The Overstretched Superpower
Does America Have More Rivals Than It Can Handle?
COMMUNIST efforts to penetrate Iceland have existed for nearly 40 years. Popular support of Communism reached a high point in the 1940s when nearly 20 percent of the electorate supported the Communist Party. Today the Communists are again represented in the Icelandic cabinet, and to the established methods of political penetration has been added a Soviet economic thrust by means of increased trade and, according to reports, by substantial offers of credits and loans from the Bloc. In view of the strategic location of Iceland, its membership in NATO, and its importance as a NATO air base, we may reasonably inquire how and why the Communist movement became a significant factor in Icelandic politics.
Communist ideology was introduced into Iceland about the time of World War I. This was a period of rapid change when Iceland achieved sovereignty, emerged from centuries of economic distress, came into closer contact with the outside world, and established the domestic political patterns which, in essence, still prevail. Until 1918, Iceland was under the domination of Denmark, and domestic politics followed the traditional colonial pattern; the earliest parties were concerned solely with independence, differing only about tactics. After home rule was won and when independence could be foreseen, political parties began to form along economic lines. The Labor Party,[i] which shortly became a Communist target, was founded in 1916 to represent the Federation of Icelandic Labor Unions, established earlier that year. The Progressive Party (Framsoknarflokkur), also founded in 1916, represented the farmers and coöperatives. Two other parties, which merged to form the Independence Party,[ii] represented the fishing interests and business.
Communism was apparently introduced to Iceland by students who had studied at European universities. Within a few years after the war a Young Communist League with a membership of 70 was reported to exist in Iceland. Certainly the Communist International recognized the existence of a Communist group in Iceland at an early date. At the Second Congress, in 1921, the Icelandic Communists were not affiliated with the Comintern, but the Icelandic representative promised that "when the revolution breaks out in England, we also will raise the red banner."[iii] The Third Congress assigned the Icelandic body a consultative vote and the Fourth Congress reported that a fraction of the 450 Icelandic Communists had been admitted to the Comintern. It was the Fifth Congress, however, which gave careful consideration to the development of Communism in Iceland and indicated its wish to bolshevize the Icelandic group as it was then striving to bolshevize the continental Communist Parties. A resolution, "On the Icelandic Question,"[iv] referred to the Presidium by the Icelandic Commission, opened with a Marxist analysis of the political and economic situation in Iceland. The Labor Party was described as having two wings, the Social Democratic and the Communist, the latter characterized as "semi-Communist." The resolution called upon the Communists "to engage in an energetic campaign against the reformist, semi-bourgeois, and social democratic leaders" in order to establish a single revolutionary leadership of the labor movement and to establish a Communist Party. The Communist fraction was instructed to form cells in all the principal enterprises and to establish groups in the trade unions and coöperatives, and to collaborate closely with the Scandinavian Communist Federation.
The Icelandic group followed the Comintern's directives. Communist supporters became active in the fishermen's unions, the day laborers' unions and the women's unions, and also in the coöperatives. Frequent newspaper articles on the subject of Communist activity testified that this was not an underground operation. However, the establishment of the Communist Party of Iceland was delayed six years. It thus became one of the last of the Communist Parties to be formed and was junior even to many of the Asian Parties. The reasons for the delay are not known. Perhaps the Communists' first aim was to gain control of the Labor Party, and only after it became evident that they could not do so, they decided to form their own Party. Or they may have wished to entrench themselves more firmly in the labor unions and in the coöperatives before emerging as a party to face elections. The final impetus may have come from the Comintern which, in the late 1920s, was engaged in a bitter struggle with the Social Democrats all over Europe.
The Communist Party of Iceland (Kommunistaflokkur Islands) became a separate entity at the end of 1930 when the left wing of the Labor Party, undoubtedly the Communist fraction which had as early as 1922 affiliated with the Comintern, broke off. The first chairman of the new party was Brynjolfur Bjarnason, a school teacher who had studied in Berlin after the First World War. Nine Communist candidates were presented for the next parliamentary elections, held in June 1931, but none was elected and together they collected only 1,165 votes. However, the Party received 2,673 votes in the parliamentary election of 1933 and 3,098 in the election of 1934, but without electing candidates either year.
The Communist Party provided its own version of its early years in a report for the Seventh Congress[v] of the Comintern in 1935. This report described the labor strife of the early 1930s in which the Communist Party led the workers in numerous strikes and in clashes with the police "with resultant political arrests." It was stated that the labor force of 10,000 workers was organized into the Federation of Icelandic Labor Unions but that 3,000 of the members were under Communist leadership, including 1,900 members of the North Iceland labor unions and 300 metal workers in Reykjavik. The Party claimed a membership of 700 in 1934 in 11 localities and six cells in ships and plants. A circulation of 3,000 copies was claimed for the three weekly Communist newspapers.
This account of the Communist Party's early years is probably fairly accurate. The period was one of labor unrest brought about by economic difficulties, political uncertainty and divided leadership in the non-Communist labor movement. Iceland suffered severely from the widespread economic dislocations of the 1930s, and unemployment reached serious proportions. A Nazi party was formed which, although never able to elect a candidate in a national election, was an irritant on the domestic scene. The formation of a sixth party, an offshoot of the Progressive Party, was further indication of the fluidity of the political situation and of the weakness of party structures. There was, moreover, dissension between the right and left wings of the Labor Party, and when, in 1934, it entered the cabinet for the first time, in coalition with the Progressive Party, it was of divided loyalties during the series of strikes that took place in the next few years. The Communist Party was able to claim that it alone was the protector of labor's interests.
Communism thrived in this situation, and in the elections of June 1937 the first Communists were elected to the Althing. They were Einar Olgeirsson, Brynjolfur Bjarnason and Isleifur Hognason, all of whom had been candidates on the first Communist slate in 1930. The Communist ticket received 8.5 percent of the vote. One of the unsuccessful candidates was a schoolteacher, Ludvik Josefsson, who is now a member of the Icelandic cabinet as Minister of Trade and Fisheries.
In 1937, the Communists tried to split the Labor Party again. They pressed for the union of the two parties and for a merger of the Communist and non-Communist labor factions, apparently in conformity with the Popular Front Movement planned at the Seventh Congress of the Comintern. Though the Labor Party refused the invitation, its unity could not be long maintained. In the spring of 1938, Jon Baldvinsson, the head of both the Labor Party and the Labor Federation, died, and a struggle for succession ensued between the leader of the radicals and the leader of the moderates. The moderates won, and the left wing, under Hjedinn Valdimarsson, walked out of the Labor Party and into the Communist Party, which was renamed the United People's-Socialist Party (Sameiningarflokkur Althydu-Sosialistaflokkur). Although Valdimarsson took with him a substantial personal following, the dominance of the Communist group quickly became apparent.
Icelandic politics and Iceland's international relations were deeply affected by World War II. British troops occupied Iceland on May 10, 1940, in order to forestall German seizure, and subsequently, after tripartite negotiations, it was agreed that United States troops should replace the British in 1941. The number of foreign soldiers stationed in Iceland, young men with money to spend, became almost as great as the entire adult population of the country. The spirit of nationalism was fanned by the presence of a large alien group. Serious social problems arose. However, unemployment was ended. With military construction and the soaring demand for Icelandic fish in Great Britain, Icelanders experienced prosperity they had never known before, and with prosperity came inflation. Another important event occurred in 1944, when Iceland overwhelmingly elected to sever all connections with Denmark and declare itself a republic.
The Communist Party, broadened and strengthened by the addition of the left wing of the Labor Party, faced the polls in 1942, a year in which two parliamentary elections were held. (The second was necessitated by certain constitutional changes.) In the July election of that year, the Communists raised their representation in the Althing to six members, a figure which was increased three months later to ten out of a total Althing membership of 52. These gains reflected not only the results of the defection of the left wing of the Labor Party, but also the switching of party affiliation following the population movement from the farms to the towns. After the 1942 election a non-partisan cabinet held office until 1944 when a new coalition cabinet was formed in which the Communist Party was invited to participate together with the Independence and the Labor Parties. There were two Communist members in the cabinet, one of whom was Brynjolfur Bjarnason, the school teacher, who became Minister of Education.
This event enhanced the prestige of the Communist Party, giving it national status on the same plane with the other parties. Yet if the prestige of the Soviet Union had not been enhanced by its alliance with the Western democracies in the struggle against Nazism, the Communists might not have been invited to participate in the Government.
The break-up of the "strange alliance" between the Soviet Union and the democratic Powers of the West aggravated the controversy in Iceland between the nationalists and the internationalists. Although the Communists used, rather than initiated, this controversy, they fought effectively for the nationalist cause. During the next decade the controversy came to a head on three main issues: the negotiation of the Keflavik Agreement, adherence to NATO and the establishment of the NATO air base. The Communists lost on all three, but their activities have had a divisive effect within Iceland and between Iceland and the Western Powers. The Communist members of the cabinet resigned when the other two parties decided in 1946 to support the United States' request for a civilian air base at Keflavik, and the Communist Party was not invited to participate in the new cabinet. However, the Party found a ready-made propaganda issue in the return of foreigners to Icelandic soil; American technicians and workmen were labelled "invaders." Thus the way was paved for the dispute over Iceland's entry into NATO in 1949. While the Althing was voting on the question the Communists led a riot in front of the Althing House. Stones thrown by the rioters broke the windows of the Althing House, and the shattered glass fell into the blue and white paneled room at the feet of the members as the roll call was taken. The Althing, however, voted in favor of Iceland's entry into NATO, and in 1951, following the negotiation of the Iceland-United States Defense Agreement, the Keflavik airport was transformed into a military base. A few thousand American soldiers have been stationed there since that time, and their presence has continued to be a factor in domestic politics.
In the election of 1949, the Communist Party lost one Althing seat, and in 1953 two more, while their vote fell from 14,077 to 12,422. The reduction in strength was undoubtedly affected by the emergence of a new party, the National Defense Party, a left-wing, nationalist group which elected two representatives to the Althing in the 1953 election. In the election of June 1956, the Communists presented candidates in coöperation with the left wing of the Labor Party under the designation of Labor Alliance (Althydubandalag), and this group won eight Althing seats and was invited to participate in a new coalition cabinet. Their representatives now hold two portfolios: those of Social Affairs and of Fisheries and Trade.
Communist penetration in Iceland has followed the standard pattern, with labor, intellectuals and youth as the principal targets. The first adherents to Communism in the 1920s were youth, and the Party's effort to expand its following among the youth has been aided by the strength of Communism in the teaching profession, a strength indicated by the fairly substantial proportion of schoolteachers listed as Communist candidates for public office. The selection of a Communist as Minister of Education provided the opportunity for the advancement and appointment of Communists to key positions in the schools and colleges, and civil service regulations have hampered the dismissal of teachers on political grounds. The Party has formed youth groups in the junior colleges and in the university. It has also formed a youth organization for those beyond college age, and has repeatedly offered the young men places as Party candidates in local and national elections.
The Communists have devoted particular attention to the intellectuals and artists, and with notable success. One of the best known of the Icelandic intellectuals to turn in the direction of Communism is Halldor Kiljan Laxness, winner of the Nobel prize for literature, who has served as Althing candidate for the Communist Party and as president of the Icelandic-Russian cultural society in Reykjavik. Intellectual and artistic achievements are highly regarded in Iceland, and Halldor Kiljan Laxness, who occupies a position perhaps similar to that of Ernest Hemingway a decade or two ago, has been a useful instrument of Soviet penetration. The Soviet Legation in Reykjavik has supported the Communist Party's efforts in this direction by inviting leading Icelanders to visit Russia and by arranging the visits of outstanding Soviet artists to Iceland. In an isolated but culturally conscious country such as Iceland, the visit of a musician like Khachaturian, who conducted the Icelandic National Orchestra in a program of Russian music, was bound to have a striking impact even though a generous amount of Communist propaganda accompanied his visit. The Soviet Legation has opened information libraries in various parts of the country; Icelandic-Russian cultural societies have been formed in many towns and villages; and instruction in the Russian language has been offered. As public entertainment is limited in Iceland and as people are quite dependent upon their own intellectual capacities, this approach has been effective, although other countries have also embarked on ambitious cultural programs.
The struggle between the Labor Party and the Communists for control of organized labor began in the 1920s, but the Labor Party dominated the executive committee of the Federation of Icelandic Labor Unions (which both demonstrates and determines control of labor) until 1942 when the Communists came into power. In 1948 the Labor Party regained control of the executive committee with the help of the two other non-Communist parties, a manœuvre which caused a temporary setback for the Communists but caused dissatisfaction within the Labor Party over the necessary compromises with conservative elements. In 1954, the Communist Party, supported by some left-wing representatives of the Labor Party, gained a majority which was retained at the 1956 convention with the support of some Progressive Party representatives.
All this the Communists have achieved with a card-carrying membership which probably does not exceed 1,500. Communist successes in Iceland have depended on a well-directed exploitation of certain characteristics of the political, economic and social development of the nation and its international relations. Iceland is historically democratic and fundamentally anti-totalitarian, and the ability of the Communists in presenting their doctrines in the guises of nationalism, socialism and trade unionism has made possible the growth of popular support for the Communist Party. The questions to be considered are: what are the features of Icelandic life that have lent themselves to Communist exploitation and how have the Communists exploited them?
The dominant characteristics of political life in Iceland are an intense spirit of nationalism, a sense of frustration in international affairs, a highly personal element, and a fluidity in party structure and party affiliation. The spirit of nationalism emerged from the long struggle for freedom from Denmark and was fostered by a common ancestry, a distinctive language and culture, territorial unity, and a remarkably cohesive society. Icelandic sovereignty is a new and precious thing in the eyes of Icelanders, who have become involved in international affairs with reluctance. The national aspirations of a country of fewer than 160,000 people are of necessity modest. Preservation of the territorial integrity of the nation, the primary objective of every nation's foreign policy, has been in the past and would be again in the future an impossibility for Iceland against any determined major or middle-class Power. At the same time, any suggestion of protective hegemony is acutely distasteful, and collective security is at best the lesser of evils. Withdrawal rather than involvement under these circumstances is preferable to Icelanders, but the strategic location of the country makes isolation and neutrality impossible.
Against this background the Communist Party has presented itself as a national party whose principal objective is ostensibly the preservation of Icelandic sovereignty. Thus opposition to "foreign intervention," whether military, political or economic, has been a leading feature of the Party program. The Communist Party has proclaimed itself the true protector of Icelandic sovereignty and as the principal opponent of what it has termed American imperialism at the Keflavik air base. The Party, of course, denies international affiliation and the Party press usually ignores international developments in which the position of the Soviet Union would obviously be unpopular in Iceland.
Not only her international position but also domestic problems are complicated by the sparsity of Iceland's population. Friendships and enmities arising from non-political causes affect political relationships to a degree unknown in larger countries. The importance of personal relationships has contributed to the fluidity of party structure, the emergence and disappearance of political parties, splits and mergers, and the switches of political allegiance of individuals. Although the electorate contains fewer than 100,000 voters, since 1937 there have been at least four parties with representation in the Althing, and some of the splinter parties have also won parliamentary seats. In this unstable situation the determined and unwavering Communist nucleus has been able to make quick tactical shifts to take advantage of situations that were essentially personal. In particular, the successive defections from the Labor Party to the Communist Party have been made easier by the general weakness of party structure.
The dearth of natural resources and the dependence upon one export (fish) have created a considerable degree of economic instability in Iceland. Sharp economic fluctuations, strongly affected by international forces beyond Iceland's control, have brought about great prosperity, accompanied by inflation, and followed by acute depression with resultant unemployment. Often the Government has not been strong enough to take forceful measures to ameliorate the situation and has submitted to pressure from the farmers, the labor unions and business interests to the detriment of the national economy. The Communist Party has benefited by economic distress and unemployment, and by the fact that the unemployed and the poor could remember better times. The Labor Party, because of its more responsible approach to the economic problems of the country, has generally taken a less aggressive stand than the Communists, whose demands for higher wages, broader social security protection and full employment have been an important feature in the Party program, second only to that of national sovereignty. During most of its history the Communist Party has been outside the Government, and having no responsibility it could espouse the most extreme demands, thus increasing its popularity with certain segments of the population and providing the means of registering protest against the Government's policies. The more moderate position of the Labor Party has resulted in the loss of some of its members and some Labor Party leaders have been tempted to compromise on labor matters with parties to the right for personal political advantage. At times of labor unrest when the Labor Party has been in the cabinet, it has found its loyalties divided, a situation that has been exacerbated by the division between the rank and file of union members and some of the political leaders who have advanced into other social and political groups.
The structure and development of Icelandic society exhibit many features tending to restrain the growth of Communism. There is no gulf between state and society, there are few class distinctions and no significant minorities, religion is not an issue, social and geographical mobility are high, social communications are effective, and the opportunities for education and advancement are fairly equal. Although the social structure may have been weakened by the changes of the twentieth century, such as the population movement from the farms to the towns, the tremendous economic advances and a closer intellectual contact with the outside world, nevertheless society has not been split nor even severely shaken by these forces. The concept of the class struggle probably has even less meaning in Iceland than in the United States.
On the other hand, some of these features are not unfailing deterrents to the rise of Communism. Although a rigid class structure is often found to be conducive to the advance of Communism, the considerable degree of social mobility in Iceland has weakened the non-Communist labor movement. The ready opportunity for the most able and intelligent members of the laboring classes to move upward in society has steadily drained off much of the leadership, especially as the unions in Iceland are too small to provide more than a very few jobs for the career unionist. In some cases, the ex-laboring man who has advanced out of the labor movement has kept his affiliation with the Labor Party, but his ties to the labor movement have been weakened.
To consider another aspect, most Icelanders are related by blood or marriage to most other Icelanders, and many of those in the same age group went to school together (there were, until recently, only two junior colleges and only one university), or worked together on the fishing boats during summer vacations. As a result, it is somewhat difficult for one Icelander to think that another Icelander's intentions are really evil, although he may consider the other foolish, misguided or ill-informed. The rather high degree of trust which Icelanders have for each other has aided the attempts of the Communist leaders to disguise their Party as a purely Icelandic group. Communist penetration throughout Icelandic society would have been impossible if the Party were generally considered to be the agent of a foreign Power. When the Communists can win the interest of someone outside their group and persuade him to become a Party worker or candidate, they know that he will not be ostracized as a traitor. On the contrary, he can expect some support from family and friends, regardless of their political convictions.
Iceland seems fated to remain an extreme example of the plight of small nations in a bipolar, economically unstable world. Strategically important, yet incapable of its own defense, susceptible to international market fluctuations and economic penetration, and even somewhat vulnerable ideologically, Iceland can expect to remain a target of international Communism. However, the advance of Communism is being retarded if not reversed by the fundamentally Westward orientation of the Icelandic people, by the stability of the social structure and by Western coöperation with Iceland's efforts to ameliorate its economic problems. Furthermore, the possible over-extension of the Communists in seeking support from all quarters may lead to a Party split. The balance of forces affecting the situation will shift from time to time, but it is likely that the Communist Party will continue to exert a significant influence in Icelandic politics.
[i] Althyduflokkur, literally, the Party of the Common People, also often referred to as the Social Democratic Party.
[ii] Sjalfstaedisflokkur, often referred to as the Conservative Party, although the literal translation is Independence Party.
[iii] Berichte zum Zweiten Kongress der Kommunistische Internationale, Hamburg, 1921, p. 361-363.
[iv] Ve Congrès de L'Internationale Communiste, Paris, 1924, p. 462. This resolution does not appear in the English edition of the Fifth Congress. The matter is somewhat confused by the fact that the index of the French edition, as cited, contains a typographical error by which Islandaise is listed as Irlandaise.
[v] Die Kommunistische Internationale vor dem VII. Weltkongress, Moscow, 1935, p. 334-5.