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Denmark and the Russian Revolution

The Russian Revolution in 1917 didn’t just change Russia, but all of the world history. Nor was Denmark left unchanged. In Denmark, the revolution resulted in the labour movement splitting into reformists and revolutionaries, and almost turned Denmark into a republic.

By Kalle Kühlmann

The Russian Revolution in 1917 didn’t just change Russia, but all of the world history. Nor was Denmark left unchanged. In Denmark, the revolution resulted in the labour movement splitting into reformists and revolutionaries, and almost turned Denmark into a republic.

100 years ago the Russian Revolution shook the world and global capitalism. For the first time, the working class had seized power, managed to keep it, and began the construction of a socialist society. The new soviet state became a symbol of an alternative to the capitalist society for workers and the oppressed the world over, including Denmark.

Stauning’s bureaucratic dictatorship

The Russian Revolution led to an open struggle between the reformists and revolutionaries in Denmark. A struggle the small handful of revolutionaries lost, as the large mass of Danish workers were under the control of the social democratic leadership in the crucial period. In 1918-1925 there was great potential for a revolutionary Marxist mass party in Denmark, but the revolutionaries lacked political schooling, organisation, and they had not built a strong left wing within the labour movement in the time preceding the Russian Revolution. These errors would turn out to be fatal. 

The Danish Social Democratic Party and labour movement had grown large and powerful in the years up to the Russian Revolution in 1917. Since 1884 the party had representatives in parliament, and since the first congress in 1876, where the party had about 6000 members, the party had grown to 60.072 members in 1915. There was cause for celebration. But there was something rotten in paradise. The party had slowly but surely abandoned the Marxist and socialist principles on which the organisation was built. Further, the internal democracy was being stifled. The congresses were losing their democratic significance, and were becoming media stunts and a festive occasion for the party apparatus. The party was increasingly made subordinate to the autocratic dictates of the chairman Thorvald Stauning, who used his control of the party apparatus to control the organisation and its policies.

The Social Democratic Party had fallen into the hands of reformists and careerists. The Social Democratic leadership was not interested in Marxism. The goal was small, gradual improvements of the worker’s everyday life, and if class cooperation with the capitalists could achieve this, then it was the way forward. The path walked by the social democratic leaders would eventually turn the social democrats from being capitalism’s greatest opponents, to being the life line which ensured its survival. Reformism was further strengthened by an economic upturn in capitalism in the period 1896-1914. This upturn gave capitalism the ability to make small concessions to the Danish working class. On top of this was the fact that the top of the social democrats had slipped into the Danish elite, and were starting to live under similar conditions to the bourgeoisie.

Stauning’s had zero interest in Marxism. However, he did enjoy power and personal prestige. Stauning stifled the internal democracy, and appointed only loyal people to the most important posts. Stauning’s personal path to the top meant that when the chance presented itself to secure a post as minister in the Radical Left government in 1916, he seized it. Parliament and class cooperation with the bourgeois was made religious doctrine. Socialism was replaced with capitalism. Internationalism was replaced with nationalism. In the streets the workers were experiencing want and poverty due to inflation and rationing, but now they had a “man of the people” as minister, the social democratic press preached.

Danish revolutionaries

There was, however, a revolutionary left wing within the Danish Social Democracy, centred around a man named Gerson Trier. Trier led a Marxist cadre school in Copenhagen, where he educated the next generation of revolutionaries. In 1901, Trier became a member of the social democracy’s leadership. Here, he became the focal point for the revolutionaries: Marie Nielsen, pioneer in the Danish women’s movement, and Thøger Thøgersen, the best agitator in the country. These two played a leading role in the social democratic youth organisation S.U.F (Socialist Youth Federation). In the time up to the Russian Revolution, there was plenty of potential to build a strong revolutionary tendency in the labour movement. But the opportunity was missed, and it was primarily the fault of Trier. Trier debated and voted against the rising internal dictatorship and pulling to the right within the Social Democracy, but he never built an alternative. The revolutionaries were gathered around him, but not as a revolutionary organisation, but as a loose network. So when the upheavals and revolutions began, the revolutionaries were without a collective just individuals.

Danske revolutionære 1918. Marie Nielsen i midten bagerst. Thøger Thøgersen er ham med hatten
Danish Revolutionaries in 1918. Marie Nielsen on the back row, middle. Thøger Thøgersen behind, wearing a large brimmed hat.

Trier never realized this need for organisation, and became ever more anti-authoritarian. Trier felt a great personal disgust with Stauning and his methods, but it sent him to the other extreme. He oriented himself more towards anarchism, and saw all organisations as evil. This personal development for Trier was deeply frustrating for one of his own friends: Lenin. Lenin wrote to and debated with Trier every time he was in Copenhagen to impress on Trier the need to build a revolutionary party. But with no luck. When Stauning entered the radical government in 1916, Trier dropped out of the Social Democracy, and swore off politics, to the great detriment of the young revolutionaries in S.U.F. Trier fell ill soon after, and died in December of 1918. Trier did the exact opposite of what Lenin had done in Russia. Since 1903 when the Russian social democratic party split into reformists and revolutionaries, Lenin had built a Marxist party of revolutionaries, who would become the deciding tool for the success of the Russian revolution.

Class cooperation or class struggle?

When news that the Bolsheviks had seized power in November of 1917 arrived in Denmark, it struck like a bomb in Danish society. The First World War, in which Denmark had been neutral, had meant glory days for the Danish bourgeois, and misery for the working class. The bourgeois had made money hand over fist by trading with the warring parties. Canned rat meat had turned out to be lucrative business. On the other hand, the working class experienced rationing and falling wages, which almost led to outright hunger in Copenhagen. The battle lines were drawn and the atmosphere was explosive.

At first, the social democratic leadership bid the revolution welcome. The fall of the tsar and the Bolsheviks’ promise of peace seemed like good karma to Stauning. Stauning had through the congress of the Second International met Lenin several times, but he hadn’t seemed to understand that when Lenin said international socialist revolution, he meant it. Stauning soon realized this, and turned the party around on a dime. In the social democratic party, the Bolsheviks went from being peacemakers to becoming bloodthirsty overthrowers of the world order.

In S.U.F. however, the Russian Revolution was met with enthusiasm. Here at last was a real example of the working class seizing power, and turning society in a socialist direction. But the youth organisation came increasingly at odds with the mother party. Around New Year’s 1918, Germany was hit by an enormous strike movement. The Russian Revolution had crossed the border, and was becoming the German Revolution. This boosted the Danish class struggle. Spontaneous strikes and demonstrations were the order of the day.

At the end of February 1918, the social democrats held their congress, where they put forward a programme for the continuation of class collaboration with Radical Left, so Stauning could continue as minister. The vote for class collaboration won, but Marie Nilsen stood up at the congress, and broke ties with Stauning. In the following days, she was contacted by Thøger Thøgersen. Together they started the Socialist Worker’s Party. The attempt at creating a revolutionary mass party in Denmark had begun, but they were incredibly unprepared. A small circle of revolutionaries threw themselves into the fight for a socialist revolution in Denmark.

Inflation, unemployment, social democratic class collaboration, hunger, and deprivation had put the Danish working class in the streets in autumn 1918. The option of a socialist revolution in Denmark was a possibility the Danish bourgeois feared, and the revolutionaries hoped for. The British and French general staff considered Scandinavia, and especially Denmark, the next target of the red contagion from Russia. The bourgeois media panicked, demanding the army be called in in Copenhagen, the socialists be arrested, and the Soviet Union removed from the surface of the planet. The media and the rest of the bourgeois could have spared the effort. Even though the situation was extremely tense, the reformist social democrats under Stauning’s leadership were still firmly in control of the labour movement, and did everything in their power to prevent the revolution. Even worse, the Danish revolutionaries, who had left the Social Democratic Party in 1918-1919, were isolated and completely unprepared for the task a revolution in Denmark would involve.

The subjective factor

Marie Nielsen and Thøger Thøgersen had left the Danish Social Democratic Party as individuals, and started the Socialist Worker’s Party (SAP) of about 30 people in February 1918. They had not built a strong revolutionary left wing within the Social Democratic Party, and were now left with nothing. No organisation, no newspaper, no offices. It takes years to build and train a revolutionary organisation and its members. This work had not been done in the years preceding the Russian Revolution, and now SAP was caught up in events.

Luckily, help was available. The leaders of the Russian Revolution Lenin and Trotsky strived aggressively to spread their revolution to the rest of the world, as this was a condition for a victory for the socialist revolution in Russia. This included Denmark as well. Through a Bolshevik representative in Stockholm, Nielsen and Thøgersen received 800 kr. for the construction of a revolutionary party in Denmark. This would not be the last time a monetary contribution from the Soviet Union saved the revolutionaries in Denmark.

In the period 1918-1925, there were countless demonstrations and strikes. Nielsen and Thøgersen participated as best they could, and were often main speakers and agitators. The Danish working class was very attentive to their ideas and their connections to Russian revolutionaries, but they were alone without an organisation to back them. They lacked what Lenin had in Russia. A revolutionary Marxist mass party with trained revolutionaries and its own media. Nielsen and Thøgersen were in the middle of a process with violent class struggle, where the workers were willing to attend their demonstrations and applaud their speeches, but could not see the perspective in joining a micro organisation. They stayed members of the Social Democratic Party and labour movement, and waited to see what would happen, which in the end meant that momentum was lost for the Danish revolutionaries. Further, the Danish revolutionaries were not unified politically. Syndicalists, left reformists and revolutionary socialists soon fused into new parties, only to split just as quickly into new organisations. Clear ideas and programmes take years to develop, and in the autumn of 1918, it was too late. Denmark was completely lacking in what Lenin had called the subjective factor: a party of professional revolutionaries.

Round-trip to jail

The Danish police and the Radical Left government (with Stauning as minister) followed the revolutionaries closely. Unlike the Danish press and British general staff, however, they kept their cool. From the social democrats, they were well aware of how weak the revolutionaries were organisationally. This opened for the possibility of decapitating the movement by throwing the revolutionaries in jail. In the period 1918-1922, every single revolutionary leader in Denmark took a trip to jail. The longest sentences were up to 2½ years. After all, wanting to abolish capitalism is illegal.

Third International

While the Danish revolutionaries were being familiarised with the Danish penal system, the Soviet Union’s battle for an international socialist revolution continued. To this end, Lenin and Trotsky established the Third International or Comintern in 1919. The Third International consisted of the communist parties of the world, but in the vast majority of places, the situation resembled the Danish one. The left had broken with the social democrats, and looked to the Soviet Union as the only place with a successful socialist revolution. The Russian Bolsheviks put forward 21 theses for organisations that wished to be admitted into the Third International. In short, they stated that the communist parties should build on a revolutionary Marxist base. But the young communist parties were weak organisationally just as in Denmark, as they also had not built the subjective factor. So the Soviet Union, which was also fighting a civil war against the international contra revolution, had its hands full helping the many new communist parties. There was, however, a helping hand for the Danish revolutionaries.

In autumn of 1918, the leader of the social democratic youth organisation (SUF) Ernest Christiansen visited the Soviet Union. Christiansen was actually a left reformist, but Stauning’s class collaboration had become too nauseating for him and a majority in SUF. Christiansen and SUF, with the help of the Third International, pulled to the left, which meant that SUF broke out of the Social Democratic Party in 1919, to the great annoyance of Stauning. Christiansen and SUF were soon joined by SAP and Thøgersen. In 1920, all the Danish revolutionaries were gathered in Denmark’s Communist Parti (DKP) with Ernest Christiansen as chairman, thanks to the Third International. But the new DKP was not gathered on the bases of the 21 theses put forward by the Third International the year before. DKP was gathered based on support for the Soviet Union as well as a left reformist rejection of class collaboration in Danish politics. The leadership of DKP told the Third International that they accepted the 21 theses, but did not adhere to them in practice. As the Third International had few resources, Denmark was put low on the list of priorities, and no political intervention was made to correct DKP politically, which would later lead to an ocean of trouble. Denmark had gotten a communist party of about 2000 members, but again it was too little too late, as in Easter 1920, the king executed a coup against parliament.

The king’s coup

Christian X’s coup originated from entirely different events than the Russian and German revolutions. However, the coup escalated so quickly out of the king’s control that Denmark could have become a republic, and if Stauning had been a revolutionary, Denmark could have had a socialist revolution.

The king’s coup was originally about the Danish bourgeois’ greed, and their chance to seize the German Flensborg, with associated production apparatus and trade fleet from the German bourgeois. But King Christian fell afoul of the Radical government which had a policy of not provoking the weakened Germany after the world war. The king and his faction in the Danish bourgeois were eager to grab Flensborg, which meant that the Radical government was put out of commission, and the king appointed his own deeply reactionary functionary government. Parliament had been ousted.

Kong Christian d. 10
Christian X of Denmark

The coup put the Social Democratic Party in a precarious situation. Since 1918, the social democrats had fought the revolutionaries in the labour movement, but now there was a more concrete threat from the royal house and bourgeois. The Social Democratic Party had sacrificed all principles of internationalism and socialist revolution, and had clung to the bourgeois democracy. They had to defend democracy against the Danish royal house and bourgeois. The king must be made to recognise parliament, and the tool to make him was an all-encompassing general strike. When the message of general strike was spread throughout the labour movement, it was met with great enthusiasm. The working class had gone on the offensive. However, the general strike was called off at the last minute, as the king and bourgeois completely submitted to the working class. Here in 1920, the Danish working class and its organisations had reached such a size and strength, that the social democratic leadership could have simply proclaimed not just the republic, but the Soviet Republic Denmark. If the labour movement went on the offensive against the bourgeois state and capitalism, the Danish bourgeois would not have had much choice but to accept the state of things, or hope for a foreign military intervention. The example and the threat from the Russian Revolution was razor sharp, and led the Danish royal house and bourgeois to the negotiation table.

Luckily for the bourgeois, it was not Thøgersen and Nielsen who led the Danish labour movement, but Stauning. The social democrats gave the king a rap on the knuckles, and returned to negotiating with the bourgeois through parliament. The Danish bourgeois had tried to crush the social democrats countless times up until 1920, but now after the king coup’s defeat they finally comprehended that the Social Democratic Party was their great ally in the class struggle. The Social Democratic Party’s transformation was complete. From Danish capitalism’s greatest opponents, to its greatest protector.

In Stalin’s shadow

The Russian Revolution became the starting point for some of the most militant class struggle in Danish history. If the Social Democratic Party had been built on a revolutionary foundation, the Danish working class could have carried out the second socialist revolution in world history. This was not the case, and the Danish revolutionaries were hopelessly unprepared for the task at hand, which again meant that they became dependent on the support of the Soviet Union, which after Stalin’s takeover meant that DKP became a tool of Moscow. But the Danish working class had shown plenty of fighting spirit and support for the German and Russian revolutions. They simply did not have the leadership they deserved. It was very revealing of the Danish view of the Soviet Union when DKP held a memorial meeting for Lenin in Copenhagen in January of 1924, and more than 40.000 people turned up, to show their respect for the leader of the Russian Revolution.

In the period 1917-1924, a socialist revolution was within reach in Europe. Denmark did not stand apart from these events, but followed them closely, and was affected strongly by them. Denmark would never again be the same as before the Russian Revolution. The revolutionary events in Europe and Denmark led to the Danish bourgeois accepting the social democratic leadership as a partner and bulwark against a socialist revolution, which has held all the way till today. Denmark also got a communist party left of the social democrats, but again Denmark was affected by the developments in Russia. Stalins takeover in 1924 ushered in a counter revolutionary and reactionary period, which meant that DKP became a tool for the Stalinist dictatorship, which in turn meant that the party crashed together with the Soviet Union in 1991. The period 1917-1924 also showed that the Danish working class had grown in strength compared to the bourgeois so much, that the main battle would no longer be fought between the two classes, but within the Danish working class leadership about the direction of the labour movement: class collaboration or revolution. A battle which 100 years later is more relevant than ever.

Litterature

Petersen, Carl Heinrich (1973). Danske revolutionære – 1 & 2. Holstebro: Bogens billigs bibliotek.  

Bryld, Claus (1976). Det danske socialdemokrati og revisionismen. København: GMT.

Togby, Lise (1968). Var de så røde? Aalborg: Fremads fokusbøger.

Bloch-Poulsen, Jørgen & Morten Thing (1979). Danmarks kommunistiske part 1918-1941. Viborg: Politisk revy.

Bekker-Nielsen, Tønnes, Bernard Eric Jensen, Niels Arne Sørensen og Paul Ulff-Møller (2003). Gads Historie leksikon. København: Gyldendals Bogklubber.

Christiansen, Niels Finn, 1990: Gyldendal og Politikkens Danmarkshistorie Bind 12. Gyldendal.

Lange, Ole, 1978: Finansmænd, stråmænd og mandariner. Gyldendal.

Jensen, Bent, 1979: Danmark og det russiske spørgsmål 1917-1924. Universitetsforlaget i Aarhus.

Mørch, Søren, 1986: Det store bankkrak. Gyldendal.    

Petersen, Carl Heinrich, 1973: Fra klassekampens slagmark i Norden. Modtryk.

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About the author

WhatsApp Image 2017-10-11 at 15.43.43
Kalle Kühlmann is a Student of History and Social Science at Roskilde University, and member of the Marxist Student Association at RUC.

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