I went to Sweden in 1977 to live the modern socialist dream. But things did not turn out quite the way I—or the Social Democrats—would have wantedby Andrew Brown / July 26, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
Sweden in the 1970s was like living the life of a battery salmon
From the 1960s to the 1980s, the world looked to Sweden as a socialist country that worked. Affluent, egalitarian, moderate, it seemed the blueprint for a kinder, more rational future. In 1977, I moved there with my Swedish wife, Anita. I lived an apparently utopian life—raising a child, working in a small factory, living in an efficient modern home, becoming a fisherman. I found it intensely frustrating. By the 1980s, the country and my marriage were falling apart. The prime minister was shot dead on a street in Stockholm. Swedish industry was crumbling. Through the cracks in the social dream, a very different vision of Sweden emerged: a disillusioned, nervous, greedy country, suddenly unsure of its identity and place in the world. Now, 20 years later, I have returned to travel the length of Sweden—and to reflect on my experiences of a country I have loved, hated, and come to love again.
Communists and detectives
Once my Swedish was up to the task, I learned a lot about my new country from the novels of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, about the policeman Martin Beck. Between 1963 and 1975, this man-and-wife duo produced ten police procedurals set in Stockholm, which sold all around the world. They are excitingly written, realistic about police work and full of period detail. But most of all they illuminate the orthodoxy of the Social Democratic years. The strangest thing about Sweden, to an English eye, was always its conformity. It did not matter what the orthodoxy might be: the point is that everyone knew what was acceptable and proper to believe. The Beck stories taught me most when they were most absurd, because they exaggerated what everybody then believed about progress and society. Sjöwall and Wahlöö were communists, and in the 1970s there was an assumption that communism, while imperfect, was at least a form of socialism; and socialism then seemed as completely inevitable as global capitalism does now.