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Did the Norwegians Have a Revolution?

George Lakey May 16, 2012

For the better part of a century, some visionaries have been trying to break out of the dominant belief that there are only two means of forcing change: reform through elections and revolution through violence. The rigidity of that binary choice still strangles thinking today.

A Norwegian, for instance, once wrote to me that there simply wasn’t enough direct conflict in the country to use the word “revolution”; as I have described in detail before, the Labor Party got enough votes in the 1930s so it could finally create a coalition government. An election seems to have made the change. But that view focuses on politicians and electoral forms and overlooks the main scene of the conflict, which was mass direct action in the economic arena. To say that the change happened through elections is to mistake the effect for the cause.

The Norwegian owning class fought for decades to maintain domination against the rising militancy of workers’ strikes and other forms of direct action. The 1 percent — through its instrument, the Conservative Party government — called out troops repeatedly to keep workers in line. My Norwegian father-in-law refused military service as a young man because he personally might have to shoot fellow workers rather than a national enemy. The owning class also recruited tens of thousands of people into an organization devoted to violent strike-breaking.

The Labor Party was not the polite, consensus-seeking party of today’s Norway; it was the electoral representative of — and controlled by — the workers. One couldn’t even be a member of the Labor Party in the old days if one wasn’t a worker. The action that counted for Norway’s future was not in the Storting (the parliament) but in the deadly fight between the 1 percent and the trade unions. And the stakes were very high: Who would lead Norway, the super-rich and their bourgeois allies or the working class?

The stakes were so high, in fact, that a young Vidkun Quisling tried to put together a military coup against the government that was run by the Conservative Party in an attempt to suspend parliamentary forms and create an efficient dictatorship. After all, the German and Italian 1 percent supported a fascist solution to “labor unrest,” so why not the Norwegian?

One reason, I believe, is that the Norwegian working class, although inspired by Marxism and even Leninism, was not inspired by violence. “Yes” to a workers’ (and farmers’) state, but “no” to armed struggle.

Here’s where we need to open the space to think freshly when we think about power and revolution. Smart nonviolent strategy influences the choices available to ruling class. Nonviolent struggle constrains the options of the opponent.

In Norway, the largely nonviolent struggle of the 1920s and 1930s made it impossible for the 1 percent to go “all the way” with violent repression. In Norway, organizers ruled out — as far as I have found — even considering the option of asking the British 1 percent to intervene in the Norwegian struggle, as it might have had there been an armed conflict. (The British empire was highly experienced in meddling in the affairs of other countries and had sent troops to Russia after its violent revolution. Norway was considered to be in Britain’s backyard.)

The lack of a fascist response by the Norwegian 1 percent in the 1930s to the workers’ prolonged nonviolent direct action doesn’t tell us there was not a revolution. What the workers (and farmers, in their own dimension of the struggle) did was show the 1 percent that it could no longer run the country. If the owners did not make a giant compromise, they might end up without any ownership stake in the country at all.

In light of what happened later, it is to the credit of the owning class and the workers that they made their historic compromise of 1936. But their decision not to go over the brink doesn’t give us reason to paper over the conflict. Labor decided it would not escalate further but instead take the reins of government (postponing the issue of ownership of the means of production) in order to alleviate the worst depression in Europe and set the ship of state onto a new — and fundamentally different — course.

Now we come to the heart of the matter: What defines revolution? The Norwegian Labor Party and its farmer and middle class allies could fundamentally change the country’s course because they forced a power shift. The super-rich no longer ruled, as they had for centuries (sometimes in collaboration with the Danes and Swedes).

That power shift is what didn’t happen in the 20th century in the U.K., in France and in Germany, although the working class in those countries gained more concessions than were gained in the U.S.

How significant was the power shift? The crisis in the financial sector that is still wrecking Europe reveals the difference dramatically. When, in the 1980s, Norway took a temporary detour by flirting with neoliberalism, the economy headed toward the cliff: speculation on housing, a bubble, a crash. But the fundamental power arrangement re-asserted itself: The government seized the three biggest banks, fired the senior management, made sure the shareholders didn’t get a krone and told the other private banks that they could either recapitalize on their own or go bankrupt. No bailouts — period.

The Norwegian bottom line: When the capitalists act out, they must pay for their spree, not the people.

It couldn’t be more different from what we now see in most of Europe (and the U.S.). The 1 percent rule, and the people pay. As the European giants began to totter in 2008, the Norwegian (and Swedish) financial sectors remained secure because they had won their fight with the 1 percent previously. If the Norwegians and Swedes had not fought their nonviolent revolution, they also would have been at the mercy of their 1 percent and in just as big a mess as the rest of Europe.

It thus seems especially wise that Norwegians successfully resisted their own internationalist sentiments when asked to join the European Union. Twice voting “no” for a variety of reasons in national referenda, many realized decades ago that international capital uses the EU for its own agenda. The class struggle continues in Norway, as it must everywhere because it is a fundamental historical reality. But the playing field inside Norway is different because they won their most important battle in the 1920s and 30s — nonviolently.

Labor’s strategy was this: to use widespread direct action, accept compromise, change the union/management rulebook, lead the government, massively regulate capital, redistribute wealth, and take controlling shares of major corporations. It has unmistakably shifted the entire society. In Norway’s political spectrum, a leading Norwegian Conservative told me, Barack Obama would be considered right-wing.

I’ll share two of the more light-hearted signs of the continued hegemony of working class values like solidarity and equality. Poverty has been largely wiped out in Norway, but a bit stubbornly remains; during a recent election the Labor government found that fact being used as an attack by, of all groups, the Conservative Party, under whose rule an estimated majority of Norwegians had once been poor!

The brand-new national opera house in Oslo, an architectural gem built by the government for a traditionally elite art form, has been such a success that seats are often sold out months in advance. Nevertheless, the opera house refuses to put a price premium on its best seats because that “just wouldn’t be the Norwegian way.”

Norway is not a utopia, and in my forthcoming book I’ll share ideas from radical Norwegians as they continue to envision a more carbon-neutral, egalitarian, decentralized and liberated society than the one they have. Whether or not they break new ground in coming decades, Norwegians have already shown us that people power can overcome money power, that the dominance of the super-rich can be overcome through nonviolent direct action and that democracy can flourish. I’m willing to call that a nonviolent revolution.

This article was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

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