- Interview by
- Chris Dite
Last week, voters in Norway kicked Erna Solberg’s Conservative government out of power. With recent temperatures in the country’s far north reaching record highs, widespread disgust at Solberg’s expansion of the oil industry played a key role. Fierce battles lie ahead over the largely untapped resources of the Barents Sea.
The social democratic Labour Party now looks set to govern in coalition with its previous partners, the agrarian Centre Party and the Socialist Left Party. But their rule will be complicated by the rise of the Red Party (Rødt).
Rødt emerged onto the Norwegian political scene almost fifteen years ago. An amalgamation of far-left groups, Rødt has an explicitly socialist program, and its leader, Bjørnar Moxnes, was elected to the Storting (parliament) in 2017. The charismatic Moxnes regularly clashed with the now deposed Prime Minister Solberg over workers’ rights and the environment, and Rødt’s national profile began to grow.
In last week’s elections, Rødt doubled its share of the vote. Moxnes will now be joined in the Storting by seven new comrades, including an early-childhood teacher and a former service industry worker.
Jacobin’s Chris Dite spoke with two of Rødt’s new members of parliament — deputy leader and economist Marie Sneve Martinussen and feminist activist Seher Aydar — about snowplowing the parliament, provoking billionaires, and building a new workers’ party.
Rødt’s vote went up in almost every district in Norway. How do you explain this overwhelming rise in support across the country?
We’ve had a right-wing Conservative government for eight years. Before that we had eight years of a social democratic government that maintained the status quo of growing income inequality in Norway. There have been huge changes in workers’ rights and a rise in precariousness. We’ve worked to build a presence in every region and municipality in Norway, and build alliances with trade unions and environmental, feminist, and farmer organizations. Our rise in support is a result of us having a coherent analysis of capitalism and what’s wrong with it — and this of course includes feminist, anti-racist, and environmental issues.
How important has building local community ties around social campaigns been for strengthening both the party and your vote?
It’s a big part of how Rødt works today. We’re not only a party that participates in elections — we’re a movement working for change. You need to have real ties with communities, unions, and movements — it’s because of these years of work all across Norway that we’ve been able to grow so much.
The national broadcaster did a study into who Rødt voters are. It found they are single mothers, people working in bars, students, industrial workers, low-income workers — people who want and need change in politics. These people can see that we are the party who works the most on class issues — issues that affect their everyday lives in a very real way.
We’re now one of the most proletarian parties, with an active presence not just in the public sector but also among service workers in the private sector. Our consistent strategy of building an organization that doesn’t require members to be super academic to feel welcome, coupled with growing inequality in Norway, have really worked together.
Thousands of people have joined Rødt since election night. Are these active party supporters inspired by your success, total newcomers, or a mix of both?
Both! In the last few years we’ve been growing all the time — from three thousand to eleven thousand members. I think some of the new members who’ve joined since election night are people who’ve supported us for years and want to get more involved, but some are new people who’ve been wondering if Rødt can contribute something real in politics. Now they think we can.
The new Prime Minister has said his party doesn’t need Rødt to govern. Does the change Rødt’s supporters want require you to be in government?
On election night we came quite close to occupying a kingmaker position — but the Labour Party can now create a majority without us. The interparty negotiations will take place behind closed doors — we want to have a public version of that with all the different movements we’re in alliance with.
Even though we’re not mathematically needed, the Labour Party is quite scared of our position. This is an historically new situation in Norway. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, there was a large Communist Party opposition, but this is the first time since then that there’s been a strong left opposition to a social democratic government. They’re afraid.
Our argument has always been that we aren’t dependent on a kingmaker position to have power. For four years we’ve had just a single member in a mostly right-wing parliament; we should have had zero power. But we know power comes from more than votes in parliament — we’ve consistently built huge support in society to secure victories. We’ve practiced a kind of snowplow parliamentarianism — creating a groundswell of trade union and public support and using it to plow through concrete change. In a situation with this momentum, it becomes impossible or very difficult for the other parties not to support our proposals.
What do you think will be the key sites of struggle for Rødt under this new government?
We used our snowplow tactic to drive the far-right racist politician Sylvi Listhaug from her ministerial position, and we’re very ready to use it in the new parliament. It’ll also be much easier now — the Labour Party “stole our clothes” during the election campaign. At the level of rhetoric, they took a huge leap to the left. As a result, the trade unions and environmental movement have huge expectations.
Our very presence in parliament — and our increased support that put us there — will make it far more difficult for the government to lean right. If they do, they’ll be punished. On election night we said we’re ready to welcome disappointed voters in the thousands if — or realistically, when — the Labour Party and their coalition partners don’t deliver on their promises. That’s their biggest fear.
The most important thing for us is to continue working on everything we talked about during the elections. Our reputation is that we do what we say. After eight years of a right-wing government, something must be done about income inequality, working life, and, of course, climate change. We’ve come out of the election stronger. The most important thing is for us to listen to and work with movements outside the parliament.
Oil field exploration increased after the previous right-wing government (with the support of the Labour Party) granted large tax concessions to the industry. How does Rødt plan to stop this?
The tax rules brought in by the previous right-wing government will remain in effect until next year. The big question is what will happen once those are repealed. Traditionally, the oil industry has been a taboo subject, but Solberg’s tax concessions had the benefit of creating a serious debate. Even economists who are not interested in the environment don’t agree with the subsidies.
As the law stands, all new oil exploration has to gain permission from parliament. The previous two governments granted a record number of oil exploration licenses — but they chose to do it; they’re not under any obligation to grant them. We can build huge momentum to stop proposed fields like Wisting in the far north Barents Sea, and our goal is zero new licenses. The result might end up being a compromise where we draw a southern line and no fields above that are created. But the point is we need to build momentum to do it — the Lofoten Islands were saved from oil exploration by mass opposition, despite a pro-oil parliamentary majority at the time.
How will Rødt cut across the old argument that “workers support oil”?
In Norway, the climate debate is unique because of the prominence of the oil industry. We say the transition from oil should not be a transition to unemployment. But to make that possible we need to invest in new industry. The choice isn’t between “work or nature” — we should use part of the oil fund to invest in new green energy.
Obviously, it’s in the companies’ interest for oil extraction and exploration to continue. But unless there’s a planned wind down of the industry, we should at some point in the not-too-distant future expect a market-driven crash landing, which will result in significant levels of unemployment. Rødt has been a leader in this debate because of our ties with both the unions and the environmental movement. Building alliances between these two has come a long way. It has a long way to go.
The Norwegian Central Bank governor said in a speech last year that because of the vulnerability of Norway’s trillion-dollar oil fund, future governments must avoid public spending. What is Rødt’s answer to this?
The question of how to treat the oil fund is completely taboo in this country. You’re considered a crazy person if you even try to discuss it. But Norway doesn’t just need money in the bank, it needs jobs and value creation. Rødt is the only party trying to have a serious discussion about it, and we’ll keep trying to shift the debate.
Last week, one of the biggest papers in Denmark ran a front-page article that read: “Dear Norway, if you with your trillions of dollars can’t deal with climate change, who can?” It’s a very clear point, but it hasn’t turned into a serious discussion in Norway. Rødt will likely be on the finance committee in the new parliament, so we’ll be able to raise issues like this, but there’ll need to be a revolt in the university economics departments and we’ll need these professors on our side.
Have you had to deradicalize your program to achieve your current success?
You can talk about wealth redistribution in a more theoretical way, or you can talk about it in terms of people’s everyday lives. Our politics addresses people’s everyday problems. We’re normal people and we discuss politics like the people we know do, connecting slogans like “Tax the rich” to everyday issues like health care.
We don’t just discuss principles in an abstract way — we talk about politics in a way people can understand and in terms of what it means for their lives and the kind of change they want. The question is not whether being more or less radical leads to our success. Rather, the question is what people feel is possible. I think we managed to show people that what Rødt is proposing isn’t just some dream, it’s change they can actually be a part of making.
While we’re more able than ever to deliver concrete change, we’ll also be the radical symbol in parliament that people want. The morning after the election, for example, we were having a meeting in a conference hotel. One of the service workers came up to us and said, “I voted for you. I have no idea what you’ll be able to achieve but we need a strong fist in parliament.” That’s really what some people crave.
A strong communist fist?
In our program it says that our goal is a classless society — the thing that Karl Marx called communism. Every day for the last five weeks we’ve been asked what we mean by that. Our response has been very clear: if you don’t have a vision for a classless society, then your plan is for a society divided into classes.
Your new members of parliament and your supporters all seem like nice people. The powerful enemies you’ve made along the way do not. Do you think your party is ready to face these enemies?
Rødt is not a party for career politicians — we’re a party for people who need change and want to be a part of making it. During the past eight years of increasing inequality and now the pandemic, the rich have gotten everything they wanted. Our new members want to be part of a movement that stands against the rich, to have a party that says, “Not anymore,” and demands that the rich pay so regular people can have what they need.
Over the last five weeks, many of the old scare tactics have emerged from the Right. Four days before the election, there were five different newspapers featuring articles about how dangerous we are — claiming that we want violent revolution and that we’re planning to take away people’s houses and things like that.
Ten years ago, this might have worked. But now we’ve built a movement of normal, nice people who are active in their local communities. When ordinary people hear the name Rødt, they think of someone they know from the party who is doing great work. So they’re not tricked by this scare campaign.
One of our strategies has been to provoke the billionaires. During an election campaign discussion on climate change, I said that private jets were an unnecessary luxury and should be banned. One of the richest men in Norway — who wants to keep his private jets — publicly attacked Rødt in response, and said all of our voters should be sent to North Korea. These crazed attacks only boost us. The billionaires speak far more freely than the Conservative Party politicians. They’re our best enemies.