11.11.1940 – 13.11.2019
Danish Social Democrat and Marxist with unwavering confidence in the working class
Birgitte grew up in a working-class family and was a Marxist. She fought most of her life for a socialist transformation of society. In addition to fighting against the bourgeoisie, she also had to fight against the leadership of the Social Democracy and the Danish Young Socialist (YS), who expelled her because they feared her Marxist ideas gaining support among the members. In 1978 she formed the first group of Marxists in Denmark associated with the Marxist paper Militant in the United Kingdom. From 1983 to 2000 she was the editor of SOCIALISTEN – the Marxist paper for the Danish Social Democracy and Youth. After 2000, she remained politically active, but to a lesser extent due to illness.
Birgitte’s unwavering confidence in the working class came from growing up in a working-class family in Elsinore. Her whole family were workers. Her father was a boilersmith at the shipyard in Elsinore and her mother was a textile worker at a clothing factory. In Elsinore, the shipyard was the city’s largest workplace and the shipyard workers were dominant in the city’s development. Once elected to the city council for the Social Democracy, they stood for the establishment of old age homes, schools, housing and children’s institutions. They also looked after each other at the shipyard, where the workers set up help boxes for the sick and old.
These norms of the working class Birgitte got from childhood. As her father said to her: “If you are diligent and honest, you are worthy of a king” and “if you have nothing good to say about others – then keep quiet”. It was a crime to talk about others when they were not present and unheard of to highlight oneself in relation to others. Modesty was a virtue. All these were prerequisites for working together in a workplace.
After her lower secondary education, Birgitte was trained as an office assistant at the shipyard in Aarhus. Afterwards, she worked for a few years in Scotland and for a few years in Italy and Spain. Back in Denmark, she worked as a secretary for many years. In the early 1970s, she graduated as a student from evening classes while working during the day. In the mid-1970s she began studying psychology at the University of Aarhus.
From an early age, Birgitte saw that society was unfair, and wanted to find out how things hang together. She remembers that, as a teenager, she thought: “If only I find out how it all hangs together, I can die happy”.
How Marxist ideas came to Denmark
She realized “how it all hangs together” when, as a 38-year-old, she came across Ted Grant’s political analyses and his way of working politically. With her roots in the working class, she had always voted for the Social Democracy, just like her whole family – not because they trusted those elected, for as they said in the family: “When they have been elected to Parliament, they stop being Social Democrats – but we have no one else”. She did not trust the Communists or the Left Socialists.
With her background, she agreed with Ted Grant that the struggle of the working class for better conditions will be fought inside the traditional organisations, the trade union movement and the Social Democracy. The working class have created these organizations as a means to take power in society, and Birgitte found that as a Marxist, you have to fight in the Social Democracy for a socialist programme, with the working class taking over the means of production under their leadership and control.
Birgitte first came across Ted Grant’s political views when she attended a party in 1978 where several refugees from South Africa also participated. The refugees asked her if she could help them type a pamphlet written by Ted Grant about the Rise and Fall of the 3rd International. As she read that pamphlet, things fell into place, and she realized how she could contribute to a socialist transformation of society both nationally and internationally. Birgitte went to England and attended meetings organized by the Marxist newspaper Militant, which was based on Ted Grant’s views and was the Marxist Paper for Labour and Youth.
Back in Denmark, she joined the Social Democracy and the Danish Young Socialists (YS), and won two YS members to these ideas, and then four more. They quickly got the backing for these ideas in their YS branches.
The Witch Hunt
The leadership of the Danish YS knew Militant and had received information from the Swedish YS that Militant had started working in Denmark. The seven were therefore expelled from the YS in 1983 and later from the Social Democratic party. These expulsions showed the fear of the leadership that Marxist ideas would gain support among the members.
The expulsions were a setback for the work, but they were also met by protests, especially from the Social Democratic branch of which Birgitte was a member. The chairman protested and sought the party’s then chairman Anker Jørgensen for an explanation. He was not happy with the explanation he got and announced at a branch meeting that the ideas Birgitte stood for were fully in line with the policy of the Social Democracy.
In the 1980s, a further four members who supported the Socialisten were expelled by Danish YS, and in 1989 Birgitte was charged with libel against the leadership of the YS. One of the expelled had participated in a IUSY (International Union of Socialist Youth) festival and had come under attack from members of the Danish YS. Birgitte wrote to the Social Democracy and the trade union movement in Denmark to urge them to protest against the YS’ behaviour. This led to a charge of libel, a case which Birgitte won in court.
Socialisten and support for the British Miners’ Strike
In 1983, Birgitte had built a group around her and the first issue of the Danish Marxist paper Socialisten was published. This happened at the time of a nationwide dockers strike, and Birgitte went to the dockers’ canteen, where she made contact with the Vice-Chair of the Dockers’ Union in Aarhus. As he said: “With those ideas, you won’t be a member of the Social Democratic party for long “. He was right.
During the British miners’ strike in 1984-5, Birgitte gave support to the British miners via the dockers in Aarhus. The miners Stan Pearce and Bob Stothard came to Denmark, and together with Birgitte they toured the Danish harbours and raised money from the dockers. Denmark was among those countries outside the UK that collected the most money for the miners during the strike.
Throughout the ’80s, Birgitte managed to recruit a group of fifteen apprentices who supported the newspaper. A further ten later joined them, making a group of about 25 members at that time. The work consisted of agitation and propaganda for Socialisten‘s political stand, political meetings, political education and analyses of the political situation. Much of their political work was done in the apprentices’ struggle for better pay and working conditions.
The split in Militant
In the late 1980s, a majority of Militant‘s leadership became increasingly sectarian. The sectarian majority put pressure on Birgitte to win more supporters and promote the youth. Their intense pressure made Birgitte ill, and this was one of the causes of the two blood clots that she suffered in the brain – something which afterwards weakened her ability to work.
The sectarian majority in Militant wanted to launch a new party. This split Militant, and the minority, led by Ted Grant, was expelled. The minority continued their work as before, with an orientation to the working class’s traditional organizations. Birgitte went with the minority. The split in Militant and the pressure on Birgitte caused the group in Denmark to more or less disintegrate.
The Grammar School Students’ strikes and demonstrations
In the early 1990s, the Danish group came into contact with a group of young people active on the left. The group grew and became part of Socialisten’s support group. The size of the group was around 30, and most of the members were grammar school students. Much of the political work took place in the Grammar School Student Union (DGS) and in the apprentices’ unions. In the late 1990s, the chair of the DGS was a Socialisten supporter. In 1999, in response to education cuts, in collaboration with Birgitte, members of the DGS organized strikes and demonstrations throughout Denmark. This became one of the biggest demonstrations ever held by the Grammar School Union.
Part of the Danish group turned in a sectarian direction, and the group split in 2000, when the sectarian faction gained support by the group in the UK. By this time, Birgitte was ill and no longer had the physical stamina for further fighting.
Since then, Birgitte remained a member of the Social Democracy and followed the political situation. She met regularly with a small discussion group and intervened in political issues as well as she could – for instance, at the discussion forums organized by WIN (the Workers International Network).
As a result of Birgitte’s work, there are now two groups in Denmark whose original roots come from the group that Birgitte had founded.
Through contact with Birgitte, in 1989 the vice-chair of the Dockers’ Union in Aarhus was part of a delegation on a trip to Israel. The British Marxist MPs Dave Nellist and Terry Fields were also on this delegation. The purpose of the trip was to win the release of Mahmoud Masarwa, a Palestinian Marxist who was in prison on false accusations of spying. The delegation took part in legal proceedings in Israel to have Mahmoud Masarwa released, which were unsuccessful.
In the late 1980s, Birgitte made contact with some left activists in Northern Cyprus. She spent a month there and brought together a group who later visited Militant in London. Due to the split in Militant, this contact ran into the sand. Around 1998, Birgitte again visited Northern Cyprus, this time with Ted Grant, and they attended several meetings.
Birgitte’s attitude to life
With her Marxist theory and her working-class background, Birgitte more or less instinctively always came to the right political conclusions for the working class. She was a sharp observer who quickly detected hypocrisy and dishonesty, both in individuals and in the ruling class when they tried to disguise their cuts to the working class. She saw the middle class as the capitalists’ tool to oppress the working class. She found the middle class generally dishonest and hypocritical, bending upwards and kicking downwards. She found particularly despicable those “revolutionary” intellectuals who appointed themselves as leaders of the working class. The defense against the influence of these types was to work in the Social Democracy and the trade union movement, where such self-appointed leaders would soon be exposed by the workers.
Birgitte found that the working class consisted of a completely new type of human beings who, to a much higher degree than others, thought of the community rather than of themselves. This is an effect of the way in which the workers produce jointly and the interdependence that this creates between the workers. Their cohesion shows itself through initiatives that the workers jointly take to look after one other. These include common struggle for better wages and working conditions, but also the creation of unemployment funds, sickness funds, older people’s clubs, and other areas of life, with the formation of singing choirs, the publication of books and many other cultural activities.
Accountability to the community requires that you be honest and trustworthy. When they take power, these norms of the working class will be the preconditions for a socialist society based on genuine co-operation and solidarity. Birgitte wanted to study more how the workers function – for instance in Elsinore, which was a working-class town. She herself grew up in Elsinore and experienced how the shipyard workers were forming the lives of the inhabitants, including her own life and way of thinking; how the workers lived, how they fought and how they formed Elsinore in all kind of ways. Unfortunately, she did not achieve that aim because of her illness.
Birgitte viewed all the conditions of life from a class point of view: for instance, the struggle for gender equality for middle-class women is a struggle against men, but for women in the working class it is just another facet of the oppression of the capitalist system, and therefore requires a common struggle with the male workers against the capitalists.
Because of her working-class background, she found it very easy to talk with workers. As she said: “If you want to ‘lead the working class’, you have to politely knock on the door and ask if you may come in, and then sit down quietly and listen.”
Birgitte felt privileged, because she had gained the knowledge needed to see through the capitalist system and thus see the cause of the problems of humanity, with the destruction of human relations, wars, crises, unemployment and poverty. The driving force in Birgitte’s work was the fight against injustice and for the well-being of all the people on earth.
From birth, Birgitte was a positive human being who always had an optimistic view. She herself did not consider herself brave, but it takes courage to start a political newspaper and challenge the leadership of the Social Democracy. It also required courage to travel to Northern Cyprus – at that time a closed country occupied by Turkey – and agitate for socialism.
Birgitte had courage and a remarkable life, engaged in all aspects of life: culture, art, music, cookery, flowers and other people. Her standards of quality in all these fields were very high.
Birgitte had a well-developed sense of humor; she was generous, honest, diligent and modest. She always thought of others before herself. If there were more of her kind, the world would be a better place. But, as Birgitte said: “There are plenty of people like me in the working class. They are the ones that make society run. They are just modest people who do not draw attention to themselves.
Unfortunately, six months ago, Birgitte was diagnosed with ALS, and lost her muscle power very quickly. Generally weakened, she died on November 13, 2019.
The role of Birgitte and how to continue her work
Birgitte played an important role in the propagation of Marxist ideas in Denmark, and made a major contribution to the struggle for the socialist transformation of society. With the escalating capitalist crisis and the cuts in the living standards of the working class, there is now more than ever a need to continue Birgitte’s struggle for the Social Democracy to come to power on a socialist programme, with the working class taking over the means of production under democratic leadership and control.
There are many of us who have been privileged to know Birgitte. She leaves behind a great loss.