Economic Development in Denmark Before and During the World War/Beginnings of the Danish Labour Movement

Beginnings of the Danish Labour Movement

As has been said before, the workmen, now that the guild system was abolished, had no organization to fall back on. The government manifested no special interest in their welfare, and the soil was consequently fertile for labour agitation. Nor did the workmen of Denmark lack intercourse with the rest of the world; not a few of them, indeed, had lived many years abroad mostly in Germany, in spite of the mutual ill will engendered by the war of 1864.

It was especially the rise of the Commune in Paris, fore-doomed as it was, which kindled the fire in Denmark. For some time, however, it was not Danish workmen themselves, but men outside their ranks, who carried the torch. The leader in this first period of Danish socialism was Louis Pio (1841-1894), who had become strongly imbued with socialistic ideas and had propounded them in some pamphlets published in 1871 and later in the weekly paper Socialisten (The Socialist). In the same year he organized a branch of The International Working Men's Association (founded in London, 1864), which soon embraced a considerable number of members. In his positive proposals he was not particularly radical; but his speeches were defiant and provocative and caused a great stir among the upper classes. When he, in a stirring article, entitled 'The Cup is Full', called a public meeting for May 5, 1872, he and his associates were arrested and charged with inciting revolt. The Danish branch of The International was abolished, and Pio was sentenced by the Supreme Court to five years' imprisonment at hard labour. He was pardoned in 1875, however, and on his release he immediately resumed his activities. But his day of glory as a leader was over. The workmen had now learned how to manage their own affairs through their newly organized trade unions. At a Convention in 1876 they founded The Social-Democratic Labour Party, which was to carry on the work of The International under the direction of a committee of nine members. Pio, in recognition of his activities as the originator of the movement, was placed at the head of this committee, but he nevertheless felt disappointed and slighted, and consequently lacked the self-reliance necessary to carry on the struggle under the difficult conditions then existing in Denmark. During the first few years after the Franco-German War labour conditions had been surprisingly good. Several strikes had been successfully carried through and had led to increased wages and other improvements. Co-operative societies had also been instituted, but they were successful for only a short time. The world crisis of 1873, which brought the period of prosperity to an end, dealt a severe blow to Denmark, where it was followed by a long period of economic depression. Workmen tried in vain during the last of the seventies to organize strikes. Several trade unions were dissolved and others had only an ephemeral existence.

The circumstances confronting Pio after his release were therefore anything but favourable, and in the spring of 1877 he left Denmark. To his party his departure seemed treachery to the cause, and in reality he failed his cause and was induced by the police to leave the country. His death, in 1894, brought his checkered and troubled career to an end.