To write a general history of two neighbouring countries spanning 100 years is no easy task. Furthermore, in 1905 Norway became independent of Sweden, meaning that there was no natural linkage between the two, geography apart. Sejersted has overcome this hurdle by emphasizing the prevalence of social democracy in both nations in the 20th century, and this comparative work therefore has a clear angle of interest for readers across the globe. As a Norwegian economic historian with knowledge of Swedish history and comparative methods, the author had perhaps the best possible background to enable him to pull off this major feat. Another historian might have struggled with the economic and financial issues, which are among the most pivotal topics a work of this nature must address, but Sejersted treats them confidently throughout. The first chapter on industrialization is a curtain raiser for what follows. Since Swedish engineering and manufacturing and Norwegian oil production are some of the most distinctive features of their nations’ recent past, the author’s knowledge is not wasted here. The book is richer and more insightful for being comparative. One of the strengths of comparative history is its ability to supply context, and at its best it is also able to provide a clearer scheme of causality than a more straightforward historical approach might.
The author divides the volume into three parts, covering 1905–40, 1940–70 and 1970–2000 respectively. A concluding chapter, entitled ‘After social democracy’, utilizes the findings of the work to point towards the future, and even in earlier chapters there is treatment of events occurring after 2000. The division has the virtue of capturing the coming, zenith and decline of social democracy neatly. The second part is thus entitled ‘The golden age of social democracy’, surely an uncontested view. To the English-speaking reader, the first question arising might be whether Scandinavian social democracy equates to what is known as socialism in Britain and the United States. It is not a straightforward topic to debate, because avowedly socialist parties have seldom been in power for long enough to carry out their programmes of principles. Until 2004 British Labour had never been in power for more than six years consecutively, and it was scarcely a socialist party by then. A British Marxist like Perry Anderson has argued that social democracy is not socialism, because the Swedish Social Democrats had not nationalized the factors of production.(1) On the basis of this book, one imagines Sejersted would agree. He notes that social democracy ‘had roots in both the liberal and the socialist and reformist traditions’ (p. 122). The Swedish labour movement’s post-war programme of 1944 contained ‘no demand for socialization’ (p. 294). Sejersted sees social democracy as the practical ideas of the Swedish and Norwegian labour movements, aiming at inclusion in the national community and radical only when excluded from it. Upon taking leadership in Sweden in 1932 and Norway in 1935, they did not seek to supersede the norms of their respective societies but to take charge of the modernization project. However, the author challenges the myth that that the state does not own industry in Sweden and Norway. In 2005 the Norwegian state owned 40 per cent of the total value of assets on the stock exchange (p. 385), and while both the absolute value and the proportion is lower in Sweden, the state was still the largest owner of companies listed on the stock exchange as of 2007 (p. 386). Sejersted could also have mentioned that the manifesto of the Swedish Social Democrats in 1944, at the dawn of the post-war age, demanded socialization of the economy. In 1975 a committee of the Trade Union Confederation, led by the economist Rudolf Meidner, reported on the proposal for wage-earner funds that would buy up the stock of private companies and wield proprietary power (p. 373). So the issue of Swedish socialization never entirely went away. This points to the open-endedness of the social democratic project.