To Moscow and Back

Founded 100 years ago today, the Communist International quickly won the backing of Norway’s mighty Labor Party. The alliance promised to link the Soviets to mass politics in the West — but Moscow soon wasted its opportunity.

Delegates to the second congress of the Communist International at the Uritsky Palace in St Petersburg (then called Petrograd) in July 1920. Wikimedia

The Norwegian Labor Party has been the dominant force in Norway’s politics for decades. Since 1927, it has emerged from every national election as the country’s largest party and has held the office of prime minister for forty-nine of the seventy-four years since the end of World War II.

Today the Labor Party is a conventional social-democratic party, safely placed on the center-left of Norwegian politics. But during the great schism of the European labor movement a century ago, in the aftermath of Russia’s October Revolution, the Norwegian Labor Party was one of the few mass parties where the majority chose to follow the revolutionary path. Joining the Communist International (Comintern) in 1919, it would remain a member of the Moscow-based organization for four years. Even after the party left, it took more than a decade before the party’s charter finally abandoned the goal of “social revolution.”

But if Norwegian Labor turned out to be a mass social-democratic force, why was the revolutionary wing of the party able to bring it into the Comintern? And if this was such a decisive move, why did it only remain in the Comintern for four years? One man seems to hold the answers to both questions: Martin Tranmæl.

Beyond Reformism

Martin Tranmæl (1879–1967) was a painter by trade, a gifted public speaker, and a fierce teetotaler. In the years following the turn of the century he worked in the US, where he was strongly influenced by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), participating in their founding congress in Chicago in 1905.

Upon his return to Norway, Tranmæl worked as a newspaper editor within the labor movement. In 1911 he founded what became known as the 1911 Union Opposition (Fagopposisjonen av 1911). The 1911 Opposition worked within the Norwegian Labor Party to move it in a revolutionary direction. Tranmæl and his allies insisted that the party alone would not be able to bring socialism to Norway. Tranmæl instead saw unions, the representatives of the organized working class, as key to social change. This belief, so central in the radicalization of the Norwegian Labor Party, would later become decisive in the split with the Soviet-led Comintern.

The Norwegian Labor Party had always been a reformist party. Its leaders more often hailed from the socially conscious parts of the middle and the upper classes than from the working class it explicitly set out to organize (tellingly, one of its early newspapers was entitled Friend of the Worker). However, the party was growing rapidly. After being founded in 1887 it won its first parliamentary seats in 1906, and in the 1912 parliamentary election took 26.2 percent of the vote. From 1890 to 1915, party membership jumped from 1,800 to 62,000.

Even though Norway remained neutral during World War I, the war on the continent brought economic hardships to the country’s farmers and workers. This fueled the expansion of the 1911 Opposition as a trend within the wider labor movement. Aided by his eloquence as both a speaker and writer, Tranmæl became something of a popular hero while at the same time provoking a massive scaremongering campaign from the Norwegian bourgeoisie. Especially famous is a 1912 speech in which he encouraged striking workers to leave dynamite in their drill holes so that scabs would receive an unpleasant surprise upon taking their place in the mines. “Dynamite in the drill holes” became somewhat of a slogan for Tranmæl in the years to come, expressing a revolutionary fervor that the leadership of the Norwegian Labor Party was unable to emulate.

In 1918 Tranmæl and his followers finally won a majority in the party. At the party congress Kyrre Grepp was elected chairman, while Tranmæl became party secretary. They proceeded to commit the party to a revolutionary charter, and a year later they entered the Comintern. Unlike many other European parties, the Norwegian Labor Party had survived the war without splits, though a disgruntled reformist right wing was soon to break away in protest against the policies of the Comintern.

The Bolshevik Example

The Russian revolutions of 1917 had been met with glowing enthusiasm among Norwegian labor, and workers’ and solders’ councils were set up across the country. At the heart of the movement were the Norwegian metal workers, whose Jern og Metall (Iron and Metal) union quickly came out in support of the councils. As in other European countries, the council movement grew from below, but was supported by leading revolutionary figures. In 1918 the councils held a national congress, demanding the eight-hour working day and threatening both general and military strikes if their wishes were not met.

The radicalization of the Norwegian labor movement and the threat of a Bolshevik-style revolution yielded immediate political results. In 1919 the eight-hour working day was finally imposed. The same year suffrage was granted to those that lived on welfare benefits from the state, establishing for the first time a truly universal suffrage.

Support for Lenin and the Bolsheviks was strong in the Norwegian Labor Party. The party tried its best to aid the Bolsheviks in whatever way they could, sometimes with comical results. During the Russian Civil War, Party chairman Kyrre Grepp sent a telegram to Moscow reading: “The victory of Soviet Russia is the victory of the world revolution. Stop. The city council of Christiania [the former name of Norway’s capital, Oslo] has granted 100,000 kroner for the purchase of fish oil to Petrograd.” 100,000 kroner was a considerable sum at the time, though there is little evidence that Norwegian fish oil was decisive to the outcome of the civil war.

When the Second World Congress of the Comintern convened in Moscow in 1920, the Norwegian Labor Party sent a large delegation. Among those representing its youth movement was Einar Gerhardsen, later Norway’s longest-serving prime minister. Gerhardsen, who would lead the country into NATO and indeed initiated something of a witch hunt against Norwegian communists during the Cold War, saw the Soviet Union as “the land of the future” and was greeted upon his return from Moscow as “a future commissar of the Norwegian Soviet Republic.”

The initial enthusiasm Norwegian socialists felt towards their Soviet counterparts soon waned, however. In 1920 the Comintern penned what became known as the “Twenty-One Conditions.” According to the Soviets the world revolution was now at hand, and to prepare for its demands, all the international’s member parties must show loyalty towards decisions made by the Soviet party. Comintern members were to impose a policy of democratic centralism, change their names to include the moniker “Communist Party of…” and break contact with labor unions that did not obey Moscow.

The transformation from a broad mass party, based on collective membership drawn from the trade unions, to a centralized Communist party consisting of a smaller group of highly dedicated members, did not ring well with the Norwegian Labor Party, including the revolutionary current led by Martin Tranmæl.

Among many communists of the time “trade unionism” was considered a right-wing deviation from revolutionary politics, a form of economic reformism that directed attention away from the revolutionary goal of conquering the state. But in Norway the trade-union movement had been the heart and soul of the Labor Party’s radicalization. The Comintern’s recipe for building a communist party collided head on with the realities of the Norwegian revolutionary movement.

Nonetheless, the Norwegian Labor Party chose to remain in the Comintern. It expressed support for the Twenty-One Conditions but did not ratify all of them. Among other things, it opposed the banning of trade unions’ collective party membership and insisted that unions should retain a strong degree of independence from the party. Tranmæl and his followers were attempting a difficult, if not impossible, balancing act: stay in the Comintern and uphold their support for the Soviet Union, while at the same time refusing to succumb to the rigid, centralizing Bolshevik principles of organization.

Despite the revolutionary current’s misgivings, they were unable to prevent a schism in the party ranks. In 1921 the right wing broke away and formed Norway’s Social Democratic Labor Party. The split fragmented the working-class vote, causing the Norwegian Labor Party to lose 10 percent in the following election.

Pressure From Moscow

This split by the opponents of Comintern membership did not, however, harden the Norwegian Labor Party in its existing stance. Tranmæl and other leading figures in the party’s revolutionary wing were beginning to sense increasing pressure from their Soviet counterparts to implement the theses issued from Moscow. The ending of trade unions’ collective party membership was a particular “no go” for Tranmæl and his followers. In addition, Norway had recently gained its independence from Sweden, and the idea of being dictated from abroad was difficult to accept for many Norwegian labor activists.

Over the next two years, tensions between Oslo and Moscow mounted. Within the Norwegian party itself, a new split was growing, between supporters of the Comintern and those who followed Tranmæl in refusing to implement the Twenty-One Conditions in full. The leader of the Moscow wing was newspaper editor Olav Scheflo, who later became a member of the Comintern’s executive committee.

At the Fourth World Congress of the Communist International, in 1922, the Norwegian question was the subject of great debate. Nikolai Bukharin, a leading Bolshevik, had spent time in Norway in exile during World War I and played a central role in this discussion.

The congress demanded that the Norwegian Labor Party comply with the Comintern directives. In a period of only three years, the party would have to reorganize in line with Comintern demands, ending the trade unions’ collective membership of the party. It was also to change its name, and the Comintern was to be given direct influence in the appointment of the editors of party papers and journals, amongst other demands.

Tranmæl and his allies could not accept this. In December 1922, the executive committee of the Norwegian Labor Party voted to reject the demands of the Fourth World Congress. This motion was later overruled by the party’s national council, before a party congress was called for in February 1923.

The Soviets brought in the big guns to the February congress. Apart from Bukharin, who greeted the congress on behalf of the international to thundering applause, the likes of Grigory Zinoviev, Karl Radek, and Alexandra Kollontai were also present. Bukharin succeeded in postponing the split.

An extraordinary party congress was called for November of that same year. This time, the Comintern issued an ultimatum: the Norwegian Labor Party would have to succumb to its demands or be excluded.

At the November congress Tranmæl took to the floor in front of a wall draped in Norwegian flags, speaking to the 279 delegates in sharp tones: “I would rather not use harsh words, but it is my opinion that this ultimatum is the most immoral proposition ever laid before a convention of representatives of working men.” He continued speaking for a full ninety minutes. After he was finished, the congress voted to reject the ultimatum from the Comintern, 169-110.

The Split

Defeated at the Congress, the pro-Comintern minority marched out of the hall singing “The Internationale.” They then proceeded to establish a new party, the Norwegian Communist Party. The majority of the party’s youth, eleven of forty-one party papers, and thirteen members of parliament followed the Communists. A fierce argument over party offices, newspapers, and funds ensued. At one point, shots were even fired during a brawl to secure control over the youth association offices in Oslo. (Both the famous Norwegian Communist poet Rudolf Nilsen and future minister Einar Gerhardsen were present at the altercation.)

The split left the Norwegian labor movement divided between three parties. The Communists quickly lost popular support, which they only regained in World War II thanks to their heroic partisan resistance, winning 11.9 percent of the vote in the 1945 election. Their demise was above all a result of the fact that the party was the frequent victim of misplaced political directives from Moscow, leaving them out of touch with the struggles of the Norwegian working class.

The Norwegian Labor Party remained fiercely leftist in rhetoric for many years after the split. Its new youth association was named the Left Communist Youth, an attempt to demonstrate that those who remained were even more radical than the Comintern’s own followers. The party itself remained explicitly communist for another four years, until 1927, when it merged with the right-wing splitters of Norway’s Social Democratic Labor Party.

The following year the Norwegian Labor Party formed its first government, though it lasted only a few weeks. In 1935 the party formed its first enduring government, with the support of the farmers’ party. This movement into parliamentary politics was motivated mainly by the need to stem the rise of Norwegian fascism. Nonetheless, it marked a deviation from the revolutionary fervor of two decades earlier, when Tranmæl had encouraged the workers to leave “dynamite in the drill holes.” Yet there was enduring and considerable sympathy for the Soviet Union within the party’s ranks, continuing into the Cold War period.

An Object Lesson

The split between the Norwegian Labor Party and the Comintern is often considered one of the first steps on the party’s long march toward the right, which eventually resulted in a conventional social-democratic party that, in many fields, has championed neoliberal ideas.

But this is only half the story. The break between Tranmæl and the Comintern was not primarily a question of left or right, but rather of revolutionary strategy. While Tranmæl wholeheartedly supported the idea of a mass party driven forward by the unions — drawing inspiration from the IWW, Rosa Luxemburg, and the syndicalism imported to Norway by Swedish rail workers — the Comintern demanded that the Norwegian left adopt Leninist principles of organization.

By alienating the Norwegian Labor Party, the Comintern lost one of the very few Western mass parties that chose the revolutionary path. At the same time, it demonstrated an unwillingness to accept any kind of deviation from the ideas condoned by Moscow. This succeeded only in splitting the revolutionary forces in Norway, leaving the path open for the Norwegian Labor Party to choose reformism many years down the road, while the Communists became marginalized.

While the October Revolution had inspired workers to take militant action all across Europe, the attempts to export the Leninist model of organization clashed with existing Norwegian realities. Here, as elsewhere, the effect of the Comintern’s interference was to turn its member parties into sects. The split between the Norwegian Labor Party and the Comintern was not just a national experience, but an object lesson in the damage that Soviet inflexibility wreaked on the international socialist movement in the interwar period.