Peoples' movements and protests




Kjell Östberg on the rise and fall of Swedish Social Democracy



Any suggestion for improvals can be mailed to the author


By Jan Wiklund



What was good in Sweden was built by popular movements, but the Social Democratic Party destroyed it, says Andreas Malm in the back cover of Kjell Östberg's book The rise and fall of Swedish social democracy. And that is consistent with what we say on this website. But can it be substantiated by Östberg's book?

And if so, what would they have been based on? The party people were also participants in the same popular movements? What was the difference?

Östberg puts forward two explanatory models at the beginning of the book.

One was that it had been decided once and for all that social change would be based on law, i.e. on parliamentary decisions. With a slight shift in emphasis, this quickly came to mean that it was at parliamentary and later government level that all proposals for change were made. Initiatives taken elsewhere were easily perceived as disruptions to the decision-making process and met with an angry defence.

The second was the difference between lay and professional people. As early as 1914, a large majority of the party executive and parliamentary group were paid by the movement and, like all employees, had an interest primarily in job security and regulated promotion. They thus had a material interest in opposing any initiative that created uncertainty.

One would have liked to see these two models developed and exemplified.

The first has been described by Sten O Karlsson in a book that is now unprocurable, but reported here; it is about the discussion that led to the SAP adopting the welfare state as its overall model. Very authoritarian and know-it-all, says Karlsson, and exclusively within the leading circles who saw themselves as the good guys who would fix society for the majority who would rather not interfere.

The second is described, for the trade union movement, by Lena Hellblom in another inaccessible book, a doctoral thesis from 1985. It describes the battle in the 1930s between, on the one hand, elected representatives who had the vision that the union should be the members' arena for joint action, and, on the other hand, employed ombudsmen who believed that the union should be a service organisation for the members. The latter won emphatically, says Hellblom, even though heavyweights such as Metalworkers' chairman Johan-Olov Johansson were on the side of member democracy.

Östberg himself provides a third example - how social democratic women's organisations struggled for a couple of decades to push through reforms on children's issues that the party leadership had long considered too paltry to bother with.

But, as I said, more of that would have been needed. It shouldn't be hard to find many examples of how the foot soldiers of the labour movement were deliberately disorganised to facilitate the smooth administration of state and local government. It should not even be difficult to find a pattern.

Instead, it all comes down to a condemnation of the "limits of reformism", using an old term that obscures more than it enlightens.

The problem is not reforms per se, they are needed more than ever. The problem is that they are unfeasible without movement pressure. It is naïve to think that a few hundred parliamentarians can defeat an internationally connected, rentier capitalist class without angry and conscious principals who can wreak havoc if the parliamentarians do not do as they say.

Intelligent politicians understand this too. Franklin Roosevelt used to encourage his supporters to "keep up the pressure", and John-Olle Persson encouraged Alternativ Stad to continue opposition to motorway plans in Stockholm in the 1980s. But they have been a small minority in the Social Democratic Party.

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