Roots to Social Democracy/Capitalism, Socialism

Scandinavia on the Skids: The Failure of Social Democracy (Part 2 of a 7 part series on Scandinavia’s “Socialism”)

This series sprang from discussions I’ve had with several people regarding the Danish/Scandinavian model of social democracy, or socialism as Bernie Sanders contends. Some well intentioned persons view the Nordic Model as a solution to greedy capitalism, while others view its role as a seditious savior of exploitative capitalism. Many Cubans I knew when living there (1988-96) and visiting since see the Nordic Model as a way out for their failing revolution, gone the way of a bureaucratic state. Some Spaniards backing Podemos hope to emulate Scandinavia, whose social democracy is also failing, unbeknownst to many foreign admirers.

I have been encouraged by Podemos activist Pepe Crespo; Bernie Sanders supporter and colleague Dave Lindorff; Left socialist William Hathaway, author of Radical Peace; Marxist-Leninist communist Klaus Riis; and my companion Jette Salling. Without their urgings I would not have delved into these complex themes.

Hathaway put it this way. We are witnessing:

the death of social democracy in Europe coupled with the rise of pseudo-left parties that exist to channel potentially revolutionary energy into reformist dead-ends…the crackdown on social democracy is inevitable under capitalism. These progressive measures were only allowed to stimulate consumption because the main consumer market then [Europe 1920s-70s and USA in Keynesian time, 30s-70s] was in the home countries. Now the market is global, and the corporations have to slash costs to compete with the emerging capitalist countries, which have lower wages, so social democracy has to go. But this crackdown may finally make the workers in the West realize their class position and start fighting back.

Lindorff put it another way:

Sanders [social democratic approach] offers a chance, slim I would agree, to attack the country’s corrupt power structure, and if that happens, we will inevitably see a weakening of the imperialist superstructure, and of the military industrial-complex…Sanders is urging his backers to create a movement, not for him but for the issues that matter which he is backing…It is a fantasy to believe that there will be a socialist revolution in the US that will overthrow the system. Far more likely is an openly fascist government.

Philosophical forefathers of a socialistic vision include Buddha and Lao Tzu. Buddha was an Indian/Nepalese prince; Lao Tzu, a Chinese philosopher. Both lived in the 6th century before Jesus Christ’s birth. Jesus should also be included as a “primitive communist” as some see the Palestinian Jew, human being or god-human. These visionaries hoped that peoples could live together in peace and harmony, one great family sharing resources.

The term socialism took hold as a political ideal first in France, in the 1820s, when Henri de Saint-Simon envisioned the ideal society as one large factory. His followers chose the word socialism to represent a centrally-planned society run like a cooperative business by worker-owners, and/or in conjunction with the state. The term communism also comes from France, probably back to medieval monks who shared property, living in common and feeling a sense of togetherness. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ theory of communism entailed social organization based on sharing property, the highest state of socialism in which all lived well socially in a stateless society.

Variations of Saint-Simon’s socialism have been formulated by many political theorists and writers: Thomas More, Louis Blanc, Eduard Bernstein, Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, Ferdinand Lassalle, Marx and Engels, Sydney Webb, George Bernard Shaw, V.I. Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Rosa Luxemberg, Emma Goldman…

Socialists disagree on how to develop socialism and even how to define it exactly. They all agree, however, that socialism’s economy is not dominated by private ownership of the means of production. Public ownership—either by the state or by worker cooperatives, or a combination—is central to its philosophy. It is also generally agreed that it is just and necessary to create a permanent state of social welfare with greater say in political-economic matters by the producers and folk at large. However, a system in which the people are the determining decision-makers has not yet been developed, neither in Russia/Soviet Union, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Korea or anywhere.

The rise of social democracy

The first social democratic party arose from union struggles and was founded by Ferdinand Lassalle, in Germany, in 1863. He was familiar with Marx and Engels’ writings. The latter founded The First International (International Workingmen’s Association) in London, the following year. They sought to unite left-wing socialists, communists, anarchists and trade unionists around class struggle and the need for a socialist revolution.

Some social democrats (S.D.) view social democracy as a “third way” while Marx and Engels maintain there can only be capitalism or socialism.  There are basically two variants of social democracy in theory. One advocates evolutionary and peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism, in contrast to the revolutionary approach associated with Marxism. The other advocates economic and social state interventions to promote social justice and welfare within the framework of a capitalist economy. The latter approach was adapted by the Englishman John Keynes. President F.D. Roosevelt employed Keynesianism during the Great Depression aimed at restoring order and saving the capitalist system. In all social democratic approaches private property remains in the hands of the owner (ruling) class.

The first social democratic government in the world occurred in Finland, in 1907, eight years after the founding of the social democratic party. In 1916, S.D. won an absolute majority and governed alone for the only time.

German social democrats achieved their first government in 1918 upon the end of the First World War. Sweden had its first S.D. government in 1921. The second oldest social democrat party was led by postal worker Louis Pio in Denmark, in 1871, inspired by the Paris Commune. The social democrats formed its first government in 1924, the same year the social democratic Labour Party was elected to govern in England. Norway’s S.D. ruled first in 1928 but fell after two weeks. The party split into two, one fraction created the Communist Party. The S.D. ruled again in 1935. Iceland’s trade unions formed the social democratic party in 1916. The tiny nation took its independence from Denmark once the United States occupied it during the Second World War. The US took control of Keflavik airfield, and at its height there were 75,000 military personnel there. The social democratic party first came to rule in 1947-9.

The October Revolution in Russia (1917) was the key influence for social democratic development throughout Europe. The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDRP) was founded in Minsk, in 1898. Lenin joined it in 1902, and led the Bolshevik (majority) split at its second congress, in 1903. Bolsheviks became the Communist Party in 1918. The Mensheviks (minority) continued as a S.D. party. The two were often at odds yet sometimes joined forces until the October Revolution.

The Bolsheviks formed a disciplined vanguard party agitating for a proletarian revolution, armed if necessary. The Mensheviks sought social democratic compromises with the “bourgeois democrats”, in which free expression would prevail as opposed to “democratic centralism”. When world war broke out Tsar Nicholas insisted on victory over Germany. He was forced to abdicate in March 1917 and a Provisional government took over. It, however, continued the war, supported by social democrats and the Social Revolutionaries. The Bolsheviks advocated an end to the war and a transition to socialism. Their slogan was: land, peace and bread.

Lenin and Trotsky led the party to victory in October (November 1917). Their hope that social democrats would oppose world war had been dashed when German social democrats supported the bourgeoisie war. A worldwide workers’ revolution was averted when social democrats in country after country, including in Russia, allied with the capitalist class. This led to the isolation of Russia.

The Nordic Model grew out of this Great Compromise between social democratic-led trade unions and wealthy property owners. In exchange for staving off socialist revolutions the capitalists granted improvements in working and living conditions for most workers in Scandinavia, eventually in Germany, England, Netherlands, and elsewhere in Europe.

The Nordic Model developed through the 1920s to the 1970s to include a large welfare state emphasizing employer and labor union institutions with unemployment insurance and pensions; transfers to households and publicly provided social services with a high rate of investment in human capital including: child care, tax supported education and health care, maternity and some paternity leave, paid vacations; and greater social and gender equality.

These producer-earned benefits dampened Western working class enthusiasm for international solidarity, especially with workers in underdeveloped nations whose work and living conditions neared slavery and even include slavery. No other nation joined Russia in its socialist experiment until after World War II.

No matter one’s analysis or opinions of Communist-led Russia and the expanded Soviet Union, one must recognize that its development was warped, in part, by constant subversion directed at it by the United States and many of its allies. From the beginning of the revolution, the US and several European allies, plus Australia, Canada, India, even Japan and China, supported the White Russian and Cossack counter-revolutionaries who wanted a return of the Tsar. The “democratic” allies sought to defeat the new Bolshevik army and to crush communism in the bud.

From May 1918 to July, 100,000 troops were sent to Vladivostok and other areas of northern Russia. The Japanese had 70,000 in Siberia to solve a “border problem” between China and Russia. The US sent 13,000 troops. Most weary allied forces withdrew by 1920 but some Japanese fought on in Siberia until 1922 and in northern Sakhalin until 1925 when finally defeated by Russia.

World War II and Marshall Plan

Social democracy had such an impact on workers in much of Europe that Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini were forced to include many of its benefits for “authentic” Italians and non-Jew Arian Germans in their nationalist, racist and warring parties. Hitler even falsely named his party in that spirit: National Socialist German Worker’s Party. Its first priority was to draw workers away from communism and into völkisch (folk) nationalism. While Nazis killed communists, its political strategy initially focused on anti-business and anti-capitalist rhetoric, later played down in order to gain support of industrial property owners.

Italian Fascism promoted a corporatist economic system whereby employer and employee syndicates associated to collectively represent the nation’s economic producers and owners, which were to work alongside the state to set national economic policy, and resolve class conflict.

As World War II approached, most social democratic parties did not support the peace policies of the Lenin-wing of the social democratic party (soon to become the Communist Party), and its associated parties throughout the world. Nor did social democratic parties in many countries protest the rise of fascism or even the fascist take-over of their nations. In Denmark, for instance, the Nazi-collaborationist government was led by the Social Democratic Party, under the leadership of its “father” Thorvald Stauning. He was succeeded by S.D. Wilhelm Buhl. Both turned over Communists and other liberation fighters to the Nazi party, even more than asked for. The Nazis imprisoned 6000 civilians, tortured many, and executed 850. Buhl also encouraged workers to snitch on patriotic saboteurs, and to take jobs in Germany, thus aiding the Nazi war effort. Nevertheless, upon the end of the war, Buhl was made provisional prime minister.

Denmark was effectively liberated on May 5th by British forces led by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. Only four days later the Russian Army occupied the Danish island of Bornholm after intense fighting with the Germans. Russians voluntarily left the island a year later.

After the liberation there was uncertainty about how the allies would regard Denmark, which had deliberately declined to take up the fight, as opposed to Norwegians. Eventually Denmark was accepted as an ally, mainly due to allied appreciation for the widespread Communist-led resistance to the German occupation during the last years of the war.1

Despite the fact that Russia was the main victor of the war, and suffered the greatest casualties, and that it was British troops who first entered Denmark, the social democrats and Danes generally fell in love with the United States, which has devastating consequences today (more on that later).

The loss of over 60 million people (some researchers say 80 million) devastated many countries, especially the Soviet Union. It lost 13.7% of its population, some 27 million people, about 16 million civilians. Germany lost between five and eight million people, 7-11% of its population. Despite torrential bombings, the UK lost only one percent of its people, around half-a-million. About three percent of China’s population was killed, between 15 and 20 million people, three-fourths of them civilians. By contrast, the US lost only 0.32% of its population, about 420,000, nearly all military. In 1940, there were 2.3 billion people. The war took three percent of them.

Nevertheless, World War II was an economic boom for the USA. Its weapons, oil, steel, auto, and construction industries grew manifold. Their surplus financed the Marshall Plan to rebuild the capitalist economies of Western Europe and prevent socialist-communist electoral victories. This policy succeeded, especially in Greece and Italy where a majority of workers were leftist.

Europe’s two largest political parties, the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats, adopted and even extended welfare benefits enabled by the Marshall Plan. The “free market” has since largely replaced the state as the politically determining force, and the welfare model is no longer viewed as necessary. Globalization brings unprecedented profits to capital, and their friendly governments allow even greater profits by helping the largest companies and rich individuals to avoid paying taxes in a myriad of ways: by granting them enormous tax cuts, ignoring their tax shelters and bogus companies, and by legal or semi-legal loopholes. Capitalists can also easily avoid paying taxes and decent wages by packing up businesses in the Western part of the world and moving them to countries where governments allow slave wages and unhealthy conditions.

The European Union has moved towards a United States of Europe in which major monopolies are assisted in attacking the historic results of workers struggles, and forging a state of permanent fear of losing jobs and social benefits. These fears are enhanced by terrorist attacks committed by desperate and fanatic people whose countries have been invaded and sacked by NATO/coalition of the willing armies, and the flooding of refugees fleeing these wars. EU has come to mean the loss of national sovereignty, un-payable debts, the destruction and privatization of the public sector—the abandonment of the Nordic Model.

All that moved the majority of Brits to vote themselves out of the EU. This historic rejection, on June 23, 2016, opened the way for radical movements rightist and leftist. I believe that those of us who are fed enough have a co-responsibility to stop this “inhumanity” human beings have created or Armageddon will overwhelm us and the planet. That means, at the least, that the inhuman economic system known as capitalism, which requires never-ending profit over the needs of people, must be replaced by a humane economic system based on cooperation and sharing.

My upcoming themes, subsequent to the Nordic Model breakdown, include: permanent state of war—US/NATO/Israel—making Russia a boogey man once again; the dilemma of China; the crisis in EU; the rich avoiding taxes; France’s renewed uproar/Greece/Syriza, Spain/Podemos; the re-colonization of Africa; the decline of progressive governments in Latin America, and the demise of the Cuban revolution; the crazy elections in the US—more fear, more opportunities; people’s grass roots efforts against these evils, and hope for a world without injustice, inequality and wars.

Read Part One here:

Next: Part 3 – Sweden-Finland-Norway Globalizaiton Blues

  1. The social democratic-led government could have waylaid the Nazi invasion of Norway, giving Norwegians time to put up greater resistance, had it sabotaged the airport at Aalborg where the Nazis would launch their attack. Ironically, it took a right-wing liberal Prime Minister, and later NATO chief, Anders Fogh Rassmussen, to be the first Danish leader to officially apologize for Denmark’s collaboration with the Nazis. As reported by the New York Times, August 30, 2003, he asserted this was ”morally unjustifiable.” In a speech for the 60th anniversary of the end of the 1940-43 collaborationist government, Rasmussen said, ”If everyone in Europe—if the Americans and the Russians—had thought the same as the Danish lawmakers, then Hitler would have won the war.” Nazi troops invaded on April 9, 1940 and the government immediately surrendered. []

Ron Ridenour is a veteran journalist and author of nine books, the latest is Tamil Nation in Sri Lanka. Read other articles by Ron, or visit Ron's website.