Marcus Thrane — A Founding Father of Norway’s Labour Party

Happy 201st birthday to Marcus Møller Thrane, a Norwegian author, journalist, and the leader of the first labor movement in Norway (it was later known as the Thrane movement “Thranebevegelsen”).

Thrane was born October 14, 1817 in Christiania, now Oslo.  As an adult Thrane worked as a teacher for the workers’ children at the large industrial company, Blaafarveværket Åmot in Modum. When the company started experiencing difficulties, Thrane, together with 250 workers, were sacked. It was then that he experienced his first political awakening.

Thrane’s family moved to Drammen, the hometown of his wife Josephine, where Thrane became the editor of the local newspaper Drammens Adresse, but because of his radical opinions, he was fired after only five months. He had already begun his political activities.

On December 27, 1848, Thrane founded Drammens arbeiderforening (Drammen Labour Union) with 160 members. The following year, several other local unions joined a national organization, and Thrane printed the first edition of the union’s paper, Arbeiderforeningernes Blad. In May 1850, the union delivered a petition to King Oscar II of Sweden and the Norwegian Storting (parliament), which was signed by 13,000 members. The union asked for universal voting, the extension of mandatory military service to those with property, equality before the law, better schools, low or no border taxes on necessary goods, such as grains, and special support for poor farmers in the form of arable land on reasonable terms.

The government dismissed the petition so at the union’s national conference it sought a revolution. The authorities seized the opportunity to have him arrested.

Thrane and 132 other members were sentenced on June 25, 1855. Thrane was sentenced to four years in prison, in addition to the four years that had already passed. The imprisonments and internal tension resulted in the end of the movement, and Thrane’s attempts of revitalizing it after his release from prison were unsuccessful.

When Thrane’s wife died in 1862, he emigrated to the United States where he rekindled his political activities among Scandinavian immigrants and continued his career as a journalist.

Thrane started the Chicago-based newspaper Marcus Thrane’s Norske-Amerikanerne in 1865. It never took off and folded a year later. But Thrane started a second Chicago newspaper, Dagslyset (The Light of Day) which he published until 1878.

Thrane and his radical ideas and writings threatened the Norwegian Synod (the church that founded Luther College in Iowa), so in 1866, the Norwegian Synod issued “A Warning to all Christians,” condemning Thrane’s socialistic ideas. Thrane, being Thrane, published a blistering satire on Norwegian Lutheran clergy called “The Old Wisconsin Bible” (Den gamle Wisconsin-bibelen).

Thrane wrote and produced a number of plays for Norwegian-speaking audiences. The Norwegian Theater (Norske Teater) was established by Thrane in Chicago in September 1866 producing many of his plays.

In 1883, Thrane returned to Norway for a brief visit and held a number of lectures but, disappointed by the moderate interest, he returned to the United States, where he died in 1890, in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. His relatives found his final wishes in his papers.

Years later in 1949, Thrane’s coffin was sent to Norway, where he was buried and remains today in Æreslunden, Norway’s main honorary burial ground, at Vår Frelsers Gravlund (Cemetery of Our Saviour) in Oslo.

Although his movement existed for only a few years, Thrane’s work was an important contribution in the politicization of the Norwegian worker. The Norwegian Labour Party (founded in 1887) refers to him as one of its founding fathers. The Thrane movement brought rural and urban lower classes together for the first time in Norway.

On October 14, 2017, the city Drammen (where he started Norway’s first labour union, Drammen Arbeiderforening) held a 200-year celebration for Thrane’s birthday. He is still recognized for his efforts and labor activism and a monument of him stands in his honor in Strømsø square.

Written by Mary Hirsch (Marcus and Josephine Thrane’s proud great great granddaughter)