Over the Border

The Communist Party of Finland was founded 100 years ago today. Its fate was tightly wound up with the Soviet Union across the border.

A company of the Tampere Red Guard at the front, circa 1918. Museokeskus Vapriikki / Flickr

Histories of Europe’s Communist Parties often focus on forces like Italy’s PCI or France’s PCF. But one of the West’s most important Communist Parties in the Cold War period has received curiously little attention. This despite the fact that the Communist Party of Finland (SKP) was a mass party that vied for power in a country bordering the USSR. The biggest Communist Party in Scandinavia, in 1980 the SKP had over 51,000 members in a country of under five million people.

From the outset, the SKP’s history was closely intertwined with Finland’s Soviet neighbor. The party was founded in 1918 in the wake of a bloody civil war sparked by the Russian Revolution. Immediately banned, the exile-led SKP nonetheless continued to operate in Finland through front organizations. In the 1930s these structures were largely destroyed by the repression and far-right terror in Finland, coupled with Stalinist purges which struck against its Soviet-based leadership.

Legalized after World War II, the party made a remarkable recovery, truly becoming a mass force in a democratic society. The SKP created a broader Finnish People’s Democratic League (SKDL), which amassed a quarter of the vote and played a leading role in the workers’ movement for decades, while also repeatedly joining coalition governments. However, the party’s contradictions and changing material conditions in Finland eventually caused division and, finally, collapse.

While today Finnish communism is upheld only by minor sects, the ghost of the SKP still haunts the wider Finnish left. Revisiting its history, and its ultimate failure, helps us understand the bases for a new democratic-socialist project, mindful of past successes but also the need to go beyond the traditions of the last century.

Before the Party

The division of the Finnish left predated the 1918 foundation of the SKP. Even under Russian rule, Finnish socialists were not simply divided between Bolshevik and Menshevik sympathizers. Living in an autonomous “grand duchy” of the Russian Empire, the Finns did keep contact with Russian socialists, particularly the Bolsheviks. However, the main reason for this was the Bolsheviks’ willingness to recognize Finland’s national sovereignty, a cause that the Finnish Social Democrats (SDP) — established in 1899 — had adopted as they expanded beyond their urban trade-unionist base to become a cross-class force.

The divisions among Finnish socialists more closely resembled those among the German Social Democrats. Formally, the SDP was Marxist, but its reformists wanted to operate through parliament. They were influenced by Eduard Bernstein, the German thinker who believed in an evolutionary rather than revolutionary path towards socialism. Feeding this strategy, 1905’s Great Strike, in which the SDP played a key role, prominently demanded democratic reforms, and in March 1907 a parliament was elected on the basis of universal suffrage.

Notable for the election of the world’s first female parliamentarians, these elections produced a parliament with eighty SDP MPs. This confirmed a strong new division between socialist and non-socialist parties. This laid the basis for the process that eventually culminated in the Finnish Civil War, which followed the Russian Revolution and the granting of Finland’s national independence in 1917.

The Civil War, setting the socialist Red Guard against the nationalist Whites, ended in a disaster for the revolutionaries, crushing the short-lived Finnish Socialist Workers’ Republic. Thousands of Red Guard fighters evacuated over the border into Soviet Russia. Leaders pondered what had gone wrong. Some former Reds, such as preeminent intellectual Karl Wiik (who escaped to Stockholm rather than Petrograd like most other leaders) considered that Finland’s level of economic development had been unfavorable to revolution, in a still-rural country lacking a large industrial working class. Wiik instead advocated a peaceful road to socialism.

For most Red leaders, however, the chief problem was the structure of SDP itself. Otto Kuusinen, who had been education commissioner in the Red government, advocated a turn to the Bolsheviks’ own disciplined cadre-based model of organization. In his view, the old mass-party model had offered too much room for reformism and too little for decisive action.


The SKP was established in Moscow on August 29, 1918. Initially, it sought to prepare another bid for revolution as soon as possible, though the only real attempt at this, the “Pork Mutiny” of 1922 in rural Lapland, ended as a damp squib. Soon, Kuusinen, who made trips back into Finland in order to organize remaining militants (and thus had a better idea of how hard the process of constructing a revolutionary party would be) began criticizing the new party’s perspective of an immediate bid for state power as unrealistic. The SKP would now instead embark upon more long-haul organizing work among the working class, with a view to a later revolutionary reckoning.

Meanwhile, the Social Democratic leaders who had refrained from the fighting and survived the Civil War reorganized their party, the most prominent of them being old cooperative movement kingpin Väinö Tanner. A split to the left of the SDP soon joined the Communists in establishing a legal parliamentary party, which was active for a few years before being banned. Other left-wingers, such as Wiik, who had returned to Finland, stayed in the SDP for the time being.

Thus, a three-way division was established. The most leftist faction was the underground SKP and its legal fronts. On the right, politicians like Tanner increasingly defined themselves through cooperation with bourgeois parties and anti-communism. In the middle were those like Wiik, committed to restoring the movement’s unity and trying to find a way between the Leninist model of October 1917 and Tanner’s line.

The struggle was, however, intensifying. In the 1930s, Finnish bourgeois society was animated by a fear of communism and the right-wing “Lapua Movement” sowed terror. The SKP’s leadership in the USSR generally followed the Comintern’s “Third Period” line (abstractly insisting on the imminence of revolution) rather than deal with the more pressing requirements of the Finnish situation. It proved ineffective in organizing resistance against Finland’s rising fascist movement. The SKP was also divided due to the friction between the party’s leadership in Moscow and activists in Finland, eventually leading to a minor split, as many trade unionist activists established the Left Group of Finnish Workers to agitate for more cooperation with the Social Democrats against the far right.

Eventually, the Lapua Movement overplayed its hand and attempted a coup — a step too far for Finland’s conservative establishment. The terror abated, but space for the Communists to organize in Finland remained narrow. On the other side of the border, the situation was getting even harsher due to Stalin’s purges, which decimated most of the SKP’s leadership and many of its cadres. Kuusinen survived by concentrating on his work in the Communist International, in whose Executive Committee he played a leading role.

The Winter War of 1939 — in which the USSR invaded Finland and set up a puppet regime under Kuusinen in the small strip of land it controlled — proved a nadir for the SKP’s influence. Its cadres were imprisoned by the Finnish authorities and its sympathizers ended up siding with their own country over the USSR and Kuusinen. After the Winter War ended with Finland losing a considerable amount of territory and barely avoiding occupation, the Finnish establishment, including the anti-communist social-democrat Tanner, began to approach Nazi Germany, which was planning an invasion of the USSR. Others SDP politicians, like Wiik, resisted this development and were summarily imprisoned.

The German invasion of the USSR began in June 1941 with Operation Barbarossa. Finland took part in the northern flank of the offensive, in what Finns call the Continuation War. This was an essential part of the German strategy. Most Communist sympathizers of fighting age went to the front as part of the Finnish army; efforts at establishing a resistance movement were largely fruitless, though there were some attempts to avoid conscription. SKP leaders and cadres in Finland were locked in the same cells as the imprisoned SDP politicians, such as Wiik. Together, they made plans for the postwar era.

Legalization and Street Power

Finland’s defeat in 1944 led to the SKP’s legalization, allowing it to immediately recruit tens of thousands of new members. Communists and former Social Democrats now established a new party, the Finnish People’s Democratic League (SKDL), originally conceived as a wide popular front. Wiik, the party’s first chairman, noted already in 1946 that the party had instead become mostly a vehicle for SKP to participate in electoral politics. He subsequently resigned in disgust. Despite this, there was always a fraction of noncommunists.

In the election of 1945, SKDL won 23.5 percent of the vote, becoming a major political force. Later Finnish historiography has branded the immediate postwar period “the years of danger,” on account of the perceived imminent threat of Finland following the Eastern European countries in becoming a Soviet satellite state.

Some settling of old scores did happen, as the Communists gained influence in the Finnish security police and used it to prosecute their opponents. There were no concrete plans to enact a transformation to a people’s republic on the model of Poland or East Germany, however. This was itself consistent with Soviet plans of making Finland a case study of a nonsocialist nation living in coexistence with USSR.

Until 1948 the SKDL participated in government with the SDP and the Agrarian League, a centrist party that catered to rural Finns. But as the situation stabilized, it was excluded from government again for nearly two decades, despite winning most votes in the 1958 election.

Communist power in the unions was at its strongest in the 1950s. The SKDL enjoyed particular strength among construction workers, metalworkers, and the food packers. Through mobilizations like the general strike of 1956, the party built pressure on the government to push through pro-worker policies, such as reforming the hitherto meager unemployment-compensation and pension systems. Combined with the general feeling that statist solutions were needed to construct the economy, this laid the foundation for Finland’s welfare state.

At other times, Communists organized street movements, such as women’s struggle for maternal benefits, spearheaded by Kuusinen’s fiery daughter Hertta, one of the party’s most popular speakers. This is not to say that the welfare state had been the SKP’s true goal. Even ignoring the party’s formal Leninism (and thus its official if now-sidelined commitment to a revolutionary seizure of power) it retained a basic suspicion of the bourgeois state providing goods and services. The party continued to prefer direct gains through union action.

Nevertheless, its supporters found the fruits of the new system beneficial. The struggles that led to the creation of the welfare state also sealed new alliances, not only with the SDP but also with the Agrarian League. This latter party refashioned itself as the Centre Party in 1964 and shared SKDL’s wish to develop the poor rural areas of Northern Finland, where SKDL enjoyed strong support.

A particular ally was the new Agrarian/Centre president Urho Kekkonen. Kekkonen, a towering figure in Finnish politics during the Cold War era and president from 1956–1982, played an essential role in preserving Finnish neutrality, and cooperation with the Communists was a part of his quest to maintain close relations with the USSR. As Kekkonen pushed the Finnish establishment to give the SKDL a chance, developments inside the SKP also worked to his advantage.

Divide and Fall

By the 1960s, party reformers began to organize, if furtively. A key issue they posed was the fate of the Finnish Communists who had fallen victim to Stalin’s purges — the party’s authoritarian general secretary Ville Pessi had in fact continuously thwarted demands for information. The quest to reform the SKP was aided by the SKDL’s small noncommunist faction, which exerted influence in the party newspaper Kansan Uutiset. Some even discussed getting rid of the SKP altogether by dissolving it into the SKDL — a goal that would take another twenty-five years to achieve. This paralleled the so-called “Eurocommunist” trends in other European Communist Parties, even if the reformers did not identify with this label.

The party convention of 1966 proved a turning point. Originally, the reformists had pushed for trade unionist Erkki Salomaa to take over the leadership, but a last-minute intervention by the Soviets forced the reformist majority and orthodox minority factions to compromise. A more moderate reformist union leader, Aarne Saarinen, became the chair, and later, in 1970, the minority faction’s rising star Taisto Sinisalo was selected as his deputy. This would formalize the party’s factionalization for the next two decades. 1966 was also the year in which it was accepted back into government together with the Social Democrats and the Centre, as a part of Kekkonen’s quest to integrate the SKP.

Meanwhile, there was a sea change taking place in Finnish culture. Western cultural influences percolated through society and issues such as feminism and environmentalism came to the fore. Often such socially progressive or “New Left” attitudes were adopted by socialists, either in the SDP or parts of the SKDL, sooner than by the Communists.

The SKP nonetheless voted in favor of a new divorce law and decriminalization of homosexuality, as well as the famed “Finnish model” of elementary education. This latter replaced the earlier model of separate school systems for students striving for basic education and students intended for middle-class careers, and instead build a uniform model, adopted from East Germany’s example.

Divisions within the SKP however became sharper in 1968, when Soviet tanks rolled into Prague and crushed Czechoslovakia’s attempt at a liberalized socialism. To Soviet fury, both the SKDL, led by idealist new chairman Ele Alenius, and Saarinen’s SKP, condemned the invasion as a violation of socialist principles. In reaction against this furor over the Prague Spring, many young socialists broke with the New Left and created a strong “pro-Soviet” youth and student movement, defending Moscow’s line. It soon entered the orthodox faction of the SKP.

The performative radicalism of these “taistoists”— so named by their opponents as a way of mocking them by association with the uncharismatic Taisto Sinisalo — did them few favors. For instance, they praised Kuusinen, a figure who had died in 1964 and whom the rest of the party would have sooner forgotten as a remnant of the Stalin era. Perhaps their most noted legacy was the “song movement,” the youth choirs who wrote fierce and uncompromising socialist songs that can still sometimes be heard at left-wing events.

Despite these new educated and determined Leninist cadres, the reformers held the upper hand, and in 1969 the party passed a new program where the strategy seeking a revolutionary transition to socialism was replaced with one seeking a peaceful, democratic transition. But there was nothing peaceful or democratic about the party’s intense internal struggles in the 1970s. The majority and the minority jockeyed for power, built separate political machines, and attempted to take over each other’s base organizations.

What prevented a formal split were Soviet threats to cut off funding if the party didn’t stay united. In fact, during this period, the USSR had an overbearing influence on all Finnish politics. Both socialist and bourgeois politicians were frequent visitors to the Soviet embassy at Tehtaankatu, and the Soviets would often prefer working with pragmatic centrists like Kekkonen than the more ideological communists. The Finnish capitalist class, too, pushed for friendly relations with the USSR, as they were making money hand-over-fist trading with Finland’s eastern neighbor. Despite their disagreement over the Prague Spring, the SKDL and both factions of the SKP generally maintained their warm rhetoric about the USSR — though for the reforming majority faction, this had as much to do with becoming a part of the general Finnish policy-consensus as with communist ideology.

On the domestic front, the factions were divided by issues concerning the welfare state, and particularly the labor market. An important point of division were the comprehensive income policy agreements, in which the central trade union organizations and employer bodies set all the wage adjustments for workers for a certain period. Shop stewards associated with the SKP’s leftist minority opposed these agreements as a corporatist watering down of class struggle and feared it would diminish their own power. The minority was also critical of SKDL’s past record in high office, but in 1975 SKDL would nevertheless enter government again with the Social Democrats and Centre, for seven years.

These years were a slow-motion crash. As neoliberalism replaced state-oriented capitalism as the leading paradigm in the Western countries, Finnish society adapted to a more pro-market ideology. So, too, did the SKDL majority follow this development. Party membership was declining, the 1983 elections were a disaster (the SKDL lost nine of its thirty-five seats), the creaky Soviet model began looking less attractive to almost everyone, and the majority faction grew increasingly worried about the possibility of the minority taking control. A so-called “third line” now emerged, intent on preserving party unity. But too much damage had already been done.

In 1985–86, the most aggressive reformists, now known as axe-liners, started purging the minority-controlled districts from the party. These latter founded a new Communist Party of Finland (Unity) (SKPy) and an electoral alliance called Democratic Alternative (Deva) together with other former SKDL members. SKPy hard-liners, disaffected with Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalizing glasnost and perestroika policies in the USSR, would in turn split to form a separate Communist Workers Party (KTP), which today continues as an insignificant Stalinist sect.

If the reformist majority ultimately won this long-running factional struggle, it achieved rather slim pickings. Many already had an inkling that the funding from the USSR might not last forever. Joining in with the general spirit of the 1980s, they decided that this was the time to participate in the stock market — making ill-advised investments and wasting the party’s long-accrued wealth. The final stretch of Finnish communism as a mass force was ending in a farce.

What Legacy?

The 1987 elections saw a disappointing performance for both the SKDL and Deva: SKDL won 9.4 percent of votes — falling under 10 percent for the first time — and Deva 4.2 percent. In 1990, it was decided to unite SKDL, Deva, and SKP to form a new party called Left Alliance. SKPy was unwilling to liquidate itself into the new party, though its members were initially allowed to participate as individuals, and many quit SKPy in the process. Due to the participation of the old Communist minority faction, some SKDL heavyweights like former chairman Alenius refused to join the new party.

The Left Alliance’s programs eschewed communism, and, for a while, socialism, too. In 1995, the party joined the government alongside not only the SDP but also the center-right National Coalition Party, a move that would have been unthinkable in past decades. This came after the expulsion of SKPy members, who managed to win back the SKP’s official name in court in 1996 and have run it as a minor party since. Unable to wield the union or movement power the SKP once enjoyed, it does not even trouble 1 percent of the vote.

Many of the factors that contributed to the eventual fall of Finnish communism were in its DNA. Even when it was outlawed there had existed a constituency for the party — the kin of those who perished in the Civil War. The Finnish elite’s failure to provide for workers and the poor, and the fiasco of joining Hitler’s war against the USSR in 1941–1944, created a space for the party to become a mass force once legalized.

When the SKP did enter the mainstream of Finnish politics in the postwar period, its supporters distanced themselves from past radicalism. Of course, many of those supporters had never drawn in by communism’s theories — they simply saw the SKP as the best way of advancing working-class interests and peaceful relations with the USSR. Such militants had no objections to Communist politicians invoking the party’s original Leninist heritage, but this did not mean that in the 1970s they considered the reformers’ Eurocommunist line problematic.

However, from the start, there were evident contradictions in the SKP. The dogmatism bequeathed by its bloody beginning clashed with the reality of the organizers on the ground — focused on more concrete demands related to labor issues — as did the distance between leaders exiled in Russia and militants in Finland. Even compared to other parties in the Comintern, the SKP was on a short leash to Moscow. Later attempts to break with the Soviet line — as ever fewer leftists accepted the USSR as the leading light of the socialist movement — thus brought considerable drama.

The SKP’s division ossified the most negative tendencies in both factions. The minority faction developed a leery attitude toward any ideas of party reform and wore its uncritical pro-Soviet attitudes on its sleeve as a proof of orthodoxy. Its analysis of Finnish society, such as upholding the theory that there was growing direct state participation in capitalist production — when in fact Finland was on the cusp of neoliberal hegemony — left it looking like a stale relic. Many minority communists put all their hopes to regaining the party leadership, but once this happened, in 1996, all hope of relevance had long since passed.

Meanwhile, the majority faction developed a workerist identity that left it short on theory, unlike the reformers pursuing a Eurocommunist agenda in its sister parties. In practice, it ended up delegating its theoretical framework to noncommunists like Alenius. Increasingly, it saw politics through institutions — labor unions and parliamentary committees — where it in fact played second fiddle to the SDP. Confrontational rhetoric continued — but mainly in internal party struggles.

The main trends of the Finnish left today stem from a long history. The communist remnant (SKP and KTP) mainly preserve a cargo-cult-like expectation that at any moment the people will again flock to the old names, slogans, and symbols. SDP, which continues to idolize Väinö Tanner, has completed its process of integration into the establishment, its major difference to center-right parties being its pervasive link to the similarly integrated unions. The Left Alliance descends from the tendency in between these two lines, but like its precedents in SKDL, its attempt to balance being a left flank of social democracy and a force of radical change often causes tensions.

Finally, it is worth asking what need there was to establish a Communist Party in Finland in the first place. Other Nordic Communist Parties were smaller than Finland’s, but their welfare states still developed in largely the same way. Through SKDL, reformist communists in Finland ended up playing the same role as the left-wing of social-democratic parties in other countries, while their continued association with the USSR still casts a damaging shadow on the Finnish left as a whole.

After these hundred years, the time has come to ask how the Finnish left can move on from its old divisions and legacies. The tendency to either cling to party history or discount all connections to it prevents a focus on actual policy and action. The next century requires new solutions instead of old battles.