Results not achieved and prospects graveled: Evaluation of the activities of the Socialists in Västervik and Sweden 2006–22
Platypus Review 154 | March 2023
Started off as a student movement
THE SOCIALISTS MET THE LIGHT of day as foremost a movement amongst students of arts and media of the Västerviks Gymnasium in 2002–03. It was in the aftermath of the 90s anarcho, punk, and vegan movement — that still, at this time, could count relatively high numbers of youths for being a small town in Sweden. Political activities were formed around student protests against the second war in Iraq, austerity politics in the local municipality, solidarity with a public-sector workers’ strike and anti-neo-Nazi demonstrations (which still was a thing back then).
Students started reading a little Marx and history of the labor movement of Sweden and not long after that a local chapter of the Socialist Party (SP) was formed in Västervik. The SP was the last name of the Swedish section of the Fourth International. Why the SP, one might ask, and why the last name? From an early teenage “anarchist” perspective, the tiny Trotskyists can be understood as “non-Stalinist communists,” which obviously was an interesting lead. “Communists who were not happy about how it went in Russia” was ”good enough,” we indeed thought, as a theoretical direction of orientation. Today they don’t exist as an independent organization anymore, but have gone up into the Left Party (former old official Communist Party of Sweden, today very much a typical middle-class-based liberal “Left” party).
This local chapter of the SP grew well and fast considering it being a marginalized Left group, and the protest activities continued on. In 2006, the first seat in the Västervik municipality council was won. What was done locally was not decided by the SP though, it was a local affair. We young activists in Västervik went by our own three-paragraph program: “For unity in the working class against fascism and racism, for everyone's right to work, and for everyone's right to welfare”(“welfare” here is referring to the Swedish social democratic välfärdspolitik which was general and universalist). In 2008 we broke with the SP to become the Västervik Socialist Association, and for the SP that meant that their biggest chapter had moved on.
Breaking with the SP was for us an attempt at getting away from (or perhaps around) the 1970s Swedish Left. We were never romanticists for the 70s; we knew that it was their failure that had brought us to where we found ourselves. We were deeply skeptical of the glorification of third-world, national-liberation struggles; we saw them as having very little (if anything) to do with socialism and the self-emancipation of the working class. We were also critical of the 1928-style ultra-Leftism, which, according to us, had helped to strengthen social democratic hegemony rather than challenge it. In our minds the tiny Trotskyists were as guilty for this as the Stalinists. We saw them all as nothing but nostalgic sects, more interested in keeping the political identities of their youth rather than something with eyes on the present, not to mention the future.
We sought our inspiration not in the Russian Revolution and Bolshevism but rather in the Swedish social democratic strand of socialism, from its early radicals and legends to their famous leaders of the class-collaborationist era. We hoped to rekindle the fire from what the labor movement was before expulsions, world wars, and permanent splits — before the separation of struggle for reforms and perspectives of revolution.
We sought to be concrete — as opposed to the SP and the rest of the Left, who we saw as all being lost in translation and would not be missed nor noticed if they closed shop. We wanted to set into motion big numbers of people for a civil-social movement against austerity politics and work-place struggle. The question of socialism was not something we spent too much time on, it was all defined negatively against capitalist reality. It was all about being concrete and thinking that without a movement that can fight and win over smaller things, no bigger things will be won either.
We were perhaps as delusional regarding what we could achieve and become as we were right about “all the others.”
What was the “socialist” politics of the Socialists in Västervik?
First and foremost, there was consistent opposition to all forms of austerity politics. We got elected and re-elected several times (the fifth round just started) on a negative mandate. We approached the election on a program of what not to do rather than what to do. We got voted in to vote against all cuts in the public welfare services such as schools, child- and elder care.
We also called out and attacked the local politicians from all the parties of the establishment, when they raised their own wages and used tax money as if it were indeed their own to play with.
From 2010 onwards we also took on the Sweden Democrats (the biggest populist Right-wing, nationalist party in Sweden) since this was the time of the start of their success story. We attacked the Right-wing nationalists and called them “our Taliban.” Exiled veteran revolutionaries from Iran had brought us clarity on matters of enlightenment, modernity, and the right to criticism. We did not want to tread the same sad path as the liberal Left who were helping the nationalist Right rather than challenging them. The ever so tiresome you-are-racist card had already then proven most futile. We attacked both liberal “progressive” multiculturalism and national romanticism as two sides of the same (reactionary) identity-politics coin.
We claimed that the further back in Swedish history one looks the more “Islamist-like” it seemed. Not literally Islamist of course (Sweden has been a Protestant country since 1527) and the Sweden Democrats are not in any way members of the Taliban. But what we saw in “tradition” was patriarchy, submission under authority dressed in either crown, shiny armor, or black coats. We said that we did not have our pioneers (of the socialist labor movement) sentenced to prison for writing against church authority only now to let even more reactionary clergymen have their way. We were the first Left group — fringe and established alike — to take that position, a good time before it got more “fashionable,” so to speak. This meant a clear stance against honor killings — instead of relativizing excuse-making, as in case of the liberal Left. Another example is that we opposed Islamists demands of gender segregation in the local bath. We always engaged in these questions in opposition to Right-wing nationalism, trying to give an alternative critique from the standpoint of enlightenment, rationalism, and secularism rather than Swedish culture, Christendom, or tradition — opposing them all together. We saw the tradition of the radical bourgeois enlightenment as the foundation of Marxism. This of course also made us “fascist” or “brown-red” in the eyes of the Left in general.
A failed strategy — the idea was good, just not right
Recently I myself and some comrades have started thinking about what we have been up to for the last 20 years, not socialist politics but rather Left populism. We did not become what we intended but something else, without us seeing it clearly first, perhaps still not fully. It also required a good dose of self-deception. The way I use the term “populism” in this text, even when it is Left-wing, is as something different from the context of a socialist workers movement. The socialist workers movement is based in the class itself, in civil society. The populist movement can gather up great support and hold powerful rallies, but its horizon of possibilities does not include the activity of the working class. It does not need the working class any more than any other social strata because it appeals to people as people, as citizens or as mere voters. Typical examples of this internationally are SYRIZA (Greece), Podemos (Spain), Bernie Sanders (U.S.), Hugo Chavez (Venezuela), and Jeremy Corbin (UK). Sure they all had their portion of working-class support, but they could as well have done without it. When there was working class support, it was just as a voter base — not an organic engine. The same could be said about us, but, of course, in a scale that is a thousand times smaller.
We ran and got elected in the local elections in 2006, 10, 14, 18, and 22 with goals set for ourselves, other than just being a “voice against the austerity measures.” We were to use our seats as tribunes to build a movement among people outside the parliament. We did not fool ourselves nor did we tell anyone that us getting elected would in itself change anything.
The aim was to bring people together, organizing around a common cause (defensive action against the social-welfare cuts), and, through this, collective conclusions were to be drawn. Taking part in elections and parliament was a means to an end, not the end, at least that’s what we told ourselves. The end was nothing less than reconstituting a socialist labor movement in the whole of the country. City council was just a small step towards that goal. We wanted to use it to bring out our ideas to more people and raise consciousness through principled confrontation with our political opponents. So we did, we did so very much and got kind of good at it, but we were never able to act as midwives to our planned movement — not in the working class and not in any other class either.
A document that became a must-read for people joining our organization was the Second International radical (and later council communist) Anton Pannekoek’s Tactical Differences in the Labor Movement (1909). In my translation:
Social reforms are clearly not, as often posed, stages on our way towards our goal in that sense that the end goal is an uninterrupted series of such reforms. We fight to win measures which not at all means partly achieving what we want to realize in the socialist form of society. . . . But winning social reforms is stages on our path to our goal in that sense, that it brings with it an increase of our power. Only as such, as an increase of our power, does it have any value for socialism.
What Pannekoek was describing here was how social politics was to be fought over (by the still ascending labor movement) to increase the movement’s power. The foundations of the power of the workers’ movement was, according to Pannekoek, three-folded. First and foremost in the economic functions and role of the working class as the carrier of the whole social structure. Secondly, organizations make use of that role for the purposes of the proletariat. And thirdly class consciousnesses: understanding of the world and which horizons are within reach. The increasing or shrinking of this class power would then be the scale according to which activities could be measured.
Pannekoek also gave explicit purpose (in the same pamphlet) to socialists taking part in parliament: not to achieve victories but to fight the political opponents of the proletarian socialist movement. Victory could only be a deeper understanding among workers of the limits of democracy. It all makes sense from a strategic orientation around increasing the power of the working class.
Besides perspectives on social reforms and purposes of taking part in parliamentarism, Pannekoek also wrote about the role of labor unions, as the most basic form of the organized workers’ movement. If anyone would set out to read the first program of the Socialists from 2008, which also is the basis of the current one, in light of Pannekoek’s pamphlet, the source of inspiration is easy to identify.
What never struck our minds though, not until several years later, is that perhaps the working class forming the seemingly unstoppable Second International of 1909, was not the same subject for social change as our youth, semi-subcultural organization. Were we really the same? Raising a question like that today, it’s hard not to laugh, but that little piece of the puzzle passed us by.
If mixing up the subjects (the workers’ movement of 1909 and us in the 2000s) made us not deal with working-class politics at all, perhaps not even distantly related, what about Left populism? Even then, it can’t be considered much more than a failure. We did not succeed in setting people into any lasting motion. Grievances flared up many times, we led some protests and gave support to others. Examples of this are closures of rural schools, parents protesting against cuts in childcare, and nursing staff protesting against cuts in health- and elder care. Contacts and trust were gained but no lasting activities were sustained. If our aim in “creating a movement” (our attempt of linking the small questions to grander horizons) was to make us socialists, then the failing of this attempt made us mere populists, but without much of a populist movement. We tried to be the former, but in failing that we sort of became the latter, but not very successful measured in that aspect either, since we could not stop trying to be the former.
Attempting to break out of isolation
We have always been very much aware of our own limitations due to our geographical isolation. Early on we sought to build up chapters in nearby cities. In 2010 we made our first attempt of “going national” after having made contacts with former black-bloc anti-fascists who also wanted to “go political.” There were also members from Västervik who had moved away to other cities for work or study. We imagined that our little Västervik could be a red base area from which we could lob out satellites in Sweden.
New chapters were formed in more cities, a new city-council seat was taken in a nearby small municipality, but none of these chapters survived for very long. The direct, non-political surface reasons for this were primarily two.
1. We were all still quite young and it is easier to be radical before one needs to consider the imperatives of earning a living or providing for a family. Very few want to continue being an “activist” their whole life, and being a Leftist activist was indeed all we had to offer people.
2. Our organization as such was not really capable (or competent) in helping new comrades around the country to run their stuff. We were not ready for the task from the end of the red base area either.
After 2015, Västervik was yet again alone. Most of the new members were still around but only Västervik kept going, itself too busy to reflect properly, if at all.
In 2019 it was time for the other of the two typical 70s Left groups to splinter. This time the delight had come not to Trotskyites but rather 1928-style Stalinists in the KPML(r)/KP. Their breakup differed in many ways from our break with the SP, not just in time, but especially in that the Stalinist splinters tried to change their party, while we just wanted to leave and distance ourselves. They represented a new generation coming from the youth league, wanting to get rid of the hammer and sickle as a party symbol, perhaps tuning down party siblingship with the North Korean Workers Party, distancing themselves from Stalin, etc. Also in the mix was the Party’s stance on open borders and mass immigration, the rise of the populist Right was not even possible to deny for the “R:ers.” They kept the fight going for a while and the typical bad-blood, dirty-Lefty-break-up happened on several locations around the country.
After their bad breakup, people went in different directions. In Malmö, Sweden's third largest city in the very south, the chapter went in the direction of what I call “pure populism” and formed the Malmö-list (Malmölistan). The pure populism camp is formed with inspiration from and around the local party Örebropartiet, in the city of Örebro. They have strongly leaned into nationalism and have done an “updated class analysis” with the “transferiat” (those who live on transfers from the public sector in one way or another) as center characters. Class conflict today is, according to their “real Marxism,” between the productive classes and this transferiat. They (both Örebropartiet and Malmölistan) have sought to bring out their message, in the social media channels of the nationalist Right, which have gladly taken them in.
A little further up north in Sweden in county Dalarna (only really the middle though) the majority of the local KP-chapter restarted as the Dalarna Socialist Association. This organization later merged with the Socialists in 2021 and this was the beginning of our second attempt of breaking isolation. More on this later.
A third formation took place after the rumble in the 70s Stalinist camp, and that was the formation called “24:7” in the city of Varberg. 24:7 describes themselves as a “hybrid between a party and popular movement,” and took the name “24:7” because they are active 24 hours, 7 days a week. 24:7 can probably best be described as something in between Malmölistan and Dalarnas Socialist Association, in that they only got rid of the communist aesthetics and want to “create movement” around “concrete questions” — indeed similar thoughts to those we used to justify our break from the SP, some 11 years earlier. In the last elections of September 2022, 24:7 succeeded in gaining seats in Varberg, something they had never accomplished before, as communists. Malmölistan did not succeed, despite hard work, and the pure populists in Örebropartiet had their best election this far. So did several other local parties/populist initiatives around the country.
The 2022 elections for the socialists
With the merging with Dalarnas Socialist Association we hoped, for the second time, to become a national Left alternative. The comrades in the Dalarna chapter had, in the election of 2018, gained seats in Ludvika city council, then still with the communists. The plan now was to regain that seat with the new Party. We thought it to be a relatively easy task, now that the comrades wouldn’t have to defend either Stalin or North Korea. The chapter’s local leader was also kind of a radical political celebrity.
The plan was soon turned into gravel though, when the same leading figure moved to another city, not in the county of Dalarna. The organization was not strong enough to live and thrive without their leading figure. Instead the chapter in Dalarna decided to run in the very small municipality of Älvdalen.
Besides running with independent candidature lists in Älvdalen and Västervik, we also ran in the municipalities of Gotland and Uppsala (where a local chapter had been started after a member of Uppsala city council jumped from the Left Party to us, just before Dalarna joined in). We also ran in the national election for the first time in 2022, totally devoid of any illusions, just because we did not want to lend any support to the Social Democrats or the Left Party any more.
I decided to run on Gotland as a last (perhaps rather desperate) attempt to still move the project forward, even though, by this time, I had strong objections to where we were going in relation to what we claimed we wanted to achieve. I had just moved to the island from Västervik in the late summer of 2021. I had then no plans of setting up shop, but instead wanted to focus on unionizing my workplace and help out in the national campaign.
When the prospects of the second attempt of “going national” soon started to look less promising, I decided to give the anti-austerity Left-wing populism a chance on Gotland. Cuts in the public welfare systems were as ever present on Gotland as anywhere else in Sweden. The candidature was presented six months before the election. So how did things go?
In the heartland, Västervik, we lost one seat and went from three to two — this mostly due to the fact that our organizational capacity had shrunken, with myself moving away (after being the central figure since the start in 2003) and no mobilized support for Västervik from other chapters in the country. In Uppsala (which is Sweden’s fourth biggest city) we did not make it, same as in Älvdalen with our new ex-R:ers comrades. On Gotland we only got half way in our six months of rather intense campaigning. We got 430 votes of approximately 800 needed for one seat in the local parliament. The results in the national election reflected our isolation with only a bit over 800 votes (compared to some 1500 local votes of which 1289 was in Västervik and Gotland).
In my mind, this election meant the closing of our last chance of keeping up the Left populist project we had become without really seeking it. New seats in new locations was a necessity for being able to attain any sort of force of gravity. A little momentum, however small, was preciously needed.
Left populism has a very limited (if any at all) potential to bring forward the case for socialism
It is now, after 20 years of failed strategy in Västervik and two failed attempts of breaking isolation, high time to draw conclusions and critically evaluate the time that has passed. The alternatives to rethinking are only two, none of which is good enough. We can of course close shop and forget about those “silly days of youthful attempts of changing the world.” We can also continue on, keeping a blind eye to everything that speaks against the connection between what we are doing and what we want to do. Surely that would mean that the next 20 years would become a worse repetition of the years that have passed.
Instead of the local parliamentary seats serving as means to stimulate and “help create” civil-social movements amongst people against the austerity politics, we ended up helping people in Västervik tell themselves that they indeed had “done something” to change the world — when they voted for us. Sure, local political life has been kind of pressed, and sometimes a bit more pressed for two decades thanks to the Socialists, but that was never the aim. The aim was to build and increase class power by people in motion.
Without noticing ourselves, all we did, all we were (and what we now are) was shaped in relation to the lowest floor of the political pyramid structure of the Swedish state. We got caught up in the machine, so to speak. Hundreds of people have passed through the organization over the years. In times of elections we have been a strong, all-volunteer activist campaign force. Between elections, however, people have tended to drift away. Local anti-austerity politics was never, at least not for us, in our sincere attempts, the powder keg we had hoped. Winning votes against austerity politics on a general civic mandate is in no way a step forward in a project for achieving socialism. At least not if one means by “achieving socialism” realizing the transitional form between capitalism and socialism.
In our “very Marxist” program we speak about unions, workers, the working class, women in the working class, and class conflict as what defines the world we live in. Between 2006 and 2011 we had influence on union activities in wood manufacturing plants. Those were years of very good lessons learnt in factory organizing and, to my understanding, also proof of potential in the “actual” working class. This work was half-broken with the 2009 global recession but kept going until the last plant, where we had influence, was shut down in 2011. Instead of really evaluating these experiences back then, we got sucked into more city-council stuff. Union activities were engaged more after that, but never worked consistently and in the light of the experiences made. It was, so to speak, only done with the left hand.
Today I can’t help thinking that we should have instead evaluated our strategy back in 2010 and perhaps shifted towards trying to be a practical school for shop-floor organizing, and in that at least build foundations in the working class. The Owl of Minerva is said to only fly at dusk. It does not correspond well to us. It obviously had to pass to pitch black night before we started to think critically about what we were doing, and that night is now.
Instead we continued on for 13 more years, our “sell” to people who came to us was that they might become activists and perhaps read a little Marx, some Ernest Mandel, some Pannekoek and perhaps a book or two more if someone wanted to go “deep.” Guess what — most normal people don’t like being activists, and, if reading has no real connection to anything existing, then reading is rarely motivated either.
What we failed to grasp
Implicit in how we have written our programs and found inspiration amongst the Second International radicals, is that there is a Left that exists, that it is somehow the same thing now as then, and that it is just not good enough. We saw that the Left had been Stalinist, social democratic, middle-class dominated from 1968 onwards, and totally degenerated with postmodernism in our days. Besides that, we thought we only had to not be bad like “all the others,” and things would be great. We never posed the question like this, but today it looks like we thought that overcoming a hundred-year long process of the eradication of class consciousness was to be somehow circumvented only if we were active enough. We thought that distancing ourselves from the stinking corpse of the Left would overcome the death of the Left.
Our “socialist” horizons also shrunk, of course. Nostalgia over the “good old days'' of the welfare state in the 1980s is not much of a program for the future. In our program we wrote about socialism in terms of moving forward, freedom, overcoming class society and wage labor. But what we then raised as political demands and “solutions” were only things from a glorified past: recreation, building back, re-nationalization, and re-stateification. The horizons of the future shrunk to that of yesterday, and yesterday — no matter what one thinks of it — was surely no socialism.
So what about the future?
I don’t know much more than that I still want to contribute to the answer of the freedom question, and so do my comrades. Now we have heard that there are some strange people calling themselves Platypus, who not only claim that the “Left is dead” (which is hard even for us to argue against now), but also says “Long live the Left.” The “long live” part seems to imply that the freedom question isn’t fully doomed, never to be raised again. You also claim that most of our “Marxist” truths are actually false, that the contradiction between labor and capital is not between the actual classes, that Marx himself did not write Das Kapital to give the working class a better understanding of how the world works (even not about economics at all), to mention a few. The questions you pose tasks us to investigate and seek better understanding. Before that is done, I feel like I have no right to speak at all. If we can gain some understanding from listening closer to what you have to say, that might be as good a point for a new start as there can be — whatever that will entail.
See you in Chicago! |P
 Västervik is a small deindustrialized town on the southeast coast of Sweden.
 Gymnasium in Sweden comprises years 10–12 of the Swedish school system and the first level that is formally not mandatory.
 Västerviks Socialistförening, which, in elections, runs under the name Socialisterna Välfärdspartiet (Socialist Welfare Party). Here it will be referred to as the Socialists.
 Die Taktischen Differenzen in der Arbeiterbewegung.
 Communist Party Marxist-Leninist (revolutionaries), later simply Communist Party, also known as the R:ers.