The man who wasn’t really all that left-wing
I love crime fiction, am very interested in the Nordic world and have a background in far-left politics, so I have rather naturally recently finished reading the now-legendary Millenium Trilogy by the tragically deceased Swedish author Stieg Larsson. These books have been admirably reviewed many times, including by comrades such as Nick Cohen, Max Dunbar and Christopher Hitchens, so you probably know the basic facts about them already. Their heroes are the maverick investigative journalist Mikael ‘Kalle’ Blomkvist (Larsson’s alter ego) and the emotionally damaged computer wizard Lisbeth Salander, whose flawed but interesting character accounts for much of the books’ appeal.
Larsson had been a supporter of the Socialist Party, formerly the Communist Workers League – the Swedish section of the Trotskyist Fourth International – and an editor of its journal Fjärde internationalen. As several of his reviewers have pointed out, his passionate political activism informed his fiction. Interesting then, that the political flavour of the novels should be liberal or social democratic rather than radical socialist. The villains – rapists, paedophiles, sex traffickers and corrupt secret-policemen and businessmen – are ones liberals will have no trouble booing, while the heroes enjoy the support of many honourable members of the establishment.
Violent misogynists feature prominently in all three books. Swedish fascists – against whom Larsson spent a large part of his life crusading – feature prominently in the first book, ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’. Another of the principal villains of this book is the capitalist Hans-Erik Wennerstroem, but he is evil because he is corrupt and involved in criminal activities; other capitalists and members of the bourgeoisie are sympathetically portrayed. In the second book, ‘The Girl who Played with Fire’, the principal villains are sex traffickers plus members of the establishment who use their services, while in the third, ‘The Girl who Kicked the Hornets’ nest’, they are rogue elements within the Swedish intelligence services.
In all three books, the emphasis is on corrupt elements within the existing order – such as businessmen and policemen who abuse sex-slaves, or secret policemen whose Cold Warrior fanaticism leads them to stray outside the law – rather than on any inherent evil on the part of the existing order itself. Meanwhile, these corrupt elements are more than balanced by the good elements that represent the norm. Indeed, whereas the first two novels are gripping thrillers, the third is a somewhat dull, plodding affair – in large part because there are so many noble, principled policemen and secret agents who join Blomkvist’s and Salander’s struggle against their corrupt colleagues that it never really seems like a fair fight. The villains are old, tired, outnumbered, incompetent, self-doubting and internally divided. The heroes, on the other hand, are not only brave, principled, intelligent and altogether brilliant, but seem to have on their side the cream of the Swedish security establishment and eventually even the Swedish prime-minister and defence minister themselves.
‘The Girl who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest’ is, in fact, very much in the Hollywood liberal mould: there are corrupt elements within the system, but they are unrepresentative of the system as a whole which is fundamentally good; once it learns of their activities, the good majority ultimately defeats the rogue elements, so the system polices itself. Of course the good policemen need the help of intrepid independent investigators, but this partnership has been a staple of crime fiction since Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. So over-determined is the ultimate victory of good over evil; so much is the reader spared any genuine suspense, uncertainty as to the outcome or trauma on behalf of the heroes; that ‘The Girl who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest’ achieves a truly Hollywood level of nauseating goody-goodiness.
Meanwhile, there is next to nothing in the Millenium books about the class struggle or the fight to emancipate the proletariat or the poor. I don’t mean this as a criticism – it is no doubt a reflection of the fact that such issues are simply not very important in egalitarian Sweden today. Larsson’s work is politically sympathetic because, despite his passion and his Trotskyist background, he is no dogmatist. Instead of bothering with irrelevant old Marxist shibboleths, he focuses on issues that really are of central importance for progressive politics in Western Europe today. Above all, on the issue of misogyny.
The most interesting feature of the books is the character of Salander, an innocent woman who manages to inspire pathological hostility in a whole string of nasty men. She does so because she manages to hit so many male chauvinist buttons. She is physically small and apparently weak and vulnerable, yet colourful and exotic; she is socially awkward and aloof, but refuses to be polite or deferential to those more senior than herself; she is far from being classically beautiful, but is weirdly and disturbingly sexually attractive; and, of course, she is sexually promiscuous and bisexual, but does not roll over for many of the men who desire her. Unsurprising, therefore, that so many men hate her; Larsson has brilliantly captured the way in which a certain type of woman jars and unsettles a certain type of man.
If the books are a bit saccharine in some other respects, their portrayal of the pathology of woman-hatred is genuinely disturbing. Larsson has written a study in misogyny that has reached an audience whose size most Trotskyist pamphleteers could only dream of – his books have sold 27 million copies, according to The Economist. He may have died prematurely at the age of only fifty, but if only a portion of his readers understand his message, his life as an activist will not have been in vain.
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