Scandinavian social democracy has become a useful rhetorical resource for the resurgent American left. If summit-hopping radicals two decades ago looked to the syndicalists of the Spanish Civil War or the Zapatistas in Chiapas for inspiration, today it is postwar Swedish bureaucrats who are looming large in the pages of magazines like Jacobin and firing the imagination of democratic socialists who seek to push U.S. politics, and the Democratic Party, leftward. This is not surprising. Though created over decades, Swedish social democracy achieved its greatest gains in the 1970s, when the country was, as the historian Kjell Östberg argues, “the most advanced welfare state that had ever existed.” 1 It was in those years that a state-sponsored push to build one million homes in ten years — for a (then) population of less than eight million — produced a nation of gleaming, high-modernist suburbs in which rent-subsidized apartment blocks were surrounded by leafy parks and attractive playgrounds and well-appointed daycare centers. Linked together by new motorways and commuter rail networks, hosting state-supported schools and healthcare clinics, and underwritten by generous pension schemes and unemployment insurance, the country’s metropolitan landscape epitomized the pragmatic ideals of Swedish social democracy, in which the inequities of capitalism would be rectified not by state ownership but through vigorous regulation and generous welfare. 2
Swedish social democracy achieved its greatest gains in the 1970s, when the country became the most advanced welfare state that had ever existed.
In those years, especially in the early to mid ’70s, the ambitions of the Swedish welfare state — emboldened by the political radicalism of the ’60s as well as the rise of environmentalism and feminism — were both broad and deep. Government white papers outlined plans to ease the burdens of raising children through a new system of preschool facilities and after-school centers, and through new reforms granting reproductive freedom and paid family leave. Universities were tuition-free, and healthcare was state-insured. At the same time there was vigorous new support for civil society organizations such as sports clubs, cultural associations, and youth leagues. And when a wave of grassroots militancy pushed the labor unions to demand greater economic democracy, union leaders responded by sponsoring a detailed plan for a gradual transition to socialism through the transfer of corporate profits into union-controlled “wage-earner funds.” 3
The postwar welfare state was in fact the result of almost a century of cumulative political momentum.
It’s understandable that this era would draw the attention of contemporary democratic socialists. In retrospect it was the culmination of many decades during which the Social Democratic Party —Sveriges socialdemokratiska arbetarparti, or SAP — led Sweden; more broadly, it marked the peak of the remarkable prosperity enjoyed by industrialized democracies in the period following World War II, what the British historian Eric Hobsbawm has called “the golden years” of “economic liberalism and social democracy.” 4 Yet in subsequent years, in Sweden and elsewhere, the welfare state would be criticized as technocratic and elitist, and it would be thoroughly remade along neoliberal lines. 5 For these reasons it seems important to broaden the historical frame and to consider an earlier era of Swedish labor activism. The postwar welfare state was in fact the result of almost a century of cumulative political momentum. This history, and in particular the grassroots movement that created what became known as the People’s Parks (Folkets parker) and People’s Houses (Folkets hus), deserves new attention as a “usable past” that can inform our own contentious times. To revisit these spatial experiments from the turn of the 20th century is also to displace urban planners and policy technocrats as the inevitable protagonists of the social democratic story, and to suggest a larger role for a mobilized and inclusive democratic coalition — a coalition that will be especially crucial as a global pandemic upends our daily lives and political landscapes.
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The rise of the People’s Parks and People’s Houses owes much to the obstacles that were faced by the country’s early social democrats. Most historians trace the origins of Swedish social democracy to a handful of ardent advocates who, in the late 19th century, preached continental ideas about class struggle to a growing liberal trade union movement of skilled workers. 6 This circle — including such influential figures as Axel Danielsson, who translated The Communist Manifesto into Swedish; August Palm, who brought the ideas of social democracy to Swedish politics; and Hjalmar Branting, who led the party for decades and became the first SAP prime minister — introduced an eclectic version of socialism, at once idealistic and pragmatic, and fought hard to make unionization the basis for the new political party.
As the movement gained traction, it confronted the logistical dilemma of finding suitable places in which to gather.
Yet as the movement gained traction, it increasingly confronted the logistical dilemma of finding suitable places in which to gather. Early on, meetings were held in workshops and factories; but companies began barring labor organizers from the shop floors. Even sites outside the workplace, including hotels and restaurants, proved difficult to engage. Famously, when August Palm was invited to speak in Malmö, in 1882, the event organizers could find no venue large enough to host his appearance, and he gave one of his most iconic speeches to a crowd of 800 while perched in a pear tree on the outskirts of the city. Similar tales of improvised meetings are common in the memoirs of period socialists. 7 “The workers’ meetings held on roads, or wooded hillsides, or in the garden of some libertarian-minded individual, are too numerous to count,” wrote the longtime head of the People’s Houses, Karl Kilbom, in a mid 20th-century history of the labor movement. As Kilbom recounted, social democratic events in hotels, restaurants, lodges, and temperance halls were regularly canceled by disapproving management. Efforts to rent office space or to open cafés were often met with evictions once landlords discovered the political affiliations of their tenants, and the police had few qualms about disrupting speeches in city squares and public parks. 8
This was the contentious context that inspired the establishment of the first People’s Parks and People’s Houses. In the early 1890s, labor leaders in the fast-industrializing south began to acquire property in order to develop a network of indoor and outdoor communal spaces for the socialist left. But the activists sought not simply to create union halls or party offices; they envisioned programmatically ambitious places that would encourage the growth of a broad-based democratic politics and culture, and, crucially, that would protect the rights to free speech and public assembly. As Axel Danielsson emphasized at the opening of the House of Associations (Föreningarnas hus) in the small city of Kristianstad, which soon became one of first People’s Houses:
Free Speech is the watchword for every democrat and social democrat … But freedom of speech, though acknowledged in law, is like everything else in this world, dependent on time and space, and we have been made aware of the importance of space in a very painful way. We have therefore built ourselves our own house, where we can gather undisturbed for meetings and discuss our common concerns, as well as offer a safe haven for persecuted thought. 9
The People’s Parks and Houses were willing to accommodate even the most provocative dissent; until the rise of fascism, they welcomed groups of any affiliation.
These sentiments were grounded in principle, but they also underscored what would become a defining tendency of Swedish social democracy. While based firmly in the working class and politically centered (at least initially) in Marxist theories of class struggle, the party almost from the start sought to align itself with other political groups and popular struggles. This big-tent strategy is reflected in the very names of the new gathering spaces. “From its birth the SAP had conceived of itself not merely as a workers’ party but rather as a people’s party,” writes the historian Sheri Berman; the party, she continued, “began to see the value of reaching outside the industrial proletariat much earlier than did most of its European counterparts.” 10 The People’s Parks and People’s Houses were indeed remarkable in their willingness to accommodate even the most provocative dissent; and until the tumultuous rise of fascism in the 1930s, they welcomed groups of any affiliation. 11
Not surprisingly, this radical openness would shape the ownership structure of the new spaces. It was rare that the Parks and Houses were fully owned by the Social Democratic Party or its branches. Instead, all sorts of left-leaning entities — local unions, consumer cooperatives, sometimes even the laborers themselves — acquired ownership shares, and in this way funded their construction. 12 Over time, this broad-based ownership ensured the strong presence of labor-aligned spaces throughout the country’s municipalities. Following the establishment of a series of parks in the Skåne region (Malmö, 1891-93; Lund and Helsingborg, 1895; Ystad, 1896; Skromberga, 1897), and in the industrial cities in the east (Norrköping and Kalmar, 1901; Eskilstuna, 1898; Västerås, 1899), representatives from almost two dozen locales met in Stockholm in 1905 to establish a People’s Parks Central Organization (Folkets parkers centralorganisation). By 1914 its membership included 36 parks; by 1930 the ranks had swelled to 123. In 1932 the People’s Houses would create a similar central body (Folkets husföreningarnas riksorganisation). 13
The Parks and Houses became the cultural sites where the fragile coalition forming around union solidarity and political rights gained strength.
The rapidly growing unions were the economic force that sparked the rise of social democracy; soon the People’s Parks and Houses became the crucial cultural sites where the fragile coalition forming around union solidarity and political rights gained strength. Early on, the People’s Parks were modest, offering a space for political dissent along with the basic pleasures of a leisure park. Eventually these spaces became more varied and ambitious, with amenities ranging from restaurants and theaters and dance halls to socialist Sunday schools and small zoos for exotic animals. The People’s Houses were the more numerous (by the mid 20th century there were about 2,000 Houses, and 600 Parks). Loosely akin to the contemporaneous Maison du Peuple in Brussels, or the numerous Casa del Popolo in Italy, the early houses were programmatically flexible. 14 Many contained large public lecture halls and smaller spaces for meeting and reading; some hosted offices for progressive newspapers, cooperative associations, and unions. Sometimes there were shops or cafés which provided revenue to support the political work. Just as important as any particular function, though, was their very presence; in bringing together many small groups, the People’s Houses turned the often tedious and slow-grinding business of political organizing into a more communal venture where new solidarities could be explored and strengthened.
This heightened solidarity was especially meaningful during moments of conflict, when these spaces were transformed into busy centers of political resistance where plans were hatched and morale was raised. At the People’s House in Stockholm, for instance, activists gathered in 1902 to support a two-day general strike on behalf of voting rights and women’s suffrage. A leading social democrat and labor organizer, Kata Dahlström, famously refused to budge from the building’s steps as a crowd was forming there after the police had halted a demonstration. “By what right do you ask us to disperse, when we are standing in front of our own People’s House?,” she defiantly asked. The police promptly arrested Dahlström, which only provoked further outrage and activism. 15 And several years later, during the month-long General Strike of 1909, when 300,000 industrial and transportation workers shut down factories and paralyzed the nation, more than 10,000 workers met daily in the People’s Park in Malmö to get updates from around the country, and 20,000 staged a strike in the Norrköping People’s Park. With rail transport almost completely halted and newspapers unable to print, the workers came to depend upon the park meetings to send and receive information about the unfolding conflict. In Malmö, the strike committee even requisitioned a cooperative bakery in order to provide bread to union members gathering in the park; in Norrköping, a temporary bakery was set up in the park itself. 16
The creation of movement-sponsored spaces was an essential (though now forgotten) strategy in the construction of a base of popular support.
No doubt the growing political power of the early social democrats was due to many factors; but the creation of movement-sponsored spaces was an essential (though today largely forgotten) strategy in the construction of a base of popular support. Just as crucial was the fact that these spaces were open to everyone, not just party members; this inclusiveness allowed the social democrats to claim the moral high ground in the struggle for universal suffrage, which was the dominating political question of the day. All of which is to emphasize that the Houses and Parks were intentionally made into truly democratic spaces. If there is a perpetual tension between competing visions of public space — for retreat and recreation, on the one hand; or for political activism, on the other 17 — then the People’s Houses and, especially, the People’s Parks successfully negotiated this divide in order to build a movement and, more expansively, to create “a people.”
Indeed, the People’s Parks combined political association with a broader cultural project. Overtly socialist politics were always present. All the parks flew a red and white movement flag emblazoned with the words FOLKETS PARK; they were the focal point for May Day rallies, labor strikes, and other party events. Yet at the same time these spaces were shaping the social politics of space beyond their party affiliation or particular program.
The People’s Parks upended longstanding assumptions about what we might call the right to the landscape.
This is evident in how the People’s Parks upended longstanding assumptions about what we might call the right to the landscape. From the very beginning, the parks incorporated lush, tranquil environs that provided a respite from clattering factories and cramped workers’ housing. Some were inspired by the designs of private gardens. In the inaugural issue of a magazine published by the People’s Parks Central Organization, an article described an “ideal park” as a setting not simply for public gathering; it should also be a place for experiencing nature, featuring “beautiful and idyllic paths with fragrant flowers and greenery, outdoor seating here and there under the soft-hanging arms and white trunks of the beeches or the swelling foliage of oak trees or along slopes with healthy smelling branches of pine and spruce.” 18
The very first park, which opened in Malmö in 1891, was located on the grounds of what had once been a lavish estate built by the tobacco merchant Frans Suell; workers transformed the old leisure garden, created by Suell for the private enjoyment of his family, into a public landscape that could comfortably accommodate crowds. 19 Likewise, many of the early parks appropriated rural or suburban locales that corresponded to contemporary pastoral ideals. In Norrköping, a center for textile factories, a labor organization purchased a plot of land outside the city in 1901. Despite an arduous work week (then more than 60 hours), the laborers and their families gathered every Sunday to clear the land with “axes, rods, and shovels”; early on, visitors had to trudge across muddy fields to access the new park. Over the years, the workers continued to volunteer their time and skills, and eventually the Norrköping People’s Park boasted dance floors and theater stages that hosted the leading performers of the day. 20
This was true throughout the country, as the parks became larger and more ambitious, with many incorporating restaurants and cafés as well as performance stages and dance pavilions. Dancing to live music would prove to be an especially major attraction; from the 1930s on, the Parks hosted both local orchestras and international stars like Frank Sinatra, Count Basie, and Quincy Jones. In the 1960s, the members of what would become ABBA played gigs in the parks. 21 Theater was also important to the success of the People’s Parks — and even more, to their evolving cultural mission. The Central Organization took pride in negotiating tours with prestigious drama companies and thus ensuring that the local parks would rival the elite theater scene in Stockholm. In doing so it was advancing its goal of cultivating an educated and “respectable” working class, especially in poorer and more isolated rural areas. 22
These new venues became alternative places of consumption, generating revenue for maintenance as well as providing venues for political activities; in movement terms, you could say the People’s Parks were seizing the means of recreation. In the early years at Malmö, for instance, vendors sold coffee from an improvised cart to the families who flocked to the park for picnics on Sunday mornings. Within a few years, a beer garden was opened, followed by the Parkrestaurangen and the Gamla Restaurangen, both with outdoor patios and dance floors. 23 But these were all dwarfed in 1902 with the opening of the Moorish Pavilion, a vast, orientalist confection, designed by the architect Aron Wolff Krenzisky. The Moriskan, which could accommodate well over a thousand visitors in its three large halls, boosted the park’s already considerable profits. 24
With their mix of aspirational high culture and everyday pastimes, the People’s Parks played a vital role in shaping the cultural politics of early social democracy. Within the parks, the worker’s movement — and the workers themselves — could stake their own claim, on their own terms, to shaping “the people” as both a political proposition and practical presence. In the most literal way, the People’s Parks made space for socialist possibilities. They extended the reach of democratic socialism beyond the inner circles of party cadres and unionized workers and those willing to take night classes in economic history. They charged the democratic goal of economic emancipation with the more immediate desire for a life beyond toil. In the parks, working people could do more than organize and patiently await a better future. They could have a taste of the good life on the weekend, in the sort of green and spacious landscapes once reserved for the leisure class, all the while serving the cause. 25
For all these reasons we are arguing that the People’s Parks and People’s Houses constructed throughout Sweden at the turn of the 20th century offer a past at least as usable as the postwar welfare state — a past that deserves the serious attention of U.S. Democratic Socialists, and Democrats, and indeed all who desire a fairer and more equitable society anywhere. These remarkably inclusive public spaces — where “the people” could constitute themselves politically and socially, and have a good time while doing so — were a vital part of the geography of democratic socialism as it would take shape throughout the century.
Nonetheless the People’s Parks and Houses have often been regarded as what the British historian E.P Thompson called a “blind alley” of history; a dead end. 26 After the social democrats began to shape national policy, starting in the 1930s, the Parks and Houses began to recede in cultural, economic, and, especially, political significance. This decline accelerated in the postwar years, as party activists and state bureaucrats set about constructing housing, laying roads and railways, sponsoring public education and health care, and developing the industrial capacity to support it all. By the 1990s many of the Parks and Houses had been sold to developers or to municipalities; some were repurposed into conference centers and others converted to public parks. Today there remain only a fraction of the historic People’s Parks and Houses.
As the social democrats consolidated their power, the Folkets Hus and Folkets Parker were dismissed as relics of an earlier time.
Yet the decline was hardly inevitable. The bottom-up placemaking enacted in the Parks and Houses was actively discouraged by movement leaders in the postwar years. As the social democrats consolidated their parliamentary power across Scandinavia, the Folkets Hus and Folkets Parker were increasingly dismissed as old-fashioned artifacts of an earlier political moment, and their functions absorbed by the agencies of state and municipal planning. Some planners even envisioned the old People’s Houses and Parks being transformed into more modern and ambitious Citizen’s Houses (Medborgarhus) and Citizen’s Places (Medborgarplatser) that would be owned and managed by municipalities rather than by local movement coalitions. Though few of these places ever materialized, such plans signaled that the era of grassroots energy and improvisational, movement-led placemaking was giving way to the age of expert-led “rational” planning. 27 The earlier road to democratic socialism had become, if not a blind alley, then a cul-de-sac. But as we have been arguing, this is a cul-de-sac well worth exploring; for the old People’s Parks and Houses can also be understood as experiments that prefigured the emerging welfare state. 28 More than a century ago, the parks and houses pioneered a range of cultural practices that would become commonplace in the socialist world. The very fact that spatial planning, especially for leisure and recreation, became an essential part of the Swedish welfare state is due in no small part to this legacy.
Alas, just when we most needed these people’s spaces, they’d been turned into conference centers.
Today we are newly struggling with the meaning of this legacy. The welfare state that transformed postwar Sweden — with its impressive technical know-how and endless concrete slabs — would eventually find itself under attack, dismissed by critics on both the neoliberal right and progressive left as a top-down bureaucracy, with too much technocratic expertise and too little activist energy. 29 By the time the contradictions of the welfare state became impossible to ignore, in the last decade of the millennium, there was too little movement, too little improvisatory energy, to counter the ascendant right.
The neoliberalization of Sweden would surely have confronted more vigorous opposition had the labor movement sustained the lively tradition of grounded activism that once created the People’s Houses and Parks. Swedish social democracy would today be more dynamic had the movement nurtured its grassroots even as it built the welfare state. Alas, just when we most needed these spaces for the people, they’d been turned into conference centers. Such strategic misdirections are worth taking to heart as the neoliberal consensus is being challenged around the globe and as democratic socialism is once again on the agenda — and as the immediate new realities of social distancing make us realize the immeasurable value of collective solidarity and public assembly.