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Palme Was an Articulate Voice for Socialism

March 12, 1986|Harry Bernstein

Perched comfortably on a chair in his office, his legs curled under his slim body, Olof Palme restlessly puffed away on yet another cigarette one day about 10 years ago as he intently but happily described his paradoxical country to me and my wife, Joanne.

The prime minister of Sweden, who was assassinated in Stockholm on Feb. 28, generously had agreed to meet alone with us for a few minutes during our visit to the Swedish capital to study labor relations there. We had opportunities to meet briefly with that remarkable man a few more times, but that first conversation, which he insisted on extending to more than two hours, was the most delightful and informative.

We tried, with apparent success, to provoke him enough to make the interview stimulating--fearing, though, that if our queries were too irritating, he would smile and move on quickly to one of the many other visitors waiting impatiently for him to finish with the Americans.

W wanted to know how closely linked his Social Democratic Party was to Sweden's labor unions and what he thought of the future of industrial democracy, a movement that gives workers a significant voice in running the companies employing them.

Sweden, with encouragement from Palme, had pioneered industrial democracy.

We unceremoniously asked him to explain how he honestly could call himself a Socialist when so much of Sweden's industry is run by capitalists and whether he felt uncomfortable being the Socialist leader of a monarchy, especially one with an official state religion.

They were not particularly incisive questions, but his intelligent responses, in fluent, colloquial English, left no doubt in our minds that not only was he a charming, extremely articulate person but that he had, indeed, given thought to the questions before and was not bothered in the least by the impertinence of two strangers or by the apparent contradictions we found in his country.

Palme was a decisive intellectual who roamed skillfully, knowledgeably from topic to topic--from science, my wife's specialty, to labor relations, my own prime interest.

After nearly an hour of intriguing but generalized conversation, we almost had forgotten our original questions and almost didn't care, expecting to be escorted out at any moment. But Palme had not forgotten.

Swedish unions and his political party, he explained, are, unlike labor's ties with political parties in the United States, "inextricably linked. Our unions and our party are like branches of the same tree. I am a union man as well as a politician."

Industrial democracy, he said, is an essential extension of political democracy, and one cannot really work effectively without the other.

He explained a radical plan that would require employers to pay workers in part with company stock so that, in time, workers would own their companies, giving Sweden what he called "economic democracy" as well as political democracy. That plan has now been started.

Sweden, Palme said, does not need traditional definitions of socialism to make it a Socialist country, or him a sincere Socialist.

"It (socialism) means so many different things to different people that many thoughtful citizens forget it might mean, as it does to me, no more than a government that cares deeply about all of its citizens." True, he observed, most people define socialism simply as government ownership of the means of production.

"Well, we are a Socialist country. But we are not particularly concerned about nationalizing industry, as, say, the Socialists in Great Britain try to do," he said, smiling broadly as though to ease any antagonism his remark could evoke among his Socialist counterparts in other countries who might read an account of the interview.

To him, Palme said, socialism means a fairly complete cradle-to-grave welfare system so that, with government help, citizens need not worry about the financial impact of poor health, old age or unemployment.

Noting the relative prosperity of Sweden, Palme said Sweden's accomplishments are "partially the result of tremendous amount of luck. We have had peace for 160 years, good natural resources, reasonable climatic conditions and a rather homogenous population."

But then, with what must be called an impish grin, he added:

"It would push humbleness too far to say it was sheer luck alone. We are a hard-working people, unafraid of new ideas, and we are not wedded to any rigid ideological concepts. The idea of total nationalization of the means of production as a sort of panacea of reform was popular here in Sweden at the beginning of the century.

"But, as far back as the early 1930s, we realized economic planning could be equal to nationalization as a method of making our society more egalitarian, and now everyone wants such planning, even the arch-conservatives."

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