Iceland, unlike all other Nordic countries, has been primarily a conservative, centre-right country for roughly the past 30 years now. It took the literal collapse of the financial sector to provoke Icelanders into even considering a left-wing government—which they had for exactly four years, before promptly voting the right wing back into power, twice now. There are leftist parties in Iceland, and they sometimes enjoy lower levels of power in various towns and villages. When it comes to the national government, Icelanders essentially always put conservatives in power. Social democracy, let alone socialism, struggles to find footing here.
This context is important to remember when we consider that Gunnar Smári Egilsson, a journalist and writer, spearheaded the effort to form The Socialist Party of Iceland (SPI), which was officially formed, appropriately enough, this past May 1.
“It’s not just that we think too much about ourselves; we’ve also stopped thinking of ourselves as belonging to a group,” Gunnar Smári explains, when asked about the reason behind starting the party. Here he mentions not just private companies, but also that Iceland’s healthcare and education systems are run from the point of view of being economically feasible.
“We have spent the past 30 to 35 years under the reign of neoliberalism, as horrible an ideology as there is. It claims to be based on science, but is more or less some kind of ridiculous religion.”
For the record, this is not Iceland’s first socialist party. There was an actual Socialist Party, active from 1938 to 1968, which was a strictly Marxist-Leninist party that followed the Comintern’s party line. There have been, and still are, leftist parties in Iceland that embrace some aspects of socialism as well, and the People’s Front of Iceland (Alþýðufylkingin) is a self-identified socialist party, albeit one that has never won in a seat on a municipal or parliamentary level. What makes SPI unique, however, is its approach and praxis.
Ground up; not top down
We emphasise that the following points are still in the formative stages. But SPI’s platform makes it very plain how they see the lay of the land:
The Socialist Party of Iceland is the party of wage earners and all those who suffer from want, invisibility and abjection. The opponents of the Socialist Party of Iceland are the capitalist class and its functionaries. The terrain of the Socialist Party of Iceland is a broad class struggle that rejects compromise and false dialogue.
As one could guess, this invariably means that SPI calls for the people to seize power in all spheres of society, rather than just win votes in Parliament: “Workplace, union, school, neighborhood, municipality, village,” as they put it, “all these domains should be under egalitarian control where the popular interest is prioritized.”
This point is crucial: in a socialist society, the people do indeed control these spheres. Rather than the standard reformist approach—that is, hoping that if a socialist party wins enough seats in parliament, they will radically transform all of society from the top down—SPI’s aim seems to be more from the ground up, and with a broader base than simply the legislative.
So what’s the plan?
The SPI would seem to be on the right track in terms of how they see the terrain of class struggle. Which brings us to SPI’s “initial campaign causes”:
1. Decent living conditions for all citizens, whether they are wage earners, unemployed, pensioners, students, or homemakers.
2. Access to secure and affordable housing.
3. Access to free healthcare, to free education on all levels, and to a free welfare system that meets everyone’s different needs.
4. The shortening of the work week, to improve quality of life for the people and to facilitate their active participation in shaping society.
OK, so far so good. These are not utopian ideas; they are expressly socialist, that all citizens are publicly provided with all of life’s essentials, at no cost to themselves. Socialism does this by the workers directly controlling the means of production. They own the workplaces, they own the services they provide, they own the public institutions that they run. Which is why it is jarring to then read:
5. Reconstruction of the tax system, with an eye to making the wealthy pay an adequate share in common expenditures but alleviating the burden of others.
So are we then to assume that there will still be wealthy people to tax? You can’t have wealthy people without capitalism, and you can’t have capitalism in a socialist country. Shifting the tax burden from the poor and onto the rich is laudable, but it isn’t socialist—it’s social democratic. The social democrat counts on capitalism to function well because the social democrat needs wealthy people to tax to pay for the bulk of the social welfare system. The more successful they are, the more revenue they make for the state. A socialist, by contrast, would abolish capitalism altogether, seizing the means of production from the hands of the wealthy and expropriating their wealth for the common good.
Gunnar Smári expanded on this part of the platform by saying, “We have, as a society, fallen into a hole in the ice; a hole we could call neoliberalism.” Getting out of this hole requires finding the funds to develop the social welfare system to the degree by which it can fulfill these platform points. “When we’ve taken that step, we can then consider what our next steps should be, how we can increase power to the people over their communities, and in what form we manage offices, companies and institutions. It’s not good to decide this while we’re still in the hole; first, we need to get on dry land.”
Tossing out the “damned beast”
To do so requires a very broad base of action, as Gunnar Smári repeats the party’s aim: “We do that by empowering class struggle, increasing political participation in all areas, we have to restore the labour movement as a tool for fighting on behalf of the public interest, we have to gain power in Parliament, in municipalities, in all foundation institutions of society. We need to clean out the entire system.”
When all is said and done, after socialists have managed their way into majority positions on every level of Icelandic government, then the ruling class can be overthrown.
“The ruling class contends that families cannot function unless they sit at the end of the table and control everything,” Gunnar Smári says. “So the family stands up, tosses the damned beast out, and everyone has a much better life after that.”
As a grassroots movement with grassroots praxis, the Socialist Party of Iceland has its work cut out for it, but this is the paradox of all grassroots movements: complete revolution means revolution in all spheres of society, which takes an extraordinary long time. Vanguard revolutions take much shorter, but can lead to reactionary impulses and oppression. Time will tell whether the Socialist Party of Iceland can remain cohesive throughout the struggle—a challenge every revolutionary movement must eventually face.