SAC and the Swedish welfare state – quote from Black Flame

Black Flame, the excellent new book by Michael Schmidt and Lucien Van Der Walt has a very good summary of the changes that led to the SAC’s exit from the IWA in 1956 (pps. 222-223). They introduce the comments as part of a section on how syndicalist movements have adapted to reforms and compromise. The authors seem to side with the SAC’s decision to distribute state welfare funds, and in this point I’m pretty strongly in agreement with them. From my side, it would seem very unpragmatic to refuse to distribute welfare out of adherence to syndicalist purism, and thus fail to provide members with the funds they need to survive unemployment. In my opinion, this approach to politics will soon end in irrelevance. What are your thoughts? Can anyone think of any modern correlates of the discussion?

“State welfare systems, which developed rapidly from the 1930s onward, also pose difficulties. Syndicalism stresses the importance of winning reforms, and much of the expansion of welfare is attributable, at least in part, to working-class struggles. Syndicalism also sees improvements in the material conditions of the working class in positive terms, and there is no doubt that state welfare systems have been critical, especially in the West, in improving the quality of popular life. Yet such welfare also serves to promote particular family structures (as, for example, when the state makes child support grants available to married women through their husbands) and foster a profound loyalty to the state asa the benevolent representative of the public.

A case in point of some of the difficulties is presented by the Swedish SAC’s situation; it was one of the only IWA affiliates still functioning as a union after 1945, in large part because Sweden had been relatively unaffected by the rise of dictatorships, fascism, and war elsewhere (although key members were interned during the war along with other “subversive elements”). By this time, the Swedish state was developing into a model of social democracy, introducing an extensive and expansive welfare system as well as a complicated system of collective bargaining. One aspect of this system (partly a concession to the Labour Organisation union federation, or LO, that was allied with the ruling Social Democratic Labour Party) was that the unions played a role in the administration of welfare, including the distribution of unemployment benefits.

Grappling with this issue, the SAC revised its programme in 1954 and decided to start distributing state unemployment funds to its members. This was condemned by the IWA, and the SAC left in 1956, with many feeling that the union could not compete with the dominant Labour Organisation unless it also participated in the distribution of unemployment monies. At the same time, while the SAC grew quickly, it also grew markedly moderate. Key SAC and SUF, notable the veteran activist Helmet Rudiger (1903-1966), headed a “new orientation” current that was not very different from that of mainstream social democracy; it included proposals for participation in municipal elections, stressed that the main struggle was against totalitarian systems, whether of the Left or Right, and is best considered in this period as a form of libertarian reformism, not anarchism or syndicalism.

From the 1970s onward, the SAC swung to the Left and syndicalism – yet maintains participation in the unemployment benefits system to this day. The existence of state welfare was not something that even large syndicalist unions, however purist, could not and cannot ignore. A whole range of issues arise here. Could a genuinely syndicalist union participate in a state welfare system? Could it even intervene in policy debates in order to change that system? Or were such forms of participation altogether incompatible with syndicalism? Finally, should state welfare be supported in the first place?”

~ by swedishzine on October 30, 2009.

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