Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 27, 2015

Getting to the bottom of Swedish social democracy

Filed under: Sweden — louisproyect @ 6:04 pm

The Saltsjöbaden Agreement of 1938, a deal that ensured class peace. Trade union leader August Lindberg is at the left while corporate chief Sigfrid Edström is at the right

(This is the sixth in a series of articles on “the Swedish model”. Part one is here. It is an introduction that relates Swedish socialism to Bismarck’s reforms. Part two is here. It is about the persecution of the Samis. Part three is here. It deals with Sweden and the “scramble for Africa”. Part four took up the Myrdal enthusiasm for eugenics. Part five deals with Sweden’s economic partnership with Hitler.)

Feeling duty-bound to understand the origins and development of Swedish social democracy, I slogged through 342 pages of Herbert Tingsten’s “The Swedish Social Democrats: the Ideological Development” that was written in 1941. The emphasis is on ideological since the book pays scant attention to what is happening on the ground. It reads more or less as a chronicle of debates in a party from its founding in 1899. I got what I needed from it by the time Tingsten worked his way up to 1932 or so when party leaders were trying to figure out what relevance their ideology had to the Great Depression. As a reflection of the book’s somewhat limited value, it fails to mention the General Strike of 1931 that was sparked by the shooting of papermill strikers and their supporters in Adalen.

Born in 1896, Tingsten was a political science professor and newspaperman who edited Dagens Nyheter from 1946 to 1959, a paper roughly equivalent to the NY Times. Wikipedia described his ideological history this way:

Tingsten changed his political views several times during his life. In his early youth he was a conservative and later a radical left-wing liberal. During the 1920s he joined the Swedish Social Democratic Party and was on the left-wing faction of the party. In 1941 he wrote Den svenska socialdemokratiens idéutveckling (“The Ideological Development of the Swedish Social Democrats”), where he criticized the party for not fulfilling the marxist goals of nationalizations of the private industry. However, after reading Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom in 1944, Tingsten became a convinced believer in a free market economy and in 1945 he left the Social Democratic Party. He was one of the original participators of the Mont Pelerin Society, founded in 1947.

I certainly got the impression that the 1941 book was critical of the Swedish social democrats from the left even though Tingsten was careful to strike a neutral tone. But page after page is devoted to pointing out how willing the party was to dump the Marxist ideas that were present at its founding even if they were tainted by Lassalle’s state socialism as I pointed out in a previous post.

In the late 1800s the Swedish party (SAP, or Social Democratic Workers Party) was a virtual hotbed of “revisionism”, almost always adopting views that were antithetical to Marxism, such as the rejection of the labor theory of value. As I worked my way through Tingsten’s text, which read more often than not as a stenographer’s notes from various SAP meetings, I was struck by how committed the SAP was to remaining within a liberal capitalist framework even as it paid lip service to socialism.

In examining some of the earliest programmatic statements by Hjalmar Branting, Tingsten points out that he had a rather “inclusive” understanding of the term proletariat. There was an industrial proletariat but there was also a proletariat based on receiving a salary. This would exclude poor farmers and small craftsmen but it would include bankers, cabinet ministers and professors.

Before long, Branting and other party leaders began to think in terms of “the people” rather than the proletariat, seeing social democracy as a force that could unite everybody in opposition to the big bourgeoisie. While Tingsten says very little about this, there is little doubt that the populism of the early days of Swedish social democracy lent itself to the peculiar notion of folkhemmet, or “the people’s home”, that party leader and Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson developed in the 1920s. If you’ll recall, Hansson was in power during WWII when Swedish industrialists were helping to keep the Nazi war machine going.

Folkhemmet was also key to the eugenics program that the Myrdals espoused, which blurred the lines between the family unit, the state and the seemingly progressive character of the welfare state that the social democrats promoted.

Under folkhemmet, the goal was basically not to overturn property relations but to reduce the differences in income between those at the top of society and those at the bottom. In essence, this is what attracts people like Bernie Sanders to Swedish “socialism” even though it has little to do with Karl Marx’s call for revolutionary change.

Wikipedia states that a Swedish political scientist named Rudolf Kjellén developed the idea of folkhemmet in a 1900 book titled “Swedish Geography”. Apparently, he was inspired by Otto Von Bismarck’s state socialism so it is no surprise that the Swedish social democrats who appropriated Lassalle would embrace Kjellén’s ideas of a politics based on:

  • Reich: a territorial concept consisting of Raum (Lebensraum), and strategic military shape
  • Volk: a racial conception of the state

Doesn’t this ring a bell? It should. Hitler implemented this approach even though he never specifically referred to Kjellén.

Ironically, Folkhemmet became a symbol of the “decent” Sweden that was being transformed in the post-1970s into a state indistinguishable from other neoliberal projects in Western Europe. While it is understandable why leftwing social democrats would feel nostalgia for the good old days—mirroring in some ways that of some older people in the former Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc—it also found expression in the writings of Henning Mankel, the Marxist author of detective novels in the Wallander series that I wrote about for CounterPunch. In a fascinating article titled “Folkhemmet” by Göran Rosenberg that appeared in OpenDemocracy in 2013, we learn that the detective would like to turn back the clock:

There is no doubt in my mind that Henning Mankell, a self-confessed supporter of the radical left, is having his protagonist, Kurt Wallander, represent his own disillusionment with the retreat from the ideals of folkhemmet [the people’s home] and his own yearning for its political restoration.

The rhetoric of nostalgia remains in fact a potent factor in Swedish politics. This is most explicit in the party that still claims political ownership of the Swedish model, the Social Democrats. Although the party, while in government, has been instrumental in many of the changes signifying a retreat from the model, and while in opposition, has largely acquiesced to liberal-conservative proposals to the same effect, it has skilfully managed to retain most of its traditional rhetoric, depicting itself as the true custodian of folkhemmet.

The final paragraph of Tingsten’s chapter pretty much sums up what would guide Swedish social democracy for a century at least and one that demonstrates his leftist distaste for the party’s subsequent evolution:

In a speech delivered in 1900 Branting emphasized that new viewpoints had become decisive with the party’s growth: “As long as the party is composed of only a few persons who lack the opportunity to exercise any real political influence, it is in the nature of things that their principles will be abstract in form and that the main emphasis will be on future goals. On the other hand, should the working class begin to take a hand in the machinery of society, certain immediate goals to improve its position will appear so attractive and occupy so much time and interest that the more distant ones will, relatively speaking, be shunted aside.” In an article published in 1897, Danielsson recalled that Social Democrats had abandoned a series of dogmas that they had previously defended with fanatic zeal. This was proof of the movement’s viability. In terms reminiscent of the anti-intellectual vitalism of today, Danielsson extolled the capacity of Social Democratic theory to change and adjust. The theory “is distinguished by great elasticity and demonstrates its truth and practical fecundity in that it does not exhaust its forces in vain attempts to do violence to reality but allies itself naturally and voluntarily with all fluid popular movements in various countries for the purpose of leading the working classes on to a higher cultural level and a freer social position along navigable roads that have been opened by history.”

What is also of interest given the stated goal of Bernie Sanders to turn the USA into something like Sweden (at least like it used to be) is whether rich people like the Koch brothers will go along with it. Maybe we could import a new bourgeoisie while we are in the process of importing a new ideology.

But what could have made Sweden’s one percent so amenable to a tax structure that had a leveling effect? Was it something in the water? To start with, it is important to understand that the Swedish social democracy never appeared as a threat to moneyed interests as should be obvious by both their ideology and their willingness to collaborate with bourgeois parties. Given the relatively crisis-free nature of Swedish capitalism (it fared better than most European countries during the Great Depression) and the nation’s neutralism that protected it from the ravages of war, there were fewer irritants at work on the working class at least as compared to France and Germany for instance.

All this led to the trade union movement and the bosses hammering out a partnership based on class peace in 1938 at Saltsjöbaden, a town with salt bath spas as the name indicates. While sacrificing the big profits that a more greedy capitalist class sought, there was at least a guarantee that strikes like the ones that roiled Sweden in 1931 would be kept to a minimum. You can be sure that people like Walter Reuther studied this agreement carefully. Indeed, the Saltsjöbaden agreement and the New Deal represented welfare state capitalism at its pinnacle. When Obama was elected in 2008, people at the Nation Magazine held out hope that he would be a new FDR. There was about as much chance of that happening as the USA adopting a “Swedish model” even in the most unlikely event that Sanders got elected. The reason for this is easy to understand. The American bourgeoisie long ago gave up on New Deal type partnerships between labor and capital. It was much easier to close plants and relocate capital to China, Bangladesh and elsewhere. In fact even the Swedish bourgeoisie has little interest in turning back the clock to 1938, something that will be the topic of a future post.


  1. […] Myrdal enthusiasm for eugenics. Part five deals with Sweden’s economic partnership with Hitler. Part six covers the social pact that labor and capital agreed upon in […]

    Pingback by Who rules Sweden? | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — September 3, 2015 @ 9:00 pm

  2. […] Myrdal enthusiasm for eugenics. Part five deals with Sweden’s economic partnership with Hitler. Part six covers the social pact that labor and capital agreed upon in 1938. Part seven addressed the […]

    Pingback by The economic theory and policies of Swedish social democracy | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — September 25, 2015 @ 7:24 pm

  3. Well, Per Albin actually took the “folkhem” term explicitly to counter the right wing threat. He hated Kjellén, like all social democrats did. It was pragmatic, not a mark of right wing affinity. Also, Göran Rosenberg? The ex-maoist-cum-Reaganite? Stieg Larsson was a trotskyist btw, who wrote for the main FI Swedish paper.

    Comment by Engorgio — September 28, 2015 @ 6:01 pm

  4. […] Myrdal enthusiasm for eugenics. Part five deals with Sweden’s economic partnership with Hitler. Part six covers the social pact that labor and capital agreed upon in 1938. Part seven addressed the […]

    Pingback by How Swedish Social Democracy became neoliberal | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — November 10, 2015 @ 9:49 pm

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