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How a Small Student Magazine Helped Build Norway’s Social-Democratic Common Sense

The socialist magazine Mot Dag trained some of Norway’s key public figures, including three Labor Party prime ministers and the cofounder of the World Health Organization. Their experience shows how left-wing media can build a socialist common sense in wider society — and help socialists in parliament resist establishment kickback.

The Norwegian Labor Party's national conference, 1923. (Wikimedia Commons)

The launch of a socialist magazine at the University of Oslo in September 1921 came with both an invitation and a challenge: “Mot Dag seeks intellectual leadership,” it insisted, “Not every academic belongs here, only those who think.” Its mission — to develop a revolutionary elite of workers and intellectuals who could take power in Norway.

The Mot Dag group’s members became major public figures — from the cofounder of the World Health Organization to prominent authors and poets. Yet its main success was political. After the Norwegian Labor Party formed its first real government in 1935, beginning three decades of social-democratic hegemony, it was Mot Dag members who staffed its administrations as advisers and MPs, as well as providing three of Labor’s first four prime ministers.

Even such a successful experience cannot simply be ripped from its own context and reproduced in the present. Yet these Norwegian socialists’ efforts do provide key lessons for today. If a left-wing party is not only to hold office, but really take power, this demands that it builds its power and influence across society, even beyond its presence in parliament, so that it can withstand the economic pressure of an establishment backlash.

In the Norwegian case, this required a decades-long project: one that extended a political cause into a movement with broad and enduring support throughout the arts, academia, and even the civil service. Mot Dag’s story points to how left-wing media can be both educational for a broad readership and cultivate the development of a left-wing intelligentsia — a crucial part of building socialist hegemony in society as a whole.

Origins

Mot Dag was founded in 1921 by Erling Falk, the son of a Liberal MP and part of the country’s upper middle class. He moved to Minnesota in 1907 and stayed in the United States for eleven years, developing a Chicago accent.

Such US-Norwegian ties were important to both countries’ labor movements in this era. On May 1, 1921, the Norwegian-immigrant leader of the US Seafarers International Union launched a two-month port workers’ strike, seven days before Norwegian marine workers, themselves facing wage cuts, began their own strike inspired by their US comrades.

In his time in the United States, Falk took various jobs in the Midwest, most notably as an accountant for the radical union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). While he was a pronounced revolutionary, enamored with the IWW’s own syndicalism, he wasn’t a Marxist at this time — and even developed a certain respect for the efficient management of big business. Nevertheless, he returned to Norway in 1918 intent on joining the struggle for socialism.

Unlike in Germany and Russia, Norway’s socialist milieu was initiated within its trade union movement, rather than in intellectual circles. The movement was led by Martin Tranmæl, a strict teetotaler and former house painter, whose ethical socialism was of the tradition shared by British Labour Party founder Keir Hardie. Tranmæl, too, spent time working in the United States and was present in Chicago for the birth of the IWW. A giant of interwar Norwegian socialism, he memorably suggested workers leave dynamite at their workplace to discourage scabs.

Tranmæl’s revolutionary socialism was ascendant in the Norwegian Labor Party in the early 1920s, and Falk wanted to bring these same ideas to prominence in intellectual life. At this time, Norway had only one university, so naturally, he turned to its highly politicized Students’ Society — in this era populated by a generation horrified by the trauma of World War I. In an early edition of Mot Dag, history student Arne Ording — himself a future Labor politician — wrote, “. . . we awoke, and the old desire had become a living requirement: This had to be the last war!”

Falk launched the first issue of Mot Dag with a small study group in September 1921. A charismatic leader, he wanted to build up a membership of students and young workers who would make the revolution their first priority. As George Lakey writes, the group “sought to replace middle-class individualism with a collective and disciplined spirit” — organizing with such intensity that some referred to it as a “black magic order of monks.”

Though most of Mot Dag’s members were disillusioned sons of the bourgeoisie, the group also actively recruited in the trade unions. Its membership was no more than two hundred, but the magazine, with 6,500 subscribers, was considered the most influential journal of its time. Their intention was to influence up-and-coming working-class leaders like Tranmæl and Oscar Torp, a former electrician who was Labor Party chairman from 1923 until World War II. However, they didn’t see women as leaders — and despite several notable female members such as poet Inger Hagerup and psychiatrist Nic Waal, women did not feature heavily in its political work.

Communist Turn

A year after launching the magazine, in 1922, the group formed the “Communist Organization of Mot Dag” and became an affiliate of the Labor Party. They maintained their own caucus but allied themselves with the revolutionary wing led by Tranmæl.

The next decade brought intensive factionalism. First, a group split off to form a Social Democratic Party, and then in 1923 a Communist Party did the same. By the end of the decade Mot Dag, too, would leave. Yet it was the relationship between Falk’s Mot Dag and the Tranmæl wing of the party that ensured the Labor Party did not collapse during the turbulent mid-1920s.

The splits largely concerned the party’s relationship with the Moscow-headquartered Communist International (Comintern), which it had joined in 1919. By 1922 most leading Norwegian socialists were frustrated by the Soviets’ command style and especially their instructions to prepare for armed struggle — anathema to the Norwegians’ anti-militarist instincts. In the shadow of World War I and the Russian revolution, the idea of more bloodshed was a miserable proposition.

In 1922 the party produced the “Kristiania draft,” a classic document in Norwegian labor movement history. Primarily written by Falk, it contained what Falk and Tranmæl considered to be shared political essentials: leadership under permanent member control and worker self-emancipation. Looking back, the draft can be viewed as a blend of Norwegian democratic traditions with a typically American distrust of bureaucracy — at the time, squarely aimed against the Comintern. Crucially, it proposed that the Labor Party should split from the International.

The Soviet leaders in charge of the Comintern reacted furiously. Their envoy to Norway allegedly said he wanted Falk thrown into a grave with “broken bones.” The notes from an Executive Committee plenary in 1922 capture the leadership’s attitude: “The Communist International is not a hotel, where you can check in and check out . . . Hōgland defends the journal Mot Dag. He asks us to be loyal to the Norwegian comrades. Certainly, we must be loyal to comrades, but not to people who combat us in such shabby fashion as does the Mot Dag group.”

Amid this row, Falk and Tranmæl were summoned to Moscow to explain themselves. While the Mot Dag group admired the Soviets, they remained critical. Falk, uniquely, treated Soviet leaders as his equals, speaking sarcastically and resisting their strategic assumptions. Decisively, the Norwegians wanted to build a party of the masses, whereas the Russian Communists wanted to build a party that led the masses. The Comintern Executive Committee issued an ultimatum to the Labor Party, making it choose between “a good relationship with Erling Falk and a good relationship with the International.” At the following Labor Party conference in 1923, the Communists in the party split off. In the battle for leadership that followed, the Mot Dag caucus were instrumental in retaining majority power for Tranmæl.

However, their collaboration was soon replaced with bitter antagonism; for ultimately, both Tranmæl and Falk were unable to accept anybody’s leadership save their own. Mot Dag’s chronic dissent from the party line came to a head during a military strike in 1925. The Labor Party had called for men to refuse military service, but after several shop floor stewards were arrested and imprisoned for doing so, the party quickly backtracked and called off the action. As revolutionary communists, Mot Dag were outraged at this retreat, especially since it came so soon after a similar dynamic had played out during the ironworkers’ strike of 1923. The events were the culmination of the classic tension between reform and revolution — and the end result was that the Mot Dag group were expelled from the party.

Mission of Renewal

It was during these years, eschewed by mainstream party politics, that Mot Dag’s cultural and academic program developed. With the Liberals and Conservatives in government, the Labor Party off-limits to them, and the Communist Party a marginal force, they turned to what we’d now describe as counter-hegemonic work. This harnessing of knowledge to social ends was key to their mission of renewal. We see this in one issue’s chastisement of their intellectual predecessors:

Who would have thought that scientists would exploit science’s latest and most glorious discoveries in the service of war, who would have thought that the artists, the writers, the poets would devote their inner glow to the hatred and destruction?

In 1925, the Mot Dag group founded a Workers’ Evening School that brought in many new members as teachers and authors of study booklets. A young medical student named Karl Evang joined, and his writing became extremely popular. He went on to be Norway’s chief medical officer, successfully eradicating polio through an orchestrated national program. Evang, alongside two other doctors — a Belgian and a Yugoslavian — would cofound the World Health Organization in 1948.

Other members formed the Socialist Architects’ Association and themselves created a magazine called PLAN. Its brief four-issue existence represented an “important, radical voice in the architectural community and in the development of social housing policies.” Again, some of the ideas on social housing formed in the pages of PLAN would become reality after World War II as some of its members became Labor ministers.

The best-written political periodical of its time, Mot Dag adopted a sometimes ferocious tone in denouncing the inadequacy of ruling elites. After the death of Christian Michelsen, who had been Norway’s first prime minister, the magazine rebuffed the consensus attempt to elevate him as an icon: “The generation that took the lead in this country in the early years of the twentieth century has been quite talentless. . . . it lost its head when [World War I] arrived, it has jam-packed the country into debt and mismanagement.” A piece discussing the concept of terror excoriated the British colonial policy in India: “When the ferment of trouble becomes too great in a district and an outbreak appears imminent, the English occupying army sends a squadron of bombers. The villages are set alight, a suitable section of the natives are blown to pieces and the fields are burned.”

First Labor Government

In the mid-1930s Norway’s fascist movement was on the rise — and members of Mot Dag effectively immunized the student population against this rising phenomenon. From their cultural program of film screenings to their antifascist agitation, the political significance of their ideological hegemony is hard to overstate. It successfully marginalized Vidkun Quisling’s National Union, which attempted to build their 2 percent vote share by organizing disillusioned students. All fascist and semi-fascist efforts were repeatedly defeated at the Students’ Society elections throughout the 1930s.

But as Falk’s health declined, so did Mot Dag’s fortunes, which were substantially dependent on the force of his personality. In 1935, the Labor Party formed its first government, as part of a moderate turn that both Tranmæl and Falk defended as a necessary strategic move against the fascist threat. Understanding the need for unity on the Left, he announced his retirement from politics so that Mot Dag could formally merge with the Labor Party; his and Tranmæl’s relationship had become so broken that Falk’s withdrawal was necessary for the integration to happen.

This meant that Mot Dag now dissolved as a separate institution. Yet the last issue vowed to continue its members’ work in the wider movement:

Mot Dag’s members, with joy and enthusiasm, will participate with full force in a fight that will lead to the party’s conquest of social power and to the victory of socialism in Norway.

Mot Dag had managed to step into politics with a strategy that successfully influenced the labor movement and the wider culture. Where Martin Tranmæl and the trade unions successfully organized the discontented workers in the early 1900s, twenty years later Erling Falk and Mot Dag did the same for discontented intellectuals. If detractors paid it a backhanded compliment by calling it “the notorious Mot Dag,” supporters called it “the most together political organization that ever existed in the Nordic countries.”

This did not mean that all those involved shared a well-thought-out plan to found a magazine, to become a caucus, and to disperse into society and become leaders across such varied fields. But at the core of their approach was the idea of building influence across society. Whereas contemporary discussions of a strategy “inside” or “outside” the state often counterpose the competing attractions of electoral party politics or else activism “in the streets,” the story of Mot Dag instead emphasizes the need for socialists to make the long march through all manner of institutions — indeed, one former member of Mot Dag even became the director of Norway’s military intelligence.

Building Power

We can understand Mot Dag’s lesson as the institutional legacy its former members left behind: from the WHO to cultural bodies, and socialist-led innovations in the sciences and education. The building of such authority across varied fields provided an essential prerequisite for social-democratic hegemony — and the building of a power in society able to withstand the kickback from capital.

This was evident as the Labor government took power in 1935, whereupon it immediately faced intense pressure to capitulate. This opposition especially came from the Employers’ Federation, which had for years openly battled the growing worker militancy. But faced with 105 strikes in that year alone, this bosses’ club had to cave to the resilient coalition between workers and the middle class. Finally, a “Basic Agreement” was signed: capitalists accepted the unions, collective bargaining, and the right to strike, and the government agreed that business owners could retain ownership of their assets.

Such a compromise would have been unthinkable without a movement with a widely shared theory of change. Years of study groups and political education had taught the movement of the necessity for a polarization in society to usher in a transformational balance of power. Indeed, the Labor-led alliance was also backed up by the small Agrarian Party, of mostly rural farmworkers, who switched their support away from the Conservatives. The Labor Party had long committed not to collectivize family farms should they take power — a strategic decision which paid off in 1935.

Today, in Britain and elsewhere, the vibrant politicization of “generation left” and its distribution across the professions offers a potential for socialist ideas to be found in multinational businesses, universities, and the arts, much like in interwar Norway. Yet it is rather more difficult to find examples of left-wing media revitalizing the culture of the trade union movement, echoing Mot Dag’s conscious efforts to educate and organize students, young professionals, and crucially, workers.

As in the interwar years, there is nothing inevitable about discontent in society creating a generation of socialists. Building that requires deliberate effort — and it’s difficult. But even when the Norwegian Labor Party was in dire straits, Mot Dag remained an active organization and kept building its own forces, sure that the aim was not just to enhance Labor’s electoral strength but to form a wider socialist consciousness across society. Mot Dag knew that, even when the party did eventually reach government, the labor movement would have to be ready not just to take office, but to hold power, basing itself on deep-rooted support for its program.

There’s no exact translation of Mot Dag — it can be thought of as meaning “Toward Better Times.” Norway, as we know, did go on to better times: from the widespread economic hardship at the start of the twentieth century, it advanced to a robust social democracy still today admired around the world. In its first issue, the magazine laid out an invitation mainly aimed at thoughtful academics but coupled this with an optimistic vision: “It will be a young magazine, a magazine for those who have faith in themselves and in the future of the world.” That’s just the spirit we need today.