Norway-Sweden 1905: How the labour movement prevented war

In 1905, one hundred years ago, when Sweden looked set to go to war to stop Norway breaking away, the anti-war campaign was organised by the labour movement and the war was stopped. The Swedish labour movement directed its struggle against the Swedish establishment. The methods used were effective and would work today.

No more deluded by reaction
On tyrants only we'll make war
The soldiers too will take strike action
They'll break ranks and fight no more.
And if those cannibals keep trying
To sacrifice us to their pride
They soon shall hear the bullets flying
We'll shoot the generals on our own side.


The ‘forgotten’ verse of The Internationale


On 15 February 2003 millions of people demonstrated against the plans of the USA and its allies to invade Iraq. It was the biggest demonstration in the history of humanity and a breathtaking display of solidarity. Yet it did not stop the war. The protests against the war in Iraq were organised by a loose-knit network of groups and organisations that posed no direct threat to those that have political or economic power in the US. The American administration could afford to ignore them.

In 1905, one hundred years ago, when war looked imminent in another part of the world, the outcome was very different. On that occasion, a war was stopped. This was done by the Swedish labour movement. Its struggle was directed at the Swedish establishment’s plans to invade Norway. The methods used were effective and would work today.

International struggle, international organisation

A decisive reason for why the Swedish labour movement dared to challenge the war plans was that it was part of a dynamic, fighting International. An International is a group of labour organisations from different countries that have joined together to fight for a better society. But looking at today’s Socialist International, it is difficult to understand how the original Internationals were able to wield an enormous influence. Formally the Socialist International has the same structure of earlier Internationals, complete with statutes, congresses and programmes. But the Socialist International of today has neither the power nor the ambition to intervene in world events. Ordinary party members seldom get to hear of the organisation’s meetings, let alone what is discussed there.

Previous Internationals actively spearheaded the labour movement’s fight for peace and for a socialist revolution. It was in the Workers’ International, not nationally, that activists formulated the programmes and demands they later fought for in their own countries. It was there that they jointly developed their strategy for the forthcoming struggle, a strategy based on the belief that all workers everywhere have interests in common. This meant such things as fighting side by side for an eight-hour working day, supporting one another when strikes were called, and joining together to oppose war.

By the middle of the 19th century many workers and intellectuals had experienced the ruthless advance of early capitalism at first hand, and they began to join hands across borders. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were both members of what was to become the first international workers’ organisation – the League of the Just. This grouping was originally a German workers’ union, but many of those who became politically active were persecuted and forced to emigrate. As a result, the League spread across Europe.

In Paris, a number of Swedish craft apprentices joined the League of the Just while working there. Their membership cards bore the slogan: “All people are brothers” in twenty different languages. [1] In the summer of 1847, the League of the Just held a congress and changed its name to the Communist League. This underlined the fact that it had gone from organising people more or less in secret to agitating openly for a change in society, for the abolition of capitalism. On that occasion, the congress gave Marx and Engels the task of formulating a programme. The result was the Communist Manifesto, which was to become the programme of the whole international labour movement.

The Manifesto ends with the famous lines: “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries, unite!” [2] These were not just empty phrases to be repeated in solemn speeches but the core strategy of the workers’ struggle right up to the First World War. As soon as the Manifesto appeared on the streets in 1848, a giant movement got under way that confirmed Marx and Engels’ theory about the power of the working class. The workers of Paris overthrew the monarchy and Europe was engulfed by a wave of revolution. The Communist Manifesto was printed and distributed in numerous languages.

The League of Just was eventually dissolved. The next step was the establishment of the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA), the organisation now known as the First International. It held its first meeting on 28 December 1864 in St Martin’s Hall in London. Most of the participants were British or French, but a number of emigrants from other countries were also present. Karl Marx was voted onto the Central Committee as one of two German representatives. In fact it was Marx who wrote the International’s first declaration of policy. In 1866, the International held its first public congress. Both private citizens and organisations were admitted as members. [3] Each individual was viewed as a seed of revolution capable of spreading the collective consciousness of the working class to a new country, a new place.

It soon became apparent that the First International had to formulate a policy on war, and that it was vitally important that the working class pursue an independent line (and not place its trust in organisations like the EU and the UN of today). The whole history of medieval Europe is one of war. Early capitalist development prompted war after war as the ruling classes in various countries fought one another for control of land and for power and influence. Among the general populace, there was general disillusionment with the constant grind of war. Ordinary citizens understood perfectly well that they were the ones paying for war, through harsh taxation and looting.

Offering resistance as an individuals was out of the question. When the call came, you had no alternative but to report for duty, even if you knew that it meant privation, horror and probably death. When the bailiff arrived to collect your tax, you had no choice but to pay whatever he demanded, even if it meant letting your family starve. To refuse was to go to prison or risk being executed. Once the workers began organising, however, they were not only able to formulate in words the class character of warfare but they also acquired an instrument that could potentially stop wars.

When the International was founded, Germany and France were locked in fierce opposition. The 1868 congress in Brussels adopted a statement calling for a ‘people’s strike’ to prevent the conflict sliding into war. As yet, however, the working class had no mass party to represent it, and the International proved too small to organise a general strike. War broke out between France and Germany in 1870.

When France capitulated in 1871, Germany’s Social Democrats staged demonstrations in support of a just peace for the French Republic, and declared their opposition to the German annexation of Alsace-Lothringen. The party’s Central Committee was promptly arrested and charged with treason. All labour MPs in the North German assembly heeded the urgings of the International and voted against the issuing of war credits, but they were too few to get their way.

Following the French defeat in 1871, a reactionary bourgeois interim government was appointed in France. It failed to disarm the National Guard in Paris, a militia comprising workers and craftsmen, and was forced to leave the capital, taking its administrative machinery with it. The people seized power in the city, set up their own Assembly and elected their own representatives. The Paris Commune was the first instance of socialist rule in history. Reactionary forces in both France and Germany realised that the Paris Commune represented a threat to their entire world order, and the rulers who had only recently been at each other’s throats chose to pool their resources. Germany’s Bismarck released French soldiers from captivity so that they could join German soldiers in quashing the Commune. The resultant bloodbath was horrendous. The French government led by Thiers reported that 14,000 Communards had been killed, 5,000 deported and a further 5,000 sentenced to hard labour. Other sources put the death toll much higher – some as high as 50,000.

After the fall of the Paris Commune, the members of the International were subjected to extreme persecution. The congress they held in the Hague in 1872 was their last, even if the formal decision to close down was not taken until 1876.

Despite the closedown, the Communist Manifesto and the International’s policy declaration from 1864 continued to guide Europe’s socialists. The Marxist current of thought became the most pervasive in the movement. During the 20 years that passed before the International could be re-established, national labour parties were launched in many European countries. In Sweden, a tailor, August Palm, was one of the pioneers. Like many Swedish workers before him, his training as a craftsman’s apprentice had taken him south to the continent to seek work-experience and learn about new techniques in his field. It was there he came in contact with socialist ideas. He became a member first of the German and then of the Danish Social Democratic Party. [4] When he moved back to Sweden in 1882, it was with instructions to try and set up a Swedish section of the Workers’ International, whose revival was being encouraged in a number of countries.

He toured Sweden relentlessly as a political agitator, and challenged the liberal elements in the workers’ organisations he came across. In 1889, his labours were rewarded when the representatives of Sweden’s Social Democratic Workers’ Party assembled for their first congress. It was attended by representatives from 16 Social Democratic organisations, 54 trade union bodies and a sickness benefit fund. In all, there were 3,000 members. The hall was decorated with red banners and with pictures both from the Paris Commune and from the Chicago shooting of striking workers on 1 May 1886. The party, however, did not adopt a programme of its own until eight years after its founding congress. Axel Danielsson, the person finally chosen to write the party programme, did not feel there was any hurry. They already had the Communist Manifesto.

In 1889, the year that saw the birth of the Swedish Social Democratic Workers’ Party and also marked the centenary of the storming of the Bastille, the Second International opened its Constituent Congress in Paris. The organisations that had belonged to the First International had been small and somewhat before their time. The First International, therefore, had never developed into a mass movement but had served more as an organisation for spreading Marxist ideas and as a political training school for the more active workers. The Second International, however, was an organisation of active political struggle from the outset. A practical expression of this shift in emphasis was the decision taken at its first congress the following year to organise a worldwide demonstration in support of the eight-hour working day. The demonstration took place on 1 May 1890 and became such a powerful symbol of the international workers’ struggle that it was decided to hold rallies every year.

As early as the turn of the century, Marxists realised that a world war was imminent. They could see the power-struggle between European states competing for the assets of African and Asian peoples. Meetings of the International concluded that the war would break out as soon as the various minor conflicts between the capitalist states came to a head. They believed this would occur when an issue of sufficient importance caused these states to group themselves in rival blocs. They also understood that a world war would have terrible consequences.

At the initiative of Rosa Luxemburg, one of the foremost leaders of both the German and the international labour movement, the 1900 congress of the International in Paris adopted a resolution denouncing militarism and colonialism. This resolution took the form of an action plan describing how the Social Democratic parties were to go about reducing the risk of war. They were to vote against all war-spending, raise young people in a spirit of anti-militarism and organise simultaneous demonstrations in all countries in the event of an international crisis.

In 1904, war broke out between Russia and Japan. Right in the middle of this war, the International held its congress in Amsterdam. To the cheers of those present, the leaders of the Russian and Japanese delegations, Plekhanov and Katayma, shook hands, to demonstrate the international unity of the labour movement. Even if the capitalists incited one people against another, the workers stuck together across national boundaries. It was the same in the Nordic countries.

The 1905 union crisis – the Swedish upper class seeks to subjugate Norway

Sweden and Norway had been joined in a union since 1814, but it was never popular among Norwegians. Up until 1814, Norway had been in union with Denmark. The Danes, however, following their defeat in the Napoleonic war, were obliged to relinquish Norway to Sweden. By force of arms, the Swedish monarchy made Norway accept a new union, though the Swedish king was to have a less influential role there than at home.

Norway at this time had an active bourgeoisie and a labour movement that was increasing in strength. During the economic crisis that gripped the country in the late 1840s, wage cuts had become commonplace in the timber and mining industries. This led to strikes and protests. Labour associations were launched in various parts of the country. Universal suffrage was a key demand at the time, and the campaign for democracy was proving more successful in Norway than in Sweden. More Norwegians had the vote, and the Swedish monarchy was only allowed to use its veto twice against any law passed by the Norwegian parliament, the Storting. The third time a law was passed, the king had to back down. The fact that Norway had no nobility of its own to defend its privileges was doubtless one of the reasons why democracy progressed at a faster pace there. The Norwegian bourgeoisie were happy to pursue independence as the issue united the people.

Disagreement between the two countries deepened and led to further crises. In 1895, the situation was precarious. Addressing a rally on 1 May that year, Hjalmar Branting, who was later to become Sweden’s first Social Democratic prime minister, raged against the warmongering of the Swedish expansionists. He called the press propaganda “criminal incitement to fratricide”, adding that even if “this terrible prospect should become reality and Swedish riflemen are given the order to march westwards”, such a move would render all normal regulations and obligations null and void. In such circumstances, someone among the general populace may be tempted “to try and prevent of their own accord, by means of a single bullet, the order to fire tens of thousands of bullets whose aim is to maim and slaughter friends and brothers”. Branting was issuing a warning (or a threat?) that if a decision were taken to declare war on Norway, there was a danger that someone might take it upon himself to shoot one of the generals or politicians responsible.

Branting was put on trial for lese-majesty (treason), and delivered a crushing speech in his own defence, denying all the accusations. He argued that it was not he who was guilty of criminal actions but those disseminating war propaganda. On a split verdict, the Town Court sentenced him to three months’ imprisonment. The Appeals Court was equally split but confirmed the sentence, and finally the Supreme Court reduced it to a fine of 500 crowns.

In February 1905, Sweden’s Social Democrats held a party congress. Among the invited guests were representatives of the Norwegian Labour Party, who spoke in favour of workers’ unity and advocated dissolving the union. On that occasion, Branting opposed such a course, arguing that the principal task was to stave off “the Russian peril”, meaning Czarist imperialism. [5] But the Norwegians’ speeches were met with a storm of applause from the delegates, and Branting had to yield. Kata Dahlström made an oft-quoted speech affirming the right of Norway to independence: “Let the union go. The bridge uniting the workers of our two countries will never break down.” The congress adopted a statement in support of Norwegian self-determination. If those seeking territorial expansion were to try and push the union dispute to the point of war, the Swedish party and its Norwegian counterpart would together do all in their power to prevent such a betrayal of the people.

When Oscar II refused for the third time to approve a law adopted by the Storting, it was the final straw. The law concerned the Norwegian consuls, who were part of a scheme to give Norway a more independent foreign policy, and were therefore of symbolic importance. The Norwegian government resigned in protest at this breach of the constitution. In Sweden, the right-wing press launched a storm of propaganda. The Swedish nobility and officer corps wanted to march west and teach the Norwegians a lesson.

“In all the better taverns, there was a strong air of patriotism, fuelled by an evening of punch and endless renderings of the national anthem, and by a revival of the old saying about ‘talking Swedish to the Norwegians’,” writes Zeth Höglund in the first volume of his memoirs. Zeth Höglund, or Zäta, as he was generally known in the labour movement, was himself to play a key role in what followed. Knut Bäckström also paints a picture of rampant warmongering in his book about the Swedish labour movement, Arbetarrörelsen i Sverige: “The Crown Prince, subsequently King Gustav V, was reported by a Stockholm correspondent writing in the provincial press, to have said that a war against Norway would be ‘a picnic’. The king was visited by officers, clergymen and others pressing for war. The political right demanded that the order to mobilise be issued.”

Response of the labour movement: mass meetings, refusal of military duty, general strike

In 1905, there was no talk of firing “a single bullet” without orders, as Branting had put it in 1895. The working class had grown in strength and was confident in its ability to organise a ‘people’s strike’ to stop the war, the tactic recommended by the First International. Throughout the country, the Social Democrats held meetings and demonstrations in defence of peace. The party district in Skåne, which had 20,000 members, sent a message from its conference to the Norwegian Labour Party expressing its “warmest support for the Norwegian people’s struggle for independence”. The newspaper Arbetet wrote that Swedish workers would rather “make common cause with Norway and crush the tyrants in Sweden” than serve the interests of the Swedish upper class. [6] It was at this time that Branting formulated the legendary slogan, “Hands off Norway, King!”. But most active of all were Sweden’s Young Social Democrats, who held their first congress on 11-13 June, right in the middle of the crisis. On its opening day, the meeting condemned the pro-war campaign and organised a demonstration during the lunch break.

In consultation with Fredrik Ström, Per Albin Hansson and Fabian Månsson, Zeth Höglund wrote a manifesto, Down Weapons!, that was adopted unanimously by the congress. The Young Social Democrats then sang the Norwegian national anthem, Ja, vi elsker, and called for three cheers for the workers’ union that could never be put down.

The manifesto offered a clear strategy. It began by declaring that the workers of Sweden would never take up arms against Norway. It also urged Sweden’s working youth to refuse to report for military duty should they receive call-up papers. If weapons were to be directed at anyone, it was not at the Norwegians. The manifesto further declared that “the workers of Sweden are prepared to down tools throughout the land in order to prevent war”. The threat of war, then, was to be met by a refusal to serve in the military and by a general strike. The manifesto ends by calling for mass meetings to be held all over the country. In both Sweden and Norway, the manifesto was printed in the newspapers of the labour movement and was also distributed in the form of 100,000 leaflets. Its effect was sensational.

The threats to refuse military duty and stage a general strike came at a time of severe class conflict, and no one doubted their seriousness. The general strike of 1902 in support of universal suffrage was fresh in the memory, and the period since the autumn of 1904 had been full of conflicts. A great wave of strikes in Russia in January 1905 aroused enthusiasm and gave the anti-war movement hope. When a peaceful demonstration of 140,000 people in St Petersburg was met by a rain of bullets from the Czarist regime, protest meetings and demonstrations were held all over Sweden.

In March 1905, employers in the engineering industry pulled out of pay negotiations, which had reached the mediation stage. Workers in the factories came out on strike for local agreements. Then, later in the spring, the government sought to introduce new legislation banning strikes in enterprises “of public benefit”. The proposal was greeted by massive protests. In town after town, workers joined the struggle against pay cuts and for the right to organise. Strikes and demonstrations were legion. In many places, both the LO (Trade Union Confederation) and government agencies spoke of a state of war.

By 1 May, the Governor of Stockholm, Dicksson, was so concerned about the police’s inability to act that he called in 1,000 elite infantrymen from the Östergötland Grenadiers to help keep order in the city. (The Stockholm Garrison was considered untrustworthy. The widespread protests that met the new legislation led to its being voted down in the Lower Chamber of the Riksdag. But calm did not ensue.)

The engineering dispute spread further afield in May, with many other union organisations sounding the call to action. On 19 May, refuse collectors in Stockholm went on strike for higher pay and a collective agreement. On 26 May, a large open-air strike meeting was held at Liljansplan to protest at the use of students as strikebreakers. Fifteen thousand people took part. The protests and demonstrations continued the following day. That night, some 400 soldiers on horseback attacked the demonstration. The powers-that-be were clearly frightened by the workers’ determination to fight for their rights. On the following day, the refuse-collection dispute was resolved, with the employers giving in to all the workers’ demands.

In the atmosphere that prevailed at the time, the strategy put forward by the Young Social Democrats was clearly not to be dismissed as a collection of empty phrases. Had the military gone into Norway, there would have been a mutiny, and in such a situation a Swedish revolution would not have been far away.

On 20 June, Oscar II held a speech from the throne to an extraordinary session of the Riksdag. He made clear that Sweden would refrain from “meeting injustice with force”. This was seen as an indication that war was no longer imminent.

The independence of Norway was also a pawn in the European power game. Swedish territorial claims were supported by Germany, and Norwegian independence by Britain. When it came to the crunch, the German emperor showed reluctance to confront Britain and her French allies by openly supporting an armed attack on Norway. (The German regime was not ready for war until 1914). This doubtless affected the course of events. But the decisive factor in stopping the war was nevertheless the consistently socialist and internationalist approach adopted by the labour movement.

The union crisis had an aftermath in August 1905. Zeth Höglund, as the author of the Young Social Democrats’ peace manifesto, Down Weapons!, was tried for incitement to mutiny and disobedience. The charges were brought by the city’s public prosecutor, Lars Stendahl. He was known in the labour movement as ‘Stendahl of the Cudgel’ as a result of his actions in response to the riots of 20 April during the general strike of 1902. Despite the protests of the labour movement, Zäta was sentenced to eight months’ imprisonment, which was later reduced to six months by an appeals court. Still suffering badly from a serious nervous fever, he served his sentence at Malmö Prison between Midsummer Eve and Christmas Eve 1906. Many associated the name of Zeth Höglund with the political vision and personal courage that was going to be needed in the fight to prevent war.

During the union crisis, the Second International was still rooted in Marxist theory. The actions of the Scandinavian labour movement during the union crisis were inspired by the International, but they also set an example for the International as a whole.

Lenin admired the way the Swedish workers had handled the union crisis, in his work, The Right of Nations to Self-Determination. He observed that the Swedish workers’ defence of Norwegian autonomy had in all respects strengthened the ties between the Swedish and Norwegian proletariat. If, instead of resisting, the Swedish workers had supported the demands of the monarchy and the military for Norwegian subjugation, the Norwegian workers, too, would have been driven into the arms of the their own bourgeoisie. Internationalism would have foundered.

Although the Swedish labour movement was significantly smaller in 1905 than the labour movement in any developed country (and even many third world countries) today, they had the strength to intervene in history and stop war because they based themselves on the might of their own organisations, because they were part of an International and because they were not afraid of a socialist revolution. They provided us with a model example of how to stop war.