A thousand years of Swedish social movement history

 

 

Any suggestion for improvals can be mailed to the author

 

By Jan Wiklund

 

 

Much of the peculiarities of Swedish social movement history can be explained by Sweden being a sparsely populated European periphery. Bygderna, the settled country, were dispersed units with few people, hard to get at and dominate. It didn't require too much effort for the peasants to keep state and aristocracy away.

The first popular movement we may have a hunch of isn't recorded. But somewhere around 950, aristocratic graves aren't dug any more in central Sweden, quite suddenly. Instead ordinary peasant graves are more lavishly provided. Soon after that date, Eric the Victorious conquers all what is now Sweden with a new army built on universal conscription. We know nothing about what did happen because these people were illiterate, but a kind of ancient "French Revolution" comes easily in one's mind. 250 years later, the political writer Snorri Sturluson takes for granted the knowledge among his readers of central Sweden as an unusually democratic society.

However, "democratic" in this case meant democratic within a constantly narrowing class of wealthy farmers. We know that, because when this structure was threatened by centralising kings supported by the papal church from 1150 on, the people who defended it were a new class of aristocrats or rich farmers centred on the lake Mälaren. They were fairly successful for some generations until they were defeated in the battle of Sparrsätra in 1247 and, as the chronicles have it, "the peasants of Uppland lost their freedom and had to pay taxes".

 

Late medieval peasant resurgence

We don't hear much of social movements until early 15th century. The situation then was that the Scandinavian lands were ruled by coteries of aristocrats together with the church, usually appointing some German princeling as a nominal king and chairman. The ambition among the aristocrats (and bishops) was to control as many castles as possible, because to the castles belonged the right to tax the farmers, and their appetite was constantly growing to keep up with the European standard of aristocratic consumption.

Peasants in the scattered Swedish landscape couldn't easily communicate and organise. The initiative to revolt against supertaxing was taken by the community of miners in Bergslagen. They were a strong force - the capital of Sweden, Stockholm, lies where it does because it is the most efficient spot to control and tax the iron export from Bergslagen. And when they revolted, peasant armies joined them. So did also some disgruntled aristocrats, probably those who had got the worst of the latest redistribution of castles. The miner-and-peasant army swept Sweden, and the aristocracy had to come to terms with it. The leader, Engelbrekt Engelbrektsson, was treasonably killed, and war-trained aristocrats took control - but the peasants were never disarmed.

In fact, peasant support was from now on always necessary for any contender for power in Sweden. Different contenders rallied peasants from different districts behind them to fight other peasants - but the result of all this was that the peasants learned to charge payments for their services, in both monetary and political terms. They also learned that they were indispensable, and they learned to contend for power themselves. One result, for example, was that there were four chambers in the emerging Swedish Riksdag, or parliament - noble, clergy, towns and peasants.

 

Early modern tax revolts

Not even the brutal state-builder Gustav Vasa could change that. He had himself come to power with the help of a largely peasant-manned army in 1523, but did his best to subdue subsequent peasant risings against his ambitious taxing policies. When the most developed among them, based in Småland and also directed against Gustav's toying with Roman Law, was subdued in 1543 it seemed that the era of peasant risings was over. But the struggle among his sons for the royal title made peasants indispensable again.

One could argue that the peasants' ability to keep their pennies was one of the factors which drove the Swedish state to try to expand on the European continent in the early 17th century, as an attempt to find more docile peasants to fleece. The peasants always resisted that move, in parliament, in revolts against conscription, and through so called Peasant peaces - pledges of peasants across the Swedish-Danish borders not to treat each-other as enemies during war. But on the whole they were unsuccessful to stop the militarist state.

It was not the state but the military aristocracy that got the best of the war politics. From about 1650 the Swedish state was bankrupt, while the aristocracy used the war emergencies to seize one wealth-creating resource after another as a reward for real or fictional "services to the state".

But this way they created a powerful class-alliance against themselves - peasants who feared continental serfdom, burghers who were paid neither by bilking aristocrats nor by the bankrupt state, state officials who didn't get their salaries - and to the latter category belonged increasingly most ranks of the army. In 1680 they used their formal power in the Riksdag and their real power over the army to nationalise the aristocratic lands and turn Sweden to the mostly middle class polity it has remained since.

The peasants continued to resist taxing and conscription, but for most of the 18th century they were increasingly side-stepped by the towns, small and insignificant as these may be with European standards. Tax revolts just weren't feasible any longer. The last peasant uprising was crushed in blood just outside Stockholm in 1743.

 

Early struggles for democracy

Instead, issues of citizens' rights came into focus - not least the right to think without interference of the State Security Police, the Lutheran clergy.

The first to challenge their power were Pietist, mostly lower-class townspeople from Stockholm, who in the early 1700s demanded that rich people couldn't be righteous. They were suppressed, but increasing attacks were partly successful when the world's first Freedom of the Press Act was legislated in 1766.

The Act was a product of the fierce power struggles between the "Patriot" or "Hat" Party of protectionist bureaucrats and wealthy merchants, and the "Country" or "Cap" party of liberal small town merchants and wealthy farmers, which increasingly turned into a rich-against-poor, noble-against-commoner contest.

The struggle was centred on the Parliament which at this time represented more than half the male population, but as we have seen above, violence wasn't far away. In the 1740s also, the small town people tried to get more control over their elected parliamentarians and demanded the right of repeal. This movement was also suppressed and the leaders jailed for life. But the elections got increasingly noisy and threatening for the established powers until king Gustav III effected a coup d'état in 1772, based on a compromise regulated by himself and the bureaucracy. This leads up to about fifty years of political quiescence, with very few popular mobilizations known. Not even the European revolutionary activities in the 1790s found much audience beyond the francophone middle class in Stockholm. Anouther coup, by the military against the king in 1809, made no popular impression at all. And the standard popular political expression in Europe, the bread seizure, were exceptionally few - instances are known from about 1800, from about 1850 - and from 1917.

A possible explanation of this absence is that the old cornerstone of popular organisation, the byalag or village community, was dismantled around 1800 by fast population increase and a ruthless legislation aimed at creating consolidated farmsteads. The proportion of landless peasants rose from nil to half in a few decades. Those who survived the onslaught economically were understandably not inclined to take political risks. They were content to support liberal developments during the first half of the 19th century.

These were politically led by farmer representatives like Anders Danielsson and Hans Jansson, with industrialists acting more from behind - which of course was a guarantee that they would be less disruptive than they were in for example England. Politically liberal reforms like universal suffrage were also supported by artisans in the bigger towns, particularly Stockholm, who were at this time not fully proletarized but usually had prospects of a workshop of their own.

 

The creation of the popular movement culture

The peasants who didn't survive economically saw few opportunities except drink, brawls or non-conformist religion which for a few generations become the main expression of popular wrath against the powerful.

Non-conformist religion had several roots in Sweden.

The earliest attempts, in the 18th century, were inspired by German Pietism and Herrnhutianism, often brought home by released prisoners of war. They were increasingly tolerated during the century, sometimes their teaching was even propagated by parsons. Their emphasis lay in "the spirit", not "the law" - but to defend themselves they had to be expert at Bible reading. "Readers" was the term generally used for them by non-participants.

This lay movement was reinforced by official encouragement of lay religious congregations in the far north. There, travels to the nearest church may take days, so the authorities had to permit lay people to take the place of priests - like the Catholic authorities had to encourage lay churches in the Latin American favelas in the 1960s. And with the same result. The lay preachers didn't differentiate overmuch between heavenly and worldly demands and a kind of Liberation theology appeared among the poor.

This movement wasn't organised as "a church" - it was organisationally as imprecise as a reclaim the streets festival today.

Church and organisation building began with the Methodist and Baptist preaching brought here with British mechanics imported to help industrialism on the way. It was financed by American mission. And it grew particularly in the new industrial towns spreading with the railways from the 1850s. These towns - often with just a few thousand inhabitants - often lacked all public amenities except the non-conformist chapel, and they were populated by the people who had lost their land and had to move to other jobs.

The most lasting legacy of these churches was that they taught their members organisation, and the intellectual tools for abstract analyzing. These would soon be used for other means.

The first surge was the temperance movement. Drinking was very heavy in Sweden in the 18th and 19th centuries; Stockholm is said to have had some 700 boozing-shops to 75.000 inhabitants. Authorities and priests had shown some concern but it was not until the unprivileged orders themselves took initiatives in the 1870s that things began to happen. One result was that the murder rate, which had been about 15 per million a year decreased fast to 2 per million in one generation.

What was tried was the American style total abstinence lodges, where each individual pledged never to touch liquor. This turned out to be an organisatory master-stroke: during the following two generations a counter-culture of temperance grew up, particularly in small towns, until it in the high tide about 1920 comprised 150.000 people. The lodges organised popular libraries, dances, film, theater - to compete with the bar you had to offer something that was more attractive, hadn't you?

The membership was dominated by workers and lower middle class people. Since they tended to comprise a majority among the serious and civically minded among them, they created a network with an influence far greater than its number. According to some, they were the intelopers of Swedish social movements, who created the overarching social movement language and habitus that made it easy to cooperate between workers, farmers and urban lower middle class people.

 

Enter Labour

The first attempt to form a struggling trade unionist movement out of surviving artisan traditions was made in the late 1840s, as a by-product of the European revolutionary movement. It didn't leave many more traces than a translation into Swedish of the Communist Manifesto. The lasting foundation was laid only in the 1870s. As the defining moment is considered the sawmill strike in Sundsvall in 1879.

But actually, workers had to struggle another ten years for recognition, and the right to speak for their own case. The first ten years of labour movement formation was characterized by struggles against socalled workers' associations, led by "sympathetic" middle class people and aimed at "cooperation" between classes. The man who is considered as The founding father of the Swedish labour movement, the tailor August Palm, earned the title through a constant ten-year debate with the sympathetic middle class people who were forced to show their cards as self-seeking carreerists.

Symbolically, the victory for the workers was expressed through recognizing of the class struggle, in the Social Democrat version, and the founding of a Social Democratic workers' party, in the beginning in the tight reins of the trade unions.

As in most European countries, the labour movement up the years up to 1917 was a business of a militant minority. In 1905, membership in unions didn't exceed 10 percent of the workforce, and the gains were virtually obliterated in the lost General Strike in 1909. But during the few years between the first world war and the 1929 crash, the labour movement grew strong enough to appear as the saviours of the nation, to gain near-majority in the 1932 elections and keep government power for more than forty years.

During the 20s, Swedish workers were the most militant in the world. While workers everywhere had lost their postwar struggles and acquiesced, Swedish workers hold on, stroke constantly, and built strong unions with virtually 100% membership.

There were many reasons for this.

Firstly, the tradition of politization and real power of the peasants. Ordinary people were used to being counted with, and set their aims high.

Secondly, the rather broad social movement consensus. The labour movement wasn't seen by other popular movement actors as the super-radical danger to shun, but rather as a possible partner.

Thirdly, the early modernization of the Swedish industry. Thanks to the high level of literacy among people in general, hi-tech industry grew fast after 1900. And hi-tech industry of that age was quick to automatize - and, as Beverly Silver and Giovanni Arrighi have pointed out, automatized big industry is the easiest to unionize.

But there had to be a movement initiative of the first magnitude as well. And it came in 1917. Sweden didn't take part in the First World War, but the food industry had preferred to sell to the warring parties instead of to the Swedish workers. So at the end of the war food prices were as high in Sweden as in Europe, and the worker families were starving. In April 1917 the Trade Union Council in Västervik organized a seizure of the food in the town for sale "to the old prices" - and the initiative spread. Some twenty bread seizures were organized throughout the country, and in Seskarö in the North the whole town was occupied by the unions. The authorities hurried to concessions - for example eight hours workday - and the prestige of trade unions soared. And the strike records of the twenties followed.

 

Peoples' movement hegemony

Farmers had less incentive to unionize, since they for a long time - roughly 1870-1900 - dominated the parliament. The farmers' cooperative movement was slow to appear in Sweden - it was only in the 1930s it became a force.

Furthermore, the split between grain-producers and non-grain-producers confused them politically. The grain-producers - hit by cheap American grain in the 70s - rallied behind the wealthy land-owners for a Bismarck-inspired policy based on grain tariffs, militarism and hierarchies - while the non-grain-producers took part in the creation of a broad peoples' movement alliance of temperance, universal suffrage, and peace. This movement had the struggle for universal suffrage as it centerpeice, and manifested itself in mass rallies, demonstrations, elections to "Peoples' Parliaments", and a lively populist culture. Young farmers, like young workers, took courses in Peoples' High Schools - centres for practical and civic education run by diverse associations and mostly a stronghold for populism.

The peace component in this peoples' movement mix was directed against the militarist thrust of the Bismarckian alliance. The labour movement was fiercely anti-militarist and spent as much powder on the army as on the capitalists, but the pacifist strand was a dominant one among liberal or other populist circles as well. The greatest triumph of the movement was when the Norwegians unilaterally broke the union with Sweden in 1905 and the conservatives threatened war. A broad mobilization for a peaceful dissolution was completely successful, not least thanks to a resolution from the trade unions for a general strike in case of war.

In the early 20th century, a peoples' movement hegemony over the Swedish culture took form. Local culture was promoted and carried out in "Peoples' Houses" and temperance lodges. Cooperatives managed every kind of business from retail to power plants. The big literary dogfight between conservatives and radicals in the years before WW1 - the so-called Strindberg battle - was clearly won by the radicals. Many of these were activists in one way or another in the broad peoples' movements community. Many were educated in Peoples' High Schools. Many were self-taught people from poor families - increasingly so as time went on. Swedish peoples' movement activists were a reading tribe, an inheritance from the "readers" tradition, now they also became a writing and publishing tribe.

So when labour and farmers' parties won a majority in the 1932 election and begun to implement the most radical welfare state policy in the world, their slogan "We build the country" wasn't just idle talk. It was what their electorates really felt, with a great deal of justice - both materially and spiritually.

 

Bureaucratization sets in

When the representatives of the peoples' movements became the government, a change took place. Bureaucratization begun to set in. There were several reasons for that.

Firstly, running a state is a great deal more difficult than running a social movement. You need a lot of expertise, which in this case was found in the home-market industry (which could think of higher wages to create better customers) and the professional middle class. And to accommodate them you had to yield power to them. The industrialists were left all power over production, confirmed in the Saltsjöbaden agreement in 1939, where the trade unions explicitely renounced all say over workplace organisation, investments etc. The professional middle class was left free to deal with for example schools and city planning, and used that to curb the hitherto vigorous peoples' movement culture, and they were increasingly more important in state, municipal and even party organisation.

Secondly, to keep the alliance together you had to rein in initiatives from the social movement base. You had to strengthen the power of the center - increasingly the state - to vote down all initiatives that could embarass the alliance partners. And this was done through power over the state funds - and if this wasn't enough, with resort to secret police and blacklisting.

Thirdly, the model the victorious social movement coalition settled for was "the welfare state" - which in its turn needed a Fordist production machine aiming for export to work financially. So in the end, the radical democracy and popular movement hegemony aimed for by the pioneers lost out to struggle for export markets and financial growth.

The process wasn't accomplished in one year, not even in a decade. As late as in the mid fifties the social movement element in the Social Democrat Power could defeat the "reasons of state", as in the case of the Swedish nuclear arms programme which was terminated after a campaign from the base. But it was clear that the peoples' movement alliance or peoples' movement community was drifting apart. Trade unions narrowed their sight to employments and wages, arguing that the Social Democrat government could take care of other things. All other movements grew increasingly middle class.

So when the 70s social movement surged, the traditional social movement communities were caught unawares, and none more decisively so than the labour movement. For the first years the fights of the new movements were mostly directed against the old ones. Even the awakening within the labour movement, which expressed itself in numerous strikes, most notably the great miner strike in 1969, was opposed unflinchingly by the labour movement bureaucrats.

 

The 70s surge and beyond

The cradle of the new peoples' movements was to a great deal the peace movement family. Peace movements had a strong standing in the old mobilisation, and wasn't as thoroughly incorporated into the government as the labour movement was. It was able to take part in the post-war mobilization against the nuclear bomb, and grew during the late fifties and early sixties like it did in Europe. Drawing from old hegemonistic traditions, it was easy for this mobilisation to think globally, renounce the power of the North, support anti-colonial liberation movements and support financial transfers to the poor in the south. It was the strength of this mobilisation that made Olof Palme into an international statesman - the Social Democrats had to appeal to it to legitimate its standing as a social movement party.

During the Vietnam war, this movement family created the strongest support movement for the Vietnamese in any country, and forced all political parties to denounce American bombing. During the Anti-Apartheid struggle Sweden became one of the leading supporters for an international boycott and one of the leading financiers of ANC.

The other strand of the new social movement family dealt with the environment. Mobilisations to stop power dams, motorways and city renewals used peace movement mobilisation methods to create an environmental movement which was eminently "environmental justice" oriented and incorporated social and cultural matters into the environmental concept.

The great test for the environmental movement was the struggle against nuclear power, which was taken further in Sweden than in any other country. After the victory in Bro in 1974 it was impossible to find new sites for building plants. To go on fighting nuclear power, the movement thus had to demand dismantling of the plants taken into use before the movement became a force. And to do that, it had to demand a new type of society - a society where growth was subordinated to resource-saving.

The movement lost a referendum about this issue narrowly to a compromise proposal of "slow dismantling", proposed by the Social Democrats in order not to dismantle at all. And the defeat - caused by too much naive trust in the old social movement community as manifested in political parties - turned out to be the end of the new social movement surge.

During the 80s and 90s, Swedish social movements had to adopt to new conditions, where the state shed all inheritance from the old social movement family. This turned out to be difficult. There is no place where resistance to neo-liberal state policies has been so weak as in Sweden.

It is only now, when also sizable parts of the trade unions have lost trust in the ability of keeping up welfare state policies in the old way, that a kind of new departure can be seen. A stable companionship of Friends of the Earth, Attac, Transport Federation, and the Union of Service Employees has taken several initiatives which may succeed to win headway, for example a campaign for common welfare and the ESF of 2008. Long-term experiences may cause optimism, however bleak the present is.



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