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Published: 29 Jun, 2018

The student rising – political activism past and present

FEATURE A few years ago, you could read a statement along the walk bridge by the university pond that read, ‘Welcome to the left-wing university’. An echo from revolutionary and activist times gone by. How many students are familiar with that statement today?

What I didn't know before listening to Marianne Liliequist and Bore Sköld talk about their past and present activism was that I'd also get an explanation as to why the statement was posted there, 40–50 years after the left-wing activist era. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

In 1969, Marianne Liliequist arrived in Umeå from Frostviken in Jämtland, Sweden. She was one of the first in her family to pursue university studies, and she started, according to herself, 'at the most left-wing department of them all – social work'. She describes her arrival in Umeå as if the whole world was at her feet.

I still bear that feeling with me. Every time I leave and return to Umeå, it makes me think, 'How wonderful to be at the centre of the world'.

During her upper-secondary years in Strömsund, Sweden, she didn't feel she fit in amongst her middle-class peers. She was only seen as a working-class kid from 'a Lappish hellhole'.

"But in Umeå and at the University, I suddenly felt that I fit in. Being a girl of the working-class with an interest in politics and who enjoyed a good ponder was just right. I haven't quite got over that shock yet."

Studying meant reading, discussing and questioning everything. All the time, common fronts were established against practically all of academia, society and the world.

She joined book circles that took on Marx, Mao and Lenin. But in the end, she grew weary saying, 'it started resembling a free church'.

"When the Swedish Communist Party was formed, I thought their reasoning made sense. If we want a Swedish revolution, we need to approach the working class. We can't just walk around at uni and fuss about. We need to proletarise and spread propaganda at workplaces."

In Marianne Liliequist's case, this led to some friends and her seeking employment at the ironworks in Luleå. There, one of her achievements was to fight the craze for Stalin.

"Because of this, a prelate of the church came up from Gothenburg and excluded us from the party – all but one. That guy can probably still be seen outside a Luleå liquor shop selling Proletären – a weekly Marxist-Leninist newspaper. He was even a real Stalin look-alike," she says chuckling.

Marianne Liliequist

Born: 1950.
Does: Professor emerita in ethnology at the Department of Culture and Media Studies at Umeå University. She has always strived to incorporate a politically independent political edge to her teaching and research.

Bore Sköld

Born: 1988.
Does: Research fellow at the Department of Public Health and Clinical Medicine, Unit of Epidemiology and Global Health. He is district chair of the Left Party in Västerbotten, and through his political career has realised the importance of communication.

After that period, Marianne Liliequist describes how she got tired of it all and felt disillusioned. Her path back to Umeå and academia took place through ethnology.

So far, Bore Sköld has been sat listening patiently on the red sofa. What Marianne Liliequist is saying makes it easy to understand why Umeå University is called the left-wing university. But what's his impression? He was born nearly 40 years after Marianne Liliequist.

What associations do you have of 'the left-wing university'?
"I grew up in this city in the 1990s and 2000s and through parents and older siblings I've realised that politics is close to people's hearts here. Particularly through activism – that's how I know politics."

"It's made me think that politics is a part of society and something to be engaged in."

In his early work in student politics, Bore Sköld was committed to making it easier for working class youth to study at the University. Then, seemingly from out of nowhere, he starts talking about 'the left-wing university' and I understand that he is referring to the statement on the walk bridge.

The idea behind it was to strengthen the left-wing confidence within the University. As an element of recognition and reminiscing over the history, which is important in order to take politics one step further.

Bore Sköld tells us about when the Left managed to win the students' union election year after year. His description was of a resurrection of the political spirit in the academic world.

"Recently, students have been a driving force in the protests against the selling off of municipal public housing in Umeå. And it feels natural to be mobilising."

"In Umeå today, it's apparent that the left-wing students also raise subjects like feminism and LGBT issues in a way that we never did – we were too busy pulling off a revolution before we could do anything else," says Marianne Liliequist.

What really separates the past from the present is the activism found in social media. There, the reach is wide and posts get wide attention.

According to Bore Sköld, it's good that internet activism exists, but it can also sometimes lead to the debate suffering in nuance and intellectuality.

Marianne Liliequist points out that the humanities play a significant role here. In continuing to safeguard fundamental democratic issues such as anti-racism, equality and feminism, for instance.

Past and present

In 1968, Umeå University had 2,000–3,000 students.
Today, the number has increased tenfold to more than 31,000.

In 1968, the University had one campus.
Today, it includes Campus Umeå, Umeå Arts Campus, Campus Skellefteå and Campus Örnsköldsvik.

In 1968, Umeå municipality had just passed 50,000 inhabitants.
Today, the number is over 120,000.

In 1970, lunch at the newly-opened restaurant in Universum cost SEK 5.50.
Today, lunch costs SEK 83.

In 1974, the annual Brännboll Cup premiered in Umeå. In the first year, 44 teams played.

In 1997, the Brännboll Cup got world championship status and more than 1,000 teams took part.


Text: Per Melander
Translation: Anna Lawrence
Photo: Johan Gunséus

This article was first published in the magazine Think no. 1 2018.