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Unifying Solidarity: The Concept of International Solidarity in Swedish Social Democracy 1972–1985


Karin Jonsson

Institute for History and Contemporary Studies, Södertörn University, SE
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This article studies the concept of solidarity and the definition of international solidarity in congress materials dated 1972–1985 from the Swedish Social Democratic Workers’ Party (Sveriges Socialdemokratiska Arbetareparti, SAP) and its three branch organizations. On the one hand, it examines the different definitions and functions of the concept within the party at large, thereby adding to historical research on the recent history of Swedish social democracy. In source material published by youth, women’s, and religious wings affiliated with the SAP, the struggle for the meaning of the concept should become apparent, because these organizations represent both the traditional and official concept of solidarity that had been dominant in social democratic rhetoric, as well as the new, challenging concept of solidarity associated with the emerging solidarity movements of the 1970s. On the other hand, the article has a conceptual historical and theoretical aim, intending to understand how solidarity functions as a political and ideological concept for Swedish social democrats during the studied period of time. The study shows that solidarity as an ideological concept had a unifying function for Swedish social democracy. In the concept of solidarity and in the definition of international solidarity, the relevance and topicality of social democratic politics could be emphasized. This was done temporally by giving the contemporary political relevance of solidarity a historical dimension by presenting solidarity in general and international solidarity in particular as a social democratic concept with roots in the early years of the movement. By accentuating the history of the concept, solidarity, despite its obvious contemporary political link, was presented as a timeless social democratic concept, as central in the early twentieth century as in the 1970s and in the future. Thus, in a conceptual struggle with contemporary movements for solidarity and in polemic with the bourgeoisie’s attempts to relegate social democracy to the past, the relevance and topicality of social democratic politics was asserted through the concepts of solidarity and, in particular, the definition of international solidarity.

How to Cite: Jonsson, Karin. 2022. “Unifying Solidarity: The Concept of International Solidarity in Swedish Social Democracy 1972–1985”. Redescriptions: Political Thought, Conceptual History and Feminist Theory 25 (1): 27–48. DOI:
  Published on 04 Aug 2022
 Accepted on 25 Jun 2022            Submitted on 22 Jan 2022


According to Koselleck and more contemporary conceptual historians, such as Steinmetz, Freeden, and Pankakoski, political concepts are essentially ambiguous. Because they do not merely comment upon their current historical situation but aim to alter it, their meanings are an object of struggle (Koselleck 2004: 251; Pankakoski 2010). The political history of concepts such as democracy and freedom clearly illustrate their contested nature. They have also been of great interest to the discipline of conceptual history (Geschichtlice Grundbegriffe, Kurunmäki and Strang 2010; Friberg 2013, etc.). These concepts are so firmly grounded and naturalized in contemporary politics that they must be embraced by any political movement that wants to be perceived as part of an ‘enlightened’ political culture.

For other concepts, their political importance is easily ascertained by their prominence in political rhetoric, but their place in conceptual history is evasive. One such concept is solidarity. This concept is fundamental in the history of sociology and is associated with socialist rhetoric and propaganda, as well as with social movements proclaiming international solidarity (Liedman 1999; Brunkhorst 2002; Stjernø 2005; Scholz 2008; Bude 2019). In recent years, an academic interest in theorizing solidarity has been reactivated (Bayertz 1998; Laitinen & Pessi 2015). Nevertheless, it is remarkable how little attention conceptual history has devoted to the concept of solidarity.

The purpose of this article was to study the concept of solidarity and in particular international solidarity and to understand its political function during a time characterized, on the one hand, by significant political and ideological change for Swedish social democracy, on the other hand, by an increased awareness of, and work for, international solidarity through both political organizations and social movements (Scharpf 1991; Östberg 2008) The Swedish social democratic party, SAP, lost the 1976 election, ending its 40-year long monopoly on government power. In an international comparison, the Swedish era of social democratic rule is quite unique. The time that would follow meant a new and weaker position for Swedish social democracy, facing challenges from both the right and new social movements on the left.

The concept of solidarity has a long history as one of social democracy’s most important but also most evasive concepts, and its use has varied regarding both context and frequency. During the 1970s, solidarity and, in particular, international solidarity gained new importance as concepts for social democracy. In parallel to the growth of social solidarity movements, the concept was increasingly used by the social democratic movement. Through analysis based on European party manifestoes, Stjernø has shown that the concept was widened to include more and more categories and at the same time was deradicalized and lost its political poignancy (2005: 178–185). The gathering momentum of neo-liberal thought during the 1970s developed in direct confrontation with the concept of solidarity (Andersson 2006; Bergman 2007). These political changes are not unique to the Swedish context; rather, they characterize social developments in several European countries (Geyer, Ingebritsen & Moses 2000; Berman 2006; Keman 2011). This study is therefore relevant both to conceptual history and to the history of the labour movement.

That the concept of solidarity is mostly used in socialist propaganda but not as frequently in the more central ideological and political writings of the labour movement does not make it any less suitable an object to study from the perspective of conceptual history. On the contrary, I claim that analysing the concept of solidarity in the same way as other key political concepts such as democracy and freedom allows us to complement both a labor history focused on ideological developments and a conceptual history that has until recent years predominately used encyclopedias, dictionaries, party manifestoes, and parliamentary debates for sources (Kurunmäki and Strang 2010; Friberg 2012; Palonen 2015).

Through an examination of how the concept of solidarity, with particular emphasis on international solidarity, was used in congress material from the SAP and its three branch organizations (its youth, women’s, and religious organizations – Sveriges Socialdemokratiska Ungdomsförbund, SSU, Sveriges Socialdemokratiska Kvinnoförbund, SSKF and Sveriges Kristna Socialdemokratiska Förbund, SKSF, commonly known as Broderskapsrörelsen – The Brotherhood Movement) during the 1970-s and early 1980s, this article has two specific aims. On the one hand, it will examine the different definitions and functions of the concept within the party at large, thereby adding to historical research on the recent history of Swedish social democracy. In source material published by youth, women’s, and religious wings affiliated with the SAP, the struggle for the meaning of the concept should become apparent, because these organizations represent both the traditional and official concept of solidarity that had been dominant in social democratic rhetoric, as well as the new, challenging concept of solidarity associated with the so-called third world, feminism, environmentalism, and emerging youth culture. On the other hand, the article also has a more conceptual historical and theoretical aim, intending to understand how solidarity functions as a political and ideological concept in a social democratic context.

Congress material is an interesting source, because it is markedly ideological, indicating which questions the membership and party leadership considered important. At the same time, it is located at an intriguing intersection between public material and intra-organizational material. How motions from the membership were handled and discussed will show how political issues relating to solidarity were understood and what weight they were given. This duality makes it possible to investigate the propagandistic and performative character of the concept of solidarity, which has been emphasized, for example, by Liedman, Scholz, Steinmetz, and Freeden.

II—Conceptual History: Temporality, Emotions, and Rhetoric

This study uses a conceptual historical perspective inspired by Reinhart Koselleck’s Begriffsgeschichte and the importance that he ascribed to temporality. In recent years, Jordheim, Steinmetz, Nygaard, and others have further developed Koselleck’s temporal perspective by applying it to more contemporary historical events and comparative and transnational contexts (Nygaard 2012; Steinmetz, Freeden & Fernández-Sebastián 2017). This study is therefore a part of that theoretical current. For the purpose of this article, it is primarily theories on the semantic stratification of different layers of time in the studied concept that are of interest. Jordheim describes the inner structure of concepts from the perspective of their relation to the past, the present, and the future. Concepts have a pragmatic and polemical element that intervenes in the present as well as a prognostic or even utopian element that anticipates the future. Finally, concepts are heavy with experience and transmit definitions and intuitions from the past (Jordheim 2012: 165). In this article, the temporal perspective appears in an analysis of how different strata of time are interwoven or contrasted when solidarity is conceptualized as an ideological, emotive, or identity-building concept.

Thus, the study will also focus on how the concept of solidarity is presented through emotive and moral rhetoric. Steinmetz and Freeden (2017: 2) have stressed the importance of studying the performativity of political concepts because, amongst other things, it allows the researcher to examine the emotive rhetoric that surrounds the use of political concepts. Considering that emotive and moral rhetoric seem to be prominent features in the political concept of solidarity, like Scholz (2008: 11) I want to stress the relevance of researching those connotations.

Moreover, this study is inspired by a more rhetorical, pragmatic, and ideologically oriented conceptual history, as exemplified by Quentin Skinner, J G A Pocock, and Michael Freeden (Richter 1995; Pocock 1996; Jordheim 2003). In particular, this means that I will analyse how the concept of solidarity was used in relation to contemporary political and social movements and will consider how agents defend or argue for different political positions and stances through a particular definition of solidarity. While Pocock and Skinner have studied how specific concepts have been used rhetorically and discursively by prominent political agents, I will not give as much weight to the solidarity concept of specific agents. It is the diversified, asynchronous, and ambiguous concept of solidarity as understood by Swedish social democracy and expressed in congress material at both the central level and in the branch organizations, that is of interest to me. Due to the limited scope of the article, I am not able to study source material produced by social solidarity movements of the period. Instead, I will study the different organizational levels of the SAP in light of what previous research has found about the spread and political focus of solidarity movements. Particularly in the congress material of the side organizations, it is possible to study how the Swedish social democrats relate to the new concepts of solidarity represented by contemporary social movements.

A central agent within Swedish social democracy during the studied time frame is Olof Palme, who is given more importance than other individuals within this study due both to his important political position in general and in relation to the concept of solidarity. Palme was elected SAP chairman in 1969 and served in that post until his death in 1986. He was also Sweden’s prime minister from 1969 to 1976 and then again from 1982 to 1986.

III—A Short History of the Concept of Solidarity

It has been stated that (Bayertz 1999; Liedman 1999; Stjernø 2005; Scholz 2008; Wennerhag & Lindgren 2018) the concept of solidarity is under-researched. Scholz, Bayertz and Wennerhag and Lindgren claim that the concept is virtually absent from political science, philosophy, and discussions of solidarity as a moral concept. In recent years, however, these scholars have contributed to a new theoretical interest in solidarity. The somewhat tempered scholarly interest in solidarity stands in sharp contrast to the enormous importance of the concept to sociologists and theoreticians of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries. In their view, the natural societal bonds of traditional, pre-industrial societies were being torn apart in modern society, and solidarity signified the possibility of cohesion and integration under new circumstances (Stjernø: 1; Bude: 34–44). By the turn of the century, solidarity had essentially become a buzzword in scientific and political circles. The word signified the basis of morals in customs as social facts but was also used to conceptualize parallels between nature and society (Liedman: 7ff, Scholz: 6ff). Most notably, Durkheim is often regarded as the first to formulate a systematic theory regarding the significance of, as well as the conditions of, solidarity in modern society (Bude: 34–44; Liedman: 7–8; Stjernø: 33; Wennerhag & Lindgren: 11). Solidarity continued to be of interest to social scientists throughout the twentieth century, albeit not to the same degree as during the latter half of the nineteenth century (Liedman: 31; Stjernø: 30–40).

In contrast, the concept was not particularly important to the labour movement during its early years. When the first International was founded, its program included a reference to solidarity between workers in every country, but the word was used alongside fraternity, a word rooted in the language of Christianity and the French Revolution (Brunkhorst: 9ff; Bude 26ff; Stjernø, 25). This contrast can be understood from the fact that solidarity was generally used in a national context, often essentially meaning ‘national solidarity’ (Liedman).

Despite solidarity’s, in a sense, natural place in the language of the labour movement, its meaning has often been quite vague (Liedman: 19; Stjernø: 43–48). Marx began using it only in his late writings, and it never had a prominent place in his theory. For Marx and many socialists, the concept belongs primarily to a propagandistic context, where it would in fact later be used extensively (Liedman: 19; Stjernø: 9). For the labour movement, the concept has signified both class-based unity across national borders as well as an internal loyalty, perhaps most prominently expressed in the efforts towards democratization, social reform, and the founding of the welfare state (Wennerhag & Lindgren 2018: 9; Stjernø, 48ff).

Even though the concept of solidarity was not prominent in the writings of the first and the second International, it still held an essential place among social democratic reformists, revisionists, and utopian socialists. The French utopian socialist Charles Fourier as well as the German socialist Ferdinand Lasalle used the word in several different ways to conceptualize the unity of, and the relations between, citizens (Liedman: 15–25; Stjernø 4). When the two German reformists and revisionists Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein gave the concept of solidarity a central place in their ideological writings in the early twentieth century, it truly became a central concept for the labor movement and thus became strongly associated with social democracy. Kautsky used the concept in two different senses, first in a broader sense, meaning the feeling of togetherness, in general, second in a stricter sense, meaning the feeling of community that develops among workers when they recognize their common interests (Stjernø: 48).

Bernstein developed Kautsky’s definition according to principles that he thought better reflected the development of capitalism. At the same time, and of relevance for this article, a similar development took place in Swedish social democracy as Ernst Wigforss, social democratic theoretician and later Minister of Finance, came to consider solidarity to have a broader meaning than was allowed in a purely class-based definition. With them, a process that transformed the classic Marxist concept of class solidarity was initiated in the labor movement (Stjernø: 49–52).

The period from 1972 to 1985 would see the concept of solidarity recharged with class-based connotations in the wake of the radicalization of the 1970s. It also meant the inclusion of previously overlooked categories into the concept, such as ‘solidarity with women’ and ‘solidarity with the third world’. These developments reflect how the Western world became increasingly globalized and in a sense democratized with regard to gender equality, etc., at the very same time as neo-liberalism and marketization began to make their mark on social democracy, challenging the place of class in social democratic ideology and politics (Stjernø: 178–185).

IV—Structure of the Study

The structure of the study follows the main themes that can be discerned in how the concept of solidarity was used in the congress material of the Swedish Social Democracy. They deal with the unifying function of the concept of solidarity, international solidarity, the importance of the concept of solidarity in relation to environmental issues, the reciprocity of solidarity and, finally, the encounter of the collective concept of solidarity with neo-liberal ideology. In addition, the temporality of solidarity and the connotations of the concept to duty, morality, and emotions run like a common thread within the different themes. Some themes, such as the solidarity movement in Poland 1981, will, perhaps surprisingly, not be covered. It is true that the struggle of the Polish trade union was discussed in motions and speeches at the congresses. However, the texts did not affect the way the concept of solidarity was used in general, as they used fixed expressions without addressing what solidarity could mean. If you want to analyse how ‘Solidarność’ influenced the concept of solidarity, you should study material produced by the various solidarity movements that were started in Sweden.

V—Solidarity as a Foundation and Unifying Force

The frequency of the concept of solidarity in social democratic writing saw an almost explosive increase during the first half of the 1970s. The concept was used extensively in social democratic newsprint, as well as in newsprint in general, indicating the increasing popularity of the concept. A search for the word solidarity in the Royal Library of Sweden’s search function for digitized newsprint confirms the trend. For the social democratic evening paper Aftonbladet, for example, the frequency of the word solidarity increases from the mid-1960s with a clear plateau in the 1970s, peaking in 1981, due to the solidarity movement – Solidarność – in Poland, and then dropping slightly. In non-digitized social democratic newsprint affiliated with the branch organizations of SAP, the concept of solidarity was used above all in phrases such as ‘solidaristic wage politics’ and in fundraising for international aid.1

The political and rhetorical importance of the concept of solidarity was not least noticed at the congresses where it appeared both in banners and repeatedly in the debates. In motions, opinions, and debates, and in the new party manifesto of 1975, as well as in nostalgic or forward-looking political speeches, the concept of solidarity was used in many different ways, thereby complicating the more one-dimensional impression given in the newspapers.2

At the 1972 Party Congress, the official slogan was ‘Solidarity for security’ (Solidaritet för trygghet). Palme’s opening speech set the tone by allowing solidarity to permeate every topic he touched. The concept of solidarity was given a synthesizing function, connecting not only social classes but also bridging from city to countryside and between generations:

It is easy to appeal to divisions. Between generations, between different groups in society, between different parts of the country […] For the labor movement it’s natural to try to keep the different parts of the country together. To succeed in that task an overarching solidarity is necessary. The demand of solidarity includes the entire population. (Palme 1972: 20)

In his opening speech, Palme grounded socialism in solidarity, by stating that ‘socialism is about solidarity, a solidarity between people living under quite different conditions’ (Palme 1972). The concept functioned not only as a rhetorical unifying force between different groups in relation to the issues of the day but also as a bridge between the party’s history and its ambitions for the future.

One cannot change society without meeting resistance. All this talk of a crisis of confidence, of the dangers of equality, of flight from reality and dated slogans about class struggle, all this talk fundamentally rests on an ideological resistance against the ideas of equality, not just equality in social conditions but also in power and influence, which are the driving force of the labor movement. The defenders of the status quo view the demand for change as a confrontation. They should see it as an appeal for solidarity. Per Albin Hansson’s idea of a Folkhem never meant the kind of standing guard for the status quo that the conservatives dream of. The idea of a Folkhem was and remains an endeavor to widen the ties of community throughout society as a whole. (Palme 1972: 15)

Against the right’s attempts to consign social democracy to the past and paint their own politics as better positioned to meet the challenges of the day, Palme instead asserted its relevance by making the concept of solidarity stand for a continuity between the welfare politics of the party and a progressive and forward-looking politics, ready to face the challenges of the 1970s.

Accordingly, when Palme in the same speech formulated the political function of the concept of solidarity, it is given an absolutely essential role, ‘If a nation is to develop, there must be an overarching solidarity’ (Palme 1972: 21). This statement reaches back to Durkheim’s classical definition of solidarity as a necessary structure in modern society, but it also transcends the concept’s descriptive function by loading it with political potential. Solidarity not only organizes society, but is also, according to Palme, necessary if politics is to reform society. In this definition then, solidarity is given a political force grasping into the future.

In Palme’s speech, solidarity appears as one of social democracy’s foundational values. When the legitimacy of social democracy is questioned, whether ideologically by the right or by the practice of international solidarity increasingly being organized by autonomous social movements on the left, it is the concept of solidarity that is highlighted as the foundation of social democracy and as the solution to the issues of the day.

Let us for a moment consider the slogan ‘Solidarity for security’. To so emphatically stress that the issues to be discussed at the congress were questions of solidarity shows that the organizers wanted to frame solidarity, which had become a central concept for the new and increasingly popular social movements, as an essential social democratic concept.3 But it also expresses that the concept was still strongly associated with an expansive welfare policy and so remained rooted in the widened concept of solidarity that had been introduced to social democracy by Wigforss. Hence, the slogan rested on a decade’s-old identification of solidarity with a kind of national fraternity beyond class divisions expressed in the social democratic welfare project. The concept of solidarity is thus closely linked to the concept of the welfare state and its political significance for Swedish social democracy in the post-war period (Edling 2019: 83ff). In this sense, the concept was also used in the previously mentioned phrase ‘solidaristic wage politics’. But the slogan also tied into the radicalized concept of solidarity that was informing the use of the phrase ‘international solidarity’ amongst the new social movements.

Jens Ljunggren has shown that comfort and security (trygghet) became an increasingly important concept for social democracy in the post-war era. Political projects were formulated in terms of ‘securing’ different areas of society. In his analysis of a social democratic politics of emotions, he claims that security became the SAP’s new eschatology. During the 1960s and 1970s, ‘the concept of “security” appeared in phrases associating it with rising national output, economic democracy, equality, solidaristic welfare policies, planned economy, peace, disarmament, and solidarity’ (Ljunggren 2015: 163).

In his speech at the Brotherhood movement’s congress two years later, in 1974, Palme once again emphasized solidarity as an important social democratic concept. By seeing how national and international issues are interconnected, social democracy is positioned to act vigorously, he would claim. Solidarity was thus understood as a synthesizing concept, highlighting the relation between national and international politics, and characterizing social democracy as a whole.

The fundamental strength of social democracy is its capability to view domestic and international issues from the same perspective, and their common solution is called solidarity.

Solidarity is a richness of untried possibilities.

The future is an adventure and there is freedom: to dare emancipation through community, one could also call it brotherhood. (Palme 1974: 8)

Palme’s rhetoric, as well as the more general tendency to attribute a unifying function to the concept of solidarity discussed above, can be understood from the perspective of Bergman’s study of how Swedish internationalism and welfare policy were presented in the 1970s. Bergman argues that Swedish internationalism, one the one hand, rested on social democratic values, on the other hand on a ‘thin conception of cosmopolitan duty that does not exclusively privilege the right of Swedish nationals alone, but recognizes the need to extend social and political rights to non-nationals as well’ (Bergman 2007: 73).

At the 1976 SAP congress, solidarity was once again in focus. Under the slogan ‘Solidarity, our path towards the future’, the political and future-oriented character of the concept was accentuated again (SKSF 1976: 104).

Characteristic for Palme’s concept of solidarity throughout the 1970s was to frame it as an ideological foundation and unifying force. At the 1978 women’s organization congress, he highlighted its synthesizing function even more strongly:

It will never be possible to create a more just world order through expansion and mutual interests. A certain degree of humanity and solidarity will always be necessary – or we will also on the global scale create groups of outcasts and damned. I feel that one of the conclusions we need to learn is that what happens in any particular country or even in any particular county also happens on the global level. This development is not something we should face with talk of markets and mutual interests – you face it with the idea of solidarity (Palme 1978: 459).

In these speeches at the congresses mentioned above, the concept of solidarity appears to be founded in an almost universal morality, the validity of which extends far beyond politics in the narrow sense. In the quote above, this is expressed in the association of solidarity with humanity, thereby representing the widened and universalized concept of solidarity discussed by Stjernø (2004: 178–185). At the 1981 congress, Palme returned to the emotional aspect of the socialist concept of solidarity by stating that it is ‘built on a unity of sense and sensibility’. By quoting Martin Luther, it was underlined how social democratic politics, in general, and its ambitions towards international solidarity, in particular, necessarily depended on reason, emotion, and decisiveness:

Our socialist faith in the future is built on a union of sense and sensibility. This is the innermost meaning of socialism. I have no doubt, even if things look bleak in all regards, that we can keep internationalism and the faith in the future alive.

I have on occasion quoted Martin Luther, who said “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” That is a good foundation towards an offensive politics for solidarity in the world (Palme 1981: 66)

VI—International Solidarity as the Foundation of Social Democracy

The 1970s were in many ways the decade of international solidarity. The established political parties were challenged by social movements that prioritized global issues ahead of party politics. A search for the phrase ‘international solidarity’ in the Royal Library of Sweden’s search function for digitized newsprint between 1930 and 1990, for instance, shows a remarkable increase of the concept from 1960, with a clear peak in the 1970s. Environmental issues, the anti-nuclear movement, and not least international solidarity expressed through participation in anti-colonial social movements gathered large numbers of primarily young people (Östberg 2008). The new social movements were thus largely preoccupied with solidarity in a universalist sense, which can be linked to the emergence of human rights. According to Moyn, the 1970s was the breakthrough of the more individualistic concept of human rights that has become the fundamental legal and moral concept in international social movements (Moyn 2010; 2018). In the action program discussed at the 1970 SSU congress, it was stated:

Despite much talk of a youth rebellion and international protest marches, the majority of young people are not actively participating in any of the youth movements fighting for increased solidarity with the poor peoples. It is an important task of the SSU to reach out to and engage these young people. (SSU 1970: 18)

But it was not just young people who were not involved in social movements that the SSU wanted to reach out to. They also saw a need to bind those who were involved in solidarity movements to the SSU. They motivated this by claiming that the established political organizations were superior in achieving actual results:

Many young people who are focused on international issues are active in the so-called cross-party committees. Even if the activism of those committees has some effect on public opinion, their political utility is still limited. Those tied to such committees and whose goals are compatible with ours should be stimulated to join the SSU. Quicker results can be achieved through our access to powerful political organizations. (SSU 1970: 18)

From the quote above, we see that social movements working for the cause of international solidarity were seen in a positive light but that the SSU still thought that it was through the traditional political organization, in particular the social democratic party, that solidarity could be realized.

For Swedish social democrats then, it was imperative to show that they were still the subject of international solidarity, and this ambition appears clearly in congress material from both SAP and the branch organizations. International solidarity was painted, in many speeches and statements, as a fundamentally social democratic struggle and identity. At the 1972 party congress, the chairwoman of the women’s organization Lisa Svensson expressed this identity in the following manner:

Behind this international concern, which comes to the fore at congress after congress, lies the interest for and the feeling of international solidarity. Socialism is an international movement, and in its aim to realize a socialist society in our own country, Swedish social democracy feels a connection to the forces in the world who are fighting for the cause of a humane socialism. The humane socialism of social democracy encompasses all the peoples of the world, and it wishes everybody’s participation in the struggle for peace and understanding, as the party manifesto says. (Svensson 1972: 872f)

According to members of the Brotherhood movement, international solidarity not only expressed the fundamental values of social democracy but also corresponded to the Christian gospel:

Democratic socialism is the Swedish working class’s path to a humane and culturally richer society. Through the politics of solidarity, the political conditions are created to abolish the injustices of class society and its humiliations.

For the people of the Brotherhood movement, the social democratic struggle for a society bearing the mark of international solidarity, community, and mutual care, is inextricably connected to the Christian gospel. Social democracy is a popular movement that surrounded by human frailty realizes brotherhood. (SKSF 1974: 53)

Members of the Brotherhood movement not only claimed to have found analogies between the Christian gospel and social democracy, but they also stated that Christian solidarity was best practiced through social democratic politics. In doing so, they combined a social democratic concept of solidarity with a Christian one, thereby radicalizing the Christian concept of solidarity that had been introduced in Latin with the word ‘Solidarietas’ in 1964 by the Johannes Paulus II (Lundberg 1988; Liedman: 23). This argument resembles how secular social democrats would claim that solidarity was more than a political concept, that its legitimacy was based on it being fundamentally a moral concept, speaking to people’s emotions and true nature.

VII—The Labor Movement’s Duty for International Solidarity

The SAPs commitment to international solidarity was spoken of as an essential part of the party’s ideology, and the activism of the 1970s was seen as a natural continuation of the movement’s history. In particular, the branch organizations tried to present their commitment as especially profound and especially faithful to social democratic ideology by emphasizing their own historical activism. At the 1972 congress of the women’s organization, it was said that ‘the women’s organization has always considered the international question essential. This is completely in line with our socialist values’ (SSKF 1972). Guest speakers too would in their speeches affirm the self-image of the branch organizations. For instance, at the 1978 congress of the women’s organization, party secretary Sten Andersson said:

Since the last congress, the women’s organization has taken the lead on work with regard to international solidarity. That these efforts have been appreciated around the world is evidenced by the many international guests at this congress. (Andersson 1978: 16)

Similar rhetoric is found in congress material from the Brotherhood movement. Summarizing a meeting at the 1974 congress, the invited chairman of Landsorganisationen (Swedish trade union confederation, LO), Gunnar Nilsson, stressed:

The Brotherhood movement has raised their profile in questions of international solidarity. I want to point out two areas were the Brotherhood movement and the trade unions have a particularly strong commitment: in the international issues and in wealth distribution. [..] Both the Brotherhood movement and the union movement are carried by their belief that solidarity can change people’s lives. (Nilsson 1974: 6)

Thus, in Nilsson’s speech, the Brotherhood movement and the trade unions were connected by their special understanding of, and capacity to mobilize around, the ideological core of socialism – international solidarity.

In the congresses of both the SAP and its branch organizations during the 1970s, a self-image appears according to which international solidarity is not just the foundation of social democratic ideology but also a kind of duty of Swedish social democracy. This image is constructed through the statements of Swedish social democrats and invited international guests, often representing liberation movements in the so-called third world. That Sweden and Swedish social democracy had a special duty to work for international solidarity can be understood in the light of Bergman’s analysis of Swedish internationalism. Bergman describes it as a self-perceived duty towards the citizens of one’s own nation that also transcended national boundaries and by extension was directed towards all of humanity (Bergman 2007: 78).

At the 1975 congress, the representative of the executive committee Sten Andersson stated that the party should intensify its international activity. He gave several reasons for this. One of them was the nation’s past:

Sweden and the Swedish labor movement have a special duty to international solidarity. We’ve lived in peace for 160 years. We’ve been allowed to freely develop our society, grow our wealth and build our organizations without outside pressures.

Everyone around the world fighting against a poverty incomprehensible to us, against oppression and servitude, must be able to count on us, the fortunate ones. (Andersson 1975: 64f)

Later at the congress, Andersson would continue this line of thought. The special duty of Swedish social democracy to international solidarity was based not only on the peaceful history of the country but also in the party’s successful domestic struggle for solidarity.

Swedish social democracy has always felt a strong bond to the forces, all over the world, working for democratic socialism and against oppression and servitude. In the last few years this bond has come to stronger expression than before. […]

Of course, we support the countries of the third world in their demands for economic independence, for increased control over their resources, for more influence on the global economy. Our commitment to work towards a new economic order is also based on this. We ourselves have decades of struggle behind us, for equality and solidarity in our own country. Because of this, there is an understanding within the Swedish labor movement for the demands of equality between countries. It has been said that international solidarity begins at home. The slogan of this congress is ‘Solidarity, our path towards the future’. From this, solidarity with the poor of the world follows naturally. (Andersson 1975: 404; 407)

In Andersson’s argument, solidarity is used in the same synthesizing sense that was discussed earlier and that has been discussed by Bergman (2007). Through solidarity, history was tied to the present, national issues to international, and the history of the labor movement to that of the nation.

A similar line of argument is found in Minister of Aid Gertrud Sigurdsen’s speech at the Brotherhood Movement’s congress the following year.

It is on the foundation of solidarity that the SAP has built its foreign policy. We consider it our right and our duty to speak up in different international situations, for instance to push for disarmament, to condemn oppression and terror, to defend the interests of small states, to support struggles for national liberation and to criticize the meddling of the superpowers in the internal affairs of other countries […] The countries of the third world consider Sweden an ally, a nation that dares to take a stand, that dares to realize solidarity.

The Swedish labor movement sees its own struggle for a humane society and a better distribution of wealth as pointing in the same direction as the struggle which is now being fought by the poor countries of the world for their independence and economic autonomy. (Sigurdsen 1976: 34)

This emphasis on the special duties of Swedish social democracy toward the third world sprang out of a contemporary political discussion regarding the economic and political relationship between north and south and between large countries and small. This was most clearly expressed in the debates on the New International Economic Order, a political agenda supported by the social democrats that aimed at a fairer distribution of global economic power. This agenda was proposed by social democrats, but as Marklund has shown some support for it could be found even amongst liberals and conservatives (Marklund 2020). In the wider discussion on the moral and economic duties of small nations towards the third world, the social democratic position stands out by not only emphasizing Sweden’s role in the world but particularly the role of Swedish social democracy. From the examples that have been analysed here, we can see that this is due to an identification of Sweden and social democracy in relation to the history of the social democratic welfare project, its continuing heritage, and to the long tradition of international solidarity within the SAP.

VIII—The Environmental Crisis as a Question of International Solidarity

Stjernø has noted that from the 1970s onwards, the European social democratic concept of solidarity included increasingly large groups of people and came to incorporate aspects such as the environment and future generations. He has based his analysis primarily on the party programs of social democratic parties. Congress material from the SAP and its branch organizations confirms such a picture. In the congress materials of the Brotherhood Movement, the Women’s organization, and the SAP, the environmental issue was presented early on as a question of solidarity. In a motion on the 1% target for aid tabled at the Women’s League congress in 1972, the need for supranational planning of natural resources was framed in a discourse of equality and international solidarity.

Politicians, scientists, and UN officials can do nothing to change the earth’s catastrophic course unless they are supported by an awakened public opinion. Swedish social democracy, with equality and international solidarity on its agenda, must demand supranational planning of the use of natural resources and a substantial increase in international development work. (SSKF 1972: 5)

Aron Junvik, a member of the Brotherhood movement, incorporated the necessity of a restrictive energy policy into the sphere of international solidarity in a motion in 1974. ‘International solidarity as well as responsibility towards future generations require that the question of a defensible management of the earth’s resources becomes one of the main issues in politics’ (Junvik 1974: 85). The motion was heard, and the executive committee decided ‘to ensure that resource conservation and international solidarity are given strong emphasis in the party’s program revision’ (SKSF 1974: 89).

At the party level, too, the environment and environmental policy were conceptualized as a matter of solidarity and ultimately as concerning international solidarity. In his presentation of the motions received on the subject of environmental policy, Ingemund Bengtsson stated:

Environmental problems know no national boundaries. We say in the program [environmental program of 1968, author’s comment] that environmental problems are universal and world-wide. Their nature and scope give a new dimension to the concept of international and national solidarity. (Bengtsson 1972: 1062)

The above reasoning needs to be understood in relation to the increasing attention given to the relationship between economic conditions and the environment from a global perspective in the early 1970s. In 1972, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, the so-called Stockholm Conference, was held. Over the following decade, the environmental issue and its dependence on global economic conditions would form the basis of countless motions and research studies. From the above examples, it can be concluded that in Swedish social democracy, not only did the concept of solidarity in general come to include issues of the environment and natural resources, but these perspectives were essentially understood as a matter of international solidarity.

IX—The Direction and Expression of International Solidarity

There should be no doubt then that questions of international solidarity were given pride of place at the congresses of the SAP and its branch organizations during the 1970s. The importance of these issues was expressed in many ways. They were often mentioned in opening speeches, as if to immediately set the rhetorical agenda by pointing out that international solidarity touched the foundations of social democracy, and for many years during the 1970s, the issues of international aid and trade were amongst the first topics to be discussed. The international solidarity of Swedish social democracy was directed both at the poor of the world, different liberation movements, and other social democratic parties. The great importance attributed to international solidarity can also be seen, as already mentioned, in the 1975 party manifesto. Though it was only the solidarity directed at other socialist parties that directly expressed a class-based concept of solidarity, both solidarity with the poor and with liberation movements were framed in the same radical rhetoric. Hence, the concept was used in a twofold way. On the one hand, the concept was rooted in a class-based analysis, while, on the other hand, its direction, the ‘towards whom’ of solidarity, was influenced by an understanding of solidarity belonging to the new social movements. In her opening statement at the 1975 women’s organization congress, chairwoman Lisa Mattson expressed the organization’s solidarity with the Portuguese people in their struggle against fascist dictatorship:

All the forces wanting to realize the Portuguese people’s longing for democracy and social justice need international support for their struggle. Portugal has 15 years of brutal fascist dictatorship behind it. Portugal is going through a very hard time. […] It has the right to demand our solidarity. (Mattson 1975: 16)

The SSU action program from the same year speaks of the struggle against fascism in similar terms. Here parallels were also drawn to the anti-fascist struggle in Chile and to the Spanish civil war. Then as now, Sweden had shown solidarity.

Our comrades in the UP in Chile pleaded for solidarity after the coup and for support from the Swedish people and the Swedish government. And that they got. […]

During the Spanish civil war, the Spanish people pleaded for international support, from Sweden many joined the international brigades to fight fascism. Those are two examples of active solidarity and fighting fascism. (SSU 1975: 22)

Such quotes express a social democratic concept of solidarity in which people and class have merged. There is no inconsistency perceived in speaking of ‘our comrades in the UP’ receiving support from the Swedish people. The social democratic identification with the Swedish people here appears total. And yet it is evident that the social democratic concept of international solidarity is founded on a class-based analysis in statements like the following: ‘Fascism won’t exist when we’ve built a socialist society, this demand is included in the demand for a socialist world’ (SSU 1975: 23).

Hence, the SSU action programme expresses an understanding of international solidarity that is typical for social democracy at that time; it is radical in expressing an obligation in words and deeds, where class is seen as the foundation of solidarity, and analogies are drawn to both the international fraternity of the working class and to the concept of international solidarity prevalent amongst the new social movements. At the same time, the concept expresses the widened understanding of solidarity associated with social democratic ideology, in which ‘people’ had replaced class as the subject of solidarity. In terms of the temporality of semantics, the concept then includes different layers of time, expressing both the radical potential of social democracy and its role as a compromiser and unifying force, claiming to represent the Swedish people.

X—The Relations of Solidarity

A core part of a definition of solidarity is that it is a reciprocal concept, whether it denotes solidarity between workers of different nations or solidarity within the nation. ‘Solidarity entails two core themes in social theory – the relationship between an “I” and its identifications with a “we”, and the relationship between a “we” and a “they”’ (Stjernø: 17). Solidarity constitutes a relationship between two parties by denoting, in different ways, a mutual need and responsibility towards each other. The Swedish social democratic concept of international solidarity, as expressed in the material studied here, operates on two levels: On an emotional and moral level, the concept denotes a reciprocal relation, tying together peoples and socialist parties around the world, but at a practical political level, solidarity, perhaps unsurprisingly, is largely spoken of as a one-way relation.

When the new party manifesto was discussed at the congress of 1975, Lillemor Erlander expressed the first level of the concept of solidarity in the following manner:

Solidarity is the first practical expression of the conviction that the dignity of every man is inviolable, and according to the party manifesto this means an understanding of the conditions of others, a desire to care and compassion for each other. (Erlander 1975: 144)

Practical solidarity, operating on the second level, was directed at the so-called ‘brother parties’, namely liberation movements fighting fascism and imperialism and those working to alleviate poverty. This one-way solidarity was sometimes even more specific. The year 1975 was named International Women’s Year by the UN. Together with social democratic women from the other Nordic countries, the women’s branch organization started fundraising for the women of the Mozambican liberation movement and named this project ‘Women’s solidarity’. That this solidarity of women was ultimately understood in class terms can be seen in the following quote from chairwoman Lisa Mattson:

‘The liberation of women is a fundamental demand of the revolution, it is the guarantee for its continuity and a condition of its victory’, said Samora Machel, the president of Frelimo, in 1973.

Let us support this revolutionary thought, let us show our solidarity with the goals of Frelimo by working for the fundraiser Women’s solidarity! This will be our special effort during this year of the woman! (Mattson 1975: 8)

XI—Solidarity shall Vanquish Egoism

That the social democratic concept of solidarity, and hence the true concept of solidarity, was under attack from the right is a theme that permeates the congresses of both the main party and its branch organizations from the early 1970s and through the early 1980s. During the first years of this period, it was liberalism that was considered the threat while in the latter years this relation was more ambiguous. On the one hand, neo-liberal ideology, with von Hayek as principal theoretical proponent, was described as a cynical and almost shameless enemy of solidarity. On the other hand, the language of neo-liberalism began to enter social democratic rhetoric and forced social democrats to formulate a new concept of solidarity that was partially influenced by the ideas of the ‘enemy’.

Social democrats of the early 1970s often framed right-wing critique of their ideology and policies as a critique of their concept of solidarity. In her closing speech at the 1975 women’s organization congress, Aina Westin said:

The idea of solidarity has been foundational for democratic reform in our country. The attacks from the rightwing press before and during this congress have been aimed at this idea of solidarity. They haven’t succeeded. We won’t relinquish the basic tenets we’ve held onto for decades. (Westin 1975: 515)

Here as in previously discussed examples, the concept of solidarity or the idea of solidarity is portrayed as the very foundation of social democratic ideology and as essential for its continuity. The social democratic concept of solidarity appears in a semantic field where solidarity is associated with socialism and democracy.

Towards the end of the 1970s, the social democratic concept of solidarity was increasingly defined as an antonym of neo-liberal egoism. In several speeches during the congresses, Palme explicitly contrasted social democratic solidarity against von Hayek’s neo-liberal thought, which was at the time increasingly receiving more attention. While von Hayek wanted solidarity and freedom to be understood as antonymous, Palme claimed that they depended on each other:

We claim that freedom depends on a basic equality in society – that people are given equal worth. And it appears clear to us that a free society depends on solidarity between its people and a democratic organization of the economy. Only in this way can exploitation and dependance be turned into freedom and human development. (Palme 1981: 189)

On numerous occasions, Palme stressed neo-liberalism’s cynical or even unnatural view of society by pointing out that von Hayek himself had described how a market economy depended on the suppression of natural human instincts.

This same proponent of neo-liberalism, Friedrich von Hayek, states – and I often quote this – that a market economy depends on the suppression of certain natural human instincts. One must suppress humanity, solidarity, and compassion and replace these feelings with abstract rules protecting private ownership, contract law, and free competition. Otherwise, the free market won’t work.

Immediately one then realizes that the aim is not giving people freedom or to rely on the powers and initiative of individuals. This is not a positive view of humanity, when people must accept the strait-jacket of the market to cure them of their solidarity, compassion, and collaboration. (Palme 1981: 189)

Against neo-liberalism’s suppression of people’s natural instinct for solidarity, Palme asserted the superiority of social democratic ideology by stressing that it was rooted in the ‘morality of justice’.

The labor movement wants to replace the morality of power with the morality of justice. It is a morality that has grown out of the labor movement itself and the conditions under which it has been forced to work. It was founded in the early labor movement and a number of other popular movements, where people came together in the struggle for fairer conditions. (Palme 1981: 188)

In Palme’s argumentation, the social democratic concept of solidarity was thus legitimized by highlighting its continuity, or rather its long history, and by emphasizing the moral core of solidarity. Palme’s emphasis on the moral core of the concept of solidarity can be understood in relation to Scholz’s observation that political solidarity is rooted in notions of moral relations and obligations that can be filled within the context of a particular injustice (Scholz 2008: 71).

That the ideas of neo-liberalism not only served as the antithesis of social democratic solidarity but also came to influence it is clear from Palme’s subsequent expositions. Where solidarity had previously been presented as a reciprocal or one-way relationship between different collectives of people, the personal responsibility of the individual for the establishment of solidarity was now accentuated.

Democratic socialism presupposes that the individual takes personal responsibility. It also requires the ability to show consideration and solidarity for others. There must therefore be an interaction between social and individual morality. (Palme 1981: 190)

With the expression ‘social solidarity as a personal driving force’, Palme seemed to want to incorporate the more individual-oriented concept of solidarity into the social democratic concept of solidarity, which had been established for half a century and had its roots in the idea of the social democratic welfare state. In this way, the partly new way of presenting solidarity was linked to the contemporary history of social democracy. The influence of neo-liberalism was rhetorically presented as a natural and logical development of the popular concept of solidarity.

In an even broader perspective: is there a drive that can make you work and invest to make life more bearable for the disabled? For children who have had a difficult upbringing, for the sick, for the elderly? Perhaps this is the most important political and moral question for the future, the decisive dividing line against neoliberalism. For here it is a question of social solidarity as a personal motivation. It is about the vision of a Folkhemmet. (Palme 1981: 192)

However, the ideological shift to an increasingly individual-oriented concept of solidarity did not occur as a straightforward and consistent change in the language of social democracy in general. For example, the shift that can be seen in Palme’s use of the term solidarity is not reflected in the Brotherhood movement’s concept of solidarity. The Brotherhood held on to a socialist-oriented concept of solidarity much longer than was the case with Palme. In 1984, i.e. three years after Palme had introduced an individual-oriented concept of solidarity through the formulation ‘social solidarity as a personal motivation’, Margareta Grape-Lantz argued in a lecture on aid and solidarity with the world’s poor:

International solidarity is a very important part of the identity of the labor movement. But solidarity is now under debate and under attack. Where ideologies based on the notion of investing in oneself are spreading, solidarity is being questioned both nationally and internationally. It is therefore important that Christian Social Democrats fight for solidarity and against selfishness, whether it manifests itself within their own society or in relation to developing countries. (Grape-Lantz 1984: 90–91)

In Grape-Lantz’s speech, as well as in the motions on solidarity with the world’s poor submitted to the 1984 Congress of the Brotherhood Movement, it appears that the members of the Brotherhood Movement were still using a concept of solidarity based on socialist ideology. It was a concept of solidarity with much greater similarities to the political language of the early 1970s, when the language of social democracy was influenced by the social movements of the time and explicit parallels were drawn to the history of the labor movement to demonstrate continuity and legitimacy and that social democracy constituted the subject of solidarity (Östberg 2008).

XII—Final Discussion

The concept of solidarity, both in its indefinite form and in the definition of international solidarity, is a key social democratic concept whose meaning and active use in political rhetoric has varied greatly over the years. In the early twentieth century, the term primarily denoted a class-based international fraternity uniting the world’s workers and a sense of belonging and community within the nation amongst different types of workers. In the period studied in this article, 1972–1985, after decades of a fairly straightforward and self-evident place in social democratic rhetoric, the concept of solidarity has emerged as a contested and utterly central concept for putting into words social democratic politics and identity and its relationship to both its present and its past. The main diachronic shifts of the concept of solidarity mean that workers solidarity evolved into national solidarity (associated with the concept of the welfare state) and onwards to international solidarity, but that it was not until the two latter concepts were integrated with each other in the 1970s that the term became a real key concept for SAP.

A conceptual–historical examination of congress material from the SAP and the three side organizations representing women, youth, and Christian social democrats shows that solidarity as an ideological concept had a unifying function. In the concept of solidarity and in the definition of international solidarity, the relevance and topicality of social democratic politics could be emphasized. This was done temporally by giving the contemporary political relevance of solidarity a historical dimension by presenting solidarity, and international solidarity, in particular, as a social democratic concept with roots in the early years of the movement. By accentuating the history of the concept, solidarity, despite its obvious contemporary political link, was presented as a timeless social democratic concept, as central in the early twentieth century as in the 1970s and in the future. Thus, in a conceptual struggle with contemporary movements for solidarity and in polemic with the bourgeoisie’s attempts to relegate social democracy to the past, the relevance and topicality of social democratic politics was asserted through the concepts of solidarity and, in particular, the definition of international solidarity.

Moreover, this study has shown that the concepts of solidarity and international solidarity were given different meanings depending on the context: sometimes the use of the concept was clearly based on class, while in other contexts it was given a broader and more inclusive meaning with associations to the concept of the welfare state. Sometimes the use of the term reveals a semantic fusion of people and class that hints at the long history of Swedish social democratic government. In terms of conceptual history, it can be noted that the concepts of solidarity and international solidarity were used to combine contemporary political radicalism with secure political continuity. The social democratic concept of solidarity thus exhibits the same paradoxes of meaning that characterize much of the core political concepts studied by Koselleck.

Liedman argues that the function of the social democratic concept of solidarity has not been primarily ideological but rhetorical. The concept has been associated with propaganda and has been used to evoke emotion and commitment to the cause of socialism. This is why its place has been mostly in newspapers and pamphlets and not in ideological texts. This study has shown that the concept of solidarity and the definition of international solidarity, although found in the social democratic press, were used surprisingly, rarely and in a stereotyped and unambiguous way through fixed expressions. In congress materials, however, the concept of solidarity emerges as both ambiguous and central. Here, solidarity emerges as a key political concept, which by uniting ideology with emotions and morals, history with the present, and national politics with international politics is ultimately a concept that creates meaning and identity and aims to convey the topicality and necessity of social democratic politics primarily to its members, but also to political opponents.


1The solidaristic wage policy was an economic policy pursued by the Swedish Trade Organization in the 1960s and 1970s. It entailed striving for equal pay for equal work and thus a levelling out of wage differences. In Swedish social democratic papers such as Morgonbris, Broderskap and Frihet, the concept of solidarity was used extensively in information on various fund-raising campaigns for the so-called Third World, in fixed expressions and in various international reports aimed at arousing readers’ feelings of solidarity. 

2In 1975, the new party program of the SAP was adopted at the party congress. It replaced the 1960 program and was influenced by the great attention of its time to international solidarity by being a considerably more internationally oriented program than its predecessors. 

3A search in the printed material of the Royal Library of Sweden on the word solidarity yields 331 hits between 1970 and 1985. Most of the material is magazines and everyday printed matter belonging to various solidarity movements with different anti-colonial struggles. 


I gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Foundation for Baltic and East European Studies for my research on the concept of solidarity of which this article is a result. I equally, gratefully acknowledge the financial support of Åke Wibergs Stiftelse for the same research. This article is a result of their support as well.

Competing Interests

The author has no competing interests to declare.


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