My Discovery of Sweden
It was as long ago as 1938 that I first contacted the Swedish anarchist movement. From 1938 until 1940 I was the London correspondent of Brand, then under the editorship of C. J. Bjorklund. I fully intended to learn Swedish and keep in contact. I broke off contact for obvious reasons. I postponed learning the language until late 1991, quite a gap for good intentions. Maybe by the time I speak it I will find an angel who speaks only Swedish, or be able to converse with the divine Greta in her own tongue. At the time they translated the articles from English and persuaded me to learn Esperanto instead. I learned it quickly and forgot it quickly. I found this a blind alley, linguists speaking to linguists rather than nations to nations.
What I liked about the Swedish movement was the way it recognised anarchism could stand on its own as a revolutionary workers movement and yet blend into the syndicalist unions. During and after the Spanish war, the syndicalist union, Swedish Workers Centralorganisation (SAC), showed exceptional solidarity with the CNT-FAI.
I was told a story of the aftermath of Franco’s victory, when the banks robbed the people, the reason people like Francisco Sabater thought nothing of robbing the banks. All Republican money whether in currency or held on deposit, became worthless overnight. Work became a privilege accorded by the new rulers, social security was not dreamed of. With everyone impoverished, as in Germany after both wars, cigarettes became a new currency.
Miguel Garcia told me and some Scandinavian friends at a post-Franco get-together in a Barcelona bar that all during the world war many a Catalan, himself included, would go to the quayside with handfuls of genuine but now worthless Republican currency and buy cigarettes from Swedish sailors. On the sale of tobacco, the smuggling of which is an old-established tradition in Spain, they saved themselves from starvation. Bearing in mind the solidarity shown by Swedes during the civil war, Miguel said he felt ashamed when he met any after WWII but there was then no other way of keeping alive. “Our money was only good for papering their ship cabins,” he said. “That’s exactly what they did with it,” replied a Swedish comrade. “At first the seafarers might have been fooled but after a few weeks everyone knew how things stood”. Northerners, and sailors in particular, are seldom credited with delicacy and tact but such was the case.
During the war the International Workingmen’s Association (it later, with English-speaking movements adhering, changed its English name from the historic but archaic IWMA to the less sexist-sounding International Workers Association, better known by its French initials AIT) was situated in Stockholm. The SAC was the second largest union centre in Stockholm. It had been going since the early days of Syndicalism prior to World War I. In some parts of Sweden (as in Spain) membership was a family tradition. Yet it retained the anarcho-syndicalist ideology acquired in the bitter strikes of its early years through the more comfortable times of prosperity that came with war-time neutrality.
After the war there was a battle within the SAC between reformist bureaucrats who wanted to nestle comfortably in Sweden’s liberalism, and those who wanted to retain the early principles. The State allowed trade unions an exceptional degree of freedom, and the conventional trade union (LO) was a partner in administration. The IWMA through its international committee was dominated by the clique represented by Souchy, Rocker and Rudiger. Their attitudes after the war were those of disillusioned old men clinging to liberalism and the avoidance of persecution. They wrote fulsomely of America, of the co-operatives in Israel, of the need to defend democracy against Russian aggression. Every one of the war-time platitudes was preserved by them and they added a few others. There was also still an element within the CNT which thought the Allies not merely should but would ‘logically’ destroy fascism’s last bastion in Spain.
This belief in ideology as against politics started for them in the Spanish Civil War, when it seemed inconceivable to some that, but for cowardice, Britain and France would not leap immediately to their aid, and free America was their natural Ally, Hitler and Mussolini were destroying democracy, so ‘logically’ the democracies would respond. This was the theme of Spanish civil war propaganda and even those who knew better came to believe it. They could not grasp that the British government was the force behind Franco rather than, or as much as, Hitler, who would never have dared at that stage to show his hand; and certainly not Mussolini who only ever followed the safe line like a jackal.
At the end of WWII the British Embassy invited the leaders of the various opposition groups to meet to discuss an “alternative but acceptable government” to Franco’s. Cipriano Mera commented he did not see the point of inviting them to sit down with the Monarchists, for instance. I told him I did. It is a process known to gardeners in which one cultivates the weeds so that they can bloom and be destroyed the easier.
But even people like Sabater (certainly his associate Miguel Garcia and others with whom I discussed it) who were cynical about Allied actions believed the latter were blind not to see that Franco during the War had been anti-British and pro-Nazi. I always retorted they were not ‘blind’ — that so would the British politicos and financiers themselves have been had circumstances demanded (and the French Establishment did), a remark which was put down by my Spanish friends as worthy of Sancho Panza. The British ruling class, however, were not so quixotic as to hold against Franco the fact that he had staged anti-British demonstrations in which those who had conquered Spain trampled on the Union Jack and called for conquest of Britain. Since he was also engaged in restoring City investments, he was reckoned to be entitled to his fun. They would have seen him trample on their grandmothers rather than lose profits. Who suffered from it, bar escaping Allied servicemen in Franco’s jails? What if by their actions Germany gained and spun the war out a year longer and the odd million extra lives were lost? What mattered was The Economy.
John Anderson, for many years the secretary of the SAC and of the IWMA, financed an enquiry by a group of Swedes into the involvement of British firms and government agencies with Nazi activity in Spain. Though British military intelligence were working with the Spanish Resistance in their fight against Franco, assisting Allied soldiers to escape, forging German ration cards or burgling the German Embassy, hard-headed commercial intelligence was looking ahead to a future fit for business heroes to exploit.
British companies were trading with Germany via Spain and Sweden. In the Anderson report this was documented, though its compilers took for granted this was done illegally and not connived at by Whitehall. I had a translation in English. It was seized by Special Branch in a raid on me while staying in a friend’s West Hampstead flat one day during the war, and it was curiously scheduled in the list of contents taken as “a German pistol and military passbook”. I never heard more of the mysterious pistol and passbook nor indeed of the translation. Perhaps it helped them in their enquiries, or perhaps it stopped them in their tracks. Of one thing I am sure. The Anderson report did not tell the British government anything they did not know.
It was sad that in the sixties there grew up an as yet unresolved schism between the Swedish anarcho-syndicalists and the Spanish, which threw a shadow on the international movement. Long after the reformist elements in the IWA had died, the revulsion against their policies continued in many organisations, the personality cult they engendered among the academic periphery keeping their names alive and it was assumed they spoke for the SAC rather than for a vanished clique.
It is also the case that Leninists were unable to get a foothold in the Swedish workers movement, where the workers were in advance of the students as regards political understanding, and no vanguard party could presume to tell the workers what to do and expect a mass following. They therefore spread the story of the SAC’s compromises which was gleefully picked up by anti-syndicalists. One notorious one was that the SAC appointed ombudsmen, which was actually true, but it was not understood by English speakers (myself included until I went to Stockholm) that while this might imply Government commissioners in England, it was a Swedish word for social workers giving advice and counselling. Unlike this country, such activities, and many others that would have been run by the municipality or the State, were run by the unions.
What with one confusion and the other, the SAC and IWA parted company, but as the SAC was still internationalist, it responded to what it thought was a genuine section of the Spanish CNT, the “renovados” or Phoney CNT, and for this was ostracised throughout the anarcho-syndicalist movement. When they held a conference in November 1990, three of us from Black Flag went. We could not expect the DAM, affiliated to the IWA, to attend as such though we were all members of the DAM as well. We were amazed at the high calibre, organisation and morale of Swedish anarcho-syndicalism, for which I was totally unprepared. There too we met members of anarcho-syndicalist groups from all over the world, though mostly those outside the IWA. I was greatly impressed by the syndical organisation of the SAC and found it better organised than much of the TUC of which I had experience. It was a pity that Sweden was no longer in the IWA and was reduced to supporting odd little pseudo-syndicalist groups here and there in the world as the result of its mistaken Spanish policy. As we had previously mistakenly attacked the SAC in Black Flag, we had pleasure in getting up and admitting we had been wrong.
But when I attended the IWA congress in Cologne a couple of years later nobody wanted to know.
Previously when I had been in Copenhagen, where they had provided some good Anarchist Black Cross meetings, I had been unable to persuade our friends, all of whom among the younger comrades spoke good English that the word “nordic” had corrupted associations in current idiom. They explained logically when the term “Scandinavian” should not be used and “Nordic” used instead. My one-person campaign at least to use the original term “Nordisk” without translation left them baffled. It is a pity to yield the term to the Nazis, but reference to a “Nordic anarchist conference” sounds odd in English ears today, and produced an unwelcome enquiry from a bemused American fascist group.
In Stockholm the Black Cross decided to discard the “cross” on similar semantic lines. When we first used it, we were thinking of the “Red Cross” rather than the Christian one. The Spaniards, used to “cross” indoctrination in every walk of life, had sheered off the name from the first. The Stockholm activists used a more traditional if “nordic” name, the Anarchist Black Hammer.
With the breakdown of controls from the former Soviet countries and the tighter controls on immigration in the West, people have poured into Sweden from all over the former satellite countries, from Turkey and from Africa. Unlike previous immigrants, however, who came to work they are attracted by social security benefits that have already been obtained. This gives rise to a climate where racial conflicts are created especially as many are not interested in learning Swedish and want to pass on to English-speaking countries. This assists the growth of neo-Nazism. The Nazis are not interested in solving problems, they are interested in exploiting them.
Many liberals in Sweden as elsewhere have shrugged off the Nazi menace feeling they were entitled to freedom of expression, which in practice means the occasional racial murder, arson or attacks on foreigners or punks.
As their activities were becoming respectable, the Swedish Nazis tried for even greater freedom of repression by holding an annual meeting in Stockholm’s Kungstradgaden, by the statue of Charles XII, the Swedish king who swept across Europe (with a victorious army of mostly Turkish mercenaries). The neo-Nazis were attacked by isolated anarchist and punk groups, but could always rely on huge police protection and so defeat all small attacks vigorously.
The Anarchist Black Hammer decided, in the dearth of political prisoners in Sweden, on a challenge to the Nazis. They told the police they would be having a meeting half an hour before, at the same spot. No doubt chuckling at their naiveté, the police agreed, provided they finished in time for the patriots, and laid on ambulances. To the surprise of all the anti-fascist meeting brought out 16,000 people (an amazing figure for Stockholm). The syndicalists brought out the dockers.
When the skinhead Nazis turned up for their meeting armed with coshes ready for confrontation by a few individuals, they found not only a crowd ready to protect themselves, but an outnumbered police force unwilling to face the odds. The fascists received a real bashing and many supermen were howling for mercy. When the ambulances arrived they were taken away bleeding.
While this was going on the trots held a meeting near to the tube, from which it would have been easy to disappear underground had things gone the usual way. Thus they were able to attract a certain crowd leaving the station and thinking this was the alternative meeting. True to the modern left-wing belief that if you chant a slogan many times it will come true, they called “Fascists out!” and “Build the revolutionary party!” and screamed constructive slogans such as “Fascist scum” at the anarchists and syndicalists apparently strolling to the statue with sticks.
Many of these carried nothing more lethal than golf clubs and might well have been on their way to a quiet game with the fascists. They were the ABH and not the GBH after all. It is regrettable that a great many tee shots that would have done credit to St. Andrews Royal & Ancient were swung before they realised they had mistaken the gleaming shaved heads for golfballs.
The secretary of the Anarchist Black Hammer was named and his address and phone number given by the Nazi newspaper. Death threats were made against him. Following a radio interview many of the law-and-order lobby recanted support of the Nazis, saying they were against immigration but had not realised they were being taken for a ride by the Nazis. It seems strange that they turned against the Nazis for their hooliganism only when they were beaten up.
A year later one saw the point, when British fascisti travelled to Sweden for the sole purpose of causing a senseless football riot, exploiting the British football fans and the Swedish population alike, just for the fun of it. Those who hold the principle of free speech for all to be a marble saint might reflect on the pointlessness of giving a platform for Nazis. The Swedish police, typically, tried cheaper beer and music. That was not what they had come for. The whole purpose is to create a situation in which they can appear powerful and get support. In doing this, race and immigration are merely pools in which they can swim.
Weekend in Macedonia
After I came back from Sweden, I decided that, despite hospitality, it was such an expensive country to visit that I could go anywhere so long as the credit card system provided, and begrudged myself no restriction on holidays or meetings, so long as the monthly minimum payments could be maintained. So it was that I came to spend a weekend in Thessaloniki (Salonica), but such was the hospitality I received that in the end I spent nothing.
I stayed with an old comrade John Txiantikis, a remarkable man of eighty-five, a seasoned fighter who had been expelled from Anatolia during the Turkish occupation and spent his childhood involved in resistance activities to the harsh Turkish military occupation. National independence was heroically fought for by generations of Greek and Balkan people but, as always, did them little good when it came as some who fought the hardest had always known.
Growing up in war-time Salonica, occupied by different forces at different times, scraping a living for himself and his family from an early age, he had been in all the labour struggles since 1914. Up to the first world war Spanish-speaking Jews had, as nowhere else, formed a large part of the working class movement and were the bulk of the dockers. However with the end of Turkish rule their proportion and their numbers diminished (they finally disappeared under German rule in WWII), but their traditions of solidarity lingered on long after they had become a folk memory. Local militants of John’s generation still remembered them.
Revolutionary action was endemic in the 20s and 30s though this too was becoming a folk memory and John was one of the few survivors. I was flattered that the local anarchists bracketed him with myself. He spoke English having spent a dozen or so years in Australia with his wife, which is how they managed to buy a flat when he returned home. Like many workers in Salonica, he had as a young man been repelled by the Communist Party whose activity in the Balkan had mirrored Russian foreign policy.
Like many other Greek workers, he accepted the Trotskyist deviation. When Trotsky sailed into exile, leaving Russia in the style of a ruling prince, he passed a Greek port but was not allowed to enter. The fallen dictator stood at the deck acknowledging the cheers of the dockworkers, the last time he was to receive a “mass working-class” ovation. The memory lived on for years, and hundreds of followers of Trotsky, the Red Army founder, were rounded up by the Greek government and exiled to penal islands in the thirties, John among them.
Those of the deportees who survived the Greek nationalists were rounded up by the Gestapo during the German occupation in WWII, sitting ducks in the islands, but many survived to fight on, to be slaughtered by the local Stalinists during the Civil War that followed the driving out of the Germans. It is curious to work out the arguments of Trotskyism but it is easily understandable how outraged the survivors of this policy were at the insistence of the Fourth International that they should be loyal to the Soviet Union, which was still a workers’ state despite Stalin, and so far as Greece was concerned they gave “critical support” to the Communist Party. It is understandable that many like John Txiantikis, turned to anarchism as being not just more idealistic, but more practical, and in modern Greece, with a revolutionary presence besides.
When leaving Thessaloniki airport, I was called into a private room by the Greek airport police and searched. I had been in Greece four days and only had a weekend case with the usual necessities, plus about forty legally printed Greek newspapers. It took them a full hour to search and question me, something I only ever experienced in countries like the former Soviet Union and Britain, and that going in, not coming out, but in this case they wanted to know my mother’s maiden name too. She had been dead a third of a century and had never travelled further from London than Blackpool, apart from one weekend in France. What conceivable use her identity was to them I do not know but as her name had been Shelly, it was near enough to the poet and so told them it was Byron. It was near enough for their purposes and they looked suitably impressed. No doubt they were satisfied that if the family had been inclined to intervene in the affairs of Greece in the past, it was for a purpose of which they could hardly officially disapprove.