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Reviewed by:
  • The Age of Social Democracy; Norway and Sweden in the Twentieth Century
  • Eric S. Einhorn, Professor Emeritus
Francis Sejersted . The Age of Social Democracy; Norway and Sweden in the Twentieth Century. Trans. Richard Daly . Ed. Madeline B. Adams . Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011. Pp. 560.

Thanks to Princeton University Press and the hard work of its translator and editor, this ambitious and comprehensive work by one of Scandinavia's senior contemporary historians is available to a wider readership than the Norwegian version published in 2005. This is a thorough, thoughtful and comparative history of how the social democratic vision was applied in its two paragons. Although the social democratic ideology and its politics have been significant in almost every western democracy during the past century (with the United States the notable exception), its hegemony has been greatest and most sustained in Scandinavia and in Norway and Sweden in particular. For most of the period between the 1930s and the 1970s Social Democratic or Labor parties governed in Stockholm and Oslo (and Copenhagen too). The World War II years were, of course, exceptions. Indeed they remain either the governing or principal opposition parties to this day. Their hegemony is gone and their future cloudy, but modern Scandinavia and indeed modern Western Europe reflect the social democratic project. While American conservatives (e.g. Republicans) have long railed at the perils of European "socialism," their sister parties (i.e. Euro-conservative and Christian Democratic parties) have largely adopted and adapted to the social democratic model and surprisingly even contributed to it.

Sejersted has accomplished three main tasks with this work. First he relates the culmination of the modern Swedish and Norwegian states based on constitutional parliamentary democracy. Although both countries have ancient roots, their modern political institutions belong primarily to the twentieth century. With the break-up of the Swedish-Norwegian Union (dual monarchy) in 1905 and the attainment of full parliamentary democracy in Sweden in 1918 (Norway having achieved it in 1884), their political focus would be on coping with industrial society and achieving social and economic democracy.

Secondly, the Social Democratic (Labor) parties would rise from minority status to become the largest (although rarely absolute majority). They would govern for most of the century and cope with domestic and foreign crises far more severe than those of the nineteenth century. Part of the "great bargain" that achieved full political democracy was proportional representation of all but the tiniest parties. In most parliamentary systems this often doomed politics to continuing instability with at worst the collapse of constitutional democracy (Italy and Germany during the interwar period). While political stability was initially wobbly in Norway [End Page 463] and Sweden, it would crystallize into strong governments and the "politics of compromise" (Dan Rustow's felicitous phrase) during the crises of the 1930s and 1940s.

Thirdly, Sejersted records the "dissatisfaction of increasing expectations" (in Tage Erlander's ironic words, p. 491) that ended the social democratic hegemony in both countries after 1975. Norway had alternating social democratic and non-socialist governments from 1965, and Sweden followed this pattern a decade later. The change was not just electoral outcomes but in the discourse of contemporary politics. The path is not linear; Sejersted discusses the widening swing of the political pendulum: the rise and fall of neo-Marxism and the "New Left," student and youth movements, feminism in its various forms, multiculturalism and the anti-immigration populism, globalization, neo-liberalism, and a host of other new currents.

The basic outline of the book is chronological and comparative. Part I covers 1905 to 1940 and its title, "Growth and Social Integration." The break-up of the Sweden-Norway Union, the stressed neutrality during World War I, the economic hardships of the early 1920s and especially the 1930s form the background to the rise of the Social Democratic and Labor parties. This is the era of accelerating industrialization (a generation ahead in Sweden compared to Norway) but also the struggle for stable parliamentary democracy. Notwithstanding the socialists' revolutionary ideology collaboration and compromise with other parties and movements is an early sign of the parties' pragmatism. The early foundations of the welfare state are not just the...


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