All posts by Monica Quirico

Michael Böss (ed.), Conflicted Pasts and National Identities. Narratives of War and Conflict (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2014)

Over the last decades, memory studies have become one of the priority research areas in the field of Humanities, while at the same time in public debates the “duty of memory” seems to have been replaced by a sort of obsession with memory.

Continue reading Michael Böss (ed.), Conflicted Pasts and National Identities. Narratives of War and Conflict (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2014)

R. Bohlin, De Osynliga. Det Europas fattiga arbetarklass; M. Linton, De hatade. Om radikalhögerns måltavlor; B. Elmbrant, Europas stålbad. Krisen som slukar välfärden och skakar euron (All titles by Atlas, Stockholm, 2012)


The feminist journalist Rebecca Bohlin has looked into the working and living conditions of the least paid workers within the service sector, although reminding to us that many other jobs in different sectors meet similar problems. She has met cleaners, kitchen attendants and cashiers in Stockholm, London, Hamburg and at the same time has interviewed scholars and as well politicians and union representatives about the rise in income inequality and the worsening of working conditions, across Europe and in Sweden.

And to Sweden indeed is devoted the first chapter (Hur mår RUT?). The question of rising inequalities has become hot after 2007, when tax deductions for domestic service (RUT) were introduced, with the argument that the black market was to be stopped. In fact, however, according to the unions and to some research, the outcome has been an increasing in the number of workers (often asylum seekers or anyway migrants, very often women) exploited and with no safeguard: their formal job contract is legal, but their actual working conditions are definitely different, and for the worse. Yet in Sweden, as Bohlin acknowledges, living conditions of the low-paid workers are better that in most other countries.

In the second chapter (Så pressas lönerna neråt) Bohlin analyzes, again through witnesses and interviews, migration policy at the EU level and in some of its member States. She insists on the paradox of a rhetoric stressing the need of labour force from outside Europe, in order to face demographic challenges and to make companies more “globalized”, while at the same time the actual policy is based on a military defence of the “fortress Europe”, at the cost of thousands of human lives every year. And those who succeed in reaching Europe are often exploited both economically and, when women, sexually. And that even in a country that is a world master in workers’ rights and gender equality such as Sweden.

How are trade unions tackling this backward trend to a degree of workers’ exploitation similar to that in the 19th century? Around this unavoidable question the third chapter (Facket famlar efter en ny solidaritet) is built. The answer is not at all self-evident; on the contrary, here one goes on attempt by attempt. However, what comes out from the talks that the author has had with union leaders and members, in Sweden and in the UK, as well as with scholars, is that a trade union like the Swedish one, service-oriented, is not well-equipped to face the challenges that labour movements all over the world have to meet. More interesting it seems the experience of the “Social Movement Unionism”, a strategy that has been tested in South America and is made up of a mix of mobilization, learning, dialogue with local society, negotiations – and protest actions. Exactly what many all over Europe – either workers or unemployed, migrant or local – call for.


An even darker side of Europe is the subject of Magnus Linton’s work, that he describes in his Introduction as a book on “majorities and minorities, absolutism and relativism, boarders and lack of them, fantasy and reality”. The author, well-known in Sweden for his reports after the carnage in Utøya, has carried out an inquiry about right-wing radicalism in three European countries: Hungary, the Netherlands and Norway, moving from the awareness that the current economic crisis increases its appeal. Linton has met the main targets of xenophobic and neo-nazi groups, respectively Roma people in Hungary, muslims in the Netherlands and left-wing intellectuals in Norway. The first section (Parasiterna), after reminding shortly the persecution of Roma in history (culminating with their, neglected, massacre during World War II) and the recent deportation of Roma in countries such as France, Italy and Sweden, introduces the reader to the disturbing world of the Hungarian neo-fascist party Jobbik (Movement for a better Hungary), whose programme is openly “roma-centered”, so to say, and that in 2010 established itself as one of the main political forces in the country with 17% of votes. Jobbik’s growing influence resulted in a situation that Linton, with reference to what happened in the municipality of Gyöngyöspata, tells in the following way: “in 2011 in the middle of Europe fascists in uniform marched and families belonging to one of the poorest and most persecuted minorities in the continent were forced to escape what otherwise would have turned into a pogrom”. And Gyöngyöspata was only the beginning. However, the political scientist Zsolt Enyedi, interviewed by Linton, points out that these developments in Hungary were at the same time astonishing and predictable. Their roots can be found in a historical process starting from the fall of the Berlin wall; since then, populism has been a constant presence in Hungarian life and in the end has exploded due to the economic crisis. The fact that in 2010 the nationalist and authoritarian party Fidesz won 2/3 of the votes has made the situation even worse and transformed Hungary into a stronghold of radical Right in Europe.

Another country, another scapegoat: in the Netherlands, as it is well-known, the thesis that “our” problems could be solved if only “we” got rid of Muslims has found one of its most prominent champions, i.e. Geert Wilders, leader of the Freedom Party and major pointer for Dutch politics for years (see the section: Ockupanterna). Though making sure to distinguish himself from people like Anders Berg Breivik (who pointed at Wilders as his ideological source of inspiration) by stressing his own democratic attitude, Wilders has steadily run down Islam, equating it with Fascism. Together with Pim Fortuyn (murdered in 2002 by a left-wing extremist), he has personified the idea that multiculturalism is a luxury only the privileged few can afford and has transformed the Netherlands into the headquarters of islamophobia in Europe.

The Dutch historian Thomas von der Dunk, here quoted, urges to take into account that politics’ highest aim is economic security, as well as the capability for society to accept cultural uncertainty; but when the former decreases, then the need for a strong cultural identity rises.

Roma people and Muslims are easy scapegoats in a continent affected by geopolitical and economic turbulences; but how came that in the rich and enlightened Norway a right-wing extremist killed more than 70 young left-wing activists? What Berg Breivik aims at with his double attack (a bomb in Oslo and the carnage on the Utøya island) was, as Linton explains, to murder at the same time three generations of “betrayers” (hence the title of the section, Förrädarna), i.e. three generations of Social Democrats: the forthcoming (the young activists who met in Utøya), the present (the governmental headquarter in the capital), and the former (Gro Harlem Brudtland, former prime minister, who escaped assassination in the island due to a delay in Breivik Berg’s plan).

What has been betrayed are Norwegian culture and identity, quite obviously. Breivik Berg defines “cultural Marxism” what could otherwise be summarized as “politically correct”, in other words the idea that there are some topics that cannot be questioned, above all feminism and multiculturalism. Linton points out that coinciding with the perhaps unstoppable march of right-wing extremism in Europe is the discontent caused by what has been perceived as the hegemony of political correctedness, which has become more and more centered upon universities. After all, right-wing radicalism is not interested in discussing rationally a question (which is supposed to be the academic approach) but, on the contrary, in imposing its own understanding of reality. And it is succeeding in doing this. Linton recalls our attention to the fact that what is striking in Breivik Berg is not his insanity, but how much he reflects stereotypes and plot-syndromes related to Islam that unfortunately are represented in more or less all the European parliaments (as well as in the EU one).     


Not even the book by Elmbrant, one of the most prominent Swedish journalists, is intended to bring comfort to the reader. Here as well the impact of the economic downturn is looked into in a European perspective, yet with a particular attention to countries such as Greece (see chapter 1, Ett land faller sönder) and Ireland (chapter 3, Irland på liv och död). In chapter 2 (Hur hamnade vi här?) the author follows the making of the Euro and then compares the faith of two countries, Ireland and Iceland; both hit by the crisis, but the latter (outside the common currency) recovering better. Italy is not at all forgotten in this account: the doubts about its financial soundness have been recurrent amongst EU – and German in particular – leaders, for many years. However, Elmbrant warns (chapter 4, Skenbilden av krisen) against those, in Brussels as well as Berlin and Paris, who blame upon some countries ? the Southern European ones primarily ? the European financial difficulties, as the problem were simply that if one spends too much, then one has to pay back sooner or later. Elmbrant is well aware that Greece, with all the stereotypes surrounding it, has worked as a perfect scapegoat, but insists on the European dimension of the economic crisis. The trouble indeed is not the Greeks’ unreliability, but the EU powerlessness in the face of much bigger transnational financial powers. In this connection, it needs to be said that left-wing parties have definitely not been united and consistent in their (often late) condemnation of the abuse of power from private banks and finance at large.

It cannot miss, in this critical report about the EU state of health, a chapter on Angela Merkel, significantly entitled She who decides (5, Hon som bestämmer) and on Germany’s hegemonic role. The outcome of financial powers’ and Germany’s supremacy are described in chapter 6 (Europas stålbad), again focusing mostly on Southern Europe, but raising a more general question: the changing role of the Nation-State. Here Elmbrant mentions an article on The New Left Review by the German social scientist Wolfgang Streeck as crucial: the dismantlement of Europe’s social policies has restricted the ability of the State as far as mediating between citizens’ rights and Capital’s diktats is concerned, and by this move increased further the latter’s authoritativeness as well. There have been massive demonstrations against budget-restriction policies, at least in Greece, Spain and Portugal (chapter 7, De unga på marsch), but Elmbrant does not forget that up to now it is the Radical Right the political actor who seems to have taken more advantage from the crisis, and not the Left. Are the European Central Bank and Merkel right when presenting austerity as the only way out of the crisis or can young people protesting in Athens, Madrid and Lisbon point out to an alternative? The last two chapters are built around this question. 

After summarizing the different proposals currently discussed in the EU (in the end all related to the dilemma: more or less unity among member States? See chapter 8, Stopp i Brysseltrafiken), Elmbrant closes his report by handling the question of the future of the common currency (chapter 9, Har euron en framtid?). After looking at expert analysis and people’s mood his answer (well reflecting Swedish attitude to the EU) is: the Euro is doomed to collapse ? after all it has been a mistake from the beginning ? with consequences that in some cases will prove to be devastating.  And thinking at what is going on in many European countries we can easily believe that this apocalyptic scenario is not simply a kind of snobbery from the rich Nordic countries.   

Kristina Kappelin, Berlusconi – Italienaren (Stockholm: Brombergs, 2010)

Kappelin knows, and loves, Italy: there is no trace, in her work, of a superiority complex towards Italians – such folkloristic people! ? which is on the contrary a common feature of some foreign media when dealing with Italy. Rather, Kappelin tries to understand how came that a country with a unique cultural and historical heritage has let itself be bluffed by a man who has – perhaps irreparably – compromised Italy’s reputation in the world.

And the book is indeed not only about the founder of “Forza Italia”, but instead, as it is made clear by the meaningful title (Berlusconi. The Italian), about Berlusconi as embodiment of some national peculiarities, so to say.

Italy in the whole have not yet been able to reflect about Berlusconi’s almost twenty-year dominance over the country’s political and economic life, pressed as it is just now (February 2012) by a never-ending emergency – the risk of a financial collapse – which caused, in November 2011, the appointment of a “technical government” (i.e. voted by the Parliament but not resulting from the last general election) being charged with the task of crisis management. Furthermore, although “style” is significant – professor Mario Monti does not “peekaboo” the German chancellor (Kappelin reminds Berlusconi’s blunders in chapter seven, Tittut i världen) and seems not to be used to spend his nights with twenty- to thirty young girls at the same time – the common feeling is that there has not occurred any shift in economic and social policies, which remain unfair and not effective (at least in the view of re-launching the economy and not only balancing public finances). This sense of continuity prevents to look at “Berlusconism” as a close (?) period in Italian history.

What does Berlusconi’s success reveal of Italy, according to Kappelin’s book? Basically, three aspects: the power of organised crime; the Catholic Church’s influence upon domestic politics and culture; the well-grounded male chauvinism.

The first two points (which particularly chapter sex, Maffian, and eight, Klockorna i Peterskyrkan, focuse on, although they are recurring issues all over the book) are frequently cause of embarrassments to Italians when talking with foreigners.

And indeed it would be unthinkable in Sweden – Kappelin is not so explicit, but the starting sentence of her book is: how come that Italians vote for Berlusconi? ? to pervert justice in the way Berlusconi did in Italy (by the notorious ad hoc laws, described in their origin and content in the chapter five, Konflikten med rättväsandet), and to witness powerless to the connivance between politics and criminality. This is due probably to a political tradition in Nordic countries which Henrik Berggren and Lars Trägårdh have described as a high degree of social trust, meant both as trust in other people, including strangers, and confidence in common institutions due to their transparency[1].

However, Kappelin’s thesis is that what explains why  a politician, who from a Swedish point of view is completely incomprehensible, has been so successful is, besides his relationship with organised crime on one hand and with the Catholic Church on the other hand (at least until the last sex affaires), male chauvinism: a key factor, the Swedish journalist stresses already in the Introduction, in understanding Italy’s decline, from the economic stagnation (now recession) to the lack of trust in the future. And in chapter one (Italien och Italienarna. En introduktion) Kappelin points out indeed that the country is like a journey back in time, in a masculine and sensual world, where “l’apparenza” (look)[2] means all and where a downward compromise has been achieved between the individual and the State: as you (State) do not accomplish your duties towards me (citizen), I am not bound to accomplish mine towards you. It is the triumph of the “furbo” (cunning fellow)[3].

With such a background, it is quite obvious that women have no chance, with few exceptions, to establish themselves as political and economic independent actors. Their unhappy fortune in Berlusconi’s Italy is the subject of chapter three (Madonnan, horan och Silvio Berlusconi): those that are good looking are reduced to nothing more than ornamental elements in a society ruled by old and unappeasable men and therefore appointed as parliamentary members and even ministers exactly because of their “apparenza”; the others, the common women, who are not mistresses of some sultan, are mostly doomed to insignificance in the economy and in politics.

Berlusconi, Kappelin insists on this point, has not invented male chauvinism, which on the contrary is well-grounded in the country’s culture; his sin with no redemption is to have turned this national inclination into a rule and the “velina”[4] (young girls almost naked whose only task in Berlusconi’s TV programs is to shake their body in alluring ways) into the ideal model of womanhood.

And thus we come to another valuable contribution of Kappelin’s book, after the effective part on women’s role as mirror of Italy’s decadence (and again here we could remind that on the contrary Nordic countries are on the top in the world’s gender equality ratios): to the huge concentration of media power achieved by Berlusconi much attention is drawn upon (see particularly chapter four, Makten over medierna), but this problem is not presented at all as an Italian peculiarity. Rather, Kappelin warns that also countries which have repeatedly condemned Berlusconi for his conflict of interest have no safe defence against such a risk.

The final part of the book focuses on how Berlusconi has changed Italian political style, turning electoral campaigns into sales where even the promise of one million – and not half a million, as Kappelin writes – new jobs can be sold to people in search of an encouraging fairy-tale, with immigrants welcomed as scapegoats (chapter nine, Dragkampen i Italien – resultat och misslyckanden), and on the dangerous meeting between authoritarian democracy and media populism (chapter ten, Auktoritär demokrati och medial populism). No one before Berlusconi, Kappelin points out, had dared to draw a comparison between Mussolini and himself with a kind of self-congratulation. But what the author argues is not that the founder of “Forza Italia” is the new Mussolini: the difference is that the latter aimed at building a new Italian,  whilst the former is satisfied with the existing one. The point is rather that the centre-right parties, with Berlusconi in the forefront, have taken over and reverted the “cultural hegemony” based since 1945 on antifascism as the key-source of national identity, and have systematically put down liberal institutions (starting from parliamentary and judicial powers) – and politics itself.

In this perspective, Berlusconi’s Italy appears as a political laboratory for the whole Europe. This is the somehow not expected conclusion from a non-Italian author, which enables the book to be not only a commented review of stereotypes about Italians (and about differences between Northern and Southern Europe), but a more demanding reflection about possible future developments of democracy at an international level. Out of Italy many have laughed when seeing Berlusconi’s blunders and listening to his hymn (“Meno male che Silvio c’è”), but – Kappelin warns – his “style” has become a model for a new generation of right-wing politicians, starting from David Cameron in the UK.

Thus it is not easy to get rid of Berlusconism as though it were a mere interlude in Italian history, perhaps cherishing the always comfortable thesis that it has been a further demonstration of the Gattopardo’s core idea: in Italy everything is to be changed so that nothing changes. On the contrary, Berlusconi, this is Kappelin’s conclusion, has substantially changed the way Italians look at themselves – and at the the others – as well as the ways of contemporary politics. And it will take time to go back to previous ones – or to find something new.

[1] See H. Berggren, L. Trägårdh, Social Trust and Radical Individualism. The Paradox at the Heart of Nordic Capitalism, in The Nordic Way, Stockholm, Global Utmaning, 2010, pp. 18-19.

[2] In Italian in the book, see p. 18.

[3] In Italian in the book, see p. 29.

[4] The book has been written before the “Ruby affaire”.

Göran Greider, Ingen kommer undan Olof Palme (Stockholm: Ordfront, 2011)

To the pressing return of Palme’s figure in the debate on the future of Swedish Social Democracy an intense book by Göran Greider – poet and journalist, one of the ten most authoritative intellectuals in Sweden – has remarkably contributed: Nobody escapes Olof Palme[1]; an evocative title for a work which is not meant as a biography but rather as a “walk”, taken during and just after the 2010 electoral campaign, across Palme’s life as well as through the changes occurring in the Swedish Social Democratic party – and in Sweden in the whole – under the last decades (subsequently to Palme’s death).

Greider’s path – made up of meetings with old and new activists, in Stockholm as well as in more peripheral areas – starts from four places in Stockholm with a symbolic value in Palme’s life: Östermalm, the upper class neighbourhood where he grew up; Vällingby, the ultra-rationalistic suburb where the Palmes moved to in the 1950s; the street (Västerlånggatan) in the Old Town, where he lived in the last years of his life; and the road (Sveavägen) in the modern city centre where he worked (the Social Democratic party has its head office there) and where he was murdered.

In the first chapter (Östermalmsgatan) Greider points out that the Swedish Conservative Party (Moderaterna), although claiming the legacy of Tage Erlander (Palme’s predecessor, prime minister from 1946 to 1969, the age of the making of the impressive Swedish public sector), still looks at Palme as a taboo. Unless… he is not purified by any Socialist corruption. Greider is persuaded that exactly this embarrassing contamination explains why the centre-right parties as well as the Social Democrats try in any way to escape Palme.

The second chapter (Tornedalsgatan) focuses indeed on the biographies (by Henrik Berggren, by Kjell Östberg and by Klas Eklund[2]) offering an embalmed portrait of Palme as statesman (and in the case of Berggren’s work, also trying to turn Palme into a liberal). After all, why should the upper class give up claiming the most talented politician grown up from its own ranks (although unfortunately gone over to the enemy)?

Greider makes clear that his own aim is on the contrary to discuss the most controversial elements in Palme’s political career. The author’s thesis is that the Social Democratic leader can be understood only in the light of the social movement, aiming at a social transformation, which he led from 1969 (when Palme was appointed party leader and subsequently prime minister) to 1986, both in power and in opposition: the working class and its allies. According to the author, “the movement is the message”, as he makes clear already in the short Introduction, coming back to this idea in the second chapter, where moreover he points out that nowadays in Sweden the only political organization aiming at, and succeeding in, building a political movement is the xenophobic party, the Sweden Democrats.

In the light of these worrying processes, Greider questions one of the commonplaces about the crisis of the Left all over Europe: what is needed – in Sweden and not only – is not so much to work out again the transformation thinking (it is not ideas and analysis which are missing), but instead to find new forms of organisation for social movements.

The author is critical with the influential historiographic trend explaining the ideological development of Swedish Social Democracy as a gradual but at the same time unavoidable removal, from the 1930s onwards, of all Socialist core ideas; starting of course from Socialization, being replaced by the more reassuring – and thus more suitable to ensure Capitalists’ support – social democracy.

Greider recalls the great visions the Swedish Social Democrats built upon the cross-class consent they enjoyed, stressing that these were not inescapable paths, but instead the outcomes of choices made by the labour movement: first the “people’s home”, launched in 1928 by Per Albin Hansson and since then revised several times as slogan; then, between the 1950s and the 1960s, the “strong society”[3], to refer to the need of an active role of the State aiming at safeguarding citizens’ welfare. In both cases, socialization played no role. Nevertheless, Greider asks himself: what does it mean that in the last years of Palme’s life, after more than four decades of Social Democratic rule (yet interrupted by the centre-right government 1976-1982), almost four workers out of ten had a public employer?

By doing so Greider raises the question as far as the identity of Swedish Social Democracy is concerned, i.e. the role of the State in re-shaping the power relations between classes. His answer is that such an achievement reflected an unmatched degree of socialization of the economy. According to Greider’s analysis indeed the SAP did not restrained its intervention to a socialization of incomes, but rather built an imposing public production system. This is exactly the history which has been removed: the making of a “embryonal Socialism” in Sweden. The centre-right can not take possession of it, because of the incompatibility with its own social-liberal vision; furthermore, this history makes many Social Democrats feel uneasy as well.

After making amends for the sins of Soviet Socialism, it is time, Greider writes in the third chapter (Västerlånggatan), to look forward: if not nowadays, in ten, twenty years the good “utopia” contained in Communism will become topical again.

The great chance missed by the Swedish Social Democracy, the third crossroad it had to face, is indicated by Greider in the debate on wage earner funds, started in the early 1970s (but with earlier roots) from the awareness that capital formation should be increased without helping at the same time wealth concentration. Put forward in 1975 by the trade union economist Rudolf Meidner, the proposal provided the establishment of funds – stocks being strategic property – to be administered by workers and constituted through the transfer of a share of annual corporate profits; they were supposed to shift gradually the ownership in medium to large companies from employers to workers. The SAP strove to turn the funds into an instrument of capital accumulation; when they were finally introduced by a law, in 1983, had no longer anything to do with the original proposal, being rather an element within a general anti-crisis policy. That, too, as well as the People’s Home and the Strong Society, was a choice, Greider stresses, without playing down at all Palme’s contribution in neutralizing the subversive component of the funds, in the face of the hysterical reactions from business circles.

The divide between Palme and his successors is identified by Greider not in the capacity to take unpopular decisions – which Palme, too, took, and which the author accepts as hard lesson of politics – but rather on one hand in Palme’s attachment to Democratic Socialism and on the other hand in his successors being unable to make it clear that, notwithstanding unfavourable circumstances, the aim is still the same: to ensure equality and safety. It is not by chance that what is considered worthy being celebrated in Palme is his internationalism, not his democratic socialism, i.e. not the politician who recalled the Socialist legacy always present (even though in an underground way) in the party history.

In the final chapter (Sveavägen) Greider points out to the two conditions which can allow a revival of Democratic Socialism in the XXI Century. The first is that as long as we live in a capitalist society, Marxism, yet not self-sufficient (but rather to be supplemented by the Green thinking and by social movements other than the labour one), remains the best conceptual tradition we have at our disposal in understanding – and in changing – reality. The second condition is to give raise to new social movements and at the same time to revitalize the existing ones, too often unable to communicate with each other.

The goal is, once again, with more urgency than ever, labour liberation.



[1] G. Greider, Ingen kommer undan Olof Palme, Ordfront, Stockholm 2011.

[2] See M. Quirico, Olof Palme: One Life, Many Readings, “Nordicum Mediterraneum”, 2011, VI, 1.

[3] At that time the distinction between State and civil society was weak, in the Swedish political lexicon, thus the translation into another language has to take into account this ambiguity, due to the close relation between the two spheres. See L. Trägårdh, The Paradox of Swedish Political Culture: State and Civil Society in Sweden, Introduction to State and Civil Society in Northern Europe. The Swedish Model Reconsidered, ed. by Id., New York-Oxford, Berghahn Books, 2007, pp. 1-3.

Olof Palme: One Life, Many Readings

In short, historiographic reflections have been penalized by a kind of personality cult, even if reversed in the case of Palme’s opponents.[1]


1. Literature on Olof Palme


His spectacular political career, on the one side, and his tragic end, on the other side, have nourished – already when Palme was still alive – a thriving and deplorable literary genre made up of speculations on his demoniac nature, his crimes, or at best his inadequacies;[2] as well as conspiracy theories of all kinds and hundreds hypothesis on the murder.[3] . In the end of the 1980s the first biography came out, written by the journalist Björn Elmbrant:[4] it is still an unavoidable reference. It was followed later by the purely political biography written by the journalist Peter Antman and by the Social Democratic politician Pierre Schori,[5] who was State Secretary for Foreign Affairs in the second Palme government. Collective volumes[6] followed too, including contributions that focused on particular aspects of Palme’s politics/policies (first and foremost the foreign one)[7], and memoirs by representatives of the Social Democratic Party.[8]

Due partly to the awareness that much was left to be studied with regards to Palme’s life and political role, and partly to the approaching 25th anniversary of his tragic death, recent years have witnessed a renewed biographic effort, thanks first of all to the monumental work (nearly 900 pages) by Kjell Östberg, a historian who has devoted great part of his scientific production to social movements and to the relationship between intellectuals and politics. One could wonder what was left to be said about Palme after this two-volume biography, published between 2008 (1. I takt med tiden. Olof Palme 1927-1969 – Behind the times. Olof Palme 1927-1969[9]) and 2009 (2. När vinden vände. Olof Palme 1969-1986 – When the wind turned. Olof Palme 1969-1986[10]). Nevertheless, in 2010 two more works were published: the short Palme, by Klas Eklund,[11] who was one of the economic advisors of the second Palme government; and the impressive (more than 700 pages) Underbara dagar framför oss. En biografi över Olof Palme (Wonderful Days in Front of Us. A biography of Olof Palme)[12] by Henrik Berggren, historian but above all leading writer of “Dagens Nyheter”, the most influential Swedish newspaper, which typically endorses “independent liberal” stances.

The aim of this article is not to review the last three biographies mentioned above, but to try to identify their methodology, so to speak, then singling out – in a way which may come across as arbitrary – some of the controversial points in Palme’s political career (leaving out both scandals and vulgar attacks), as they will prove to be good opportunities for comparing the interpretations given by their authors.[13]

2. Different ways to tell a life

Eklund’s book differs from the other two works for it is part of a series devoted to the Swedish Prime Ministers in the last hundred years (i.e. from Karl Staaff to the present PM Fredrik Reinfeldt). Each volume is meant as a quick introduction to a specific PM, and in fact Eklund’s Palme is a fairly simple political biography (with only a limited attention to Palme’s private life). Nonetheless, its final section (Arvet efter Palme, Palme’s legacy) makes it different from a flat list of facts and dates. In a few pages, the author takes indeed a stock of Palme’s outcomes and failures and then even goes so far as to try to imagine what could happen if Palme had not been murdered — a kind of counterfactual history, in other words.

Östberg’s and Berggren’s biographies show at first glance a similar structure, not only due to their remarkable length, but also insofar as both aim at an in-depth reconstruction of Palme’s life and role, as well as of the world around him (i.e. 20th-century Sweden and international, history). The title of the first volume of Östberg’s biography, Behind the Times, summarizes very well the author’s starting point, as it is made clear in the Introduction: first of all, the idea that Palme went across several ages during which history turned more than once to a new direction; secondly, the acknowledgement that Palme showed an extraordinary talent for grasping the Zeitgeist and the changes affecting it, and therefore was in the best position for exerting an effective influence on what was going on.

Östberg’s approach is not at all individualistic.[14] His biography is rather a history of Palme within the history of the Swedish labour movement and of its changing relationship with Capital, with a swinging from collaboration to conflict that took place exactly under Palme’s political apex. That does not imply that Palme’s individuality is sacrificed in the end, but rather that the dilemmas which he had to face and the choices which he made are understandable only in the view of the power relations between classes and of the pressures upon the labour movement and its organizations coming both from the Right and from the Left. That explains why the two volumes of Östberg’s biography represent an imposing picture of 20th-century Swedish political and social history.

To sum up Berggren’s work is a trickier task, because of a kind of paradox which somehow undermines it. The main perspective is definitely individualistic, with regards both to the methodology – Palme’s behaviour (as a person and as a politician) is often, too often perhaps, interpreted from a psychological and philosophical point of view – and to the interpretation – Berggren portrays Palme, whom he states to have voted for in 1982 and 1985,[15] far more as a liberal than as a socialist. On the other hand, it is exactly Palme who disappears eventually in the demanding history of Swedish culture and, in a way, Swedish civilisation in the 20th century, which constitutes the actual core of the book. Though fascinated by the gallery of poets, artists, film-makers, theorists and journalists – besides politicians – that Berggren recalls and outlines with great skill, the reader can not help wondering: “where has Palme gone?”

3. “Class treason”

One of the more investigated turning points in Palme’s life are the reasons that led a talented offspring of one of the most influential families in Stockholm to join the Social Democratic Party (SAP) in 1951 – after drawing attention to himself as student leader on an international scale –, only to be appointed two years later as secretary of the then prime minister, Tage Erlander, at the age of twenty-six years.

All three authors stress the formative impact on the young Palme – until then holder of the conservative vision (even if with social and international openings) inherited from his family – of the journeys made around the USA (1948), Eastern Europe (1949) and Asia (1953). These experiences meant the dramatic discovery of a reality made up of misery and oppression.[16] All three authors refuse the common yet misleading explanations focusing on Palme’s opportunism: a young man with his background could have chosen far more promising careers. Besides, that the Social Democratic Party, in power since 1932, would have kept its position until 1976 was something that no one in the beginning of the 1950s could expect. On the contrary, many took for granted the forthcoming end of the Social Democratic age, as the party, perhaps as a consequence of being so successful, seemed unable to renew itself.[17] Why the labour movement then?

Eklund puts forward the easiest explanation: Palme joined the SAP because of his ideology: anti-colonialist, reformist, anti-communist.[18]

Östberg’s thesis is summarized in a few words in the very last page of the second volume, but his whole work illustrates it. Two were the driving forces which turned Palme into a Social Democrat: the awareness that the world was about to change – and that he was in the best position, with his talent and his social and intellectual network, to contribute to a new age – and what Palme himself called the “joy of politics”;[19] a feeling, the latter, that evokes the portrait of the politician by vocation outlined by Max Weber:

Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective. Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth – that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible. But to do that a man must be a leader, and not only a leader but a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word. And even those who are neither leaders nor heroes must arm themselves with that steadfastness of heart which can brave even the crumbling of all hopes. This is necessary right now, or else men will not be able to attain even that which is possible today. Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer. Only he who in the face of all this can say “In spite of all!” has the calling for politics.[20]

As to Berggren, he argues that one could expect that Palme would choose a career in politics, due to his interest in social problems, as well as in journalism or research, due to his strong liking for intellectual life; but in the former case, siding with the Right; while in the latter keeping a more distanced approach to the public debate. What Palme did was to combine these two alternatives by turning to political engagement in the ranks of the Social Democratic party. Palme’s unexpected choice was therefore twofold, as both an active role in politics and even more so a left-wing position did not belong to his social background, even if Berggren often insists on the continuity between Olof and his grandfather, Sven, the founder of the family fortune, who advocated social reforms.[21] It is noteworthy that Palme’s political radicalism and the reformism that both Eklund and Östberg point out as one of Palme’s main features (with Östberg referring to it in a double meaning: the awareness that reforms were needed and the talent for bringing forth reforms), are kept in the shade in Berggren’s work. Yet, what comes in the spotlight is an overall attitude of cultural radicalism that, in Sweden, is traditionally associated with the Liberal party.

4. Radicalism abroad and compromise at home?



One could be tempted to wonder whether the biographers’ conclusions as to Palme’s joining the labour movement have influenced their interpretation of his politics as a whole; or whether on the contrary the opinions on Palme’s place in Swedish history, developed at the end of their works, have favoured a retrospective reading of Palme’s first controversial step, that is to say, “going over to the enemy”, as his decision was perceived by many of his class peers. Whatever the answer, it is most interesting to see what kind of connection is established in the three biographies between the talented upper-class young man who committed himself to the struggle for the labour movement and the worldwide-known politician who displayed his radicalism in foreign affairs and was nevertheless inclined to compromise in domestic politics, both with the opposition parties and with the business community. What the biographers face here is the debate about Palme’s position within the party, and his role within the history of Swedish Social Democracy as a whole.

4.a Foreign policy

Palme’s radicalism in foreign policy has been related above all to his firm condemnation of the Vietnam War, which created considerable troubles to Sweden in its diplomatic relations with the USA. This was an irony of fate, given that Palme has been defined by many — Östberg and Berggren among them[22] — as the most American among Swedish politicians, due to his education, his journeys and his contacts in the USA.

Palme expressed his contrariety to the American military intervention in Vietnam in a few well-known speeches and articles: the so-called “Gävle speech” delivered in 1965, when Palme was minister of Transport and Communication;[23] the speech held at the Vietnam demonstration on February 1968,[24] when Palme was minister of Education and Culture and marched close to the North-Vietnamese ambassador in Moscow – and the picture came out in hundreds of newspapers all over the world; the article on Song My (a Vietnamese village destroyed by 19-20 years-old US soldiers) published in 1970,[25] when he was already prime minister; and finally Hanoi, Christmas 1972, a speech broadcast on the Swedish Radio and which is worth being quoted:

We should call things by their proper names. What is going on in Vietnam today is a form of torture.

There cannot be any military justification for the bombings […].

People are being punished, a nation is being punished in order to humiliate it, to force it to submit to force.

That’s why the bombings are despicable.

Many such atrocities have been perpetrated in recent history. They are often associated with a name: Guernica, Oradour, Babi Yar, Katyn, Lidice, Sharpeville, Treblinka.

Violence triumphed. But posterity has condemned the perpetrators.

Now a new name will be added to the list: Hanoi, Christmas 1972.[26]

Östberg presents the reader with the diverse reactions raised by Palme’s statements. For most of his party fellows his engagement on such an issue not only was absolutely sincere, but also in line with the labour movement tradition of internationalism; right-wing representatives complained his home (ab)use of foreign policy, aiming at opposing the growing influence on social movements gained by the New Left in the 1960s; others have seen in his position a sign of his opportunism and careerism: he benefitted from the solidarity movement with the Vietnamese people and strengthened his position within the party and/or consolidated his reputation as international politician.[27]

Eklund maintains that thanks to Palme’s Gävle speech “it became legitimate to criticize the USA”, and that his statements shifted the whole Swedish debate on international affairs to the Left. At the same time, he notes that the Vietnam issue strengthened Palme’s political identity, anointing him once and for all as an icon of the new time; because of his age (38 when the War started), no one among the Social Democratic representatives was more suitable than him to undertake the task of competing with the New Left for the “hegemony” on the new social movements.[28] Berggren shares this analysis, emphasizing furthermore Palme’s skill in awaking a kind of national feeling, a sense of honour which moved a little country like Sweden to express its indignation in an unusually plain language. The words “Swedish neutrality” – which under the Second World War had got a quite bitter taste – came to be related to the solidarity with the struggle for independence of Third World nations. That is why Berggren refers even to a paradigm shift, as Palme introduced an interpretation of what was going on in Vietnam which challenged the one up to then prevailing, i.e. that the USA fought always and only for democracy, yet without embracing a Communist perspective.[29]

The home impact of the debate on the Vietnam War is also the focus of Östberg’s chapter Vietnam!.

The starting point whereby to explain Palme’s behaviour is the same, i.e. the Social Democrats’ awareness that they were in danger to lose support from the Left, and that the person in the best position to try to resist that trend was Palme, whose anti-communism was well-tested. Unlike Eklund and Berggren however, Östberg is more sceptical about the outcomes of this strategy: if Palme succeed in keeping the party together around the Vietnam issue, the SAP lost nevertheless the battle for the hegemony on the Vietnam movement. It was not devoid of significance that business – including trade of military technology – and intelligence relations between Sweden and the USA were not affected by the turbulence roused by Palme’s vehemence, and that did not increase the SAP’s credibility among the New Left activists. Östberg’s conclusion is that the Vietnam War did not ruin at all Palme’s attachment to US liberalism, with its belief that the best way to resist Communism was to gain influence on radical social movements. But Palme was in no way a pure pawn in the party’s hands (as Eklund and Berggren, too, acknowledge); he did not hesitate to make statements that in few hours could compromise years of careful diplomatic relations. It was not Palme to create the Vietnam issue; but his role in putting it on the agenda can not be underestimated.[30]

On the occasion of the Portuguese Revolution (1974) some of the core values in Palme’s view of international affairs came again in the light, according to Östberg: colonialism vs liberation struggles, poor countries vs rich ones, democracy vs fascism as well as communism, great powers vs small States. In the neutralization of the pressures aiming at questioning the Western Order, the Socialist International played a crucial role, and Palme, thanks to the influential example of his country, was in the forefront – in his own way: not by clash but by dialogue, favouring a reformist outcome of the Portuguese revolutionary phase.[31] Eklund discusses shortly the event, by writing that Palme contributed to avert the danger of a too radical shift to the Left and secure the establishment of a Democratic government;[32] while Berggren puts the accent on the rapproachement that took place on that occasion between Sweden and the USA, as both countries feared  revolutionary developments in Europe.[33]



4.b Home politics

It is a widespread opinion that Palme, in spite of his radicalism in foreign policy — which however, as we have seen, is to be understood in the light of his effort to put forward Social Democracy as a successful alternative to Communism — showed a willingness to compromise when domestic policy was concerned that often aroused dissatisfaction in his own ranks. If there is a wide consensus on the wave of reforms passed by his first government (1969-1976) – on gender equality, Welfare State, labour markets – that consolidated the notion of Sweden as a “model” country, other issues were highly controversial, both within the labour movement and in the relationship with the opposition. Here the focus will be on Palme’s line with regard to the wage earners’ funds, a cross which went along with him from the middle 1970s to 1983, and the so-called “Third Way”, the economic policy introduced by Kjell Olof Feldt, minister of finance in the second Palme government (1982-1986). By examining these issues it will be perhaps easier to understand Östberg’s, Eklund’s and Berggren’s concluding remarks on Palme’s role in the history of Swedish Social Democracy.

Between 1975 and 1983, under the influence of the radicalization of society and of the debate of the perverse effects of the solidarity-focused wage policy[34] – a cornerstone of the Rehn-Meidner model, i.e. the Swedish model for economic policy from the late 1950s onwards – the Swedish labour movement discussed the proposal put forward between 1975 and 1976 by the leading economist of the General Labour Confederation (LO), Rudolf Meidner, so as to establish employee funds (löntagarfonder) that would gradually shift the ownership in medium to large companies from employers to workers.[35] The principle “equal pay for equal work”, aiming at avoiding inequalities among employees, caused that profitable companies, not being required to pay wages commensurate with their higher profits, found themselves with a surplus that was not being redistributed among the workers, thus ultimately widening the gap between capital and labour.[36]

The debate on Wage Earners’ Funds turned into a hot potato for the Social Democrats, who were about, in 1976, to face an uphill general election. Certainly, these funds did not help; the right-centre parties and the Employers’ Association charged the labour movement with the will to introduce in Sweden a socialism of the Eastern kind.

The question which is interesting to raise when comparing different interpretations of Palme’s politics is not so much why he was against the funds – his whole political education and experience led him to oppose socialization – but rather why the prime minister managed the issue in a way which has been blamed either as ambiguous (by the supporters of the Meidner plan) or passive (by his opponents). Eklund and Berggren focus on the latter problem, the more “tactical” one, though not leaving out entirely the ideological dimension. Eklund’s starting point is his own personal thesis, whereby Meidner’s plan went far beyond what up to then had been discussed within the labour movement – and what in fact was needed – in order to resist the concentration of property; as it aimed at socializing the Swedish economy, it was not consistent with the Swedish model, which – as Eklund recalls – has identified in taxation, legislation and the Welfare State the counterbalance to Capital. On the other side, however, Eklund acknowledges that Palme was aware of the discussion which was going on within the LO, even if he expected that at the end the Union leadership would invite its activists to a realistic approach. But it did not go this way. As to the party leadership, after the 1973 general election, even if still in power, it had to face the “lottery-parliament” (the seats in parliament were equally divided between the two blocks) and it seemed not particularly interested in the issue; that is why Palme and his colleagues in the government did not follow it close up from the beginning.[37]

Berggren agrees on the idea that Palme, reluctant to interfere in the debate within the union, relied on the LO chairman, Gunnar Nilsson, in order to neutralize the funds; the latter nevertheless had to take into account the appreciation which the funds enjoyed among the workers. Furthermore, the personal relationship between the two labour leaders was not so good. Berggren points out as well that Palme had difficulty in understand the plan’s core in itself. It seems that Palme said, referring to the LO’s support to the plan: “They have gone further than what I had thought in my most unrestrained imagination!”[38]

Eklund discusses also Palme’s political calculations: besides the workers’ support to the project, it must be borne in mind that when the confrontation on the funds actual set up took place, between 1978 and 1980, the SAP was in opposition and for the first time Palme’s leadership was questioned, not so much because of the electoral defeat in 1976, but due partly to his “flirt” with the Liberal party (then in power by a minority government), and partly to his intense engagement in international affairs (e.g. the Socialist International, the commission on disarmament, the Iran-Iraq war). Additionally, his upper class background could expose him to criticisms from the labour movement, if he dared go against the union on such a crucial issue. Finally, though against the funds on principle, he could not but support them in the face of the opponents’ attacks: the enemy was not allowed to settle the labour movement’s programs.[39]

Compared to Berggren’s and Eklund’s, Östberg’s work devotes more attention to the ideological implications of Palme’s dilemma. In the author’s view, the wage earners’ funds were the major issue among those which forced Palme to take a definite position between market and planning: it was unthinkable under that circumstance to keep the balance peculiar to the Social Democratic Third Way. Meidner’s Plan was – this is Östberg’s view – perhaps the most ticklish question Palme had to face. Paradoxically, the challenge – to question private property – did not come from the Left, but from the pillar, together with the SAP, of the Swedish way to reformism, that is to say, the union.

Whose influence on society was, in the first half of the 1970s, at its peak; but at the same time, the Swedish Employers’ Confederation started right then its ideological and political counterattack. Palme’s strategy was first to postpone the issue (after the 1976 general elections) and then to neutralize the most “subversive” elements in the plan, stressing from the beginning its compatibility with a market economy. And at last the aim – to reassure the business circles – was achieved by adding a fourth goal to the three formulated by Meidner (to transfer a quote of profits from capitalists to workers; to oppose property and wealth concentration; to establish workers’ influence on the economy through property): to favour capital formation, for the benefit of industrial investments. This was not exactly what had aroused, in 1975-1976, the union activists’ enthusiasm. In the early 1980s, the Meidner plan, then completely perverted, came to be incorporated into the program against the economic crisis worked out by the SAP.[40]

Noteworthy is that while the three biographers agree that the law on funds passed by the parliament in 1983 and introducing a pension funds scheme, had nothing to do with Meidner’s original plan, they differ as far as the effectiveness of Palme’s line is concerned. For Eklund, the whole discussion on the wage earners’ funds was one of Palme’s worst failures from an ideological point of view, as he stayed all the time on the defensive and contributed to a deep demoralization in the labour movement’s ranks.[41] On the contrary, Palme’s strategy seems to Östberg to have been successful, in terms of impact on the public opinion: he could neutralize the plan, without provoking too serious inner splits.[42] Berggren is more neutral, just joining under the category of “symbol-politics” the impressive demonstration against the funds held by the Employers’ Confederation on October 4, 1982 and the passing of the law few weeks later.[43]

The program against the ongoing economic crisis implemented by the second Palme government and to which, as we have seen, the wage earners’ funds were utilized, is considered as well one of the most controversial chapters in his political career.[44] In 1982 the minister of finance Kjell Olof Feldt presented three alternatives: an expansionist policy; a restrictive one; and what he called “the big bang”, that is to say, a policy aiming at stimulating investments and production, but at the same time squeezing domestic demand by means of devaluation. The last one was accepted. On this point, it is of particular interest to read Eklund’s points, as he was one of Feldt’s staff members. According to him, Palme and Feldt failed in the task of curbing the spiral of inflation, provoked by unrestrained wage claims by the unions. Palme showed once again – this is Eklund’s thesis – his weakness before the unions, portrayed by the author as a short-sighted organization, unable or unwilling to grasp the requirements of the economic system.[45] However, in the pages dealing with the “war of the roses”, that is to say, the unions’ dissatisfaction with the SAP’s profit-oriented economic policy, the author recognizes that the labour movement had to accept major changes in the Swedish model yet with no return (e.g. an active industrial policy or wage earners’ funds worthy of the name).[46]

Berggren is content with reporting Palme’s satisfaction for the economic recovery, which he comments upon in an interview given on February, 28 1986 (mind the date) when he declared, with a tragic irony of fate, that 1986 was a year full of opportunities,[47] thereby acknowledging that Feldt’s policy was effective and that the Social Democrats had once again fortune on their side.[48] Yet, the long-term consequences, both economic and political, of the shift begun under Palme are not deepened by Berggren. They come instead in the forefront in Östberg’s work, where it is pointed out that the real nature of the ”Third way” (as the new economic policy was called, i.e. neither expansionist nor restrictive) was bound to be widely discussed. Was it consistent with a Social Democratic orientation or did it mean the surrender to Neo-Liberalism? Certainly Palme supported his minister of finance, and he did so by arguing that the new economic policy was a condition for preserving the Welfare State.[49] Nevertheless – and this is one of the crucial points in Östberg’s biography – Palme accepted it as a necessary evil, while to Feldt’s eyes the policy was dictated by a long-term adaptation, perceived as unavoidable, to a more market-oriented political climate. As a sign of the ideological disagreement between the two leading Social Democratic politicians, Östberg brings forward Palme’s disappointment when Feldt made a statement in favour of the privatization of Swedish pre-schools; also in his last interview, few hours before being murdered, Palme confirmed his strong support to the public sector, which he regarded as a key aspect of modern civilisation.[50]

Berggren too reports Palme’s firm reaction to the openings to neo-liberalism made by his minister of finance, but the interpretation of their relationship is definitely different. Palme was moved, Berggren argues, not so much by the concern of safeguarding a distinct Social Democratic platform, but rather by tactic calculations: a breakdown in the labour movement tradition would have caused inner splits and favoured the building of a competing party on the Left. Berggren agrees that Palme was against privatization, but at the same time the author believes that the prime minister shared many of Feldt’s viewpoints and perhaps that is why he reacted so firmly. With a member of the government staff Palme indeed seems (Berggren unfortunately does not refer to any source) to have made clear his awareness that increased competition, effectiveness and freedom of choice within the public sector (a condition that Berggren should have emphasized) were needed.[51]

Eklund’s version is somehow in the middle: he recognizes an ideological gap between Palme and Feldt, but reduces it essentially to a matter of make-up: the former kept a more traditional rhetoric when arguing in favour of the new economic policy, while the latter made no secret of the fact that the “Third way” was part of a process of “modernization” of the national economy.[52] Palme’s early and vehement condemnation of the dangers inborn in Neo-Liberalism – social atomization, destruction of the environment, democracy turned into an empty box – is not mentioned here.

5. Continuity or breakdown?

Maybe Palme was only tired or even depressed because of the long time in the frontline, the many troubles that he had to face from the very beginning since coming back in power in 1982 (the U-boat affair, the Bofors and the Harvard scandals, incessant union unrest), and the many personal attacks that he suffered from; maybe he was planning to leave, perhaps accepting an appointment as United Nations (UN) Commissar on Refugees, or staying on for a while.[53] What is certain is that everything was shattered by the shots which echoed in the evening of February 28, 1986.

Berggren, with a choice that can be disappointing to the reader and nonetheless reveals some elegance, stops his long story then, when the Swedish prime minister died in the heart of the city where he had spent all his life, not far from his childhood home, close to the SAP building, next to the wife he had been married with over nearly thirty years.[54] Nothing is said on the inquiry that followed.

Eklund shortly summarizes what happened in the aftermath: the widespread belief that a murder of a prime minister can not but be the outcome of a plot; the only person ever charged with the crime (and then released) being a single and violent individual, Christer Pettersson; the kind of private investigation (backed by the SAP leadership) which did its best to confirm the PKK (the Communist party of Kurdistan) hypothesis.[55] Eklund writes nothing about the tremendous failure of the Swedish justice in an inquiry that has exceeded even the one on the murder of US president John F. Kennedy.

Östberg’s second volume takes up in the end an epic style: on the one hand we follow a man and a politician who was fed up, worried for the world and for his own safety, getting older and no longer as unquestionable as he had been in the 1970s;[56] on the other hand, we enter the opaque area of hate campaigns arranged by a blend of different groups, ranging from the extreme right of the Employers’ Confederation to unaffiliated anarchic psychopaths, affecting Palme in his last years more than ever before.[57] In other countries the relationship between a murder and the preceding hate campaign against the victim has been regularly scrutinised, apart from the person who materially committed the murder; in Sweden this scrutiny has been less common. Under this perspective, Östberg definitely contributes a significant study. Besides, his chapter devoted to the murder and the ensuing inquiry is a useful and involving reconstruction of what happened and what ought not to happen, yet without trying to add one more Truth about the murder to the long list of hypotheses – some of them pretty fanciful – formulated until now.[58]

After twenty-five years the murder is still unresolved, the SAP has lost two elections in a row (2006 and 2010), and Palme remains a controversial issue. Who was Olof Palme? Which was the connection between the Olof Palme who made the US government fly into a fury due to his condemnation of Imperialism and the Olof Palme who backed the business-friendly “Third way” in economic policy?

It has to be noted here that the three biographers are all fascinated by his talent, meant both as intellectual brightness and as ability in problem-solving (hence Palme’s success in bringing forth actual reforms); yet they acknowledge too that this talent could turn into a double-edged weapon in the relations, both political and personal, with others.[59]

In Eklund’s final remarks, Palme appears as the highest expression in Sweden of the 1950s and 1960s Zeitgeist: the commitment to achieve demanding and long-term reforms; nevertheless he is also described as unlucky, for his appointment as prime minister in 1969 took place at the same time when the Golden Age ended, and he was not inclined to face a downward age.[60] What has been perceived by someone as Palme’s ambiguity or contradiction, or, worse, opportunism, depended instead on a diverse approach to the different fields of reality: Palme was left-wing as far as social, educational and foreign policy were concerned, but he was right-wing as to economic and security policy. He personified the unending swing in Swedish Social Democracy between Democratic Socialism and Social Democracy.[61]

Berggren’s interpretation is equally continuity-oriented: Palme was a democrat, moved to politics more by an “existential” choice than by an ideological conviction; along his whole life, he remained a pragmatist. As such, his role can not be defined either as a Cold War soldier (under the 1950s standard banners) nor as an anti-imperialist (under the 1960s and the early 1970s ones). Rather, Palme showed the typical Social Democratic ability to achieve viable arrangements. After tracing Palme’s relationship with politics back to his existentialist philosophy – a puzzling thesis broadly developed in the book– Berggren goes further in his accentuation of Palme’s individualistic dimension – and in the removal of the socialist one. The other distinguishing features that he singles out are indeed, besides the international perspective, Palme’s belief that the individual has a duty to pursue what he maintains to be Truth and Justice, and Palme’s strong volunteerism.[62] In the end, according to Berggren’s biography, Palme seems to have shared with Swedish Social Democracy only an attitude to compromise, on one side, and to modernization, on the other side; the latter element implied also to improve people’s living conditions, but more in a liberal perspective (i.e. to give everybody the chance to lead his own existence) than in an endeavour to make society more equal.[63] According to Berggren’s analysis, Palme’s awareness that society can safeguard freedom only by securing equality (and in a substantive meaning) is negligible.[64]

Östberg’s conclusions are more complex with regard to the dilemma continuity vs breakdown. Palme was behind the times until the Golden Age went on; in the mid-1960s he was able to understand, thanks to his good relationship with intellectuals and young people, that the Zeitgeist was changing. That favoured the portrait of him as a radical, but also the disappointment of those who had misunderstood Palme’s position. He was not a radical, Östberg stresses; rather he took his place in the party centre-wing. His condemnation of colonialism and violence was sincere, and at the same time perfectly consistent with his reformism: he hoped and believed indeed that sooner or later the countries fighting for their liberation would have followed the Swedish way, that is to say, the achievement of political, social and economic democracy by reformist politics. Somehow he contributed to the radicalism of that age without being a radical.[65] The impact of the reforms passed under his first government was such as to raise in many (both sympathizers and opponents) the question: are the Social Democrats about to reverse the Swedish system?

To this climate Palme contributed by the radicalism accompanying the passage of the reforms. But – Östberg insists on this crucial passage – when the borders of Swedish reformism were questioned, e.g. on the occasion of the debate on the wage earners’ funds, he refused to go over. He lost touch with the Zeitgeist, as the historical phase when he had developed his ideas and approach – the age of the trust in never-ending economic growth and therefore in an increasing Welfare State– was over. This loss was not Palme’s failure, but the result of the challenge issued by the ongoing economic crisis and the spreading of Neo-Liberalism to the whole Swedish Social Democracy. From the 1950s to the 1980s Palme maintained a unitary vision, although trying to tailor it to changing conditions: the task was to extend democracy from the political dimension to the social and economic one, yet without questioning private property.[66] Such was Olof Palme in fact: when blaming the USA and the USSR for their arrogance and oppression, when putting gender equality on the agenda, when flirting with the Liberal Party, or neutralizing the more demanding union claims; he was a Social Democrat, who experienced the shift from an age when everything seemed possible to a crisis undermining all the certainties and requiring new answers.

How and whether Palme’s heirs have succeeded in this hard task: to be up to the new challenges without getting rid of the Social Democratic tradition – hence of Palme’s legacy too – is today, at least apparently, matter for discussion, in one of the toughest phases of the party’s history.

[1] See Å. Linderborg, Socialdemokraterna skriver historia. Historieskrivning som ideologisk maktresurs 1892-2000, Stockholm, Atlas, 2001, pp. 108-111.

[2] See B. Östergren, Vem är Olof Palme? Ett politiskt porträtt, Stockholm, Timbro, 1984; Claes Arvidsson, Olof Palme. Med verkligheten som fiende, Stockholm, Timbro, 2007. Noteworthy is that the publisher of both these highly polemic works, come out at a distance of twenty-three years, is the same, the new-liberal think-tank “Timbro”.

[3] Among the many possible references, K. and P. Poutiainen, Inuti labyrinten: om mordet på Olof Palme, Stockholm, Grimur, 1995 (on the domestic track); J. Bondeson, Blood on the Snow. The Killing of Olof Palme, Ithaca, Cornell University, 2005 (on the track related to the traffic in arms); H. Hederberg, Offret & gärningsmannen: en essä om mordet på Olof Palme, Stockholm, Atlantis, 2010 (guilty: Christer Pettersson, the only person sentenced, yet then released, for the murder).

[4] B. Elmbrant, Palme, Stockholm, Fischer&Rye, 1989.

[5] P. Antman, P. Schori, Den gränslöse reformisten, Stockholm, Rabén Prisma/Tiden Debatt, 1996.

[6] See E. Åsard (ed. by), Politikern Olof Palme, Stockholm, Hjalmarson & Högberg, 2002, focusing on Palme’s view of politics, massmedia, foreign policy and rhetoric.

[7] See for instance A. Kullenberg, Palme och kvinnorna, 1996; U. Larsson, Olof Palme och utbildningspolitiken, Stockholm, Hjalmarson & Högberg, 2003;  A.-M. Ekengren, Olof Palme och utrikespolitiken, Umeå, Boréa, 2005; G. Björk, Olof Palme och medierna. Umeå, Boréa, 2006.

[8] See I. Carlsson, Ur skuggan av Olof Palme, Stockholm, Hjalmarson & Högberg, 1999 and T.G. Peterson, Olof Palme som jag minns honom, Stockholm, Bonnier, 2002.

[9] K. Östberg,  I takt med tiden. Olof Palme 1927-1969, Stockholm, Leopard, 2008; see, on this e-journal, IV, 2009, 1, my review.

[10] Id., När vinden vände. Olof Palme 1969-1986, Stockholm, Leopard, 2009; I have reviewed both the volumes in Olof Palme e i venti della storia, “Meridiana”, 2008, 62, pp. 233-243.

[11] K. Eklund, Palme, Stockholm, Bonnier, 2010.

[12] H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss. En biografi över Olof Palme, Stockholm, Norstedts, 2010.

[13] In order to accomplish such a task, I will profit by the “confrontation” among the three biographers arranged by the “Liberala Klubben” at the ABF (Arbetarnas bildningsförbund, Workers’ Educational Association) in Stockholm, on December 8, 2010, which I attended to.

[14] See K. Östberg,  Inledning, in Id., I takt med tiden cit., pp. 13-14.

[15] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, p. 8.

[16] See K. Östberg,  I takt med tiden, pp. 61-68 (on the USA), pp. 74-76 (Eastern Europe), pp. 104-106 (on Asia);. H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, pp. 111-141 (USA), pp. 156-159; K. Eklund, Palme, pp. 22-23.

[17] See K. Östberg,  I takt med tiden, pp. 108-112; K. Eklund, Palme, p. 24.

[18] See K. Eklund, Palme, p. 24.

[19] See K. Östberg, När vinden vände, p. 421.

[20] M. Weber, La politica come professione, in Il lavoro intellettuale come professione (1919), Torino, Einaudi, 1983, pp. 120-121; for the English translation, see

[21] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, p. 109.

[22] See K. Östberg,  I takt med tiden, p. 394; H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, pp. 313-315.

[23] One month after the speech, the USA embassy in Stockholm sent a report to the State Department in Washington where the event that Palme would be appointed as the next prime minister was faced with anxiety. Cfr. K. Östberg,  I takt med tiden, p. 279.

See the English translation in

[25] See O. Palme, For My Lai in our hearts… (1970), and a partial English translation of it in Olof Palme speaking. Articles and Speeches, ed. by G. Banks, Stockholm, Premiss, 2006, pp. 137-141.

[26] See O. Palme, Hanoi, Christmas 1972 (1972), in Olof Palme speaking, pp. 141-142.

[27] See K. Östberg,  I takt med tiden, pp. 165-166.

[28] See K. Eklund, Palme, p. 43.

[29] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, pp. 355-357.

[30] See K. Östberg,  I takt med tiden, pp. 309-311.

[31] See K. Östberg, När vinden vände, pp. 131-139.

[32] See K. Eklund, Palme, p. 64.

[33] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, pp. 517-518.

[34] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, p. 527.

[35] See the English translation of the 1975 Report, R. Meidner (with the assistance of A. Hedborg and G. Fond), Employee investment funds : an approach to collective capital formation, London, George Allen & Unwin, 1978.

[36] See K. Eklund, Palme, p. 72.

[37] See K. Eklund, Palme, pp. 72-75.

[38] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, pp. 529-532; Palme’s quotation p. 531 (the Author yet does not refer the source of Palme’s statement).

[39] See K. Eklund, Palme, pp. 76-77.

[40] See K. Östberg, När vinden vände, pp. 247-256.

[41] See K. Eklund, Palme, p. 78.

[42] See K. Östberg, När vinden vände, pp. 258-259.

[43] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, pp. 627-628. The confrontation on the wage earners’ funds, that is, the inner splits between the LO and the SAP and within the SAP, and the bourgeois mobilization, is however reconstructed quite hastily by the author.

[44] According to Östberg, it is one of the most controversial issue in the whole Swedish contemporary history. See K. Östberg, När vinden vände, p. 299.

[45] See K. Eklund, Palme, pp. 91-92.

[46] See K. Eklund, Palme, pp. 103-104.

[47] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, p. 655.

[48] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, p. 617.

[49] See K. Östberg, När vinden vände, pp. 301-304, within the chapter on The War of the Roses.

[50] See K. Östberg, När vinden vände, p. 312.

[51] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, pp. 639-640.

[52] See K. Eklund, Palme, p. 93.

[53] Eklund’s idea is that Palme would have left in 1987, or perhaps two years later (after the 1988 general election), and that his successor would have been Anna-Greta Leijon; in other words, the SAP would have elected its first female party leader in the late 1980s, and not in 2007. Paradoxically, Leijon’s political career was damaged due right to a scandal involving the party leadership which had to do with the inquiry on the murder of Palme. See K. Eklund, Palme, p. 123.

[54] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, p. 657.

[55] See K. Eklund, Palme, pp. 106-107.

[56] See K. Östberg, När vinden vände, pp. 366-385.

[57] See K. Östberg, När vinden vände, pp. 362-365.

[58] See K. Östberg, När vinden vände, pp. 386-405.

[59] See K. Eklund, Palme, pp. 108-109; K. Östberg, När vinden vände, passim; H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, passim.

[60] See K. Eklund, Palme, pp. 108-109 and 113.

[61] See K. Eklund, Palme, pp. 120-121.

[62] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, p. 179.

[63] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, pp. 333-334.

[64] See P. Antman, Arvet efter Palme , in P. Antman, P. Schori, Den gränslöse reformisten, pp. 45-48.

[65] See K. Östberg,  I takt med tiden, pp. 394-396.

[66] See K. Östberg, När vinden vände, pp. 417-418.

Past, Present and Future of Social Democracy: The Debate (?) in Italy and the Nordic Experience

1. The weakness of the Social Democratic tradition in Italy

To such a question is devoted one of the rare reflections on Social Democracy published in Italy, in 2009, i.e. Giuseppe Averardi’s book The mutants. Why the post-communists have rejected the Social Democratic choice. According to the author (a journalist and former politician), during Gorbachev’s leadership in former USSR,  the belief prevailed within the PCI that both Communism and Social Democracy were to be abandoned, as both had failed[2]. However, in addition to this historical judgment, a crucial role was played by the will to keep together the traditional electorate, who used to consider Democratic Socialism as the betrayer of the working class, whilst the leadership was imbued itself with the same hostility[3]. Averardi disregards the influence played by the presence, and then by the collapse, of the Socialist Party (PSI) on the PCI leadership’s line of action. At a first time (1989-1992), the choice of a Social democratic option would have implied for the PCI-PDS to be absorbed by the rival party[4] – which had not been questioned by the fall of the Soviet system. Later, after the early 1990s trials for bribery and corruption involving the leaders of PSI, the Social Democratic wing within the PCI found itself bereft of its main external partner, coming out weakened in the power struggle within the PCI[5].

Averardi’s main thesis is that, like mutants, the Communist leaders changed, under the pressure of external events, the party form, but not the party machinery, which survived untouched, and neither their mentality, which remained Stalinist[6]. Hence the failure of the project, nourished between 1995 and 1998, by Massimo D’Alema (a key-figure in the 1990s-2000s party history, as he became Italy’s prime minister in 1998-2000). D’Alema wished to convert the Democratic Party of the Left into a Social Democratic Party[7]; but he failed, and so did his successor Walter Veltroni’s (another prominent party representative), who attempted to transform the party into a liberal-socialist organization[8]. The final point is the PD, which is a generically liberal party along an American political line. This is an outcome to which “Repubblica”, the newspaper now in the frontline against Berlusconi, has strongly contributed, with its determination to avoid a Socialist landing-place for the post-communists[9]. Averardi’s conclusions are disconsolate: once abandoned revolution, the heirs of the PCI believe no longer either in reformism, and, as good Stalinists, have entirely fallen back on the management of daily power. “This is their plague and at the same time the misfortune they have thrown the country into”[10].

2. A double crisis: Social Democracy and Capitalism as well

In the light of this poor gift for Social Democracy on the side of the Italian left, it is not unexpected that the debate on the turn that Socialism can take in the XXI Century focuses mainly on foreign countries (and makes use of foreign contributions). There is a general agreement on the crisis that Social Democracy is going through; at the same time, no one forgets to stress that the financial crisis that shook the international economy in 2008 – with lasting consequences – is a turning point too. Yet European Social Democracy seems unable to turn the lack of confidence in the free market to its own advantage.

According to the already mentioned D’Alema (founder and chairman of a foundation, “Italianieuropei”, which is among the few research-centres promoting a reasoning on Social Democracy in Italy), two are the reasons for such a débâcle. First, the managerial shift carried out by socialist parties in the second half of the 1990s has assured their permanency in power, but it has not undermined social inequalities (which, on the contrary, have increased); turning themselves more and more into neo-liberal forces, socialist parties have made themselves jointly responsible for such an outcome. Secondly, these parties have restricted themselves to national perspectives, giving up the chances implied by European integration[11]. Both these arguments are a recurring complaint in the diagnosis of the crisis from which Social Democracy is said to be suffering. Let us start with the Socialist leveling-off on Neo-Liberalism.

Massimo Salvadori, one of the most prominent Italian scholars of Socialism and Communism, focuses on the impact produced on Social Democratic policies by the changes in the production system, the fall of Socialist bloc, the neo-liberal counterattack, and the Chinese opening to the free market. Exactly when Social Democracy was celebrating the end of Communism, it came to be stricken by the attack to the State, in every respect. Globalization, for its part, compromised the power of politics over the economy, sealing the triumph of wild capitalism. In the face of such an upheaval, Social Democracy has given in, from a cultural and from a policy-making point of view, splitting up between Renewers and Traditionalists. The outcome has been a withdrawal from the two main targets of 1) defending the weakest social groups and 2) facing economic powers. By pursuing obsessively the middle electorate – giving up the task to organize what once were called “subordinate classes” – Socialist parties have betrayed their identity, to the advantage of the Right[12].

Paolo Borioni, expert of the Nordic model, points out nevertheless a kind of symmetric process, particularly clear in Scandinavian countries[13]: while Social Democracy absorbed more and more right-wing values and policies, the Right, for its part, was reducing its laissez-faire aggressiveness; today it avoids ideological confrontation, defining itself as a centre force; it is very careful not to question openly the Welfare State, which rather is slowly worn down. Clearly, the right-wing Welfare State is not a vehicle of equality; on the contrary, it turns into a kind of refuge for those who are left out of competition; but it works to some extent, at least as a populistic instrument for consensus[14].

Giuseppe Berta, economic historian and author of the only recent book (even if very short) entirely devoted to Italian Social Democracy, insists upon the convergence of the opposite fronts; while once upon a time one could talk about a “labour capitalism” (following Schumpeter), nowadays it seems to be suitable to resort to the concept of “capitalistic Social Democracy”. In the age of globalization, Social Democracy has found out to be forced to adapt itself to capitalistic requirements, giving up its original claim to transform society[15].

3. European Socialist parties’ state of health

Typically, the main culprit for the rejection of genuine Social Democracy is said to be Tony Blair. Even if New Labour has been, together with the Nordic socialist parties, the only left-wing movement able to catch the importance of changes occurring because of globalization, instead of ruling them out, it is often accused of having complied with them far too much[16]. What Blair did was to put a humanistic breath on a Thatcher-inspired politics[17]; his New Labour accepted the so-called “turbo capitalism” of the 21st century, shifting from a collectivist ethics to full-fledged individualism: in this view, emancipation becomes the outcome of a process made by: education – skills improvement – and competitiveness on the labour market[18].

The German Social Democratic Party, SPD – as one of its MP, Angelica Schwall-Düren,  points out – spent the eleven years in power (first as ruling party, later in the grosse Koalition with Angela Merkel’s CDU) engaged above all in technocratic modernization, i.e. reforms were put forward without discussion with the citizens, who therefore did not identify themselves with those policies. No participation, no consent. In the light of such a line of action,the catastrophic electoral result of the SPD in the last general elections (September 2009) should not come as a surprise: 23%, the worst result since 1949[19]. The difference between New Labour and SPD lies, in Berta’s analysis, in the greater determination of the former as to the rejection of Socialist tradition; the SPD being more hesitating, albeit its policies show no autonomous profile: the party does not distinguish itself from the others in any significant respect[20].

As to the French Socialist Party, Zaki Laïdi reminds us that it was in power for only fifteenth years (i.e. with Mitterand and Jospin) out of the last fifty. Being traditionally not a labour party, it has suffered from a deep split between the national level (ruled by an ideology with no obvious connection with social reality) and the local one (quite pragmatic).[21].

There are nevertheless in the European political landscape two (seemingly) successful cases: the Greek and the Spanish one. The journalist Panos Papoulias acknowledges yet that the victory of the Greek Socialist Party (PASOK) in the 2009 elections has been due not secondarily to the failure of the conservative government, even if it must not be neglected the cleverness of the party in exploiting the discontent aroused by the 2008 economic crisis. But now the PASOK has to face several and demanding challenges[22].

Before the widespread love affair with Barack Obama[23], the only political leader able to give the European Left some hope back, in the last decade, has been Josè Luis Zapatero. His governments have been indicated like the demonstration that even in the XXI Century the Left can successfully rule a country, without betraying its ideals. The historian of Spain Alfonso Botti, nevertheless, even if commending Zapatero’s good record (in foreign policy, civil law, Welfare State, minorities protection), warns that, because of the 2008 economic crisis, his golden age is behind him. Then Botti wonders what kind of Socialism Zapatero has represented: not a working class’ expression, but a mix of Social Democracy and political Liberalism, with its emphasis on the extension of civil rights and individual freedom; a modernization strategy, aiming to bring near to the party new social groups (mainly the youth and women). If Spain proves to be today a tolerant and hospitable country, its economy shows weak roots; Zapatero has not been able to modify substantially the labour market, the banking system, Spain’s fiscal policy. Revealingly, the Spanish success has not involved a decrease in social inequalities[24].

4. Globalization/localization: threat or opportunity?

As mentioned above, Social Democracy is often blamed, not only for its falling into line with the Right, but also because of what philosopher Antonio Negri calls its “geopolitical failure”: instead of making the EU into a political subject, in every respect (that would have been, in Negri’s analysis, the last chance to salvage whatever possible), Social Democratic parties have allowed it to become a maidservant of the USA. Furthermore, they have offered little resistance against identity-oriented and populist forces. In brief, European Socialists have not understood either the crisis in national sovereignty or the one in government, that is to say, the shift to governance, a key-word in the moderate-left debate nowadays[25].

Giuseppe Vacca, chairman of the Gramsci Foundation, reminds that, in the 1970s, Socialist parties replied to the challenges of that time by the pro-European shift, for they were aware that the so-called “social compromise” could be preserved only at a continental level, However, from the end of the 1990s they have delegated the rule of economy to the European Central Bank, which has implied the priority of monetary stability, not of growth; hence,the return to national economic policies, and of the missed chance of European integration, esulting into the worst crisis suffered by Reformism in the post-war age. Indeed, within the EU, political initiative is more and more in the hands of the European Popular Party[26].

On the other hand, Berta stresses that, compared to the golden age of Social Democracy, the territorial dimension has changed too. Nowadays, the real decision-making centres are no longer nations, but urban areas, macro-regions, as shown by localist movements in  Italy and Belgium above all. It is a “federalism with a metropolitan ground”, a “borgomasters’ Europe”[27].

Are Social Democratic politics still conceivable, in an age of globalization and localization? And furthermore: is Social Democracy going to regain credibility, thanks to the severe lesson given by the economic crisis of 2008 as regards to the alleged virtues of the free market?

That the recent collapse of international capitalism can pave the way for a Social Democratic resurrection it is not a common belief. It depends, on one hand, on the awareness of the differences between 1929 and 2008. Back in 1929, capitalism was said to be done for good; today, a Socialist economist such as Giorgio Ruffolo can sentence that “not the days are numbered, of capitalism, but the Centuries” and that, “at least in a discernible historical perspective, capitalism is essentially not irreplaceable” [28]. On the other hand, unclear are the will and capability, on the side of Social Democratic Parties, to renew their identity without wasting their traditions and achievements (first of all global thinking and Welfare State). A complicated balance; how to achieve it? Here the answers differ greatly.

If someone, like the philosopher Giuseppe Bedeschi, gets rid of the problem hastily, pressing for more Liberalism within Social Democracy[29], others  work out more concrete proposals. Negri, for example, urges Socialist parties – which are upon death’s doorsteps, in his opinion – to commit themselves to the following tasks: 1) to organize brainwork, favouring the alliance with the working class; 2) to create a Welfare-oriented income distribution (starting from a productive system that must be tailored to actual human needs); 3) to achieve a democratic control of the financial system, turning the measures introduced in order to face the peak of the crisis into permanent features, then removing unearned incomes, which must go back to the community (in Negri’s view, this is a basic point, for those who aim to improve democracy); 4) to strengthen the European Union, breaking apart the NATO alliance; finally, 5) to show courage, if necessary even bypassing the worn polarization between Left and Right[30].

D’Alema for his part believes that the best therapy for Social Democracy would be to rediscover social conflict and labour (not only blue collars, but also craftsmen and minor entrepreneurs) and to improve democracy, at every level (from the local to the global one);. Also, politics must recover its supremacy over the markets, but without falling back into an outdated centrally planned economy. D’Alema wishes as well a renewal of the struggle against social inequalities (thanks to a redistribution of wealth), which have been exacerbated by the crisis occurred in 2008; wealth must be produced not by low wages, but by innovation, both in products and in processes. Shortly, D’Alema’s thesis is that Social Democracy is over, it is an old experience, depending as it is on conditions that  no longer exist. However, its vital elements – democracy, equality, innovation – must be preserved, adjusting them to the present circumstances[31].

Different is Salvadori’s conclusion: from the 2008 crisis, Social Democratic aims come out strengthened; what is needed is a strategy free from the race to the middle of the political spectrum and the recovery of a leftist identity, with a commitment to join together the varied world of subordinate employment, to integrate immigrants, to safeguard secularism and pluralism, and to protect the environment[32].

Berta is fascinated by New Labour’s new course: under Gordon Brown and David Milliband, the party seems to take some distance from Blair’s age, reminding that the task is to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor and therefore that the market cannot be left unrestrained; the language of social solidarity must be restored, even by the regulation of economic activity[33]. But what is more astonishing, in Berta’s book, is that, after 110 pages spent in repeating a sentence to death for Social Democracy – warning reformist parties that they are wrong, if aiming to go back to the past – in the final part of the work the author glorifies… Keynes’ relevance to the present; not Keynesianism or the mixed economy, dead and buried as well as Social Democracy, but Keynes’ theories (never applied, according to Berta) about the relationship between liberalism and socialism. In other words, centre-left-wing parties have to test, with a pragmatic attitude to reassembling, if Keynesian lines of action – economic efficiency, social justice and individual freedom – can turn into their own agenda[34].

The more well-constructed proposal comes from Borioni, and, consistently with his research-field, it is inspired to the Nordic model, particularly the Danish one. Yet the core of his reasoning is not flexicurity in its Italian declination (Borioni here refers to economists like Francesco Giavazzi of Bocconi University) or in the European one (Barroso), that is to say, a mainstay of current market economy. On the contrary, Borioni emphasizes the role of flexicurity as a policy intended to influence – thanks to the Welfare State – the market itself. The way out of the crisis lies, for Social Democracy, in planning the economy on the basis of three aims: (1) jobs (labour market policies and higher wages, in order to favour market expansion, abroad and at home), (2) Welfare (such as competitiveness incentives) and (3) innovation (i.e., a specialized system production): in other words, the shift from “turbo capitalism” to a “patient capitalism”, with finance coming back to its maidservant role. If most of the Italian scholars restrict their attention to the developments in the UK and Germany, Borioni turns to Norway as a success story: Social Democrats have once again won the elections thanks to a politics based on: few fiscal reliefs; public investments not in colossal projects, but instead in works achievable in a short time (such as maintenance of infrastructure); a good relationship with the trade unions; and a definite opposition to populism and xenophobia. The basic assumption, in the Norwegian Social Democrats’ strategy, is that competitiveness requires the inclusion of everybody and the latter must be ensured also by using State-owned oil revenues as a long-term fund to preserve the Welfare State[35].

5. Concluding remarks

There is no Italian way to Social Democracy: because of the historical reasons that have been recalled hereby, but also owing to intellectuals’ and politicians’ incapacity to face the challenged to Social Democratic policies and reformism as a whole, especially in connection with the Italian peculiarities. There is no reference to territorial lacks of balance, for example, and to the backwardness of the national economic system. The weak social groups who should constitute the target of centre-left-wing policies remain indistinct and secondary. Furthermore, inequalities are mentioned only with regards to their economic dimension, which obviously is fundamental, but not exhaustive. Gender equality is completely absent from the debate; and one can with good reason wonder how the issue can be avoided, in a country where the female employment rate is among the lowest ones in Europe, with the following economic, but also cultural and political, marginalization of women. Let alone the discrimination that other social groups (e.g. immigrants and homosexuals) also suffer from.

The poorness of the Italian debate is not unexpected, as already pointed out: the party which was the natural candidate to sponsor a debate on Social Democracy has instead adopted a confuse profile; in the effort to seduce the moderate electorate, it has displeased the traditional one without succeeding in gaining new votes, and now it is drowning in a sea of pornographic scandals and judicial inquiries.

The party which nowadays seems inclined to receive the Social Democratic inheritance,  i.e. the Party of the Communist Refoundation, has been deleted from parliamentary institutions in the last general elections and it is now engaged in safeguarding its survival, struggling between identity-oriented pressures (the preservation of a Communist tradition) and the search of economic and social policies suitable to XXI Century Italy and Europe.

As to leftist intellectuals, they seem to be marginal in a country where the public opinion spends more time in talking about the prime minister’s sexual life than about the ongoing economic crisis.


[1] On the shift from PCI to PDS to DS, see I. Ariemma, La casa brucia. I Democratici di Sinistra dal PCI ai nostri giorni, Venezia, Marsilio, 2000.

[2] See G. Averardi, 1989-2009 I mutanti. Perché i postcomunisti hanno rifiutato l’opzione socialdemocratica, Roma, Datanews, 2009, p. 88. Marcello Flores, historian, is however of a different opinion: during the several transformations (from PCI until PD), the party leadership, shocked by the fall of Communism, has not been able to realize that Social Democracy as well is over; such a blindness, with the consequent attempt to merge two outdated culture, i.e. the Social Democratic one and the popular-Catholic one, in the Democratic Party, has prevented the discontinuity which is required in order to give Left a new identity. See M. Flores, Una sinistra ancora in cerca di una nuova identità, “Italianieuropei”, 2009, 4, pp. 39-42.

[3] See G. Averardi, pp. 109-111. See also A. Possieri, Il peso della storia. Memoria, identità, rimozione dal PCI al PDS (1970-1991), Bologna, Il Mulino, 2007, p. 289.

[4] See I. Ariemma, p. 58.

[5] See E. Macaluso, Al capolinea. Controstoria del Partito Democratico, Milano, Feltrinelli, 2007, pp. 50-52.

[6] See G. Averardi, p. 102.

[7] See G. Averardi, pp. 120-131.

[8] See G. Averardi, pp. 144-145.

[9] See G. Averardi, pp. 160-161.

[10] See G. Averardi, p. 227.

[11] See M. D’Alema, Editoriale, “Italianieuropei”, 2009, 4, pp. 10-11.

[12] See M. Salvadori, Considerazioni sul passato e il presente della socialdemocrazia europea, “Italianieuropei”; 2009, 4, pp. 31-32.

[13] On Sweden, see M. Quirico, Il socialismo di fronte alla realtà. Il modello svedese (1990-2006), pp. 215-227 (Una conclusione provvisoria. Le elezioni politiche del 2006).

[14] See P. Borioni, La socialdemocrazia: perché perde, perché potrà vincere, “Italianieuropei”, 2009, 4, p. 65.

[15] See G. Berta, Eclisse della socialdemocrazia, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2009, pp. 11-18.

[16] See A. Negri, Sul futuro delle socialdemocrazie europee, “Italianieuropei”; 2009, 4, p. 22.

[17] See P. Borioni, p. 71.

[18] See G. Berta, pp. 24-26.

[19] See A. Scwall-Düren, La SPD nella trappola della credibilità, “Italianieuropei”, 2009, 5, pp. 22-26.

[20] See G. Berta, pp. 28-34.

[21] See Z. Laïdi, Perché il Partito socialista è in crisi?, “Italianieuropei”, 2009, 5, pp. 36-38.

[22] See Panos Papoulias, La vittoria elettorale dei socialdemocratici greci e il suo significato per il centrosinistra europeo, “Italianieuropei”, 2009, 5, pp. 53-57.

[23] See G. Berta, pp. 52-56.

[24] See A. Botti, Il socialismo di Zapatero nella crisi della SD europea, “Italianieuropei”, 2009, 5, pp. 44-52.

[25] See A. Negri, pp. 20-21.

[26] See G. Vacca, Il socialismo europeo e la globalizzazione. Le radici della crisi pp. 70-73.

[27] See G. Berta, pp. 63-64.

[28] See G. Ruffolo, Crisi dell’economia e declino della socialdemocrazia, “Italianieuropei”, 2009, 4, p. 43 e p. 44.

[29] See G. Bedeschi, La crisi della socialdemocrazia, “Italianieuropei”, 2009, 4, p. 63.

[30] See Negri, pp. 23-24.

[31] See D’Alema, pp. 12-14.

[32] See Salvadori, pp. 34-35. Papoulias follows a similar line, when listing the challenges the PASOK is going to face. See Papoulias, p. 59.

[33] See Berta, pp. 75-85. On Brown and the recent developments within Labour, see R. Liddle, L’impatto della crisi economica globale sul futuro della socialdemocrazia europea, “Italianieuropei”, 2009, 5, pp. 14-21.

[34] See Berta, pp. 112-126.

[35] See Borioni, pp. 72-75.