstripped its numerical weight. For example, Maoists managed to gain control over a large and culturally influential Swedish pro-Vietnam movement, which protested the U.S. war in that country. Both through these groups and as an independent figure, Myrdal came to play a major role in the anti-war movement, when it was at its peak in terms of political and cultural influence. He later played a similar role in mobilizing a smaller but nonetheless energetic movement to oppose the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
After the 1970s, Myrdal's influence and popularity gradually declined and it began to be seriously circumscribed from the early 1990s. His uncompromising positions now drew more scrutiny and criticism after many of his former supporters renounced their earlier support of totalitarian politics. In contrast, Myrdal made no concessions to the new intellectual climate. Instead, he doubled down on his earlier views. His defense of Pol Pot's government and his denial of the Cambodian genocide became emblematic of his rigid Marxism-Leninism, which no longer had much purchase in Swedish public life.
Even after the decline of his political influence and visibility in day-to-day debates, Myrdal has remained an important figure in Swedish literature. A bibliophile and an unusually prolific and eclectic writer, he has published numerous books and articles on a diverse range of subjects. His newspaper and magazine columns are regularly collected in volumes published as Skriftställningar – a word that means, roughly, "writings," and recalls Myrdal's own favored title, "skriftställare" (rather than "författare," author).
Outside politics, Myrdal's most influential works are the so-called I novels ("jagböcker"), a series of writings that present a highly personal, probing, and mostly autobiographical type of research into Myrdal's own life, upbringing, intellectual influences, and personal relationships. Initially best known for the controversy triggered by Myrdal's devastating portrayal of Alva and Gunnar's parenthood – some other members of the family accused him of lying – their literary value was immediately recognized. Appreciation for the quality of Myrdal's I novels has grown over time, even as his hardline politics have deepened his isolation and deprived him of opportunities to publish politically in mainstream outlets.
Following Kessle's death in 2007, Myrdal remarried Andrea Gaytan Vega in 2008/2009. They split in 2011, then reconciled, and again divorced in 2018. Gaytan Vega was Myrdal's fourth wife, after Kessle (1963-2007), Maj Lidberg (1952-1956), and Nadja Wiking (1948-1952). He had two children, Janken Myrdal (with Wiking) and Eva Myrdal (with Lidberg). As a matter of public record and, indeed, as noted in Myrdal's own writings, several of his relatives have severed ties with him after personal conflicts, due to his abandonment of their relationships, or in protest of his portrayals of the Myrdal family.
By 2019, Myrdal still writes regularly for Folket i Bild/Kulturfront (FiB/K), which he helped create and run in the 1970s and which remains a bastion for his remaining political supporters. He is also actively involved with the Jan Myrdal Society, a literary society created in 2008 to support his writing and stimulate research into his work. The Society leadership and Myrdal himself have publicly clashed over a number of different issues, both political and financial. The Society currently supports the 50,000-volume Jan Myrdal Library, which consists of his personal library, donated for the purpose of creating a permanent collection open to researchers. According to the Jan Myrdal Society, about a third of the volumes in the Jan Myrdal Library are held by no other Swedish library, testifying to Myrdal's decades of book-collecting in Sweden, in Europe, and during his Asian, African, and Latin American travels. The library is located in Varberg, and so is Myrdal himself, renting an apartment from the Society in the library building and helping to catalogize its contents.
As noted above, Myrdal is a highly prolific writer, both of books and newspaper columns. Over the years, he has developed a wide range of special interests, typically striving to place any issue in a vivid historical and social context that will, as often as not, tie into the political issues of the day. His writings deal with such diverse topics as 19th Century French caricature, Afghanistan, Balzac, wartime propaganda posters, the Indian Naxalites, wine, Meccano, sex, death, and Strindberg; the latter is a towering figure in Swedish literature, whose intellectual eclecticism, ceaseless feuding, and strident politics appear, in many respects, to have provided a model for Myrdal's own literary and public persona. The line dividing between art, literature, and politics is generally thin and fluid, if at all existent, in Myrdal's works, and he will often dive into far-ranging historical and cultural exposés, circling back hundreds of years to contextualize contemporary politics.
As an author, Myrdal is self-taught. Having dropped out of gymnasium to concentrate on his writing, he was briefly employed as a journalist at a local newspaper and struggled to find a publisher for early novel drafts. Report from a Chinese Village (1963) was not his first published book, but it became a major breakthrough, including on the international level. He would later publish 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." In 1982 Myrdal returned to the Chinese village he had 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.
Myrdal's best-known works - in Sweden as well as abroad - include his many autobiographical books, I novels. These dea mainly with his childhood and his complex, conflicted relationship with his parents, Alva Myrdal and Gunnar Myrdal. The entire suite of autobiographical material is non-chronological and contains numerous repetitions and reformulations. According to Anton Honkonen, the assembled autobiographical material comprises a total of fifteen volumes and more than 3 250 pages, spread over 57 years of publishing. Through the publication of Childhood (in Swedish as Barndom, 1982), Myrdal's I novels became strongly associated with the controversy surrounding his tense relationship to his famous parents. Later I books have moved away in part from the childhood theme to focus on Myrdal's experiences of old age, but regularly rehash and comment on early life experiences.
Myrdal's most recent book, Ett andra anstånd ("A Second Reprieve", 2019) is a prime example of the later I novels: although it does spend a great deal of time on the childhood years and on the conflicts with Alva and Gunnar, the central focus is elsewhere: themes of aging and death, loneliness and past loves, sex and the lack thereof, and Myrdal's attempts to unearth unflattering aspects of his life that he had suppressed or distorted in earlier versions – such as contracting venereal disease, and cheating on a wife and being cheated on. One of the central I novels, Maj. En kärlek (1998), which deals with Myrdal's second marriage, is scheduled for republication with newly added material in 2020.
Bibliography in English
• Report from a Chinese Village (1963)
• Confessions of a Disloyal European (1968)
• Angkor: An Essay on Art and Imperialism (1970) - with Gun Kessle
• Albania Defiant (1970)
• The Silk Road: A Journey from the High pamirs and Ili through Sinkiang and Kansu (1977) - with Gun Kessle
• India Waits (1980)
• Return to a Chinese Village (1984)
• Childhood (1991)
• Twelve Going on Thirteen (2010)
• Red Star Over India: As the Wretched of the Earth are Rising (2014)
[To be expanded]
Politically, Myrdal is a Marxist-Leninist, and he has been associated with Maoism and other forms of third worldist and anti-Soviet Communism, including Hoxhaism (see Albania Defiant). He has been a fervent advocate of anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist causes.
Myrdal's influence on the cultural and political life of Sweden was most prominent in the 1970s, when he was arguably the most important intellectual on the radical left. He was a central figure in the Vietnam war protest movement, which marked the high point of the leftist wave that began in Sweden in the late 1960s. However, unlike many of his former supporters, Myrdal has maintained his views up to this day, regardless of their diminishing popularity. Today, his direct political influence is less evident outside narrowly far-left circles, but he remains a popular author and continues to have some political visibility outside the hard left as a pugnacious and contrarian voice on a variety of issues.
Despite his record of supporting a number of authoritarian governments at the international level, Myrdal is strongly opposed to limitations on free speech on principle, and he has repeatedly argued in favor of civil liberties for everyone – including racists, Nazis, and Islamists. In Marxist terms, he stresses that the left must defend "bourgeois liberties" as a valuable historical step forward as well as a matter of self-defense: to accept infringements on personal and public freedoms in the name of security, order, or public decency would ultimately only serve repressive and reactionary purposes, facilitating the suppression of the working class. In line with these positions, Myrdal was sharply critical of the Swedish constitution of 1974, which was introduced in order to modernize Sweden's old and in some ways archaic 19th Century constitution. To Myrdal, the new constitution did not symbolize modernity or a democratic step forward, rather, it was a dilution of the protections and division of power which are enshrined in past constitutional arrangements (see e.g. Skriftställning 6: Lag utan ordning, 1975).
A critic of contemporary feminism, he has also been accused of insensitivity with regard to gender issues and homophobia, after criticising elements of Sweden's pro-LGBT campaigns, including marriage equality and homosexual adoption. Same-sex marriages were legalized in Sweden in 2009. In the debates which preceded the passage of the new law, Myrdal was virtually alone among leftists when he joined mostly Christian conservative voices in condemning the new law. Myrdal has countered the criticism by noting that he previously advocated gay rights as a member of the Communist Youth back in the 1940s, and he says his point is that legislators need to respect social reality and children have a right to a legally recognized biological mother and father. He rejects the idea that he is a homophobe, complaining that the allegation has become an "online truth" and he also says that he has no objection to same sex marriages on principle. According to Myrdal, he does object to any laws that would force Christian, Muslim, Jewish, etc., clergy to marry same-sex couples, but he says that to "[t]o call this an objection to gay marriage is senseless."
After being embroiled in several acrimonious debates in the 1980s and 1990s in which he defended the right of anti-Semitic agitators and Holocaust deniers to be heard, including Ahmed Rami and Robert Faurisson, while also taking positions in favor of Palestinian attacks against Israelis and the government of Iran, Myrdal has been dogged by allegations of anti-Semitism. He dismisses the criticism. Regarding Israel, Myrdal views Zionism as an imperialist phenomenon and Israel as a colonial settler-state, which should be dissolved and replaced by a binational Arab-Jewish state.
Myrdal vigorously opposes the international influence of the United States, claiming it is driven by a quest for oil and hegemonic power. He is generally of the opinion that authentic movements for national self-determination or popular liberation must be supported regardless of the ideological or cultural forms these movements may take in their specific cultural and political context. Himself an atheist, he argues that it is right and just for Marxists to make common cause with conservative religious movements in so far as they are authentic representatives of popular aspirations, and he illustrates his point with historical examples: just as one can identify progressive advances achieved by e.g. religion-driven farmers' rebellions in the European Middle Ages, such as the Jan Huss uprising, so one should attempt to support authentic popular forces and anti-Imperialist movements in Asia and Africa today, without attempting to impose one's own time-and-place-specific political agenda on their struggles.
In keeping with this attitude, Myrdal has backed Taliban resistance to US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, including after a Swedish ISAF contingent joined the US-led forces. In a 2009 FiB/K article titled "Death to the Occupiers!" he stated that it was correct to desire the death of Swedish soldiers in Afghanistan in the 2000s, just as it was to wish for the death of Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan in the 1980s, or British colonial troops a hundred years earlier. To Myrdal, "in the current political situation, only if ISAF soldiers, including the Swedish ones, are brought home in body bags and then buried with military honors (and inspiring ministerial speeches!) can the Afghans find peace." More succinctly, he told Hezbollah's al-Intiqad magazine in 2006: "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!"
Since the late 1990s, Myrdal has drawn considerable criticism for his defense of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre in China. In keeping with his dim view of Mao Tse-tung's successors, he originally sympathized with the student protests in Beijing and, after the crackdown in 1989, he condemned the Chinese government as "a military regime of the fascist type." By 1997, however, he publicly revised his earlier opinion on the grounds that the crackdown was necessary in order to prevent China from spinning into internal conflict and thus preserve East-Asian stability. Responding to his critics, he stated that the original student protests were well-founded but the Chinese Communist Party had failed to respond constructively to popular demands. The party's intransigent attitude as well as provocations by some demonstrators aggravated the situation, which led to a tragic crisis in which the state's stability was at stake. Therefore, "[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 in order 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." This view has been met with little understanding in Sweden, and, along with Myrdal's defense of Pol Pot, it is often invoked by critics as evidence that his politics are beyond the pale.
- "1996.20: Myrdal Jan och Gun Kessle". collections.smvk.se (in Swedish).
- "Myrdal, Jan (Nordic Authors)". Project Runeberg.
- "Folket i Bild/Kulturfront". Folket i Bild/Kulturfront (in Swedish).
- Svenska Dagbladet vom 19. Juli 2007 http://blog.svd.se/ledarbloggen/2007/07/19/80-ar-att-minnas/
- Peter Fröberg Idling: Pol Pots Lächeln. Eine schwedische Reise durch das Kambodscha der Roten Khmer. Büchergilde Gutenberg, Frankfurt am Main 2013. ISBN 978-3-7632-6579-4.
- Joscha Schmierer: Unbeschreibliche Brutalität, verblüffende Inkompetenz. Pol Pot und die europäische Solidarität: Ein Überlebender und ein Zeitzeuge beschreiben das Terror-Regime der Roten Khmer. In: FAZ vom 1. Juli 2013, S. 28.
- "Jan Myrdal, 80, gifter sig med Andrea, 47". Expressen (in Swedish).
- "Jan Myrdal skiljer sig". Aftonbladet (in Swedish).
- Erlandsson, Martin. "90-årige Jan Myrdal skiljer sig". hn.se (in Swedish).
- "Jan Myrdals sista flytt - P1 Dokumentär" (in Swedish). Sveriges Radio.
- Lindström, Lasse. "Ett svenskt föredöme: August Strindberg" (in Swedish). Jan Myrdal Society.
- "Kalla mig gärna heteronormativ". Svenska Dagbladet (in Swedish). 23 October 2007.
- 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."
- "Jan Myrdal: Jag ifrågasätter inte folkmordet på judar". Expressen (in Swedish).
- "Död åt ockupanterna! - FiB - Folket i Bild Kulturfront". web.fib.se (in Swedish).
- "Al-Intiqad's interview with Swedish intellectual and writer Jan Myrdal". Intiqad. 28 February 2006. Archived from the original on 27 September 2007.
- "Jag såg inget massmord". Aftonbladet (in Swedish).