How Swedes and Norwegians Broke the Power of the ‘1 Percent’

How Swedes and Norwegians Broke the Power of the ‘1 Percent’

George Lakey, Waging Nonviolence


Scandinavian workers realized that, electoral “democracy” was stacked against them, so nonviolent direct action was needed to exert the power for change.

While many of us are working to ensure that the Occupy movement will have a lasting impact, it’s worthwhile to consider other countries where masses of people succeeded in nonviolently bringing about a high degree of democracy and economic justice.

Sweden and Norway, for example, both experienced a major power shift in the 1930s after prolonged nonviolent struggle. They “fired” the top 1 percent of people who set the direction for society and created the basis for something different.

Both countries had a history of horrendous poverty. When the 1 percent was in charge, hundreds of thousands of people emigrated to avoid starvation.

Under the leadership of the working class, however, both countries built robust and successful economies that nearly eliminated poverty, expanded free university education, abolished slums, provided excellent health care available to all as a matter of right and created a system of full employment.


Unlike the Norwegians, the Swedes didn’t find oil, but that didn’t stop them from building what the latest CIA World Factbook calls “an enviable standard of living.”

Neither country is a utopia, as readers of the crime novels by Stieg Larsson, Kurt Wallender and Jo Nesbro will know. Critical left-wing authors such as these try to push Sweden and Norway to continue on the path toward more fully just societies. However, as an American activist who first encountered Norway as a student in 1959 and learned some of its language and culture, the achievements I found amazed me.

I remember, for example, bicycling for hours through a small industrial city, looking in vain for substandard housing. Sometimes resisting the evidence of my eyes, I made up stories that “accounted for” the differences I saw: “small country,” “homogeneous,” “a value consensus.” I finally gave up imposing my frameworks on these countries and learned the real reason: their own histories.

Then I began to learn that the Swedes and Norwegians paid a price for their standards of living through nonviolent struggle. There was a time when Scandinavian workers didn’t expect that the electoral arena could deliver the change they believed in. They realized that, with the 1 percent in charge, electoral “democracy” was stacked against them, so nonviolent direct action was needed to exert the power for change.

In both countries, the troops were called out to defend the 1 percent; people died. Award-winning Swedish filmmaker Bo Widerberg told the Swedish story vividly in Ådalen 31, which depicts the strikers killed in 1931 and the sparking of a nationwide general strike. (You can read more about this case in an entry by Max Rennebohm in the Global Nonviolent Action Database.)

The Norwegians had a harder time organizing a cohesive people’s movement because Norway’s small population—about three million—was spread out over a territory the size of Britain. People were divided by mountains and fjords, and they spoke regional dialects in isolated valleys. In the nineteenth century, Norway was ruled by Denmark and then by Sweden; in the context of Europe Norwegians were the “country rubes,” of little consequence. Not until 1905 did Norway finally become independent.

When workers formed unions in the early 1900s, they generally turned to Marxism, organizing for revolution as well as immediate gains. They were overjoyed by the overthrow of the czar in Russia, and the Norwegian Labor Party joined the Communist International organized by Lenin. Labor didn’t stay long, however. One way in which most Norwegians parted ways with Leninist strategy was on the role of violence: Norwegians wanted to win their revolution through collective nonviolent struggle, along with establishing co-ops and using the electoral arena.

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  1. Hi enjoyed your article and will agree on the TRUTH of it except for the Stieg Larsson “bits”, you show what I mean will give eg from a tv program popular in Sweden the English one called ” the Murders in Midsummer” which millions including myself relax to now and then. Midsummer is a small borough? In countryside in England and if one was to believe the plots,and that all those murders that happen there weekly it would be like STOCKHOLM about 2 murders per day instead of ? I guess 3 a year.
    Sadly right now there is great frustration and anger and soon I imagine demonstrations about the rising violence in our 3rd city Malmö where 8 people have been murdered since last May. Today’s news said the police have now put in all of their resources etc etc. Most people are convinced that what lies behind this is the power of the MAFFIA, from Europe, ” underworld” and to a degree ? Maybe more organisations like ” Hells angels” and ” Bandidos” who are all involved in drugs etc being brought into Sweden via Malmö, in the South.
    Anyhow all I want to say is that Sweden is just about as close you can get to Utopia on the planet right now, and I feel extremely blessed to call it my home since 1972 when I came here aged 20 from Dublin Ireland.
    Got to go now, I am inclined to ramble on when I write things, once again interesting article.
    Ps when I try to inform colleagues etc that Sweden is one of the most spiritual places to live and likewise Swedes they always look so confused ” Sweden, Us, ”
    I think I will try to get a discussion going with my refugee Swedish studies pupils as to the difference between Religion and Spirituality.
    Ps2 I sometimes wonder if I am not completely mad when at my school, at the seeming normality of everything and CALM and I think ” maybe the Ascension is just a big dream and —————— anyhow when I COME BACK TO REALITY I KNOW IT IS REALLY HAPPENING AND SOON I CAN BE OF HELP WHEN THINGS START TO HAPPEN.

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