The potato revolution
Russia’s revolution had a huge impact on the working class in Sweden. Labour historian Håkan Blomqvist examines the events of 1917
Women took the lead in first protests
Perhaps it seems unexpected, but the influences of the February 1917 revolution in Russia first made their impact on Sweden. Together with the other Nordic countries, Sweden was neutral in World War I, but suffered from food shortages and other hardships due to the conflict in surrounding states. The conservative Swedish government of 1914 did not prioritise the country’s food supply until it was too late. Meat, fat, livestock, potatoes and other crops, together with leather, clothes, shoes and everything needed by a war economy, were exported to Germany - with mounting profits for Swedish tradesmen and wealthy farmers.
From 1916 the food situation of the Swedish working class deteriorated and rationing was introduced through a complicated system of various state organs. As real wages had fallen since the outbreak of the war, strikes broke out among steelworkers and social unrest spread.
In January 1917 bread was rationed. Three months later the rations were cut, and the social protests exploded under the influence of the Russian Revolution. As in Petrograd, they began with working class women protesting in small towns with demands for more ration cards and lower prices for milk and potatoes in March. The protests spread to the larger cities and during the last two weeks of April more than a quarter of a million women and men participated in food protests all over Sweden - this in a population of 5.9 million, with 70% living in the countryside. These workers’ protests were not only in the form of demonstrations and meetings. They were often followed by direct action through inventories of stores and storehouses, farms and other places where the protestors hoped to find food - first and foremost potatoes. A group of women would forcefully enter a grocery store insisting on their right to ensure no food was being kept hidden away by shopkeepers speculating on increased prices. If found, the women forced the keeper to sell the items at their posted prices. In some areas the inventories took the form of mass actions - such as when 5,000 sawmill workers and their families marched through the countryside in northern Ådalen to inspect farms and village shops and force the owners to sell what they had. In some places these investigations led to plundering.
Workers and soldiers
To the authorities things seemed to be getting out of hand, especially when conscript soldiers joined the hunger protests. In several of the garrison cities soldiers in uniform and in disciplined detachments, although disarmed by the officers, marched alongside the civilian protestors and participated in socialist-organised meetings discussing the Russian Revolution. During the spring of 1917 the reformist Social Democratic Party split - the left went on to form a new more revolutionary party, later to become the Swedish Communist Party. This new formation was supported by the mass social democratic youth movement. Together with the anarcho-syndicalists the new party formed a left minority flank within the Swedish labour movement. Inspired by developments in Russia, the youth movement formed an association named ‘Soldiers and Workers’ within the army, which aimed to fraternise with the workers under the slogan, “Don’t fire on your class brothers!”
Fearing revolution and lacking confidence in the loyalty of conscript soldiers, the authorities in Stockholm decided to organise a clandestine guard of some thousands of armed civilians. When these plans were revealed, the socialist left called for the arming of the working class, and forced the authorities to back down.
This was a couple of days before May 1 and many feared a general and violent confrontation, as the labour movement mobilised its forces in preparation for the big day. The largest May Day demonstrations in Swedish history were, however, disciplined and peaceful, as thousands of worker guards defended the demonstrators and prevented looting and confrontation with the military.
Beneath the surface of protests, inventories and demonstrations, an important development of self-organisation was unfolding. To formulate their needs and put forward their demands to the authorities protestors in different parts of the country elected ‘hunger committees’, often as highly temporary organs of the mass movement. In some places, however, the committees turned into workers’ councils of the same type as in Russia - as also happened in many other parts of the world.
The most famous example was the ‘Workers’ Committee of April 16’ in the small industrial town of Västervik in southern Sweden. A committee of five delegates was elected at a mass meeting of striking and protesting workers, men and women, to supervise the city’s food supply. It established worker’s control over prices and profits, the quality of food and grain, issued export licences for the fishing industry and upheld law and order through a workers’ militia. This was not done through violence, except for some initial incidents, and the local liberal mayor cooperated with the committee and rejected an offer of military support from higher authorities.
The manifesto from Västervik, which demanded guaranteed food supply, land to grow potatoes, an eight-hour working day and the release of all those arrested on hunger demonstrations, gained mass support throughout Sweden. Similar workers’ committees were established in around 40 cities and towns - some with the participation of all the various currents within the labour movement, but others only with the support of the anarcho-syndicalists and the socialist left. In some places, like in the northern city of Härnösand and the region of Ådalen with their large sawmill populations, the workers’ councils established local power similar to the experience of Västervik. In Härnösand even the local police elected delegates to the council.
The movement was, however, soon to split. On May 7 the leaders of the social democratic party and the Swedish TUC proclaimed the founding of ‘1917 års Arbetarkommitte’ (Labour Committee of 1917), which was supposed to provide a central leadership for all the local hunger and workers’ committees. And local groups were instructed to abstain from illegal and direct action, instead concentrating on the forthcoming general elections in September. It was claimed that an election victory for social democracy, in alliance with liberals, would oust the conservative rightwing government, solve the food situation and establish universal suffrage. In 1917 most men could vote in elections to the second chamber in the Swedish riksdag (parliament), but the first chamber - which was elected indirectly through the municipalities, where the richest could have up to 40 votes - could veto laws passed in the riksdag. And, of course, women lacked voting rights.
These top-down measures provoked splits in the local committees, as the social democratic-led unions and labour communes withdrew. The left tried to counter this development through electing its own central leadership of the mass movement and on June 6 the ‘Arbetarnas landsråd’ - the national council of workers - was elected at a mass meeting of 20,000 workers in Stockholm. This council has been referred to as the ‘Petrograd soviet of Sweden’, but, in contrast to the Russian central soviet, the Swedish version was not elected by local committees and councils, but was more like a front or campaigning organisation for leftwing forces.
It was formed the day after a serious confrontation took place in Stockholm between tens of thousands of workers protesting outside the riksdag and the police and military. While some thought that this was the prelude to a revolution like in Russia, it was in fact the last act of the Swedish hunger movement of 1917. During the month of May violent confrontations and riots had unfolded in several Swedish cities, as desperate women tried to get access to bread and potatoes and were met by mounted police and the military. The culmination of this spring of social unrest occurred when sawmill workers disarmed a military force on the island of Seskarö as far to the north in the Baltic sea as you can get.
During the summer and after the first harvest the food situation became better and in September social democrats and liberals won the elections and formed a coalition government. The liberal-socialist government was, however, prevented by the conservatives in the upper chamber from carrying through constitutional reforms, and, as the war continued, the food situation again deteriorated and became worse still in 1918. By then the hopes in the spreading of the Bolshevik revolution were gone - the Finish civil war ended in a bloody defeat for the reds, with tens of thousands killed, wounded, imprisoned or disappeared.
The horrible year of 1918 saw the decline of the Swedish left and the workers’ committees were generally reduced to a rump of small left unions and groups - in some places they were the organ of just the anarcho-syndicalists. Their activity centred around prices and the quality of food, shoes and other necessities, but, since the anarcho-syndicalists abstained from ‘politics’ and refused to get involved in the struggle for universal suffrage and the contesting of elections, the committees became completely marginalised when the issue of democracy once again became a central issue.
Following the German revolution of November 1918, even Swedish social democracy threatened the conservatives of the upper chamber with revolution. Through a mass demonstration in Stockholm, which featured a thousand women workers at the front, they reminded the conservatives of the wave of hunger protests and the revolutionary climate of spring 1917. At the same time left socialists organised mass meetings for a Swedish socialist republic based on workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ councils. This imitation of the Bolshevik example certainly raised some fear within the Swedish bourgeoisie and monarchy. But in reality the movement of self-organisation from below was gone and the result of the political struggle was a compromise. What in Sweden is usually called the ‘democratic breakthrough’ ended with the conservatives accepting universal suffrage in exchange for the survival of the monarchy and a parliamentary system that did not leave room for any self-organised movement of workers’ councils from below.
For the reformist Swedish social democracy this was the road to follow. For the left socialists becoming communists the problem of the councils of 1917 was the low consciousness of the workers. As a path to the dictatorship of the proletariat workers’ councils were not seen as an expression of workers’ self-organisation, but of the party’s own consciousness and plans.
The high point seen during the struggles of 1917 would not be reached again.
This article was first published in the US journal Against the Current.