Legacies of a blood-red decade

I came over two strange books at a used book sale once. Published in the early 70's with proud, red covers, they're Norwegian translations of North Korean propaganda books. One is a biography of Kim Il Sung and the other a collection of his articles on agriculture. (This would have been back when they still had one). A few weeks ago I was in a used book store, and a similar proud, red cover caught my attention. Thicker this one, also published in the early 70's, it was a selection of Josef Stalin's speeches, translated and with an introduction by the publisher. After his death, Stalin, they claimed, had been unjustly smeared by his right-deviating followers, and by publishing this volume they were hoping to restore his reputation.

I didn't buy that one - it made me sick. I bought the North Korean books for their ironic value - the biography is fun to read, written in a peculiarly persuasive machine-gun propaganda style - but the fun competes with the knowledge that these men killed millions and made their countries hell on earth, and with the knowledge that young Norwegians, members of communist cults, read books like these with the devotion of religious zealots.

Kim Il Sung's biography was published by Ny Dag (New Day), owned by NKP, the Norwegian Communist Party. The Stalin book was published by Oktober, owned by AKP (m-l), the Workers Communist Party (marxistic-leninistic). For reasons I'm not sure are either interesting or important, there was a split among communists at the time. NKP was the old guard, a branch-off of the formerly communist Labor party, a member of Comintern, and loyally obedient to the Soviet Union. AKP (m-l) represented a new generation, mostly recruited from universities. They cheered for Mao, Hoxha and Pol Pot, and while they admired or respected Stalin they hated the Soviet Union for its imperial ambitions. As far as I'm concerned, both camps essentially agreed that the human race had to be enslaved - they just disagreed on how to enslave it - but these differences mattered deeply to the people involved, as they always do to zealots.

There were other totalitarian sects recruiting at universities, but AKP (m-l) became the most influential. Formerly SUF, the youth party of what later became the Socialist Left, it was taken over by maoists/marxist-leninists and turned into SUF (m-l), and then AKP (m-l) in 1973. They saw themselves as a revolutionary vanguard, with a need for strict party discipline comparable to that of many religious cults. When the revolution came, as they all knew it would, they would take charge and carry it through. And while they usually denied (or downplayed) their heroes' numerous holocausts, large and small, I see no reason to doubt that they would have committed the same crimes in Norway, and for the same reasons, had they been given the chance. I don't think it's a coincidence that communism has so often not only failed catastrophically, but failed in the same ways everywhere, through the fanaticism of its leadership in carrying out the impossible. The reason is to be found in the religious aspects of their beliefs - the holy cause, the black/white worldview, the faith in sacred scriptures and the emphasis on obedience - traits AKP (m-l) and other Norwegian groups shared with their idols.

These headlines and covers from AKP (m-l)'s old student magazine Materialisten (the Materialist) indicate what kind of topics they were discussing at the time: "Fight the destruction of scientific socialism by left-secterists" (editorial), "On marxism and the politics of music" (by 'Kark'), "Soviet capitalism and the question of trade" (by Sigurd Allern), "Profit controls the Soviet economy" (by 'TS'), "Behavioral therapy - Progressive or reactionary?" (by Monica Johansson), "Engels, the family, and the women's movement" (by Jorun Solheim), "Attempt at socialistic democracy - the Soviet Union 1917-38" (by Ragnar Næss) - I could go on and on like this. (They certainly did.)

The illusion unravelled, eventually, and only the most fanatic and narrowminded went through the early 80's unsoftened, but the years mispent had paid off with experience in politics, activism and media. Where they should have taken a hint from history and either faded into obscurity, revived the self-proletarization experiment or emigrated to China, many sect members landed influential jobs in politics, culture, academia and media instead. One of the founders of AKP (m-l), Sigurd Allern, is now Norway's only professor of journalism at the University of Oslo. His wife at the time, Hilde Haugsgjerd, became editor of Dagsavisen. A member of the competing sect KUL, Gerd Liv Valla, who while not originally pro-Stalin supported the group's eventual Stalinization in 1980, became a prominent Labor politician, was a minister of justice in the 90's, and is today the leader of LO, Norway's Trade Union Federation, with 800 000 members. Did we see a remnant of old ideas in her proposal a few years ago to fight declining union membership numbers by requiring everyone to join a union in order to receive unemployment benefits? Many others are journalists and academics.

These positions in politics and media would be less disturbing if the ex-totalitarians indicated awareness of the full extent of their crimes. I don't mean crimes in a legal sense - they may or may not have broken any laws, and I am strongly not suggesting that an idea should by illegal by itself - but they violated every civilized virtue we believe in. They were intellectually dishonest, closed-minded and anti-democratic. They worshipped and apologized for the murderers of millions, while the murders were taking place, and terrorized doubters and critics in their own ranks. Worse than todays neo-nazi's, non-intellectual troublemakers nostalgic for an evil long buried, these people supported and helped an evil that still existed, and fully expected to shortly introduce that evil at home. An appropriate analogy, though few of the student sects were pro-Soviet, would be Vidkun Quisling and Nasjonal Samling - but unlike the 70's totalitarians Quisling got both what he wanted and what he deserved. What Quisling wanted and got (though not for long) was Norwegian Nazism under his guidance, and what he deserved was death. What AKP (m-l) wanted and didn't get was a Norwegian dictatorship of the proletariat under their guidance - and what they deserved was obscurity and revulsion.

Their violations of elementary intellectual standards rank among the worst committed in Norway in the 20th century, but in the minds of many of these former totalitarians, what they did was no worse than innocently believing in something that turned out to the false, praying to gods that on later, much later inspection turned out to be demons. It's a mistake anyone could have made! It was misguided idealism, nothing more, and besides, their political opponents were just as bad. Calls for public repentance are rhetorical tricks, a form of persecution.

One illustration of this occured recently in connection with the upcoming war crime trials in Cambodia. Prominent AKP (m-l) members were eager defenders of Pol Pot, and made an infamous visit to his Southeast-Asian backyard of hell in 1978, reporting that, far from what the critics claimed, there had been no mass murders in Cambodia. A communist paradise was blooming, and tales of a gruesome autogenocide were nothing more than a bourgeouise smear campaign. At the time, the killings had been going on for three years, with an estimated 1.7 million to die before Khmer Rouge was ousted by Vietnam in 1979.

So when professor of state science Bernt Hagtvet wrote two articles in Dagbladet calling for a public acknowledgment by these members - Pål Steigan, Sigurd Allern, and others - of their moral responsibility for the Cambodian massacre, this might not sound too much to ask, considering their role as propagandists for Pol Pot, though anyone who had followed the debate knew what the reply would be: A big, resounding no. Or rather, a big, resounding diversion - from the real issue to unimportant side issues - such as whether Pol Pot was truly a Marxist-Leninist, and whether AKP (m-l) made active preparations for the coming revolution / World War 3 (whichever came first). In one of his articles, Hagtvet quoted a former member of AKP (m-l)'s Danish sister party, Torben Weinreich, who claimed that AKP (m-l) in Norway had trained with weapons, and had cynically steeled its members for the hard task ahead: In the coming conflict, they were told, they must be prepared to kill their own family members if necessary. Loyalty to the party, "democratic centralism" to its utter extreme, had to take priority.

The only source for this accusation of organized weapons training appears to be Torben Weinreich, so it can not be considered proven beyond doubt. The sad remains of AKP (m-l), Pål Steigan and Jorun Gulbrandsen, have now seized on that accusation, and threatens to sue Hagtvet (not Weinreich) for libel. It's telling, as Brita Skuland points out, that Steigan and Gulbrandsen aren't at all offended by the accusation that they supported a man, Pol Pot, who killed 1.7 million people, nor that they wanted to introduce a similar regime in Norway, only that they were making preparations to do so. That is the least of Hagtvets accusations, though perhaps the only one that would have been illegal at the time. A habit of intellectual dishonesty is hard to shake, especially when you're not trying.

A reply to Steigan and Gulbrandsen came in today's Dagbladet from Helge Øgrim, a thoroughly reformed AKP (m-l) old-timer, (who has also done some of the best post-9/11 reporting in Norway). He describes the hysteria that marked AKP (m-l) in the mid-70's, and recalls that Sigurd Allern and others actually did sporadic weapons training in preparation for the coming conflict - though whether more than that ever happened remains unsure. He agrees with Hagtvet that AKP (m-l) and its parliamentary offshoot RV, (which has an occasional miniscule presense in Stortinget), should disband themselves in shame. And let me add that, at the very least, Sigurd Allern, the party's original leader, and a member as recently as eight years ago, should be fired from his politically significant position as educator of tomorrow's journalists.


So what am I suggesting - a total purge of all unrepenting 70's communists from any position of political significance? Well, actually, yes, (though not their idea of a purge), but this isn't all that important. The history and fate of AKP (m-l) and the other totalitarian sects is tragicomic, repulsive and educational, further evidence if you need it that democracy and rationality are fragile concepts, just as likely to be destroyed by intellectuals as to be protected by them. But relevance to today's Norway is limited, and in any case pales in comparison to the less extreme, but far more successful influence of the more moderate 70's radicals. Their influence, not AKP (m-l)'s, is to blame for the media's current anti-Americanism, which springs directly from the worldview of the Vietnam movement, and for its anti-Israelism, which springs directly from the old pro-Palestinian movement - movements related to but not restricted to the totalitarian sects. And while it's true that Norway's pro-Americanism and pro-Israelism before the 70's was often dogmatic and naive, there's no excuse for replacing one dogma with another.

The sad legacy of an otherwise abandoned decade is that the outside world is still viewed by our press trough the the distorted prism of one of the most interesting, but least fruitful, periods in Norway's intellectual life. Norway lives, intellectually speaking, in the shadow of a generation that set groundbreaking records in stupidity and dishonesty, and in that shadow little of value can grow. Focus on the extremist minorities, on AKP (m-l)'s support for Pol Pot and other surrealisms, is necessary and just, but risks taking the place of a harder, more important task. Who said what and why isn't as important as staking a new course away from the blast zone of the whole damned era, a course that rescues feminism from the feminists, environmentalism from the environmentalists, global awareness from the anti-globos, the fight for peace and democracy from the neo-pacifists. One that emphasizes individual liberties against paternalism, and knowledge, curiosity and honesty against ideology and dogmatism. The course already exists - we've been working at it for more than 2000 years - but we have to choose to rejoin it. Oktober, which published Stalin in the 70's, today sells Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein and John Pilger - cheap thinking for lazy minds, far less deadly, but with larger appeal. They're our larger problem now, and AKP (m-l) is a funny anectode in comparison.


I'd forgotten about SUF. I recall now that that was the radical chic of the day when I sojourned in Norway from '71 to '73.

Since 9/11, I have often wondered to what extent the moral support given by lefties in Germany and other Western European countries to radical islamists ("victims of Western imperialism") might be responsible for tragedies like 9/11. It is likely that Mohammed Atta and his pals would have found reasons anyway to hate us — without prompting from the AKP types in Hamburg. But I do wonder. This constant finger-pointing at the U.S. and the encouragement given to extremists in Palestine and elsewhere — it can't help. Would extremists like Atta commit these crimes anyway — without AKP cheering from the sidelines? Probably. But who can say for sure?

- Gill

great post. i love reading about the politics of other countries. thanks for breaking down the language barrier for me.

Brilliant, Bjørn. I've been following this debate in Dagbladet quite carefully, made the same observations as you, but never got around to blogging about it. Thanks for taking the time to put this overview into English. I'll direct my readers to it.

Just recently, through a friend of mine, I discovered that Stalinist apologists actually still exist in my homeland. Bjornar Simonsen from Oslo, for instance, is an International Counselor for the "Korean Friendship Association", which was revealed by the Wall Street Journal's James Taranto a while back to hold an essay contest in honor of the "Dear Leader" -- dictator Kim Il Sung. Simonsen even maintains the official homepage for the "Democratic People's Republic of Korea" in Norwegian (!). He's also been posting pro-North Korea comments on the personal homepage of one of my friends' friends.

Simonsen keeps several articles including a FAQ about North Korea on his personal homepage. Granted, he's very much alone in his convictions, but it's amazing that even single individuals from the civilized world can grow to admire communist dictatorships in the year 2003.

Ugh, for some reason all links were stripped from my comment. Here are the two most important:


Fredrik: Deeply disturbing. Seeing this guy's a 25 year old programmer, though, I have a strong suspicion that it's a very elaborate joke - geeks (especially Linux geeks) have a strange sense of humor. (Then again, I've known quite a few genuine geek communists as well.)

Btw, here's a marxistic-leninistic page I came across while writing this, http://www.tjen-folket.no/. (Tjen folket, ie Serve the People, a maoist slogan.)

Excellent piece, Bjørn.

The frightening reality you so eloquently desrcibe is horror indeed.
The current leftwing bias of the press and institutions worldwide needs to be addressed. Most recently, the coverage of the war in Iraq seem to be taken out of the playbook of socialistic anti-americanism. Sad, but true.

Great work, Bjorn. Thanks....

Bjorn, your blogg has been a must read for me for some time now and it is time to express my appreciation.

I believe the conditions you describe in Norway are much the same in the rest of the free world. Such enemies of democracy never sleep and seem to be gaining ground almost daily.

Disguiseing their nature by wrapping themselves in "good causes" make them all the more dangerous.

I wish you a long and successful blogging carreer. You are a most lucid and ereudite writer.

As for Bjørnar Simonsen, I know him and I can say that it's not a joke on his side.

However, he is not blind to the "evil" parts of it - those are however not any part of his focus. He's not praising Kim, and he has acknowledged, when prompted, that atrocities have found place.

As he said to me, "one of the most closed countries in the world is about to open" - and he wanted to be part of it. His view seemed to be that by opening the country, perhaps conditions would turn better.

The only real *praise* I've heard out of him, is related to security - he's a security consultant, and has taught other security consultants, and has only praised their security level. While saying that for most of our purposes such a level is far too high.

Disclaimer: This reflects what impression I got of him.

Mr. Huse doesn't know me well and misunderstood what I was telling him once in 2004 when I said that the DPRK also have a prison like any other country, that nobody can really how the standards are there without checking, and to say I am not praising the leaders is a mistake in itself since I've been active on the KFA Forum supporting the DPRK since 2001.


Trackback URL: /cgi-bin/mt/mt-tb.cgi/360

water: That 70s Show, August 1, 2003 10:54 AM

Bjorn Staerk writes an impressive essay on the intellectual residue that Marxim left on Norwegian society, but his observations could be made for any other Western European country and to lesser extent, to Canada, America, and the UK. Indeed, when

Post a comment

Comments on posts from the old Movable Type blog has been disabled.