Sweden’s Welfare State Was a Product of Class Struggle

Swedish Social Democracy is often idealized as a benign reformist force that delivered welfare to the grateful masses. Yet the Swedish social model was the product of conflict — and a working-class radicalism that the Social Democrats have now turned against.

Social Democratic prime minister of Sweden Olof Palme in Salzburg, Austria, 1971. (Imagno / Getty Images)

Swedish Social Democracy occupies a special place in the political history of the twentieth century. The Swedish model has long stood as a successful model between the communist planned economy and free-market capitalism. Sweden has had a Social Democratic prime minister for more than seventy-five years over the last century. Sweden would be a paradise if only there was a little more sunshine, the bourgeois French president George Pompidou is reputed to have said.

But above all it is socialists of various stripes who have turned to Sweden as the country that has gone the furthest in terms of welfare, equality, social consensus, and gender equality. The focus has been on the Social Democratic Party, whose strong organization, dominant political position, capacity for ideological innovation, and not least ability to implement a program for the strong welfare state has attracted attention and often admiration. The ideologue and minister of finance Ernst Wigforss, the social engineers Alva and Gunnar Myrdal, the trade union economist Rudolf Meidner, and the politician Olof Palme all symbolized, each in their own way, a Social Democracy that appeared a little more radical than others. [. . .]

The party is undoubtedly one of the most powerful political actors of the twentieth century, internationally as well as domestically. Its position within the working class was hegemonic for a hundred years. The Social Democratic–led trade unions organized 80 to 90 percent of the workers, the vast majority of whom voted Social Democrat. Large sections of the middle classes also supported the party’s policies. The broad Social Democratic movement was extraordinarily well organized. It was, to use [Antonio] Gramsci’s phrase, a party with a great capacity to produce and educate its intellectuals itself. The leadership was recruited mainly from the working class, and it soon acquired extensive experience in leading struggles and movements. [. . .]

But the conquests of the Swedish working class are also linked to waves of radicalization, recurrent periods of strikes, increased social struggles, and the emergence of new social movements and revitalization of existing ones. Virtually all important democratic and social reforms can be linked to such periods of intensified class struggle. The democratic reforms after World War I were a direct consequence of the massive hunger demonstrations initiated by working women, who were largely unorganized either politically or as laborers.

The social reforms initiated in the 1930s came about amid the threat of widespread strike movements, a surge in trade union organization, and women’s struggle for the right to work and for basic social security. The spectacular peak of the solidarity-based welfare state in the 1960s and ’70s coincided with the emergence of a series of new social movements with transformative ambitions, in which the women’s movement played a decisive role, and with a strong radicalization of the traditional labor movement, mainly expressed in a wave of spontaneous strikes.

Certainly, the Social Democratic Party has often played a central role in these processes. The party has harbored dreams of a society free from injustice and class oppression; it has not been a monolithic organization. Conflicting views have constantly been pitted against one another. The party and the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO) have often had different views and interests. Women have had to fight against prejudice and patriarchal structures.

Within Social Democracy, there are different layers and interests that are sometimes at odds with each other, as well as subject to external pressures. Swedish Social Democracy has been represented by skilled leaders at all levels, who have been able to translate many of the movement’s demands and dreams into practical policies. But they have, at the same time, imposed constraints, particularly in not challenging capitalism and respecting the established parameters of political intervention.

As a result, the party leadership has often found itself at odds with the dynamics of social mobilizations. After World War I, great efforts were made to persuade workers to abandon the struggle in the streets and squares, and to concentrate their efforts instead on the parliamentary assemblies at local and central levels — in other words, to give up the fight for a deeper democracy. In the 1930s, the party intensified its attempts to isolate the communists and socialists of various shades who had played an important role in the revitalization of the social movements, so as to ensure that their efforts did not interfere with the rapprochement with the business world.

When the force of 1970s radicalization challenged the right of capitalism to decide over work conditions, and raised the question of workers’ power over their jobs, the party leadership retreated, choosing to replace demands for wage-earner funds with the toothless Co-Determination Act. Wildcat strikes were fought against, and social movement activists were monitored. When opposition to the neoliberal turn led to widespread trade union protests, the party leadership went on the counteroffensive.

In short, the Swedish welfare state is the result of a class struggle enacted by currents and movements whose base extended way beyond the confines of the Social Democratic Party.