Nordic social democratic parties during the twentieth century

Social democratic parties have had a significant influence on the Nordic countries during the twentieth century, especially in Sweden. As centre-left parties closely associated with the trade union movement, social democratic policy aims have included full employment and the promotion of social justice and equality. The political influence of social democracy waned from the 1990s, but social democratic parties in the respective Nordic countries remain significant as they seek to adapt to new political and social challenges.

2019.02.27 | Mary Hilson

'Carl Eldhs Brantings' monument, Bellevueparken, Stockholm, Sweden (see below).

The social democratic parties of Denmark, Norway and Sweden have attracted considerable international attention, not only on account of their electoral success, but also for the supposed distinctiveness of their ideology and policy, and in particular their contribution to the construction of the welfare state. The term social democracy has sometimes been used more broadly to describe the social and political order prevailing in the Nordic countries during the twentieth century, for example in Gøsta Esping-Andersen’s famous designation of the Nordic welfare states as ‘social democratic’. The social democratic parties of Finland and Iceland have been less politically influential than their counterparts in Denmark, Norway and Sweden and are therefore only mentioned briefly here.

The rise of the social democratic parties

The Nordic social democratic parties were founded in the late nineteenth century (in Iceland in the early twentieth century) as mass working-class parties in response to the social and political upheavals associated with industrialisation. They shared two characteristics with the other European working-class parties emerging at this time:

  • a democratic organisational structure which relied heavily on the support of trade unions; and,
  • an ideology derived in part from the Marxist analysis of capitalism and class struggle. 

The German Social Democratic Party was a formative influence on Nordic social democracy, but the parties also incorporated other traditions of popular protest into their ideology. The parties split with the revolutionary left in the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, and joined the Labour Socialist International (LSI) when it was founded in 1923. The exception here was the Norwegian Labour Party, which was briefly a member of the Comintern from 1919-1923). From the 1920s, they all maintained an explicit commitment to the parliamentary, reformist route to socialism. With the advent of universal suffrage, the social democratic parties were able to increase their parliamentary representation substantially, and in some cases were able to form short-lived minority governments before 1930.

The social democratic parties of Denmark, Norway and especially Sweden enjoyed long periods in office in the twentieth century from 1945, and up to the 1970s consistently polled high percentages of the popular vote. In Sweden the Social Democratic Party (SAP) was in government for 44 years between 1932 and 1976, with the exception of a brief three month hiatus in 1936. The party governed alone during the period 1945-76, with the exception of 1951-57 when a coalition was formed with the Agrarian Party. Norway’s Labour Party was in government continuously between 1945 and 1965, and the Danish Social Democrats were in government (albeit usually in coalition) from 1947 to 1968, with the exception of a brief period out of office in 1950-53.

From 1932 the leaders of the Nordic social democratic parties and associated trade union federations met regularly in the Co-operation Committee of the Nordic Social Democratic Parties SAMAK, which became an important forum for the exchange of ideas within the region. Co-operation between the region’s labour organisations was already well-established,  with the first Scandinavian labour congress held in 1886. 

'Carl Eldhs Brantings' monument, Bellevueparken, Stockholm, Sweden. To commemorate the ten-year anniversary in 1935 of the death of Hjalmar Brantning (1860-1925), Carl Eldh (1873-1954) was commissioned to make this sculpture, after a collection for it was organised by the social democratic party in Sweden. See more at eldhsatelje.se.

Finland and Iceland

The social democratic parties of Finland and Iceland have been less influential in their respective national political contexts, partly because of the strength of the communist left in these countries. Although it is less easy therefore to fit them into a Nordic model of social democracy, both parties negotiated political agreements with non-working-class parties during the 1930s, very similar to their counterparts in Denmark, Norway and Sweden. In Finland the social democratic party lost out to the communist left after 1945, which gained a much higher percentage share of the popular vote than its counterparts elsewhere in the Nordic region. Communism also enjoyed strong support in Iceland, although here the dominant party was the centre-right Independence Party.

A ‘Golden Age’ of social democracy? (1950s to 1970s)

In Denmark, Norway and Sweden, the two decades or so after 1945 can be described as a 'golden age' of social democracy. Historian Francis Sejersted has referred to a ‘social democratic order’ in Norway and Sweden, which reached its peak in the late 1960s. Social democratic parties were in government in these countries for most of this period, and presided over an era of high rates of economic growth, low unemployment and rising living standards.

In common with other west European social democratic parties, by 1945 the Nordic parties had all but abandoned their programmatic commitment to Marxism. Although the parties have often been criticised for their ideological pragmatism, most scholars maintain that there did remain some distinctive elements of  social democratic ideology. These include:

a. Commitment to equality and social solidarity through universal and comprehensive welfare benefits, and a redistributive taxation system.

b. Commitment to a mixed economy; toleration of a relatively large private sector, and full employment as the principal goal of economic policy.

c. Strong state viewed as benign and desirable in constructing a 'good society' and maximising individual freedom.

It might also be added that social democracy stood for a particular vision of modernity, based on a belief in the possibilities of modern industrial technology and the application of the principles of rational planning as a means to create the good society. In a study from 2013, Nik Brandal, Øivind Bratberg and Dag Einar Thorsen have also emphasised the importance of the liberal inheritance in social democratic ideology, where the regulation of the capitalist economy was seen as the key to enhancing individual freedom.

For all three parties, the core policy aims were thus the maintenance of full employment, and the promotion of social justice and equality. The development of a modern and efficient industrial sector was a key element of this, but the nationalisation of industry was never regarded as a major policy tool. In Sweden, an important plank of economic policy was the so-called Rehn-Meidner model, named for the two trade unionists Gösta Rehn and Rudolf Meidner who developed it, which was intended to achieve economic equilibrium over the long run through active labour market policy.

The most celebrated aspect of social democratic policy however was the further expansion of the welfare state, in Sweden referred to as the folkhem or ‘people’s home’. There were clear influences from abroad in the development of Scandinavian welfare policy ‒ the 1943 Beveridge Report in the UK for example ‒ but at the same time the writings and researches of a core group of social democratic intellectuals, especially in Sweden, began to attract international attention from the 1930s.

Why was social democracy so popular in post-war Sweden, Denmark and Norway?

Most political scientists have pointed to the ability of the social democratic parties to look beyond their 'traditional' constituency ‒  i.e. industrial workers ‒ for electoral support, and to forge cross-class alliances, most notably with agrarian interests. Others have cited the way in which the SAP in particular was able to institutionalise its power base once in office, for example through its economic policies designed to benefit all wage earners, and thus attract the support of 'white collar' workers. Success may also be accounted for by the social democrats' cultural hegemony within post-war Scandinavia, and their ability to create a stable consensus around their core values and policies.

Waning support from 1970s – influence of the new left

By the early 1970s there were signs that the electoral dominance of social democracy was beginning to wane. The Danish Social Democratic Party suffered a major electoral defeat in Denmark's 'earthquake election' in 1973, which must be partly attributed to the severe impact of the first international oil shock. Then in 1976 the SAP lost its first parliamentary election in nearly half a century, brought about partly by the party's failure to address concerns over nuclear energy. From the mid-1960s social democracy had faced a renewed challenge from the left, which stemmed partly (in Norway and Denmark) from opposition to deeper involvement in international organisations, but more broadly from the emergence of the so-called 'new left'. Many felt that social democracy had lost its radical edge, and was content merely to manage an affluent society. In response, the parties made some attempt to re-radicalise their policies. The SAP embarked on an ambitious programme to achieve economic democracy through its wage earner funds, while simultaneously pursuing an internationalist 'active neutrality' line in foreign policy, especially under the leadership of Olof Palme (leader 1969-1986).

There were also political challenges from the right, in particular in Denmark and Norway with the emergence of the populist parties in the early 1970s, and their critique of certain key areas of social democratic policy, notably high taxation and high levels of public spending. Consequently, since the 1970s all three social democratic parties have been more concerned, when in power, with seeking to consolidate and defend what they regard as the major achievements of the post-war era, notably the welfare state.

The SAP returned to power in 1982, and for a while it appeared that in Sweden and Norway at least the social democratic parties had successfully met the challenges of the 1970s, under the leadership of Olof Palme and Gro Harlem Brundtland respectively. The Danish social democrats, meanwhile, faced an extended period in opposition during the 1980s. The assassination of Palme in Stockholm in 1986 was of course an enormous shock for the SAP, and to Swedish political culture more generally. But this probably had less of an impact on the party than the severe economic crisis which Sweden was facing by the late 1980s and in 1991 contributed to the SAP’s worst election result since 1928.

During the 1990s, the percentage share of the vote for social democrat parties in Norway and Denmark declined still further, and it was no longer possible to take either of them for granted as governing parties. The Norwegian Labour Party remained split over the issue of EU membership, as it had been since the 1960s, and also faced challenges from environmentalists in the debate over what to do with Norway's oil earnings. The Danish Social Democrat Party was thrown onto the defensive by its long period in opposition during the 1980s, which allowed neo-liberal ideas perhaps to gain more of an ascendancy in Denmark than they did in the rest of Scandinavia. The party responded by producing a new manifesto in 1992, followed by a major organisational reform in 1996, but it has continued to lose support to the populist right. The issue of the EU, and especially the single currency, remained divisive for the party, as it also did for the SAP. The SAP performed rather better, but even so many critics suggest that there was a watering down of the party's ideology and policies under the leadership of Göran Persson (prime minister 1994-2006).

Further reading:

  • Francis Sejersted, The Age of Social Democracy. Norway and Sweden in the Twentieth Century, translated Richard Daly, edited Madeleine B Adams (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011)
  • Klaus Misgeld, Karl Molin and Klas Åmark, eds., Creating Social Democracy: A Century of the Social Democratic Labor Party in Sweden (University Park: Pennsylvania University Press, 1992)
  • Nik Brandal, Øivind Bratberg and Dag Einar Thorsen, The Nordic Model of Social Democracy (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)
  • Mary Hilson, Silke Neunsinger and Iben Vyff, eds., Labour, Unions and Politics under the North Star: The Nordic Countries 1700-2000 (Oxford: Berghahn, 2017)
  • Robert Ladrech and Philippe Marlière, eds., Social democratic parties in the European Union: history, organisation, policies (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999)
Tags: social democracy, labour movement, socialist international, redistributive tax system, folkhem, welfare state