After my wife and I experienced the “Norwegian Dream” for a year in Trondheim, we returned to the Midwest to find a long history of Scandinavian socialists who tried to create their utopia here at home. They had to hide their true identity during the red-baiting McCarthy years, but now at least one presidential candidate is proudly admitting to be a democratic socialist. I discovered, however, that we already have many alternatives to for-profit corporations in the form of owner-operated cooperatives, profit-sharing business models and credit unions, right here at home.
Modern American socialists may look to Nordic countries as ideal models, but Scandinavians had (among others) already brought this very vision to the Midwest a century ago. Milwaukee elected three socialist mayors long before Bernie Sanders took over Burlington, Vt. In 1916, Minneapolis as well elected a socialist mayor, Thomas Van Lear, who then co-founded the populist, socialist Minnesota Daily Star (which, through various transformations, became part of what eventually would be the state’s main newspaper, the Star Tribune). In 1934, the ruling Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota organized a platform “to abolish capitalism in a peaceful and lawful manner [for the] complete re-organization of the present social structure into a co-operative commonwealth.” Wow.
North Dakota went a step further. The ruling Nonpartisan League (the socialist wing of the Republican Party, if you can imagine) made the state one of the first to prohibit corporate ownership of farmland, an act that still stands today. To stave off the corporate banks, the Nonpartisan League set up the state-run Bank of North Dakota in 1919 to provide government-backed loans to farmers (and now students) without swindling the borrowers with high interest rates. To help the farmers who were fed up with sending their grain to the Mill City of Minneapolis for minimal profits, the Nonpartisan League passed progressive reforms for state control of the sale of wheat, its storage and milling. In 1922, the North Dakota governor opened the state-owned North Dakota Mill (still in operation today).
Wisconsin may have had its share of socialist mayors, but the most influential economist was Thorstein Veblen, the son of Norwegian immigrants, who viciously criticized cutthroat American capitalism and became an inspiration for socialists with his warnings of “conspicuous consumption.” Veblen, who grew up near Nerstrand, Minn., and attended Carleton College in Northfield, predicted that the predatory practices of the banks would cause the market crash of 1929 and his book, “The Theory of the Leisure Class,” became the impetus for the Roosevelt revitalization package for the U.S., better known as the socialist-leaning New Deal.
The recent Nordic arrivals didn’t want to be fleeced by the landed gentry who owned the banks and big businesses. Baptist minister Lars Jørgensen Hauge witnessed a poor Danish-American woman break down in tears after she was only given 5 cents a pound for her sweet cream butter and then only in trade in the company store. He remembered the cooperative creameries back in Denmark, so he traveled the Midwest preaching his “butter sermons” to work together and share the wealth by forming cooperatives.
The idea of profit-sharing cooperatives spread throughout the Midwest, so by 1918 more than 630 cooperative creameries did business in Minnesota alone. The co-op model spread to general stores, food markets, gas and electrical operations, agricultural elevators and banks (as credit unions). By 1919, more than 2,600 cooperatives did business in the state, and by 1999, agricultural co-ops in Minnesota brought in $9.3 billion and shared the profits with the farmers. These co-ops offer an alternative system that allows all the members to have a stake in the greater good rather than working just for the wealthy through a system of consumer capitalism.
The message was spread through socialist meeting halls, such as the Socialist Opera House in Virginia, Minn., and Liberty Hall in Marquette, Mich., that offered highbrow entertainment and fiery political speeches, often in Scandinavian languages. Even Midwestern houses, cozy bungalows, came from the populist Arts and Crafts movement that took its socialist views and applied them to handcrafted houses that were affordable to everyone.
To spread the wealth, Minnesota’s first Farmer-Labor governor, Floyd B. Olson, pushed FDR to implement the New Deal to solve the Great Depression: “If the so-called depression deepens, I strongly recommend to you, Mr. President, that the government take over and operate the key industries of this country. Put the people back to work. If necessary to relieve public suffering the government should not hesitate to conscript wealth.”
Olson’s dream may not have materialized (the Democratic Party eventually merged with the more radical Farmer-Labor Party in 1944 under the leadership of Hubert Humphrey), but still the socialist concept of shared wealth thrives in the Upper Midwest, since we have by far the most co-ops of any other area of the country. It appears that democratic socialism has been alive and well in the Midwest long before Bernie.
Eric Dregni is the author of “Vikings in the Attic: In Search of Nordic America and In Cod We Trust: Living the Norwegian Dream.”