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Sweden vs. Norway in 1905

posted 22 Mar 2011, 09:20 by Admin uk

1. How to prevent war

No more deluded by reaction
On tyrants only we’ll make war
The soldiers too will take strike action
They’ll break ranks and fight no more.
And if those cannibals keep trying
To sacrifice us to their pride
They soon shall hear the bullets flying
We’ll shoot the generals on our own side.

The ‘forgotten’ verse of The Internationale, 1870

It would be a mistake to think that our rulers have a light-hearted attitude towards going to war. Almost any war, with the probable exception of the USA in 1983 invading Grenada with a population of less than 90 000 is to a certain extent a gamble. So many factors are involved. Nobody can ever be certain of winning. Even if one wins, the costs of maintaining peace afterwards can be prohibitive, as the Americans are discovering in Iraq. Win or loose, the pre-war status quo is unlikely to return. War destroys much. In addition, war can easily turn a top dog into an under dog.

Therefore there is usually a long build-up before a war. The bourgeoisie debate things among themselves, weighing the pros against the cons. Different layers within the ruling class test each other’s strengths and weak­nesses. The armaments industry would obviously be more in favour of war, whereas those capitalists who mainly sell to consumers at home would be more inclined to peace. However, once things gel, and agreement is reached by discussion or force, ranks close and preparation for war begins. The bourgeoisie then uses its money, its control over media and if necessary (and possible) the police and the courts in an attempt to bring ‘public opin­ion’ into line. At that point it becomes very difficult to stop a war, unless the continuation of war preparations, or the war itself, threatens the rule of the ruling class.

The protests against the war in Iraq were organised by a loose-knit network of groups and organisations that posed no direct threat to those in power in the US. The American administration could afford to ignore them.

Almost a hundred years earlier, in 1905, the Swedish Labour Movement managed to stop a war. They had the organised strength that made the Swedish ruling class understand that they had more to lose than they could gain by invading Norway. Their methods would work today.

The 1905 union crisis

Sweden and Norway had been joined in a union since 1814, but it was never popular among Norwegians. Before that, Norway had been in a union with Denmark. The Danes, however, following their defeat in the Napoleonic War, were obliged to relinquish Norway to Sweden. By force of arms, the Swedish monarchy made Norway accept this, though the Swedish king was to have a less influential role there than at home. Later the rift between the two countries deepened.

Addressing a rally on  May 1 1895, Hjalmar Branting, who was later to be­come Sweden’s first Social Democratic Prime Minister, raged against the warmongers who were preparing to go to war to stop Norwegian inde­pendence. He called the press propaganda “criminal incitement to fratri­cide”, adding that even if “this terrible prospect should become reality and Swedish riflemen are given the order to march westwards”, such a move would render all normal regulations and obligations null and void. In such circumstances, someone among the general populace may be tempted “to try and prevent of his own accord, by means of a single bullet, the order to fire tens of thousands of bullets whose aim is to maim and slaughter friends and brothers”.

Branting was put on trial for lese-majesty (criminal disrespect of royalty), and delivered a crushing speech in his own defence, denying all the accusations, arguing that it was not he who was guilty of criminal actions but those who were disseminating war propaganda. On a split verdict, the Town Court sentenced him to three months’ imprisonment. The Appeals Court was equally split but confirmed the sentence, and finally the Supreme Court reduced it to a fine of 500 crowns.

By 1905 the situation between Sweden and Norway was precarious. In February of that year, Sweden’s Social Democrats held a party congress. Among the invited guests were representatives of the Norwegian Labour Party, who spoke in favour of workers’ unity and advocated dissolving the union between the two countries. This time, Branting, who had been elect­ed Sweden’s first Social Democratic MP shortly after his trial, opposed such a course. He argued that the principal task was to stave off “the Russian peril”, meaning Tsarist imperialism.2 But the Norwegians’ speeches were met with a storm of applause from the delegates, and Branting had to yield. Kata Dahlström, a member of the Party’s executive, made an oft-quoted speech affirming the right of Norway to independence: “Let the Union go. The bridge uniting the workers of our two countries will never break down.” The congress adopted a statement in support of Norwegian self-determination. The Swedish party and its Norwegian counterpart agreed to do all in their power to prevent war.

On June 7, 1905, the Norwegian parliament, the Storting, declared the dis­solution of the Union. In Sweden, the right-wing press launched a storm of propaganda. The Swedish nobility and officer corps wanted to march west and teach the Norwegians a lesson.

“In all the better taverns, there was a strong air of patriotism, fuelled by an evening of punsch3 and endless renderings of the national anthem,” writes Zeth Höglund, a leader of Sweden’s Young Social Democrats at the time, in the first volume of his memoirs. Zeth Höglund or Zäta, as he was gener­ally known in the Labour Movement, was himself to play a key role in later events. A Swedish Labour Movement historian paints a similar picture of rampant warmongering: “The Crown Prince, subsequently King Gustav V, was reported by a Stockholm correspondent writing in the provincial press, to have said that a war against Norway would be ‘a picnic’. The king was visited by officers, clergymen and others pressing for war. The political right demanded that the order to mobilise be issued.”4

Response of the Labour Movement

In 1905 there was no talk of firing “a single bullet without orders”, as Branting had put it in 1895. The working class had grown in strength and was confident of its ability to stop the war through collective action. Throughout the country, the Social Democrats held meetings and demon­strations in defence of peace. The party district of Skåne, which had 20 000 members, sent a message from its conference to the Norwegian Labour Party expressing its “warmest support for the Norwegian people’s strug­gle for independence”. The newspaper Arbetet wrote that Swedish workers would rather “make common cause with Norway and crush the tyrants in Sweden” than serve the interests of the Swedish upper class.5 Most active of all were Sweden’s Young Social Democrats, who held their first congress on 11-13 June, in the middle of the crisis. On its opening day, the meeting condemned the pro-war campaign and organised a demonstration during the lunch break.

Zäta, in consultation with others, wrote a manifesto – Down Weapons! - adopted unanimously by the congress. The Young Social Democrats then sang the Norwegian national anthem, Ja, vi elsker, and called for three cheers for the workers’ union that could never be broken. Zäta, as the author of Down Weapons!, was later tried for incitement to mutiny and disobedience. Despite the protests of the Labour Movement, he was sentenced to eight months’ imprisonment, which was later reduced to six months by an ap­peals court. Still suffering badly from a serious fever, he served his sentence at Malmö Prison between Midsummer Eve and Christmas Eve 1906.

The manifesto offered a clear strategy. It began by declaring that the work­ers of Sweden would never take up arms against Norway. It also urged Sweden’s young workers to refuse to report for military duty should they receive call-up papers. If weapons were to be directed at anyone, it was not at the Norwegians. The manifesto further declared that “the workers of Sweden are prepared to down tools throughout the land in order to prevent war”. The threat of war was to be met by a refusal to serve in the military and by a general strike. The manifesto ended by calling for mass meetings to be held all over the country. In both Sweden and Norway, the manifesto was printed in the newspapers of the Labour Movement and distributed in the form of 100 000 leaflets. Its effect was sensational.

The threats to refuse military duty and stage a general strike came at a time of severe class-conflict. The general strike of 1902 in support of universal suffrage was fresh in memory, and the period since the autumn of 1904 had been full of conflicts. Strikes and demonstrations were legion. Both the LO (Trade Union Confederation) and government agencies spoke of a state of war. In January, a great wave of strikes in Russia 1905 also aroused enthusiasm and gave the anti-war movement hope. When a peaceful dem­onstration of 140 000 people in St Petersburg was met by a rain of bullets from the Tsarist regime, protest meetings and demonstrations were held all over Sweden.

In the atmosphere that prevailed at the time, the strategy put forward by the Young Social Democrats was clearly not to be dismissed as a collection of empty phrases. Had the military gone into Norway, there would have been a mutiny, and a Swedish revolution would not have been far away.

On June 20, King Oscar II spoke from the throne to an extraordinary ses­sion of the Riksdag, the Swedish parliament. He made clear that Sweden would refrain from “meeting injustice with force”. The Labour Movement had won! There was no war with Norway.

International struggle, international organisation

The actions of the Scandinavian Labour Movement during the Union crisis set an example for the international Labour Movement. But it was also the result of being part of an international organisation – the Second (Social­ist) International. Ever since Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were asked by members of the first international workers organisation – the League of the Just – to formulate a programme, the Communist Manifesto, workers international unity had been at the centre of the Movement. The Manifesto ends with the famous lines: “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries, unite!”6 These were not just empty phrases to be repeated in solemn speeches but the core strategy of the whole Labour Movement right up to the First World War.

The League of the Just, later renamed the Communist League, was eventu­ally dissolved. In 1864 the International Working Men’s Association, the organisation now known as the First International, was formed. Karl Marx wrote the International’s first policy declaration.

It soon became apparent that the First International had to formulate a policy on war. In the 19th century one war followed another as the ruling classes in various countries fought one another for power and influence and control of land. People were tired of the constant grind of war. They understood that they were the ones paying for war, through harsh taxation and being looted.

Offering individual resistance was out of the question. When the call came, one had no alternative but to report for duty. To refuse was to go to prison or risk being executed. Once the workers began organising, however, they could act together.

When the First International was founded, Germany and France were locked in fierce opposition. The 1868 congress in Brussels adopted a state­ment calling for a ‘people’s strike’ to prevent the conflict sliding into war. As yet, however, the working class had no mass party to represent it, and the International proved too small to organise a general strike. War broke out between France and Germany in 1870.

When France capitulated in 1871, Germany’s Social Democrats staged demonstrations in support of a just peace for the French Republic, and declared their opposition to the German annexation of Alsace-Lorraine. The party’s Central Committee was promptly arrested and charged with treason. All Labour MPs in the North German Assembly heeded the urg­ings of the International and voted against the issuing of war credits (i.e. the state borrowing money to finance armaments), but they were too few to get their way.

After the fall of the Paris Commune in 1871, the members of the Interna­tional were subjected to extreme persecution internationally. The congress they held in The Hague in 1872 was their last.

Despite the closing down of the First International, the Communist Manifesto and the International’s policy declaration from 1864 continued to guide Europe’s socialists. When Sweden’s Social Democratic Workers’ Party was founded it did not adopt a party programme of its own until eight years after its founding congress. As one of their leaders stated, they were in no hurry as they already had the Communist Manifesto.

The Marxist current became the most pervasive in the movement. During the twenty years before the International could re-establish itself, national labour parties were launched in many European countries.

In 1889, the Second International opened its Constituent Congress in Paris. The organisations that had belonged to the First International had been small and somewhat before their time. The Second International, however, was a mass organisation of active political struggle from the outset. A practical expression of this shift in emphasis was the decision taken in 1890 at its first congress, to organise a worldwide demonstration in support of the eight-hour working day. In honour of the Chicago workers, the demonstration took place on 1 May 1890 and became such a powerful symbol of the international work­ers’ struggle that it was decided to hold rallies every year on that day.7

As early as the turn of the century, Marxists realised that a world war was imminent. The world was being speedily carved up by competing impe­rialist powers. There was a virtually unbroken chain of bloody conflicts between Italy and France in North Africa, between France and Britain in Egypt, between Britain and Russia in Central Asia, between Spain and the US in the Caribbean and the Pacific, between Russia and Japan in East Asia, between Japan and Britain in China, and between the US and Japan in the Pacific.

Germany was a newcomer among the great powers. Its economy had grown rapidly, but the country wielded little influence outside its own borders. This was something the German ruling class intended to change. Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Russian Revolution in 1917, writes ironically: “From the standpoint of bourgeois justice and national freedom (…), Ger­many would be absolutely right as against England and France, for she has been “done out” of colonies, her enemies are oppressing an immeasurably larger number of nations than she is.”8

At the initiative of Rosa Luxemburg, one of the foremost leaders of both the German and the international Labour Movement, the 1900 Congress of the International in Paris adopted a resolution denouncing militarism and colonialism.

In 1904, war broke out between Russia and Japan. In the middle of this war, the International held its Amsterdam congress. To the cheers of those present, Plekhanov and Katayma, the leaders of the Russian and Japanese delegations, shook hands to demonstrate the international unity of the La­bour Movement.

Before 1914, the Internationals spearheaded the Labour Movement’s fight for peace and for a socialist revolution. It was there, not nationally, that activists developed demands and strategy for the struggle. There were lively discussions and clashes between Marxist and more reformist currents (and earlier – anarchists), but all agreed to fight side by side for an eight-hour working day, supporting one another when strikes were called, and joining to oppose war.

Today’s Socialist International is a descendent of the Second International. It is a group of labour organisations from different countries who have joined together to fight for a better society. It has statutes, congresses and programmes. But the Socialist International of today has neither the power nor the ambition to intervene in world events. Ordinary party members seldom get to hear of the organisation’s meetings, or let alone what is discussed there.

The Swedish Labour Movement’s effort to stop war in 1905 was not something that they had thought up all by themselves. It was a policy that had been discussed and worked out for decades in the international Labour Movement. And the Swedish Labour Movement succeeded, although it was significantly smaller in 1905 than the Labour Movement in any developed country (and even many third world countries) today.

What gives workers organisations such a potentially unique strength? Firstly, workers have strong common interests. Most workers have no alternative but to stand together if they are to improve their living conditions. Few can escape from drudgery through other means. This is a solid base for solidarity, nationally and internationally.

Secondly, despite working for competing companies, there can be no competition between people on the same assembly line, or between workers within any work-place for that matter. The very conditions of life during the eight or more hours at work per day have to be based on cooperation, if things are not going to get into a great mess. This also creates the possibility of an understanding of the power of the collective.

Finally, only the organised working class have the power to stop production. Even a small section of the organised working class, such as train drivers, power-plant workers or even a few computer operators, can bring the whole of society to a standstill. These are the reasons why workers have the strength to intervene in history, if they have the will to do so.

These fundamental facts have not changed to the present day. In fact, the working class is much stronger and better organised today. And due to globalisation the fate of workers in all countries is bound together even closer.

All the experience of the last century confirms that workers’ united revolutionary struggle is the only way to end war. In subsequent chapters we shall see that there are many alternatives, but all of them end in failure – whether it be supporting one’s own ruling class or just co-operating with its ‘progressive’ members and ‘democratic’ allies; taking sides on the basis of one’s own religion or ethnic origin; supporting the League of Nations or the United Nations; or Gandhi’s pacifist methods. Before or during all the major wars of the 20th century, there has always been the possibility of a successful working class struggle for peace. However, ever since the First World War the leadership of the Labour Movement has chosen to block that path.

1 During the Second World War this verse was censored in
Sweden. See Wikipedia on The Internationale
2 Knut Bäckström: Arbetarrörelsen i Sverige, 1971
3 A traditional Swedish liquor based on arrack
4 ibid
5 ibid
6 Proletarian means someone who has no property, often
referred to simply as a worker.
7 Rosa Luxemburg: What Are the Origins of May Day? 1894
8 V. I. Lenin: Socialism and war, 1915