Sanders, Sweden and Socialism

by Louis Proyect on April 6, 2016


The man with a plan for eliminating capitalism piecemeal

While far apart in age and ideology, Bhaskar Sunkara and John Bellamy Foster share the distinction of being the helmsmen of two flagships of American Marxism: Jacobin and Monthly Review. They also have in common authorship of recent op-ed pieces in the Washington Post in praise of the Bernie Sanders campaign. Oddly enough, despite the perception some might have of MR occupying a space to the left of Jacobin, a publication loosely affiliated to the DSA, Foster’s piece is more flattering to Sanders. Titled “Is democratic socialism the American Dream?”, it embraces the Scandinavian model of socialism that forms the core of Sanders’s political program:

In advocating democratic socialism, Sanders has promoted a pragmatic politics of the left. His proposals include a sharp increase in taxes on the billionaire class, free college tuition and single-payer health insurance, guaranteeing health insurance to the entire population regardless of jobs and income. He advocates job programs in the tradition of the New Deal. All of these proposals represent things that have been accomplished in other countries, particularly the Scandinavian social democracies, where the populations are better off according to every social indicator. By portraying them as possible here, Sanders has brought the idea of socialism — even a moderate kind — from the margins into the center of U.S. political culture.

In Sunkara’s article, “The ‘Sanders Democrat’ is paving the way for the radical left”, the good name of the Scandinavian model is invoked again:

Many of the young people now trumpeting socialism aren’t clear about what they mean by the word. It’s safe to guess that they’re referring broadly to the tattered social protections that do exist in the United States or to the more robust Scandinavian welfare states that Sanders often speaks of. Worker ownership of the means of production is not on the agenda for Sanders socialists just yet, nor are other questions about democratic control and social rights, ones key to the traditional socialist worldview.

Leaving aside the question of the value of pro-socialist think pieces in Jeff Bezos’s newspaper that is largely disdained by the very workers whose interests they defend, there is a failure to critically examine the Scandinavian model that even contributors to the two journals view with skepticism or outright hostility. If we can reasonably identify Sweden as the most representative example of the model, there is an obvious disconnect between the op-ed pieces and what can be found in Jacobin and MR.

In a February 2015 interview with Jacobin, Petter Nilsson of Sweden’s Left Party probably spoke for most of his nation’s Marxists when he said:

There’s this joke on the Swedish left that everyone would want the Swedish model, and the Swedes would want it perhaps more than anyone. What’s considered to be the Swedish model peaked in maybe the late ’70s, early ’80s and has since gone through quite the same developments as the rest of Europe with the neoliberal wave.

Meanwhile, Monthly Review dropped all illusions in the Swedish model over twenty years ago, well before John Bellamy Foster became editor. In March 1993 Kenneth Hermele and David Vail wrote “The End of the Middle Road: What Happened to the Swedish Model?”, an article that denounced the Swedish Social Democratic Party (SAP, Swedish for the Sveriges socialdemokratiska arbetareparti or “Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Sweden”) for pursuing a program based on “more social differentiation, higher concentration of economic power in the hands of Swedish transnational firms and their owners, and giving up the attempt to carry out a development model different from those of other developed capitalist countries.” So deep was the disgust with Swedish social democracy in the MR milieu that another article appeared subsequently in the July-August 1994 issue that attacked Hermele and Vail for being too soft on the SAP. In “Sweden: the model that never was”, Peter Cohen makes the case that it never had anything to do with socialism:

The history of the SAP since the First World War is one of class collaboration, not of “a kind of social contract” or negotiated class relationships,” whatever that may mean. Like all other European Social Democratic parties, the SAP not only accepts capitalism but defends it against any attempt at change. The party has always argued that what is good for Swedish corporations is good for the Swedish working class.

When Bob Schieffer of CBS’s “Face the Nation” interviewed Bernie Sanders on May 10, 2015, one of the first questions posed was what it meant to be a socialist nowadays. Did it mean being for nationalizing the railroads and “things like that”, clearly trying to get the candidate to defend Soviet-style socialism rather than the welfare state. Sanders replied that he was for “democratic socialism”, or what they’ve had in countries like Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland for many years. Upon hearing this, I resolved to begin writing about Sweden and socialism to develop a class analysis of Sanders’s program. The other countries he listed would have to be overlooked because of time constraints and also because Sweden is an exemplar of the Scandinavian model. I was also familiar with the failures of Swedish social democracy having written fairly extensively about the country’s Marxist authors who got across their ideas about its dark side in detective novels such as the Wallander series and the Dragon Tattoo.

A series of eight articles about the Swedish model have appeared on my blog and this will be the conclusion. I am posting it on the North Star website since the issues posed by the Sanders campaign overlap with questions facing the left in the USA and Western Europe as many Marxists like Sunkara and Foster appear to be giving social democracy a new lease on life. Oddly enough, for all of the self-flagellation (deservedly so) by the Leninist left, there is a remarkable willingness today to treat social democracy as a brand new shiny toy and not the movement that had the blood of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht on its hands.

In many respects, the new found interest in social democracy is the result of a vacuum created by the collapse of a revolutionary left that had adopted sectarian and dogmatic methods based on a misunderstanding of what the Bolsheviks represented. In the USA today, there are only two groups of any significance that carry the “Leninist” banner and one of them—Kshama Sawant’s Socialist Alternative—is embedded in the Sanders campaign just as the CPUSA is embedded in Hillary Clinton’s. To its credit, the ISO continues to reject supporting Democratic Party candidates even though it recognizes the significance of having a candidate for President calling himself a socialist, even if mistakenly so.

If there’s anything to be gained from the massive amount of analysis devoted to the Sanders campaign, it is in deepening our understanding of social democracy and electoral politics. From its very beginnings, the socialist movement has considered the possibility that capitalism could be abolished through the ballot but in opting for electoral politics, there were always dangers that it might slowly and inexorably become wedded to capitalist reform.

This was the subject of an Adam Przeworski article titled “Social Democracy as a Historical Phenomenon” that appeared in the July-August 1980 New Left Review. If our notions of workers taking power is informed by what Marx wrote about the barricades of the Paris Commune, we should never forget that Engels was entirely open to the possibility of an electoral road to socialism. In 1881, he wrote about the excellent prospects for a socialist party in England: “Let, then, that working class prepare itself for the task in store for it, — the ruling of this great empire; let them understand the responsibilities which inevitably will fall to their share. And the best way to do this is to use the power already in their hands, the actual majority they possess in every large town in the kingdom, to send to Parliament men of their own order.”

As a result of the long expansion of the capitalist economy in Europe through the late 1800s, the result to a large extent of colonialism, the major socialist and working-class parties in Germany, Sweden, France, Italy and England turned Engels’s off-the-cuff observation into a principle. With the massive support of the German working class, Kautsky’s party was a symbol of what was possible under conditions of legality. In Czarist Russia where socialists were forced to operate underground, Lenin considered Kautsky’s party a model even if Rosa Luxemburg saw the dry rot in its foundations.

Slowly and molecularly, such parties began to adapt to electoralist methods that put the rather atomized election day choices of voters above the kind of mass actions that could lead to a socialist victory. Przeworski described the conundrum that workers faced. Despite the fact that they received millions of votes, their chances of winning an election was diminished by being outnumbered by members of other classes whose commitment to socialism was weakened by their social status as farmers, professionals or small proprietors. In order to become the ruling party, social democrats had to think in terms of making alliances with non-proletarian parties. In doing so, the leaders of the Swedish social democracy went further than other parties and long before it took power in the 1930s, it had become accustomed to forming blocs with middle-class parties that wrested concessions from the SAP that were not in the interest of its working class base.

Even as the SAP evolved into a multi-class, reform-oriented electoral machine, it never abandoned its socialist principles—at least on paper. After WWII, it offered lip-service to the idea that Sweden could become socialist no matter that its economic policies were barely distinguishable from FDR’s New Deal.

In 1971, perhaps as a result of the most profound radicalization since the 1930s, the SAP’s top economists Gösta Rehn and Rudolf Meidner proposed a plan that would supposedly lead to capitalism being abolished through elections. The so-called Meidner Plan stipulated that 20 percent of profits of all large companies like Volvo would pay for workers’ shares that over a certain number of years would result in them being owned by employees after the fashion of Mondragon. Of course, whether worker ownership has something to do with the original vision of Marx and Engels is open to question. Despite being owned by its workforce, Mondragon competes in the marketplace like all other corporations and is not above layoffs and other forms of labor discipline.

That being said, the idea of a Meidner type plan succeeding in the USA would be unprecedented in American history. Whatever the drawbacks of a Mondragon might be, who would not welcome the thought of the Koch brothers being forced to relinquish control of their vast empire to ordinary workers?

On November 10, 2015, Bhaskar Sunkara was interviewed by Vox Magazine editor Dylan Matthews, a Harvard graduate dubbed by Huffington Post as one of five “rising stars” under the age of 25. Despite his association with a magazine that is staffed mostly by other Washington Post reporters who jumped ship with Vox founder Ezra Klein, Matthews has a soft spot for Jacobin, calling it “perhaps the most relevant and important publication of the American political left today.”

The interview sought Sunkara’s opinion on a speech that Sanders had given a few days earlier. In keeping with his general approach to the Sanders campaign, Sunkara gave critical support to the speech even if he made clear it was not really the kind of socialism he favored.

Addressing the problem alluded to in the Przeworski article, Matthews wondered how despite having 70 percent of their workforce in unions, there was still very few signs of inroads being made on capitalist ownership in places like Sweden. He asked Sunkara, “What’s the path to worker ownership and control in a democratic society?”

His reply:

Provisionally, I would look at the Meidner Plan — the wage-earner scheme pushed by a massive mobilization on the part of the trade union federation in Sweden, which would have gradually socialized most firms in Sweden — as one model.

Matthews returned to the Jacobin beat only this month. In a fairly gushing article titled “Inside Jacobin: how a socialist magazine is winning the left’s war of ideas”, the Meidner Plan came up  again:

What we really need, Sunkara insists, is democratic worker control of the means of production. He cites approvingly the Meidner plan, a Swedish initiative in the 1970s that would have seen “wage earner funds” controlled by unions slowly assume ownership over every company with more than 50 employees, by forcing corporations to issue stock and give it to the funds. It was still “far too tepid,” Sunkara told me, but it was a start.

In the 1993 Socialist Register, none other than Rudolf Meidner took stock of his famous plan and the entire edifice of Swedish social democracy erected over a century in an article titled “Why did the Swedish Model fail?” While obviously loath to engage in the sort of blistering attack on his party such as the kind found in Monthly Review, it took a lot of courage and honesty to look at things without illusions. The article is must reading for those who pin their hopes on a transformation of the Democratic Party based on a Sanders “turn” made possible by changing demographics that favor the young and the disenfranchised.

Despite the fact that Sweden benefited greatly from the post-WWII economic expansion, there were speed bumps in the road that were inevitable given the country’s capitalist foundations. Chief among them was the full employment/inflation dilemma. Essentially, the goal of full employment clashed with the need for stable prices. Inflation was a serious problem in Sweden and the unions were resistant to wage freezes or reductions—as well they should be. Even more problematic was the transformation of the Swedish economy that led to an increase in jobs outside the “Fordist” mass production in auto plants and other bastions of heavy industry where there was not much skill differentiation between one job and another. After all, assembly line work is more a function of muscles and stamina rather than the intellect. As Sweden moved more and more in a New Economy direction, skill became more important and as such undermined the “solidaristic” elements of the economy that if not exactly socialist were at least consistent with the party’s ideals.

However, the greatest ideal—worker ownership of the means of production—came crashing to the earth in the 1980s and 90s as the Swedish economy followed the same path as other European nations, as well as the USA and Japan. The Meidner Plan was a bid to put the workers in the driver’s seat of Sweden’s largest corporations just when the corporate owners had decided that they would take advantage of the “globalization” that made runaway shops possible, the very ills that the Sanders and Trump campaigns target.

In the 1930s it was possible for workers and their bosses to hammer out a “peace treaty” in Sweden that made work stoppages and other forms of resistance a thing of the past. The Saltsjöbaden Agreement of 1938 was made possible because the ruling class had a vested interest in production within the national boundaries. Up until 1973 or so, the long wave of economic expansion that began in the late 1800s operated within a “nationalist” framework. Like the biggest American industrialists and financiers from Ford to Rockefeller, their Swedish counterparts were “protective” of their investments since the possibilities of capital growing wings and taking flight in the David Harvey geographical sense was inconceivable. In the USA, this meant that even though there were bitter struggles between GM and the workers in Flint, there was little likelihood that auto production would be moved to Mexico. In Sweden, the bosses were far shrewder than their American counterparts. In exchange for concessions they could obviously live with, factories would not be besieged by sit-down strikes and the like.

Starting in the 1980s, the bosses behaved just like they would elsewhere. In case after case, firms became multinationals prowling the earth looking for the most profitable place to plant their flags. Meidner writes:

Large Swedish companies, favoured by governments and by the wage policy of solidarity, have grown into multinationals, expanding their employment more in their foreign subsidiaries than in the Swedish mother firms. Some of them have transformed themselves into transnationals – companies owned by Swedes but located outside the country. Ironically, a few of them have expanded thanks to social democratic policies. Thus Tetrapac, the world-wide packing industry, had its origin in the Swedish agrarian regulation system which permitted the dairy industry to act as a monopoly, thus guaranteeing the use of the company’s milk pack by all Swedish households. IKEA had its domestic basis in furnishing the which were built as part of the social housing program in the 1950s and 1960s.

It is worth mentioning that between 1994 and 1997 Ikea was charged with using child labor under degrading conditions in Pakistan, India, Vietnam and the Philippines. (For the entire sordid record, read “The Secrets in Ikea’s Closets) It is also worth mentioning that Volvo, the car company that practically defined Swedish high technology and attention to consumer safety, is no longer Swedish-owned. It was bought by a Chinese company in 2010 and the cars are now being made there by workers making between five and seven thousand dollars per year, a not very “solidaristic” wage.

Stuart Wilks made a correct assessment of the current relationship of forces in Sweden in the Spring 1996 edition of Capital and Class that should make us wary about hopes to return us to the 1930s labor-capital partnerships that prevailed either there or to a lesser degree in the USA.

To understand the full extent of change in contemporary Swedish politics it is therefore necessary to consider how recent events have undermined the historical foundations of the Swedish social democratic model. In this sense, social democracy can only be understood in terms of its relationship to capitalism and the Swedish social democratic model is regarded here as a system related to a period of history bounded by two major crises of global capitalism. The first of these crises, in the 1930s, established social democratic class compromise as a national response to the threat posed by global economic uncertainty. By contrast, the second of these crises, from 1973 to the present day, necessitated an unravelling of this national class compromise as a response to the globalization of international capitalism. Whereas in the 1930s, the conditions of the economic crisis benefited social democrats and created a compromise favourable to the labour movement, the undermining of this compromise during the more recent crisis has resulted primarily from a shift of power to capital which has occurred as part of the process of globalization.

Writing four years earlier in the Summer issue of Capital and Class, Lawrence Wilde referred to the same set of problems in an article titled “The Politics of Transition: The Swedish Case”. The transition mentioned in the title refers to the hopes that Meidner and others had that Sweden might have made a transition to socialism using his plan. He concurs with both Meidner and Wilks:

There was hardly any consideration of the effects of the internationalisation of the economy on Sweden, and therefore little estimation of the likely effects on the class struggle of changes in the accumulation process in response to the downturn in growth experienced since 1974 (Pontusson, 1984). . . However much the state intervenes to maintain investment with schemes such as the wage earner funds and the renewal funds [the Meidner Plan], the ultimate power to invest rests with management, and the possibility of shifting operations to countries with lower taxation and more flexible bargaining arrangement placed an enormous constraint on the SAP government.

And in the most remarkable formulation that should weigh heavily on the minds of those hoping to see a revivified socialist movement spring from the bowels of the Sanders campaign, Wilde describes the folly of thinking in terms of building socialism in one country—even if it is something as theoretically workable as the Meidner Plan:

Have we seen the end of ‘social-democracy in one country’ in the same way that we have seen the demise of ‘actually existing socialism in one zone’? And if the inglorious end to the dictatorships of Eastern Europe signals the end of ‘Marxism-Leninism’ as a doctrine, does the Swedish experience mark the end of ‘Marxism-Kautskyism’? Do socialists have to concur with a pessimistic economic determinism in which there is ‘no escape from the laws of world economics’ (Frank, 1990)?

This brings me back to the contrast I drew earlier between the repentant Leninist left (at least those of its former members who have chosen to deal with reality rather than fantasy) and social democracy that remains much more confident of its rectitude. To some extent, this is naturally the outcome of an actually existing socialist international that has enjoyed state power from time to time, is funded by powerful trade unions, and that has vast resources capable of hiring bright young Ivy League graduates to work in any number of think-tanks devoted to “progressive” solutions to the vexing problems of contemporary society. In “The Eighteenth Brumaire”, Marx drew a comparison between the bourgeois and proletarian revolutions. Compared to the former, proletarian revolutions “constantly criticize themselves, constantly interrupt themselves in their own course, return to the apparently accomplished, in order to begin anew; they deride with cruel thoroughness the half-measures, weaknesses, and paltriness of their first attempts, seem to throw down their opponents only so the latter may draw new strength from the earth and rise before them again more gigantic than ever, recoil constantly from the indefinite colossalness of their own goals…”

While we would be well-advised to continue in the same vein, always being ready to “criticize ourselves”, there may be a time before very long in which we will be called upon to fight for the principles that have served our movement for the past 150 years or so. No matter how tiresome it is to swim against the current, we have a duty to defend class independence, proletarian internationalism and the belief that scientific planning based on the production for human need must replace private profit.

If both social democracy or Soviet style socialism in a single country are impossible, we must begin to rethink the way we talk about socialism. Keeping in mind that Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, and Luxemburg always considered socialism to be the result of a worldwide struggle against a worldwide system, it is necessary to return to the roots of our movement and revisit the project of the early days of the Comintern when Marxists coordinated their struggles across national boundaries in the same fashion that Volvo and Ikea strategize over which impoverished nation could best meet their profit-driven business plans.

New technologies are being born each year that make communications easier than they have ever been, the same kinds of technologies that allow a capitalist in the USA to build factories in Asia, fly the manufactured goods here at a low cost, and then sell them at a handsome profit in a Walmart located in an economically devastated town where all the local businesses have gone down the drain. We should use them to mount an attack on their privilege and power.

In 1903 Lenin was grappling with the problem of building a revolutionary movement in Czarist Russia where there was little communication between circles of socialists focused exclusively on local struggles. His solution was to create a newspaper that could put everybody in touch with each other and allow them to act in a nationally coordinated manner against the class enemy.

As the 21st century moves forward facing ever increasingly disastrous economic, ecological and military crises, the momentum will increase toward a truly global movement that will permit the billions of working class people to move together in a coordinated fashion. The ruling classes might have the money but we have the numbers. Don’t ever forget that.


{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael Yates April 6, 2016 at 1:34 pm

Good piece. Christ, I was teaching this stuff so long ago. Pointing out how, sooner or later, capital breaks all national bonds, that class compromise worked for workers for awhile in Sweden, but the demise of the Meidner Plan showed, once and for all, that Sweden was capitalist, and nothing short of radical resistance would ever end this. Even in the plant that made Volvo buses without an assembly line, capital couldn’t deal with real worker power on the shop floor. The plant made money, but not enough to overcome capital’s need to control labor power. To imagine socialism through the Sanders’ campaign is folly for certain.


Mark Wain April 6, 2016 at 5:56 pm

Good article on one of the top news about progressive politics of this country rarely heard since WWII ended.

One may want to ask oneself the question why socialism refuses to maintain its hold over the most developed capitalist societies. The answer has to do with the fact that their growth of forces of production seems unlimited until very recently when they have to face up to the ecological calamity and over-production-caused unemployment and underemployment.

These quagmires cannot be avoided or escaped from. Capitalism finally reaches its own destiny of greater stumbling at the early part of 21th century. Appearance of Bernie Sanders’ political revolution is never accidental; it arises from a deep-rooted crisis that the world capitalism cannot extricate itself from. No matter how pusillanimous, ineffective or superficial his revolution is, people take it to hearts and go on trying!

Shall Marxists repudiate it and even resist its development? A few will, but the majority will not. They will participate in it and propel it forward aiming at the goal of continuous revolution.



Michael Yates April 6, 2016 at 6:51 pm

Offering principled criticism doesn’t seem to resonate much with Bernie’s left-leaning supporters. All they see is “ultra-leftism.” Let’s see how far along this vaunted “political revolution” is in one year.


Charles A. April 6, 2016 at 9:40 pm

Global revolution or none – what an inaccurate but comfortable armchair view.

Economic changes choked off the social democratic conciliation that had wrung some reforms out of capital. The fundamental development occurred by 1973. (Author LP quotes writers who say this then ignores their point.) Modern globalization – the big shift of production to low-wage countries – swelled to significance long after that. The two big areas, China and the Eastern bloc, did not open up until more than 15 years later. Globalization is one more effect, not the cause, of the new phase of capitalism.

As for Sanders, where is the evidence that anyone takes his socialism seriously? His supporters want the specific reforms he promotes. The path is open to engage people in the new atmosphere, so different from a year ago, and offer serious contention that the U.S. is moving, painfully and slowly, to the overthrow of capitalism.


Louis Proyect April 7, 2016 at 7:40 am
DFT April 9, 2016 at 4:42 pm

A recent Jacobin article places the prospects and limits of the Meidner plan in a wider historical context:


Michael, Sweden May 13, 2016 at 2:56 am

The Meidner model of socialism was relevant in discussion between 1971 and the beginning of the 1980s. It’s just one thought experiment that was never implemented. It was aborted after a massive mobilization by the Swedish Employers Federation (SAF). A few years after that Prime minister Olof Palme of the SAP was murdered in February of 1986. Under mysterious circumstances.

The basic premise of the Swedish model of democratic socialism is piecemeal social engineering, not to create a utopia, which is the objective of communism. Rather the idea is to implement limited reforms to remedy the worst of the social ills.

Those small steps will with time create, and has in also in reality created, a whole new society. But the end state is not preplanned as in communism. It is taken one pragmatic step at a time. Every step is, or at least should be, carefully evaluated before the next.

Swedish Social democracy as embodied of the party of SAP focus on piecemeal social engineering. This is a radically different view of socialism than that of Karl Marx. This is perhaps best expressed by Karl R. Popper:

“In arguing against Utopianism, Marx condemns in fact all social engineering – a point which is rarely understood. He denounces the faith in a rational planning of social institutions as altogether unrealistic, since society must grow according to the laws of history and not according to our rational plans. All we can do, he asserts, is to lessen the birthpangs of the historical processes. In other words, he adopts a radically historicist attitude, opposed to all social engineering.”

What Marx thus criticizes as totally unrealistic has SAP made into a basic virtue (piecemeal social engineering). AND this model and the reforms are still standing. Contrary to what Mr. Proyect asserts.

Mr. Proyect defines socialism too narrowly, the Meidner model is not the Swedish model of socialism in any general sense. It never was. Marxism, Communism, and Socialism are post-liberal theories. They all aim to implement the rather abstract values of liberalism in real social life. The Swedish model of socialism is based on the aim of creating a a free and equal society through piecemeal social engineering. It has not failed. Mr. Proyect has misunderstood.


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