Article 10: A hundred years of study circles in the biggest study association in Sweden.

100 years with ABF

In Sweden one hundred years ago, at midsummer 1912, Rickard Sandler proposed the establishment of a new study organisation within the working-class movement: the Socialdemocratic Party, the  Swedish Trade Union Confederation and all its labour unions, the Socialdemocratic Youth Movement and several other organisations.
Rickard Sandler (1884-1964) was at that time 28 years old and he worked as a teacher in one of the folk high schools in Sweden, Brunnsvik, owned by the Swedish working-class movement. He spoke at a meeting with teachers and students and his idea was  to found a new national organisation to promote and organize study circles, lectures and libraries within the working-class movement.
In 1912, most of the organisations within the working-class movement had for many years arranged lectures for their members. Ten years earlier, in 1902, Oscar Olsson started the first modern Swedish study circle and more study circles had started, within the working-class movement and within other popular movements.

State support for study circles
What was new in 1912 was that the Swedish Government and Parliament had decided that the state should support study circes by helping to finance the books the used. The state support functioned in the following way:
1. The government supported study circles that belonged to a national organisation with at least 20 000 individual members.
2. When a study circle started they could apply to their head organisation for money to buy books for the participants (the government paid half the cost).
3. When the study circle finished they returned the books to the local branch of the organisation and there the books were stored in a study circle library. When another study circle wanted to study the same topic, they could borrow the books from that library. Other people in the village or town could also borrow books from those libraries.
It was a simple, low-cost support – but important for the study circle participants who often were poor and could not afford to buy books. In most homes 1912 there were no books at all, except for The Bible.
In order to get the state support, study circles had to be organized by a national organisation. The working-class movement reacted quickly and a few months after Rickard Sandler’s speech at midsummer the Workers’ Educational Association (ABF) was formally founded in October 16, 1912, and Rickard Sandler became the first leader.

Equality, solidarity and democracy
Before the establishment of the ABF, the question of ”folkbildning” had been discussed within the Socialdemocratic party and its sister organisations. Rickard Sandler proclaimed for example 1907 that ”folkbildning” was a precondition for the creation of a democratic society. The society of the future had to be build by highly educated and cultivated people. However, the ordinary school was quite poor a hundred years ago and only one of ten children got more than six years in school. It was necessary for the working-class movement to make it possible for the members to educate themselves.
Rickard Sandler and his supporters regarded ”folkbildning” as a fundamental resource when, step by step, the Swedish democracy was to be constructed. The foundation for ABF was equality, solidarity and democracy. The aim was to promote general knowledge and cultural exaltation for the working class.
Regarding ”folkbildning”, Rickard Sandler had the same ideas as Oscar Olsson, the father of the Swedish study circle. Both of them understood that ”folkbildning” is a tool to change society, but they were very determined that it must be open, free and not ruled from above. For example, Rickard Sandler wrote that the ”study circle becomes what its members want it to become. They can only do their best in freedom.”

”The society as it is”
Rickard Sandler was a a versatile and talented man, one of the visionaries within the Socialdemocratic party. He wrote, lectured and discussed all kinds of issues in politics, culture, society… He composed music and was fascinated by mathematical problems. He made the first translation into Swedish of the book Capital by Karl Marx.
In 1911 he published a small book in Swedish: ”The Society as it is – statistical facts about land and people, production and distribution”. In that book, only 86 pages, he presented a very readable summary of earlier unknown facts about the Swedish society. All facts were based on official statistics, available for everyone – but no one before Rickard Sandler had presented those facts in an easily accessible publication which could be read and understood by anyone.
The book became a success and was published in many editions. It showed very clear, in figures, that Sweden was a very unequal society.
In 1912, Rickard Sandler was not only a folk high school teacher. He had also – to his own pleasant surprise – the year before been elected as a member of the Swedish Parliament.
Rickard Sandler was a popular lecturer. He was not a propagandist. He did not give flaming speeches but prefered to present facts as they were, like in his book, and in that way knowledge itself became revolutionary.

Work without salary
When Rickard Sandler 1912 became the first leader of ABF he had two partners, his wife Maja Sandler and Yngve Hugo. During the first period, the ”office” of ABF was in the home of Rickard and Maja and followed them when they moved.
In the beginning there were no local or regional departments within ABF. All study circles and lectures were arranged within the member organisations, the party etc. However, soon local departments started to be created and after about ten years ABF formed regional departments.
Rickard, Maja and Yngve were not employed and got no salaries from ABF. All work within ABF had to be done during leisure time, in evenings and during weekends, after their ordinary work. Most of the administration was done by Maja, while Rickard and Hugo travelled around the country to promote ”folkbildning”, to explain how study circles should function, to give lectures and to arrange courses for study circle leaders.
As mentioned, Rickard Sandler was also a member of the Parliament, but that commission he had to give up because of lack of time. He gave high priority to build up ABF during the first critical years.
Some years later, Rickard Sandler returned to politics. He became minister of finance for a short period 1920. In 1925-26 he became the prime minister of the government, one of the youngest in Sweden, and from 1932 to 1939 he was the minister of foreign affairs. However, he did not regard himself as a typical politician, he had as he said, too many different interests.

From 57 to 76 127 study circles
The new study association, ABF, did not become an immediate success. One year after the foundation, 57 study circles had started within ABF. A hundred years later, 2012, ABF could report 76 127 study circles during 2011, more than 25 000 lectures and more than 55 000 other culture events – with altogether 4,8 million participants.
The number of study circles increased slowly from year to year. In 1920 ABF for the first time reported which subjects the study circles had chosen:
• literatur and history of literature (48 per cent),
• political science and local politics (22 per cent),
• Swedish language (11 per cent),
• theory and history of socialism (10 per cent).
In 1931 the first parental guidance course in Sweden was started as a study circle. The leader was Alva Myrdal, who 1969-73 was minister of disarmament in the Swedish government (in 1963 her son, Jan Myrdal, published a renowned book, ”Report from a Chinese Village”).

Cultural democracy
In the 1930s, the leaders started to talk about ”cultural democracy”, which became one of the main tasks for ABF. ”Cultural democracy” was equal rights for everyone to enjoy culture of all kinds. It was also equal rights to be part of the creation of cultural values.
During the Second World War the number of study circles decreases as many men have guard the borders och Sweden and the long coast. In 1944 there are altogether 17 000 study circles in Sweden, and almost half of them, 8 000, in ABF.
After the war the government, lead by the social democratic party, decided to invest much more money in support of study circles and they created a new model for state support. From 1947 every study circle, that fulfilled the basic conditions, got a direct financial grant from the state. The increased support resulted in a strong expansion. ABF and the othet study associations also became bigger organisations, with much more employees etc.
The old system for state support, where the study circles deposited new books in study circle libraries came to an end. In 1950 there were 1 260 ABF-libraries and a large number of libraries in the other study associations. However, in the 1950s all municipalities had to open free public libraries and the study circle libraries gradually became parts of those new libraries.

Neighbours faraway
There was an increasing interest for study circles, both in ABF and in the other study associations. However, in some places the interest was particularly high. For example, in a small village with only 250 inhabitants in the north of Sweden ABF had 11 study circles in 1957.
During the 1960s there were also an increasing interest for the world outside Sweden. There were more news about the world in the media and many Swedish families began to travel abroad during vacations. In 1961 ABF starts 711 new study circles with the theme ”Neighbours faraway”.
There are also other changes. In 1963, for the first time, there are more women than men in study circles within ABF. And so it has remained, today about 60 per cent of the participants are women.
At five o’clock, early Sunday morning, September 3, 1967, all traffic on all streets and roads in Sweden stoppet. Slowly cars, busses, trucks, bicycles moved over to the other side, before they ten minutes later continued to drive. At that moment Sweden shifted from left-hand traffic to right-hand traffic. During the half year before September 3, ABF arranged 4 200 study circles about how to adapt to the new situation etc (by the way, the number of fatal car accidents went down 1967 and have since then never been as high as in 1966).
In the 1970s there were a lot of study circles about environment, about international issues, about nuclear power etc. In the 1980s there were above all a lot of new study circles about computers, Swedish for immigrants and rock music for young people. A more radical change for many participants and study circle leaders happened 1981, when all study circles in ABF were recommended to ban smoking and instead introduce breaks for a smoke.
Since the 1990s, the increase of the number of study circles have stopped and even decreased a little, in ABF and generally in study associations. Instead lectures seems to become more and more popular again.

100 years celebration
In the middle of June 2012, ABF celebrated its one hundred years, with a lot of activities and lectures in Stockholm. During one week there were almost one hundred lectures in the ”ABF-house”, which is a well-known buildning and center for study circles and lectures in Stockholm and almost as many activities in the Culture House in the city center: lectures, discussions, exhibitions, theatre performances, music etc.
Some examples of lectures: About the present situation in Libya; ”Folkbildning” in South Africa after apartheid; The role of ”folkbildning” in EU; China; Will Egypt survive democracy?; The future for ABF; About Wittgenstein; Strindberg and the working-class movement; The society as it is and as it should be; The Swedish unequality etc…
There were also a lot of activities outdoor – mainly music and theatre – in a park in the city center and at ”Skansen”, the world’s first openair museum. Most activities and performances where made of study circles and other groups from various parts of Sweden. It was also possible for people to try different handicrafts, to learn about the many member organisations of ABF etc.

New challenges?
What about the future? Will there be a 200-yearscelebration for ABF? Well, ABF made a movie to celebrate its first one hundred years. In that movie there are some elder people in ABF who tell about how they started new local departments, new study circles – and what challenges ABF faced many years ago.
However, the main theme in this movie is the future and what challenges people of today, especially young people of today, are facing. It focuses particularly on three big E’s: Economy, Energy and Environment. How can we manage economy to create more equality in the world and not less? How can we get enough energy to let all people in the world to live a decent life without destroying the earth? How can we prevent the world from possible environmental disasters such as global warming?
Facing these challenges and other, it is obvious that the world needs more ”folkbildning”, not less. If ABF will have a major role to play during the next one hundred years is another question.

© Tore Persson