From Sweden to Socialism: A Small Symposium on Big Questions

From Sweden to Socialism: A Small Symposium on Big Questions

What’s the difference between socialism and social democracy? In 1991, Dissent convened several longtime contributors to answer that question, somewhat rephrased: what would distinguish socialism from a slightly improved version of Sweden?

Malmö, Sweden waterfront (barnyz / Flickr)

What’s the difference between socialism and social democracy? In 1991, Dissent convened several longtime contributors to answer that question, somewhat rephrased: what would distinguish socialism from a slightly improved version of Sweden? Below is the introduction to the symposium by Robert Heilbroner, with a follow-up question by Irving Howe, and eight short responses. —Editors (February 2016)

I have recently posed a question to which I have no answer, but which seems to me to go to the heart of the outlook for democratic socialism, at least in the advanced capitalist countries. The question is: how far beyond the borders of what I call “real but slightly imaginary Sweden” would we have to go before a visitor to that land knew that he or she was in a socialist, not a capitalist, country? Let me suggest some of the more obvious answers—and the problems they raise:

1. A small number of large corporations constitute the dynamic core of the Swedish economy. Would these corporations have to go? With what would they be replaced? The one thing we know is that they should not be nationalized. Then how governed? Or if dismantled, into what sorts of units, themselves how governed?

2. Sweden has a large and generous public sector. Its purpose, however, is to provide the amenities needed in a capitalist economy, not those of a socialist society. The difference, I should think, is that a socialist public sector would aim at “decommodifying” labor— removing the necessity for performing unwelcome work. If so, how would these wideranging entitlements be provided? What would be their effect on economic and social life?

3. Sweden is closely entwined in the world capitalist market. To extricate itself would require an extensive change—I will not say “fall” —in its living standards. Wasteful private consumption would have to yield to economical public consumption, automobiles making way for busses and trains, washing machines for Laundromats. How can a population that clearly enjoys its wasteful standard way of life be persuaded to make such a change?

4. Bourgeois life itself may be a matter of concern. Sweden is a highly pragmatic, comfortminded, nonideological place. Is that a culture that socialism would seek? What other? There are no doubt many ways in which Sweden would have to change before the imaginary land to which we refer was unmistakably socialist. To indicate those ways, and to consider their economic and political costs, seems to me the manner in which democratic socialists should measure the challenge of the coming decades. —Robert Heilbroner

Irving Howe adds: Let me supplement Bob Heilbroner’s cogent questions with another, perhaps preliminary to his, which our critics, and perhaps some friends, would ask: if we imagine so advanced and attractive a welfare state as the “Sweden-plus” that he postulates, would there be any reasons still to wish to move further toward a socialist society? If so, what would those reasons be?

Responses:

Joanne Barkan

Horst Brand

Mitchell Cohen

Lewis Coser

Bogdan Denitch

Agnès Heller and Ferenc Fehèr

Branko Horvat

Gus Tyler

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