Friday, September 21, 2018

Terra incognita borealis

Ronny Ambjörnsson is a Swedish intellectual historian. This book, "Det okända landet", long used as a textbook in intellectual history classes, is a somewhat dry study of Swedish utopists: Anders Kempe, Carl Bernhard Wadström, August Nordenskjöld and Nils Herman Quiding (who wrote under the nom-de-plum Nils Nilsson Arbetskarl). The Quiding essay is the most accessible, while the two others are “essays about everything” in which the author shows off his vast erudition, but perhaps at the expense of general readability.

Anders Kempe was a 17th century “heretic” from Jämtland in Sweden, who left a military career to become a pacifist preacher and amateur naturalist. Banished from his native land, and later also from Norway, he spent his remaining days in Amsterdam and various parts of Germany. Kempe was inspired by a somewhat earlier German heretic, the almost unknown Paul Felgenhauer, and translated his tracts to Swedish. The intellectual worldview of Kempe and his mentor was complex and could be described as a combination of Anabaptist chiliasm, Gnosticizing mysticism, Paracelsianism and Rosicrucianism. It's interesting that these seemingly so different ideas were combined by various thinkers, perhaps because they all opposed the establishment and looked forward to a “millennium” of one kind or another. I always assumed that the 16th and 17th century “heretics” rejected the Trinity in favor of the idea that Jesus was a human prophet, but it seems many actually went in the opposite direction: Jesus had a heavenly body and/or emanated from a heavenly body, with which believers could establish contact through inward mysticism. These Gnostic notions were then combined with the Hermetic-Rosicrucian idea of microcosm/macrocosm being identical. This became both an argument for mysticism, and for the very opposite: empirical studies of nature. How these ideas fitted into apocalypticism is less clear, but somehow both chiliastic enthusiasts and intellectual Rosicrucians believed in the speedy arrival of a new dispensation in which the world would become “transparent”.

The second essay also deal with an inward mystic who inspired more hands-on utopists: Emmanuel Swedenborg, the 18th century “Seer of the North” who established what was de facto a new religion, the Church of the New Jerusalem. A small group of Swedenborgians developed in a “leftist” direction. Wadström became an abolitionist in Britain, moved to France after the revolution, and eventually became a French honorary citizen. Nordenskjöld had a more peculiar career, working as an alchemist for King Gustav III (apparently a ruse to get money – the radical alchemist didn't like the king, and the feeling was probably mutual), later moving to Britain and even later to Sierra Leone, where the radical Swedenborgians wanted to establish an ideal society among the supposedly noble savages. Attempts to create new colonies in Africa on some kind of idealist or utopian basis were in vogue at the time, as was criticism of class society, slavery, industrialism and the rule of Mammon. The utopia envisaged by Wadström and Nordensköljd was supposed to be a society of small property owners or “producers”, probably peasants. The author points out the intriguing fact that the ideas of the French Physiocrats, today regarded as forerunners of free market thinking, were often interpreted at the time as utopian or semi-utopian, calling for austere societies based on the peasantry. (The Physiocrats regarded agriculture as productive, in contrast to industry, which was seen as parasitical.)

The third essay takes us to the 19th century and Quiding, who was a homegrown Swedish “utopian socialist” of the kind Marx and Engels loved to hate. Quiding was a prominent lawyer in Malmö, and some of his collections of 19th century Swedish laws are apparently still consulted (they are even sold by Amazon!). Originally a liberal, Quiding later became a “socialist”, publishing his works under the pseudonym Nils Nilsson Arbetskarl (Working Man). One of his books is actually titled “The Program of the International”, a reference to the First International in which the Marxists played an important role. However, Quiding never joined it and explicitly said that he didn't support it. The author un-ironically attacks Quiding from a Marxist-inspired perspective, which makes for some funny reading (at least if you're not a Marxist). Quiding did seem to suffer from the same ailments as other utopian socialists. He saw himself as a lone genius who developed his perfect program for societal reform in splendid isolation from the actual labor movement, which he probably secretly despised. His utopia seems to have been a peculiar combination of anarchism and Platonism. The anarchist element is visible in the idea that the local community or commune is the most important element of society. Since Quiding called for the abolition of private property, Kropotkin rather than Proudhon would be the best comparison here. However, the anarchism is only nominal: the commune turns out to be controlled by “elders” selected for their superior intelligence and ability, and every aspect of life is tightly regimented through Quiding's imaginary law books. (Several of his works are written in the form of “laws”, which may both reflect his education and the Platonist backdrop.)

Although “Det okända landet” (The unknown country) is very dry and somewhat difficult to read, I nevertheless found it interesting – but then, I have a lot of necessary background knowledge. The general reader doesn't, and somehow I doubt intellectual history students have it either! Thus, prepare yourself for a tough read if you really want to sift through this material. Kempe, Wadström and Quiding are almost unknown even in Sweden, while the colorful Nordenskjöld is less obscure due to his association with Gustav III, the most colorful Swedish monarch. In the end, I give this tome three stars.

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