Bolshevik Origins of Social Policies

By Magnus B. Rasmussen and Carl Henrik Knutsen

Some historical events turn out to have outsized legacies, with consequences reaching across the world and lasting for decades, even centuries. Well-known examples from modern history are the French Revolution, the 1885 Berlin Conference, and the Allied victory in WWII. These events shaped conflicts, political systems, and policy-making in numerous countries long after they were over, and arguably still do so today.

Another such “mega-legacy event” was the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917. This revolution helped spur an era that lasted until the early 1990s, when the world was divided into a capitalist and a communist sphere. And the Bolshevik revolution shaped not only countries belonging to the communist sphere. Events in Russia provided inspiration and an important learning experience for revolutionaries in capitalist countries across the world. The new Russian power holders also promised material, organizational and ideological support to left-wing revolutionaries abroad, especially via the (Comintern), which was founded in 1919 and had participating parties and organizations from numerous capitalist countries.

The recently empowered Bolsheviks of the Soviet Union initiated the Communist International (“Comintern”) in 1919. This organization was formed to contribute to the “[s]truggle by all available means, including armed force, for the overthrow of the international bourgeoisie and the creation of an international Soviet republic as a transition stage to the complete abolition of the state”.

In our new, short book (“Element”), titled Reforming to Survive: The Bolshevik Origins of Social Policies, we propose that these developments — and the threats they constituted to the political and economic orders of capitalist countries — helped expand and shape social and labor market policies. In many countries, the policy legacies of the Bolshevik revolution lingered on for decades through institutional reforms and organizational changes. How can it be that a revolution in Russia in 1917 had this outsized effect on policy-making across the world, even in capitalist countries?

In short, we argue that the Bolshevik revolution heightened perceptions of revolutionary threats and fear within elites, and more so in some countries than in others. In the book, we present a theoretical framework to understand how revolutionary fear should influence policy-making and provide the first systematic analysis of its influence on the massive expansion of labor regulations and social policies following 1917 (and especially following 1919 and the foundation of Comintern). Our argument is centered on elites’ initial resistance to social reforms, and we discuss how this resistance dwindles during periods of increased revolutionary threat, with elites attempting to secure regime stability through political and social inclusion of workers. Previous theoretical arguments have highlighted how revolutionary threats by the poor may spur political institutional change, notably suffrage extension. We theorize how revolutionary threats spur policy reform and contextualize the argument to the post-1917 world, after the dramatic increase in the global communist threat following the Russian revolution.

Our starting point is that economic and political elites are typically reluctant to pursue redistributive social policies that benefit poorer citizens. Such policy changes come with notable costs, especially increased tax burdens for the elites. Yet, elites may begrudgingly consent to “costly” social policies when not doing so increases the risks of an even worse outcome (than increased taxes): a revolution and subsequent expropriation of their property. Hence, when facing credible revolutionary threats, elites may consent to costly social policies as the “lesser evil”, insofar as making such concessions could reduce the risk of revolution.

In our book, we detail what shapes the objective probability of successful revolution or elites’ subjective beliefs of what the probability is. We propose that for a revolutionary threat to be credible, the relevant opposition must, first, have sufficient power resources to raise an effective challenge and, second, have an ideological outlook compatible with revolutionary change. Third, elites must receive clear and credible information signals of both the capacity and intent of opposition groups to engage in revolutionary activities.

We go on to contextualize the argument by considering the situation and international political climate after the Bolshevik revolution. We propose domestic left-wing parties or unions’ linkages with the Comintern (and the formation of worker and soldier councils) influenced all the three factors that are highlighted by our theory – opposition power resources/revolutionary capacity, radical ideology/revolutionary intent, and information signals of revolutionary capacity and intent. With the formation of the Comintern and affiliated worker parties or unions affirming their allegiance to Moscow, elites in the relevant countries received a strong signal of the revolutionary intent and capacity of these domestic groups.

Frontpage of the conservative Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten on the June 10, 1919, with the headline: “The Labor party congress declare in favor of Bolshevism”.

Expectedly, elites in countries with high revolutionary threat perceptions should take measures to counteract this increased threat. The internal power-struggle within many labor movements in the aftermath of 1917, between radical revolutionaries and moderate social-democrats/reformers, meant that elites could pursue a two-pronged strategy: first, political and social reforms aimed at strengthening the reformist part of labor; second, outright repression of the radicals. While also discussing and documenting repression, we focus mainly on the first strategy in our book, considering (co-optive) labor market and social policies pursued by the elites.

Concerning the empirical evidence for different implications of our argument, we present archival and other qualitative evidence from early 20th century Norway – a country where elites faced severe revolutionary threats from “the left” after the Bolshevik revolution. We also present various large-n analyses drawing on original data, from countries across the world, on revolutionary threat as well as on social policy characteristics and working hours.

Our in-depth analysis of Norway (1915-1925) provides quite direct evidence linking revolutionary threat to elite motivations for social reform. This analysis includes extensive archival work on party documents, parliamentary records, and consultations with the major historical work on the period. In short, we find evidence that business elites as well as conservative and liberal politicians, all of which had previously resisted social reforms, came to accept social and political reforms as a necessity to reduce revolutionary threat.

First, Norwegian elites clearly came to perceive the revolutionary potential of the domestic worker movement as high. Justice minister Blehr, for example, stated (after the German revolution in 1918) that this “must be given the highest priority of our police, and we must be prepared for attacks upon the government”. These perceptions intensified with the radical parts of the labor movement taking over and the entering of the Norwegian Labor Party in Comintern in 1919. In 1920, Conservative PM Halvorsen stated that “[o]ne is expecting the hardest of civil wars” and thereafter outlined a line of succession if the government were to be ousted by a “coup”.

Cartoon of the leader (of the radical faction) of the Norwegian Labor party, Martin Tranmæl, as he clutches both the Liberal and Conservative party leaders while crushing the parliamentary building (Storting). The included quote says: “The parliament has outplayed its role. Now power resides outside of parliament”

The increased revolutionary fear within the Norwegian elites led these elites to open up for and pursue a host of social reforms undertaken or planned between 1917 (especially after 1919) and 1923, when the revolutionary threat subsided. Notably, these reforms had previously been (vigorously) resisted by different business owners and political elites, but would after 1919 be enacted by the very same individuals initiatives. Major pieces of legislation included, the eight-hour day law (1919), social assistance (1919), worker profit sharing (1918), socialization commissions (1919), worker participation in management (1920), and old-age pensions (1923).

Not all these initiatives were accepted in parliament or implemented (and not-yet-enacted proposals were dropped after the revolutionary threat subsided), but they were all introduced following increased elite perceptions of revolutionary threat. To illustrate, the leader of the main employer federation (N.A.F.), Lars Rasmussen, stated the change of position on the eight-hour day in a clear manner:

“Previously, our organization would respond to such demands with all the means at our disposal. (…) We must therefore renegade on some of our old principles.”

The socialist MP (and later PM) Nygaardsvold (later PM) summarized the dramatic turnabout with the 1919 eight-hour law, after attempts to enact an eight-hour law in 1909 and 1915, in the following manner:

“The road to legislative reform has been hard to travel. Each time the demand of the workers for an eight-hour normal working day was brought forward to the Storting, the demand was voted down (…) I want to add, that there is no single issue that has, to such an extent, made workers lose their faith in the parliamentary line, that parliamentary action work (…) As long as workers did not put any major force behind their demand, the Storting voted down all proposals.”

The number of industrial conflicts organized by the Norwegian trade union movement between 1903-1924. In 1921, more than 125 000 workers, out of a labor force of 1.6 million, were organized in a single general strike.

But, once the threat of a revolution seemed imminent, elites enacted such policies in a hurry (and occasionally by acclamation in parliament). Not only reforms of labor standards and welfare policy were undertaken, but also institutional reform. One key such reform was the switch to a proportional representation electoral system. The much-maligned single member district with runoffs electoral system, which consistently resulted in socialist parties being under-represented in parliament, was finally reformed in 1919. Liberal Prime Minister Gunnar Knudsen, for example, now recognized that the

“current [electoral] system is obviously unjust.  this is especially the case for the socialists, (…) their votes only count in the election statistics.  Under these conditions discontent among the socialists has skyrocketed. As a result, the revolutionaries have taken control of the Labor party. (…) The party congress recommend that parliament enacts a more just election system.”

Gunnar Knudsen, leader of the Liberal party and Prime Minister (1915-1920)

The major Conservative figure Fredrik Stang stated it even more starkly: “The choice is between electoral reform or revolution and civil war followed by a worker dictatorship”.

Yet the argument on how revolutionary threat spurred reform is relevant also far outside the borders of Norway. For our cross-country analysis, we collected data for new measures on labor regulation and social policies as well as different proxies of revolutionary threat perceptions, especially measures pertaining to invitations to and participation in Comintern. We conducted numerous analyses with these new measures, on countries from across the world.

Delegates to the 2nd World Congress of the Comintern.

We first consider work-time regulation by using both cross-section and panel data and controlling for several, plausible alternative explanations – a lot of things happened around the end of WWI that could have spurred social policy change. We find that our measures of revolutionary threat in this time period is related to shorter work hours and higher frequency of reforms in this area. These results hold up in different tests. For example, the results are robust to controlling for country-specific time trends and country- and year-fixed effects, but also to controlling for major alternative explanations – such as social democratic mobilization, economic growth, or war experience. Countries facing an increased revolutionary threat, following invitations to Comintern or the formation of soldier and worker councils, (on average) limited working hours by substantially more in the succeeding years.  We also show, for example, that our main measure of revolutionary threat correlates strongly with measures of eligibility of industrial workers in redistributive welfare programs, including unemployment and sickness benefit programs.

Soldier and worker councils were formed across the world following the Russian revolution. In the council movement, many revolutionaries found an alternative to capitalist organization and existing parliamentary institutions. Pictured is the Reich Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils in the Prussian Landtag in Berlin on 16 December 1918

These differences lingered on; countries that experienced greater revolutionary threat in 1919 had lower working hours even at the Cold War’s end. When we dig deeper into the question of why the policy effects from the “Bolshevik shock” persisted for so many decades, we test different, plausible mechanisms. However, we find the most support for, and focus on, the foundation of new Communist parties in “Comintern countries” as the key mechanism. The foundation of Communist parties institutionalized a durable anti-systemic left-wing threat.

In sum, we have provided a partial explanation of a cluster of dramatic (institutional and) policy shifts observed in numerous countries right after WWI. Our contention is not that revolutionary threat is the cause of all major policy shifts in this period – there were several important changes taking place in this period – from mass mobilization during the Great War to the later formation of the ILO – that may have contributed to these shifts. However, our study highlights one plausible and powerful explanation of what is sometimes called “the first major wave of social policy enactment” before 1925.


  • Magnus Rasmussen

    Magnus B. Rasmussen is an Associate Professor of Political Science at University of South Eastern Norway (USN). His new short-book, Reforming to Survive: The Bolshevik Origins of Social Policies, is available from Cambridge University Press. His other research examines regime and party politics concerning welfare state development and is featured in journals such as Comparative Political Studies, Journal of Comparative Politics, British Journal of Political Science, Politics and Society, and Social Science History.

  • Carl Henrik Knutsen

    Carl Henrik Knutsen is Professor of Political Science at the University of Oslo (UIO), Research Professor at PRIO, and co-PI of Varieties of Democracy. He leads several projects, including an ERC Consolidator Grant project on autocratic politics. His new short-book, Reforming to Survive: The Bolshevik Origins of Social Policies, is available from Cambridge University Press. His other research examines, e.g., regime change, economic effects of institutions, and autocratic politics, and it is featured in, e.g., American Journal of Political Science, American Sociological Review, British Journal of Political Science, Comparative Political Studies, Journal of Politics, Political Analysis, and World Politics.

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