Social Movements in the Nordic Countries -  - ebook

Social Movements in the Nordic Countries ebook



Moving the Social - Journal of Social History and the History of Social Movements is a multi-disciplinary, international and peer-reviewed journal. It focuses on transnational and comparative perspectives on the history of social movements set in a wider context of social history. It appears twice yearly. Moving the Social publishes research at the cutting edge of social history, broadly defi ned. This involves in particular the analysis of the diversity of economic, social, political and mental structures of social movements, from historical and social science perspectives, and the introduction of new research that is relevant to the fi eld of social movement studies.

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Moving the Social · 48/2012

Journal of Social History and the History of Social Movements

glz. Mitteilungsblatt des Instituts für soziale Bewegungen

Social Movementsin the Nordic Countriessince 1900

Moving the Social – Journal of Social History and the History of Social Movementsglz. Mitteilungsblatt des Instituts für soziale Bewegungen


Stefan Berger


Director of the Institute for Social Movements


Ruhr-Universität Bochum


Clemensstraße 17–19 | D-44789 Bochum (Germany)

Guest Editor

David Redvaldsen

Editorial Board

John Chalcraft, London School of Economics and Political Science


Andreas Eckert, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin


Susan Eckstein, Boston University


Felicia Kornbluh, University of Vermont


Jie-Hyun Lim, Hanyang University


Rochana Majumdar, University of Chicago


Jürgen Mittag, Deutsche Sporthochschule Köln


Walther Müller-Jentsch, Ruhr-Universität Bochum


Holger Nehring, University of Sheffield


Dieter Rucht, Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung


Sean Scalmer, University of Melbourne


Marcel van der Linden, International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam


Thomas Welskopp, Universität Bielefeld

Managing Editor

Christian Wicke, Ruhr-Universität Bochum


Enquiries: [email protected]

Editorial Support

Martin Sobek

Layout and typesetting: Klartext Medienwerkstatt GmbH, Essen

Cover design:

Volker Pecher, Essen

Cover photo:

The 1897 Scandinavian Worker Congress, held in Stockholm.


By permission of the Archive and Library of the Labour Movement, Oslo.

Publishing and distribution

Klartext Verlag, Heßlerstraße 37, D-45329 Essen, Germany

Tel.: +49 (0)201 86206-33, Fax: +49 (0)201 86206-22, · [email protected]

Purchase and subscriptionA single copy costs 7.60 €, plus shipping costs. A subscription (minimum two journals per year) costs 14.00 €, incl. shipping costs within Germany, plus 6.00 € from abroad. The journal can be ordered via Klartext <[email protected]>, book stores and the Institute for Social Movements ( “Moving the Social“ is also available as ePub via

© Institute for Social Movements, Bochum 2012Any requests for permission to copy this material should be directed to the Managing Editor.eISBN 978-3-8375-1132-1ISSN 2197-0386 (Print)ISSN 2197-0394 (online)

We are grateful for the support of theVerein zur Förderung des Instituts für soziale Bewegungen


David Redvaldsen


Ragnheiður Kristjánsdóttir

For Equality or Against Foreign Oppression?The Politics of the Left in Iceland Leading up to the Cold War

Flemming Mikkelsen

Class and Social Movements in Scandinavia since 1945

Carolina Uppenberg

Female Workers but not Women:Paradoxes in Women’s Conditions and Strategies in Swedish Trade Unions, 1900–1925

Tapio Bergholm

Decade of Equality:Employment, Pay and Gender in Finland in the 1970s

Natasha Vall

Doing their own Thing:Squatting Movements in Copenhagen and Stockholm during the 1970s

Abby Peterson and Ylva Mattsson-Wallinder

An Explorative Study of the Impact of Local Political Opportunity.Structures on the Electoral Mobilisation of the Far-Right Movement in Sweden

David Redvaldsen

Eugenics as a Science and as a Social Movement:The cases of Denmark and Norway 1900–1950

Clive Archer

Norway Then and Now:A Comparison of Norwegian Society in the Late 1960s and Today

Omar H. Kristmundsson and Steinunn Hrafnsdottir

The Role of Non-Profit Organisations in the Development and Provision of Welfare Services in Iceland


In the 1990s the Institute for Social Movements at Ruhr-Universität Bochum published three issues of its journal devoted to individual Nordic countries, namely Sweden (volume 10, 1990), Finland (volume 12, 1992) and Norway (volume 19, 1997).1 Indeed, the Institute has an international orientation as well as reputation. The Scandinavian countries, Finland and Iceland are known for the Scandinavian Model (sometimes called the Swedish or Nordic Model) of society, which encompasses high welfare spending and taxes. Much useful analysis has been conducted on its various aspects. This collection adds to the previous scholarship with articles about welfare policy and labour market conditions. Also included are articles on less well-known Scandinavian themes, such as occupation movements in Copenhagen and Stockholm or the Swedish far right. I hope that the articles together illustrate the complexity of Nordic societies as they have existed since the twentieth century began.

In order to explain why there exists a sense of community between the five Nordic countries, it is necessary to go further back in history. The Union of Kalmar, bringing the three kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden together between 1389 and 1521, was a product of pre-existing mutual ties. In the 14th century about half of present-day Finland was under Swedish control. Iceland was similarly brought into the Union by virtue of being a Norwegian colony. As noted in Ragnheidur Kristjansdottir’s contribution, Iceland was only able to end its subordinate status to Denmark, the leader in the Union of Kalmar, in 1944. Norway achieved the same goal in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars in 1814. The Union of Kalmar therefore nebulously continued its existence till the Second World War. But whatever the benefits and burdens of single-statehood, there is recognition of a shared heritage between the Nordic countries. Today, this sense of community is exemplified first and foremost by the Nordic Council, established in 1952. It meets several times a year to discuss matters of common interest, and suggests joint legislation to be implemented by national parliaments. Under its aegis is the Nordic Council of Ministers, set up in 1971, where decision makers can get to know each other and exchange ideas. There is a plethora of common institutions, companies, and networks that work across the region. The ones which affect daily life the most are perhaps the Scandinavian Airlines System and pan-Scandinavian television channel TV3. Closeness of language and territory also means that much of this exchange happens naturally by itself.

Since it has already been mentioned, it might be propitious to discuss Kristjansdottir’s article first. It takes a Nordic perspective on Icelandic history by asking why the home-grown Social Democrats have never equalled the success of their Scandinavian sister-parties. A division familiar from all of Europe, between revolutionary and reformist socialism, continued for much longer in Iceland. Very interesting is how the revolutionaries were paradoxically able to present themselves as defenders of the Icelandic nation. It brings to mind the German Communists’ stance of voting against the Locarno treaties in 1925, along with nationalist parties. In Iceland the Communists cum left-socialists competed with the right-wing Independence Party on protecting national values. Since independence was the all-consuming issue before 1944, the Social Democrats were in effect sidelined. It seems unusual for the Communists to dissolve their own party in its heyday for the sake of cooperating with other socialists. Negotiations took place in Denmark and Norway about creating a single party in the aftermath of the Second World War, but in those countries the Social Democrat and Communist participants ended up as enemies.

Flemming Mikkelsen notes how opponents of the Atlantic Pact adopted a peace rhetoric in Denmark and Norway, a somewhat different way of arguing for isolation than in Iceland. His article investigates what he calls social movement unionism, more generally the challenges to organised labour since 1945. Social movement unionism is grass-root or shop-steward activity leading to strikes. It represented a threat to the highly corporatist Scandinavian industrial relations. All the Scandinavian countries were affected, Denmark the most and Norway the least. Central to Mikkelsen’s argument is the new labour history of Marcel van der Linden, which takes a critical look at some cherished concepts, and the World System of Immanuel Wallerstein. After bringing up a host of interesting trends, Mikkelsen concludes that the Scandinavian labour movements are very much subject to economic cycles. They are possibly also affected by developments of the longue durée.

If Mikkelsen takes a bird’s-eye view of an entire region during sixty years, the strength of Carolina Uppenberg’s article is her command of detail relating to three Swedish trade unions. These were in the clothing industry, comprising the Tailoring Workers’ Union, the Textile Workers’ Union and the Women’s Trade Union, to which many seamstresses belonged. These were examples of respectively a craft union, an industrial union, and a less well-known type. Uppenberg writes from a feminist perspective about the first three decades of the twentieth century. She asks how the variable of gender interacted with the activities of trade unions. In a later time period the Norwegian feminist Berit Ås formulated five male domination techniques. One of them was the double-bind reaction. However they acted, women did wrong. Uppenberg’s article gives clear examples of this: if there were many women in an industry, it weakened the union because women were difficult to organise. If they joined unions, a higher proportion of female members nevertheless made those unions less strong. Only if they entirely gave up their own concerns were they totally accepted.

Another article where gender is paramount is the contribution of Tapio Bergholm. He discusses women’s entry into the labour market in Finland and its effects since the 1970s. His research, in contrast to that of others, sees the 1970s as a decade of equality. Women’s new employment responsibilities were encouraged not just by the Trade Union Confederation Suomen Ammattiliittojen Keskusjärjestö (SAK), but also the employers’ organisation Suomen Työnantajain Keskusliitto (STK). Running parallel to this modernisation of society was economic development, successfully turning what had been an agricultural country in the 1950s into a successful industrial economy after 1967. In the 1970s, before women had entered the labour force in large enough numbers, Finland had some of the highest rates of strikes in the world. These were probably caused by scarcity of labour due to emigration, which put employees in a promising position in their workplace. Thus, for a traditionalist worker, there were some tensions between class position and gender. However, on the part of organised labour, Uppenberg and Bergholm illustrate contrasting reactions to female labour market participation. (Although some of the issues described by the former are not entirely absent in the article of the latter.) Mores had obviously changed a fair amount between 1920 and 1970.

So far all the movements considered have been classic, i. e. left-wing political parties and trade unions. A wider perspective is provided by Natasha Vall in her article on organised squatting in Copenhagen and Stockholm. These were less political than the contemporary Occupy movement, having only a loose ideological affiliation to anarchist/socialist modes of thought. What primarily motivated them was the desire for their own space. Stratification nevertheless took place in such alternative communities, the squatters being divided into activists, the alienated and, sometimes, drug users. In the Stockholm occupation at Mullvaden between 1977 and 1978, interviews for places in the squat were used to identify and privilege activists. Street theatre and other artistic activities were important elements in the daily life of both squats. These cultural manifestations could sometimes be used to gain support from wider society. Vall analyses comparatively, using factors discovered in the famous Danish squat of Christiania when she goes on to discuss the lesser known and short-lived occupation in Stockholm. Both are considered in the context of Social Democratic housing policy and its possible weaknesses. Vall concludes that Christiania is a life-world of 1970s counter-cultural activism and that Mullvaden represented such a phenomenon before eviction.

If social movements are not necessarily self-consciously political, neither are they always on the progressive side of the political divide. Abby Peterson and Ylva Mattsson-Wallinder write about the Sweden Democrats and my own contribution concerns organised eugenics in Denmark and Norway. The Sweden Democrats are a far-right political party, which entered Parliament in 2010. Peterson and Mattsson-Wallinder argue that the local elections of 2006 provided a stepping stone to the party’s breakthrough in 2010. This was because representation on local councils gave the party more media attention and legitimised it as a serious alternative. They also find that support for the party was very unevenly divided across the country, with the South providing a much more favourable climate for this manifestation of xenophobia than the North. The authors describe the Sweden Democrats as a movement-party, and indeed their classification as a movement is put beyond doubt by the fact that they wore uniforms until 1996.

A system of thought that would today only be resuscitated by the far right, but which in its heyday commanded support across the political spectrum, is eugenics. My article conducts a comparison of the Danish and Norwegian versions, focusing especially on sterilisation and the vexed issue of racism. When it became public in 1997 that the Nordic countries had sterilised a large number of their citizens between 1929 and 1977, it caused an outcry. Sterilisation had a sympathetic reception in the far North, with every state in the region introducing it. But I argue that in Denmark and Norway, this had less to do with eugenics than with concern about sexual crime. That is not to say that eugenics was powerless. On the contrary, eugenists had clear ideas about how they wanted to transform society. In Denmark they sought primarily to eliminate the mentally deficient, while Norwegian eugenists took a more racist stance. This can be derived from the higher sterilisation figures in Denmark until 1950, and how eugenics was applied to race in the two countries

The other article which considers Norway in this collection is by Clive Archer. He has written about changes in Norwegian society between the late 1960s and the early 2010s. He considers many economic and cultural factors, reaching important conclusions. The country has become more outward-looking, richer, less Labour-oriented, more consumerist but also more environmentalist in the preceding forty years or so. On social movements, he finds that their range has broadened considerably. Notwithstanding all these changes, Archer believes that a core of Norwegian society remains in values of egalitarianism and solidarity.

The final article in the special issue is about the provision of welfare services in Iceland. As in Kristjansdottir’s article, authors Omar Kristmundsson and Steiunn Hrafnsdottir give a considered opinion of why Icelandic practice does not quite match Scandinavia’s. There is a much larger private and charitable sector involvement in the welfare services of Iceland. This conflicts with the social origin theory of Lester Salamon and Helmut Anheier. Empirical data collected by Kristmundsson and Hrafnsdottir show that 144 charitable organisations, ranging in size from less than two to 560 full-time employees, had a substantial role in welfare provision in 2010. A possible reason for this lies in history, with the country not being affluent enough until the 1950s for the state to have much of a role. In the mean time needs had been met by charitable organisations. This was a tradition hard to undo, especially since the leading political party was the right-wing Independence Party.

At the conclusion of a project, which has spanned almost two years from beginning to end, I wish to thank above all the Institute, its director, Professor Dr. Stefan Berger, who initiated the project, and Dr. Christian Wicke, who provided valuable editorial assistance. Silke Neunsinger of the Archive and Library of the Labour Movement, Stockholm helped circulate the call for papers, which led to many good responses. Speaking for myself, I was greatly aided when the Danish State Archives gave me access to restricted materials, which is gratefully acknowledged here. I thank also the Norwegian State Archives and its helpful archivists. The same remark applies to members of staff at the Royal Library in Copenhagen. And my final thanks are due to the contributors, who have introduced me to a range of very interesting lines of enquiry, for all their hard work and for putting up with my sometimes slightly pedantic demands.

David Redvaldsen

1At that time the institute was still called Institut zur Erforschung der europäischen Arbeiterbewegung and its journal entitled Mitteilungsblatt zur Erforschung der europäischen Arbeiterbewegung.

Ragnheiður Kristjánsdóttir

For Equality or Against Foreign Oppression?

The Politics of the Left in Iceland Leading up to the Cold War


The Second World War was followed by a period of political renewal in Europe; so too, arguably, in Iceland. Those responsible for laying the grounds for the republic, founded in 1944, were inspired by radical thinking, social democratic as well as socialist. Public ownership, the welfare state and democratic reform were on the agenda. Taking as a point of departure the political discourses of the Left (the Social Democrats and the more radical Socialists) this paper explains how these ideals – the quest for economic, social and political equality – were eclipsed by the primacy of independence politics. This process was already under way in the 1930s, when the Communist Party (1930–1938) somewhat successfully equipped itself with a new version of Icelandic nationalism. It was further intensified during the war and culminated with the onset of the Cold War. The pro-Soviet Socialist Party (founded in 1938) thrived on its anti-imperialist nationalism, leaving the Social Democrats as the smallest of the four political parties. This paper is a contribution towards the ongoing debate on why Iceland’s party system differs from that of the other Nordic countries, debates about the peculiarities of Iceland’s political culture to this date, as well as discussions about how nationalism and national identity affected the politics of the left in Europe.

The economic crisis of the 1930s and the horrors of the Second World War were followed by a period of post-crisis renewal in Europe. It was what historians in recent years have called “a transnational moment of change” at which Europeans, despite the variations and profound differences of the war experience, “fostered a deep expectation of renewal in society, the economy and political institutions”. It was a period of reconstruction characterised by a wide-spread agreement on giving the common people what was to be a new and better society. Socialist and social democratic ideals were on the agenda, there was a consensus on forging welfare states throughout the continent.1

Despite the profound changes caused by the war, Iceland emerged relatively unscathed. In May 1940 the country was occupied by British forces. The cultural, economic and political effects of the occupation were felt immediately and further intensified when the British were succeeded by American forces. In the spring of 1942 as many as 55 thousand soldiers were situated in Iceland which at the same time counted a little more than 120 thousand inhabitants. Not only did this generate profit in the service sector. The troops needed housing and other facilities – e. g. airfields and a naval base and thus many pairs of Icelandic working hands. The unemployment that had characterised the 1930s was replaced by fears of scarcity of manpower, especially in rural areas, as well as inflation and increased tension between workers and employers. On top of that were added greatly increased profits in the fisheries, both due to a reduction in the fishing of other nations and the favourable trading agreements which had been made with Britain and the United States in conjunction with their military presence in Iceland.2 In short, and putting it crudely: a backward, poor, isolated and peripheral country became rich, robust and modern. Already during the war, Icelanders’ claimed that they had experienced a good war. And so it has lived on in the nations’ collective memory; it is frequently referred to as “the beloved war” (blessað stríðið) and remembered as pleasant, even fun.3

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Iceland had been economically and socially backward, among the poorest of the European countries. While the economic depression of the 1930s had not been as deep in Iceland as in many other countries, the closing of its most important export market in Spain in the late 1930s meant that the depression dragged on throughout the decade. This caused high unemployment rates in Reykjavík and other areas dependent on fishing. But during the war, the economy took an aboutturn, and as it drew to a close, Iceland had become one of the richest European nations (measured in gross national product per capita).4 Adding to this sense of the war as a period of profound and positive changes is the fact that in 1944 Iceland had completed its secession from the Danish kingdom. A 1918 agreement between Denmark and Iceland had established the country as a sovereign state in royal union with Denmark. And on the basis of this agreement, Iceland severed all ties with Denmark and established itself as an independent republic.

Needless to say, the story of the war is more complicated than that. It was not just a story of joy and progress. First of all, a number of Icelanders were victims to the loss and human sufferings caused by the conflict. It has been estimated that more than two hundred Icelandic lives were lost, most at sea. And even though the relations between the occupying forces and the Icelandic inhabitants were in most respects friendly, there were important exceptions. The British arrested a number of its alleged enemies and deported them to Britain, and some never returned. Also, there were clashes between the soldiers and the Icelandic inhabitants, in some cases criminal assaults against women, men, and children.5 Moreover, the fundamental socio-economic and cultural changes, brought about by the war and occupation, were in themselves disrupting. The presence of the British and United States military forces and the increasing strategic importance of Iceland in the international power politics of the great powers put a strain on Icelandic culture and politics. The changes brought about by the war, the fun and economic profit the British and the US had brought with them, produced what could be called nationalist guilt that provoked intensive and wide-ranging debates about how English and American culture would pollute and destroy the nationality and national culture of the Icelanders. Most harsh was the reaction to the “Good-Time Girls” that were seen consorting with the foreign soldiers. As was the case in most other European countries during the war – not only those occupied by enemy forces6 – these girls were accused of sexual immorality and treason.7

So while the war did have a more positive impact on Iceland than on most other countries, it also caused disturbances. It put Icelandic society into a state of shock or crisis which has to this date been given little attention in scholarly writing about this period.8 It was a crisis fundamentally different from that of societies that dealt with more profound economic and social problems; Denmark, Norway or Finland, to give Nordic counter-examples. Even so, it is clear that those responsible for laying the grounds for post-war Iceland, the newborn Icelandic republic, were inspired by the radical thinking that characterised European politics at this moment in time. The Icelandic electorate had shifted towards the left. The left-wing parties had gained in confidence, and even among the right, public ownership and the welfare state were on the agenda. To some extent this was the result of the social and cultural politics of the 1930s. The labour unrest and increasing presence of the unions during the long-lasting depression seem to have resulted in a broader consensus on welfare and public ownership. But instrumental also, it seems, was the shock and disturbance caused by the war together with the transnational post-war urge to build a new and better society.9

Despite this, I shall argue, the core values of the left, economic, social and political equality, were almost immediately eclipsed by the primacy of independence politics. The process had been set off already in the 1930s, when the Communist Party (1930–1938) had somewhat successfully equipped itself with a new version of Icelandic nationalism. It was further intensified during the war and culminated with the onset of the Cold War. The pro-Soviet Socialist Party (founded in 1938) thrived on its anti-imperialist nationalism, leaving the Social Democrats as the smallest of the four political parties.

First, I shall offer a few explanations as to the relative weakness of Social Democracy in Iceland compared with corresponding movements in Scandinavia. Second, I shall explain the strength of the Communist-Socialists. At the centre of the discussion about both political movements is the way in which left-wing politics was defined by Icelandic nationalism. Then, I shall turn back to the radicalism of Icelandic politics at the end of the war and, finally, offer a few words on how nationalism defined the Cold War discourses in Iceland.

The Weakness of Social Democracy

We need a variety of explanations for the relative weakness of Social Democracy in Iceland, but two sets of explanations are most important and relevant for what is under discussion here. The first set concerns the interplay between working-class politics and modernisation. In the European context we see that Social Democrats fared well in those parts of Europe where the modernising process had been set in motion by the beginning of the twentieth century; democratisation on the one hand and industrialisation and urbanisation on the other.10

While the timing of the former was in pace with that in the other Nordic countries, economic and social change was delayed for a few decades. The full transformation into a modern society occurred in the first decades of the twentieth century, and democratic reform came first, socio-economic changes last. There were some structural changes already under way in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, but the most dramatic transformation occurred after the turn of the century, with the steep expansion of the fisheries sector and the concomitant and equally rapid urbanisation.

Throughout the nineteenth century the bulk of the population gained its livelihood on small farms. In 1900 around 80 per cent of the population lived in rural areas. In 1910 the figure had dropped to 65 per cent and by 1920 to 40 per cent. By the end of the Second World War, two-thirds of the population lived in urban areas.11 This transformation had not been generated by an industrial revolution in the conventional sense – the industrial sector remained relatively small. It was the result of several interrelated factors and most importantly increased fishing and a growing service sector.12

The grounds for labour politics were thus lacking in the nineteenth century, and it was not until 1916 that a working-class party and labour union were formed in Iceland.13 This, in turn, meant that the Social Democratic Party14 was a fledgling when it was first faced with the Communist challenge. It lacked the strength of its sister parties in Scandinavia, which were founded in the 1870s and 1880s. By the time of the October Revolution, these were mature and strong social and political movements which made it easier for them to shake off the Communist competition without too much of a disturbance.

Turning to the democratisation process a rather obvious impediment was the electoral system. For the first three decades of the twentieth century, it was basically a simple majority system with unequal weight of votes between rural and urban constituencies. It was favourable towards parties with a broad electoral base, as well as parties which drew their support from rural areas. The system was therefore to the advantage of the right-wing Independence Party, claiming to represent the interests of all classes. So too did it favour the agrarian and rurally orientated Progressive Party. The Social Democrats, on the other hand, were greatly under-represented in parliament (Alþingi). In its first decade, notwithstanding increasing support among the electorate, the Social Democrats only held one seat in parliament. It was not until after elections held in 1927, which secured the party five of the 42 seats, that it could form a parliamentary group and thus have some influence on the legislature and government.15

Other aspects of the democratisation process are relevant too. Even though not as straightforward as that of Iceland’s late industrialisation or the development of the electoral system, it can be argued that because the Social Democratic Party was formed in 1916, a year after the introduction of more or less universal male and female suffrage in Iceland, it missed the opportunity of presenting itself as the main proponent of democracy. This link between democracy and the left was an important aspect of the political programme and political identity of European Social Democracy around the turn of the century. Widening the existing franchise was a key issue for European Social Democrats before the First World War.16 So unlike the Social Democratic parties in most other European countries, and the other Nordic countries, apart from Norway,17 the Icelandic party did not partake in the struggle for extending voting rights to the property-less (and women).

The second set of explanations as to the relatively poor standing of Social Democracy in Iceland has to do with the main elements of the political discourse of the party, and the way in which that related to and was defined by other political discourses. The fact that the party missed, so to speak, the opportunity of participating in the struggle for formal political rights for the working poor called for a clear commitment to other forms of citizenship. It made it ever more important that the party had a good strategy in its battle for social rights, as well as in the more informal quest for the recognition of workers as an important social group worthy of support and respect.

The first labour newspapers had emerged around the year 1900, and while they provided a forum for discussions concerning the social and political circumstances of the urban poor, they reveal their publishers as a group of Icelanders standing on the border between two worlds. Most of the contributors wrote in the language of orders rather than class. So on the one hand, and more prominently, there was the old rural society in which the urban poor had traditionally been considered outcasts, a threat to the rural order. But on the other hand, and alongside rural views and values, there was a still obscure idea of a modern society, in which workers demanded recognition as fully fledged members of the nation. This demand did not appear in the guise of Marxist ideas about the redefinition of power relations within society. Rather an attempt was made to expand the definition of who really belonged to the nation, so that it also included workers. One example of such attempts was the way in which the positive image of the farmer is appropriated and applied to the identity of the workers. Another manifestation is that this identity is expressed, not with terms such as verkamaður, “worker”, or verkalýður, “proletariat”, but rather the term alþýða, which can be translated as “people” or “the common people” (folk in the Scandinavian languages).18

In due course, when time was ripe for the founding of a political party and labour associations, these features influenced the way in which the movement defined its objectives and role. The political discourse of the Social Democrats was, right from the beginning, embedded with claims that workers be recognised as a homogenous group that played an important role in society and had a right to the state’s securing them the possibility of leading a decent life. And the name chosen for the party was Alþýðuflokkur (the party of the common people) which can be seen as an attempt to integrate workers with the rest of the nation.19

But it complicated matters that alongside the struggle to secure the rights and respect of workers the party was engaged in another struggle which was partly analogous to the recognition of workers as members of the nation, but partly in opposition to it. This was the struggle for the redefinition of the object of politics. From the mid-nineteenth century the main if not the only object of Icelandic politics had been its relations with Denmark; nationalist arguments of one kind or another dominated the political discourse. Securing the autonomy of the Icelandic polity had been considered the ultimate duty of Icelanders.20 This meant that it was difficult for the party to disregard nationalism.

To be sure, such a strong emphasis on nationalism was widespread in Europe at the time, and nationalism affected the politics of Social Democratic parties throughout the continent.21 This was especially the case in countries which were aiming at full independence. In the Nordic context this applies to Norway and Finland, as well as Iceland. In Norway during the nineteenth century, and before the secession from Sweden in 1905, there had been a strong link between democratic reform and national independence and thus between nationalism and Social Democracy.22 Similarly in Finland, before independence in 1917, there was a strong link between nationalism, the development of democracy and the labour movement. Advocating Finnish autonomy or independence was a part of labour’s quest for and defence of civil rights, democratic institutions and thus their opportunities to fight for social and economic reforms for the workers.23

But the Icelandic case is exceptional in that, together with the country’s late industrialisation, the way that Icelandic politics was impregnated with nationalism had delayed the emergence of modern political parties. Indeed, when the Social Democratic Party was founded in 1916, it was the first party to be organised on the basis of distinct interests or on a distinct ideology. During the nineteenth century there were no political parties, only informal political blocks formed around the question of independence. And the first political parties to emerge at the beginning of the twentieth century were cadre parties formed around rival political leaders, rather than ideological differences.24

So in order to justify the establishment of a Social Democratic Party, the emphasis on the struggle for national independence had to be reduced. The party had to struggle for the redefinition of the object of politics. This led to the emergence of two distinct and not altogether compatible goals; the party attempted at the same time to secure the recognition of workers as Icelanders, true members of the nation, and reduce the importance of the struggle for independence within the political sphere. In order to engage in a dialogue on politics, the workers (and those who spoke on their behalf) had to demonstrate that they were indeed part of the nation, but in order to justify the establishment of a party, the emphasis on the struggle for national independence had to be reduced. The political discourse of the first years of Icelandic Social Democracy was thus, as it turned out, confining and in some respects contradictory.25

At its founding moment, nationalist traits were constitutive of the political identity and objectives of the party. Prior to 1918, the year when Iceland was granted sovereignty, both this identity and the party’s objectives where characterised by an eagerness to show that the struggle for securing the interests of the working class (or rather the alþýða, or common people, Scandinavian folk), was in fact a struggle for the preservation and maintenance of the Icelandic nation. But during the 1920s and until 1944, the party became ever more vague and unresolved in its view on how to integrate matters of nationhood and nationality into its political agenda. The party’s participation in the negotiations leading up to the 1918 agreement on Icelandic sovereignty had complicated matters. One reason was the party leadership’s eagerness to get the independence issue out of the way. During the negotiations on the sovereignty agreement, the party had decided to propose that the Icelandic negotiators accede to the Danish request for joint citizenship between the nations.26 This, together with the party’s relationship with Scandinavian (and mostly Danish) Social Democrats was met with various charges of the party being non-nationalist or even guilty of treason. The idea proposed was that the party’s support for joint citizenship had been secured by a grant from the sister party in Denmark.27

Allegations that the party was un-Icelandic persisted through the interwar years. And together with the increasing impact of conservative nationalism in the 1920s, they caused the initial objective of identifying the party’s political struggle and Iceland’s national interests to be gradually set aside. The party did not reject Icelandic nationalism. Its politics still contained various references to Icelandic nationhood and nationality. But these were general and defensive in character. The party did not tackle Icelandic nationalism on its own terms or, to put it differently, try to create a new version of Icelandic nationalism suited to their general political aims.

The Social Democratic Party therefore did not take up an outright opposition to conservative ideas concerning the future of the Icelandic nation that characterised the nationalist discourse of the 1920s. We can even see the party accepting ideas that ran contrary to its main objectives. Most notable here were conservative nationalist ideas concerning the degenerative effects of industrialisation and urbanisation on rural communities and thus the national culture. The party thus partook in maintaining the idea that the urban poor were second-rate citizens, as well as the idea that urbanisation and related developments, indeed the very foundation of the party’s existence, were unfortunate and fraught with danger.28 Unlike the Scandinavian Social Democratic parties which during the 1930s were identifying with the nation state – creating on the way, it seems, its own version of the nationalist discourse29 – the identification of the Icelandic Social Democrats with the nation was vague and uncertain. And while the rise of Scandinavian Social Democracy was to an extent the result of a new and modernised compromise with the agrarian parties,30 the Icelandic party had from the outset had close dealings with the traditionalist and agrarian Progressive Party and been hesitant to sever those ties in favour of a more clearly modern vision of the future of Icelandic society.31

All these factors made it difficult for the Social Democrats to secure their prominence on the political scene, and reduced their credibility as the proper voice and representative of the working class. This is not to say that the party’s identity as a worker’s party was in itself blurred or unclear. Alongside the ideas explained above, it did maintain that there was indeed a working class in Iceland, and that its situation was dire, that it had to struggle against other classes for securing its own interests, and that it should aim at a socialist society. What it lacked, however, was a clear identity which its members could communicate with ease and lucidity. In short: The party lacked confidence, a clear idea about whom it served and whom not and who were its main opponents and possible allies in its political struggle.

The Strength of Communism

We also need a set of explanations to understand how the Communist-Socialist movement fared in Icelandic politics. First, as already mentioned, it did help that the Social Democratic movement was young and thus relatively weak when international Communism reached Icelandic shores. This for example meant that in the 1930s, during the years of unrest and conflict in the labour market, Communists often got the upper hand, both on-site, i. e. where the strikes took place, and within labour unions around the country.32 Their position within the unions was thus certainly important, but equally and even more important, was that their political identity was more clear-cut than that of the Social Democrats. And key to their identity-building was the way in which they equipped themselves with a new version of Icelandic nationalism.33

This had started already in the 1920s when young Icelandic Communist intellectuals had contemplated how they could make use of nationalism “on a communist basis”.34 It was a complicated process that called at the same time for a sincere interest in the Icelandic cultural heritage, a commitment to nationalist ideals, and a good knowledge of the ideology of the Communist International (Comintern). The leaders of the Communist movement were important actors in channelling radical European ideas into Icelandic politics and cultural life. Unlike the leaders of the Social Democratic movement these were young intellectuals, students of history and literature, studying in Copenhagen and later Berlin where they had easy access to left-wing intellectual currents of the time.35

To be sure, the political discourse of the Icelandic Communist movement had been founded on that of the international movement. And the views expressed by Icelandic Communists were mostly in accordance with international Communism. Their nationalist emphasis was based on the decrees of the Comintern and on Marxist-Leninist ideology. At the same time it was based on and grappled with specific features of the Icelandic nationalist discourse. The result was an effective political tool which determined much of what followed in the history of the left in Iceland. It was what could be called a “counter-discourse” or “counter narrative” that was based on the theses and political ideology of the international Communist movement, but at the same time securely rooted in Icelandic culture and politics. Its force was drawn from how it adapted to Icelandic circumstances, how the Communists translated international Communism into the Icelandic context, instead of simply importing the Comintern ideology and rhetoric, whatever its shortcomings. Furthermore, not sticking to past tunes of Icelandic nationalism, they aimed at bringing about changes. They criticised and rejected those facets of Icelandic nationalism that ill suited the movement’s politics, rewrote the history of the nation, and redefined on their own premises the basic features of the Icelandic national identity. The leadership of the Icelandic Communist movement had found, from within the stated ideology of the international Communist movement, a way to define its own political function as a continuation of the nineteenth-century struggle for independence. They brought under a single heading, and even identified, Icelandic working-class politics, the struggle for national independence, and the international revolutionary role of Communists.

Their struggle began with a radical critique of the conservative nationalism that had been promoted by various Icelandic intellectuals in the twenties. From the mid-1920s onwards, five years before the Communist Party was actually founded (which was in 1930), Communists started demanding a radical re-evaluation and reorientation of the cultural identity of Iceland. They brought under one heading, and even identified, the labour struggle, the struggle for national independence, and the international revolutionary role of Communists. In short; the Icelandic Communists adopted the following equation, which became an axiom, or foundational premise, for all their politics and rhetoric:

Icelandic working-class politics= The Icelandic nation’s fight for freedom against foreign oppression= The politics of the International Communist Movement (The Soviet Union)

Evidently, this move was controversial. In 1931 the Comintern executive, assessing the manifesto of the newly founded Communist Party, was sceptical towards the assertion that Iceland was fighting a revolutionary struggle for national liberation, but finally decided against any severe critique of this particular issue.36 More controversy, however, was created in Iceland, as the other political parties objected to the claim that the future of Icelandic nationhood and nationality depended on the success of international Communism. They attempted to undermine the leftist agenda, for example by arguing that due to the close relationship between the Communist left and the Soviet Union, all their talk of nationhood and nationality was badly compromised. Notwithstanding that, this Communist formula did get through to a large part of the electorate, and it helped to broaden the base of the Icelandic Communist movement.

A Nationalist Discourse for the Cold War

In 1938, the Communist Party joined forces with a splinter group from the Social Democratic party, thus transforming itself into a new party under the name Socialist Unity Party (Sameiningarflokkur Alþýðu – Sósíalistaflokkur, hereafter Socialist Party).37 In this reincarnated form, the far left fared well. The party received 16 per cent of the votes in its first parliamentary elections of 1942, doubling the electoral strength of the Communist Party, which had received eight per cent in the preceding elections of 1937. At the same time the Social Democrats suffered. They had obtained 19 per cent of the votes in 1937, which now sank to 15 per cent. They were left as the smallest of the four main political parties in Iceland,38 and remained so until the 1980s. While the Scandinavian sister parties, from the 1930s onwards, received between 40 and 50 per cent of the votes, the Icelandic party was stuck with between 15 to 20 per cent of the total votes cast, consistently a little less than the Socialists.39

The Socialist Party was led by the same young intellectuals that had shaped the Communist movement, and the basic tenets of the Communist ideology and rhetoric were kept intact. So the Marxist-Leninist version of Icelandic nationalism, the equation sketched out above, continued to serve as an axiom. This was in some respects an effective way of playing out equality politics in Iceland. It entailed an emphasis on the workers, the urban poor, precisely that part of Icelandic society that had been considered a threat to Icelandic nationhood and nationality in the nineteenth century. In this revised version of Icelandic nationalism, this group played the leading role in the struggle for independence. In short: by portraying Icelandic workers as the leaders of the independence struggle, they exalted the outcasts.

But gradually the second part of the equation – the part that put an equal sign between the independence politics of the Icelandic nation (as a unified organic entity) on the one hand, and international Communism on the other – became more important than the part that emphasised the role of the working people of Iceland.

During the war, Socialists presented themselves as the main guardians of Icelandic nationality, as the bravest fighters against any threat posed by foreign powers. When the British forces arrived in May 1940, the Socialists announced the beginning of a new independence struggle.40 They addressed the whole nation, not just the working class, warning it that the age-long isolation of the country had been breached. Calling for the resolve of the nation as a whole, they claimed that from now on the Icelandic nation had to be suspicious and cautious toward all foreign powers, those that approach the nation under the guise of friendship, as well as those that would be downright hostile.41

Similarly, in the political disputes leading up to the founding of the republic in 1944, the Socialists took an overtly nationalistic stance. There were two main camps in the wider Icelandic debate. One camp emphasised the importance of sticking to the procedure for separation prescribed in the 1918 agreement between Iceland and Denmark (according to which Iceland was a separate state under the Danish crown). The other camp argued that due to the circumstances of the war, the German occupation of Denmark, and the latter’s inability to uphold their part of the agreement, Iceland should immediately break off from Denmark. The Socialists were advocates of the latter, and supported their argument by claiming that the Icelandic nation had a natural right to independence and that it was therefore not obliged to honour the established conditions for the termination of the 1918 agreement on the relationship between Iceland and Denmark. And at the founding moment of the Republic in 1944, they systematically portrayed themselves as heirs to the heroes of the nineteenth-century independence struggle, maintaining that their party could best protect Icelandic independence.42