Rudolf Kjellén

Rudolf Kjellén

Conference reports Territory, state and nation. The geopolitics of Rudolf Kjellén

The topic for the workshop was “Great powers and small states — Rudolf Kjellén’s Baltic geopolitical visions and the role of democracy.” Participants responded enthusiastically to this specialized but inclusive topic, addressing the history of the legendary — but often ostracized — political scientist and father of terminology and theories of geopolitics and biopolitics, Rudolf Kjellén (1864–1922).

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2021:4, pp 22-23
Published on on January 24, 2022

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The workshop “Great powers and small states — Rudolf Kjellén’s Baltic geopolitical visions and the role of democracy” was hosted by the Center for Baltic and East European Studies (CBEES) at Södertörn University September 20, 2021. It was arranged by Thomas Lundén and Carl Marklund as the colloquium of the newly published book Territory, State and Nation — The Geopolitics of Rudolf Kjellén.

The topic for the workshop was “Great powers and small states — Rudolf Kjellén’s Baltic geopolitical visions and the role of democracy.” Participants responded enthusiastically to this specialized but inclusive topic, addressing the history of the legendary — but often ostracized — political scientist and father of terminology and theories of geopolitics and biopolitics, Rudolf Kjellén (1864–1922).

The invitees embodied a broad spectrum of expertise ranging across several different disciplines: history, political science, economic history, and political geography. Among them were many members of Swedish and Finnish academia such as Ragnar Björk (Södertörn University), Leif Lewin (Uppsala University), Anssi Paasi (University of Oulu), Mark Bassin (Södertörn University) Andrés Rivarola Puntigliano (Stockholm University) and the organizers Carl Marklund and Thomas Lundén (Södertörn University).

Historian Ragnar Björk began the workshop lectures with an introduction to the historical context and life of Kjellén: from his academic virtues and battles to the whirlwinds of political activism. The lecture revolved around several academic and political tensions in what Björk called “a life with opposites.” In brief, after receiving his doctoral degree in 1890 Kjellén applied for but did not get a professorship in history at the newly inaugurated Gothenburg University College. Instead, he gained a position in political science with teaching obligations in geography in 1891. According to Björk it was in the meeting point between geography and political science that the concept of geopolitics was born. Kjellén’s political activism, on the other hand, was developed in the relationship with his teacher and father-figure Oscar Alin. After Alin’s death in 1900 Kjellén decided to fight for a dogmatic, legalistic solution to the dissolution of the union between Norway and Sweden: A fight that, as we all know now, he did not win.

Like Björk, historian Carl Marklund also highlighted the relationship between the hard laws of geopolitics and the more dynamic biopolitics in Kjellén’s theories. Marklund showed how previous research about Kjellén has neglected the way in which these theories hybridize with and influenced each other. For instance, what is often referred to as the “return to geopolitics” that began after the fall of the Berlin wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 did not consider the depth of geopolitics as a concept. Instead, “geopolitics” has come to be associated with deterministic and negative connotations, where it is all about competition over scarce resources and zero-sum contests rather than a more dynamic theory of opportunities and hindrances. This definition fails to include what Marklund called “the international collaboration around shared problems, as the determining factor of international relations.” In contrast to the “return of geopolitics” Marklund presented a more nuanced understanding of Kjellén’s conceptual inventions in relation to his political ideas on the future development and global position of Sweden. Marklund showed how Kjellén’s view on the nature-culture divide changed his understanding of his general theory of geopolitics and how it promoted the creation of other neologisms such as biopolitics. According to Marklund, in order to understand the birth of biopolitics we have to pay attention to the development of his thoughts about Swedens place in the geopolitical order. How could a small state survive in the battle of nations? To answer that question Kjellén adapted Sweden’s historical experiences as a small state but with a tradition of being a great power. Instead, however, of going back to the warrior’s path of early modern times Kjellén wanted “a state-led and export-oriented commercial and intellectual mobilization at home, based in active social and population policies as well as ambitious economic and research programs.” Kjellén claimed that if you did not have the material resources or armies of great powers you had to use your wit and cunning. Marklund called this thought figure “the small game in the shadow of the great game.”  In his paper, Marklund shows that Kjellén’s biopolitics is an ontological hybrid between constructivism and realism. This partly new perspective develops a deeper understanding of both Kjellén’s theoretical and his political facets.

Economic historian Andrés Rivarola Puntigliano discussed Kjellén’s influence on the intellectual sphere in Latin America during the 20th century. According to Rivarola Puntigliano, the heritage of what he called “geographic consciousness” among politicians and intellectuals helped in spreading and establishing Kjellén’s ideas as well as those of other classical geopoliticians. For example, the Brazilian scholar Everardo Backheuser mentioned Kjellén in 1925 and highlighted the importance of his development of Friedrich Ratzel’s political geography. In 1948, Backheuser translated and incorporated Kjellén’s work in what Rivarola Puntigliano claim to be the first textbook on geopolitics in Latin America. Rivarola Puntigliano showed that geopolitics played an important role in the political landscape in Latin America during the 20th century. Kjellén’s legacy after World War II was not subjected to the same scrutiny in Latin America as in the Western world: Kjellén’s ideas had a more dynamic character in the evolution of geopolitics in the Latin American context. For example, the Kjellénian perspective in Latin America was incorporated in the development-oriented economic theories of Gunnar Myrdal. Myrdal’s ideas of regional integration and nationalism for developing states were merged with Kjellen’s geopolitical perspectives, offering a new model for how to direct small states in the international arena. Rivarola Puntigliano concluded that the use of geopolitics reveals the links between theorists such as Kjellén and Ratzel in relation to Latin American politics, showing that geopolitics have been an important political factor in the continent’s 20th century.

A very much appreciated paper entitled ‘‘Kjellén’s Legacy’’ was presented by political geographer Thomas Lundén. Lundén argued that Ratzel’s Politische Geographie contributed to Kjellén’s theoretical creation of geopolitics but showed how the latter expanded the spatial history of the state with the concept “the state as a life form.” This way of studying the state was a reaction against contemporary scholars of political science and their lack of temporal and spatial considerations. Lundén states that in the Swedish context Kjellén became an afterthought because he was active in a state without any irredentist aspirations; appreciation came from elsewhere: For example, from politicians in Finland after its independence from Russia 1917 and geographers from Denmark and Estonia at the beginning of World War II. The most infamous appreciation came from Germany, particularly from geographer and partial Nazi ideologue Karl Haushofer. This connection has stained the memory of Kjellén, who died in 1922, even though his name, together with Haushofer, already lost its importance for the Nazi regime after 1935. While it is true that Kjellén had pro-German sentiments, his theories did not have a racial component. Taken together, Lundén claims that the legacy of Kjellén’s geopolitical theories has been contaminated by a combination of oblivion, repudiation, and misunderstanding, which had more to do with his reactionary politics and the way other scientists have chosen to use his work.

The concluding panel was moderated by Thomas Lundén. Mart Kuldkepp (University College London), Leif Lewin and Henrik Gutzon Larsen (Lund University) participated in an interesting conversation about the life and theories of Kjellén in both a contemporary and historical setting. One memorable moment was when Sweden’s grand old man of political science, Leif Lewin, told an anecdote about when he was visiting a large conference in Rio de Janeiro in the 1990s. Lewin had seen a big gathering outside one of the conference halls. Being a man of a curious nature, he went to see what the fuss was all about. The conference’s longest queue was, to Lewin’s surprise, for a lecture on Rudolf Kjellén. In the crowding and disorder of the Kjellén frenzy some esteemed colleagues wondered why Lewin, unknown to the Brazilians, forced his way into the seminar. He answered that he was the successor to Rudolf Kjellén as the holder of the Skyttean chair at Uppsala University. As those magic words was uttered, he was invited up to the stage and welcomed with pomp and circumstance. The only thing that kept the Latin Americans flabbergasted was that Kjellén died in 1922, which according to their calculations meant that Lewin must be around 120 years old! This anecdote is obviously a jovial curiosity. It gives, however, a perspective of Rudolf Kjellén’s legacy, in line with what Andrés Rivarola Puntigliano had pointed out earlier.

The workshop provided valuable insights into Kjellén’s political and scientific legacies. It became clear that Kjellénian theoretical concepts often had substantial historical importance, even if they were not implemented. They could unfold a powerful intellectual impact in different areas and times, for example in Latin America or in the “return of geopolitics” in the 1990s. Despite the spread of his ideas, Kjellén is still to some extent clouded in mystery. Even if the workshop and book clarified some aspects of that enigma there is still, as historian Fernand Braudel put it, an “America to discover” when it comes to the life, politics, and theories of Rudolf Kjellén.

  • by Oscar Nygren

    PhD-candidate in History at Baltic and East European Graduate School (BEEGS) at Södertörn University. Researching the Swedish engagement in the Baltic region within the League of Nations in the interwar period.

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