50 Years Ago: The First of May

“Then turn, and be not alarm’d O Libertad
-turn your undying face,
To where the future, greater than all the past,
Is swiftly, surely preparing for you.”


It is sixty-five years since half a million people poured though London, “an interminable array with multitudinous banners,” on the first International May Day. No celebration, no insubstantial pageant this: column upon threadbare column they came, signifying and expressing labour’s strength and labour’s aspirations, with an eight-hour day as their rallying call. For sixty-five years it has continued, but the columns are small now. And the eight-hour day?

They have it and, so generous is life to the working class, work overtime. May Day is workers’ day, the day of our class. However hollow the cries and futile the demonstrations, it remains the anniversary of protest, a continual reminder of exploitation and subjection. “Class” is the reason and the theme of May Day – class in its fullest, truest sense. The working class is not the labourers or the artisans or the machine-minders: it is all people to whom wages are life. The working class is international: so is its cause. Among the cries and chants and slogans of May Day, only one has meaning: “Workers of all countries unite!”

Class consciousness was never more needed than now. Sixty-five years have seen war, dereliction, fear and disaster; today mankind is under a shadow without precedent. The working people of the world have it in their hands to end poverty, fear, hatred and war. Nationalism is not their interest but their rulers’; submission is taught, not conceived. That is where the tragedy of the May Day processions lies. The hundreds of thousands who paraded their rights in 1890 lined the streets again seven years later, still threadbare, still of one mind – to cheer and wave streamers for their Queen.

To the Socialist, class consciousness is the breaking-down of all barriers to understanding. Without it, militancy means nothing. The conflict between the classes is more than a struggle for each to gain from the other: it is the division which reaches across all others. The class-conscious working man knows where he stands in society. His interests are opposed at every point to those of the capitalist class; his cause can only be the cause of revolution for the abolishing of classes. Without that understanding, militancy can mean little. It is not mere preamble that the Socialist Party’s principles open by stating the class division in capitalism: it is the all important basis from which the rest must follow.

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