Sweden’s swinging sixties

A terre, une jeune femme lors de la manifestation étudiante contre la guerre au Vietnam, à Stockholm, Suède le 1 avril 1968. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
1968 was a radical moment in Sweden's post-war history; to deride it as a failed revolution is to miss much of its influence.
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

The Swedish success story took shape in the 1930’s, but developed and was articulated in earnest in the decades following the Second World War. The signposts were ideologically coloured utopias. It was largely a social democratic project, but it also encompassed other groups and parties. Optimistic and utopian assumptions that the future would surpass and outshine the present were central to Sweden’s success story. Economically, materially and socially, we were headed for better times. However, optimism was severely shaken by the oil crisis in 1973. The rising price of oil made the Western world realise its economic vulnerability. Today, confidence in the future has been replaced by acceptance of the status quo. We build our lives with limited expectations that the future will differ from the past as regards prosperity. The belief that tomorrow can surpass yesterday has disappeared, and utopias have lost their attraction. Technological innovations such as broadband and fibre optics create visions of the future, but these are limited in extent and far from the classical ideological utopias.

In Sweden, the loss of inspirational utopias has occurred in parallel with revised perceptions of the past. The darker sides of the welfare state and the folkhem – either abuses of the individual or mendacious rhetoric about neutrality – have led to reappraisals of history, but have also called into question visions of the future. Ideals have turned out to be based on false premises, and no longer function as building bricks in utopia, or as pointers to the future. A new past also demands a new future.

The debate on the loss of utopias can be related to the issue of the death of ideologies, which has been brought up at regular intervals during the post-war era. In the 1950’s, for example, leading social researchers declared that in Sweden too, ideologies had had their day. The arguments were many. The basic problems and disagreements of industrialism were no longer thought to give rise to ideological conflicts. The ideological age had come to an end. In the Western world it was asserted that there was a political consensus among intellectuals on political issues, and acceptance of the welfare state; on the desirability of decentralised power and a system based on a mixed economy and political pluralism.

The theory of the death of ideology is also in line with Francis Fukuyama’s thesis on the end of history from the 1990’s. The victory of the Western world, according to Fukuyama, was due to the fact that the alternative lost, or more correctly, economic and political liberalism triumphed. Fukuyama’s thesis is debatable, but the core of his reasoning can hardly be questioned. Of the two political and ideological alternatives and social utopias of the Cold War, only one remains. The fall of the Berlin Wall ushered in a new epoch in the history of the Western world, whose contours are as yet only faintly visible.

Social utopias could be seen in sharp relief during the Cold War. Ideologically coloured visions competed for space. Black-and-white pictures were greatly in use, not least during the 1950’s when the Cold War was at its coldest. It was however when the 1960’s gave way to the 1970’s that the utopian thinking of the post-war era was at its height. Utopian visions were formulated, articulated and launched with an intensity and frenzy that gave the impression that the death of ideologies was more remote than ever. Everything from politics to trivial everyday issues was defined in ideological terms. Today we look back on that period with nostalgia. The question, however, is what such revolutionary utopias and visions meant in a modern state like Sweden, where the folkhem and welfare were the keywords of the social project. What was the significance of the revolutionary utopia of the 1960’s, and how did it relate to Sweden’s success story? These questions will be addressed here, drawing primarily on examples from the mass media and the field of semantics.

In the 1960’s activists challenged the account of the Swedish success story. The modernisation project was affirmed in most respects, but the content was renegotiated. Ideas such as justice, freedom and equality were redefined. The goal was the classless society. The new project was headed by a small group that formulated the social utopia based on different interpretations of the classics of Marxism. The group was vociferous, and at a time when there was a break with conventions and traditions, the social debate took a step to the left. Even though the majority remained unsympathetic and rejected the utopia of the 1960’s, the latter coloured the social climate for a few short years. The proponents of the success story were forced to respond to the challenge.

Basic to the utopia of the 1960’s was the idea that it was possible to create a society that was not only better than the present, but perfect. The future was depicted as a world where ongoing conflicts and prevalent injustices no longer existed. The revolution would change society and inaugurate paradise. The revolution would not only realise the utopia of the extreme Left, but constituted a significant part of the utopia itself. It was not merely a metaphor for change and renewal, but also a political project.

The year 1968 has become a symbol of this period, and has acquired a mystic aura. It was the year when everything happened. Posters were pasted on walls, and slogans scribbled on facades. Revolution was the idea of the moment. To a small clique, the ideal was not the Saltsjöbaden Agreement, but the Russian and Chinese revolutions. The revolution in Sweden was ‘just a matter of time’, as one activist put it in 1968. ‘Mao’s thinking must be brought to the Swedish workers’. Symbolically and in reality, the revolution was seen as a necessary precondition for reaching the dream objective. At the same time, the idea of revolution meant questioning the utopias of the Swedish success story. The Shangri-La of the model state could not be realised through parliamentarism and reforms. However, the radical group that believed in political upheaval and the assumption of power by the working class was not only small, but also politically isolated. In a contemporary analysis, Hannah Arendt pointed out that the students who wanted to be revolutionary had no idea what power was, and therefore did not understand how to use it.

The activists of 1968 perceived themselves as part of the classic communist tradition. Myths and rituals surrounding revolutions and revolutionary thinking were employed both to construct a past and to create a sense of identity. They thus linked themselves not only to classical communism, but also to general thinking within the utopian tradition.

Myths provide history with a narrative structure and a context which it otherwise lacks. Rituals are important, partly as machinery for spreading myths, partly as a framework within which the myth itself can take shape. To Italian communists in the post-war era, for example, the account of the Russian October Revolution, together with accounts of the heroic wartime Resistance movement and the working-class struggle against capitalism and imperialism, helped to shape identity. The members’ perception that they belonged to a chosen people was reinforced by these accounts, according to which they constituted a historical vanguard.

Among Swedish activists of the 1960’s, too, utopias were formulated on the basis of myths and ideals. The October Revolution and Mao’s revolution in China were models: the past offered nourishment for myths and was made sacred. Romanticised accounts of the significance of revolutionary change were important ingredients. Pilgrimages to China, Cuba and Albania bear witness to the movement’s political geography. It is important in this context to underline that people perceive myths to be true, not necessarily because the historic proof is convincing, but principally because myths give meaning to existence.

The concept of revolution, which is central to the communist account, in condensed form comprises three stages: an evil conspiracy, a saviour and a forthcoming golden age. These are also the backbone of Christian philosophy, as illustrated by the dichotomies of Heaven and Hell, good and evil, sin and redemption. The similarities between the myths and utopias of Christianity and communism form the starting point for the analysis by the historian of ideas Melvyn Lasky of the thirteenth-century writings of the Calabrian monk Joachim of Floris. Lasky focused on eight points in the monk’s writings, which reflect the religious thinking of the thirteenth century. These points are certainly familiar to people with experience from 1968.

Evil. The present situation on earth is corrupt and evil reigns. We must therefore begin again.

Resistance. It is necessary to resist the evil forces and destroy them. Then all will be transformed in accordance with the right principles.

Decadence. It will get worse before it gets better. A time of great tribulation will be followed by rejuvenation.

The faithful. A small band of believers will take the lead in a new generation serving the cause of salvation. They are pioneers in a new era of all-embracing love.

Doctrine. There is a true and eternally valid dogma, which can lead the chosen on their unique mission.

Transition. The present age is merely a transitional phase. The faithful have the key to history and can calmly await the forthcoming crisis, since history is on their side.

The end. The development of the world is entering its final stage. The age of repression and persecution will end. The definitive drama of salvation will begin and lead to total freedom.

The promise. The future in its shining perfection will surpass all previous phases. It will be the culmination of history and the final objective of the human race.

The date is the thirteenth century, but it might equally well be 1968.

The purpose of showing the relationship between basic elements of Christian faith and the myths and utopias of the communist revolutionary tradition is not to equate the two, but to point out the general pattern in utopian thinking. According to Joachim of Floris, the struggle against decadence must be led by a small band of the faithful. This was the manifesto of the men behind the October Revolution, as well as the revolutionary utopias of 1968. Utopias appear in different guises, depending on the spirit of the age. In one scenario, evil is symbolised by the devil, in another by the nobility, and in a third by American capitalism. In all three scenarios, paradise is waiting around the corner, whether it is located in heaven or in the classless society.

The revolutionary utopia of 1968 aimed at realising the model state or Shangri-La. Neither the goal nor the methods were different from earlier radical social utopias. To the activists of the epoch, previous revolutions were also exemplars. Revolution is a political and emotionally charged term. It has connotations of violent and sudden change. It also changes meaning. It did not have the same meaning in the social debate in 1789 as it did in 1917 or 1968. Semantically, the introduction of new compound words including revolution is an indicator of structural changes, but also indicates new thinking patterns. They help us to identify continuity, change and innovation in social and political reality. Compound words can be absorbed into the language to describe new phenomena or to give familiar phenomena a more ‘exact’ terminology. To monitor the age one is studying through its language or, more precisely, through the introduction of new words, involves a number of methodological problems, but the same time opens up new perspectives.

The French Revolution of 1789 led to the introduction of a number of new compound words and terms in the Swedish language: revolution dag (Revolution Day), revolutionsdomstol (revolutionary court), revolutionsdräkt (revolutionary dress), revolutionstribunal (revolutionary tribunal), to name a few. These words are characteristic in their descriptive nature. They describe concrete historic events or phenomena.

In the wake of the Russian Revolution, compound words such as revolutionsterror (revolutionary terror), and revolutionshot (threat of revolution) were introduced, which indicate negative perceptions of the events in Russia. Another category of compound words introduced includes revolutionsideal (revolutionary ideal), revolutionsideologi (revolutionary ideology), revolutionsivrare (champion of revolution), revolutionssvärmeri (revolutionary fanaticism). Several of these new words indicate that during the first years between the wars, to a greater extent than before, revolution was seen as a social project and a social utopia. The concept of revolution even became to a certain extent feminised during these years. The words revolutionskvinna (woman of the revolution) and revolutionshjältinna (female hero of the revolution) were launched around the time of the Russian Revolution, while the male counterparts revolutionsman (man of the revolution) and revolutionshjälte (hero of the Revolution) are about 100 years older. The year 1968 saw the arrival of revolutionsretorik (revolutionary rhetoric), revolutionssång (song of the revolution), revolutionstal (revolutionary speech), revolutionssymbol (symbol of the revolution), revolutionstema (revolutionary theme), and revolutionsteologi (revolutionary theology). These words had more to do with perceptions, images and imagination than concrete phenomena or objects, as was the case in 1789 and to a certain extent 1917. While the Russian Revolution in a Swedish context seems to required precise descriptions in terms of social utopia and social project, the new compound words from 1968 tend rather to indicate the perception of a contemporary revolution as self-deception or delusion. The new words that were introduced into the Swedish language during these years indicate that there was no apparent need to dramatise the threat of revolution. Instead it was presented as a politically staged event or manifestation.

The revolutionary utopias of a small extremist group can naturally be dismissed as a marginal note in history. For a limited time, however, they aroused both attention and reactions. Even though revolutionary utopias were dismissed, they were addressed in the mass media, above all in May 1968, the month where the term ‘revolution’ was perhaps most widely used. The background was the May Events in Paris. Barricades were built on the streets and the mood in the city was one of war. The student revolt in turn led to a general strike, in which almost ten million workers participated. Workers, clerks and students united in a common struggle against the power of the state. Students closed universities and schools, and workers occupied factories. The position of President Charles de Gaulle was under serious threat.

In May 1968, historical analogies were in the air. France was named the cradle of revolution. Seen from a Swedish perspective, the revolt in Paris coincided with two momentous events – what was known as the Båstad riots protesting against Sweden’s Davis Cup tennis tie against Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and the student occupation of the student union building in Stockholm. The extent to which the events in Paris in combination with demonstrations on the domestic scene were interpreted in terms of revolution can be illustrated with the help of an analysis of editorials in Dagens Nyheter, Aftonbladet and Svenska Dagbladet during May 1968. They illuminate how welfare-Sweden reacted in a concrete sense to this challenge to Sweden’s success story.

The liberal Dagens Nyheter reacted forcefully to the violent actions in Paris and vigorously defended what it perceived to be basic democratic principles. According to Dagens Nyheter, there was a clear line between those who wished to work within the framework of democracy and those who did not believe in democracy and therefore used violent methods. The fact that political violence in certain countries is the only ‘legitimate’ way to push through democratic rights and liberty does not mean, according to Dagens Nyheter, that such methods are acceptable in Sweden. Regarding the student revolt and general strike in France, the paper’s opinion was that the country could be on the way into ‘a border zone between revolt and revolution’.

The social democratic Aftonbladet saw a growing fascist threat through the growth of conflict in Western societies, mentioning for example the successes of neo-Nazism in West Germany, neo-Fascism in Italy and the support for the racism of conservative politicians in England. In France, according to Aftonbladet, the right wing was growing stronger, leading to polarisation between right and left. The newspaper rejected the revolutionary methods of the young people and instead pleaded for social democratic reformism as the only viable path. The occupation of the student union building was described as an attempt by ‘a small extremist student opinion to imitate colleagues in France’. According to Aftonbladet, the students were increasingly ‘distancing themselves from the worker groups whose interests they believe themselves to support’. The paper went on to say that the workers in Sweden would not allow themselves to be governed ‘by confused students from the student union building’. The Maoist students’ idea of a revolutionary situation in Sweden, according to one editorial writer, would not be taken seriously by any informed student.

The conservative Svenska Dagbladet spoke about ‘the vulnerability of modern society faced with aggressive minorities’ and said that the example of the student demonstrations in Paris and Rome had possibly robbed the Swedish students of their judgment. According to Svenska Dagbladet, violence must not be answered with violence, but with legal actions: the principles of a society governed by law must be maintained. The editorials in Dagens Nyheter, Aftonbladet and Svenska Dagbladet clearly reflect the newspapers’ general political profile through their choice of pictures and their descriptions of the events of May 1968. To Dagens Nyheter, it was democracy that was under threat and the paper clearly rejected violent action. To Aftonbladet, the May Events underlined the struggle between right and left, a struggle which in its opinion undoubtedly existed in Sweden too. This threat came not only from extreme leftist groupings, but also from emerging fascism. The solution was social democratic reformism. For Svenska Dagbladet, it was instead the principles of a society governed by law that were threatened.

In popular culture, the revolutionary utopias of the period were received somewhat differently. An editorial in Se, a weekly magazine featuring articles on politics, sport, nature and sex, pointed out that it was easy to avoid riots and ‘annoying things’ such as the demonstrations in Båstad if demonstrators and police could reach agreement. All sides were considered to have much to gain from peaceful solutions. ‘Demonstrators would not have to fight with police and spoil their clothes and above all read a lot of rubbish about themselves in the newspapers.’ Se wrote also that the demonstrators wished to apologise to the police, and a great deal of attention was given to four police officers chasing a girl on the tennis court. The magazine asked whether four police officers needed to fight with batons and grab the hair of a lone girl in order to gain control. ‘Does it not seem that our kind policemen lose their self-control far too easily and become angry at a personal level?’

Criticism of police behaviour and a degree of understanding for the demonstrators were quickly dispersed in connection with the events in Paris, in combination with further demonstrations in Sweden. A large two-page picture spread showing a girl lying injured on the street in Paris bears the heading: ‘Detta ska Sverige få uppleva’ (‘This is coming to Sweden’). According to the article, animals were dying in abandoned goods trains, no post was being delivered and suicides were increasing dramatically. It was said that the workers were about to shut off gas and electricity. Initially, the police appeared with only helmets as protection but, according to Se, were soon equipped with shields and rifles so as to ward off the stones thrown by the demonstrators.

In an article about the demonstrations and the occupation of the students’ union building in Stockholm, Se wrote that the police wished to ‘avoid provocation’ at any price. They stood shoulder to shoulder without using batons. According to the magazine, the police had learned to respond with patience and not teargas. It pointed out that the law enforcement officers had successfully avoided using force during the student revolt in Stockholm. Their motto was: ‘Take it calmly, take a step back’. According to Se, the person leading the march, red banner in hand, was not entirely sober. One of the slogans heard in the demonstration was: ‘To Enskilda Bank’. According to the magazine, one demonstrator adds ‘Yes, but not to Handelsbanken – I have my current account there’. In its report on the occupation of the student union building, Se wrote that since the students disliked UKAS (a university reform) ‘… like hell, they saw no other alternative than to march through the town and kick the opera house to pieces’. A certain degree of sympathy for demonstrators and criticism of police methods was thus quickly transformed into ridiculing the revolutionary utopias. The ridicule comprised an arsenal of conventional clichés about the demonstrators. The threat came from students who wished to destroy the opera house, who were drunk, and only thought of their own wallets. Dagens Nyheter, Aftonbladet and Svenska Dagbladet did not take the ‘threat of revolution’ seriously. To the extent that the word ‘revolt’ was used, it was usually in the phrase ‘student revolt’. At the same time, editorial comments tell us more about the events of 1968 than about the political identity of the respective newspapers. Each focused on different ingredients of Sweden’s democratic utopia in its response to the revolutionary utopia. The character of the threat scenario depended on what was to be defended. In the coverage of events by Se, the police were presented as the pillars of society and as guarantors of calm and good order. They represented a secure influence that nipped the impending revolution in the bud. The Swedish utopia came to form a framework for self-awareness, and was used in the social debate to define the Swedish success story. The debate concerning ‘the threat of revolution’ made it possible to express the basic assumptions of the welfare state, whether they concerned democracy, the rule of law, the role of the police, or the policies of the ruling party.

Although the threat of revolution hardly appeared realistic, and the extreme left lacked political importance, the years in question posed a threat to established thinking. To many however, 1968 does not symbolise one but several utopias. It was a time when established perceptions were turned upside down. Views of democracy and freedom became radicalised. The revolt was directed against conventions and traditions. It was a time of transition, when new values began to appear. Above all, it was a revolt against the norms and values of established society. Lifestyle and everyday routines found new expression. Words such as gatuteater (street theatre), livskvalitet (quality of life), gräsrotsnivå (grassroots level), gruppsex (group sex), storfamilj (commune), motkultur (counterculture), politiskt engagemang (political engagement) and protestsång (protest song) came into the Swedish language during these years to describe new occurrences and phenomena.

It is possible to distinguish among the turbulent events of the 1960’s different movements and phenomena, or more correctly, different kinds of revolt depending on the type of activity, what the revolt was aimed against and the arena in which it took place. There were student revolts, political revolts, lifestyle revolts, revolt against authority, women’s revolts and Green revolts.

Even if these different types of revolt to a certain extent overlap, it can still be useful analytically to treat them separately. The student revolt was aimed partly at university administration, partly against the forms of education and examination. It coincided with and was consistent with a more general social criticism. The lifestyle revolt meant a protest against the prevailing way of life and traditions. It was expressed above all in unorthodox behaviour. Young people protested against established conventions through their mode of dress and hairstyle. New life patterns were launched through living in communes, free sex, and criticism of careers and status symbols. The revolt against authority meant the rejection of different forms of authority. Children did not listen to their parents, pupils did not believe their teachers, and demonstrators refused to obey police instructions. The women’s revolt meant a revolt against the establishment view of women in society, and this gradually grew in significance. The Green revolt was directed partly against pollution, partly in an extreme form also against industrial capitalism. The political revolt took place largely in the public arena. It was to do with party politics and was directed against ‘bourgeois’ society. At a more comprehensive level, it was a criticism of basic values and of the political establishment, including social democracy. International issues, primarily the Vietnam War, played a major role. It is above all the political revolt that has given the era epithets such as ‘the red ’60’s’.

A variety of utopian views of a better society were embedded in the cultural upheaval of the period. Belief in authority was dissipated, and conventions and traditions were questioned. The scope for the permissible was widened. Environmental awareness increased, and the issue of gender equality was put on the political agenda. It is of course hazardous to attribute all these changes to 1968, but the years surrounding that date seem to have channelled the revolt and altered established perceptions. In this respect, 1968 means a break in the temporal rhythm of life.

In source material from 1968, one does not often encounter the word ‘revolution’. The keyword of the epoch is instead ‘left’, which appears in every kind of context. The introduction of new compound words into the Swedish language in the wake of 1968 seems to confirm the thesis that the 1960’s were a left-wing project and not a revolutionary project. It was the year when vänstrare (‘lefter’) and vänstraste (‘leftest’) came into use.

‘You can never become left enough to please the left. There is always someone who is lefter’, is one quotation. The 1970’s were the decade when everything became left. Terms such as the new left and neo-left indicate that at least at one level, something new was happening.

A number of the new compound words containing vänster (left) which were introduced in the wake of 1968 have negative connotations: vänsteranarkist (leftist anarchist), vänsterdialekt (left-wing dialect), vänsterdiktatur (left-wing dictatorship), vänsterdominans (left-wing domination), vänsterextremism (left-wing extremism), vänsteretablissemang (left-wing Establish- ment), vänsterfascism (left-wing fascism), vänsterfållan (left-wing [sheep] pen), vänsterfäste (leftist stronghold), vänsteropportunist (left-wing oppor- tunist), vänsterprovokation (provocation by the left), vänsterjargong (leftist jargon), vänsterklyscha (left-wing cliché), vänstermartyr (martyr of the left), vänstermegafon (megaphone for the Left), vänsterpropaganda (left-wing propaganda), and vänstertendens (left-wing tendency). Others have more positive connotations, partly associated with another lifestyle, such as vänsterfik (leftist café), vänstergemenskap (left-wing community), vänsterglad (left-wing happy), vänsterkraft (left-wing force), and vänsterklädd (dressed in a left-wing manner). A third category of compound words are neutral in character: vänsteraktiviteter (left-wing activities), vänsteranhängare (left- wing supporter), vänsterförfattare (left-wing author), vänstergerilla (left-wing guerrilla), vänsterintellektuell (left-wing intellectual), vänstermöte (meeting of the left), vänsterstudent (left-wing student), vänsterungdom (‘leftist youth’, member of a young people’s left-wing organisation), vänsterteater (left- wing theatre) and vänstervåg (left-wing trend). Naturally, it is difficult to draw exact boundaries between positive and negative connotations in the words. It is often the context that decides. Some compound words, in addition, can be difficult to catalogue, such as vänsterflås (left-wing puff) and vänsterfräsare (left-wing zoomer). The word vänsterflicka (leftist girl) was introduced in 1973; however I have found no occurrences of the words vänsterman (leftist man) or vänsterkille (left-wing guy).

In the 1970’s there was a clear need to classify phenomena and use formulations in the social debate with the help of the word vänster. The overwhelming number of new compound words introduced into the Swedish language provides convincing proof. The left contributed greatly to structuring our thinking in these years.

The revolutionary utopias of the student revolt and the political revolt were not taken seriously by contemporaries. The May Events in Paris were used by the mass media to define more precisely the ideals of the Swedish folkhem. Neither can the utopias be described as successful. Capitalist society was not abolished. The political system, the target of 1968, is today stronger than ever. What was then put forward as a political alternative hardly exists today, even in the imagination. The classless society remained the dream of a small number. However, that does not mean that the revolutionary utopias lacked political significance.

During the first decades of the post-war era, social democracy had toned down its socialist profile. Socialism in the sense of society taking over the productive forces was increasingly seen as obsolete. Industrial growth contributed to this change of course. The idea of socialisation was reduced to an instrument for efficiency, and the ultimate goal was placed close to the welfare model of the liberal ideology. Productive forces were no longer to be transferred to public ownership. Socialism became equivalent to welfare and social reforms, full employment, high standard and a large education sector.

In the late 1960’s, however, new voices were heard. Industrial democracy was back on the agenda. The watchword of the decade, equality, began to be used frequently within social democracy. At the party conference in 1968, the radical themes of the party programme, which had been set aside during the first decades of the post-war era, were revived. A planned economy would increase resources, and a policy of equality would distribute them fairly. In the 1975 party programme, the demand for economic democracy was reiterated. But in the middle of a period where social democracy was sharpening the tone of its demands for equality, the opposition came into power.

In the subsequent decade, social utopias lost their attraction. The radicalisation of social democracy coincided with the upswing in support for the left and communism in the late 1960’s. The mystique of 1968 was not simply about the revolutionary utopias of a little extremist group, but also the radicalisation of the social debate as a whole. To the ruling social democratic party, ‘left’ became a keyword. It was used to formulate, articulate and define the ideological compass direction of the welfare state. As the 1960’s became the 1970’s, political goals, as well as descriptions and society in general were formulated with the help of the term ‘left’. New social utopias were launched as left-wing projects. ‘Left’ became a metaphor for a new lifestyle and a life project.

What actually happened at the end of the 1960’s? The activists of the epoch wanted to develop a critical perspective and stage a revolt. In the initial phase, there was openness in combination with a strategy that affirmed modernity and thoughts of new lifestyles. This was a spontaneous political movement with a powerful moral driving force, in which people were satisfied merely to take part. Once the utopia had been formulated in terms of a different society with revolution as its means of achieving change, the revolt became bogged down in more dogmatic and more orthodox thinking.

However, it is more important to affirm that 1968 constituted a break with previous ideological and political developments. ‘Left’ became a keyword and came to permeate political thinking and actions, not only within social democracy, but also within part of the non-socialist bloc. Perhaps the greatest challenge to research into the history of post-war Sweden is to try to understand what happened during these years. Should one attribute the political change to a vociferous extremist group, or should understanding and explanation be sought with the help of the more elusive ‘spirit of the age’, or in structural changes? Or must relevant perspectives be sought elsewhere?

This essay originally appeared under the title The Revolutionary Utopias of the 1960s, in The Swedish Success Story?: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar, Axess, in collaboration with Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 1999.

Kim Salomon

Kim Salomon is Professor of International History at Lund University.

Subscribe to Engelsberg Ideas

Receive the Engelsberg Ideas weekly email from our editorial team.

By subscribing, you consent to us contacting you by email. You may unsubscribe at any time, and we’ll keep your personal data safe in accordance with our privacy policy.