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A New Working-Class Party Is on the Rise in Norway

Norway’s billionaires spent the election campaign smearing the Red Party as totalitarian extremists. But the party kept its focus on working-class Norwegians’ material interests — and secured a historic electoral breakthrough.

Bjørnar Moxnes, leader of Norway’s Red Party since 2012. (Ihne Pedersen / Red Party)

Midway through the campaign for the September 13 parliamentary election in Norway, the Right decided that enough was enough. For several years, the Red Party (Rødt) had been consistently polling above the electoral threshold of 4 percent. Beating this score would mean a breakthrough for the radical left in Norway not seen since the euphoric advances that followed 1945. Not only would the Red Party’s single MP Bjørnar Moxnes be joined by somewhere between seven and eleven comrades in Parliament — the Red Party’s breaking this threshold would also spell the end of prime minister Erna Solberg’s right-wing government. Little wonder Norway’s billionaires panicked.

So, the Right did what they always do. Their coffers filled with donations from the super-rich, they rallied their newspapers, their parties, and their think tanks in a familiar “red scare” campaign aiming to brand the Red Party as supporters of Stalinist genocide and Communist dictatorship.

In a dismal bid for attention, billionaire Stein Erik Hagen — the biggest financial contributor to the Norwegian right — offered all the Red Party’s voters one-way tickets to North Korea. In a short propaganda video, Bård Larsen of the think tank Civita (funded by Hagen) drew ideological comparisons between the Red Party and right-wing authoritarians such as Donald Trump and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. Far-right populist leader Sylvi Listhaug (also funded by Hagen) centered her entire campaign on stopping “the radical socialists” of the Green Party, the Socialist Left Party (SV), and the Red Party — claiming she wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if the Red Party gained any form of political influence. An MP for the traditional conservative party Høyre (funded, again, by Hagen) claimed that the Red Party was “just as bad as Nazism.” And so on and so forth, for weeks on end.

The Red Party has always been vulnerable to this form of “red scare” campaign. Hailing in small part from a 1970s Maoist party known as the Workers’ Communist Party [Arbeidernes Kommunistparti (marxist-leninistene), AKP (ML)], it has fought long and hard to convince voters of their commitment to a democratic form of Marxist socialism built on the proud Norwegian labor movement’s most radical traditions. Every time the Red Party seemed to be making gains, be it on the national or municipal level, the Right (and sometimes even the social democratic Labor Party) would revert to “red scares.” And for the most part it has worked. At least until now.

2021 was the first election in the Red Party’s history where such tactics weren’t enough to scare voters. Come election night, it gathered 4.7 percent of the vote, beating the electoral threshold comfortably and winning eight seats in Parliament. What’s more, this advance came without a corresponding fall in support for the Norwegian Labor Party (Arbeiderpartiet), and in addition to handsome electoral gains for three other left-leaning parties — the agrarian Center Party (Senterpartiet), the Green Party, and the Socialist Left Party.

In short, Norway’s electorate has made an historic shift towards the left.

It’s Class, Stupid!

So, how did the Red Party overcome such fearmongering by Norway’s billionaires and their political outlets? And how did it make a breakthrough even amid a seemingly overcrowded field of left-leaning parties?

The answer is quite simple: It’s class, stupid! Since Bjørnar Moxnes became leader in 2012, the Red Party has consistently focused on class politics. Building on grassroots activism and a core of young politicians with modest backgrounds ranging from working-class to lower middle-class, the Red Party has been able to gain a foothold within the powerful Norwegian labor unions, where it is now the most serious contender to the ever-hegemonic social democracy.

The overriding political headline for the Red Party has been the struggle against Norway’s growing economic inequalities. Under this banner, the party has hammered home economic demands of concern to broad swathes of working-class Norwegians, such as single-payer universal dental care, a ban on private profit in public welfare, taxation of the rich, strengthening of benefits and social services, and the creation of tens of thousands of green industry jobs.

In this year’s election campaign, this message resonated extremely well with voters. For decades, Norwegians have prided themselves on the country’s low income inequality — believing they are living in a social democratic paradise where class struggle is a relic of a bygone past. But all this changed during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the right-wing government chose to bail out businesses and billionaires, while a record high 200,000 people found themselves without jobs. Nurses and healthcare workers worked overtime on low wages, at the same time as Oslo’s stock index soared to new heights. While people living on benefits had experienced cuts and a campaign of distrust and invasive controls by the social services, the government asked no questions when it handed out tens of billions of dollars to private businesses. At one point, Norway’s taxpayers even forked out $3 million to subsidize luxury brand Louis Vuitton, owned by Bernard Arnault, one of the richest men on earth.

The response from voters was clear. For the first time ever, the Norwegian electorate listed “economic inequality” as their most important political issue. This gave the Red Party an unprecedented opportunity to thrive — and billionaires’ efforts to whip up the specter of “communist dictatorship” weren’t enough to stop it. Even for many who didn’t vote for the Red Party, it became increasingly transparent that the “red scare” wasn’t about communism at all, but protecting the privileges of Norway’s super-rich.

A Class-Based Approach to Climate Change

The Red Party’s laser focus on class also became evident in the way the party tackled the other main issue of the election campaign — climate change. In a country where more than 200,000 workers depend on the oil and gas sector for their jobs, calls to shut down these industries are always bound to create polarization. The left-liberal Green Party chose a strategy of polarizing the question further — seeking to rally young, urban, highly educated, “environmentally conscious” voters to its side, while alienating large groups of industrial workers.

The Red Party chose a different path. Instead of reducing the climate issue to a question of identity, it attempted to build a bridge between industrial activists and climate strikers under the call for a “just transition.” As always, the underlying message was about class. The Red Party rejected a transition to unemployment for hundreds of thousands of workers, instead presenting plans for building new, green industries. Rather than point fingers at the consumption patterns of working-class people, the Red Party attacked the luxury consumption of the rich. As usual, the party clashed with billionaire Hagen, who flies his private seaplane to visit his summer home even though the drive from his Oslo mansion is a mere two and a half hours.

This strategy of class-based climate action was an audacious move. To reach the electoral threshold of 4 percent, the Red Party has always been highly dependent on many young and highly educated voters in Norway’s big cities, especially in the capital Oslo. At the same time, the party has attempted to reach out to new voters — rural voters, service industry workers, public sector workers, and industrial workers.

Thus, the big question during the last phase of the campaign was whether the Red Party would lose too many young, urban voters to the Greens, without being able to replace them with new voters from different social groups.

The Rise of a New Workers’ Party

Come election night, the Red Party’s strategy paid off. While the Greens (unfortunately) missed out on the electoral threshold by a mere 1,700 votes, the Red Party beat the threshold comfortably. Not only did it advance in Oslo and the big cities, but it made gains in almost every municipality in Norway. Though the Red Party remains heavily reliant on voter support in urban areas, it is less so than either the Greens or the Liberal Party (Venstre). Sociological analysis of its growth has shown a completely new set of red voters: single parents, low-skilled and industrial workers, students, service industry workers, and people on social benefits.

For almost ten years, the Red Party has worked strategically building a modern labor party on the foundations of radical socialism. The goal has been to rival Norway’s social democratic Labor Party — a force that has moved almost continually to the right over several decades, infamously pushing through many damaging neoliberal reforms from the 1980s to the 2000s.

In the beginning, this strategy seemed to be little more than a pipedream — yet another case of hubristic socialist radicalism. But growing economic inequalities have made it possible to believe that this goal can become reality. In the upcoming parliamentary term, the Red Party will be the only opposition to the left of Norway’s new Labor/Green–led government. With growing support not only from the electorate, but also within the labor movement, everything seems primed for the Red Party to continue building a modern labor party to rival Norway’s traditional social democratic one. And with an opposition like the Red Party, Norway’s billionaires are right to be afraid.