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International Socialism, Winter 1978/79


Phil Marfleet

The VS (Denmark) Congress:

Reformism or the revolutionary party?


From International Socialism, 2:3, Winter 1978/79.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


During the first two weekends in November 1978, the Left Socialists (Venstresocialisterne – or VS) of Denmark held their 10th Congress in Copenhagen. There were 150 delegates and up to twice as many observers, including many from other sections of the Danish left. Also present were representatives from FK (Sweden), Inuit Ataqatigiit (Greenland) and SWP (Britain).

Background to the Congress

VS finds itself at an interesting and challenging point in its ten-year history. The organisation is without doubt in a position to act as the real focus for the building of a revolutionary worker’s party in Denmark. Its 2,000 members make VS one of the largest far left organisations in Europe. (Denmark’s population is 5 million. For comparison one should think of an organisation in Britain of 20,000.) In addition, the fact that VS has always had a small parliamentary wing (5 members in parliament at present), and that the Danish electoral system focusses attention upon the smaller parties, means that VS is the subject of national news coverage and bourgeois political debate. As an example – and a shock to the SWP representatives (!) – coverage of the Congress was a main news item on television evening news, – with an on-the-spot report and lengthy interviews. VS is a factor in the consciousness of the majority of Danish workers. At the last general election they received some 100,000 votes, between 3% and 4% of the total cast.

VS was formed in 1967 as a result of a split in the parliamentary Socialist Peoples Party (SF), itself the result of a split some ten years earlier from the Danish Communist Party (DKP). The right wing in SF had supported the first attempt at incomes policy in Denmark. The left wing, opposing wage control, left to form VS – thus from the beginning VS had a small representation in parliament.

At about the same time there was an influx into the young organisation from the student/youth revolt of the late sixties. All sorts of libertarian, even flower-power ideas found a voice in the new party. The substantial number of industrial workers who had left SF in disgust over the incomes policy, and who had been central to the idea of a new left party which would fight for workers’ interests, now left VS. The organisation became a loose swampy organisation aiming to be an umbrella structure for the different movements and currents from Maoism and Trotskyism to flower power. Characteristic of this period was an anti trade union line. Members of VS then argued that the unions had become so incorporated that it was pointless working in them. VS lacked an orientation that could direct its members and supporters into the class struggle. Many of the different currents split off to form new organisations.

At a special congress in 1975 a new majority acquired the leadership. They stood for two main principles. First, the importance of building an organisation based in the working class – in particular based in the trade unions and the workplaces. Second, the necessity to break with the idea of the umbrella organisation, and the need for a serious active organisation trained in the party’s politics. Over the last three years they have established at least a full formal agreement about these ideas, as borne out by the method of “double organising” the membership (by occupation as well as geographically), and by the “intra-schooling” – a quite lengthy and careful basic education for those applying to join VS.

Whilst VS has taken these important steps to re-orient the organisation, it remains true that the party as a whole lacks the ideas and strategies necessary to carry such a reorientation to its conclusion – the building of a revolutionary workers’ party. Most members are very open about the VS’s lack of familiarity with Marxist theory, with the Leninist tradition, and thus with the strategic perspectives which can carry them into the real process of securing an active working class cadre committed to revolutionary politics.

This is not to say that VS have not established themselves as the main focus to the left of SF and the DKP, or that they are not developing a growing working class membership which can start to transform the organisation. Some 20% of the present VS are industrial workers – principally in shipbuilding, engineering, construction, breweries, postal workers. Though many are ex-students, this does not imply, as in Britain, a strict division – student (petit-bourgeois): industrial worker (working class origin). Greater accessibility of higher education in Denmark, and the frequent movement between the industrial workplace and the college blurs this distinction. But without a real familiarity with Marxist ideas, as put into practice over the course of one hundred years by Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg and the others, the gains of recent years can simply be thrown into reverse.

The experience of the Italian revolutionary left in recent years is salutary – without a sensitive and continuing reference to the ideas of the revolutionary tradition a collapse into reformism, or into ultra leftism can set back the party-building effort by many years. VS’s in many ways unique situation – for example its parliamentary wing, means that both dangers are often quite near the surface of VS politics. VS is at a crossroads: to advance further the party will not only have to carry its industrial perspectives, but to tie these directly to a far greater concern with the revolutionary tradition.

Almost every Congress session brought out the promise and danger of the immediate future for the VS. After sketching out the situation which faces the revolutionary left in Denmark today, it is worth looking in some detail at the major debates.

The crisis in Denmark

For 30 years following the war (with the exception of 1972–75), there have been Social Democratic governments in Denmark. The bourgeois parties were met with mass strikes when, in response to the crisis of the 70’s, they tried to introduce incomes policies in 1974. But where they failed, the Social Democrats, like Labour in Britain, succeeded. They have enforced a wages ceiling of 2%, cuts in welfare services, and an overall fall in wages of 11% over the last two years. Rents have risen dramatically, and unemployment now stands at some 8%. There has been sporadic resistance, but after the defeat of the important tanker drivers’ strike two years ago, most strikes though often of long duration, have been isolated and of course unofficial. In Denmark where the trade union movement is closely tied to the Social Democratic Party, unofficial means illegal. (About 80% of Danish workers are unionised. In comparison with other countries this is an enormous proportion. But the movement is highly bureaucratised, and the tradition of rank and file organisation is little developed.)

It seemed that the dam of discontent was starting to break in August this year, when a coalition government was formed between the Social Democrats and the Liberals. But the LO (TUC) was able to gain control of the protest movement that developed. They have advanced plans for a so-called “Economic Democracy” – a classic mixture of social contract, increased ‘workers’ participation’ and so on. This is now the main demand of the highly-centralised bi-annual wage negotiations, which establish wage levels for most workers. This contract comes up for re-negotiation in the spring, and this time the employers have demanded, for the first time since the 1930s, a wage cut, and have increased the contributions to their own disputes fund. A battle is looming, and the big question at present is whether the TUC will ‘call out the troops’ for a fight around Economic Democracy – a demand which has very little real backing, and therefore where the result could be disastrous.

The main congress discussions: Industrial policy

The new trade union and workplace resolution marked a final break with the old policy of hostility to systematic work in the trade unions. Congress emphasised the importance of the building of opposition (rank and file) groups in the unions, which fight on a militant policy to unite all those willing to be active. VS industrial members are already active in groups in some unions, but it was agreed to step up this work-to gather more experience to fill out the whole idea of an opposition strategy, and to take up in the future the question of the role of the revolutionary organisation in the opposition.

In relation to the question of the role of trade unionists in the revolutionary process Congress resisted attempts to impose ‘model-building’ as a strategy – a strong compulsion in the Danish left. Also resisted were attempts in the other direction to throw away one of the -healthiest parts of the VS tradition – the insistence on the need for workers’ councils/soviets as necessary bases for future working class power.

Also discussed in this session was the role of Social Democracy and of the trade union bureaucracy. Incomes policy and the response to the crisis are seen as a consequence of the logic of reformism, as part of the attempt to reinvigorate the system in order that in the undefined future it might again offer reforms. This, and the increasing incorporation of the bureaucracy means that there is no future in a perspective of pushing Social Democracy to the left. This does not mean that sections of it, due to their reliance on working class support, will not at times make tactical shifts to accommodate to, and to head off, the militancy of sections they claim to represent. What is important, though, is the fight for the idea that the trade unions must be independent fighting workers’ organisations.

“Reform politics”

The whole organisation is agreed that it is the task of revolutionaries to be the most effective fighters for reforms – on the shop floor, in the unions, and the various movements (the housing movement, the anti-nuclear movement, women’s movement). However, on how these reforms are related to work in parliament far wider questions and disagreements are raised.

The differences have been most specific in relation to two reform proposals raised by the VS members in parliament earlier this year. On housing they argued for further demands to be put on the state to provide accommodation (there is little state housing in Denmark-most workers live in privately-rented flats and houses). And, more contentiously, on the question of unemployment (unemployment and the balance of payments or the ‘BBP’), they argued a case for a redistribution of resources to resolve the worst of unemployment within the limits set by international financial constraints.

A first group at Congress saw the reforms as purely ‘tactical measures. They were raised not to see them implemented, but to be used in debate as ‘examples of the improvements which are technically possible’ and thereby to ‘expose’ the Social Democrats and their reasons for not offering their own support.

A second line argued that it is quite insufficient to continue a sterile exposure, nor enough to claim to relate to the struggle in the workplaces by appearing more militant than, for example, the DKP. It is necessary to work out a comprehensive political alternative, a ‘reform programme’, which will make it possible to break the masses from reformism. The two parliamentary reform proposals, on housing and the BBP, are just the start of this strategy. There is talk of an ‘alternative crisis policy’.

A third group, the ‘industrial list’, opposed what they saw as these new developments to the right. They argued that reform demands must be seen in relation to how they push forward real positions of power for the working class, and how far they are actually organised for in the workplaces, the unions and etc. In short, how far they advance the workers’ struggle. The problem with the parliamentary proposals, they argued, was that there was no connection with everyday political life, with the factories or the various movements. The gap between the world in which struggle takes place, and the forum within which this ‘reform politics’ is put into operation, merely raises and develops illusions in parliament.

It was recognised by all that the debate on reform politics is far from final clarification, that the distance between parliamentary representation and lack of an organised influence at the base (workplaces, unions, the movements) makes the whole organisation top heavy, and liable to bend in the wrong direction. The Congress decided to prioritise clarification of reform politics during the period until the next Congress.

The paper

VS is probably the only organisation of its size in Europe that does not have a national paper. What it does have is a series of local area papers in the major cities which are directed to the workplaces, where they are distributed free. Congress agreed to the production of a new national monthly (later fortnightly) paper for sale – Solidaritet – from the new year.

The local papers have played a useful role in preparing comrades throughout the organisation to relate to a national agitational publication. It is certainly true that in every major town more VS members have been involved in writing for their local publications than have members of the SWP for Socialist Worker, for example. Against this, however, must be placed the overwhelming disadvantage, until now, of lacking a regular political and organisational tool which can help weld the organisation into an outward-looking and active party. Congress recognised the problem, and many contributions on the paper emphasised the role it should play both in agitation, literally taking the comrades to the workplaces with each issue, and in education – regularly carrying the sorts of analyses and ideas which can help make good the theoretical poverty of the organisation, whilst being presented in a form accessible to the majority of workers.

A leading comrade put the issue of the paper into perspective by stating that ‘VS is at the point at which we cannot advance towards building a workers’ party unless we develop a regular agitational paper now’. Most delegates agreed, but there will have to be a fight to ensure’ that the paper is used by the whole membership to organise, educate and harden up not only the existing VS membership, but the large periphery who identify with VS electorally and in the factories but who until now have simply not had regular access to VS politics.


This was one of the most heated debates of the Congress. There were two main positions. On the one hand a group of industrial women members demanded a prioritisation of women’s work in the general activity of the party. This meant, they argued, working principally in the workplaces and unions. It also meant starting from working women’s work situations and ‘material needs’. This did not imply just a struggle over wages and working conditions, but issues like day nurseries, creches etc. It did not mean ignoring the wider questions of sexual politics, and the ideological forms of oppression, but, they argued, these should be approached from the ‘real situation women stand in’.

In a heated debate they were opposed by the Women’s Committee who argued that what was of greatest importance were those lessons to be learned from the women’s liberation movement concerning the nature of sexual politics in general and in particular the question of women’s double oppression. The oppression faced by women in the ‘reproductive’ and the ‘productive’ spheres should be placed on an equal footing as far as socialists were concerned; in no way should the ‘material’ side (the workplace or ‘productive’ sphere) be given priority now.

The ‘industrial women’ argued that it was in the workplace that women’s oppression was most starkly faced, by women who are workers, and that it is here, where women can be mobilised, that struggles will develop and that consciousness can be changed.

In many ways it is not a choice between material and ideological/ sexual issues. Neither is it a choice between putting forward a socialist perspective and raising immediate issues. What splits the two sides involves much further-reaching questions for VS.

The Women’s Committee in underprioritising trade union/material demands in preference to more ‘political’ ideological demands failed to see that in the present situation many trade union demands are highly political. In raising the question in this way there was a tendency from the Women’s Committee to put forward ‘radical socialist perspectives’ or ‘radical Utopias’ rather than the industrial women’s perspective of building up political credibility in the immediate struggles of workers. Breaking working men and women from social democracy cannot just be done by exposure or by putting forward alternative socialist perspectives without revolutionaries being based in workers’ immediate struggles.

The ‘industrial women’, despite their underestimation of the importance of women’s self-organisation, won the vote by a very narrow margin, due to this greater emphasis on the task of actually making contact with women in the workplace.

Unity of the left

VS’s parliamentary presence means that the organisation is a factor in the consciousness of many workers and of others radicalised in the recent nuclear, housing and women’s movements. It has had activities in most areas of the class struggle. VS is clearly distinguished as distanced from the Stalinist tradition, and from its Maoist offshoots. VS is seen as having maintained a reputation of standing uncompromisingly for working class self activity, as evidenced for example by its consistent fight against incomes policy. VS has combined this reputation of being a determinedly anti-capitalist party with one of maintaining an openness of debate and internal regime. As a result VS does define the main pole of attraction on the far left. VS is the organisation upon which a large part of both the unorganised and organised left orientate.

The large unorganised periphery needs to be involved in activity generated from VS, and specifically organised through the new paper if they are to be held in revolutionary politics. But in addition four existing groups, two quite large, have applied or will be applying to join VS. The Congress decided to hold a further special Congress in Autumn 1979 to consider these applications. Delegates considered that several key questions of tactics and strategy needed to be clarified before groups with their quite well-defined ideas can be admitted. Such questions include the main points prioritised for discussion over the next period-around social democracy, the trade unions and the building of opposition groups, ‘reform polities’, the role of the middle strata, and women’s politics (NB never ‘sexual polities’, as the politics of homosexuality for example is, surprisingly, never raised).

In addition there are areas of general theory that delegates agreed should be discussed before the organisation can feel genuinely self-confident of its own political identity. These include the class nature of the ‘socialist’ countries, and of the various ‘developing’ or ‘liberated’ states – Cuba, Angola, Mozambique, Vietnam etc. They are almost completely uncritical of Vietnam and, astonishingly, in view of recent events, of the social basis of the Chinese regime. VS has no clear attitude to these states except that they cannot be called socialist. One member described them as ‘societies of an undefined type’. (The attitude to such states is particularly important for VS, not just in terms of theoretical orientation, and all that implies for the practice of the party, but because with a parliamentary presence and some public influence certain of the ‘liberated states’ Danish representatives are anxious to court VS.

Finally, most important, the whole discussion of the party ... what kind of party ... a Leninist party? ...democratic centralism ... a federal basis? ... the nature of leadership in the class and in the party ... the dangers of bureaucratisation ... is one that has to be resolved – before a unification can be confidently accepted. If the proposed unification were to be agreed on the basis of an active strategy VS might (factional struggles excepted) genuinely develop into a very considerable power on the Danish left, and a real threat to the DKP.


This Congress was an important step for VS. It saw an end to the previous factional split in the organisation – with those grouped around the pre-1975 leadership, of a libertarian persuasion-disappearing into insignificance. New, as yet unclear groupings are beginning to emerge which are based around real disagreements and avoid some of the problems of previous factional splits in which personality played a part and which failed to sharpen to the point at which political clarification could properly appear.

The chief divergence now beginning to emerge is that between those advocating a form of ‘exposure’ politics, and those insisting on the primacy of struggle, and self-education in struggle.

On the one hand it is argued that workers are to be broken from social democracy by the clarity of the programme, by a closely-defined view of what socialism can bring, and by an ‘exposure’ of social democratic ideas as against the revolutionary vision of a new society. This is seen in the ‘reform politics’ debate. On the other hand comrades have emphasised the importance of ideas developed alongside workers in struggle, and the way in which socialist politics are proved in activity rather than in the abstract. Concretely, they argue for an opposition movement in the unions, rather than an intellectually ‘sophisticated’ programme. The dividing line between the two camps is still unclear – some argue for example that we must expose social democratic ideas in order to get people to fight alongside us. The debate will continue and will be of decisive significance.

Most of the previous Central Committee did not stand again for election – a reflection of how unstable the organisation really is in terms of leadership, how far the question of leadership and the party is unresolved, and how difficult it will be to transmit experiences through the organisation. The new leadership is more likely to put emphasis on industrial and workplace activities, and less likely to accept further ‘reform politics’ proposals for ‘exposure’ tactics in parliament.

Two overwhelming problems must obsess VS over the next period if they are to move forward. They must fight to put the industrial perspective into operation, to get the members’ hands dirty in the struggle, to build the opposition groups, the factory groups, and the overall workplace organisation. To do so successfully they must use the paper as both an organiser and an educator.

And VS will have to break down their isolation from the revolutionary tradition. Noticeable throughout the Congress were few references to any experiences outside those of VS and the Danish left. Marx Lenin, Trotsky, are just names, one felt, printed on dusty volumes best left in libraries. No discussion of the experiences of workers fighting elsewhere, not even in Scandinavia. Effectively no international debate, no mention of the historic events taking place in Iran. Despite the fact that VS do stand, demonstrably, for workers power, and on paper have excellent international links and are widely-travelled fact-finders, they do not incorporate the historical or international experience into their attempt to build a revolutionary strategy for Denmark. In the long run, unless corrected, this will cost them dear. VS will have to take the opportunity of the new paper to explore the ideas of our movement very soon, otherwise the next congress will again be characterised by debate unilluminated by all that generations of revolutionaries have passed on – not for study by academics, but as a guide to action for us in our daily struggle.

For our part in Britain we have much to learn from VS’s progress. We do not have the interesting task of working with a parliamentary wing, and with an intense publicity which creates such a large periphery. How VS deal with parliament, and in particular with the transparently reformist and highly dangerous ‘reform politics’ – with the ideas of alternative production, and so on – is an experience we want to draw on. It will not be long before the left social democrats in Britain – the Labour left, the left bureaucrats, convenors and senior stewards who do not want to fight – begin mouthing the slogans about alternative production, and the rest, which they believe can pacify the rank and file. What the comrades in Denmark have to tell us should provide valuable lessons for our own struggles.

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