The Nordic Africa Institute

Carl-Henrik ('C.H.') Hermansson

Chairman of the Swedish Communist Party and of the Left Party Communists

The interview was held by Tor Sellström in Stockholm, 22 November 1996.

Tor Sellström: You were the chief editor of Ny Dag—the official newspaper of the Swedish Communist Party—from 1959 to 1964, that is, when the question of apartheid South Africa became a political issue in Sweden. At the time, most voices against apartheid were raised from the liberal camp, while both the Communist and the Social Democratic Parties played a less active role. How would you explain this?

Carl-Henrik (‘C.H.’) Hermansson: Internationally, the apartheid problem had been taken up rather early by the World Peace Council and also by the Communist parties. I remember that the Moscow Declaration from 1960 mentioned the struggle against apartheid as one important problem. In Sweden, however, it is right that it was mostly liberal opinion makers who raised the problem. I think that it had to do with the rather big influence of the free churches on the Swedish liberal movement. It was composed of two parts, one influenced by the free churches and the other by political liberals. Some of the people writing about apartheid, like David Wirmark and Gunnar Helander, belonged to the free church tradition.

There were many international problems during these years, many oppressed peoples and many liberation movements. The question arose which problem we should take up and try to make visible to the Swedish people, and around which it was possible to have a mass movement. I think that other problems were in the fore front for us during these years. There was, of course, the war in Vietnam, but also the democratic movement against the military junta in Greece and, later, the struggle in Chile, to take some examples. Also in Africa there were many important problems. We had long discussions in the party around which position to take on Eritrea. We supported the movements in the former French colonies— especially in Algeria—for their liberation, and so on. We were a small party, and it was not possible to take up all the problems in our general propaganda and action plan.

We also had a sort of division of labour between the party and our youth movement. They raised some problems and the party others. During these years, we supported the World Peace Council. We worked very actively in the Swedish Peace Committee, which formed part of the World Peace Council, and in that forum we took up many questions. They spoke for us in many cases.

If you go to the parliamentary work, we were a very small group. We had very few people working for us. For example, only one secretary for all the things that we had to take up. For some years we only had four members of parliament. They should also carry out general propaganda for the party, attend meetings around the country, and so on. We also had the practice that we should not take up the same proposals every year, so some years important proposals were left out. That must be borne in mind when one looks at the party proposals and motions made in different years.

I must also confess that our knowledge of the problems was not as great as it should have been. We had no possibilities of sending journalists to different countries. When I was chief editor of Ny Dag, we sent for the first time a journalist to Africa. It was Sture Källberg, who now is a rather well known author. But we could only give him a couple of hundred Swedish Kronor. However, he managed on that and wrote a lot of articles for the paper. That was the first time that we had the possibility to go to Africa and get firsthand information on what was going on.

Tor Sellström: The influence of the churches appears to have been important. The first anti-apartheid voices in the Social Democratic movement were also from people close to the Brotherhood Movement, that is the Christian Social Democrats?

Carl-Henrik (‘C.H.’) Hermansson: That is right. Through Swedish missionaries in Africa they had knowledge of the problems, which was very important. I think that the reasons why leaders like Oliver Tambo and Eduardo Mondlane turned to Sweden for international support had to do with the religious tradition of the free churches. Of course, it also had to do with the position of Sweden as a non-aligned country. At the time of the Cold War—when the blocs were standing against each other—it was a channel available to them. That was probably the main reason why they contacted Swedish political groups.

Tor Sellström: You became chairman of the Communist Party in 1964 and soon embarked upon an independent course vis-à-vis Moscow, reorganizing the party as the Left Party Communists in 1967. In your book The Road of the Left—published in 1965—you stressed nontraditional Communist issues, such as the question of poverty in the Third World. Did Third World issues play a major role in the process leading to the subsequent break with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU)?

Carl-Henrik (‘C.H.’) Hermansson: At that moment—in 1964-67—the international position of the Soviet Union did not play a decisive role. It was the question of independence that was decisive for us. But later it did play a role, because we very soon found that the CPSU played a rather egoistic role in many international questions. We were therefore careful not to mechanically take the same stand as the Soviet Union and the CPSU on international questions.

Tor Sellström: But it seems that the questions of exploitation, oppression and poverty in the Third World had a significant influence on your own thinking?

Carl-Henrik (‘C.H.’) Hermansson: Yes, they really did. In that respect, there was also a break with the official positions of the CPSU. In the Moscow Declaration of 1960, the struggle against apartheid was mentioned, but we did not think that it was taken up in the right way. It was rather seen as a power game and not approached from the position of the millions of people who suffered from starvation and oppression.

Tor Sellström: When did the Swedish Communist Party/Left Party Communists establish direct bilateral relations with the South African Communist Party (SACP)? Many leading SACP members visited Sweden from the early 1960s, but it would appear that they did so under the ANC umbrella and not as party members?

Carl-Henrik (‘C.H.’) Hermansson: I think that the first time we had bilateral contacts with the South African Communist Party was as late as in 1966, during an international conference on Namibia in Oxford in which Olof Palme also took part. Our party secretary, Urban Karlsson, was at the conference and there he met Ruth First. Before that we had no bilateral contacts. There were contacts at the World Peace Council, but that was not at the party level. In the 1950s, I was myself a representative of our party in the World Peace Council. I visited the headquarters in Prague. There were people from South Africa, but we had no formal bilateral relations.

I think that the reason why the SACP members who visited Sweden did not make direct contacts with us was that they wanted to have a broad political platform. They came here as representatives of ANC, not as representatives of the party. For ANC it was, of course, most important to have contacts with the ruling party. They also knew our position, so that was not a problem.

Tor Sellström: From the mid-1960s, official Swedish humanitarian support to Southern Africa was extended on the advice of a Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance, chaired by the Director General of SIDA and composed of both officials and members of political parties and non-governmental organizations. The Left Party Communists was never represented on the committee. How did you look upon that? How would you describe your relations with SIDA?

Carl-Henrik (‘C.H.’) Hermansson: Well, during these years, the policy of the government was to keep our party outside such structures. I do not even remember if we knew of the existence of the committee. But our relations with SIDA were very good. Different Director Generals from SIDA came to our parliamentary group to speak about their positions and proposals. In that way, we also had the opportunity of giving them our views, but we did not know of this committee. If we had known about it, we would perhaps have demanded to be represented there.

Tor Sellström: As leader of the Left Party Communists, you introduced parliamentary motions in favour of unconditional official Swedish assistance to the CONCP alliance between 1968 and 1972. Why did you advocate support to CONCP and not to the individual member organizations, that is, PAIGC of Guinea-Bissau, MPLA of Angola and FRELIMO of Mozambique?

Carl-Henrik (‘C.H.’) Hermansson: I do not remember exactly, but we probably thought that it was more neutral to support the CONCP co-ordinating body and not get involved with the individual movements. It was also a question of the possible support you could mobilize in the Swedish parliament. Perhaps we assessed that it was easier to raise support for CONCP than directly to the liberation movements.

It was very important for us that the support should be unconditional. It should be given to the liberation movements without any restrictions. In our opinion, they should, for example, have the possibility of buying arms—all that they needed in their struggle— with the Swedish assistance. The support given by Sweden was not always unconditional.

Tor Sellström: In the 1960s, did the Communist Party /Left Party Communists carry out its own support activities for the national liberation movements in Southern Africa or did you give preference to the work within the broader solidarity movement?

Carl-Henrik (‘C.H.’) Hermansson: Our youth movement had already taken part in campaigns before the famous tennis match against Rhodesia in 1968, with the demonstrations in Båstad. There was a match against South Africa in the early 1960s against which it made propaganda, for example. Some of our support to the liberation movements was given in that form.

There was a very broad youth movement in Sweden during these years and our youth participated in the anti-apartheid campaigns by the National Council of Swedish Youth (SUL). We gave priority to the broader solidarity work and later on many of our members took an active part in the Africa Groups and the Isolate South Africa Committee (ISAK).

Tor Sellström: You were, however, active yourself at an early stage. In January 1965 you signed a parliamentary motion demanding economic sanctions against South Africa. The Communist Party was thus together with the Centre Party the first to raise this demand.

Carl-Henrik (‘C.H.’) Hermansson: Yes, that was during my first year as leader of our parliamentary group. Sanctions had been demanded by the Swedish youth movement since 1963, so we did not wake up so late after all.

Tor Sellström: No, you did not. But why did the Swedish labour movement in general wake up late regarding sanctions?

Carl-Henrik (‘C.H.’) Hermansson: I think that the reason why it took so long was the influence of Swedish capital in South Africa. Many of the big Swedish companies had subsidiaries in South Africa and they carried out an intense propaganda against sanctions, pointing out possible loss of work opportunities in Sweden. It probably made the Social Democratic Party—especially the trade union congress—cautious in these matters.

In those days, the chairman of the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO), Arne Geijer, was also the head of the social democratic ICFTU, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. That was important. The American trade unions were very strong within ICFTU and Geijer was more or less a victim of their interests. That could explain the position of the Swedish trade unions.

Tor Sellström: In this respect, do you think that Olof Palme made a difference within the Social Democratic movement?

Carl-Henrik (‘C.H.’) Hermansson: Yes. There was a change in policy and opinion of the Social Democratic Party when Palme became Prime Minister. It was very clear.

Tor Sellström: Palme made several of his most radical statements at congresses of the Christian Social Democratic Brotherhood Movement, such as the speech on Vietnam in Gävle in 1965 and the demand for sanctions against South Africa in Skövde in 1976. Do you think that he did so for tactical reasons within the wider social democratic movement?

Carl-Henrik (‘C.H.’) Hermansson: Yes, because there he had support at once. It would have been much more difficult for him to get support at the party or trade union congresses. The Brotherhood Movement always took a very progressive stand on international problems. But, still, there was the problem of the international interests of Swe-mind to understand the whole picture. den’s finance capital, which one must bear in mind to understand the whole picture.