Yrjö Kallinen – Socialism, Pacifism and Theosophy

Yrjö Henrik Kallinen was born in 1886 in Northern Ostrobothnia, Finland. His father, whose Socialist ideas caused him a significant amount of problems, making the task of supporting his family all the more difficult, was among the early pioneers of the workers’ movement. The values and experiences of Kallinen’s childhood home had a central role in shaping his political thinking. As Kallinen later said, he had been ‘an active and ardent member of the Social Democratic Youth since just about its early beginning’. His formal education did not go beyond the first years of primary education, but his natural curiosity fueled his lifelong project of educating himself. He even went on to become a Counsellor for Education.

Kallinen had a keen interest in Theosophy, Buddhism, and Hinduism. In 1909, he joined the Finnish Theosophical Society. Esotericism and mysticism influenced many of his ideas, and he was not averse to referencing the Bhagavad Gita when discussing the unity of the human race or the dangers of greed.

Kallinen became a pacifist at a young age. It was reading Bertha von Suttner’s Lay Down Your Arms that changed his entire worldview: ‘This book was a shattering experience. It opened my eyes to the fact that war might not actually be what many novelists had claimed it to be.’ He also read Leo Tolstoi, among other authors. Opposing violence and armament, and upholding holistic pacifism was, together with Socialism, arguably Kallinen’s most important conviction throughout his life.

In addition to literature, shocking events strengthened Kallinen’s pacifist conviction. During the Great War, he had the chance to see exchange of German and Russian prisoners of war in Tornio. Seeing gravely injured soldiers, many of whom had lost at least one limb, disturbed him deeply. He wrote an article about what he had seen for a newspaper called Kansan Tahto (the People’s Will). The issue with his article was quickly sold out.


Russia had ceased to be an Empire after the February Revolution in 1917, and in the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks usurped power from the Provisional Government. In December 1917, Finland declared its independence. Political instability and old disagreements between the social classes soon evolved into a severe crisis, which culminated into a civil war in January 1918. The Whites, consisting of the legally elected government and largely the middle and upper classes fought with Imperial German support against the Reds, consisting of workers, tenant farmers, and Socialists, who were looking to change the entire social system of Finland.

Kallinen had been elected to the workers’ council of the city of Oulu in 1917. He was also elected Inspector of the Police. He had neither asked for nor wanted the position, but he could not decline it either. Even though he had a leading position in the workers’ movement of Oulu, he was strongly opposed to the very idea of an armed revolution. Accordingly, he did his best to avoid all involvement with the conflict, as he had never called for rebellion. Indeed, in the early weeks of 1918, he had even thought about moving to Kuusamo, away from all political quarrels. However, the unexpected civil war prevented him from realising his plan.

Kallinen stated in 1958 his belief that ‘a civil war is the worst of all idiocies which we call by the euphemism war’. The phrase explains his views on the events of 1918 in an uncomplicated manner. Before the battle of Oulu, which was won by the Whites who subsequently took control of the city, Kallinen had tried to mediate between the two sides in order to reach a peaceful solution. Despite some early successes, the situation went from bad to worse, and active hostilities soon followed. After the battle, Kallinen was arrested for being a leading figure of the Reds in Oulu, and the Whites condemned him to death – even though he had never supported the actions of the rebels. However, despite the verdict, the execution was eventually not carried out. Kallinen was sentenced to death four times after the civil war, but his life was nevertheless always spared.

Kallinen was, however, imprisoned, like many others. While in prison, he swore an oath to himself, and he remained loyal to it until the day he died: ‘Neither in this world or in any world to come would I ever obey any authority, commander, government, deity, or angel in anything except in that which I consider correct or the best of all options.’ During his imprisonment, he saw many of his fellow Reds die of hunger, and even Kallinen barely survived. He had been a vegetarian for years, and refused to eat meat and fish even in prison. As food was scarce, Kallinen often had next to nothing to eat. He could never forget the horror of having to watch his friends die. ‘Death came nearly always very quietly: after some rattling, they just stopped breathing. We always closed their eyes, as custom dictates.’ Kallinen, who despised the very idea of special treatment, refused a pardon offered to him in 1919, and was freed only after a general pardon was issued in 1921.

After he was released, Kallinen distanced himself from party politics. The Socialist Workers’ Party of Finland wanted to employ him, but he declined their offers. He had had enough of political bickering. From 1922 to 1923, Kallinen worked exclusively for the theosophical movement, giving speeches and writing articles about theosophy. In 1924, he started working in the co-operative movement, starting a career that lasted until 1955. Due to his work, he travelled across Finland and occasionally abroad. In his homeland, he often spoke to large audiences. He became an acclaimed public speaker, and his evocative speeches had a strong impact on everyone listening.

The time of the Winter War, fought between Finland and the Soviet Union from 1939 to 1940, was difficult for Kallinen. For him, the shocking magnitude of violence combined with the rise of nationalism was absolutely terrifying. He considered the war – which was started by the Soviet Union without a declaration of war – a tragedy that had left the Finnish nation with little choice. As he stated in an interview in 1963, ‘I cannot understand what the Finns could possibly have done, other than fight’. However, he also believed that the Finnish far right had needlessly provoked the Soviet Union in the 1930s with its aggressive rhetoric.

From 1941 until 1944, Finland fought its own, separate war called the Continuation War against the Soviet Union. While Finland did receive German assistance, Finland never entered into an alliance with Nazi Germany, and retained its democracy throughout the war. Unlike many other Social Democrats, the strongly left-leaning Kallinen could never accept the Continuation War, and he considered it to be an illegal act of aggression against the Soviet Union. He was a member of the cross-party peace opposition that sought to have Finland end its war with the Soviet Union. In 1944, after leading politicians and experts had concluded that Germany was going to lose the war and after achieving a number of highly important defensive victories in battles fought against the Red Army, Finland signed an armistice with the Soviet Union.

In 1945, Kallinen became a Social Democratic MP. He held the position until 1948. He worked on the Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance that played a central role in defining Finno-Soviet relations from 1948 onwards. However, he strongly opposed the article of the pact that called on Finland to be prepared to defend its territory against aggression from Germany or its allies. Essentially, the treaty obligated Finland to co-operate militarily with the Soviet Union in the event of a Western attack. Kallinen thought it was irresponsible to needlessly foster hate by defining another nation as a potential enemy.

The most surprising event in Kallinen’s multifaceted life’s work came when he was appointed Minister of Defence in 1946. At first, the very idea of a pacifist as Minister of Defence seemed ridiculous to Kallinen, but the goal was to ensure the Soviet Union of the peaceful direction of Finnish politics. Therefore, Kallinen accepted the appointment, on the condition that he would not be responsible for the military tasks of the Finnish Defence Forces. Accordingly, Prime Minister Mauno Pekkala took care of them. Kallinen held the position until 1948.

For Kallinen, it was obvious that pacifism could not be conditional: he believed in the total rejection of violence. After WWII, the international peace movement was largely led by Communists, who were often eager to defend any and all actions of the Soviet Union, such as the brutal crushing of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Kallinen openly attacked the far left for perverting the idea of peace by turning it into a political tool, used in the defence of totalitarianism. Subsequently, the pro-Soviet Finnish far left launched a childish series of rhetorical attacks on Kallinen. Mirjam Vire-Tuominen, the secretary of pro-totalitarian Finnish Peace Committee, which was all too happy to defend peace very selectively, wrote a vulgar article criticising Kallinen. The text was published in various newspapers. It is hardly surprising that Kallinen considered Stalinism veritably satanic.

Drawing inspiration from the Hindu tradition, Kallinen argued that the vast majority of mankind was in a sleep-like state, where their actions are guided not by reason, but by prejudice and inherited thought patterns. He considered this phenomenon to be absolutely central in all warfare. In an interview given in 1971, he stressed this idea, saying: ’Judging by what I have experienced thus far, I would say one can certainly discuss war and peace with soldiers. They have seen what war is. They know what it is. But may the heavens protect us from ordinary civilians! They are full of lust for war, because that is what they have learned from their fathers’.

For many years, Kallinen was something akin to a conscience of the people. When he died in 1976, it was immediately recognised that he had been an influential thinker who remained true to his ideals. His pacifism was often unpractical, but honest. His desire to develop the Finno-Soviet relationship disturbed right-wing Social Democrats, and for a long time, he did not got along with the Party leadership. However, Kallinen deserves to be praised for not adopting the blind pro-Soviet attitude of many other politicians and public personalities. His criticism of patriotism, while understandable in light of his theosophical views, was nevertheless politically somewhat unfortunate.

Kallinen was highly knowledgeable about a wide variety of topics, which makes the mistakes he made while discussing Christianity all the more puzzling. He often resorted to repeating common historical misunderstandings, and to unwittingly spreading old Protestant propaganda about the Jesuits, and the Inquisition. His usually wonderful rhetoric was at its weakest when he talked or wrote about the Christian faith.

Kallinen was a remarkably honest and truly humble man, who practiced what he preached. Many of his ideas are highly relevant even today. Indeed, his opinion that we must always avoid trusting the common assumptions and prejudices we are taught already at a young age matters all the more in this age marked by terrorism, ultra-nationalism, the wide acceptance of the idea that every person’s ultimate goal consists solely of following one’s desires and worshiping one’s ego, and the rise of right-wing populism.

Erik Immonen is a student of World Politics at the University of Helsinki and a proud graduate of the second edition of the School of Democracy. He is also serving as board member at the Helsinki Social Democratic Students’ Association.

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