All in the family: Red clans in Norway

Dag Seierstad

Communist cultural dynasties proliferate in Norway. One of the most famous living Norwegian writers, Åsne Seierstad, author of the international bestseller The Bookseller of Kabul, is the daughter of Dag Seierstad, a leading Socialist Left Party politician who, as Bård Larsen notes in his book The Idealists, argued during the Cold War that Norway should be on the side of the Soviets, not the U.S. Pål Steigan (b. 1949) was head of the Workers’ Communist Party (AKP) and, later, of another Communist party, Rødt Valgalliance (RV), and was a leading apologist for the genocide in Cambodia. He also worked as an editor at one of Norway’s three major book publishers, Cappelen, where he was in charge of the Caplex encyclopedia, a standard reference work. His cousin, Finn Aasheim (d. 2008), served as editor of the Communist daily Klassekampen and head of the advisory committee for the charitable fund run in the name of Princess Märtha Louise, daughter of the current king of Norway. 

Tron Øgrim (left) and Pål Steigan meet Mao, 1970

Then there’s the sprawling Øgrim clan. We’ve already met Helge Øgrim, former AKP chief and current editor of Journalisten, Norway’s answer to the Columbia Journalism Review. His father was Kristian Øgrim, sometime head of programming for NRK TV (Norwegian state television). His late cousin, Tron Øgrim, also a Communist and a prolific journalist, was a big fan of Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha. He visited Albania in 1975, when it was, along with North Korea, one of the two most closed societies on earth, and reported in Klassekampen that it was undergoing “enormous progress.” His main concern about Albania was that some of its people were able to pick up Italian channels on their TVs, which exposed them to “bourgeois advertising, pornography, and bourgeois politics”; Tron urged the Albanian government to use “steel-hard discipline” to prevent them from watching these channels.

A Gatas Parlament poster, circa 2007, showing the Norwegian Parliament collapsing, with US and Israeli flags in flames

Tron’s ex-wife, Jorun Gulbrandsen, is a longtime schoolteacher who was head of AKP for nine years and has also been active in RV and another Communist Party, Rødt; their daughter, Liv Gulbrandsen, is a prominent NRK journalist who was deputy chair of RV and a founder of Rødt. Helge and Tron are also cousins of Elling Øgrim Borgersrud and Aslak Øgrim Borgersrud, who are both active in Rødt politics and whose famous rap group, Gatas Parlament, has paid tribute in its music to people like Hugo Chávez and released songs with titles like “Eat the Rich” and “Anti-American Dance.” In 2004, the group set up a website whose professed purpose was to solicit donations to hire a hit man to kill then U.S. President George W. Bush. 

Perhaps the most striking thing about all these people is that they – and their politics – are regarded as thoroughly mainstream. Among the Norwegian cultural elite, it’s those who dare to suggest that Communism is inconsistent with freedom who are viewed as being beyond the pale. 

Red star over Norway – all over

We’ve been toting up the names of some of the high-profile Norwegian Labor Party politicians who were – or are likely to have been – KGB operatives. But not all of the Cold War-era useful stooges in the land of the fjords were secret spies. Nor were all of them members of the Labor Party, or even politicians. Many of them were cultural figures who belonged to more extreme parties – and who were proud to publicly identify themselves as friends and supporters of the USSR.

Bård Larsen

In 2011, historian Bård Larsen catalogued some of these eminentos in a book entitled Idealistene (The Idealists). What might be surprising to a non-Norwegian is that these people’s open embrace of Communism didn’t keep them from becoming influential, successful, in some cases even beloved. On the contrary, Larsen notes, apropos of the small Workers’ Communist Party (AKP), founded in 1973 and disbanded in 2007, that in all of Europe, scarely any extreme political group of its size has so many members who’ve had such successful public careers.

Inger Hagerup

One of Larsen’s subjects, poet Inger Hagerup (1905-85), was a member not of AKP but of the Norwegian Communist Party (NKP), founded in 1923. Hagerup’s oeuvre consists largely of crudely polemical verse calling for a workers’ revolution. In one famous work, “Be Impatient!”, she wrote: “Dreams and utopias, say the wise men, / Those who are cold in heart. / Don’t listen to them any more!” Despite – or because? – of her devotion to Stalin and her penchant for pro-Kremlin propaganda, she’s considered a major Norwegian poet.

We consulted two standard anthologies of Norwegian verse and one history of Norwegian literature. Neither anthology mentions Hagerup’s Communism. One of them (Den store lyrikkboken) praises her “awareness of oppression and injustice in the world around her” – never mind that she was utterly indifferent to oppression and injustice in the USSR. The other anthology (Norske dikt i 1000 år) tactfully describes her as having been “involved on the political left,” identifies her poems as being marked by a “clear antifascist tendency,” and says that “Be Impatient!” is “mostly about the dream of a world free of violence and the use of power.” Only the literary history, Per Thomas Andersen’s Norsk Litteraturhistorie, acknowledges Hagerup’s party identification: “She was a communist, but unlike [fellow lefty poet Arnulf] Øverland she clung firmly to her Soviet-friendly attitude after the war.” Andersen makes no judgment, one way or another, about her party affiliation.

Sigurd Allern

Mainstream journalism in Norway is riddled with Communists. Take Sigurd Allern. Born in 1946, he’s served over the years as head of the Socialist Youth League, editor-in-chief of the Communist daily Klassekampen, and leader of the AKP and another Communist party, Rød Valgallianse (RV). All of which, apparently, in the eyes of University of Oslo officials, made him the perfect candidate for the country’s first-ever position as Professor of Journalism – a job he accepted in 2003, and still holds to this day.

Hilde Haugsgjerd with former Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg

Another example: Hilde Haugsgjerd. She was active in AKP, head of RV, and editor of Red Youth’s journal Red Guard – so when Aftenposten, the nation’s purportedly conservative newspaper of record, was looking for an editor-in-chief in 2008, who was hired? Haugsgjerd, natch. Though she claims to have left radicalism behind, she says her time in AKP taught her to esteem reason and question authority – a rather bemusing thing to say about one’s membership in a gang of supremely irrational utopists under strict orders not to question anything.

Helge Øgrim

Then there’s Helge Øgrim. A former leader of AKP and of Red Youth, he’s been editor-in-chief of Journalisten, the professional journal for Norwegian journalists, since 2007. (Even a confession of plagiarism didn’t bring him down.)  

Needless to say, the idea that Communists – devoted by definition not to objective reporting but to ideological propaganda – should hold these kinds of positions in a democratic country is ridiculous. In Norway, however, questioning the appropriateness of such hires would be considered to be outrageously offensive.

More tomorrow.