Four facets of the Fascist label in the Swedish context
The use of the term ‘fascism’ or ‘neo-fascism’ in the context of the Swedish radical right and its parliamentary arm, the Sweden Democrats (SD), is extremely contested. Following the general elections of 2014, PM Stefan Löfven characterized the party in an op ed in Dagens Nyheter 6 December 2014 a s “a neo-fascist one-issue party respecting neither people´s differences nor Sweden’s democratic institutions.” What followed was a hectic period where (some of them self-declared) experts on ‘fascism’ entered the debate either arguing for or most commonly against the choice of terminology applied by the Swedish political leadership. Swedish intellectuals and academics engaged in an occasionally bizarre competition in defining ‘fascism’ and ‘neo-fascism’ and, closely linked to this general question, who supposedly owned the appropriate privilege of interpretation. The debate gravitated and gravitates still around four discernible positions:
1) ‘Fascism’ is a historical phenomenon fixed in time and space and can only be understood bound to its context, primarily Italy between 1900-1950. 2) ‘Fascism’ is characterized by revolutionary spirit, disrespect of democracy and use of violence to attain political goals. Since SD doesn’t propagate violence and is active within the limits of parliamentary democracy, it is wrong to label the party ‘neo-fascist’. 3) It is wrong to label SD ‘fascist’ or ‘neo-fascist’ since it is a risky strategy to counter its politics. Any discussion on labels will only become politically instrumentalised. 4) ‘Fascism’ has become a catch-all term with no conceptual and explanatory clarity. It is far too broad (ab-/used in all political camps for greatly varying purposes), too serious (SD is after all ‘only’ a populist party proposing narrow-minded nationalist policies) or too derogative (‘fascist’ has been used as a dirty word over time) to capture the success of a populist right-wing party like SD and does not fill a purpose in addressing its politics on the ground.
Against this backdrop, it makes sense to engage with the history of Swedish organized fascism and to revisit its sources. It is then possible to delineate a continuity on the level of ideas and imagination that productively overcomes the shortcomings of the four positions as outlined above.
Grasping the Fasces: analysing the periodical ‘Spöknippet’ 1926–1930
Between 1926–1930 was published Spöknippet: Organ för Sveriges Fascistiska Folkparti och Kamporganisationen [‘Fasces: Organ of the Swedish Fascist People’s Party and Combat Organization’], the first periodical of Swedish organized fascism. Surprisingly and to this date, no systematic analysis of its content has been carried out so far. At the University of Gothenburg, Sweden a student thesis in the History of Sciences and Ideas written by Martin Joviken in spring 2019 has now explored the first volume of Spöknippet, capturing its formation at the end of 1926. The thesis is titled “Greppet om Spöknippet: Ett idéhistoriskt nedslag i den svenska fascismen år 1926” [”Grasping the Fasces: insights into Swedish Fascism in the year of 1926 from the perspective of the history of ideas”]. In his work, Joviken unveiled imaginaries and what he termed ‘conceptual structures’ that resonate well with the radical right almost a century after their first publication. Two of Sweden’s subsequent fascist leaders commenced their political activities in the circles around Spöknippet, Sven Olov Lindholm (1903–1998) and Per Engdahl (1909–1994). Engdahl was a prominent progenitor of the post-1945 ‘European Social Movement’ which directly ties into the formation of the contemporary European New Right and its ideas. Researching Spöknippet and its conceptual framework promises new insights into the (under-researched) early history of Swedish interwar fascism and its legacy. The first issue of Spöknippet appeared in October 1926 and the last of the first volume in December 1926, altogether ten issues that were scrutinized in detail by Joviken. Applying Griffin’s approach of an ‘methodological empathy’ towards the sources of fascism, the author engages with a content analysis of the periodical based upon an identification of predominant concepts and conceptual structures in relation to the historical context and previous research and how these conceptual structures potentially are anchored in other intellectual traditions or signify additional ideational value.
What emerges is a ‘conceptual skeleton’ uncovering the latent structure of the text gravitating around specific areas and their frequent and productive interrelationship: explicit opinions and postulations (such as anti-bolshevism and criticism of the established press), implicit perceptions (such as that the ‘world is an illusion’ or that the past is heavily romanticized) and the factual and rhetorical use of language and linguistic tropes (such as metaphors of disease and illness or glorification of violence).
Spöknippet was founded in a circle of lower middle-class white-collar workers and soldiers in the middle of a tense period of Swedish democratic development, riddled with ideological and political conflicts, economic crises and strikes. After the dissolution of the political union with Norway in 1905, a massive project of nationalization engulfed the young national state of Sweden and after general suffrage in 1921, Swedish political parties competed against each other in the expression of nationalist sentiment. But despite of the relatively small amount of organized members (in the general elections of 1936, fascist parties only received 0,7% electoral support), the ideas expressed in Spöknippet are significant to study in their own right.
Each issue of Spöknippet carried the motto “Varen Svenske” (“Be Swedish”), which allegedly was coined by the founding father of Swedish national unity, king Gustav Vasa (1496–1560), a legacy which the fascists consciously tapped into. Joviken argues that Spöknippet’s use of history is an expression of ‘retrotopian longing’ in the sense of Bauman (2017). Not only Gustav Vasa, but also the warrior kings Gustav II Adolf (1594–1632) and Charles XII (1682–1712) were constantly hailed in romantic vocabulary. But it is Gustav Vasa who almost is represented as a founding father of Swedish fascism, his unification of the nation through violent uprising against the Danish rule in Scandinavia is paralleled to the contemporary crisis and characterized as a ‘fascist method’ of conflict resolution. Moreover, the fatherland assumes almost a religious and divine position, sacrifice for the nation-state is idealized and ancestors of national glory are venerated in passionate language. Fascism opens the door to these sacred and uncorrupted sites of the national past.
Decadence and Doom
Another theme that saturates the issues of Spöknippet is that of the pending apocalypse and of persisting decadence of the now. Fear of the almost certain future catastrophe is a strong driver of retrotopian longing, according to Bauman. This is one of the most productive tropes throughout the articles (the majority of which were signed with pseudonyms or appeared anonymously): “national dissolution and ruin” will arrive, the “catastrophe is approaching” or “we are heading towards the abyss”. Applying Barkun’s (1977) theories about a shift from disaster perception from divine/natural to man-made (turning increasingly diffuse during the industrial age and culminating during the First World War), Joviken argues that modern fascism can be interpreted as a response against such endemic anxiety and that it moreover actively stoked fears. For Spöknippet, the move of Swedish wealth outside the country, growing national debt, de-militarization, a dysfunctional parliamentarism as well as the de-Christianization of society are given as major reasons to the impending catastrophe. But one of the major reasons is falsely understood and ‘crafted’ class antagonism, where work and capital are unproductively placed against each other and thus restraining national economic capacity. Such artificial antagonism has to be overcome by national unity. For this fight, the periodical amalgamates its ideological positions even with socialist positions and is able to postulate: “Swedes of all classes, unite!” and thus styles itself as the true worker’s movement. Moreover, it is the state and its unproductive parliamentarism that facilitates the tensions within the Swedish nation.
Rectification and Rebirth
The only solution to the contemporary disorder is the restoration of a dimly defined ‘intervening hand’, frequently associated with the previously mentioned line of hero-kings. What emerges here is the fascist figure of thought that a period of national decadence (saturated with tropes of anti-modernity) will act as a catalysator of national rebirth. In this context it is interesting to notice that the circle around Spöknippet did not organize around a charismatic leader, such as Hitler, Franco or Mussolini, but placed the awaited arrival of the ‘intervening hand’ into the undetermined future as a form of Messiah, a re-incarnation of the Swedish hero-kings. Spöknippet also explicitly referred to the Swedish Christian past and thus did not embark upon an exploitation of Scandinavian paganism, so prominent in other radical right movements: the Swedish nation has a spiritual core shaped by its distinctly Christian values and, an antidote against modern materialism and egoism. To utilize Christianity as the foundation of Swedish fascism tapped into a sharp rise of evangelical religiosity that was on the rise in Swedish society of the interwar period which likewise operated from the vantage point that moral depravity and decadence was omnipresent and had to be battled by moral purification. The ultimate goal of this process is national awakening, yet another master frame in the narrative of Spöknippet. The Swedish people are described as being placed in dormancy, it is only fascism that is able to wake up the Swedes from this deep sleep occasioned by material and spiritual suppression and the malevolent state suggesting security when there is none (the ‘blue pill’ of false tranquility). In relation to the Swedish people, Spöknippet occupies an ambivalent position. At the one hand, the Swedes are vilified as manipulated, naïve, passive, morally depraved and at the other hand latent or inherent ‘Swedishness’ re-awakened (taking the ‘red pill’ of fascism) is hailed as the formula of national perfection. Fascism promises action, a concrete and effective method as opposed to the complex and abstract theory and hollow rhetoric of politics at the time. Joviken draws a parallel to the Swedish romanticists, who already at the beginning of the nineteenth century called for national awakening, indulged in retrotopian visions of the Swedish past, outlined the dystopia of national decadence, described the present age as a staged performance, hailed Christianity, attacked empty rhetoric and longed for a strong leader, all of these central parts of the conceptual structure and narrative frames of Spöknippet.
Lasting legacies of fascist imagination
In his thesis, Joviken was only able to cover the first ten issues of the first Swedish fascist periodical. A more substantial analysis will in the future generate more insights into fascist imagination in the interwar period and its legacy for the formation of ideas in the Swedish radical right of today. An almost religious retrotopian mythologization of the Swedish past, the sentiment of impending crisis, collapse and catastrophe (that constantly has to be evoked), Manichaean scapegoating of the establishment and internal/external enemies as well as the master-frame of national awakening are part and parcel of radical right rhetoric in Sweden of today. It saturated for instance the recent speech of SD party leader Jimmie Åkesson (2019-07-07) at the Swedish political get-away week ‘Almedalen’. In this sense, a closer analysis of fascist imagination of the interwar period reveals the long-term legacy of its conceptual structures and helps to answer the question whether it is appropriate to associate the contemporary radical right with fascism or not.
Dr Andreas Önnerfors is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Associate Professor in the History of Ideas at University of Gothenberg. His profile can be found here:
©Andreas Önnerfors. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives)
Thanks to Martin Joviken, Tobias Hübinette and Torbjörn Jerlerup for sharing thoughts and ideas on the subject.