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The Man Behind the Dragon Tattoo

Former Internationalen editor Håkan Blomqvist on the socialist politics of his colleague Stieg Larsson.

Stieg Larsson. Stieg Larsson Foundation

“The enlightened socialism and political passion of Stieg Larsson is not possible to fake.” These are the concluding thoughts of an article in one of Sweden’s largest liberal newspapers discussing the publication of a fourth book in Larsson’s Millennium series.

Stieg didn’t write the book, of course — his life was cut short by a heart attack in 2004. Instead a new author penned the additional volume, much to the consternation of Stieg’s companion of thirty-five years, Eva Gabrielsson, his personal friends, and others who have accused the project of being grotesque, immoral, and plain “grave robbery.”

Norstedts, the publishing house, contends that it is not unusual for a new writer to continue the work of a popular series of novels — the Millennium books have sold 80 million copies, the largest circulation of any Swedish author. Together with the films, the “Millennium industry” has yielded roughly $500 million, with about $60 million going to Stieg’s father and brother.

But Stieg was not just an author of popular detective novels. He was a socialist activist and throughout his short life fought racism, sexism, and social injustice. “The commercialization of Stieg’s work goes against everything he stood for,” says Gabrielsson who, thanks to obsolete Swedish inheritance law, didn’t inherit anything, despite being Steig’s lifelong partner.

Speaking of David Lagercrantz, the author pegged to write the fourth Millennium book, Gabrielsson remarked: “What can a writer, from the cultural elite, know about the world of Stieg Larsson who was an activist since his adolescence?” Göran Greider, well-known Swedish poet and editor of a labor daily, exclaimed: “The socialist Stieg Larsson has been erased!”

I got to know Stieg as a political journalist and party comrade during my twenty-year tenure as editor of the Swedish Trotskyist weekly Internationalen (the International). Beginning in the late 1970s Stieg wrote regularly for the paper for more than a decade even as he became involved in different projects. His political scholarship and passion for justice deserves to be remembered.

A Lifelong Activist

Before he moved to Stockholm in the late 1970s, Stieg lived in the northern university and workers’ town of Umeå where, ensconced in Umeå’s radical youth milieu, he became engaged in the anti-Vietnam war movement. There he came in contact with the anti-Stalinist left-wing organization Kommunistiska Arbetarförbundet, KAF (Communist Workers’ League) — renamed Socialistiska Partiet in 1982 — the Swedish section of the Fourth International, founded by Trotsky in 1938. Trotsky’s small international organization had seen a revival during the youth revolts of 1968, and an affiliated group was also founded in Sweden.

In Umeå the Trotskyists — who emphasized internationalism, antiracism, women’s liberation, and workers’ democratic power against both capitalism and Stalinist dictatorship — became a democratic alternative to the old Stalinist communist party, traditionally dominant in the left-wing labor unions of Sweden’s northern regions. Stieg became a member of, and politically active in, the local infantry regiment while doing his military service, often distributing the KAF soldier paper, Röd Soldat (Red Soldier).

Like many other young KAF members Stieg moved to industry after military service, getting a job at a paper mill. After saving some money he travelled to Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1977 on assignment for the Fourth International to support the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). Stieg was primarily there to deliver donations from Sweden, but he also trained women guerrilla soldiers in handling mortars, a skill he had learned in the military.

Back in Sweden, he and his companion Eva Gabrielsson moved to Stockholm where he worked briefly as a postman and eventually, starting in 1979, as a graphic news designer at the Swedish news agency Tidningarnas Telegrambyrå (TT), where he stayed for twenty years. The TT job suited Stieg’s desire to write articles in his spare time for Internationalen, which, like many other party members and activists, he did out of conviction and solidarity for no pay.

During the 1980s Stieg wrote many articles for Internationalen on myriad topics. His first long feature was a Marxist interpretation of Jules Verne, reflecting Stieg’s interest in science fiction. But while he wrote a few articles on cultural matters and science his primary focus was imperialism, right-wing politics, and terrorism.

His headlines included: “Reagan in Nazi plot,” “The man behind international right-wing terrorism,” “Neo-Nazis in Europe recruiting assassins to Nicaragua,” etc. Stieg’s thoroughly researched articles followed the networks of the extreme right both inside and outside Sweden, old and new Nazis, and their connections with establishment politics.

Stieg was also very interested in the revolution in the West Indian island of Grenada following the Sandinista victory in Nicaragua in 1979. He and Eva went to Grenada in 1981 to learn more about the revolution and were impressed by Maurice Bishop’s socialist project and the New Jewel Movement. Stieg and Eva viewed Bishop’s project as a democratic example of revolutionary change rooted in deep popular support and engagement — far from the Stalinist dictatorships in the East. Internationalen was actually the only Swedish newspaper that published commissioned articles on “Grenada’s unknown revolution.”

After returning to Sweden, Stieg and Eva became active in organizing a support committee for Grenada and lectured about their experiences throughout the country. The 1983 coup d’état by a Stalinist faction within Grenada’s radical regime — which overthrew and murdered Bishop — was a major shock to Stieg and Eva.

When the coup was immediately followed by an American military intervention that wiped out the socialist effort, Stieg and Eva stayed in constant telephone contact with Grenadian solidarity activists who narrated the dramatic events. Stieg’s articles in Internationalen thus became a unique documentation of the rise and fall of Grenada’s often overlooked revolution.

By the 1980s, like most countries, the left-wing radicalization of the seventies was broken in Sweden. In the wake of Thatcher and Reagan’s victories and their neoliberal offensive, the extreme right resurfaced — in Sweden racist skinheads, neo-Nazis, and white power music became a common feature in youth milieus.

Together with other antiracist activists the SP initiated the campaign group Stoppa Rasismen (Stop Racism) in 1984, and Stieg became active in publishing the group’s bulletin of the same name. By then he had already met with the editors of the British antifascist magazine Searchlight and had agreed to write about developments in Sweden. The Searchlight engagement was mirrored in articles for Internationalen about antifascism in Britain, both historical and contemporary.

As the 1980s turned into the ’90s the world political situation radically changed. With “the fall of the wall” and dissolution of the Soviet Union, Stalinist communism seemed to vanish, leaving the European ideological field open to both liberal capitalism and a new popular right. In 1991 Sweden elected a conservative government (for the first time since 1928), and the radical right-wing and anti-immigrant party, Ny Demokrati (New Democracy) gained seats in parliament for the first time.

That conservative breakthrough ushered in a turbulent decade in Sweden, not only in terms of the deregulation of the Swedish economy and the partial dismantling of the welfare state, but also in rising right-wing and neo-Nazi activity, which became increasingly more violent. Immigrants were murdered while journalists and left-wing activists were terrorized; in 1999 a journalist and his son were wounded as their car was blown to pieces, and a radical unionist in Stockholm was shot and killed in his home by Nazis.

Antiracist and antifascist engagement became Stieg’s overall priority during this period. Together with another journalist, Stieg wrote a book in 1991 on right-wing extremism and toured the country lecturing on the threat. In 1995 he founded Expo, a Swedish version of Searchlight. The magazine investigated and traced white power and Nazi networks and was met with furious hatred from right wing extremists. Bookstores that sold the magazine got their windows smashed, its print shop was threatened, and journalists who wrote for Expo were put on Nazi death lists.

For Stieg and Eva these were years of extreme activity and exhaustion. Along with constant security threats, everything in the magazine was made on free time and without pay. But the hard work paid off. The magazine became well-known and respected and when it was openly terrorized by Nazis the two main Swedish evening tabloids published it as a supplement.

Stieg quit his job at TT in 1999 to work full time as a writer and lecturer on racism and right-wing extremism. In the short time before his untimely death Stieg succeeded in establishing a more stable economic base for the magazine and broadening its non-partisan scope by including antiracists and antifascists from a variety of political backgrounds, including socialists, liberals, and anyone else opposed to the rising tide of right-wing extremism.

Stieg never formally resigned from his membership in Socialistiska partiet, but the northern section of the Stockholm branch, where he was a member, was dissolved in the early ’90s, around the same time that Stieg and Eva moved from the suburbs. Like all of the radical left, Socialistiska partiet’s membership and influence declined in the late 1980s and early ’90s, as members dropped out or, like Stieg, moved on to activities where they felt they could make a difference.

Stieg’s last article for Internationalen in 1988 — entitled “Glasnost in the streets of Moscow. Like a warm wind” — expressed the Trotskyist hope for democratic socialism in Soviet Union. Socialistiska partiet and its predecessors had always supported radical democratic movements in the Eastern bloc, from the Prague Spring of 1968 to clandestine Soviet trade unions and Solidarnosc in Poland.

That hope was extinguished in the 1990s, and as a result, defending the welfare state and fighting against racism and right-wing extremism came to dominate the left agenda in Sweden and Europe more broadly. The new wave of feminism was also linked to this orientation, expressing both the limitations of the old left and growing women’s resistance against the ideals and practices of the advancing right.

The combination of antiracism, feminism, and struggle for social justice was nothing new for Stieg. His politics were rooted in these ideals, both in terms of his personal life and in his lifelong political experiences. His disgust for the oppression of women and active engagement for women’s rights is expressed in many of his articles, particularly those from Grenada. But Stieg’s feminism could also be seen in his everyday politics, like internal party discussions in which he argued for universal military service for women — a minority position not always appreciated by the anti-militarists in the organization.

The Politics of Literature

Stieg’s Millenium books were a hobby — a form of relaxation after overworked days and weeks. But they are also heavily influenced by his own political life — the visit to Grenada in The Girl Who Played with Fire, surviving Nazi networks in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the gallery of characters, the right-wing terror, the parallel and illegal Swedish counter-intelligence, and the muckraking and threatened magazine under heavy pressure are all drawn from Stieg’s experiences and passions. The “enlighted socialism and political passion” of the Millenium series noticed by the Swedish reviewer was the life of Stieg Larsson channeled in literary form into his books.

Stieg of course never saw his books become the Millenium industry with its hundreds of millions in profits — he died of an overwork-induced heart attack in November 2004. In the years that followed Stieg’s work was kidnapped by the same profit machines he used to rail against, the inheritance and the immaterial rights from the series wrested from the hands of Stieg’s life companion in love and activism.

So when Stieg’s long-forgotten will was recently found, in which he bequeathed his small financial resources to his party, none of his old comrades applauded with greedy eyes. The will was written decades ago when he went to Eritrea and was never witnessed. But it was not fear of a drawn-out juridical process that dissuaded the party from pressing its claim.

Instead, in a widely reported political demonstration, Stieg’s old Umeå comrades used public interest in the will to demand a change in Sweden’s obsolete legislation and for the publishing company and Stieg’s relatives to let Stieg’s rightful inheritor, Eva Gabrielsson, take over the responsibility for Stieg’s work.

Perhaps the publicity of this action contributed to Eva’s long struggle to convince Stieg’s relatives to secure the continuation of Expo — Stieg’s life project — with profits from the book series. Expo has so far received only $2.5 million from Stieg’s relatives, but they now promise that profits from the fourth book will go to fund the magazine. What happened to the rest of the millions gleaned from the efforts of an overworked and passionate activist is another story — a real-life thriller and ample material for a much more interesting fourth book.