Review: “Scandinavian Social Democracy Today” – O. K. Timashkova

“Scandinavian Social Democracy Today” by O. K. Timashkova is one of the many books by Progress Publishers, naturally one of my favourite publishers, that I recently acquired from Gould’s Books in Australia. Obviously a Marxist-Leninist analysis of Scandinavian social democracy and so-called “democratic socialism” by a Soviet scholar intrigued me.

Timashkova really dives into the political economy of the Scandinavian countries, mostly Sweden but also Denmark and Norway and sometimes Finland. Timashkova offers an excellent analysis of the socio-economic origins of social democracy and “democratic socialism” in Scandinavia. According to Timashkova, the absence of serfdom in Scandinavia hastened capitalist industrialization, but simultaneously preserved a tradition of craft-guild exclusiveness, affording a privileged position to highly skilled labour (p. 18). This created a kind of de facto labour aristocracy. Moreover, owing to how the “industrial breakthrough” occurred in Scandinavia at a time when the industrial revolution was nearly complete in Western Europe, this shortened the transition from “classic” capitalism to state-monopoly capitalism. To compete with the monopolies of Western Europe, Scandinavian monopolies began to specialize in high quality manufactures. “This kind of specialisation, based on natural wealth — timber, iron ore, hydraulic power (Sweden and Norway) — climactic conditions (Denmark) and unique geographical location (Denmark and Norway), as well as on industrial skills, traditions of workmanship and the availability of highly-skilled labour, ensured these three small countries of advantageous positions on the world market, and led to the overwhelming importance for their economic development on external sources of accumulation” (p. 19). Thus, the Scandinavian bourgeoisie was able to share in the super profits of imperialism, even without extensive colonies of their own. “Even without colonies Scandinavian capitalism won a share of international imperialism’s superprofits. The Danish bourgeoisie, by attaining a monopoly of the meat and dairy markets and taking advantage of the cheap sea routes to London for marketing their farm produce, became — in Lenin’s words — ‘prosperous satellites of the British imperialist bourgeoisie, sharing their particularly easy and particularly fat profits’” (p. 19).

The Scandinavian bourgeoisie’s specialization in the production of high quality manufactures requiring highly-skilled labour, Timashkova writes, explains these countries more ‘socialist’ policies. For example, the demand for highly-skilled labour requires its constant replenishment. “It is no accident,” Timashkova argues, “that Sweden, Denmark and Norway were among the first European countries to eliminate illiteracy. At the beginning of the 20th century they were already spending from 10 to 12 per cent of their national budgets on education. This in turn brought about more costly national labour in these countries on the whole, and led to special forms of exploitation (in the Scandinavian countries both industry and agriculture have a very high labour intensity and productivity)” (p. 20). Moreover, “Highly-skilled, well-paid workers and artisans belonging to the worker aristocracy made up the core of the Social-Democratic parties of Sweden, Denmark and Norway from their very beginning in the last quarter of the 19th century” (p. 21).

Timashkova shreds the “mixed economy” theories and practices of the Scandinavian countries in Chapter III (pp. 99-154). Citing a large amount of data, Timashkova convincingly demonstrates that far from being a “mixed economy,” state-monopoly capitalism is well entrenched in Scandinavia. “In Sweden in 1974 industrial enterprises employing 500 or more persons and making up 2.4 per cent of the total number of enterprises employed 41.8 per cent of factory and office workers ([compared to] 1960 — 27 per cent); in Denmark 1.4 percent of the total number of enterprises employed 28.2 per cent of the work force ([compared to] 1960 — 26 per cent); and in Norway 1.1 per cent of the total number of enterprises employed 23 percent of the factory and office workers ([compared to] in 1965 — 18 per cent)” (pp. 106-107). A Swedish economic commission itself revealed that in the country regarded as the classic example of the “mixed economy” and the “third road of development” such a level of economic concentration did not proceed in proportions favouring the public sector (p. 109). Thus, in practice, Scandinavian social democracy and “democratic socialism” have proven to be even more right-wing and bourgeois than in Western Europe. Timashkova quotes Swedish politician E. Wigforss: “Swedish Social-Democracy emphasises that socialisation is only a means to an end, and this idea is stressed so forcefully that at times one gets the impression that they would like to do without it…The tradition of socialisation or nationalisation as the main line leading to the socialist transformation of society is much, much stronger in the [British] Labour Party than in Swedish Social-Democracy” (p. 122). Or, as the Swedish business magazine Affärsvärlden-Finanstidningen wrote: “One of the merits of Swedish Social-Democracy is that its economic policy can hardly be called a socialist one in the proper sense of the word: an orientation towards the development of state enterprise is by no means its distinctive feature” (p. 123).

Timashkova — rightfully, in my opinion — concludes that social democracy has survived in Scandinavia for so long because social democracy “turned out to be more acceptable for capitalism than the relatively weak organizations of the bourgeoisie. It was able to better meet the needs of the ruling class in stabilising the capitalist system, in the reproduction of the labour force by means of reforms relating to unemployment, poverty and social security. As a matter of fact, at a certain stage the purposes of Social-Democracy objectively coincided with the tasks of monopoly capital in these countries” (p. 240). Far from “changing the social physiognomy of their respective countries,” Timashkova writes, Scandinavian social democracy “have facilitated in no small degree the consolidation of the positions of big capital” (p. 241).

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