May Day and the Heritage of the Past

In the early years of this century there was a ferment of co-operative ideas in the International Labour Movement that two world wars since appear to have killed.

In those years mass meetings attended by thousands of workers were held on the 1st of May. At a conference of the 2nd International in 1889 this day was set aside for international demonstrations in favour of the eight-hour day; subsequently they became demonstrations in favour of working class international solidarity and from numerous platforms, attended by crowds in holiday dress complete with the banners of different groups, a varied assortment of speakers delivered passionate orations condemning the actions against strikes, the subjection of nations and groups, and glorifying the martyrdom of individuals. Speakers representing all sorts of groups took part, including Indians, Chinese, Russians and Negroes.

Over the years changing national and internal lineups have so altered the aspect of affairs that the passion of May Day and its misguided hopes have departed. All, all are gone. The story of them must come as a tale from a strange world to the young generation of today. Even the passion that inspired the misguided ranter against wrongs has departed with them, converted into the acceptance of privilege. Impassioned radicals became bulwarks of governments based upon privilege; fiery denouncers of imperialist oppression took their places amongst the privilege supporting a new imperialism in the erstwhile subject nations; bitter spokesmen of subject groups came to the top and in their turn exercised as ruthless an oppression as their privileged forebears. Underneath it all, and cutting across all frontiers as of yore, there still remained the fundamental class cleavage between propertied and propertyless, between the relatively small section of the world’s population which occupies the seat of privilege, reaping power, leisure and luxury, and the vast mass which remains the pedestal upon which power and privilege rest; labouring that others may enjoy.

The budding international solidarity of the past has been swallowed up by the armed and antagonistic camps of to-day, but our independent May Day message still remains as urgent and as alive as when it was first delivered, the message of Socialism, the only message of hope, of solidarity, of certainty in a world of hatred, strife and uncertainty.

This message has its roots far back in the past. The germs of communistic ideas go back centuries, but the germs of socialistic ideas, as we know them to-day, were synonymous with the growth of capitalism. Their vague beginnings are to be found amongst a group of French writers who were raising a ferment in the 18th century, when Capitalism was rising to its feet. Borrowing from Hobbes, Locke and their contemporaries, these writers put forward ideas some of which fit the present in spite of their somewhat confused context.

The earliest of these French writers appears to have been Jean Meslier, who, in “The Testament of Jean Meslier,” at the beginning of the 18th century, used phrases that sound singularly modern. These are some of his ideas: He was opposed to property, believing in the common control of the wealth of society. He argued that among the evils which oppressed mankind and called for reform the worst was private property. Property meant inequality; Inequality led to injustice and oppression. The rich were respected and honoured, while the poor must toil in neglect. Property was a cause of idleness; the idle rich class found its complement in an idle poor class. This latter class was made up of the unemployed, who, because of the existing system, had nothing to do and were hence in poverty. Cupidity and its attendants, ambition and greed, are the evils in a society based upon property. Property does not unite people; but through jealousy tends to break up social harmony, and hence destroys social unity. Fraud, deception, theft and murder find their cause in property. Society might be happy were goods made common and equality secured. The basis of equality is equality of economic condition.

Later on another writer, Morelly, carried some of the ideas further. He had a definite plan for the future in which each would labour according to his ability and share according to need. He argued that it was not labour but the conditions of labour that people objected to. That there would be no exchange as goods would be stored and distributed according to needs. On property he made the following remarks

“From the sceptre to the shepherd’s crook, from the tiara to the meanest monk’s frock, if one asks who governs men, the answer is simple; personal interest or the interest of others which vanity makes one adopt and which is always dependent on the first. But where do these monsters get power? From property.” P. 100-101 “Code de la Nature,” 1755.

He denied the existence of innate ideas as also did his contemporary (Helvétius), who said:

“The ideas supposed to be innate are those that are familiar to and as it were incorporated with us; they are the effect of education, example, and habit.” P.15 “System of Nature.”

Barnave, another of Morelly’s contemporaries, saw a bit farther than the rest. He could see the rise of classes and considered the part which economic changes played in history.

Morelly laid down definite plans for a new social order based on natural rights, the heritage of everyone born into society. There was no room for historical development in the systems of those who thought like him; history and its results had no value. Society did not grow out of the past, the present had to be obliterated root and branch, to make way for the future. This form of thought, together with the revolutionary tradition, dominated radical movements until the publication of the Communist Manifesto in 1848. Morelly’s merit was that he looked for the cause of social evils in society as organised in his day; the environmental theory later pressed so vigorously by Robert Owen.

The Babuef “Conspiracy of the Equals” at the end of the French Revolution drew from these early French sources, justifying their rising, like the Trotzkyists, on the ground that the Revolution had got off the track. They advocated the conspiratorial seizure of power.

One of the members of the “Society of Equals” who escaped from France formed the Babouvist movement after the Fall of Napoleon. The object of the movement was to carry on where Babuef had left off. This movement became tied more and more closely to the workers’ movement in France, finally becoming a definite working-class party under Blanqui and exercising a considerable influence upon the French risings of February and June, 1848.

In the beginning of the 19th Century the Revolutionary tradition was carried on, associated with the Utopian experiments of Owen, Fourier, Cabet and Weitling, but in a less turbulent fashion than formerly. Weitling studied in Western Germany, where working men’s clubs were being formed for reading and discussion. At these clubs radical literature was available to those who otherwise would not have had the means to obtain it. Weitling had considerable influence on those who founded the “League of the Just”—a secret society with communistic ideas that eventually merged into the Communist League, that published the Communist Manifesto.

In England machine production brought ruin to masses of hand workers and by simplifying productive operations, introduced women and children into factories and mines to work under conditions that were appalling. It was the hand workers who were the prime movers in the revolt against the new world of industry, and who sought a way out of their difficulties; first, by incendiarism and machine breaking, and later by vague visions of some sort of co-operative world based upon small proprietorships.

Some of the earliest reactions to the industrial revolution were political reform associations, the Utopian schemes of Robert Owen, and the land reform ideas of Thomas Spence and William Qgilvie. Owen argued that abundance was the cause of crises and misery. This turned the attention of some writers to an examination of economics. They came to the conclusion that as “labour was the source of all wealth” the labourer was entitled to the fruits of industry. Ricardo’s book, “Principles of Political Economy,” published in 1817, established that labour was the source of value and, working on his conclusions, writers like Thompson, Hodgskin and Bray demanded that all products should belong to the labourer.

Under the inspiration of the American War of Independence, a corresponding society was formed in 1780 under the title of “ The Society for Constitutional Information.” Its formation was mainly through the instrumentality of Major Cartwright and Horne Tooke. It had a programme that included the Six Points that later formed the basis of the “People’s Charter.” The French Revolution gave a fillip to the movement for reform and corresponding societies sprang up all over the country, engaging in bitter and thinly-veiled attacks on the government. In 1792 the first genuinely working-class movement commenced with the formation of the “London Corresponding Society” by Thomas Hardy, Robert Boyd and George Walne, holding its first meeting in January of that year. The motto of the Society was “Unite, Persevere and Be Free.” It was formed for the purpose of corresponding with other societies that had the same ends in view. It only lasted a few years and repressive action compelled it to disperse, but agitation continued to simmer, finding expression in various ways, in lectures, Utopian writings, the publication of the “Gorgon,” the first trade union paper, in 1818, and eventually the formation of a new London Corresponding Society, “The London Working Men’s Association, in 1836. Members of this Association, such as Lovett, Cleave, Hetherington, Watson, Vincent and Harney, were afterwards active in the Chartist Movement. The Association published an address to Workingmen’s Associations that concluded with the words, “Be assured that the good that is to be must be begun by ourselves.” It also started the practice of sending addresses to working men of different countries, beginning with Belgium in November, 1836. One of its members, Lovett, drafted the “ People’s Charter,” that started the Chartist Movement, and another, Harney, formed the “Fraternal Democrats,” which brought the English movement in contact with the Continental.

In 1848 the genuinely Socialist movement began with the publication of the “Communist Manifesto.” A brief history of the working-class movement from that time onwards will be found in the Introduction to our pamphlet, “The Communist Manifesto and the Last Hundred Years.” An examination of this history will reveal how wayward the movement has been, and how ready to chase after will-o’-the-wisps. But the movement goes on and understanding is growing, although the struggle has been long and die disappointments bitter.

So this May Day we again call attention to the only bright gleam in the heavy clouds that hover over us—our message of hope. The determination to establish a new form of society in which everything that is in and on the earth shall be the common heritage of all mankind; where security, comfort and harmony will be the lot of all. All that is necessary for the establishment of this society is understanding and the will to achieve it.


Leave a Reply