How Swedish Socialism Failed
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.Wait, before you go…
If you're reading this, you probably already know that non-profit, independent journalism is under threat worldwide. Independent news sites are overshadowed by larger heavily funded mainstream media that inundate us with hype and noise that barely scratch the surface. We believe that our readers deserve to know the full story. Truthdig writers bravely dig beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that tells you what’s really happening and who’s rolling up their sleeves to do something about it.
Like you, we believe a well-informed public that doesn’t have blind faith in the status quo can help change the world. Your contribution of as little as $5 monthly or $35 annually will make you a groundbreaking member and lays the foundation of our work.Support Truthdig