Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 6, 2016

Sanders, Sweden and Socialism

Filed under: electoral strategy,Sweden — louisproyect @ 4:46 pm

A man with a plan for implementing socialism piecemeal

While far apart in age and ideology, Bhaskar Sunkara and John Bellamy Foster share the distinction of being the helmsmen of two flagships of American Marxism: Jacobin and Monthly Review. They also have in common authorship of recent op-ed pieces in the Washington Post in praise of the Bernie Sanders campaign. Oddly enough, despite the perception some might have of MR occupying a space to the left of Jacobin, a publication loosely affiliated to the DSA, Foster’s piece is more flattering to Sanders. Titled “Is democratic socialism the American Dream?”, it embraces the Scandinavian model of socialism that forms the core of Sanders’s political program:

In advocating democratic socialism, Sanders has promoted a pragmatic politics of the left. His proposals include a sharp increase in taxes on the billionaire class, free college tuition and single-payer health insurance, guaranteeing health insurance to the entire population regardless of jobs and income. He advocates job programs in the tradition of the New Deal. All of these proposals represent things that have been accomplished in other countries, particularly the Scandinavian social democracies, where the populations are better off according to every social indicator. By portraying them as possible here, Sanders has brought the idea of socialism — even a moderate kind — from the margins into the center of U.S. political culture.

In Sunkara’s article, “The ‘Sanders Democrat’ is paving the way for the radical left”, the good name of the Scandinavian model is invoked again:

Many of the young people now trumpeting socialism aren’t clear about what they mean by the word. It’s safe to guess that they’re referring broadly to the tattered social protections that do exist in the United States or to the more robust Scandinavian welfare states that Sanders often speaks of. Worker ownership of the means of production is not on the agenda for Sanders socialists just yet, nor are other questions about democratic control and social rights, ones key to the traditional socialist worldview.

Leaving aside the question of the value of pro-socialist think pieces in Jeff Bezos’s newspaper that is largely disdained by the very workers whose interests they defend, there is a failure to critically examine the Scandinavian model that even contributors to the two journals view with skepticism or outright hostility. If we can reasonably identify Sweden as the most representative example of the model, there is an obvious disconnect between the op-ed pieces and what can be found in Jacobin and MR.

In a February 2015 interview with Jacobin, Petter Nilsson of Sweden’s Left Party probably spoke for most of his nation’s Marxists when he said:

There’s this joke on the Swedish left that everyone would want the Swedish model, and the Swedes would want it perhaps more than anyone. What’s considered to be the Swedish model peaked in maybe the late ’70s, early ’80s and has since gone through quite the same developments as the rest of Europe with the neoliberal wave.

Meanwhile, Monthly Review dropped all illusions in the Swedish model over twenty years ago, well before John Bellamy Foster became editor. In March 1993 Kenneth Hermele and David Vail wrote “The End of the Middle Road: What Happened to the Swedish Model?”, an article that denounced the Swedish Social Democratic Party (SAP, Swedish for the Sveriges socialdemokratiska arbetareparti or “Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Sweden”) for pursuing a program based on “more social differentiation, higher concentration of economic power in the hands of Swedish transnational firms and their owners, and giving up the attempt to carry out a development model different from those of other developed capitalist countries.” So deep was the disgust with Swedish social democracy in the MR milieu that another article appeared subsequently in the July-August 1994 issue that attacked Hermele and Vail for being too soft on the SAP. In “Sweden: the model that never was”, Peter Cohen makes the case that it never had anything to do with socialism:

The history of the SAP since the First World War is one of class collaboration, not of “a kind of social contract” or negotiated class relationships,” whatever that may mean. Like all other European Social Democratic parties, the SAP not only accepts capitalism but defends it against any attempt at change. The party has always argued that what is good for Swedish corporations is good for the Swedish working class.

When Bob Schieffer of CBS’s “Face the Nation” interviewed Bernie Sanders on May 10, 2015, one of the first questions posed was what it meant to be a socialist nowadays. Did it mean being for nationalizing the railroads and “things like that”, clearly trying to get the candidate to defend Soviet-style socialism rather than the welfare state. Sanders replied that he was for “democratic socialism”, or what they’ve had in countries like Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland for many years. Upon hearing this, I resolved to begin writing about Sweden and socialism to develop a class analysis of Sanders’s program. The other countries he listed would have to be overlooked because of time constraints and also because Sweden is an exemplar of the Scandinavian model. I was also familiar with the failures of Swedish social democracy having written fairly extensively about the country’s Marxist authors who got across their ideas about its dark side in detective novels such as the Wallander series and the Dragon Tattoo.

A series of eight articles about the Swedish model have appeared on my blog and this will be the conclusion. I am posting it on the North Star website since the issues posed by the Sanders campaign overlap with questions facing the left in the USA and Western Europe as many Marxists like Sunkara and Foster appear to be giving social democracy a new lease on life. Oddly enough, for all of the self-flagellation (deservedly so) by the Leninist left, there is a remarkable willingness today to treat social democracy as a brand new shiny toy and not the movement that had the blood of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht on its hands.

In many respects, the new found interest in social democracy is the result of a vacuum created by the collapse of a revolutionary left that had adopted sectarian and dogmatic methods based on a misunderstanding of what the Bolsheviks represented. In the USA today, there are only two groups of any significance that carry the “Leninist” banner and one of them—Kshama Sawant’s Socialist Alternative—is embedded in the Sanders campaign just as the CPUSA is embedded in Hillary Clinton’s. To its credit, the ISO continues to reject supporting Democratic Party candidates even though it recognizes the significance of having a candidate for President calling himself a socialist, even if mistakenly so.

If there’s anything to be gained from the massive amount of analysis devoted to the Sanders campaign, it is in deepening our understanding of social democracy and electoral politics. From its very beginnings, the socialist movement has considered the possibility that capitalism could be abolished through the ballot but in opting for electoral politics, there were always dangers that it might slowly and inexorably become wedded to capitalist reform.

This was the subject of an Adam Przeworski article titled “Social Democracy as a Historical Phenomenon” that appeared in the July-August 1980 New Left Review. If our notions of workers taking power is informed by what Marx wrote about the barricades of the Paris Commune, we should never forget that Engels was entirely open to the possibility of an electoral road to socialism. In 1881, he wrote about the excellent prospects for a socialist party in England: “Let, then, that working class prepare itself for the task in store for it, — the ruling of this great empire; let them understand the responsibilities which inevitably will fall to their share. And the best way to do this is to use the power already in their hands, the actual majority they possess in every large town in the kingdom, to send to Parliament men of their own order.”

As a result of the long expansion of the capitalist economy in Europe through the late 1800s, the result to a large extent of colonialism, the major socialist and working-class parties in Germany, Sweden, France, Italy and England turned Engels’s off-the-cuff observation into a principle. With the massive support of the German working class, Kautsky’s party was a symbol of what was possible under conditions of legality. In Czarist Russia where socialists were forced to operate underground, Lenin considered Kautsky’s party a model even if Rosa Luxemburg saw the dry rot in its foundations.

Slowly and molecularly, such parties began to adapt to electoralist methods that put the rather atomized election day choices of voters above the kind of mass actions that could lead to a socialist victory. Przeworski described the conundrum that workers faced. Despite the fact that they received millions of votes, their chances of winning an election was diminished by being outnumbered by members of other classes whose commitment to socialism was weakened by their social status as farmers, professionals or small proprietors. In order to become the ruling party, social democrats had to think in terms of making alliances with non-proletarian parties. In doing so, the leaders of the Swedish social democracy went further than other parties and long before it took power in the 1930s, it had become accustomed to forming blocs with middle-class parties that wrested concessions from the SAP that were not in the interest of its working class base.

Even as the SAP evolved into a multi-class, reform-oriented electoral machine, it never abandoned its socialist principles—at least on paper. After WWII, it offered lip-service to the idea that Sweden could become socialist no matter that its economic policies were barely distinguishable from FDR’s New Deal.

In 1971, perhaps as a result of the most profound radicalization since the 1930s, the SAP’s top economists Gösta Rehn and Rudolf Meidner proposed a plan that would supposedly lead to capitalism being abolished through elections. The so-called Meidner Plan stipulated that 20 percent of profits of all large companies like Volvo would pay for workers’ shares that over a certain number of years would result in them being owned by employees after the fashion of Mondragon. Of course, whether worker ownership has something to do with the original vision of Marx and Engels is open to question. Despite being owned by its workforce, Mondragon competes in the marketplace like all other corporations and is not above layoffs and other forms of labor discipline.

That being said, the idea of a Meidner type plan succeeding in the USA would be unprecedented in American history. Whatever the drawbacks of a Mondragon might be, who would not welcome the thought of the Koch brothers being forced to relinquish control of their vast empire to ordinary workers?

On November 10, 2015, Bhaskar Sunkara was interviewed by Vox Magazine editor Dylan Matthews, a Harvard graduate dubbed by Huffington Post as one of five “rising stars” under the age of 25. Despite his association with a magazine that is staffed mostly by other Washington Post reporters who jumped ship with Vox founder Ezra Klein, Matthews has a soft spot for Jacobin, calling it “perhaps the most relevant and important publication of the American political left today.”

The interview sought Sunkara’s opinion on a speech that Sanders had given a few days earlier. In keeping with his general approach to the Sanders campaign, Sunkara gave critical support to the speech even if he made clear it was not really the kind of socialism he favored.

Addressing the problem alluded to in the Przeworski article, Matthews wondered how despite having 70 percent of their workforce in unions, there was still very few signs of inroads being made on capitalist ownership in places like Sweden. He asked Sunkara, “What’s the path to worker ownership and control in a democratic society?”

His reply:

Provisionally, I would look at the Meidner Plan — the wage-earner scheme pushed by a massive mobilization on the part of the trade union federation in Sweden, which would have gradually socialized most firms in Sweden — as one model.

Matthews returned to the Jacobin beat only this month. In a fairly gushing article titled “Inside Jacobin: how a socialist magazine is winning the left’s war of ideas”, the Meidner Plan came up  again:

What we really need, Sunkara insists, is democratic worker control of the means of production. He cites approvingly the Meidner plan, a Swedish initiative in the 1970s that would have seen “wage earner funds” controlled by unions slowly assume ownership over every company with more than 50 employees, by forcing corporations to issue stock and give it to the funds. It was still “far too tepid,” Sunkara told me, but it was a start.

In the 1993 Socialist Register, none other than Rudolf Meidner took stock of his famous plan and the entire edifice of Swedish social democracy erected over a century in an article titled “Why did the Swedish Model fail?” While obviously loath to engage in the sort of blistering attack on his party such as the kind found in Monthly Review, it took a lot of courage and honesty to look at things without illusions. The article is must reading for those who pin their hopes on a transformation of the Democratic Party based on a Sanders “turn” made possible by changing demographics that favor the young and the disenfranchised.


  1. Sanders is a cod socialist, but it does seem that he has (at least for the time being) brought the words “socialist” and “socialism” back out into the daylight of actually acceptable discourse. They have been swearwords to most people for all of my 67+ years.

    As the Mafia guy said, “there’s so many ways you could f* this up,” but this is progress of a limited kind. (Oddly enough, Sanders’s actually being elected president might be the very thing to put the genie permanently back into the bottle.)

    The real question is what socialists can/should be/are doing to capitalize on this perhaps temporary bit of sunshine. Apart from selling magazines, that is.

    Comment by Pete Glosser — April 6, 2016 @ 9:33 pm

  2. To paraphrase Marx : if Jacobin and MR are Marxists then I’m not one.

    The class struggle lives in the daily conditions of the working class, not the pages of barely read magazines written by academics.

    Comment by Paul from PA — April 7, 2016 @ 4:33 pm

  3. Pete, a recent poll suggests that young Americans have a more favorable view of socialism than capitalism. That’s a real change!

    Comment by Paul from PA — April 7, 2016 @ 4:35 pm

  4. The material basis of the New Deal was mobilization for WW2 and a strong working class movement.

    The material basis of the Great Society was Vietnam and a strong black nationalist movement.

    There is no material basis for social democracy in the US today. Sanders is a left foil intended to route disenchanted people back into the fold of the Democrats.

    Comment by Paul from PA — April 7, 2016 @ 4:39 pm

  5. Paul, if there’s no material basis for social democracy, how can there be a material basis for socialism, social democracy being a last-ditch standoff of socialism and hence derivative from the socialist material basis? And if there’s no material basis for socialism, how can a Marxist derive any satisfaction from the alleged preference of American “young people” for the word “socialism”?

    Without a material basis, this means nothing, right? Conversely (is that right?) if it means something, there must be a material basis of some kind. Otherwise, what’s the point, apart from the pleasure in always having the last word, which is generally guaranteed if one is speaking only to oneself?

    Comment by Pete Glosser — April 7, 2016 @ 6:41 pm

  6. The material basis for socialism is capitalism. Socialism is workers control of the means of production under a state controlled by the working class. If there is a working class and wage slavery (that is, if there is capitalism), there is a material basis for socialism.

    Social democracy is a reformist brand of capitalism that was used in the ascendant stage of capitalism and among mass mobilization for international imperialist warfare. It was forged on the graves of millions of workers and totally destroyed and devastated countries. Capitalism has no room for it in a decadent stage with depression, falling rate of profit and massive overproduction. Look around. This is an era of austerity, not reform. In any event the the bourgeoisie won’t be scared into attempting it now even if it could as the working class is not waging a serious struggle even to hold the ground it has already won. Social democracy would require an economic basis and a political motivation that are not present right now.

    Things can and will change. The future is socialism or barbarism. The prior isn’t any more likely than the latter unfortunately.

    Comment by Paul from PA — April 7, 2016 @ 7:56 pm

  7. Paul: I don’t entirely disagree with you, except for your rather overcooked tone of Lenin-like infallibility (oh left-wing masculinity), but I do think you’ve conveniently sidestepped the real issues, which are 1) what do these “young people” understand by “socialism,” and 2) what concretely can we do or expect the working class to do toward socialism in the United States in this age of austerity?

    When you say capitalism is the material basis of socialism, you are saying absolutely nothing about the specific dynamics of the present situation in this country. Indeed, you seem to be invoking some sort of purely mechanical process in which socialism arises by spontaneous generation out of capitalism, like mice out of a pile of medieval rags. Switching metaphors somewhat, there’s an almost neoliberal automatism there, a version of the dialectic as a kind of socialist Invisible Hand, which frankly strikes me as being at least as decadent as the social and economic reality of our times, which we both decry. Your “basis for socialism” very pointedly excludes socialists.

    How do you expect socialism to emerge in the U.S.? Based on what you’ve said so far, I think the true answer is that you do not really expect it and do not see a concrete way forward by which it could emerge. Your “material basis” is as remote in time and space as some extraterrestrial fiction of Voltaire or Jules Verne. Where are the actual stirrings of the thing itself? Is there anything more than a word-choice on some questionnaire?

    In reality, I suggest, your skepticism about the possibility of social democracy is a mask for a deeper pessimism about the possibility of socialism, which in your view is reduced to a kind of pro forma final cause without blood, sinew, bone, or indeed any of the concrete reality of its basis, capitalism. Hence the fear of “barbarism.” (With all due respect to Ms. Luxembourg, BTW, I must point to the Eurocentric implications of this word, arising as it did out of the bigotry of the ancient Greeks toward non-Greeks, whom they saw as incapable of using real words, but rather just babbling “bar-bar-bar” like idiots or some kind of animals. I suggest we stop opposing socialism to “barbarism.”)

    I think that the kinds of social-democratic reforms Sander is proposing–and a good deal more besides–are entirely feasible temporarily within the financialized late capitalist economy. It is only a matter of redistributing some of the ever-increasing sums of money that are accruing at present to what, for short, we are used to calling “the 1%.” As long as this phony wealth continues to increase, it can be spread around at least enough to neutralize “socialist” political opposition. Furthermore, some of the reform measures that are being proposed–breaking up the big banks, etc., would probably have the effect of slowing the process of capitalist decline, just as a higher minimum wage could lead to more economic activity in the short run and thus possibly to some sort of economic upturn. How long these social-democratic measures would last and what they would lead to is another question, but for the ruling class it is only a question of responding to the threat of socialism by buying a little peace. At present, they mostly do not seem to believe that they have to make any largeconcessions. But if the “basis for socialism” (beyond capitalism itself, QED) becomes more active and apparent, that could change. Needless to say, even a modest institutionalized wealth redistribution would entrain the working class of the United States quite deeply in the imperialism of our rentier classes, and would present a formidable obstacle to socialism–as long as it lasted. And I do not think we will see a recrudescence of feudalism or slavery as an alternative to what I am describing.

    There is no reason why a big chunk of the people of an “advanced” country could not receive some increased share of the benefits accruing from the debt peonage inflicted by their rulers on the rest the world–including disfavored groups at home–if that proved convenient for the rulers.

    I do not in fact think think U.S. capitalism is in such a state of crisis that it could not defer total collapse for a very long time by a combination of harsh and soft measures–indeed, that’s one of my own biggest fears. I am not even convinced, pace Michael Hudson, that the current capitalist shell game can be entirely reduced to an actual Ponzi scheme, which all that implies of a mathematically inevitable fall.

    Would the watered-down social democracy to which I refer equal the full Monty of the “classic” Swedish model as anatomized by Louis in his benchmark series of articles on the subject? He makes a very persuasive case for that being past its historical moment. But what I’m describing wouldn’t have to meet that test. The weak-tea version is perfectly possible in some form and for some significant period given some series of favorable historical developments.

    What does this do to the possibility of socialism? That’s a very good question–I think it’s important to look at this objectively.

    Comment by Pete Glosser — April 7, 2016 @ 10:19 pm

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