Between Utopia and Dystopia: Lessons from Sweden’s Socialist History

by Fabian De Geer

Per Albin Hansson at a May Day rally in 1940

March 15, 2020. Seven minutes past midnight. Sleep seemingly failing me and being—like all millennials—a virtual slave of the digital age, I wearily reach over to my bedside table and guiltily grab my iPhone. Facial ID and boom: the world, quite literally, in the palm of my hand. But this is not an average night. Scrolling down my screen with that semi-automatic thumb flick, news outlet after news outlet declares, “Breaking News, Coronavirus: a Global Pandemic.”

“Why are you still here?” That question followed me around for the days immediately following WHO’s decision to label COVID-19 an international health emergency. “You’re Swedish, go home. Everything there is better. Especially healthcare.” Well sure, that may be true, but I would perhaps disagree with the statement that “everything is better” in my country.

This habit of labelling Scandinavian countries as a “socialist utopia” is not unique to times of pandemics, but quite ubiquitous amongst us millennials. On the other end of the spectrum, you have the conventional American conservative, who, judging by their rhetoric, have replaced their traditional Christian hell with Scandinavia and the innate horrors of socialism. These are two conflicting narratives; one cannot hold the absolute truth. Nor are they both entirely wrong. So, with Bernie Sanders bowing out of the presidential primary and the American right breathing an almost audible sigh of relief, it’s worth taking a look at the details of socialism’s influence on Swedish politics and society, to determine whether it is something to be revered or whether it should, indeed, be feared.

First things first, when and where did Swedish socialism start? This is a dissertation topic in itself, but I will spare the reader any unnecessary boredom and try to sum this up quickly. Since the 1750s, wealth inequality in Sweden had been steadily increasing, with the poorest peasants being particularly affected and the nobility reaping the vast majority of the country’s wealth, while also retaining special privileges. As dawn broke over the 20th century, wealth inequality in the country reached new heights. It should therefore not come as a surprise that when the socialist activist August Palm delivered a speech where he, for the first time, expressed socialist sentiments, it resonated with Swedish workers.

In 1905, Swedish wealth and prestige hit another low, when the government was forced to give in to Norwegians’ desire for independence, culminating in the dissolution of the personal union between the two countries under the Swedish monarchy. Around this time, wealth was becoming even more concentrated in the hands of a select few, and poorer individuals were making even less money.

At the same time, starting around 1907, the country suffered an economic crisis, with unemployment rising sharply and starvation becoming all the more commonplace. As a result, the socialist ideals originally espoused by August Palm gained the widespread mobilisation needed for his dream to become reality. Fearing state backlash, the leader of the Workers’ Party, Hjalmar Branting, tried in vain to satiate the ever-growing impatience of the laborers. Their anger, however, erupted during May Day celebrations, when “down with the throne, the altar and nobility” echoed down the streets of the nation’s villages and cities during country-wide protests.

And so, a series of events were initiated that would eventually make Sweden one of the most socially progressive countries in the world. In 1913, the state passed a law giving everyone above the age of 67 the right to a pension. In 1919, Swedes, for the first time, experienced something which had the semblance of universal suffrage. Ultimately, this led to the formation of Europe’s first socialist government, led by Hjalmar Branting. With very brief interruptions, it would be 40 years before the Social Democratic Party lost power, making them the most successful political party in the modern democratic world.

Per Albin Hansson and “The People’s Home”

In 1928, the then-leader of the Social Democrats, Per Albin Hansson, gave a speech that would shape the course of Swedish political history. He asked the people to compare Sweden to their homes. In a happy family, he said, there are no “favourites;” no distinction is made between “stepchildren,” and the strong do not “prey upon the weak.” A happy home is where equality, solidarity, cooperation, and kindness prevail. This is something he wanted to model Sweden after: a concept he called folkhemmet, meaning “the people’s home.”

Four years later, when Per Albin Hansson was elected Prime Minister, he immediately began to implement the vision of the Swedish home he had outlined in his speech. The idea was to compromise; Hansson wanted Sweden to be a place where the understandably frustrated working class could coexist with the more conservative aspects of society. A place where people did not judge each other based on their family background and where all citizens felt a sense of belonging to the state. To achieve this level of peaceful coexistence, not only did the old order have to accept radical alterations to societal and cultural structures in Sweden, but the working class and the revolutionaries had to equally accept a certain degree of status quo. The goal was a type of equality that aimed to reconcile the contradiction of maintaining a monarchical state with socialist elements. Royals, farmers, aristocrats, or academics—you were all siblings belonging to the same Swedish family.

Hjamlar Branting giving a speech in 1909. International Magazine Services Photo Archive

The legacy of folkhemmet

Contemporary Sweden is one of the countries in the world with the most equality between the genders. Even though Sweden lagged behind its Scandinavian neighbours, women did nonetheless gain the vote earlier than in most industrialised nations. Today, the women of this country enjoy generously paid maternity leave and extensive support networks, with paid state benefits for each child, regardless of their financial background. Furthermore, the current Swedish government led by the Social Democrats has decided to export these progressive policies to the international arena, making women’s right central to their political creed, particularly in matters relating to diplomacy. Actively pursuing what they call “a feminist foreign policy,” they place gender equality at the forefront of their diplomatic agenda, something Sweden is the first in the world to do. There is undoubtedly a long way to go before perfect equality is achieved. But, comparatively, Sweden has come a long way in the promotion of gender equality, both domestically and internationally.

Many of these policies stem from the legacy of folkhemmet originally espoused by Per Albin Hansson. The major breakthrough for women’s rights occurred in the 1930s, coinciding with the launch of the reformist policies that Prime Minister Hansson thought were necessary to fulfill his dream of creating a Swedish home. During these years, almost alone in the industrialised world, the Swedish state implemented maintenance allowances, free maternity care, and medical checkups. They repealed a law banning contraceptives, replacing it with a law prohibiting the firing of women on the basis of marriage or pregnancy, and they also eased restrictions on abortion. By comparison, the United States did not ban discrimination based on gender until 1972. Although Hansson can not in any way be considered a feminist by contemporary standards, firmly declaring that women belonged as caretakers of the home, during the years he was in power women experienced an elevation of their societal status. This is because his government realised that the discriminatory policies holding back female rights would in the long run be damaging to the overall ambition of folkhemmet. As such, the foundation of Swedish contemporary feminist policies can be seen as having been laid as a result of the establishment of the welfare state in the early 1930s, as part of Per Albin Hansson’s desire to realise the utopia he envisioned for his people.

Something which is also directly related to the days of Per Albin Hansson and his vision is the existence of Sweden’s well-established safety nets. Because besides paving the way for women’s rights, the idea of folkhemmet drove the Swedish government to implement no less than 30 monumental welfare reforms. These included insurance for the unemployed, financial benefits for the blind, universal healthcare, limited working hours for farmers, as well as state sponsored dental care and a guaranteed six-day holiday.

At the moment, COVID-19 is ravaging the US economy and upending people’s lives, with one particularly grim prediction claiming that US unemployment will soar to 30%. In light of this, it is hard not to reflect upon how the lack of the very benefits implemented as part of the reform programs in Sweden during the 1930s is what is currently steering the United States toward an economic and societal catastrophe. This is not to say that Sweden is not feeling the impact of this deadly virus as well, but there is an argument to be made that the welfare state, which is so readily dismissed and feared by American conservatives, is the very thing that is shielding this Northern European region from the same fate currently faced by the United States.

A perfect Swedish home, but at what cost?

There is, however, a sinister chapter of Sweden’s history often overlooked by those who lavish praise on the socialist success story of the 20th century. For instance, in 1935, the Swedish government used the idea of putting state before the individual to justify the passing of a law that made coerced sterilisation legal in cases of “mental illness, feeble-mindedness or other mental defects.” The rationale behind this legislation, according to the appointed parliamentary commission, was that “sterilisation of the inferior human being is a justified measurement beneficial to the individual state.” In other words, the argument was that people who suffered from certain mental disorders were a financial burden and thus should be prevented from procreating, in order to offset any future costs to the government. Shockingly, this is a policy that was implemented with a frightening consistency, for more than four decades. From 1935-1975, 62,888 people were forced into sterilisation by the Swedish state, 93% of them women.

Other people who were deemed inferior by the state were the Romani. Referred to collectively as the “Gypsy problem,” they were denied many of the reforms enacted as part of folkhemmet during the 1930s. Between the 1920-1990s, the Swedish government expressed a desire to “free the people from the Romani plague,” suggesting, in what is eerily reminiscent of laws in 1930s Germany, to forbid the Romani from marrying or having children with people of Swedish background. This, the government reasoned, would save the society the costs of having to care for people who were not their own. Instead, this would allow the state to focus on building the collective home they envisioned for Sweden and the people they deemed “Swedish enough” to belong to it.

Just as a person’s upbringing affects his or her perceptions, values, and personality, so too does a state’s history have an impact on the collective attitudes of societies. While the Swedish state has apologised profusely for the treatment of minorities and particularly the Romani, the exclusive nature of the “people’s home” is still interwoven throughout the fabric of Swedish culture. Integration of individuals of foreign nationalities remains a problem to this day. This is most notable in the failure to integrate the nearly biblical flow of refugees the country received in the mid-2010s. A relatively recent report published by Amnesty International showed how, despite equal treatment under official law, Romani people still face significant discrimination by both the local population as well as police authorities.

However, it is not only a country’s collective self-awareness that is impacted by its past, but its institutional infrastructure is as well. Just as a person has to adapt with his or her age, adjusting their rhetoric, updating their values, modernising their outlook, so too does a country need to step back and reflect on whether there is anything in their infrastructure that needs altering. With this, Sweden could do better. The large size of the state has provided many benefits, seen most starkly during the current COVID-19 pandemic, where the state’s internationally controversial approach has been met with little to no domestic opposition. This is because of the social contract set up between the state and the people, which allows Swedes to have a remarkable amount of trust in their government’s ability to handle emergencies.

Like many of Sweden’s other traits, the development of this trust has a direct connection to the “people’s home” and the idea of the state as a benevolent caretaker, always looking after its family’s best interest. However, as a result, the public sector in Sweden has been growing for decades, and, because of the level of trust in government, there has never really been a revision of how much of it remains necessary. Even though Sweden is still ranked highly on the government effectiveness index, it has been falling in recent years. With no real incentive to turn a profit, many of the publicly owned sectors in Sweden employ far more people than necessary, rendering many services slower and much more inefficient than they should be. The repercussions of this can be seen in a recent report by OECD, which demonstrated that 28% of the employed Swedish population works for the public sector, far more than most other OECD countries. Maintaining a state of this size requires the state to implement heavy taxation, which, some argue, disincentivises companies from further expansion in the country.

Feared or revered?

I like to think of myself as a stepchild of the Swedish state. I was born and raised here, and the Swedish passport is the only travel document in my possession. But I have lived abroad for a large portion of my life. I have never really attended a Swedish-speaking school, nor have I had a Swedish-speaking job. As with any step-sibling with a semi-attachment to his or her greater family, this perspective gives you some degree of unique objectivity usually reserved for outsiders. As such, I do see the flaws of the Swedish model. Yet, at the same time, I am also excruciatingly aware of the hypocrisy surrounding the criticisms of it.

Socialist policies so feared in the United States have, in light of the coronavirus, suddenly come to be viewed as a necessary evil. This can be seen with the Trump administration’s latest stimulus package, which includes a check of 1200 USD to each household. Similarly, universal healthcare coverage is being provided, albeit to an extremely limited degree, in the form of free tests and treatments for anyone diagnosed with COVID-19. Rest assured, the US government says, these are temporary measures. But one has to seriously question why this has to be the case. There are certainly aspects of Sweden’s socialist history that would make even the most ardent Sanders supporter cringe. However, although the Swedish model is still highly flawed with much to criticise, at least there is a structure in place which is better positioned to deal with a crisis when it arrives. As the US might now realise, the financial, political, and human cost of rushing through legislation in the midst of an ongoing pandemic will probably heavily outweigh any of the purported benefits of resisting permanent implementation of such reforms.

Sweden is not heaven on earth. But neither is it hell. Americans should stop fearing Scandinavian socialism, just as much as unilateral reverence should be avoided. Instead of looking at the Swedish model as an alien construct and an unachievable dream (or nightmare), the United States should examine the present to figure out what works, just as much as they should understand Sweden’s socialist past to learn what hasn’t. Because, as has been made clear by the socialist undertones of the US government’s recent stimulus package, there are clearly aspects of socialism that have been grudgingly accepted as necessary.

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