The Debasement of May Day: May Day, Yesterday and To-day

May Day is here again, with its different kinds of celebrations. The one we are concerned with is the demonstrations and processions by workers that have been a feature in many parts of the world since the last decade of the 19th century.


We are holding our own May Day demonstrations, but ours are solely concerned with the advancement of our object, the achievement of Socialism.


May Day demonstrations began with the passing of a resolution by the Second International Working Men’s Association in 1889 to set aside the first of May as a workers’ holiday in order to hold mass meetings to affirm the international solidarity of labour. The idea originated in a movement demanding the reduction of the daily hours of labour.


Although this was the official beginning of Labour May Day demonstrations it had been preceded by a movement in America in 1886 for a reduction of the hours of labour. This ended when the police fired on a peaceful meeting in Chicago, and arrested and executed some of the leaders who were subsequently referred to in the Labour movement as the “Chicago Martyrs.” The trial of these leaders was a travesty of legal procedure, and the intention to convict and execute them as “dangerous agitators” was obvious throughout the proceedings. This brutal attempt to quell the workers’ struggle for better conditions was a failure, as became evident not long afterwards.


From 1889 onwards the Social Democratic Parties, together with the Trade Unions and other groups, had mass demonstrations on May Day, but in the course of time part of the original idea disappeared. Nowadays, instead of staying away from work on the 1st of May for the purpose of demonstrating, the first Sunday in May is chosen. This has taken some of the anti-capitalist fervour out of the movement.


In times gone by, however mixed up and side-tracked the participants in the procession may have been, these earlier demonstrations were at least demonstrations against the domination and iniquity of capital.


In this country the main participants in May Day were the Trade Unions, the Social Democratic Party, the Independent Labour Party, The Fabian Society and, after 1906, the Labour Party.


At these demonstrations resolutions were carried against war, against exploitation, against child labour, and against Imperialism and the domination of oppressed groups of all colours.


In London Hyde Park was the centre of the demonstration. Huge crowds lined up on the Embankment and marched to Hyde Park in formation according to the group they represented, each accompanied by banners with a variety of slogans. At Hyde Park there were numerous platforms from which the ideas of each group were put forward, and to which masses of people, as well as those who had marched, flocked to hear the speakers. At a pre-arranged time the speaking stopped and a resolution acclaiming the international solidarity of labour was put from each platform, and carried with wild enthusiasm.


How different is the scene today, though superficially similar! Gone is the old fervour, misdirected, though much of it may have been. The rise of Russian State Capitalism has temporarily put the clock back. Though we took no part in these demonstration, as we knew they could achieve nothing fundamental, we yet had a sympathy for the anti-capitalist spirit behind these mass expressions of working class solidarity. They were workers, like ourselves, and. though filled with hazy half-formed ideas, yet giving expression to their antagonism to Capitalism in the only way they understood.


Now the demonstrations still take place but. apart from our own, they are largely Communist inspired for the purpose of supporting Russian State Capitalism, to which has since been added the State Capitalism of countries which have lately come into the same misleading orbit. They have long ceased to be demonstrations of the solidarity of labour against capital. In Russia they are demonstrations of Russia’s armed might, tanks and guns being a large part of the proceedings.


In the early years of the Socialist Party of Great Britain we were treated with scorn as impossibilists who would soon depart from the working class movement. Yet time has shown that we were the only realists and possibilists. The reformers of long ago who claimed to be Socialists have been swamped by the reform movements they supported. Some have departed from the scene, some linger on moribund, others, like the Labour Party, have become open supporters of Capitalism and are still trying to rub some of the rough edges off of it.


Our message for May Day is the same as it has always been, and is the same for every day of the year. More than that, it is the only message of hope in a distracted world. The ills the workers suffer today are the product of Capitalism; a system in which the means of production and distribution are owned by a privileged class who accumulate wealth from the labour of the working class which lives by the sale of its labouring power to the owning class.


The goods the workers produce have to be sold on the markets of the world so that the Capitalist owners can reap their profit. Hence there is a struggle for markets, trade routes and sources of supply. Out of these struggles wars develop as well as the other iniquities that flourish today and flourished yesterday. As long as Capitalism lasts there is no cure for the evils it throws up. Reformers, however well intentioned, cannot accomplish any lasting cures for these evils. The only sure and effective cure is to remove the source from which these evils flow—remove Capitalism and replace it by a system in which everything that is in and on the earth is the common possession of mankind. A system in which all those who are able will take part in producing what is required and each will receive what he needs.

Our message therefore is a message of hope. The evils of today can be removed when the workers understand their cause, the remedy, and organise together in Socialist Parties to apply that remedy.