MARQUIS CHILDS' The Middle Way, published in 1936, was a widely read and influential book on Sweden that launched the country as a model for many who longed for a humane alternative to the Depression era extremes of fascism and Stalinism. That Sweden has received an attention from scholars and from those interested in social policy far disproportionate to its population of 8 million and its peripheral status in world affairs, has in a significant measure been due to the image of the country established in books such as The Middle Way.

Just as the image of the Swedish welfare state mixing egalitarian social concern with democracy and high economic growth has long been attractive to reform-minded Americans, so too has it long been a bete noire for conservatives. Sweden has come in for more than its share of attack, from President Dwight Eisenhower's comment about high suicide rates (misleading because Sweden's rates had not increased since the adoption of welfare state policies, meaning that whatever was driving Swedes to kill themselves in relatively, though not uniquely, large numbers, did so before the advent of the welfare state) to the (justified) U.S. resentment of Sweden's pro-Hanoi stance during the Vietnam war.

The publication of a new book on Sweden by Marquis Childs, this one with the ominous subtitle, "The Middle Way on Trial," reflects a new visibility for the conservative, skeptical view of Sweden that fits in well with today's reactionary chic. When the Social Democrats were voted out of power in Sweden in 1976 by a right-of-center coalition, there was a round of press accounts pegging the event to a larger trend of disillusion with social reform -- notwithstanding the fact that the Social Democrats had, after all, remained in power for some 44 years, and certainly everybody is entitled to lose an election sometime. Marquis Childs' instincts were right when he returned to the country to see what was happening in Sweden. Since 1976, Sweden has gone through a stormy period featuring bankruptcies and near bankruptcies of a number of major firms, a lengthy and acrimonious debate over nuclear power that will culminate shortly in a referendum on the subject, and a 1979 election that saw the Conservative party move dramatically forward.

If Childs' instincts were right in sensing a good story in Sweden, the product of his efforts is a major disappointment. If the Swedish middle way is on trial, as the title of the book suggests, this might be so in two senses. One is that the "middle" may come out of "middle way," with Swedish society jerking over to the left. This was a fear more commonly expressed by critics several years ago, in light of the domination of Swedish intellectual life by Maoist types and the proposal by the Swedish trade union movement for creation of "wage-earner funds" that would gradually transfer ownership of a significant portion of corporate stock into union-controlled funds. The second sense in which the middle way might be seen as being on trial is that the welfare state itself no longer works, that equalization produces a loss of initiative and economic vitality. It is this second line of criticism that has been more dominant in recent years.

Sadly, Sweden: The Middle Way on Trial, to the extent it attempts to analyze Sweden's problems at all, mixes strands of these two perspectives without distinguishing between them. But, worse than that, the book is very short on analysis. After presenting two initial chapters that breeze through the development of the Sweden of the middle way, Childs settles down to a report on the course of Swedish politics over the past five years. The account presents nothing new for the person who follows developments there and goes into too much detail for most general readers. Childs has provided us with competent reportage, but it is short on both insight and analysis. (There are a number of spelling and other small errors that are inexcusable for a book published by Yale University Press. The most annoying is Childs' repeated use of the expression Labor Organisationen as the alleged Swedish name for the Swedish Confederation of Labor. This organization is abbreviated LO in Sweden, which stands for Landsorganisationen, or "the nationwide organization.")

Developments in Swedish society will continue to be interesting. They will show how a society where the government traditionally has had far-reaching ambitions to promote economic and social equality will adapt to the slower growth we have had in the West since the oil shock of 1973. I don't think anyone at this point really knows how much of Sweden's slowdown in growth and investment in the last five years is due to putative changes in individual initiative brought by tax and welfare policies and how much is due to the international energy situation combined with Sweden's unusual dependence on the steel and shipbuilding industries that have slumped throughout the West, and on iron ore reserves that were becoming economically uncompetitive. It is an interesting question and a serious one.

There is a second very interesting question as well. Sweden's prosperity has depended in significant measure on a smoothly functioning political system, including a collective-bargaining mechanism that kept Sweden largely strike-free. Paradoxically, the Social Democrats, during their long years of rule, were able to take advantage of a tradition of popular deference to government authority left over from the country's older tradition of aristocratic rule. Yet the egalitarian policies of the Social Democrats gradually undermined that tradition of deference to government that had helped them -- and helped Swedes -- reach accommodation on political issues. If the middle way now becomes a success of the past, it may be because the political system that produced it has undermined the basis for its own success.