From Sweden to Socialism

From Sweden to Socialism

Why go beyond an advanced welfare state—beyond what Robert Heilbroner calls “real but slightly imaginary” Sweden? How would the passage from welfare state to “socialism” be manifest? To create a more democratic society. By expanding substantive, that is, social and economic in addition to political, democracy.

If we postulate that these aims are pursued by reformist means, then the “goal” would not be evident at first glance; nor would there be a “last glance” upon something comprehensively defined. Jean Jaures provided the metaphor (which I’ll amplify): a hemispheric border is not immediately visible to passengers on a ship as they cross the sea. Conflicting gales may press them back and forth, tempestuous travel trying the craft’s seaworthiness. Yet if they persist, the voyagers eventually perceive that new waters have been reached.

These new waters are not enclosed. Nor are they frozen. They do not represent an endziel, or final goal, but rather an opening of possibilities. The point, to paraphrase Marx, is to establish conditions of freedom not to impose a prefabricated set of ideals. Those conditions, in my view, must be egalitarian and entail social and economic democracy. My assumption: concentrated private ownership of a society’s productive forces (and the attendant concentration of wealth) engenders undemocratic power relations in that society. Such ownership exists in Sweden; indeed, about a third of the value of the Stockholm stock exchange is, in one way or another, controlled by a single family (the Wallenbergs). Nonetheless, the Swedish Social Democrats designed an attractive welfare state that, rightly, has been the envy of much of the world. It was wrested from Swedish capitalism, while remaining dependent on it. A social democratic quandary: the purpose of the welfare state is to mitigate the socially negative consequences of capitalist ownership, yet it is the latter’s economic success that sustains the welfare state.

Sweden’s economy is strained nowadays. A recent account of its woes in the Economist reports that “economic liberals” have “long warned” that Sweden possessed “all the ingredients for economic paralysis.” These include the highest taxes and—oh, horror! — “the most generous welfare state, the narrowest wage differentials and the highest trade union membership” in the industrialized world. Rueful that reality in which “last year a cabinet minister took home, after tax, only about twice as much as a blue-collar worker; in 1939 the ratio was eight to one.” The “uncomfortable conclusion is that Sweden’s real problem is its commitment to full employment,” for “by virtually eliminating the threat of unemployment, the incentive to restrain wages has been destroyed.”

Put aside contemporary Sweden (I am no expert on it); reflect on the premises of the Economist’s argument; then imagine an alternative mode of thought, one that seeks to eliminate the incentive to unemployment. To go beyond the welfare state is to make its gains irreversible and to democratize the conditions of production. It is to make employment, health care, housing—the basics of human welfare—together with democratic control of the workplace “inalienable rights,” much as private property is for the Economist.

Irreversibility presumes a political constellation different from the contemporary Swedish one. In it social democratic success depends significantly on disunity and weaknesses among three bourgeois (opposition) parties. In the United States, where socialists are marginal, two capitalist parties compete, one straightforward in its reactionary orientation, the other containing some social democratic tendencies. In a democratic socialist Sweden this might be stood on its head; imagine two competing parties, but both socialist. Let’s call one the Democratic Socialist party and the other the Republican Social Democratic party; let’s imagine that the first leans a little less, the second a little more to the use of market forces. Within the latter, in its right fringe, there might even be a small group advocating unemployment to remedy economic problems; perhaps it would be called the Democratic Capitalists of Sweden.


This political situation presumes a socioeconomic hemisphere beyond the welfare state— but not a statist one. Rather, I’d draw, with some variation, on the market socialist model developed in Alec Nove’s The Economics of Feasible Socialism. Rejecting command economies, it mixes limited sectors of public and socialized but autonomous services and industries with worker-owned cooperatives, some small-scale private enterprise, and a realm of free-lance individual activities. (My emphasis would be strongly on the cooperative sector.) State intervention would take place both for social needs and to prevent monopolies, oligopolies, and, generally the development of conditions deleterious to fair market activities. Indicative planning would provide a long-term functional framework. Firms would be governed by a system of industrial representative democracy; management would be responsible to elected workers’ councils, which, in collaboration with consumers’ councils, would serve as the ultimate authority of enterprises. (Small cooperatives would employ more direct democracy.) Courses on all aspects of the enterprise and the economy would be readily available to employees in order to enhance educated democratic control by them, and to engender as much flexibility and mobility within the division of labor as possible.

Finally, the array of public institutions we identify nowadays with the welfare state would exist, but the principles governing them would be those of social citizenship. To retrieve Jaures’s maritime metaphor: citizens would see themselves in the same boat, and not just politically. * This would be expressed in the type of society fashioned, its values (I stress the plural), its social and human relations—a community, but without a reified endziel.

A caveat. The fate of Sweden’s economy, which is heavily export oriented, will be substantially dependent on current processes of European integration, even though Sweden is not a European Community member. The only alternative scenario is, to say the least, implausible: an egalitarian autarky, which would likely require both authoritarianism and plummeting living standards—a nordic Albania, as it were. Consequently, the future of socialism in Sweden, no less its welfare state, will be conditioned by the general complexion taken on by Europe as a whole in the coming years.


* For a somewhat different application of Juares’s metaphor to Sweden, see Adarri Prezeworski’s Capitalism and Social Democracy, Cambridge University Press.

Download the full article as a PDF


Lima