The Dynamite Under Norway’s Class Compromise

Norway has become famous for its social harmony and relatively generous welfare system. But the social-democratic compromise we know today doesn’t owe to some eternal national character — rather, it was a product of the revolutionary struggles of the interwar period.

Martin Tranmæl in 1949.

Today, Norway is often portrayed as the pinnacle of harmony between the classes. It’s presented as a social-democratic paradise, where compromises between labor and capital have reached the perfect balance between a strong welfare state and a profitable private sector.

But social and political conditions in Norway have not always been so harmonious — for the foundations of the so-called Norwegian model were laid during the bitter class struggles of the interwar years. During this period, Norway (together with neighboring Sweden) set an unofficial world record in labor disputes. Each year between 1920 and 1940, these two Scandinavian countries saw between ten and twenty-five disputes per 100,000 workers. In the United States and Britain, the corresponding figure was far lower — ranging between three and ten.

Norwegian labor’s militant struggles were mirrored by the radicalism of its political wing. Indeed, the Norwegian Labour Party (Arbeiderpartiet) was one of very few in Europe where the revolutionary tendency won the majority after World War I. For a brief stint, the party even joined the Communist International, and the idea of “social revolution” remained on the program right up to World War II. It was only in 1935, more than a decade after its Danish and Swedish sister parties, that the Norwegian Labour Party was able to form its first stable government.

The leading figure in this interwar radicalization was Martin Tranmæl (1879–1967). Although he never became party leader or entered government, Tranmæl would remain the most important leader of Norwegian labor from 1918 until the outbreak of World War II. His particular brand of anti-reformist thinking, dubbed “Tranmælism,” would dominate the labor movement for more than a decade. As a result, militant tendencies that, in other countries, would have split away to join the communist movement, instead remained an integral part of Norwegian social democracy. This lay the basis for its many struggles — and its considerable victories.

The American Connection

Tranmæl was born in Melhus in the Norwegian countryside, but his childhood was hardly idyllic. His father lost the farm due to heavy drinking, making the young Martin a fierce and lifelong teetotaler. At the age of fifteen, he became an apprentice painter. Soon after, he moved to the nearby city of Trondheim, where he became a union activist. He would then enter the young Norwegian Labour Party, which, during its early years, adhered to a reformist and parliamentary strategy.

Tranmæl’s political views were sharpened by his travels abroad, particularly his two trips to the United States. In 1901, he arrived in San Francisco during a general strike on the city’s waterfront. The strike united teamsters, seamen, and longshoremen, and the victorious outcome of the strike further convinced Tranmæl of the importance of solidarity among workers of different professions. Again returning to the United States in 1903, Tranmæl enrolled in Eugene Debs’s Socialist Party of America, and in 1905, on his twenty-sixth birthday, he was present in Chicago for the foundation of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). He did not, however, become a member of the IWW, but remained a member of the Brotherhood of Painters and the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

Politically, Tranmæl had long since left the line of craft unionism, based on particular trades, that dominated unions like the AFL. Like the IWW, he came to believe in the concept of the “one big union,” uniting workers of all professions not merely in the fight for better wages, but on the political basis of socialism. Tranmæl dismissed reformist strategies and believed in a more militant approach to union activism, calling for the use of boycotts and industrial sabotage. Believing unions to be the key in the fight for socialism, Tranmæl sought to politicize them, hoping to use general strikes and mass action in the struggle for state power.

Arriving on the National Stage

Upon returning to Norway from his travels in the United States, Tranmæl was elected to the Norwegian Labour Party’s national committee in 1906 (he retained his seat until 1963 — a fifty-seven-year-long run unlikely ever to be matched). But Tranmæl soon rocked the boat, organizing an opposition within the labor movement. Fagopposisjonen av 1911 (the Union Opposition of 1911) was centered around the struggle for a more militant strategy within the unions. It was boosted by the growing numbers of workers in Norway’s new industries. These workers were young, and — lacking the guild-like traditions of the artisan workers in the smaller industrial shops — they were prone to radical ideas like Tranmæl’s concept of “one big union.”

With the establishment of Fagopposisjonen, Tranmæl became the leading figure of the revolutionary wing of the labor movement.  But he achieved wider fame among the Norwegian public after a speech in 1912. Discussing different union tactics, Tranmæl declared that it would be ridiculous for striking workers to leave their machines in good shape for scabs to operate.

“However, if some dynamite was left in the boreholes that was known only to the striking workers, might it not be that the scabs would think again before taking up work?”

Tranmæl’s call for “dynamite in the boreholes” was seen as a call for the murder of scabs — and sparked an outrage not only in the bourgeois press, but also in several papers controlled by the reformist wing of the labor movement. Even Vladimir Lenin was reluctant in his support for Tranmæl’s line of union sabotage, which he believed counterproductive.

In the following years, Tranmæl was portrayed in the Norwegian right-wing media as little more than a bloodthirsty monster. Among Norwegian workers, however, the infamous “dynamite speech” boosted Tranmæl’s credentials. Being the number-one enemy of the upper classes served only to make Tranmæl a hero in the eyes of many union activists and party members.

Red Sun in the East

For all his strategic thinking and persuasive powers, it is unlikely that Tranmæl would have succeeded in winning the Norwegian labor movement to the cause of world revolution without the major global events that followed the outbreak of World War I. Norway remained neutral, but the war had a profound impact on the country’s economy. On one hand, great fortunes were made. But at the same time, Norwegian workers experienced a loss of purchasing power and a lack of food and other crucial goods. The injustices were nowhere as cruel as on the seas, where Norwegian shipping magnates made big money on transporting goods for the warring powers, while more than 1,700 seamen were killed in German submarine attacks.

In fall 1917, the Bolsheviks took power in Russia, further radicalizing the labor movement internationally. The following year, Tranmæl and his opposition finally won a majority at the Labour Party’s congress, ousting the old reformist leadership from power. Tranmæl’s close friend and ally Kyrre Grepp became party leader, while Tranmæl assumed the position of party secretary.

During the next few years, the revolutionary wing would cement its power over the Norwegian labor movement. In 1919, the Norwegian Labour Party was one of the parties to join the Comintern founded in Moscow. The following year, Tranmæl and his allies won a majority at the congress of the Federation of Labor, the country’s largest union organization. Following this victory, in 1923, the Federation of Labor attempted to make a shift from craft unionism to industrial unionism. Several new industrial unions were founded.

There was also a political radicalization. In 1921, the reformist wing split away to form Social Democratic Labour Party of Norway. The split damaged the labor movement overall, though it strengthened Tranmæl’s and the revolutionary wing’s hold over the party. However, the Norwegian revolutionaries’ loyalty to Moscow was soon put to the test. In 1920, the Comintern had penned a document known as the “Twenty-One Conditions.” The conditions aimed to transform the Comintern’s member parties. The Soviets believed that world revolution was fast approaching, and they demanded that member parties prepare for it by hardening their organizational discipline (“democratic centralism”) and breaking off contact with labor unions not loyal to Moscow.

Most important, the Comintern demanded that Norway’s Labour Party abolish the possibility for trade unions to join it collectively. This was an attempt to transform it from a mass party into a centralized communist party consisting of a smaller group of highly dedicated members. This demand collided head-on with the ideas of Tranmæl and his comrades. The unions had been the driving force behind the radicalization of the Norwegian movement, and Tranmæl himself saw militant union activism and mass strikes as the path to socialism.  Loosening the ties between the party and the labor unions was simply not on the table. The conflict between Tranmæl and the Comintern led to a new split in the fall of 1923. That year, the Norwegian Labour Party was expelled from the Comintern, leading to the formation of a separate Norwegian Communist Party.

It is worth noting that the split between the Norwegian Labour Party and the Comintern in 1923 was not a split between reformists and revolutionaries, but rather between Tranmælists and Leninists. Tranmælism was always a revolutionary form of socialism (and, as an idea, it remains so, even after Tranmæl himself left the revolutionary cause). But Tranmæl never shared Lenin’s concept of revolutionary vanguardism. Rather than a party leading the masses, Tranmæl wanted to build a party of the masses. His ideas about general strikes and mass action resemble closely those of Rosa Luxemburg, and they belong to a revolutionary tradition of “socialism from below” that has largely been smashed between the hammer of Soviet communism and the anvil of Western European social democracy.

Tranmælism saw itself as a challenger to Leninism not from the right, but from the left. In this vein, the Norwegian Labour Party placed itself to the left of the newly founded Norwegian Communist Party. For instance, the party’s new youth movement was named the Left-Communist Youth, as opposed to the less radical “right communists” in the Communist Party.

The Fighting Twenties

Tranmælism’s main challenge was not its lack of revolutionary ideals, but the lack of feasible revolutionary strategies (perhaps also in this sense, Tranmæl is comparable to Luxemburg). Unlike Tsarist Russia, Norway had strong democratic traditions and something close to universal suffrage for both sexes from 1913 (though welfare recipients only got the vote in 1919). It had a strong and partly progressive liberal party with major support in the countryside. Most Norwegians were not workers, but farmers or fishermen (and most often a combination of both). As opposed to their Russian counterparts, many Norwegian farmers owned their own little lot of land. Conditions in the countryside were often harsh, but the vast numbers of small-proprietor farmers nonetheless made revolutionary socialism a difficult sell in many parts of the country. Norway was simply not a country ripe for the taking in the way that war-ridden and chaotic Russia had been when the Bolsheviks took power.

Similar to other European countries, Norway did experience an outbreak of revolutionary sentiment in the wake of the October revolution, with the forming of workers’ councils in many major cities. The threat of Bolshevik-style revolution led to several major concessions from the bourgeoisie. Most important, the eight-hour workday was passed into law in 1919 after years of struggle. But as the revolutionary tide in Europe turned during the early 1920s, so did the balance of power in the class struggle in Norway. Suddenly, Norwegian workers found themselves locked in a defensive struggle to protect the gains they had won in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution.

The ’20s were a decade of continual economic crisis — leading the employers to press onto the offensive. In 1921, they demanded massive wage cuts from the workers. The Norwegian Federation of Labor responded by calling 150,000 workers into strike. But the strike was lost, and as a result, the labor unions lost tens of thousands of members. Any dreams that might have existed about a socialist revolution in Norway were now effectively quenched. During the following years, Norway was closer to a right-wing military coup than to any form of workers’ revolution. The bourgeois parties governed by the politics of austerity while the employers battled the workers with massive lockouts. If required, both the police and military forces would aid them in their struggles. Labor leaders like Martin Tranmæl became regular guests in Norwegian prisons, while new laws were made to diminish the power of the unions.

The split between the three labor parties also damaged the movement’s electoral fortunes. Not until 1927 did Tranmæl succeed in reuniting the Labour Party, the Social Democratic Party, and a large portion of the Communist Party (though this latter remains an independent party to this day).  Following its successful campaign in the 1927 election, the Labour Party became Norway’s largest, and it was asked to form its first government in early 1928. However, the bourgeois majority in parliament refused to accept a Labour executive, and the new government was forced to resign after only eighteen days. Formally, it lost a vote of non-confidence against the government’s platform, which not only stated the need for a socialist transformation of Norwegian society, but also refused to bail out several large Norwegian banks.

The fall of the 1928 government served as confirmation that the Norwegian bourgeois parties were not ready to accept a Labour government. This set Norway apart from neighboring Sweden and Denmark, where labor parties were able to form stable governments with bourgeois support during the 1920s. A new wave of lockouts in 1931, and the forming of a reactionary Farmers’ Party government — with later Nazi dictator Vidkun Quisling as defense minister — put further pressure on the workers’ movement.

A Compromise Is Reached

Remarkably, neither political splits nor the attacks from an increasingly reactionary bourgeoisie broke the labor movement. After more than a decade of major labor disputes, the Norwegian bourgeoisie slowly but surely came to realize that they were unable to conquer Norwegian labor. More often than not, labor disputes ended as “draws” between capital and labor.  Class warfare was simply not profitable anymore — too many workdays were lost in strikes and lockouts. In 1921, 4 million workdays were lost to strike. In the iron strike of 1923, 5 million workdays were lost without any significant victories for either the workers or the employers. The 1931 lockout saw a massive 8 million workdays lost.

A compromise had to be found, and in 1935, the cornerstones of what is now called the Norwegian model were laid down. In that year, the Norwegian Labour Party (still committed, in theory, to the “social revolution”), entered into its first proper government. This government, led by sawmill worker Johan Nygaardsvold, was elected on a political program to battle the economic crisis through public-works programs. The austerity policies of the bourgeois governments of the past two decades were rubbished, and the welfare state was expanded. Nygaardsvold’s reign marked the start of three decades of Labor governments.

More important, the Norwegian Federation of Labor and the Norwegian Employers’ Union agreed on Hovedavtalen, a collective agreement to this day regarded as the constitution of Norwegian economic life. The agreement reads as a rule book for labor disputes, recognizing both the rights to unionize and to strike, but also employers’ managerial prerogative over business. Years of bitter class war were to be replaced by a new system of class compromise.

The Legacy of Tranmælism

What is to be made of the legacy of Tranmælism? In one sense, it seems to have been an abject failure. A revolution was promised. It never came. Both the Norwegian Labour Party and even Tranmæl himself would denounce their former revolutionary ideals and become administrators of a system that remains capitalism, however human its face may seem. At the same time, one must recognize the triumphs of the Norwegian working class in creating what is seen to be the world’s best functioning welfare state. Still today, after many years of neoliberalism in the West, Norway remains a country characterized by its high levels of equality and strong labor unions.

However, there is no contradiction here. It’s precisely because of the revolutionary ambitions of Tranmæl and the militant tendencies of the unions that it was possible for Norway to establish a well-functioning class compromise at the end of the interwar years. This serves to remind us that all compromises are born of struggle. The relative harmony of today’s Norwegian model became possible only after the dynamite of Tranmæl had blown its way through the bourgeoisie’s defensive fortresses.