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Apr 30, 2010


 ALLCGNEWS wishes you a happy MAY DAY

The History of May Day


Published: International
Pamphlets, 1932;

HTML: for marxists.org in March, 2002;

Proofed and Corrected: by Dawen Gaitis 2007.

The Fight for the Shorter Workday
The origin of May Day is indissolubly bound up with the struggle
for the shorter workday – a demand of major political significance for the
working class. This struggle is manifest almost from the beginning of the
factory system in the United States.
Although the demand for higher wages appears to be the most prevalent cause
for the early strikes in this country, the question of shorter hours and the
right to organize were always kept in the foreground when workers formulated
their demands against the bosses and the government. As exploitation was
becoming intensified and workers were feeling more and more the strain of
inhumanly long working hours, the demand for an appreciable reduction of hours
became more pronounced.
Already at the opening of the 19th century workers in the United States made
known their grievances against working from "sunrise to sunset," the then
prevailing workday. Fourteen, sixteen and even eighteen hours a day were not
uncommon. During the conspiracy trial against the leaders of striking
cordwainers in 1806, it was brought out that workers were employed as long as
nineteen and twenty hours a day.
The twenties and thirties are replete with strikes for reduction of hours of
work and definite demands for a 10-hour day were put forward in many industrial
centers. The organization of what is considered as the first trade union in the
world, the Mechanics' Union of Philadelphia, preceding by two years the one
formed by workers in England, can be definitely ascribed to a strike of building
trade workers in Philadelphia in 1827 for the 10-hour day. During the bakers'
strike in New York in 1834 the Workingmen's Advocate reported that
"journeymen employed in the loaf bread business have for years been suffering
worse than Egyptian bondage. They have had to labor on an average of eighteen to
twenty hours out of the twenty-four."
The demand in those localities for a 10-hour day soon grew into a movement,
which, although impeded by the crisis of 1837, led the federal government under
President Van Buren to decree the 10-hour day for all those employed on
government work. The struggle for the universality of the 10-hour day, however,
continued during the next decades. No sooner had this demand been secured in a
number of industries than the workers began to raise the slogan for an 8-hour
day. The feverish activity in organizing labor unions during the fifties gave
this new demand an impetus which, however, was checked by the crisis of 1857.
The demand was, however, won in a few well-organized trades before the crisis.
That the movement for a shorter workday was not only peculiar to the United
States, but was prevalent wherever workers were exploited under the rising
capitalist system, can be seen from the fact that even in far away Australia the
building trade workers raised the slogan "8 hours work, 8 hours recreation and 8
hours rest" and were successful in securing this demand in 1856.
Eight-Hour Movement Started in America
The 8-hour day movement which directly gave birth to May Day, must, however,
be traced to the general movement initiated in the United States in 1884.
However, a generation before a national labor organization, which at first gave
great promise of developing into a militant organizing center of the American
working class, took up the question of a shorter workday and proposed to
organize a broad movement in its behalf. The first years of the Civil War,
1861-1862, saw the disappearance of the few national trade unions which had been
formed just before the war began, especially the Molders' Union and the
Machinists' and Blacksmiths' Union. The years immediately following, however,
witnessed the unification on a national scale of a number of local labor
organizations, and the urge for a national federation of all these unions became
apparent. On August 20, 1866, there gathered in Baltimore delegates from three
scores of trade unions who formed the National Labor Union. The movement for the
national organization was led by William H. Sylvis, the leader of the
reconstructed Molders' Union, who, although a young man, was the outstanding
figure in the labor movement of those years. Sylvis was in correspondence with
the leaders of the First International in London and helped to influence the
National Labor Union to establish relations with the General Council of the
It was at the founding convention of the National Labor Union in 1866 that
the following resolution was passed dealing with the shorter workday:
The first and great necessity of the present, to free labor
of this country from capitalist slavery, is the passing of a law by which 8
hours shall be the normal working day in all states in the American union. We
are resolved to put forth all our strength until this glorious result is
The same convention voted for independent political action in connection with
the securing of the legal enactment of the 8-hour day and the "election of men
pledged to sustain and represent the interests of the industrial classes."
The program and policies of the early labor movement, although primitive and
not always sound, were based, nevertheless, on healthy proletarian instinct and
could have served as starting points for the development of a genuine
revolutionary labor movement in this country were it not for the reformist
misleaders and capitalist politicians who later infested the labor organizations
and directed them in wrong channels. Thus 65 years ago, the national
organization of American labor, the N. L. U., expressed itself against
"capitalist slavery" and for independent political action.
Eight-hour leagues were formed as a result of the agitation of the National
Labor Union; and through the political activity which the organization
developed, several state governments adopted the 8-hour day on public work and
the U. S. Congress enacted a similar law in 1868.
Sylvis continued to keep in touch with the International in London. Due to
his influence as president of the organization, the National Labor Union voted
at its convention in 1867 to cooperate with the international working class
movement and in 1869 it voted to accept the invitation of the General Council
and send a delegate to the Basle Congress of the International. Unfortunately
Sylvis died just before the N. L. U. convention, and A. C. Cameron, the editor
of the Workingmen's Advocate, published in Chicago, was sent as delegate in his
stead. In a special resolution the General Council mourned the death of this
promising young American labor leader. "The eyes of all were turned upon Sylvis,
who, as a general of the proletarian army, had an experience of ten years,
outside of his great abilities – and Sylvis is dead." The passing of Sylvis was
one of the contributing causes of the decay which soon set in and led to the
disappearance of the National Labor Union.
First International Adopts the Eight-Hour Day
The decision for the 8-hour day was made by the National Labor Union in
August, 1866. In September of the same year the Geneva Congress of the First
International went on record for the same demand in the following words:
The legal limitation of the working day is a preliminary
condition without which all further attempts at improvements and emancipation of
the working class must prove abortive....The Congress proposes 8 hours as the
legal limit of the working day.
Marx on the Eight-Hour Movement
In the chapter on "The Working Day" in the first volume of Capital, published
in 1867, Marx calls attention to the inauguration of the 8-hour movement by the
National Labor Union. In the passage, famous especially because it contains
Marx's telling reference to the solidarity of class interests between the Negro
and white workers, he wrote:
In the United States of America, any sort of independent
labor movement was paralyzed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the
republic. Labor with a white skin cannot emancipate itself where labor with a
black skin is branded. But out of the death of slavery a new vigorous life
sprang. The first fruit of the Civil War was an agitation for the 8-hour day – a
movement which ran with express speed from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New
England to California.
Marx calls attention to how almost simultaneously, in fact within two weeks
of each other, a workers' convention meeting in Baltimore voted for the 8-hour
day, and an international congress meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, adopted a
similar decision. "Thus on both sides of the Atlantic did the working class
movement, spontaneous outgrowth of the conditions of production," endorse the
same movement of the limitation of hours of labor and concretize it in the
demand for the 8-hour day.
That the decision of the Geneva Congress was prompted by the American
decision can be seen from the following portion of the resolution: "As this
limitation represents the general demand of the workers of the North-American
United States, the Congress transforms this demand into the general platform of
the workers of the whole world."
A similar influence of the American labor movement upon an international
congress and in behalf of the same cause was exerted more profoundly 23 years
May Day Born in the United States
The First International ceased to exist as an international organization in
1872, when its headquarters were removed from London to New York, although it
was not officially disbanded till 1876. It was at the first congress of the
reconstituted International, later known as the Second International, held at
Paris in 1889, that May First was set aside as a day upon which the workers of
the world, organized in their political parties and trade unions, were to fight
for the important political demand: the 8-hour day. The Paris decision was
influenced by a decision made at Chicago five years earlier by delegates of a
young American labor organization – the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor
Unions of the United States and Canada, later known under the abbreviated name,
American Federation of Labor. At the Fourth Convention of this organization,
October 7, 1884, the following resolution was passed:
Resolved by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor
Unions the United States and Canada, that eight hours shall constitute legal
day's labor from May First, 1886, and that we recommend to labor organizations
throughout their jurisdiction that they so direct their laws as to conform to
this resolution by the time named.
Although nothing was said in the resolution about the methods by which the
Federation expected to establish the 8-hour day, it is self-evident that an
organization which at that time commanded an adherence of not more than 50,000
members could not declare "that eight hours shall constitute a legal day's work"
without putting up a fight for it in the shops, mills, and mines where its
members were employed, and without attempting to draw into the struggle for the
8-hour day still larger numbers of workers. The provision in the resolution that
the unions affiliated to the Federation "so direct their laws as to conform to
this resolution" referred to the matter of paying strike benefits to their
members who were expected to strike on May First, 1886, for the 8-hour day, and
would probably have to stay out long enough to need assistance from the union.
As this strike action was to be national in scope and involve all the affiliated
organizations, the unions, according to their by-laws, had to secure the
endorsement of the strike by their members, particularly since that would
involve the expenditure of funds, etc. It must be remembered that the
Federation, just as the A. F. of L. today, was organized on a voluntary,
federation basis, and decisions of a national convention could be binding upon
affiliated unions only if those unions endorsed these decisions.
Preparations for May Day Strike
Although the decade 1880-1890 was generally one of the most active in the
development of American industry and the extension of the home market, the year
1883-1885 experienced a depression which was a cyclical depression following the
crisis of 1873. The movement for a shorter workday received added impetus from
the unemployment and the great suffering which prevailed during that period,
just as at the present time the demand for a 7-hour day is becoming a popular
issue on account of the tremendous unemployment which American workers are
The great strike struggles of 1877, in which tens of thousands of railroad
and steel workers militantly fought against the corporations and the government
which sent troops to suppress the strikes, left an impress on the whole labor
movement. It was the first great mass action of the American working class on a
national scale and, although they were defeated by the combined forces of the
State and capital, the American workers emerged from these struggles with a
clearer understanding of their class position in society, a greater militancy
and a heightened morale. It was in part an answer to the coal barons of
Pennsylvania who, in their attempt to destroy the miners' organization in the
anthracite region, railroaded ten militant miners (Molly Maguires) to the
gallows in 1875.
The Federation, just organized, saw the possibility of utilizing the slogan
of the 8-hour day as a rallying organization slogan among the great masses of
workers who were outside of the Federation and the Knights of Labor, an older
and then still growing organization. The Federation appealed to the Knights of
Labor for support in the movement for the 8-hour day, realizing that only a
general action involving all organized labor could make possible favorable
At the convention of the Federation in 1885, the resolution on the walk-out
for May First of the following year was reiterated and several national unions
took action to prepare for the struggle, among them particularly the Carpenters
and Cigar Makers. The agitation for the May First action for the 8-hour day
showed immediate results in the growth of membership of the existing unions. The
Knights of Labor grew by leaps and bounds, reaching the apex of its growth in
1886. It is reported that the R. of L., which was better known than the
Federation and was considered a fighting organization, increased its membership
from 200,000 to nearly 700,000 during that period. The Federation, first to
inaugurate the movement and definitely to set a date for the strike for the
8-hour day, also grew in numbers and particularly in prestige among the broad
masses of the workers. As the day of the strike was approaching and it was
becoming evident that the leadership of the K. of L., especially Terrence
Powderly, were sabotaging the movement and even secretly advising its unions not
to strike, the popularity of the Federation was still more enhanced. The rank
and file of both organizations were enthusiastically preparing for the struggle.
Eight-hour day leagues and associations sprang up in various cities and an
elevated spirit of militancy was felt throughout the labor movement, which was
infecting masses of unorganized workers.
The Strike Movement Spreads
The best way to learn the mood of the workers is to study the extent and
seriousness of their struggles. The number of strikes during a given period is a
good indicator of the fighting mood of the workers. The number of strikes during
1885 and 1886 as compared with previous years shows what a spirit of militancy
was animating the labor movement. Not only were the workers preparing for action
on May First, 1886, but in 1885 the number of strikes already showed an
appreciable increase. During the years 1881-1884 the number of strikes and
lockouts averaged less than 500, and on the average involved only about 150,000
workers a year. The strikes and lockouts in 1885 increased to about 700 and the
number of workers involved jumped to 250,000. In 1886 the number of strikes more
than doubled over 1885, attaining to as many as 1,572, with a proportional
increase in the number of workers affected, now 600,000. How widespread the
strike movement became in 1886 can be seen from the fact that while in 1885
there were only 2,467 establishments affected by strikes, the number involved in
the following year had increased to 11,562. In spite of open sabotage by the
leadership of the K. of L., it was estimated that over 500,000 workers were
directly involved in strikes for the 8-hour day.
The strike center was Chicago, where the strike movement was most widespread,
but many other cities were involved in the struggle on May First. New York,
Baltimore, Washington, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Detroit,
and many other cities made a good showing in the walkout. The characteristic
feature of the strike movement was that the unskilled and unorganized workers
were drawn into the struggle, and that sympathetic strikes were quite prevalent
during that period. A rebellious spirit was abroad in the land, and bourgeois
historians speak of the "social war" and "hatred for capital" which was
manifested during these strikes, and of the enthusiasm of the rank and file
which pervaded the movement. It is estimated that about half of the number of
workers who struck on May First were successful, and where they did not secure
the 8-hour day, they succeeded in appreciably reducing the hours of labor.
The Chicago Strike and Haymarket
The May First strike was most aggressive in Chicago, which was at that time
the center of a militant Left-wing labor movement. Although insufficiently clear
politically on a number of the problems of the labor movement, it was
nevertheless a fighting movement, always ready to call the workers to action,
develop their fighting spirit and set as their goal not only the immediate
improvement of their living and working conditions, but the abolition of the
capitalist system as well.
With the aid of the revolutionary labor groups the strike in Chicago assumed
the largest proportions. An 8-hour Association was formed long in advance of the
strike to prepare for it. The Central Labor Union, composed of the Left-wing
labor unions, gave full support to the 8-hour Association, which was a united
front organization, including the unions affiliated to the Federation, the K. of
L., and the Socialist Labor Party. On the Sunday before May First the Central
Labor Union organized a mobilization demonstration which was attended by 25,000
On May First Chicago witnessed a great outpouring of workers, who laid down
tools at the call of the organized labor movement of the city. It was the most
effective demonstration of class solidarity yet experienced by the labor
movement itself. The importance at that time of the demand – the 8-hour day –
and the extent and character of the strike gave the movement significant
political meaning. This significance was deepened by the developments of the
next few days. The 8-hour movement, culminating in the strike on May First,
1886, forms by itself a glorious chapter in the fighting history of the American
working class.
But revolutions have their counter-revolutions until the revolutionary class
finally establishes its complete control. The victorious march of the Chicago
workers was arrested by the then superior combined force of the employers and
the capitalist state, determined to destroy the militant leaders, hoping thereby
to deal a deadly blow to the entire labor movement of Chicago. The events of May
3 and 4, which led to what is known as the Haymarket Affair, were a direct
outgrowth of the May First strike. The demonstration held on May 4 at Haymarket
Square was called to protest against the brutal attack of the police upon a
meeting of striking workers at the McCormick Reaper Works on May 3, where six
workers were killed and many wounded. The meeting was peaceful and about to be
adjourned when the police again launched an attack upon the assembled workers. A
bomb was thrown into the crowd, killing a sergeant. A battle ensued with the
result that seven policemen and four workers were dead. The blood bath at
Haymarket Square, the railroading to the gallows of Parsons, Spies, Fischer, and
Engel, and the imprisonment of the other militant Chicago leaders, was the
counterrevolutionary answer of the Chicago bosses. It was the signal for action
to the bosses all over the country. The second half of 1886 was marked by a
concentrated offensive of the employers, determined to regain the position lost
during the strike movement of 1885-1886.
One year after the hanging of the Chicago labor leaders, the Federation, now
known as the American Federation of Labor, at its convention in St. Louis in
1888, voted to rejuvenate the movement for the 8-hour day. May First, which was
already a tradition, having served two years before as the concentration point
of the powerful movement of the workers based upon a political class issue, was
again chosen as the day upon which to re-inaugurate the struggle for the 8-hour
day. May First, 1890, was to witness a nation-wide strike for the shorter
workday. At the convention in 1889, the leaders of the A. F. of L., headed by
Samuel Gompers, succeeded in limiting the strike movement. It was decided that
the Carpenters' Union, which was considered best prepared for the strike, should
lead off with the strike, and if it proved successful, other unions were to fall
in line.
In his autobiography Gompers tells how the A. F. of L. contributed to making
May Day an international labor holiday: "As plans for the 8-hour movement
developed, we were constantly realizing how we could widen our purpose. As the
time of the meeting of the International Workingmen's Congress in Paris
approached, it occurred to me that we could aid our movement by an expression of
world-wide sympathy from that congress." Gompers, who had already exhibited all
the attributes of reformism and opportunism which later came to full bloom in
his class collaborationist policy, was ready to get the support of a movement
among the workers, the influence of which he strongly combated.
May Day Becomes International
On July 14, 1889, the hundredth anniversary of the fall of the Bastille,
there assembled in Paris leaders from organized revolutionary proletarian
movements of many lands, to form once more an international organization of
workers, patterned after the one formed 25 years earlier by their great teacher,
Karl Marx. Those assembled at the foundation meeting of what was to become the
Second International heard from the American delegates about the struggle in
America for the 8-hour day during 1884-1886, and the recent rejuvenation of the
movement. Inspired by the example of the American workers, the Paris Congress
adopted the following resolution:
The Congress decides to organize a great international
demonstration, so that in all countries and in all cities on one appointed day
the toiling masses shall demand of the state authorities the legal reduction of
the working day to eight hours, as well as the carrying out of other decisions
of the Paris Congress. Since a similar demonstration has already been decided
upon for May 1, 1890, by the American Federation of Labor at its Convention in
St. Louis, December, 1888, this day is accepted for the international
demonstration. The workers of the various countries must organize this
demonstration according to conditions prevailing in each country.
The clause in the resolution which speaks of the organization of the
demonstration with regard to the objective conditions prevailing in each country
gave some parties, particularly the British movement, an opportunity to
interpret the resolution as not mandatory upon all countries. Thus at the very
formation of the Second International, there were parties who looked upon it as
merely a consultative body, functioning only during Congresses for the exchange
of information and opinions, but not as a centralized organization, a
revolutionary world proletarian party, such as Marx had tried to make the First
International a generation before. When Engels wrote to his friend Serge in
1874, before the First International was officially disbanded in America, "I
think that the next International, formed after the teachings of Marx, will have
become widely known during the next years, will be a purely Communist
International," he did not foresee that at the very launching of the rejuvenated
International there would be present reformist elements who viewed it as a
voluntary federation of Socialist parties, independent of each other and each a
law unto itself.
But May Day, 1890, was celebrated in many European countries, and in the
United States the Carpenters' Union and other building trades entered into a
general strike for the 8-hour day. Despite the Exception Laws against the
Socialists, workers in the various German industrial cities celebrated May Day,
which was marked by fierce struggles with the police. Similarly in other
European capitals demonstrations were held, although the authorities warned
against them and the police tried to suppress them. In the United States, the
Chicago and New York demonstrations were of particularly great significance.
Many thousands paraded the streets in support of the 8-hour day demand; and the
demonstrations were closed with great open air mass meetings at central points.
At the next Congress, in Brussels, 1891, the International reiterated the
original purpose of May First, to demand the 8-hour day, but added that it must
serve also as a demonstration in behalf of the demands to improve working
conditions, and to ensure peace among the nations. The revised resolution
particularly stressed the importance of the "class character of the May First
demonstrations" for the 8-hour day and the other demands which would lead to the
"deepening of the class struggle." The resolution also demanded that work be
stopped "wherever possible." Although the reference to strikes on May First was
only conditional, the International began to enlarge upon and concretize the
purposes of the demonstrations. The British Laborites again showed their
opportunism by refusing to accept even the conditional proposal for a strike on
May First, and together with the German Social-Democrats voted to postpone the
May Day demonstration to the Sunday following May First.
Engels on International May Day
In his preface to the fourth German edition of the Communist Manifesto, which
he wrote on May 1, 1890, Engels, reviewing the history of the international
proletarian organizations, calls attention to the significance of the first
International May Day:
As I write these lines, the proletariat of Europe and America
is holding a review of its forces; it is mobilized for the first time as One
army, under One Bag, and fighting One immediate aim: an eight-hour working day,
established by legal enactment.... The spectacle we are now witnessing will make
the capitalists and landowners of all lands realize that today the proletarians
of all lands are, in very truth, united. If only Marx were with me to see it
with his own eyes!
The significance of simultaneous international proletarian demonstrations was
appealing more and more to the imagination and revolutionary instincts of the
workers throughout the world, and every year witnessed greater masses
participating in the demonstrations.
The response of the workers showed itself in the following addition to the
May First resolution adopted at the next Congress of the International at Zurich
in 1893:
The demonstration on May First for the 8-hour day must serve
at the same time as a demonstration of the determined will of the working class
to destroy class distinctions through social change and thus enter on the road,
the only road leading to peace for all peoples, to international peace.
Although the original draft of the resolution proposed to abolish class
distinctions through "social revolution" and not through "social change," yet
the resolution definitely elevated May First to a higher political level. It was
to become a demonstration of power and the will of the proletariat to challenge
the existing order, in addition to the demand for the 8-hour day.
Reformists Attempt to Cripple May Day
The reformist leaders of the various parties tried to devitalize the May
First demonstrations by turning them into days of rest and recreation instead of
days of struggle. This is why they always insisted on organizing the
demonstrations on the Sunday nearest May First. On Sundays workers would not
have to strike to stop work; they were not working anyway. To the reformist
leaders May Day was only an international labor holiday, a day of pageants and
games in the parks or outlying country. That the resolution of the Zurich
Congress demanded that May Day should be a "demonstration of the determined will
of the working class to destroy class distinctions," i.e., the demonstration of
the will to fight for the destruction of the capitalist system of exploitation
and wage slavery, did not trouble the reformists, since they did not consider
themselves bound by the decisions of international congresses. International
Socialist Congresses were to them but meetings for international friendship and
good-will, like many other congresses that used to gather from time to time in
various European capitals before the war. They did everything to discourage and
thwart joint international action of the proletariat, and decisions of
international congresses which did not conform with their ideas remained mere
paper resolutions. Twenty years later the "socialism" and "internationalism" of
these reformist leaders stood exposed in all their nakedness. In 1914 the
International lay shattered because from its very birth it carried within it the
seeds of its own destruction – the reformist misleaders of the working class.
At the International Congress at Paris in 1900 the May Day resolution of the
previous Congresses was again adopted, and was strengthened by the statement
that stoppage of work on May First would make the demonstration more effective.
More and more, May Day demonstrations were becoming demonstrations of power;
open street fighting with the police and military taking place in all important
industrial centers. Numbers of workers participating in the demonstrations and
stopping work on that day were growing. May Day was becoming more and more
menacing to the ruling class. It became Red Day, which authorities in all lands
looked at with foreboding when each May Day came around.
Lenin on May Day
Early in his activity in the Russian revolutionary movement Lenin contributed
to making May Day known to the Russian workers as a day of demonstration and
struggle. While in prison, in 1896, Lenin wrote a May Day leaflet for the St.
Petersburg Union of Struggle for the Liberation of the Working Class, one of the
first Marxist political groups in Russia. The leaflet was smuggled out of prison
and 2,000 mimeographed copies distributed among workers in 40 factories. It was
very short and written in Lenin's characteristically simple and direct style, so
that the least developed among the workers could understand it. "When a month
after the famous textile strikes of 1896 broke out, workers were telling us that
the first impetus was given by the little modest May Day leaflet," wrote a
contemporary who helped to issue it.
After telling the workers how they are exploited for the benefit of the
owners of the factories in which they work, and how the government persecutes
those who demand improvement in their conditions, Lenin proceeds to write about
the significance of May Day:
In France, England, Germany and other countries where workers
have already been united in powerful unions and have won for themselves many
rights, they organized on April 19 (May 1) [the Russian calendar was then 13
days behind the West-European] a general holiday of Labor. Leaving the stifling
factories they march with unfurled banners, to the strains of music, along the
main streets of the cities, demonstrating to the bosses their continuously
growing power. They assemble at great mass demonstrations where speeches are
made recounting the victories over the bosses during the preceding year and lay
plans for struggle in the future. Under the threat of strike the bosses do not
dare to fine the workers for not appearing at the factories on that day. On this
day the workers also remind the bosses of their main demand: 8 hours work, 8
hours rest, and 8 hours recreation. This is what the workers of other countries
are demanding now.
The Russian revolutionary movement utilized May Day to great advantage. In
the preface to a pamphlet, May Days in Kharkov, published in November,
1900, Lenin wrote:
In another six months, the Russian workers will celebrate the
first of May of the first year of the new century, and it is time we set to work
to make the arrangements for organizing the celebrations in as large a number of
centers as possible, and on as imposing a scale as possible, not only by the
number that will take part in them, but also by their organized character, by
the class-consciousness they will reveal, by the determination that will be
shown to commence the irrepressible struggle for the political liberation of the
Russian people, and, consequently, for a free opportunity for the class
development of the proletariat and its open struggle for Socialism.
It can be seen how important Lenin considered the May Day demonstrations,
since he called attention to them six months ahead of time. To him May Day was a
rallying point for "the irrepressible struggle for the political liberation of
the Russian people," for "the class development of the proletariat and its open
struggle for Socialism."
Speaking of how May Day celebrations "can become great political
demonstrations," Lenin asked why the Kharkov May Day celebration in 1900 was "an
event of outstanding importance," and answered, "the mass participation of the
workers in the strike, the huge mass meetings in the streets, the unfurling of
red flags, the presentation of demands indicated in leaflets and the
revolutionary character of these demands – eight-hour day and political
Lenin upbraids the Kharkov Party leaders for joining the demands for the
8-hour day with other minor and purely economic demands, for he does not want
the political character of May Day in any way beclouded. He writes in this
The first of these demands [8-hour day] is the general demand
put forward by the proletariat in all countries. The fact that this demand was
put forward indicates that the advanced workers of Kharkov realize their
solidarity with the international Socialist labor movement. But precisely for
this reason a demand like this should not have been included among minor demands
like better treatment by foremen, or a ten per cent increase in wages. The
demand for an eight-hour day, however, is the demand of the whole proletariat,
presented, not to individual employers, but to the government as the
representative of the whole of the present-day social and political system, to
the capitalist class as a whole, the owners of all the means of production.
May Day Political Slogans
May Days became focal points for the international revolutionary proletariat.
To the original demand for the 8-hour day were added other significant slogans
on which the workers were called upon to concentrate during their May Day
strikes and demonstrations. These included: International Working Class
Solidarity; Universal Suffrage; War Against War; Against Colonial Oppression;
the Right to the Streets; Freeing of Political Prisoners; the Right to Political
and Economic Organization of the Working Class.
The last time the old International spoke on the question of May Day was at
the Amsterdam Congress of 1904. After reviewing the various political slogans
which were employed in the demonstrations and calling attention to the fact that
in some countries these demonstrations were still taking place on Sundays
instead of May First, the resolution concludes:
The International Socialist Congress in Amsterdam calls upon
all Social-Democratic Party organizations and trade unions of all countries to
demonstrate energetically on May First for the legal establishment of the 8-hour
day, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace. The most
effective way of demonstrating on May First is by stoppage of work. The Congress
therefore makes it mandatory upon the proletarian organizations of all countries
to stop work on May First, wherever it is possible without injury to the
When the massacre of the strikers in the Lena goldfields in Siberia in April,
1912, placed again the question of revolutionary mass proletarian action on the
order of the day in Russia, it was on May Day of that year that hundreds of
thousands of Russian workers stopped work and came out into the streets to
challenge black reaction, holding sway since the defeat of the first Russian
Revolution in 1905. Lenin wrote about this May Day:
The great May strike of the workers all over Russia, and the
street demonstrations connected with it, the revolutionary proclamations, the
revolutionary speeches to the working masses, show clearly that Russia has once
more entered the period of a rising revolutionary situation.
Rosa Luxemburg on May Day
In an article written for May Day, 1913, Rosa Luxemburg, herself a staunch
revolutionist, stressed the revolutionary character of May Day:
"The brilliant chief idea of the May Day celebration is the
independent action of the proletarian masses, is the political mass action of
the millions of workers.... The excellent purpose of the Frenchman Lavigne at
the international congress in Paris combined with the direct international mass
manifestation, the laying down of tools, is a demonstration and fighting tactic
for the 8-hour day, world peace and Socialism."
Always a close student of imperialist rivalries, Rosa Luxemburg saw the war
coming and she was anxious to make clear that May Day was especially the day for
the dissemination of the ideas of international solidarity among workers, a day
for international action against imperialist war, writing a year before the war
broke out she called attention to the fact that
"the more the May Day idea, the idea of resolute mass action
as demonstrations of international solidarity and as a fighting tactic for peace
and for Socialism, even in the strongest section of the International, the
German working class, strikes root, the greater guarantee we shall have that
from the world war, which will inevitably take place sooner or later, there will
result an ultimately victorious settlement of the struggle between the world of
labor and that of capital."
May Day in War Time
The betrayal by the Social-patriots during the war appeared in bold relief on
May Day, 1915. This was a logical outgrowth of the class peace they made with
the imperialist governments in August, 1914. The German Social-Democracy called
upon the workers to remain at work; the French Socialists in a special manifesto
assured the authorities that they need not fear May First, and the workers were
importuned to work for the defense of "their" country. The same attitude could
be found among the Socialist majorities of the other warring countries. Only the
Bolsheviks of Russia and the revolutionary minorities in other countries
remained true to Socialism and internationalism. The voices of Lenin, Luxemburg,
and Liebknecht were raised against the bacchanale of social-chauvinism. Partial
strikes and open skirmishes in the streets on May Day, 1916, showed that the
workers in all warring countries were freeing themselves from the poisonous
influence of their traitorous leaders. For Lenin, as for all revolutionists,
"the collapse of opportunism (the collapse of the Second International. – A. T.)
is beneficial for the labor movement" and Lenin's call for a new International,
free of the betrayers, was the demand of the hour.
The Zimmerwald (1915) and the Kienthal (1916) Conferences resulted in
crystallizing the revolutionary internationalist parties and minorities under
Lenin's slogan of turning the imperialist war into civil war. The huge
demonstrations in Berlin on May Day, 1916, organized by Karl Liebknecht and his
followers in the Socialist movement, bore testimony to the living forces of the
working class, which were breaking through in spite of the police prohibitions
and the opposition of the official leadership.
In the United States May Day was not abandoned when war was declared in 1917.
The revolutionary elements in the Socialist Party took seriously the anti-war
resolution of the party adopted at the Emergency St. Louis Convention early in
April and utilized May Day to protest against the imperialist war. The
demonstration in Cleveland held on Public Square and organized by Charles E.
Ruthenberg, then local secretary of the S. P. and later one of the founders and
leaders of the Communist Party, was particularly militant. Over 20,000 workers
paraded the streets to Public Square and were augmented there by many thousands
more. The police brutally attacked the meeting, killing one worker and fatally
wounding another.
May Day, 1917, the July Days, and finally the October Days in Russia were but
stages in the development of the Russian Revolution to its fulfillment. May Day,
together with other days rich in revolutionary traditions – January 22 ("Bloody
Sunday," 1905), March 18 (Paris Commune, 1871), November 7 (Seizure of Power,
1917) – are today holidays in the First Workers' Republic, while the 8-hour day,
the original demand of May Day, has been superseded in the Soviet Union by the
inauguration of the 7-hour day.
The Comintern Inherits May Day Traditions
The Communist International, inheritor of the best traditions of the
revolutionary proletarian movement since Marx and Engels published the Communist
Manifesto in 1848, carries on the traditions of May Day, and the Communist
parties of the various capitalist countries call upon the workers each year to
stop work on May Day, to go into the streets, to demonstrate their growing
strength and international solidarity, to demand a shorter work day – now the
7-hour day – without reduction in pay, to demand social insurance, to fight the
war danger and defend the Soviet Union, to fight against imperialism and
colonial oppression, to struggle against race discrimination and lynching, to
denounce the social-fascists as part of the capitalist machine, to resolve to
build their revolutionary unions, to proclaim their determination and iron will
to organize for the overthrow of the capitalist system and for the establishment
of a universal Soviet Republic.
A Political Mass Strike on May Day
Each year the struggles of May Day are lifted to a higher level. Born in the
United States in the throes of a general strike movement and in a fight for a
major political demand, each May Day should witness a political strike on behalf
of the major class issues of the American workers enumerated above. Old and
young workers, men and women, Negro and white, should be drawn into
participation in the May Day actions. There should be strikes on May
Day, for stoppage of work is the very tradition of May First. The strikes should
be mass strikes involving great numbers of workers leaving their
workshops collectively; not as individuals. Whole industrial units
should be stopped, for only such strikes are effective demonstrations of the
determined will of the workers to struggle. These mass strikes should be
, i.e., based on major political issues affecting the whole
working class.
Although the Communist Party and the revolutionary unions affiliated with the
T. U. U. L. have put forth the slogan of the 7-hour day without reduction in
wages, the American workers, 46 years after the initiation of the general 8-hour
day movement, must still fight for that demand. In many industries workers still
labor nine, ten and even more hours a day. The failure to establish the 8-hour
day for all during this period is due to the aristocracy of labor who, bribed by
the capitalist class with comparatively high wages and better conditions of
work, have left the unskilled and unorganized workers without the protection of
an organized labor movement, so that they may be more easily exploited for the
benefit of the owners of the industries.
The A. F. of L. Becomes Fascist
Over 40 years ago on Union Square, New York, the leaders of the first May Day
demonstration spoke not only about the 8-hour day but about the abolition of the
capitalist system. "While struggling for the 8-hour day we will not lose sight
of the ultimate aim, – the abolition of the wage system," read the resolution
presented to the striking masses assembled at Union Square on May First, 1890,
after they had marched there in great columns under unfurled red banners through
the working class sections of the metropolis. Now, the A. F. of L. and the
Socialist Party make common cause with the bosses and are doing everything
possible to prevent the workers from fighting for any improvement in their
conditions, and instead of fighting for the abolition of the capitalist system
are fighting to preserve it.
Over 40 years ago, the A. F. of L. appealed to the International Socialist
Congress in Paris to help the American Federation of Labor with the strike
movement inaugurated for May First, 1890, and the International came to the aid
of the American workers by making this struggle an international one. Now,
President Green and his satellite Mathew Well pledge the support of the A. F. of
L. to each and every reactionary organization or movement formed for the purpose
of combating the Communist Party which is carrying on the American fighting
traditions of May First. The A. F. of L. leaders have developed from class
collaborationists into open fascists, serving the capitalists as hangmen of the
American working class.
In their attempt to defeat May Day and to draw the workers' organizations
which are under their influence away from participation in May Day
demonstrations, the A. F. of L. and other reactionary labor organizations have
fostered the observance of a so-called Labor Day on the first Monday in
September of each year. Labor Day was adopted first on a local scale in 1885 and
later granted by the various state governments as an antidote to May First
Another campaign against May Day was inaugurated by the federal government
with the aid of A. F. of L. leaders when May 1 was adopted as Child Health Day.
The hypocrisy of both the government and the A. F. of L. is proven by the fact
that a million and more children under 16 are sweated in American mills, shops
and fields for the glory of American capital.
The real meaning of this sudden interest in child welfare, however, may be
gleaned from the following reference to the subject in a report submitted by the
Executive Council to the 1928 Convention of the A. F. of L.:
... The Communists still maintain May 1 as Labor Day.
Hereafter May 1 will be known as Child Health Day, as the President is directed
by the resolution passed by Congress to issue a proclamation calling upon the
people of the United States to observe May 1 as Child Health Day. The object is
to create sentiment for year-round protection of the health of children. It is a
most worthy purpose. At the same time May 1 no longer will be known as
either strike day or Communist Labor Day.
(Italics mine – A. T.)
Can it be that the A. F. of L. leaders have not heard the story about King
Canute and his attempt to sweep back the tempestuous ocean waves? Or is it that
in their eagerness to break the fighting spirit of the workers they are willing
to try anything?
The Social-Fascism of the S. P.
The betrayal of the workers begun during the war was continued by the
Socialist parties after the war. They joined bourgeois governments to protect
them from the wrath of the workers; they organized counter-revolutions to thwart
the workers' struggle for power; they became the butchers of the militant
sections of the working class which were fighting for the overthrow of the rule
of capital, just as the workers of Russia have done under the leadership of the
Bolsheviks, the Party of Lenin. The social-patriotism of the Right and the
social-pacifism of the Center during the war, have now been merged into
social-fascism. The social-fascists have become part of the capitalist state
machine, protecting it from the revolutionary actions of the workers and
peasants in the imperialist and colonial countries. They call for war against
the Soviet Union and organize plots designed to arrest the progress of building
Socialism there. They support the war being waged against the Chinese people by
Japanese imperialism and the seizure of Manchuria as an eastern base for
attacking the Soviet Union.
They have long ago abandoned the demand for the 8-hour day. They hope that
the League of Nations will secure for them the shorter workday through
conventions between capitalist governments. The Marseilles Congress of the
Second International in 1925 declared that the 8-hour day "should be recognized
only in principle." They still participate in May Day events, but only on the
other side of the barricades, as was exemplified by the fiendish actions of the
Socialist Chief of Police of Berlin, Zoergiebel, against the May Day, 1929,
demonstrations in the working class sections of that city. In the 1932
presidential elections, the Social-Democracy backed the Bruening fascist
government by supporting the re-election of Hindenburg.
The "Socialist" Prime Minister MacDonald sends troops to mow down the Hindu
masses who are rising against British imperialism and its agents in India.
Wherever capitalism has felt weak to cope with the rising tide of the
revolutionary and national liberation movements of the workers and peasants, it
has called to its service the Socialist parties, willing agents of capitalism
within the labor movement, to help defeat these movements.
In the United States, the Socialist Party plays the same role. Although it is
not in office, it has already earned its spurs in the business of betraying the
best aspirations and interests of the workers. It joins all reactionary forces
who are vilifying the Soviet Union and are trying to whip up sentiment for war
upon the workers' republic. It works with the A. F. of L. and the Muste
"progressive" labor unions in hounding militant workers, in supporting the
bosses against the workers, in applauding the forces of the state when they
prosecute and persecute the revolutionary movement of this country. The old
leaders of the S. P. (the Hillquits and Oneals) have forsaken whatever Socialism
they ever believed in and the new leaders (the Thomases and Brouns) are
bourgeois liberals who use the labor movement to advance the programs and the
policies of the Theodore Roosevelts of the Bull Moose days and the Robert
LaFollettes whose aim has always been to fool the masses with radical
Norman Thomas, the darling of the capitalist press, announces to the world in
a recent book that he has brought forth a new kind of socialism, a socialism
without Marxism. It has been tried before. An abler man than Thomas, Eduard
Bernstein, tried to de-Marxianize Socialism more than thirty years ago. He knew
better, however, than to go as far as Thomas goes in his claims. The German
pioneer in this he'd only wanted to "correct" Marx, to "bring him up to date."
The American, Thomas, knows no halfway measures. He not only "revises" Marx, but
abolishes him altogether, without, however, injuring Socialism thereby, as S. P.
leaders declare.
Norman Thomas and the class-collaborationist Socialist Party which he
represents today perhaps better than anyone else, stand exposed before the
workers of this country as the betrayers and open enemies of the only Socialism
that means workers' rule, the Socialism of Marx and Lenin, the Socialism for
which the Communist Party fights, the Socialism that is being built by the
victorious workers and peasants in the Soviet Union today.
Revolutionary Traditions of American Labor
The American labor movement is rich in revolutionary traditions upon which
the Communist Party and the Trade Union Unity League can draw in their work of
organizing the American working class for revolutionary action. The great labor
struggles which dot the history of the United States, bear testimony to the
militancy of the American workers. Not only have the workers been ready to
initiate struggles or accept provocations of the bosses, but when out on strike,
they have stayed out long and fought bitterly against the combined forces of
bosses and the minions of the State.
A labor movement which can look back to the general strike movements of 1877
and 1886, to Homestead (1892), to the A. R. U. Strike (1894), to Lawrence
(1912), to the Steel Strike (1919), to Seattle (1919), to the many strikes in
the coal, railroad, clothing and other industries, to the great struggles in
Colorado, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, the Mesaba Range and, more recently, to
Gastonia and Harlan, can also look forward to still greater struggles in the
future. With the prevailing objective conditions – constantly deepening economic
crisis, growing permanent unemployment, intensified exploitation through speed
up methods, acceleration of imperialist rivalries leading to another world war,
the American Labor movement, freed of its misleaders, will give an account of
itself. The massacre by Ford police of four Detroit auto workers at an
unemployed demonstration before his plant, the murder of Negro jobless in
Chicago and Cleveland are evidences of the sharpening class struggle and the
militancy of the workers.
May 1 and March 8 – Contribution of American Workers
Out of its traditions the American labor movement has given the international
working class two fighting days which the revolutionary workers consider as mile
posts and which they must pass each year on their way to ultimate victory. Those
who were midwives at the birth of these "days" have renounced them as soon as
they have acquired revolutionary meaning. The A. F. of L. helped with the
inauguration of May Day. It has long expiated that sin against American capital
and it is never held against it.
The Socialist Party, a close, even if poor, relation of the A. F. of L., must
be considered as having contributed to the origin of International Women's Day,
celebrated each year on March 8. About twenty years ago the Socialist women of
New York organized, in contradistinction to the bourgeois suffrage movement, a
mass participation of proletarian women in the movement for woman suffrage. This
particular action took place on March 8. The success of the New York
demonstration led to the establishment of March 8 as Women's Day on a national
scale. The International Socialist Congress in 1910 made March 8 international.
With the granting of woman suffrage in the United States, March 8 was
abandoned by the S. P., since the ballot and election to office has always been
the alpha and omega of that party. The Russian working women did not forget
March 8 and, following the October Revolution, rejuvenated this important
fighting labor day. The Communist International made International Women's Day
again a living reality. As in the case of May 1, only the Communist parties are
carrying on the traditions of March 8, with men and women workers jointly
utilizing this day to call upon the proletarian women to take their place in the
struggles beside the men workers.
The Future Belongs to Communism
For the May Day, 1923, edition of the Weekly Worker, C. E. Ruthenberg
wrote: "May Day – the day which inspires fear in the hearts of the capitalists
and hope in the workers – the workers the world over – will find the Communist
movement this year stronger in the U. S. than at any time in its history.... The
road is clear for greater achievements, and in the United States as elsewhere in
the world the future belongs to Communism." In a Weekly Worker of a generation
before, Eugene V. Debs wrote in a May Day edition of the paper, published on
April 27, 1907: "This is the first and only International Labor Day. It belongs
to the working class and is dedicated to the Revolution."
The world is nearer to Communism today. We are living in a more advanced
period now. Capitalism has swung downward and is progressively moving in that
direction. The sharpness of its own contradictions is making its ability to
carry on more difficult. The workers are growing in political consciousness and
are engaged in a counter-offensive which is gaining in scope and depth. The
oppressed colonial and semi-colonial peoples are rising and challenging the rule
of imperialism.
In the Soviet Union the workers will review on May Day the phenomenal
achievements of the building of Socialism. In the capitalist countries May Day
will be as always a day of struggle for the immediate political demands of the
working class, with the slogans of proletarian dictatorship and a Soviet
Republic kept not far in the background.
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