Norwegians overthrow capitalist rule, 1931-35

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Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
Information is not easily available for the month, but Galenson says nationwide labor bargaining is done in the spring.
Location and Goals
Location Description: 
Because of dependence on hydroelectric power, Norwegian industry was fairly dispersed; strikes and other direct action occurred in many parts of the country.
To establish democracy and economic justice

To place the workers and farmers in the leadership of Norway


In the latter part of the nineteenth century Norway was marginal in Europe, a part of the Swedish kingdom, with a scarcity of resources, little industrial development, and massive poverty. Although the country had parliamentary forms, it was ruled by the owning class; the Norwegian army was used to suppress strikes.

Labor union leadership turned to Marxism, organizing workers for immediate gains as well as for the overthrow of capitalism. Labor departed from Leninism, however, by its proposal not to collectivize agriculture but instead to protect and extend family farms and encourage the use of cooperatives by farmers. A Labor Party was organized, structurally connected to the unions but tasked with standing for elections and challenging the government in Parliament.

Individual unions developed some strength as industrialization grew in the 1900s. In 1907 the Ironworkers signed the nation's first collective agreement with an employer. Unions joined together in a national federation. Employers then formed a federation of their own and continued to resist labor’s growing demands.

In the 1920s strikes increased in intensity. Labor in the town of Hammerfest formed a commune in 1921, led by workers councils; the army intervened to crush it. The workers’ response verged on becoming a national general strike. The employers backed by the state beat back the strike, but workers erupted again in an ironworkers’ strike in 1923-24, accompanied by some sabotage.

In 1923 the Labor Party, having joined the Communist International (Comintern) at the invitation of V.I. Lenin in 1919, left the Comintern, objecting to what they regarded as high-handed instructions out of touch with Norwegian realities (including to prepare for armed struggle).

Elements of the owning class decided that state repression using the army needed to be supplemented. To do this they formed a social movement called the Patriotic League in 1926, reaching mainly to the middle class. By the 1930s the League recruited as many as 100,000 members for violent "scab protection" in support of strikebreakers.

The Labor Party also reached out, opening its membership to anyone whether or not in a unionized workplace. Many rural farmworkers joined the Labor Party as well as some small farmers. Middle class Marxists and some reformers joined the party. In 1928 workers initiated another wave of strikes and boycotts.

The Great Depression created a higher rate of unemployment in Norway than any other Nordic country. Unlike the U.S., where unemployment reduced the membership of the unions, Norwegian unions grew by acknowledging the inability of the unemployed to pay dues; by 1932, 40% of union members were jobless. This practical implementation of the concept of solidarity became important in the decisive struggle to come.

In Norway the Depression hit bottom in 1931. In April the employers' federation locked their employees out of the factories and mills to try to force the unions to accept a reduction of wages for those still employed. The workers fought back nonviolently with massive demonstrations. The five-month struggle had no clear victor.

In 1932 Vidkun Quisling laid plans for a coup d'etat, wanting to overthrow the prime minister and move the government to the right with military rule. He then backed off, perhaps lacking support. (Quisling was later famous for leading the Norwegian Nazi party that collaborated with Hitler and formed the Norwegian government under German occupation.)

As the depression continued, farmers suffered and found themselves unable to keep up payment on their debts. Turbulence hit the rural sector as crowds gathered nonviolently to prevent eviction of farming families. The Agrarian Party, which included larger farmers and up until now allied with the Conservative Party, began to re-position itself.

By 1935, Norway was on the brink. The Conservative-led government was losing legitimacy daily and the capitalist class became increasingly desperate as militancy grew among workers and farmers.

For its part, the Labor Party came under increasing pressure from its members to reduce the suffering in the shorter run, as well as to seek revolution in the longer run. By that time the Labor Party was the largest single Parliamentary party (in a multi-party system) and had the confidence that it could get Norway’s economy moving again as well as lay the groundwork for a socialist society in the future.

The crisis was resolved in 1935 with the "Basic Agreement” between the National Employers Association and Norwegian Labor. The owners' federation agreed to accept the right of unionization throughout Norway including collective bargaining, and accepted the workers' right to strike (except during the life of a contract). Labor agreed that the owners would be allowed to guide their firms, believing it would soon be in a position to restrict owners through government regulation.

The Agrarian Party allied itself with Labor, which took the reins of government. It initiated Keynesian measures to expand the economy and started public works to head toward a policy of full employment, which became a keystone of Norwegian economic policy. More middle class people swung to the support of the Labor Party, both because the Party was actively recruiting them now (through family ties to workers, for example), and because some middle class people began to see that Labor produced concrete benefits for the people.

In 1935 Norway's owning class lost its historic power to dominate the economy and society. Not until 1965 -- three decades later -- did the Conservative Party return in a governing coalition, having accepted the new rules of the game including a high degree of public ownership of the means of production, extremely progressive taxation, strong business regulation for the public good, and the virtual abolition of poverty.

The intensifying nonviolent struggle by workers and farmers, plus middle class allies, created a fundamental power shift.

Research Notes
Walter Galenson, Labor in Norway. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1949.

Gene Sharp, Politics of Nonviolent Action. Boston: Porter Sargent Publishers, 1973.

Jan Fagerberg, Ådne cappelen, Lars Mjøset, Rune Skarstein, "The Decline of Social-Democratic State Capitalism in Norway," New Left Review. 181. May/June 1990.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
George Lakey, 10/08/2011