History lesson, successful non-violent direct action of the 99%: Sweden and Norway

Thanks to nationofchange.org and son Colin for the pointer.

How Swedes and Norweigans broke the power of the 1%

January 28, 2012

by George Lakey

While many of us are work­ing to en­sure that the Oc­cupy move­ment will have a last­ing im­pact, it’s worth­while to con­sider other coun­tries where masses of peo­ple suc­ceeded in non­vi­o­lently bring­ing about a high de­gree of democ­racy and eco­nomic jus­tice. Swe­den and Nor­way, for ex­am­ple, both ex­pe­ri­enced a major power shift in the 1930s after pro­longed non­vi­o­lent strug­gle. They “fired” the top 1 per­cent of peo­ple who set the di­rec­tion for so­ci­ety and cre­ated the basis for some­thing dif­fer­ent.

Both coun­tries had a his­tory of hor­ren­dous poverty. When the 1 per­cent was in charge, hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple em­i­grated to avoid star­va­tion. Under the lead­er­ship of the work­ing class, how­ever, both coun­tries built ro­bust and suc­cess­ful economies that nearly elim­i­nated poverty, ex­panded free uni­ver­sity ed­u­ca­tion, abol­ished slums, pro­vided ex­cel­lent health care avail­able to all as a mat­ter of right and cre­ated a sys­tem of full em­ploy­ment. Un­like the Nor­we­gians, the Swedes didn’t find oil, but that didn’t stop them from build­ing what the lat­est CIA World Fact­book calls “an en­vi­able stan­dard of liv­ing.”

Nei­ther coun­try is a utopia, as read­ers of the crime nov­els by Stieg Lars­son, Kurt Wal­len­der and Jo Nes­bro will know. Crit­i­cal left-wing au­thors such as these try to push Swe­den and Nor­way to con­tinue on the path to­ward more fully just so­ci­eties. How­ever, as an Amer­i­can ac­tivist who first en­coun­tered Nor­way as a stu­dent in 1959 and learned some of its lan­guage and cul­ture, the achieve­ments I found amazed me. I re­mem­ber, for ex­am­ple, bi­cy­cling for hours through a small in­dus­trial city, look­ing in vain for sub­stan­dard hous­ing. Some­times re­sist­ing the ev­i­dence of my eyes, I made up sto­ries that “ac­counted for” the dif­fer­ences I saw: “small coun­try,” “ho­mo­ge­neous,” “a value con­sen­sus.” I fi­nally gave up im­pos­ing my frame­works on these coun­tries and learned the real rea­son: their own his­to­ries.

Then I began to learn that the Swedes and Nor­we­gians paid a price for their stan­dards of liv­ing through non­vi­o­lent strug­gle. There was a time when Scan­di­na­vian work­ers didn’t ex­pect that the elec­toral arena could de­liver the change they be­lieved in. They re­al­ized that, with the 1 per­cent in charge, elec­toral “democ­racy” was stacked against them, so non­vi­o­lent di­rect ac­tion was needed to exert the power for change.

In both coun­tries, the troops were called out to de­fend the 1 per­cent; peo­ple died. Award-win­ning Swedish film­maker Bo Wider­berg told the Swedish story vividly in Ådalen 31, which de­picts the strik­ers killed in 1931 and the spark­ing of a na­tion­wide gen­eral strike. (You can read more about this case in an entry by Max Ren­nebohm in the Global Non­vi­o­lent Ac­tion Data­base.)

The Nor­we­gians had a harder time or­ga­niz­ing a co­he­sive peo­ple’s move­ment be­cause Nor­way’s small pop­u­la­tion—about three mil­lion—was spread out over a ter­ri­tory the size of Britain. Peo­ple were di­vided by moun­tains and fjords, and they spoke re­gional di­alects in iso­lated val­leys. In the nine­teenth cen­tury, Nor­way was ruled by Den­mark and then by Swe­den; in the con­text of Eu­rope Nor­we­gians were the “coun­try rubes,” of lit­tle con­se­quence. Not until 1905 did Nor­way fi­nally be­come in­de­pen­dent.

When work­ers formed unions in the early 1900s, they gen­er­ally turned to Marx­ism, or­ga­niz­ing for rev­o­lu­tion as well as im­me­di­ate gains. They were over­joyed by the over­throw of the czar in Rus­sia, and the Nor­we­gian Labor Party joined the Com­mu­nist In­ter­na­tional or­ga­nized by Lenin. Labor didn’t stay long, how­ever. One way in which most Nor­we­gians parted ways with Lenin­ist strat­egy was on the role of vi­o­lence: Nor­we­gians wanted to win their rev­o­lu­tion through col­lec­tive non­vi­o­lent strug­gle, along with es­tab­lish­ing co-ops and using the elec­toral arena.

In the 1920s strikes in­creased in in­ten­sity. The town of Ham­mer­fest formed a com­mune in 1921, led by work­ers coun­cils; the army in­ter­vened to crush it. The work­ers’ re­sponse verged to­ward a na­tional gen­eral strike. The em­ploy­ers, backed by the state, beat back that strike, but work­ers erupted again in the iron­work­ers’ strike of 1923–24.

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The Nor­we­gian 1 per­cent de­cided not to rely sim­ply on the army; in 1926 they formed a so­cial move­ment called the Pa­tri­otic League, re­cruit­ing mainly from the mid­dle class. By the 1930s, the League in­cluded as many as 100,000 peo­ple for armed pro­tec­tion of strike break­ers—this in a coun­try of only 3 mil­lion!

The Labor Party, in the mean­time, opened its mem­ber­ship to any­one, whether or not in a union­ized work­place. Mid­dle-class Marx­ists and some re­form­ers joined the party. Many rural farm work­ers joined the Labor Party, as well as some small land­hold­ers. Labor lead­er­ship un­der­stood that in a pro­tracted strug­gle, con­stant out­reach and or­ga­niz­ing was needed to a non­vi­o­lent cam­paign. In the midst of the grow­ing po­lar­iza­tion, Nor­way’s work­ers launched an­other wave of strikes and boy­cotts in 1928.

The De­pres­sion hit bot­tom in 1931. More peo­ple were job­less there than in any other Nordic coun­try. Un­like in the U.S., the Nor­we­gian union move­ment kept the peo­ple thrown out of work as mem­bers, even though they couldn’t pay dues. This de­ci­sion paid off in mass mo­bi­liza­tions. When the em­ploy­ers’ fed­er­a­tion locked em­ploy­ees out of the fac­to­ries to try to force a re­duc­tion of wages, the work­ers fought back with mas­sive demon­stra­tions.

Many peo­ple then found that their mort­gages were in jeop­ardy. (Sound fa­mil­iar?) The De­pres­sion con­tin­ued, and farm­ers were un­able to keep up pay­ment on their debts. As tur­bu­lence hit the rural sec­tor, crowds gath­ered non­vi­o­lently to pre­vent the evic­tion of fam­i­lies from their farms. The Agrar­ian Party, which in­cluded larger farm­ers and had pre­vi­ously been al­lied with the Con­ser­v­a­tive Party, began to dis­tance it­self from the 1 per­cent; some could see that the abil­ity of the few to rule the many was in doubt.

By 1935, Nor­way was on the brink. The Con­ser­v­a­tive-led gov­ern­ment was los­ing le­git­i­macy daily; the 1 per­cent be­came in­creas­ingly des­per­ate as mil­i­tancy grew among work­ers and farm­ers. A com­plete over­throw might be just a cou­ple years away, rad­i­cal work­ers thought. How­ever, the mis­ery of the poor be­came more ur­gent daily, and the Labor Party felt in­creas­ing pres­sure from its mem­bers to al­le­vi­ate their suf­fer­ing, which it could do only if it took charge of the gov­ern­ment in a com­pro­mise agree­ment with the other side.

This it did. In a com­pro­mise that al­lowed own­ers to re­tain the right to own and man­age their firms, Labor in 1935 took the reins of gov­ern­ment in coali­tion with the Agrar­ian Party. They ex­panded the econ­omy and started pub­lic works pro­jects to head to­ward a pol­icy of full em­ploy­ment that be­came the key­stone of Nor­we­gian eco­nomic pol­icy. Labor’s suc­cess and the con­tin­ued mil­i­tancy of work­ers en­abled steady in­roads against the priv­i­leges of the 1 per­cent, to the point that ma­jor­ity own­er­ship of all large firms was taken by the pub­lic in­ter­est. (There is an entry on this case as well at the Global Non­vi­o­lent Ac­tion Data­base.)

The 1 per­cent thereby lost its his­toric power to dom­i­nate the econ­omy and so­ci­ety. Not until three decades later could the Con­ser­v­a­tives re­turn to a gov­ern­ing coali­tion, hav­ing by then ac­cepted the new rules of the game, in­clud­ing a high de­gree of pub­lic own­er­ship of the means of pro­duc­tion, ex­tremely pro­gres­sive tax­a­tion, strong busi­ness reg­u­la­tion for the pub­lic good and the vir­tual abo­li­tion of poverty. When Con­ser­v­a­tives even­tu­ally tried a fling with ne­olib­eral poli­cies, the econ­omy gen­er­ated a bub­ble and headed for dis­as­ter. (Sound fa­mil­iar?)

Labor stepped in, seized the three largest banks, fired the top man­age­ment, left the stock­hold­ers with­out a dime and re­fused to bail out any of the smaller banks. The well-purged Nor­we­gian fi­nan­cial sec­tor was not one of those coun­tries that lurched into cri­sis in 2008; care­fully reg­u­lated and much of it pub­licly owned, the sec­tor was solid.

Al­though Nor­we­gians may not tell you about this the first time you meet them, the fact re­mains that their so­ci­ety’s high level of free­dom and broadly-shared pros­per­ity began when work­ers and farm­ers, along with mid­dle class al­lies, waged a non­vi­o­lent strug­gle that em­pow­ered the peo­ple to gov­ern for the com­mon good.

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1 Response to History lesson, successful non-violent direct action of the 99%: Sweden and Norway

  1. Mom says:

    Interesting info.

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