Not Nonviolence, But Class Struggle--Often Violent--Made Norway's Rulers Grant Big Concessions
by John Spritzler
March 28, 2019
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George Lakey, in his Viking Economics, answers the question, "How did Norwegians move from a majority poor, underdeveloped country to the top of the heap on international ratings?" He answers this way [Kindle location 708]:
"In other words, Norwegians created a small, visionary social movement that grew, engaged in struggle, attracted allies, and won. By winning nonviolently, the movement minimized pushback after the victory and consolidated its gains."
Lakey recounts the story of Norway's labor struggles as if they were guided by the philosophy of nonviolence. But the reality was different.
In 1921 there was a general strike. An anti-labor book (the relevant part is readable online here), in describing this strike (on page 259) says of the strikers,
"Attempts were made to hinder voluntary work [i.e., scabs --J.S.] by fomenting riots in Bergen, Christiania, and some other towns. The police proved able everywhere to cope with the situation, though the Government took the precaution of keeping military assistance in readiness for all eventualities."
This strike was apparently not guided by the philosophy of nonviolence, which would never endorse rioting to physically block scabs.
In 1931 there was a strike in Norway described as follows in this book (online here, page 329):
"In 1931 the most violent and alarming of all strikes occurred at the Norse Hydro plant at Minstar, in Telemark. A hundred and twenty state police sent to disperse workers picketing the plant were routed by the workers, the violence reaching such a pitch that in the end troops and naval vessels were sent in to overawe the workers."
This strike was so violent that even Lakey in his book feels obliged to say of it [Kindle location 867]:
"One hundred police guarded the replacement workers while 2,000 striking workers marched to the port and warehouse at Minstar. The police were overwhelmed by the demonstrators, some of whom supplemented the power of their numbers by throwing stones and pieces of iron pipe."
Needless to say, these striking workers--who "routed" the police with "stones and pieces of iron pipe"--were not following Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence; they were not exactly going limp and allowing the police to arrest them and cart them off to jail while offering no resistance, as any good follower of the nonviolence philosophy would have done.
But Lakey tells us that the Norwegian working class won its gains by "By winning nonviolently." Lakey is not writing history as a good historian; he is trying to fit his round peg (a story of nonviolence winning the day) into a square hole (the story of actual historical events) because he has an axe to grind.
The evidence is that Norwegian workers used force, including violence, to the extent that they had the means (even if only using stones and iron pipes) when they thought they could gain by it. Furthermore, the Norwegian upper class was uncertain that it could rely on the army against the working class. Lacey's book tells us [Kindle location 841]:
"By the middle of the 1920s, some members of the Norwegian owning class began to doubt the effectiveness of the army for repression of the labor movement...The Labor Party tried calling for a military strike; the government retaliated and threw party functionaries in jail. Nobody knew how reliable the army would remain in defending the status quo."
When the working class is willing to use violence against the police to shut down businesses, and when the army cannot be relied on to repress the workers, the natural response of the upper class is to "make a deal." I believe that the more realistic answer to the question that Lakey answers with his "By winning nonviolently" dogma is "By getting a pretty good deal by using violence and the credible threat of violence."
The fact is that ruling capitalist classes only grant substantial reform concessions when they fear what might happen if they don't. What makes these rulers most fearful is the thought that if they don't grant reforms there may very well be a revolution to remove them from power.