by Shabane Barot
‘I think we have the potential to become the largest party,’ Sweden Democrats’ party secretary Richard Jomshof tells a Swedish news agency in December 2015. His comments follow the results of poll that the Sweden Democrats (SD), a party that emerged from the Neo-Nazi movement of the eighties, have the support of 20 per cent of voters. This makes them the third largest party in the country – the largest among male voters. ‘I am absolutely convinced that the party has benefited from the situation that has arisen in recent months, even if we do not acknowledge the situation,’ Jomshof continues, referring to the refugee crisis.
Once a politically marginalised and violent street movement, the SD have built up their power base over the last few decades by securing votes in municipal elections, a strategy inspired by the French Front National. In particular, the Skåne region in Southern
Sweden, an area with a tradition of fascist organisation and tax resistance movements, proved fertile ground for SD, offering the party its first stronghold. Also tremendously important to the party has been the internet; its grassroots have organised around various popular blogs and online forums, constructing a narrative – that they consider a counternarrative – about immigration, Islam and other perceived threats to the Swedish nation. Arguments and tropes from this narrative have leaked into the political journalism of the mainstream right as the party’s influence has grown.
There is a long-standing conflict within the SD between proponents of old-school National Socialism and reformers, who struggle to whitewash (if you will) the party’s image by avoiding the most disreputable expressions of racism. Some ten years ago, the latter group took control of the party, and under their leadership the SD has officially downplayed language redolent of biological racism and antisemitism, instead deploying islamophobia and antimulticulturalism. The party has even introduced an internal policy of ‘zero tolerance for racism’, excluding members who express themselves crudely in public. Mathias Wåg, a leading investigative journalist covering the far Right, suggests that the zero-tolerance policy has been used, for the most part, by the leadership to purge SD of rival fractions, and to prevent the ‘ultra-right’ radicalisation of party members. A large number of old-school hard-liners have been excluded, and have subsequently organised in neofascist parties or think tanks, trying to influence the SD from the outside.
Over the years, more violent groups have also split away from the party to form their own marginal but dangerous organisations, making their presence felt through provocative public demonstrations, leafleting, and attacks on leftists and antiracists. There are also individuals acting on their own initiative, such as Peter Mangs, who shot people of colour in their homes or on the streets of the southern city Malmö for years before finally being caught in 2010. Mangs was never a member of SD, but – like the Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik – he was active and outspoken in far-Right online forums.
As Wåg has stressed, these various branches of the movement can’t be separated. Instead of viewing the far Right as organised in a spectrum, ranging from the suits in parliament to the boots on the street, it should be understood as a power-bloc, with a division of labour between the parliamentary wing, street fighters, bloggers, think tanks and terrorists. They share a common world-view, use the same arguments, engage in discussions with and feed off one another.
Left in despair
The SD are, to a dismaying extent, succeeding in setting the political agenda on immigration, and are increasingly influencing the public debate. They have, of course, been efficient in exploiting the refugee crisis that started in 2015 to further this end. Across the country, there has been a wave of arson attacks against accommodation for refugees, with few perpetrators apprehended. The dismantling of the welfare system over the last several decades, congruent with the ‘New Labourisation’ of the Swedish Social Democrats and the tax-cutting policies of the centre-right governments from 2006 to 2014, is, in familiar scapegoating, being blamed on refugees depicted as dead weights burdening the country.
Some Social Democrat politicians, like foreign minister Margot Wallström, subscribe to this framework, according to which Sweden is facing a systemic collapse due to immigration. The government has recently passed a bill reinforcing Sweden’s borders: ferry, bus and train companies with cross-border services now risk a fine of 50,000 kronor (£4,000) for each passenger they carry without valid IDs. As of 2016, anyone granted asylum will receive temporary, not permanent, residency permits. Such measures are supposed to make Sweden ‘less attractive’ – to dissuade refugees from arriving in the first place. And all of these measures were previously demanded by the SD – which has, of course, quickly moved on to new, more far-reaching demands: the leader of the party, Jimmie Åkesson, has recently suggested that the state keep a registry of all muslims in the country.
The radical Left has reacted to these developments with anger and despair. To understand the Swedish radical Left, one must understand Swedish Social Democracy. The Social Democratic Party defined Swedish politics during the last century, holding power for more than forty consecutive years, and governing for almost seventy years in total. During the 1980s, the party turned rightwards, adopting the politics of the ‘Third Way’, caught in the first wave of neoliberalism. It lost the power base of industrial workers as industries moved abroad. The following decades saw rapid increases in class divisions, growing faster in Sweden than in any other country within the OECD. With the EU-membership that was to follow, the whole political spectrum turned further to the right. Like its siblings across Europe, the Social Democratic Party in Sweden has been diminishing in power, influence and size since the 1990s, and its grassroots are aging. It lost two consecutive elections to a centre-right coalition in 2006 and 2010, but managed to regain fragile power in 2014, and, together with the Green party, is now leading a weak minority government – that is having a hard time passing its budget in parliament.
Due to the dominance of social democracy during the last century and an active and successful anti-Communist policy within the party and its affiliated trade union confederation the LO, the radical Left has never had a real mass base in Sweden. It has, however, always been a part of the labour movement – more so in certain regions than others, of course – and played a substantial role in social movements. Radical leftist groups were crucial to the organisation of the Vietnam War protests, acting in and around right-to-the-city groups, house-occupation movements, and in feminist and anti-racist networks. The Swedish Communist Party reformed and evolved gradually into the Left Party, today proponents of a classical social-democratic program aiming to strengthen the welfare state and public sector. They have reached between five and six per cent in the last three elections, and the same poll that places the SD at twenty per cent in December 2015 gives the Left Party seven per cent. The support for the Left, in other words, is not increasing much in the face of the advances of the far right.
The radical Left made up the core of the anti-fascist movement that successfully drove the neo-Nazis off the streets during the 1980s and 1990s. As the Sweden Democrats grew and managed to establish themselves as a parliamentary force, however, the game changed: the tactics of disturbing meetings or pointing to the party’s neo-Nazi roots just don’t cut it anymore. Exposing the crude racist language of SD members and representatives, or their resort to violence and in some cases criminal activities, does not seem to reduce the support for the party.
There have been countless scandals. In 2012, a video emerged of three high representatives of SD armed with iron bars, yelling racist and sexist invectives at Soran Ismail, a famous Swedish Kurdish comedian. In 2015, a high-ranking SD MP was charged with several cases of tax evasion, risking a six-year prison sentence: this in a party that lives on portraying immigrants as fraudulent, sexist and violent. The scandals surrounding the SD, though, seem only to have strengthened the sense of victimhood of its members and grassroots, depicting themselves as targets of a politically correct system, trying to cover up the truth about immigrants and muslims at their expense.
The increase in the numbers of refugees has also, of course, led to the formation of a broad solidarity movement, helping the newly arrived with housing, clothing, language lessons, activities for children and so on. Swedish civil society has several strong institutions that form a humanitarian backbone, including the Church of Sweden and ABF (Arbetarnas bildningsförbund, the Workers Educational Association). At the political level, however, the Left remains confused and upset. Changes seem to occur very quickly, though they’re often rooted in complex local and global processes that have been taking place for decades, as part of the adaptation of the country to neoliberal demands.
As Leo Panitch and Greg Albo point out in the preface to this year’s edition of the Socialist Register, which is devoted to the politics of the right, the far Right is moving forward all over the globe: in Putin’s Russia, in the sectarian conflicts of the Middle East, dramatically in India, visible in the success of the BJP.
This occurs as the need for a planned and democratically controlled economy is more pressing than ever, as we face accelerating climate change, and shifting attitudes to nationality, as more and more people across the world are forced to move. Socialism – far beyond the clichés of economism – is needed more urgently than ever.
Discovering the Politics of All Human Needs
In his short essay ‘Reforming the Labour Movement’, the outré leftist thinker Wilhelm Reich takes a hard look at the organisational structures of the revolutionary Left. Written in the mid-1930s, after Reich fled Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, the piece considers the weakening of the communist movement, and the need to rethink key concepts of political organisation. As a Marxist psychoanalyst, Reich was interested not just in the concept of class consciousness but in the masses’ contradictory desires and needs. Why are fascists winning? Why do members of the working class act against their own interests in supporting the Nazis?
There’s an eerieness to the text. Written on the eve of disaster, addressing a movement that is about to be wiped out, Reich remains optimistic and funny, urging the German Left to avoid needless heroism – as well as to picture policemen in their undershorts.
Considering Swedish politics now, Reich’s essay returns to mind. Of course, alarmism can be dangerous and counterproductive; our situation is (for now) not comparable to the German meltdown of the 1930s. But for the Swedish Left, 2015 was a terrible year. Like Wilhelm Reich, we have to ask why the extreme Right is winning such increasing support and votes from the middle and working classes.
What can we learn from Reich, from the Marxists of the 1930s and 1940s? Sometimes we find in the texts of some of those who witnessed the rise of fascism in Europe at that time, as in Reich, an amazing clarity of vision.
‘In our thinking, we must learn to go through changes,’ Reich says. ‘This is to be distinguished from lacking convictions. Our adherence to organisation and to transmitted ideas can get in the way of seeing the living reality, and we must learn to recognise that.’ Perhaps we are at the moment caught in a process of great change, watching some of the old party structures and institutions of the Left short-circuiting, without ourselves being able to move beyond their framework.
Reich is one of the oddest thinkers in the Marxist tradition, one who later came to abandon the tradition altogether, developing in a quite different direction. But his interest in the inner life of societies might be just what we need now to understand – and counteract – the rise of fascism. As for the Swedish Left, Reich’s thirty-five points for discussion are still pertinent for the fundamental questions we are facing. We have parts of the analysis right, but what we still lack is an understanding of how the far Right manages to align itself with people’s wants and needs.
Reich urges us to ‘discover the politics that underlie private life. Politicise the trivial doings, wherever folks gather. In the dance hall, the movie house, the grocery store, the bedroom, the tavern, the betting office!’ Why is the world view of the far Right so appealing to many today? We need to understand the economics, class interests, sexual politics and concepts of race and ethnicity that constitute that world view, but also the dreams and fears. This is not about needing ‘a new message’ but about being able to address the ‘politics of all human needs’. The massive challenges ahead demand this,If you like this article, please subscribe or donate.