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Crafting the Movement: Identity Entrepreneurs in the Swedish Trade Union Movement, 1920–1940

Author(s):Jansson, Jenny
Reviewer(s):Bengtsson, Erik

Published by EH.Net (May 2022).

Jenny Jansson. Crafting the Movement: Identity Entrepreneurs in the Swedish Trade Union Movement, 1920–1940. Ithaca, NY and London: ILR Press, an imprint of Cornell University Press, 2020. xi + 200 pp. $19.95 (paperback), ISBN 978-1501750014.

Reviewed for by Erik Bengtsson, Associate Professor of Economic History, Lund University.


The first sentence of this book is: “The Swedish reformist labor movement of the twentieth century constitutes a success story.” Jansson, a political scientist at Uppsala University, says, “A strong Social Democratic Party–Socialdemokratiska arbetarpartiet (SAP)—and high union density paved the way for an extensive and comprehensive welfare state and diminishing wage inequality,” and that a “key component” in this success is “the labor movement’s extraordinary ability to mobilize the majority of the working class early on in its mission.” The purpose of Jansson’s book is to explain why the Swedish trade union movement chose a reformist way in the interwar period when, after the radical challenges of the 1910s (Syndicalism, Communism), they had to handle radical critiques and dissent. The authors suggests that the reformist way was connected to the success of the Swedish labor movement.

Her argument centers on the actions and strategies of trade union leaders, who in Jansson’s parlance acted as “identity entrepreneurs.” The trade union leaders recognized competition from the radical trade union confederation SAC (founded in 1910) and from communists in their own unions and acted strategically to reinforce a reformist identity among rank and file trade unionists.

After an introductory chapter which briefly presents the context and the argument, chapter 2 gives a more comprehensive context under the headline of “Problems identified by the LO leadership.” Here we are introduced to the syndicalist unions and to the communists challenging reformist leadership within the dominant LO (Landsorganisationen, or Trade Union Confederation) federation of unions. Chapter 3, “A plan for identity management,” studies the LO leadership in the early 1920s and how they identified the radical challenges and handled them. The LO leaders strengthened their control over the Workers’ Educational Association (ABF), created a new trade union magazine to spread news and ideology to unionists, reinforced reformist agitation among rank-and-file unionists and non-unionized workers, and in 1929 started a central school (Brunnsvik) for trade union education. Chapter 4 analyzes identity construction in the educational materials spread among LO members through the Workers’ Educational Association. The focus is on the syllabi and literature for the courses “Trade union studies” and “Organizational studies.” Chapter 5, “Implementing the education strategy,” which is the longest chapter, combines the national level with the local level as it presents the evolution of workers’ education in Sweden in the 1920s and 1930s on the aggregate level, as well as a local study of workers’ education in the mill town of Skutskär, dominated by the Stora Kopparberg corporation. Chapter 6, clocking in at 10 pages, provides the conclusions of the book.

Crafting the Movement is a focused, interesting study of the role of workers’ education in the Swedish labor movement. It is a slim volume which presents its argument in a lean, efficient way. On the way, we learn much about the role of workers’ education in the history of Swedish Social Democracy. However, there is also a problem with the slimness of the presentation, not on the empirical level but for the overarching argument to convince. Jansson states, with reference to research in organization studies, that “the process of identity formation is never completely top-down because ‘organizational members are not reducible to passive consumers of managerially designed and designated identities’.” (p. 45) But in the conclusions to another chapter, she states that “Organizational members can indeed be controlled through identity formation.” (p. 99) In practice, the analysis to a high degree follows the latter formulation: organization leaders are front and center in the analysis, and the rank and file appear to be an anonymous mass that is molded by the leaders to the right reformist way of thinking.

Jansson presents the years around 1920 as a “critical juncture” (pp. 43, 157) for the Swedish labor movement, choosing between reformism and revolutionary ways, but I would argue that a fuller explanation of the earlier history would show that the revolutionary way was less likely as an alternative than it seems in Jansson’s account. There were surely communists and syndicalists in Sweden, but for historical reasons, they never became as powerful as in, say, Germany, Italy, or Spain. Geoff Eley, in the classic survey of European labor movements Forging Democracy (2002), discussed why some national labor movements became predominantly revolutionary and others predominantly reformist. Eley showed how late extensions of suffrage fostered cooperation between liberal and labor parties, and the Swedish case, where national suffrage before 1909 was given only to one fifth of adult men and no women, is a very good example of this. As Eley points out, in Sweden, Liberals and Socialists collaborated around the overarching aim of universal suffrage in the 1890s, 1900s and 1910s, and this strengthened the reformist vein in the SAP (Eley, pp. 67–68). We should remember that it was a Liberal-Social Democratic coalition government that carried through the reform of universal suffrage in 1918. Historians like Madeleine Hurd (Public Spheres, Public Mores, and Democracy: Hamburg and Stockholm, 1870-1914, 2000) and Sven Lundkvist (Folkrörelserna i det svenska samhället 1850–1920, 1977) have also shown how the Swedish labor movement was colored by its decades of collaboration with Liberals, and studies of workers’ libraries by Marion Leffler (Böcker, bildning, makt: Arbetare, borgare och bildningens roll i klassformeringen i Lund och Helsingborg 1860-1901, 1999), Hans Larsson (Tidstecken : Stockholms arbetarbibliotek och samhällskroppens utformning, 1892-1927, 1989) and others have shown the degree of “bourgeois” influence on workers’ reading already around the turn of the twentieth century. Against this background, the choice of a reformist strategy in the early 1920s appears less as the outcome of a completely open “critical juncture,” and more as the outcome of a decades-long tradition of politics and workers’ education. This by no means invalidates Jansson’s emphasis on the strategic use of workers’ education to strengthen the reformist tendency in the trade unions, but her argument would have been more well-rounded and precise had she positioned it against this background of popular movements and workers’ libraries, back to the 1870s.

In the concluding chapter, Jansson discusses the contributions of her study as: “By constructing an organizational identity based on reformism, the LO undoubtedly helped mobilize workers to vote for the SAP. By identifying that dynamic, this study presents one more piece in the puzzle of understanding the strength of the SAP. However, this book’s main contribution to understanding Sweden concerns labor market relations rather than the political party sphere.” (p. 164) She points to a key finding of the book: “The novel aspect that this study brings to industrial relations research in general, and to understanding Swedish industrial relations in particular, is that the spirit of consensus was established among the workers before the Basic Agreement was reached.” (p. 165) At least since the study of Walter Korpi and Michael Shalev (“Strikes, Industrial Relations and Class Conflict in Capitalist Societies,” 1979) it has been an accepted stylized fact that the Swedish labor market in the 1920s was one of the most strike- and lockout-intensive in the industrialized world, in contrast to the spirit of cooperation after 1938. However, Jansson in her reconstruction of the reformist ideology of the union leaders in the 1920s shows how by then the leadership was already propagating a conciliatory view of the employers and their organization. In this way, Jansson’s study has presented new evidence both on the reformist road of the Social Democratic party in Sweden, and on the road to union-employer collaboration in the Swedish labor market.


Erik Bengtsson is Associate Professor of Economic History at Lund University. His research focuses on historical income and wealth distribution, and political history.

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Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII