Håkan Blomqvist

The Red Thread

Source: Den röda tråden. Arbetarrörelsens historia — en alternativ översikt) by Håkan Blomqvist;
Translated: by Daniell Brandell;
Transcribed: by Hal Smith.

In the periphery

So, finally, we can deal with the late child in the woody periphery of Europe. Since the times of Great Power had ended with Charles the XII in 1718, Sweden had hopelessly been pushed to the political and economical periphery. Not least, it was obvious from the lack of international tendencies in the Swedish government.

Here, Germans, Balts, French, Dutch and Scottish had had important positions. They nested around the Nordic superpower, which seemed invincible. Even during the endless wars abroad innumerable foreign experts, counsellors and noble adventurers strut around the court to offer their services and, of course, get their part of the prey. After the losses there were no more to get. Among higher civilian officers the foreign elements during the period 1720-1809 sunk from 8 to 1 percent. Within the army it was, understandably, even more significant. From 1719 to 1807 the foreign part of the military officers sunk from 43 to 4 percent. The many pathetic attempts to fight the country the way back into super-politics during the next century was more a proof on impotence, then regaining strength.

The shock waves from the French revolution of course also reached Sweden, where Gustaf III’s crazy war against Russia just had slaughtered thousands — not in battles but in epidemics among the troops.

The growing resistance to the Gustavian dictatorship was split though, due to the king’s reforms to the farmers and guild craftsmen. The more radical parts of French revolution did of course not won any support among the dissatisfied Swedish nobles who shared Gustav III’s dream to be in the lead of a European contra-revolution. The Marsellies was banned by the censorship and the students in Uppsala were forbidden to show solidarity with the revolutionary French democracy. The French and American constitution was forbidden to edit in Swedish without approval from the Chancellor of Justice.

The dilemma for the Swedish resistance to the autocracy was illustrated by the proposal for a new constitution, which the conspirators for the murder of the king had written. They tried to combine plans on a re-established noble government with radical ideas on equality from France.

The murder on Gustav III and the failure of the coup d'état created a short period of political unrest and a liberal press law, which made it possible for the French revolutionary ideas to pass into Sweden for half a year. Then the darkness of reaction sunk again. While the seeds from the great revolution spread over a Europe where the industrialisation started to bloom, the political ice age had a firm grip over the North. The economical forces that were put into motion by the capitalistic development would eventually make the ice layer to burst, though.

People without property

New methods within farming had for a long time created demands to unify the pieces of land that individual farmer’s held. With the parcels in the late 18th century and early 19th century the properties were collected and the thousand years old arrangement with village communities were dissolved. At the same time the output from farming increased. The greater framer’s rising incomes made it possible to take up new land with modern methods. The growing lands demanded low-wage labour, which was plenty from all the people that were forced to leave their small pieces of land.

The increased efficiency in agricultural production, with revolutionary news as the spread of potatoes during the turn of the century, led to the largest increase in population during the entire history of Sweden. “The peace, the vaccination and the potatoes”, as the poet Tegnér said, increased the population from 2,4 to 3,5 millions between 1810 and 1850. The rise was most pronounced among the poor, which earlier had much higher numbers of deaths. In the 1840’s, half of the population in the countryside consisted of people without land property, compared to a quarter a century earlier.

For thousands of people there were no more outcome to get from farming. Like the development in England half a century earlier a gigantic reserve of labour force was starting to be created, and for the growing industry to exploit.

A cowardly authority

Already in the 16th century a pre-industrial production had been developed in the Swedish mineral and iron industry. In the end of the 17th century the state tried to encourage manufacturing for cheap mass production of textiles and leather for the needs of the military. The rise in population, the manufactures and the influx of cheap industrial products from Europe during the 19th century, quickly undermined the old system with guilds for craftsmen.

Rich masters, tradesmen and other far-seeing persons from the upper classes found it wise to invest in the new industrial methods. As their colleagues in Europe they were held back by old economical regulations. They were also more and more annoyed with the system where political power came from noble birth, not economical strength. So the slogans of the French revolution about liberal economics found their way into a rising Swedish bourgeoisie.

But apart from America’s or France’s brave forces of bourgeoisie uprisings the Swedish class was characterised with cowardly cautiousness. To be in the front of a popular rebellion was nothing for them. The reason is not, which one might think today, that upheavals and revolutions were something strange in the Swedish society. Present day “Saltjöbads-mood” and “consensus-agreements” are sometimes pictured as a typical Swedish political carefulness, some kind of inherited ingredient in the very soul of the Swedish people. Nothing can be more wrong.

Sweden’s history has, like most other European nations, been filled with continuous uprisings and revolutionary attempts almost into our decades. Knut Bäckström writes that “in the 19th century many political writers thought no other country had passed through so many revolutions, upheavals and unsettlements as Sweden”. He cites for example a C A Adelsparre who in a text from 1849 sums up: “The tradition of the Swedish people could be called ... a total but not finished story of revolutionary history”.[1]

The Swedish nobles had been a relatively small and weak upper class. To keep the stiff-necked peasants down and to protect their interests against foreign rivals an at an early stage strongly centralised state had been necessary. This power had, often in the shape of royal dictatorship, forced the nobles with violence to control themselves. The continuous farmer upheavals most often convinced even the most aggressive blue-bloods to keep together behind the state.

Also the new bourgeoisie economical authorities shared the anxiety. They kept in fresh memory the trauma from the fall of the Great Power. They remembered the uprising from Dalarna [Dalapponia] where farmers invaded Stockholm 1743 to the joy of the poor in the streets. Constant small revolts and resistance when tax collectors were beaten up and nobles harassed by angry farmers where everyday news.

“Sammanrotningar”, i.e. strikes, among the workers in the iron industry in Bergslagen had periodically started since the early 17th century, and was naturally something for the bourgeoisie to fear. That the ideas of the French revolution had inspired the capital’s lower classes to impudent insubordination is obvious. The proletarian rebellions in Stockholm during the late 18th and early 19th century are innumerable.

In March 1809 Gustav IV Adolphous was arrested by a group of military officers. The fall of the dictatorship and the restriction of the noble’s privileges in the new constitution the same year was a turn by the nobles under the rope. They seek compromises with the bourgeoisie who were getting stronger without an open battle, a battle both classes feared.

The lynching of the noble politician Axel von Fersen in Stockholm the next year, followed with several days of violent riots, showed what should come. “I sincerely hope that the unlucky count Fersen’s murder will give the Swedish government the occasion to turn out the first spark of a revolution” wrote a Danish diplomat to his country.[2]

“The voice of the people is the voice of God”

The nobles’ and bourgeoisie’s collective fear for “the mob”, and their efforts to keep a strong state to protect them from the abyss at whatever price, hindered for some time the influx of the new ideas. But they came.

On New Year’s day 1838 the author Erik Gustaf Geijer made a great scandal when he declared his transition to liberalism. Geijer had on spot followed the English chartist movement and was influenced by the socialist movement in France. He declared in one of his lectures: “The Proletarian, who’s mass in the modern society constantly grows, protests against property; he does it in action, he has begun to do it in his study and conviction. Crime statistics gives us evidence on the former; communism, who’s only thesis is the demand on collective or equal property, gives evidence on the latter."[3]

The same year Carl Jonas Love Almqvist wrote the novel “Det går an” and started his critical journalism. In the summer, violent riots started in Stockholm when the conservative politician Magnus Jacob Crusenstolpe was sentenced to three months of prison for crime against the king. Crusenstolpe had like Geijer gone over to liberalism and firmly criticised Karl XIV Johan’s dictatorlike manners.

In the protest against the sentence an angry mass of people crushed all the windows in the house of the Chancellor of Justice. Stockholm was surrounded by military, but the demonstrations grew. At 20 July the troops fired at the masses. Two workers were killed and more wounded, but the demonstrations and riots continued during the hot weeks of July.

The entrance into the European revolutionary decade of the 1840’s was thus orchestrated in Sweden by violent battles regarding the liberal ideas, both in the papers and in the streets. But not only the liberal ideas found their way north, also the socialistic.

The educational groups

Scandinavian guildsmen walking around Europe to learn their practice could not avoid contact with the socialistic ideas. In Paris, where more than one hundred thousand journeymen from all over Europe gathered in the mid 1840’s, the revolutionary companies and socialistic schools bloomed. When Swedish journeymen returned home it was often with new ideas in their head and agitatorial publications in their bags.

In London the tailor journeyman Carl Forsell had joined The Company of the Just where Marx and Engels worked. Together with the tailor Gustaf Stolbin he brought the Company’s ideas to Sweden. The request from London was to form secret communist groups in the home country. At the same time one should also organise an open activity to get in contact with larger number of guild workers. The idea was to recruit from them to the political work. In London such activity had the shape of an educational group for workers, where on the surface a harmless lecturing activity was taking place. When German journeymen from The Company of the Just returned from London they had instructions to put up similar educational groups.

In October 1845 an educational group was formed after a German model in Stockholm. The initiators were the tailor journeymen Olof Renhult and Sven Trädgårdh together with the poverty doctor Johan Ellmin. The Swedish author August Strindberg later made fun of them in his novel “The Red Room” since the group had been formed “to the memory of Her Royal Highness Princess Charlotta Eugenia Augusta Amalia Albertina’s first communion”. But behind the harmless surface an attempt to spread the ideas of socialism to the journeymen was hidden. Bourgeoisie elements soon got their grip on the group though, and thus a parallel discussion club, The Scandinavian Society, was formed.

Also in this club the founders could be found among the returning members of The Company of the Just. Together with the printer Per Götrek they formed a secret communist subgroup to the organisation in London. Götrek had during the 1830’s joined Saint-Simons utopian socialism and published some of his writings in Swedish. To the group joined also the tailor journeyman Rudolf Löwstädt who in Paris had been in contact with Etienne Cabets so called “icarian” socialism. Cabet had in his book “Travels to Icarion” unified the communist ideas with Christianity and had a couple of hundred thousand supporters in France. Unlike Blanqui’s revolutionary communism inspired by Babeuf, Cabet precede a very peaceful religious belief. He planned an emigration to North America to realise his communistic property collective, but the project was stopped by the revolution 1848.

The communist Stockholm organisation thus got inspiration from both Cabets religious and peaceful communism and from the ideas, which had begun to grow in The Company of the Just. In the summer of 1847 the Stockholm communists declared in a letter to Cabets French paper Le Populaire that communism must be enforced “by necessary reforms... without bloody, revolutionary adventures”. Half a year later they wrote admiring about the “icarian colony” which was prepared in the North Americas: “There is no one among us who does not view your Icarion as his real homeland”.[4] But at the same time the group was affected by the ideas of Marx and Engels. In the end of 1847 the Stockholm group edited the publication “About the liberation of the proletariat through true communism” [Om proletariatets befrielse genom den sanna kommunismen] where Engel’s and Cabet’s ideas was mixed. And in December the following year Götrek published a translation of the communist manifesto where the religious tendency only could be found in the sentence “The voice of the people is the voice of God” which replaced “Workers of the world, unite”.

Even though some other changes had been made in the translation, for example the words “violent overthrow” were replaced by “radical reorganisation”, it was in general Marx’ revolutionary communism that was presented. Götrek himself clang on to his icarian socialism while other members of the group, like Sven Trädgårdh, joined the new revolutionary communism. To many of the communists these standpoints were justified by the revolutionary attempts in the spring in Stockholm.

The March uprising

Under the influence of the February revolution in Paris 1848 the liberal and republican winds became stronger even in Sweden. In connection to a moderate bourgeoisie reform banquet in the capital the 18th of March a real popular uprising began. Craftsmen workers and radical republicans who were not satisfied with a modest change in the monarchy called for mass movement for democratic rights and republic. The military was called in and Stockholm turned into a regular battlefield during a couple of days.

History books often describe the March events in Stockholm as a temporary “mob upheaval”. But from the careful description by the author Bunny Ragnerstam, which is based on contemporary newspapers and police protocols, a picture which resembles the European revolutionary attempts can be drawn:

“The workers started to throw stones at the troops from every direction... It was impossible to get out, and many were hit under the attack. Captain Robson gave quick orders. The troop was split into two platoons who formed a half-sharp angle in the street corner an went off against the brink and to the sides... The captain commanded temporarily fire. The shots were deafening, and came again and again. People were running in panic in every direction. Many who were hit fell over, but could get back up. Others fell, and were carried to safety in the alleys. But many was lying whining on the ground... The troops went backwards... loaded and fired again and again through the streets. Then they went forward again... and were met by more stones... incidentally, they shot against the tight masses of peoples. But the stones also started to get results, many of the soldiers were wounded, most rifles damaged and they had to retreat."[5]

When the rebels started to arm themselves and tried to occupy Brunkeberg [a place in Stockholm] to fire at the castle, the military brought the artillery for defence. The cavalry eventually managed to attack the barricades before any cannons were fired.

After three days of battles the military could reinforce control even though demonstrations and unrest occurred during the whole month of March in both the capital and around the country. Twenty workers had been killed during the uprising and a couple of hundreds wounded. The military counted 80 wounded, two by shotguns, and the police 30.

Even though the uprising had the character of strength from the spontaneous acts of the masses, there were organised forces of journeymen in the background. Two years earlier the medieval guilds had been abolished. This meant a lot more freedom to get jobs, but at the same time social uncertainty since the guilds had been organising the safety in case of sickness and death for their members. The journeymen had therefore more frequently organised secretly to protect their interests. Ragnerstam shows that one such illegal journeymen’s group with purposeful revolutionary plans, apparently played a major part during the uprising. Some of these journeymen were for sure members or in contact with the communist group.

As an organisation the communists did not have any influence over the events. On the contrary, some of the members tried to organise meetings via the educational group to keep people from the streets. That did not stop the police from blaming the communists on judgement day. Götrek was arrested and forced to reveal the secret organisation, but at the same time promised that it had nothing to do with violence. The police was satisfied with the explanations and a warning against Götrek to never indulge in secret activities again.

It was thus after these events a couple of the groups members, probably Trädgårdh and Löwstädt, took upon them the tiring work to translate the new program from London. In connection to the destruction of the socialistic and communistic organisation after the defeats in the revolutions in 1848 in Europe, the communist activity in Sweden also shrunk. Attempts to build a new worker’s organisation and socialistic papers in Stockholm during the first years in the 1850’s were stopped by prosecutions and some hard sentences. Sven Trädgårdh emigrated to America and Götrek moved out from the capital.

The first real attempt to build a socialist worker’s movement in Sweden was over.

Years of famine and strikes

After the dark decade of the 1850’s, had, in Sweden as on the continent, some politically brighter years followed. The 1860’s were the time for the breakthrough of liberal reforms with Garibaldi-parties, right-to-vote-petitions and a bourgeoisie controlled “sharp-shooters movement” as a threat to the old noble’s military authority. The reform liberal’s campaigns were blessed in 1865 with the abolishment of the old “estates parliament”.

Even though the parliamentary reform had been preceded by riots in the capital, it was least of all any revolutionary change. It was rather a symbol of the old Swedish authorities agreement on a strong state as a protection from the “mob”. When prime minister Louis de Geer made his proposal for the reform he clearly stated at the same time, to calm down the aristocrats: “In my view, this country shall be governed by the thinking part of the nation”. The reform was about giving rights to vote to “some new, but not lower, categories of citizens”.[6]

The new two-chamber parliament, where the right to vote was known as money and — of course — male sex, was designed for the higher bourgeoisie’s needs. To be elected to the first chamber you needed a capital stock of 80 000 Riksdaler or an income of 4 000 per year. Only 16 000 persons in Sweden fulfilled the demands. This first chamber was not elected by the people but by the county council (which in turn was elected by the cities and countryside municipality) and the city municipality in the larger towns. The right to vote in the local election was graded after income. The first chamber, whose members was elected for nine years, could put a veto on any decision in the second chamber.

To vote to the second chamber, the “popular”, you needed capital of at least 1000 Riksdaler or an annual income of 800. Only 5 percent of the population fulfilled these demands. In reality many of the lower classes in society lost the vote they had during the old “estates parliament"!

Together with the new parliamentary reform, a decision of freedom of trade, which tore down old obstacles against the establishment of new industries, were enforced. At the same time the punishment for participating in riots and rebellions rose.

The “reforms” of the mid 1860’s meant in no way a democratisation of the Swedish society. The power went a couple of steps from land to capital without shaking the old authorities.

Worker’s organisations

Reform liberals from the bourgeoisie had since the 1840’s tried to use “the simple people” for their political cause. Not only the educational group in Stockholm had been overtaken by people from higher classes. Wherever workers tried to unite, around education, insurance funds or else, in came liberal editors, wholesalers and capitalists and took the lead. The idea was to prevent the “irresponsible” and “anti-social” individuals from “misguiding” the workers to rebellion. The workers should instead be “fostered” to responsible and economical citizens who together with their employer worked for more representatives in the parliament.

The famine in 1855 had convinced the bourgeoisie about the necessity to take control over the people. The liberal capitalists had frightened been forces to watch how their own workers in despairing hunger riots not only attacked the old aristocracy. The workers had, just as in Europe, in equal degree attacked the capitalists themselves. Tradesmen and industrialists had on many places been forced to lock up their shops and houses while the window glass was crushed.

When workers during the late 1850’s on a larger scale tried to organise themselves in worker’s organisation, the liberal “worker’s friends” were fast to take the initiative. The 1860’s were the peak for the liberal worker’s organisation. The workers was effectively hindered from making their voice heard through rules, which for example forbid the members to read something that was written in advance. At the same time the organisations were connected to different insurance funds and co-operative shops, which could be heavy economical arguments for the workers to join.

The parliamentary reform of 1865 showed on the other hand that the worker friendly bourgeoisie did not attempt to let the workers become equal citizens. The terrible years of famine in 1867-68 also increased the gap between the workers and the capitalists.

Revolt and strike

If Sweden’s history is the history of rebellion and revolution, the last years of the 1860’s must be something of a symbol of this rebelliousness. Under the pressure of famine and the nonchalance of the upper classes, the rage exploded among workers and poor all over the country. Groups of working people went around in the nice neighbourhoods, smashed the windows, investigated storerooms, attacked upper class parties and harassed the authorities. On many places there were calls for armament and revolt. Demands for bread and justice were mixed with calls for republic and freedom.

The bourgeoisie threw themselves in the arms of the old authorities, mobilised the military and “sharp-shooters”, and even liberal workers organisations, against the “mob riots”. Hard sentences to prison and the largest wave of emigration ever, who also saw many of the most revolutionary workers leave, could however not bring the resettlement the liberals dreamt of.

When the economical conjuncture turned up and the times got better against the end of the decade the hunger riots were replaced by the battles of a new era, “the strikes”.

Both workers and earlier journeymen had used stoppage of work as their weapon. But it had only been for short and spontaneous protests. From 1869 a true wave of strikes started to spread over the country, where the workers sometimes organised real strike committees and support funds to be able to manage longer periods. Only in Stockholm there were 25 strikes between 1869 and 1874, were the patience and unity among the bricklayers showed the way.[7]

The background to why the rebellions had been replaced by strikes was that Sweden was beginning to catch up with the European industrialisation. During the 1840’s there were only some single industries in Sweden, employing around 20 000 workers. 20 years later, the industrial working class had grown to 50 000 in hundreds of industries all over the country. And the growth accelerated.

To be able to enforce collective and long strikes, organisation was necessary. Representatives for the strikers must be elected to give the demands to the employers. Economical support must be gathered. The unity is guaranteed through public meetings where people promised not to fall through. Those who did not want to strike must in the name of solidarity also stop working and strike-breakers must be chased off. And some kind of contract must be made with the employers who agreed to the demands.

The liberal workers organisations, where the employers were in charge, couldn’t fulfil these duties. The striking workers had to organise themselves. Thus the labour unions were formed. First as temporary economical funds, later as stable organisations. During the first years of strikes in the 1870’s there were attempts to form unions among for example the capital’s bricklayers, timber-men, carpenters and oven-makers. The low economical conjuncture, which followed during the second half of the 70’s, pressed the strikers and organisations attempts back though.

But the seeds had been put into a soil that was getting more fertile for the new class’ organisations.

Master Palm

It took more than 30 years after Götreks and Sven Trädgårdhs first initiative before the socialistic ideas took root in Sweden. After the extinction of The Scandinavian Society and the socialist papers in the early 1850’s, the few supporters had done some attempts to try to spread the radical European message.

During Bakunins visit in Sweden 1863 a new Scandinavian society was formed where Rudolf Löwstädt, a member of the old group, was involved. But Löwstädt weren’t any longer a radical tailor journeyman, but a rich industrialist, and the society was just another liberal group, which even made it possible for Bakunin to meet the king and the court.

Even though some Swedes were registered as members of the International Workers Association [First International], it is unknown if they had any activities. Bunny Ragnerstam suspects that another of the 1840’s communists, Gottfrid Lindman, who 1866 took the initiative to a workers organisation in Gothenburg, could have been a member of the International. The organisation was however overtaken by the employers and Lindman was expelled from the group he had formed. He was forbidden by a court to ever have anything to do with the organisation again, was fired from his job, threatened with forced labour for vagrancy and had to leave Gothenburg.[8]

A Scanian [Scania is the most southern part of Sweden, Skåne in Swedish] tailor journeyman who in February 1873 during a journey joined the German party of the International, would have greater success. His name was August Palm.

The Social Democrats

The autumn 1881 Palm moved back to Sweden after spending some time in Denmark. In Denmark he had been agitating for the Danish social democrats but been brutally beaten by opponents and couldn’t stay. The terrible experience did not stop him from continue his agitation in his home country.

In November Palm arranged a lecture on the subject “What do the Social Democrats want?” at hotel Stockholm in Malmö. He summed up the result of his socialistic start himself: “The room was filled by an interested audience, the majority from the upper classes, such as carpenter masters, industrialists, doctors and paper editors. Only a few were workers. The meeting drew quite a lot of attention and was referred to in detail, and in most cases friendly, in the newspapers. Some papers were polite enough to predict a seat for me in the parliament."[9] But the friendliness and politeness would come to an end when it was clear that Palm’s message won sympathies among the working class.

During the following years the stubborn tailor did everything to try to spread the socialist ideas and gather the few socialists that in different ways had came into contact with them. Through agitation travelling across the country, starting papers like Folkviljan and Social-Demokraten, worker’s meetings and congresses, Palm tried to give socialism a solid organisation within the working class. The organisations rose and fell. Papers were started and disappeared. But despite being humiliated in the press, harassed by rental owners and the police, resistance from right wing and liberals, personal economical ruin and prison, Palm’s initiative couldn’t be stopped. The time was right for the worker’s movement.

The labour unions

The 1880’s started with an economic boom. As ten years earlier the number of strikes increased when the demand for labour rose and the workers position became stronger. The organisational seeds from the 70’s had taken root, and the plant in form of labour unions blossomed. The defeat in the big strike in Sundsvall 1879, where the sawmill workers were attacked by military troops, convinced thousands of workers around Sweden: without organisation, no lasting success. The strikes brought unions.

Since the 1840’s radical workers had tried to create organisations where the workers themselves were masters. It took thus almost half a century before this was possible. Significant for the new labour unions was that workers gathered autonomously from the authorities and the employers. The purpose was no longer to enforce “education and thrift”, but to stop the competition between the workers to, as it was called in the motivation for one of the first labour unions, “win a somewhat firm position in our relationship against our principals”, i.e. the employers.[10]

During the 1880’s around 250 labour unions were formed around the country, and had around 1890 members in 1890. They grew in the middle of the industrialisation which during the decade increased the workers in the factories to almost 100 000. And they had to regularly confront the attempts from the liberal “worker’s friends” to convert them to harmless educational groups and trade co-operatives of the old type.

One of the more bizarre attempts to try to stop the unions came from the “liquor king” LO Smith’s so called “worker’s rings” where workers where enticed to buy shares in a gigantic business association. Smith explained the purpose of his activity: “My worker’s rings, whose organisation and profit I did everything for, I tried to assemble as a counterweight to the socialist propaganda, and the tailor Palm was regularly thrown out when he blessed the worker’s rings’ meetings and negotiations with his presence."[11]

The ring movement collected tens of thousands of workers during some year in the early 80’s and managed to suffocate some of the first attempts to form unions by taking over their best activists. But in the end Smith had to bitterly realise: “The workers did not understand their own best, and here in our country my eager for the workers best was met by resistance and disbelief”. The tailor won the fight.

The labour unions secured their independence when they united with the socialistic ideas. And the socialistic attempt got some kind of continuity when it allied with the unions. For the unification of socialism and labour unions to become real, it was not only up to the intellectuals among the social democrats to give up their unwillingness for building mass organisation. It also took a hard fight against the liberal attempts to take over the unions, as they once took over the worker’s organisations.

In the mid 1880’s the battles were against the liberals in the central committee [FCK] that had been formed a couple of years earlier by the labour unions in Stockholm. The social democrats won, and the unions associated to a program for class struggle and socialism. It was the beginning to labour organisation attempts with socialistic influences all over the country.

With the direction set on the unions, Palm’s dream of a socialistic movement, which did not only consist of “intelligentary” [yes, it is a strange word in Swedish too] who “enlightened each other” finally came true. On initiative from the strong Scanian workers movement a national congress was called upon for worker’s organisations in Stockholm during Whitsun 1889. When the 49 representatives gathered in a room at Tunnelgatan they represented 51 labour unions and 16 social democratic clubs with a total membership of 3,194.

They had been called upon to show that “socialism had settled down for ever here in old Sweden”. And they formed a “Swedish social democratic worker’s party on the foundation of class struggle”.[12]

The worker’s army

The years of building the social democratic party took place when industrial capitalism broke all borders and the working class grow explosively. Between 1890 and the turn of the century, the number of industrial workers increased in Sweden from 93 000 to 265 000. Big workplaces with hundreds of workers started to replace the small workshops, and the urbanisation did not only create an unbearable overcrowding, but also a swift expansion of the worker’s parts of the city.

By taking the initiative to unions themselves, the liberals had tried to pull the sting of class struggle out of the new movement. But when it failed, the unions were fought stiff-neckedly by both liberal and conservative industrialists. Innumerable workers were fired and put on the street for trying to form labour unions with their work mates. While black-listed pioneers were forced to emigrate, social democratic agitators were beaten up and chased out of mills and villages.

Earlier attempts to build a socialist movement had been crushed with arrests and new laws. The methods came to use this time as well. The social democratic leaders, from August Palm and Axel Danielsson to Hjalmar Branting, got hard sentences to prison for criticising the authorities. In 1899 the government declared the so called “Åkarps-law”, which forbid every “trial to force someone to participate” in a strike. The law were directed against the very core of the union struggle, the unity and solidarity between workers, and it was also used a lot against agitation for strikes.[13]

But nothing could stop the new worker’s movement.

When the company’s shop refused to give credits to striking workers they organised their own supply of food. In this way co-operative organisations were formed, not under liberal but socialistic flag. When rental owners and authorities refused to rent out rooms for socialistic or union meetings, the workers build “Folkets hus” and “folkparker” [The People’s Houses and The People’s Parks]. When teachers and priests cursed the spectre of socialism in front of the children, their parents organised socialistic Sunday classes and children’s care.

When the minimal right to vote stopped the workers from showing their support for the worker’s party, they allied with dissatisfied liberals in a gigantic right-to-vote-movement with demonstrations, people’s parliaments, and political strikes. In the election to the second chamber 1890, the social democrats got only 749 votes although the party had almost 7 000 members. The mass of workers couldn’t vote. After a first reform in the rights to vote in 1909, who gave almost 20 percent of the population the right to vote, the conditions changed dramatically, so the social democratic votes were many more than the number of members.

The workers movement found its way through a class struggle that was harder then the battles of the 19th century. The strike in Norberg 1891-92 with mass evictions and bitter defeat, the social support-riots in Stockholm 1892, the attack by the police on the right-to-vote-manifestation ten years later, the constant strikes in defence of new labour unions who made Sweden during the turn of the century to maybe the most strike- and lockout-haunted country in Europe... during innumerable battles an under class organisation rose which the society had never experienced before. By the turn of the century the members of the unions had increased to 66 000 in 1000 organisations. During next seven years their members would multiply by four. 1907 the movement was at its first peak.

With 186 000 members in the union controlled by the social democrats, 133 000 members in the party and still other thousands of supporters in worker’s organisations in different areas in society, the Swedish social democracy had an honourable place in the international worker’s army Engels had talked about after the formation of the Second International.

The young reds

When the Swedish social democratic party was founded 1889 there were no suggestion to a program prepared. The new party thus stated its association to the international social democracy in the way it was expressed by the German party. There the Gotha-program was still in use, with its positive attitude to the existing state. Even though Swedish social democrats like Axel Danielsson and Atterdag Wermelin had criticised the “Gotha compromise” hard, it is obvious that this compromise would also set the tone within the Swedish social democracy.

The fact that Swedish social democracy was a revolutionary movement was almost obvious for the pioneers. But in what way was it obvious? In his famous speech in Gävle 1886, Hjalmar Branting declared that socialism is “revolutionary in principle”, because it would not only adjust the old system, “but it is not revolutionary in the sense that it spurs unsystematic attacks against individual opponents’ person or property”. Branting however underlined that the socialists wouldn’t refuse to use revolutionary or illegal methods if the “natural ways” for development were shut. The conditions for a “peaceful” and legal worker’s movement were, according to him, that the working class got proper citizenship. “Equal rights to vote is the price the bourgeoisie has to pay to get liquidation with administrational methods, instead of bankruptcy, fetched to the court of the revolution."[14]

It was the almost that vision about the revolutionary element in the social democracy that guided the foundation congress’ opinions. From prison, Axel Danielsson had sent a proposition for a resolution where the social democracy declared itself being “a revolutionary, not a parliamentary party”, but his proposal was never treated.[15]

During the party’s first years there were often fights between which direction the worker’s movement should follow to reach the socialist goal. The party had immediately joined the Second International where the discussions about revisionism and “minister-socialism” escalated. In 1891, Lassalle’s old vision was challenged when Marx’s criticism of the Gotha program was published, almost a decade after his death.

The most important point in his criticism is the view on the state. Marx wrote with emphasis: “Between the capitalistic and communistic society lies the period for the first’s change into the latter. During the same time also exists a political transition period, which can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat”.[16]

The revolutionary meaning in Marx’ view had, as the social democratic leaders underlined, nothing to do with “unsystematic attacks” and violence. But to reduce the revolutionary to the meaningfulness of the transition to the socialist order of production, is far from Marx opinion. It is to neglect the key to the transition, which, according to Marx, was that the working class itself formed its own state in the place of the old one. This revolutionary core in Marxism was often hidden in the upset discussions on congresses between violence or non-violence, parliamentary activity or direct action, reforms or rebellion.

By the time of the congress of the German social democratic party in Erfurt the same year as Marx critics against Gotha was published, a new party program was taken which excluded most of Lassalle’s ideas. But the fog around the view on the state remained. This was also obvious in the Swedish debate. At the party congress in Norrköping 1891, the representatives came closer to Marx’ opinions. Danielsson talked about “the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat”, and in the resolutions the parliamentary work was only described as “a good arena for agitation”. The workers were encouraged to learn the use of weapons in rifle associations, and “the organised violence” was considered a last alternative. But only the year after Danielsson declared that socialism could be realised “through the present state and municipalities”, a view that was criticised by other leading social democrats like Fredrik Sterky.[17]

The disagreement and uncertainty on the revolutionary goals continued within the social democracy. Meanwhile, the tactics were adjusted to the present situation, which wasn’t ready for any revolutionary attempts. The same social conditions, which in the German social democracy made the foundation for revision of the original ideas about class struggle, also took place within the Swedish worker’s movement. The European left generation, which by the turn of the century criticised the gap between the theories and practise of the Second International, got followers in Sweden.

The left

The most radical critics were not unexpectedly to be found among the youth. 1896 had some socialist youth clubs from different places around the country united in The Socialist Youth Organisation [Socialistiska Ungdomsförbundet]. The initiators had been fostered within the socialist Sunday schools and wanted to see more radical politics in the worker’s movement instead of the seemingly endless organisational work. Many were inspired by the European anarchism, which still was present in the Second International. The were commonly called “unghinkar” [young ‘hinks'] after Hinke Berggren, the revolutionary agitator of the Swedish social democracy: “For my part, had Hinke declared, I think some small murders is perfectly superb, and such thing frightens the upper classes in society. We shall infuse the poison called hatred, which will make us mature enough to use any kind of violence”. These were words in sharp contrast to the growing carefulness among the social democratic leaders.

Among the socialistic youth there were also critics who instead of idealising radical phrases and “direct action” searched directions to organise the masses of the working youth. The individualistic anarchists failed had failed on that point, and The Young Socialists [ungsocialisterna] never reached outside a rather narrow group of people.

Under the leadership of Per Albin Hansson and Fabian Månsson a new organisation, Sweden’s Social-democratic Youth Organisation [Sveriges socialdemokratiska ungdomsförbund] was formed in 1903. Within the new organisation, a generation influenced by revolutionary and Marxist ideas was formed, commonly called “ungdemokraterna” [young democrats] to separate them from unghinkarna. It got ideological inspiration from the new radical forces within the Second International whose criticism against the “revisionism” and conservatism within not least the German party, enthusiastically met the Swedish youth organisers.

A symbol for this generation was the paper Stormklockan [the Storm Bell], which started in 1908 with Zeth “Zäta” Höglund as editor. It took its name from an old paper that August Palm tried to start in 1893 in his disappointment of the development within the social democracy. The veteran’s storm bell would, as it says in its first number: “fight for the global socialistic ideology, without therefore indulge in parliamentary thinking. Parliamentarism is and will always be corrupt as long as the class society exists”.[18] But Palm ran out of money and the edition stopped. It went better for the youth organisation and Stormklockan became the leading paper of the Marxist left.

The Criticism

One thing in common for the growing criticism within the worker’s movement, was the dissatisfaction with the strengthening of the hierarchy as more deals were made with the bourgeoisie liberals. The party leadership is “too soft and negotiating outward, while it treats everyone within the party with bullying and scorn who dare to have another opinion than the gentlemen in the leaderships” meant Palm.[19]

It was most of all the action from the leadership in the right-to-vote-question, which stirred the motions. After years of struggle, Branting 1906 voted in the parliament in favour of a liberal proposal that expelled women from the right to vote and let the old system remain in principle. The proposal fell anyway due to the veto of the first chamber, but the social democrats in the parliament got strong criticism from the members. The total agreement around the proposal had been a step on the way to try to continue the right-to-vote-movements with the liberals. But it was to a high price, not just in form of lost votes for a lousy compromise. The liberal bourgeoisie was against every form of political strike to try to change the constitution. Within the workers movement the demand for such a strike grew.

1902 had a large right-to-vote-strike been made with 120 000 workers. It was met by violent attacks from the police; attacks which rather raised the desire from the worker’s side to go to battle. In a referendum with 40 000 union members autumn 1904 the vast majority voted for a political strike, and that was before the criticised proposal from the Staaff government.

After the fiasco with the liberal’s proposal and some hard pressure from the left, an extra congress was called upon in 1907 to only deal with the right-to-vote-struggle. The congress was secret, according to the critics because the radical opinion shouldn’t put pressure on the negotiations. The congress decided to continue the collection of funds for a general strike, but meant the time was not ready yet. The strike plans then faded out for some time, and the discontent among the left grew.

Collective affiliation

According to the left, one reason for the hesitation from the party leadership was the strong influence from the union labour leaders. When the union’s national organisation LO was formed in 1898 the congress decided that all unions associated to the LO within three years must collectively affiliate all their members to the social democratic party.

This collective affiliation was not something new. When the party was formed in 1889 only a few hundred members were affiliated individually to the party via the social democratic clubs; the rest were affiliated via the labour unions represented at the congress. After the formation of LO a decade later, 97 percent of the party’s 40 000 members were collectively affiliated.

Today, as then, this collective affiliation is sometimes described as a crime against democracy and the individual’s freedom. From the far right to the communists there have for long time been demands that this form of association must stop, or else legislation must be made. But in those days in the 19th century it was hard to take this right wing criticism seriously, and it still is. The liberal and conservative politicians had nothing against getting enormous payments from private enterprises and capitalists who would never dream of asking their employees about these transactions. In this way the working class were “collectively affiliated” to their opponents. That the worker’s party tries to build the opposite solidarity was thus not wrong in any way.

Those who joined the unions with socialistic aims must also stick together politically, behind their own political party. Workers who supported the employers’ parties should not even join the socialist unions.

But soon the criticism came from the opposite direction.

To totally subordinate the purposes of the union under the political party was an idea from Lassalle. The Marxist objection against Lassalle were among other things to underline the importance of gathering the whole class within the unions, not only the convinced socialists. Already at their second congress in 1900, LO abolished the demands on obligatory collective affiliation and even non-social democrats could become members of the LO. In 1909, the right to make a reservation against party membership within the local union, if it was connected to the party, was introduced.

But the foundation for the left criticism against the collective affiliations remained. It was not about “individual freedom” in the first place, but about what kind of party the social democracy should be. Should the party be a fighting organisation for socialists who had taken an active standpoint, or an umbrella organisation for the labour union?

The radicals could not avoid seeing how the union representatives often represented a moderate conservatism with reference to their many members who had not themselves taken the step towards the social democracy. “The supporters of separation” decided time after another that the collective affiliation must stop, but were voted against.

The military

The clash in the disunity between the left and right within the worker’s moment became a totally different question however; the view on the military and the defence.

Following Marx’ ideas about a class state, it was impossible for socialists to give any kind of support to the opponent class’ “gangs of armed men”, as Engels expressed it.[20] The social democratic parties should therefore by principle never vote in favour of the bourgeoisie states’ military budgets. The working class had “no home country [a quote from the manifesto]”, as long as the capitalists ruled. It had nothing to gain from participating in the slaughter of capitalist wars. As an alternative to the military machine of the bourgeoisie, the social democrats raised the demand of popular armament.

This attitude was challenged within the Second International by the revisionists and the supporters of “socialistic colonial politics”. “It is not true that we don’t have any home country..., declared Georg von Vollmar from the Bavarian social democracy. My love for mankind can’t for a moment prevent me from being a good German”.[21] These critics from the right did not pay much interest in the words about popular armament to motivate their support for the common military service that were enforced when the super powers of Europe prepared for war around the turn of the century. If only the workers got “citizenship” they would also have a country to defend.

At the same time the anti-militaristic spirits grew as the threat of war was getting closer. Among the anti-militarists were those who clang on to Marx’ ideas of a no in principle to the bourgeoisie military and instead spoke for popular armament of the working class. But there were also pacifists who believed in demilitarisation, international law and world peace. Especially in a country like Sweden, with no close experiences of wars, the pacifistic moods came to affect a large part of the anti-militaristic opinion. That didn’t stop especially the two socialist youth organisation from making an historical contribution in the struggle against militarism.

1905 the Norwegians themselves dissolved the forced union with Sweden. It was during the Napoleon wars that Sweden was alert enough to end up on the winning side and got Norway as a prey. The Norwegian national liberation movement was met by the threat of military from the Swedish authorities, who prepared to “talk Swedish with the Norwegians”. The brand new military service army who had been created four years ago were mobilised and lined up at the border.

The concentration of forces was met by anti-militaristic propaganda in quantities never seen before. The Swedish socialist youth had taken the international’s proud anti-war declaration seriously and set an example for the worker’s movement all over Europe. In a flood of leaflets and pamphlets, on worker’s meetings and among the soldiers, there were calls for refusing orders if the attack signal came. On nightly meetings over the border Swedish and Norwegian socialistic soldiers met.

The Swedish military was far superior the Norwegian, but the anti-militaristic campaign made the soldiers less and less trustworthy. During the spring the Swedish authorities also got an unpleasant reminder of what could happen after a failed military adventure. Russia’s defeat in the war against Japan had been a major contribution to the escalation of the resistance against the tsar. The Russian revolution of 1905 shook the very foundation of the tsarist government at the same time as the anti-war-feelings spread among the Swedish soldiers.

Afraid to risk the same development in Sweden, the rulers were forced to withdraw their plans on war and bitterly accept the independence of Norway. This was a massive victory for the anti-militarism and the left in the worker’s movement. At the same time the strikes sharpened up all over the country, and the radical moods became stronger. The young left had the lead within the worker’s movement and demanded that action and theory should become one.


1 Knut Bäckström, Arbetarrörelsen i Sverige 1, Kungälv 1977, p. 30.

2 Lars Frendel and others, Från bondeuppror till storstrejk — dokument om folkets kamp 1720-1920, Stockholm1987, p. 64.

3 Bäckström, p. 35.

4 Erik Gamby, Per Götrek — och 1800-talets svenska arbetarrörelse, Kristianstad 1978, p. 150.

5 Bunny Ragnerstam, Arbetare i rörelse, part 1, Södertälje 1986, p. 197.

6 Bunny Ragnerstam, Arbetare i rörelse, part 2, Södertälje 1986, p. 24.

7 Jane Cederqvist, Arbetare i strejk -studier rörande arbetarnas politiska mobilisering under industrialismens genombrott, Stockholm 1980, p. 33.

8 Ragnerstam, part 2, p. 109.

9 August Palm, Ur en agitators lif, Stockholm 1984, p. 35.

10 From a protocol of Stockholm Wooden Workers 5 sept 1880

11 L. O. Smiths memoarer, Karlskrona 1913, p. 69.

12 From “Manifest till Sveriges klassmedvetna arbetare” in Social-Demokraten 15/1 1889.

13 Ragnar Casparsson, Saltsjöbadsavtalet i historisk belysning, Karlskrona 1966.

14 Hjalmar Branting, Tal och skrifter, part 1, Stockholm 1926, p. 115.

15 Bengt Ahlsén and others, Från Palm till Palme — den svenska socialdemokratins program 1882-1960, Stockholm 1972, p. 34.

16 Karl Marx, Till kritik av det socialdemokratiska Gothaprogrammet, Stockholm 1928, p. 31.

17 Ahlsén and others, p. 40.

18 Karl Fernström, Ungsocialismen — en krönika, Stockholm 1950, p. 19.

19 Fernström, p. 20.

20 Friedrich Engels, Familjens, privategendomens och statens uppkomst.

21 Jan Sandegren, Arbetarklassen och de förtryckta folken, Uddevalla 1974, p. 100.