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Knut Hamsun Against the Socialists

[1]

Knut Hamsun in 1930

1,673 words

Translated by Haldora Flank

Translator’s Preface

This letter by the famous Norwegian author and man of the Right Knut Hamsun [2] appeared in the magazine Ragnarok in March 1939. Ragnarok, which Hamsun himself read, was a Norwegian National Socialist monthly that was published between 1934 and 1945. The letter itself, however, had originally been written in 1916 as a reply to Eugéne Olaussen (1887-1962). At the time, Olaussen was the Editor-in-Chief of Klassekampen (Class Struggle), a Norwegian Leftist newspaper that was published from 1909 until 1940, and which at the time was being published by the Norwegian Social Democratic Youth League, the youth wing of the Norwegian Labor Party. Olaussen had requested a contribution from Hamsun, and this letter was his answer. Although it is unknown how Ragnarok obtained this letter, it can be assumed that Olaussen himself provided it to them.

The historical context for the letter is a call by Klassekampen for workers’ strikes in Norway with the aim of forcing a halt to the First World War, or at least Norway’s contribution to it. Norway remained neutral throughout the war, and before 1917 it traded freely with both the British and the Germans. Its vast supplies of fish and mineral resources were crucial to each of the belligerents. By the beginning of 1917, however, British threats and German submarine warfare along their shipping routes forced the Norwegians to cut off trade with the Germans, although they remained officially neutral. Hamsun also references international conferences which were held by representatives of many socialist parties from neutral countries in Denmark and Switzerland in 1915, to which Norway’s Labor Party sent a delegation, and at which, among other things, it was agreed that the war was the result of the Great Powers’ imperialist policies, and that arms reductions should be a short-term goal for socialists, with the ultimate goal being total disarmament.

After an internal split in 1923, the Youth League became the Norwegian Communist Youth Union, affiliated with the Norwegian Communist Party. Olaussen himself left it, and in 1927, he converted to fascism and National Socialism. He was denied membership in Vidkun Quisling’s Nasjonal Samling (National Unity) party due to his alcoholism, but he nevertheless wrote for several publications linked to the party. He was among those who tried to push National Socialism in a direction in which socialism was more heavily emphasized. Ragnarok, however, was not connected to Nasjonal Samling, as many of the people surrounding the magazine were its critics, calling for a more radical, socialist, and pagan National Socialism than Quisling or Hitler were offering. Many of them had soured on German National Socialism after the Night of the Long Knives in 1934. And in fact, the June 1940 issue of Ragnarok was so harsh in its criticism of the new Quisling regime that the Germans had it banned. Some of Ragnarok’s supporters ended up joining the Waffen-SS, while others joined the Norwegian resistance. Olaussen himself was found guilty of treason in 1947 for collaboration and served two and a half years in prison. He died in 1962.

***

The editor of Klassekampen, Eugéne Olaussen, sent a letter to Hamsun twenty-three years ago requesting some kind of contribution to the magazine. Hamsun replied as follows:

Class struggle – first of all, what is that? A struggle for no class, or for one? You probably know that both are equally impossible in this life. You yourself belong to a class. Your typographer to another. Your children, if you have any, might end up in a class above your own.

You let Mr. Alfred Kruse[1] [3] belittle the Russian farmer because he cannot read or write. Do you really think that skill in letters makes a man happier? On the contrary. There is a deep truth in the myth of the Tree of Knowledge. Think about it. You have tasted the fruit and then you see that you are naked. As a consequence, those who are most skillful in letters should have been the ones who were best off. But the opposite seems to be the case. Just look at professors, or at editors, for that matter. There is infinitely much left behind that should have followed from this skill with letters, but in no way does it follow by its own accord: character should have followed, the heart and the mind should have followed – but they are left behind, just as raw.

A Norwegian attorney recently wrote that the two hundred thousand socialists who wanted to disarm the country weren’t without a fatherland, because there were two hundred thousand of them. Both you and the attorney should have been a bit suspicious of this number; how deep down in the classes must you go to find this figure! And when there are two hundred thousand bearing such seriousness in their monstrous stupidity, they must be allowed to terrorize! To disarm the country is to disarm man’s home on Earth, thereby disarming the homes of this land. Think about it: Your home is under attack, but you are unable to defend it. This and nothing else is Norway’s anti-militarism.

You say one should protest when the King’s salary comes up for discussion in Parliament. One must protest the entire luxurious Kingdom.[2] [4] If I believed that the other option was any better, I’d be on board with it, helping it along; but I believe that it would be far worse. There is nothing for mankind to gain by stripping life of all ideals, all beauty, all symbols. You yourself write about the Folkets Hus in Bern,[3] [5] how it’s “beautifully adorned with chandeliers, paintings, and ornaments on its ceilings and walls.” Flowers stand in abundance on common fields, a luxury the two hundred thousand should not tolerate, flowers that cannot be thrown in the pot and cooked; they are miserable weeds. They are just flowers.

I would have given the King two million in salary. This is affordable to Norway; we would gain from it, and the King could then, as a symbol, shine a little upon this grey country. A mad Ludwig was and is, despite everything, a son of the Sun for Bavaria. A republican President cannot be this for Norway. Have you tried living in a republic? Do you, for example, know how a President is elected? He is chosen by the two hundred thousand, down through all the classes, and the President becomes a Wilson.

“War,” you say, “anti-militarism,” you say. Do you not know that you cannot disarm the war, you can only disarm the Norwegian’s homeland? “Why are there no strikes against the war?” you asked in your Christmas issue. Do you think a strike against the military is a new socialist invention? Tacitus hints about it in the olden days, but that did not disarm any war.

War is like this: England and France have little to no population growth, but a tremendous amount of colonies for which they have no use. Germany is bursting with people, but does not have enough colonies. Germany is snooping around every remote corner of the world for a place to put its surplus, and every time, England is there to oppose it. Germany waits for fifteen years, its population grows ceaselessly, and then it hits. The war. And then come the moving words about Germany’s brutality.

War is not in and of itself unnatural; war for self-defense and self-preservation is natural. Except for the two hundred thousand of us.

These are just a couple of sentences on some of the topics that were dealt with in the issues you sent me. I didn’t even mean to address them fleetingly, nor can I say that I just fleetingly passed them by. You can answer my words a thousand to one, so I do not understand why you wanted to bring me into this roundelay. You will continue to strive for discontent with the “classes,” now as before, and you will be just as proficient in answering a thousand to one as before.

Discontent could be meaningful if all movement, all development, were for the better. But this, as we know, is not the case. Besides, it all depends on how much this discontent costs us humans, unless the permanent discontent costs more than it is worth. If it leads to day in and day out unhappiness and immodest, ungrateful lives for the two hundred thousand, then obviously it is not for the good.

You will again answer a thousand words to one, and continue to nurture the masses’ discontent. And the masses will continue to feel wronged by “the classes.” The two hundred thousand refuse to come back to the countryside because there is no Tivoli,[4] [6] or cinematograph, or Folkets Hus. They will not work the soil, upon which all people are dependent, including themselves; instead of receiving a patch of land and a home for themselves and their family, they would rather live as proletarians and proudly survive on chance, and in hard times on soup kitchens and goodwill. The countryside needs them, the soil needs them; the city does not.

“But the city!” they say. “The city!” And in their delusion, they overlook the well-being of their children. What is to become of the children and the youths in this air of constant discontent, strikes, and daily destitution?

“But the city, the city!” Today, again, there was a request for a contribution to an event in the city. So goodwill it is, again. And then one stumbles through to spring. Then comes next winter. “More class struggle!” they say. I do not mean for these to be immortal words, but they are, according to my best judgement, better than class struggle.

Notes

[1] [7] Alfred Kruse (1888-1958) was a Danish socialist politician who at the time was the Chairman of the Social Democratic Youth League in Denmark. In 1916 he was expelled from Norway for anti-militaristic agitation.

[2] [7] I.e., the Norwegian monarchy.

[3] [8] “People’s houses” were established by the Norwegian labor movement, as they were in many European nations, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the intention of making culture available to the working class.

[4] [9] A fairground.