Nordic socialism: is it a thing?

Joining the Socialist Party is straightforward. You have to understand and accept the Party’s view of the system of society we live in – capitalism – and want to replace it with a different system of society – socialism. By capitalism we mean the current world system of producing goods and services for sale on the market and for profit rather than directly for use – something involving money and wages, buying and selling, a small number of humans owning most of the Earth’s resources and a vast majority of non-owners having to sell their energies for a wage or salary to survive. By socialism we mean the direct opposite of this. We mean a new world-wide system of producing goods and services cooperatively and democratically for use not profit, free access to all those goods and services and so no need for money or wages.

Socialist states?This should be pretty clear from even a cursory reading of any edition of the Socialist Standard or from looking at the wide range of information available on the Party’s website (www.worldsocialism/org/spgb). Yet, among those interested enough to apply for membership, there are some who express the view that that there’s such a thing as ‘Nordic Socialism’, that somehow countries like Sweden, Norway, Denmark or Finland, have a system of society that is different from other Western countries and that can be called ‘socialism’. This emerges in particular when applicants applying to join online fill in the website questionnaire, one of whose questions is ‘Has socialism been established in any part of the world?’. This is in no sense meant as a trick question but is simply a request for applicants to affirm that they understand that socialism is essentially a world system or it is nothing.

But what is the rationale some people find for considering the Nordic countries as somehow ‘socialist’? After all, if you’re prepared to apply to join an organisation which holds that socialism must be a world-wide system, then it should be clear that the idea of a socialist ‘country’ or ‘socialist countries’ is a contradiction in terms. Yet the ‘socialist’ label for the Nordic ‘bloc’ has clearly found a place in some people’s minds. So where does it come from?

Social democracy
Well, it isn’t that unusual to find references (confused in our view) to ‘Nordic socialism’ in both political discussion and in written sources, as a simple Google search will evidence. This arises, among some of those who put forward the idea and so contribute to its spread and acceptance, from the fact that the term ‘social democratic’, which is often used to describe Nordic societies and has connotations of benevolence, tolerance and progressiveness, is easily confused with ‘socialism’. It is true that, in terms of social development and organisation, the Nordic countries are more advanced than most. Their democratically elected governments have on the whole managed to run their market and buying and selling system more smoothly and with relatively less conflict than many other similar countries. They have managed to do this in a way that has produced profits for the class that monopolises the wealth – the capitalist class – while at the same time allowing that vast majority of workers who need to sell their energies for a wage or salary a somewhat more benign and less precarious existence than experienced elsewhere. Their relatively advanced systems of universal health care and social security reflect the need for a capitalist economy to have a relatively healthy workforce in order for the capitalist system in those countries to function as efficiently as it can.

Not that this removes in any substantial way the fundamental wealth inequality between the two classes in society – capitalists and workers -, nor indeed does it eliminate the usual ills of capitalism – poverty, unemployment, crime, nationalism (eg, current United Nations figures show one in 10 children living in poverty in Finland). But it does create a social situation that generally appears more stable and less volatile than in other advanced Western capitalist countries. Having said that, of course, in no shape or form can it be called socialism. More correctly, as someone has written, ‘the misinterpretation of the Nordic model as socialist stems from a superficial analysis of its welfare policies’ and what, in the words of another commentator, we have in reality is ‘a blend of free-market capitalism and an extensive welfare state’.

Socialism anywhere?
So if, to the question on the online joining page ‘Has socialism been established anywhere in the world?’, someone wishing to join the Socialist Party answers along the lines of ‘Yes, in the Nordic countries’, we would want to discuss that with the applicant and ask them to have a rethink in the context of what we mean by socialism. We would also want to emphasise, in order to avoid any possible misunderstanding, that we would be equally averse to the label of ‘socialism’ being applied to states of any kind, including those state capitalist dictatorships, such as Cuba, China, Vietnam or North Korea, which only too readily give themselves that name.


Next article: Cooking the Books – Two questions answered ➤

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