cwi 30th Anniversary: The Swedish perspective

"The pioneer spirit lives". Arne Johansson speaks about three decades of struggle for socialism.

The following article is based on an interview last Autumn made by Marcus Kollbrunner with Arne Johansson. Arne has been the editor of Offensiv, the Swedish Marxist newspaper, from its start in 1973. He was also one of the founding members of the Committee for a Workers’ International in 1974 and is still a member of the CWI’s International Executive Committee. Back in 1973, Offensiv was a monthly paper that mainly attempted to rally together young Marxists within the Swedish Social Democratic Party. Since 1997 it has been the weekly paper of Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (The Socialist Justice Party), the CWI’s section in Sweden.

The Swedish perspective

The first issue of Offensiv appeared at the end of August 1973, on the eve of the general election of that year. Arne Johansson explains how it started and the lessons that can be learnt for the building of a mass socialist movement in Sweden and the world today.

“A period of radicalisation preceded the launch of Offensiv. The movement against the Vietnam War, France 1968, the miners’ strike in Sweden (Winter 1969-70) etc. paved the way for this radicalised mood amongst wide sections of young people, especially at the universities.

“We, who later were to start Offensiv, were based at Umeå University, a new young University with a politicised atmosphere. We were active in the Social Democratic Student Federation (SSSF). In the Umeå Student Union we had spear-headed a break with the old care-free student atmosphere – introduced political campaigns, elections etc. Nationally we had supported the amalgamation of the SSSF with the SSU (Social Democratic Youth Federation) at the beginning of the ‘70s and we were seen as a left wing that was fighting for socialist ideas. We held many study groups in Marxism.

SSU Congress of 1972

“The SSU congress in 1972 became a fight between the left and right. The leading figure of the right was the national Chairman, Bosse Ringholm (now Minister of Finance). There were members who were about to break from the Social Democracy and an important discussion centered on whether we should leave the party or stay and build an opposition to the right-wing course of the leadership.

“There were a number of new far left wing political groups at that time. The biggest was the Maoists. Like most of the youth we opposed the Vietnam War, but Maoism or Stalinism did not tempt us. We were anti-Stalinists and had started to find out about Trotsky’s fight against Stalinism. We understood the enormous importance of the Russian Revolution and realised that history could have taken a different course.

“At the SSU Congress we met two representatives from the Labour Party Young Socialists in Britain, where the left around the Militant newspaper (today the Socialist Party, CWI section in England and Wales) had won the majority. It was an SSU bureaucrat who first introduced us to them during the social at the conference. "There are two Trotskyites here, they are like you", he said. Anders Hjelm and myself talked to them all night and the next day, the Thursday, we gathered people from the entire SSU left at the congress to a meeting. We agreed to organise joint seminars together. Until then the left had no clear alternatives, no socialist strategy, just critical viewpoints on quite a lot of issues.

Intense discussions

“This started a period of intensive contacts with the comrades in Britain. We discussed various perspective issues, like the world economy, the period of strikes and revolutions that had opened up even in Europe, prospects for work inside the Social Democratic parties and the colonial revolution.

“We believed that the post war boom was on the brink of breaking down and that the success of reformism would hit a wall, something that would lead to a deeper radicalism and discussions about the questions of power, like the ownership of big companies and banks.

“We also discussed a lot of international issues, like the revolutions in the third world, like Cuba and Vietnam, as well as the period of strikes across Europe and the struggle against the dictatorships in southern Europe, like Spain, Portugal and Greece.

“We eagerly studied the history of our own labour movement and discovered a rich history of struggle and revolutionary traditions. We could identify with the left within the Social Democratic youth movement in the early 20th century who first rallied around the paper Stormklockan (the Storm Bell). Even though they had political and theoretical deficiencies, we were inspired by their struggle against the right wing leadership, that later resulted in the split of Social Democracy in 1917.

“One conclusion of the discussions with the British Trotskyists was that we should start publishing a paper as a rallying point for a Marxist left within the labour movement, something we then did ahead of the election in 1973. When the first issue was published we realised that we had started a long-term process, but in fact the response was fast and positive."

Why did you stay inside the Social Democratic Party?

“You should remember that Social Democracy was very different during that period. Even if the leadership carried out a capitalist policy, the party was still part of the labour movement. The SSU had many members at their conferences and Summer Camps, and many of them had radical ideas.

“Already at the SSU Congress in 1975 the majority of the left had rallied around our main proposals. Our resolution on nationalising the banks and big companies got support from a third of the conference, and we won a majority for workers’ control of state enterprises and for a Spanish Young Socialist Defence Campaign. Our resolution in favour of forming a trade union for conscripts, linked to the other trade unions in Sweden, was carried and our member, Boa Ruthström, became national chairman of the conscript movement.

“Offensiv’s circulation quickly grew right across the country. It was easy to find people who wanted to sell the paper in the various SSU branches. We managed to win a majority in many SSU branches and some regional districts. We even got a majority for nationalisation of the big companies at the Västerbottens Social Democratic Party District Congress, shortly before we gained a similar majority at the SSU District Congress. We also won important brake-throughs in Jämtland and Ångermanland. The SSU in towns like Härnösand and Norrköpng became strongholds and later we spread to Haninge in Southern Stockholm, Gothenburg and Helsingborg and Kristianstad in the South.

“During the SSU summer camp in 1976 with 3000 participants, we sold 1,000 copies of our paper and we organised the largest political meeting during the camp.

“We considered ourselves to be genuine SSU members, not outsiders. We believed that our ideas were in line with the original values of the labour movement, unlike those of the leadership.

First expulsions

“The SSU leadership got scared by our success and in 1976 came the first attacks. The editorial board of Offensiv was expelled from the SSU immediately after the general election.

“The attacks culminated with the banning of Offensiv and mass expulsions in 1981-82; we were thrown out of both the SSU and the Social Democratic Party. This coincided with a clear turn to the right within the party before it regained government power in 1982, and was spear-headed by the new Minister of Finance, Kjell-Olof Feldt, and his close collaborators.

“The right wing leadership of the Social Democracy was also scared by the success of the left in the British labour movement, with Militant as its backbone. Leading left winger, Tony Benn, came close to being elected deputy leader of the Labour Party and Militant supporters were elected as Members of Parliament. Labour ran Liverpool City Council with Militant supporters in the leadership from 1983 until 1987. This council stood alone in fighting Thatcher’s cuts in local authority funding.

"’You are operating very skillfully, but we cannot have a British development in the Swedish Social Democracy’, myself and Anders Hjelm were told at a special meeting with Social Democratic Party Secretary, Sten Andersson. He kindly comforted us with the fact that his own son was expelled in the ‘60s and he himself was close to being expelled in the ‘40s."

What role did the paper, Offensiv, play?

“The (regular publication of the) paper immediately meant more serious discussions on perspectives and theory. We had continuously to analyse a lot of issues, which then formed the basis of how we should act. Although Offensiv was at this time an A4 sized, duplicated paper we gained great respect in the movement.

“The international work was a source of inspiration to us. We took part in the foundation of the CWI in 1974 in order to bring together genuine Trotskyists throughout the world.

“In the 1970s there was a strong feeling that the revolution was advancing, even if it was first mostly being carried out by guerrilla fighters in the ‘Third World’. But we were particularly inspired by the revolutions and mass movements in southern Europe.

“In the SSU we managed to win a majority for a resolution in support of the Spanish Young Socialists who were struggling against the collapsing dictatorship of Franco.

International successes

“The CWI made break-throughs by building groups in Spain, Greece, and Cyprus as well as in South Africa, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka.

“Our own work however proved to be more difficult then we anticipated as the right wing regained the initiative and, partly through the effects of the witch-hunt, succeeded in taking firm control.

“Our international work played an important role for us during these difficult years in the 1980s after the mass expulsions. Even if we were temporarily pushed back and the level of workers’ struggle declined sharply, after the victorious LO-led mass strike in 1980 against provocative employers, internationally we moved forwards. We also organised several international solidarity campaigns, such as the Swedish tour by two British miners during the big miners’ strike 1984-85. We also organised a tour of a South African comrade who spoke of the struggle against apartheid. Initiatives like that made it possible for us to hold our corner during the 1980s while many other left wing groups moved backwards. The Maoists for example collapsed completely.

“Our work changed during the 1980s. We were thrown out of the SSU branches, and, although we managed to recruit some SSU members, our main work was independent. We maintained a political orientation towards the Social Democratic Party as we still thought a new radicalisation and new waves of workers’ struggle would lead to a new fight within the social democracy where a new left would appear.

“Many of the young people that we had recruited during the SSU years were good activists and got involved in their unions. We gained important positions of support in the council workers’ union in Stockholm, among chemical factory workers in Helsingborg, in the Social Insurance Workers’ union in Västernorrland and in Stockholm, and at the Scania lorry factory in Gothenburg, to give some examples.

“We took part in new grass roots campaigns and movements in the unions such as the Dalaupproret (The Dala Uprising) of 1986. The main demand of this movement was a pay rise of 1,000 Swedish Kroner a month. The only strike from below that was organised in that campaign was led by our comrades in Helsingborg.

“There was a new turn and struggles in the late 1980s in which young people played an important role. Our youth members played a key role in launching a big campaign against national school cuts, that ended with a complete victory (and the beginning of the end of Finance Minister, Feldt). The youth struggle served as an inspiration to other groups and was in 1990 followed by a low pay revolt by council workers and bank clerks as well as a teachers´ strike. This coincided, though, with the collapse of the Stalinist Soviet Union, which led to a major crisis of the left and allowed conservative forces to launch an enormous ideological campaign on the theme ‘Socialism is dead’.

“If was paramount that we (in the CWI) could understand and analyse the collapse of the Soviet Union and the issue of capitalist globalisation and neoliberalism. This meant that once again we could hold our ground while Social Democracy turned into a bourgeois party and other groups moved backwards and to the right and abandoned their belief in a socialist alternative.

“We understood that capitalism was not in for another period of upswing and stability as in the postwar period, but that neoliberalism would create new antagonisms and conditions for the growth of a new left. We have seen the beginnings of this new left with the movement against capitalist globalisation that started with the demonstrations in Seattle in 1999.

1997 a milestone

“We have taken important steps forward in the 1990s, with 1997 as an important milestone. In that year we founded Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (Socialist Justice Party) and started to publish Offensiv weekly. It was the first new left weekly since the ‘70s.

“There are good reasons for optimism. In spite of US war "victories", imperialism is in big trouble and world capitalism is in crisis. The magnificent anti-war movement has put anti-imperialism back on the agenda again – a theme from the ‘70s that has resurfaced. It is important to note that this anti-imperialism coincides with an "anti-globalisation" and anti-capitalist mood."

What remains of the struggle and experiences of the 1970s?

“We have still the same task: to build a Marxist movement from the bottom, with the help of the theoretical foundations as laid down by Marx and Engels, by Lenin’s building of a revolutionary party and Trotsky’s marvelous theoretical explanations of Stalinism and the character of fascism. It is up to us to assure that these ideas get a new start and that is as important today as thirty years ago. We started with the spirit of being pioneers and we still have that spirit.

Role of working class

“The way we saw the role of the working class was fundamental when we started Offensiv and then co-founded the CWI, not least in the Third World. It was important not to have illusions in various populist or left wing leaders. There were, and are, people in the left with chronic opportunism concerning Cuba, Vietnam, Algeria, China or the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, to mention some examples.

“We were crystal clear that a conscious movement based on the working class was needed to establish a healthy socialist workers’ democracy. We did not fall into the arms of various leading figures of the colonial revolution, as some still do when dealing with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela or Lula in Brazil. It is very interesting what is happening in Venezuela, where the poor people are becoming politicised. It is in the balance however, and a socialist breakthrough is needed to secure a way forward.

“An important lesson from the ‘70s is the role of the youth. The youth were at the head of the radical movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s. It was not just the youth of the universities, but also working class youth. Our own young comrades have taken important initiatives in various struggles, like the launching of the campaign "Vägra kallas hora" (Refuse to be called a whore) by Elevkampanjen (the school student campaign group). This campaign has encouraged thousands of young women to take up the fight against sexual harassment.

Youth show the way

“Today we once again have seen how young people are at the forefront in the campaign against the globalisation of capital and the in the anti-war demonstrations. And this has had a response from union activists from all over the world. This is true even if the Swedish unions are a sad chapter. We need a democratic revolution within the hopelessly bureaucratic unions, where the rank and file today has no control.

“The council workers’ strike (a major 5 week strike in 2003) showed the strength that the working class still has. It showed that workers will take action when conditions become unbearable, as in the case of the council workers’ pay levels. When events happen in the Swedish unions it is important that we are there to support the workers involved in struggle. We are encouraged by the victory of British left wing candidates to leading positions in several unions where they are also starting to challenge the anti-union laws that Thatcher carried through and that Blair has kept."

What is the difference between the work today and thirty years ago?

“Thirty years ago we were mainly known within the ranks of the Social Democratic Party. Today we are more widely known. We have learnt to take our own initiatives and at the same time carry out work within a united front. Our party, Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna, plays an important role on the left and in various networks, such as the anti-war movement, anti-racism and in the organisation of the Gothenburg demonstration.

“We have also made important break-throughs such as in the council elections in Umeå and Luleå (with three RS councillors in Umeå and two in Luleå). We have shown what is possible.

“The most important difference in the political landscape is that in those days there was a living labour movement. Social Democracy today is completely playing on the other side of the barricades. We saw it most clearly when the late Anna Lindh (the Foreign Minister) joined with the head of the big Swedish company, Ericssons, to threaten people with job losses if they didn’t vote ‘yes’ in the EMU referendum. (This interview was made shortly before she was stabbed to death by a madman. Despite the wave of sympathy, the ‘no’ vote still got a big majority).

“The role of the Vänsterpartiet (ex-‘Communist’ Party) is also completely different today. Thirty years ago, they still had members who were good trade union activists. Today they act as a support party to the Social Democrats.

“It is apparent to more and more people that a new workers’ party is needed – a new socialist mass movement. We need a party in Sweden that challenges the fundamental structure of society.

A foretaste

“The former social democratic Finance Minister, Kjell-Olof Feldt, who was a key figure and a symbol for the rightward turn of the social democracy in the ‘80s, wrote in his memoirs that his worst night-mare as a new Finance MInister was to end up like his friend in the British Labour Party, Dennis Healy, who was chased away by the Labour Left with Trotskyists at its core. At the end of the book he writes about the school students’ demonstrations in 1989 against his proposed national cuts in education. He says that never in his life had he felt so ‘impotent with rage’ as when thousands of school students – with the permission of their teachers – climbed the walls of the parliament. Those particular cuts were, after that, defeated in Parliament.

“Young Offensiv supporters played a key role in initiating and leading these protests that were the beginning of his defeat and resignation.

“Later in 1992 it was on the basis of our trade union comrades’ resolutions and concrete proposals, including the date, that the LO (Swedish TUC) organised an historically unique national day of protest on 6 October. There were mass demonstrations, with 200,000 participating, according to the LO, against austerity packages of the then right wing, capitalist government. In the mid-‘90s our organisation tripled in size during a period of widespread revulsion against the social democratic PM Göran Persson and his world record beating austerity measures. Then Offensiv, in the absence of a coordinated trade union opposition, could play an outstanding role in mobilising national mass protests of school students. We also coordinated a protest movement of unemployed workers, of those injured at work and other low paid workers who were worst affected by the cuts. This was the ‘Justice Movement’.

“We have also played a key role in the anti-war movement of the recent period. We were co-organisers of the biggest ever Swedish demonstration in modern times in February 2003, when 100,000 took part in Stockholm. We were also the organisers of two mass school student strikes against the war in Iraq.

“We have certainly shown that we can stir things up and it gives us a foretaste of what can be done in the future. Together with the CWI, we are politically prepared and well placed to take advantage of stormy periods ahead with the aim to be at the forefront in forming a future revolutionary and internationalist mass socialist workers’ party.”

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May 2004