The Idea of May Day on the March (1913)

Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo, Il Quarto Stato, 1901
Giuseppe Pel­liz­za da Volpe­do, Il Quar­to Sta­to, 1901

In the mid­dle of the wildest orgies of impe­ri­al­ism, the world hol­i­day of the pro­le­tari­at is repeat­ing itself for the twen­ty-fourth time. What has tak­en place in the quar­ter of a cen­tu­ry since the epoch-mak­ing deci­sion to cel­e­brate May Day is an immense part of the his­tor­i­cal path. When the May demon­stra­tion made its debut, the van­guard of the Inter­na­tion­al, the Ger­man work­ing class, was break­ing the chains of a shame­ful law of excep­tion and set­ting out on the path of a free, legal devel­op­ment. The peri­od of the long depres­sion on the world mar­ket since the crash of the 1870s had been over­come, and the cap­i­tal­ist econ­o­my had just begun a phase of splen­did growth which would last near­ly a decade. At the same time, after twen­ty years of unbro­ken peace, the world breathed a sigh of relief, remem­ber­ing the peri­od of war in which the mod­ern Euro­pean state sys­tem had received its bloody bap­tism. The path seemed free for a peace­ful cul­tur­al devel­op­ment; illu­sions, hopes of a rea­son­able, pacif­ic dis­cus­sion between labor and cap­i­tal grew abun­dant­ly like green corn in the ranks of social­ism. Propo­si­tions like “to hold out the open hand to the good will” marked the begin­ning of the 1890s; promis­es of an imper­cep­ti­ble “grad­ual move into social­ism” marked its end. Crises, wars, and rev­o­lu­tion were sup­posed to have been things of the past, the baby shoes of mod­ern soci­ety; par­lia­men­tarism and unions, democ­ra­cy in the state and democ­ra­cy in the fac­to­ry were sup­posed to open the doors of a new, bet­ter order.

The course of events has sub­mit­ted all of these illu­sions to a fear­ful test. At the end of the 1890s, in place of the promised, smooth, social-reform­ing cul­tur­al devel­op­ment, began a peri­od of the most vio­lent and acute sharp­en­ing of the cap­i­tal­is­tic con­tra­dic­tions – a storm and stress, a crash­ing and col­lid­ing, a waver­ing and quak­ing in the foun­da­tions of the soci­ety. In the fol­low­ing decade, the ten-year peri­od of eco­nom­ic pros­per­i­ty was paid for by two vio­lent world crises. After two decades of world peace, in the last decade of the past cen­tu­ry fol­lowed six bloody wars, and in the first decade of the new cen­tu­ry four bloody rev­o­lu­tions. Instead of the social reforms – con­spir­a­cy laws, penal laws, and penal prax­is; instead of indus­tri­al democ­ra­cy – the pow­er­ful con­cen­tra­tion of cap­i­tal in car­tels and busi­ness asso­ci­a­tions, and the inter­na­tion­al prac­tice of gigan­tic lock-outs. And instead of the new growth of democ­ra­cy in the state – a mis­er­able break­down of the last rem­nants of bour­geois lib­er­al­ism and bour­geois democ­ra­cy. Specif­i­cal­ly in the case of Ger­many the fate of the bour­geois par­ties since the 1890s has brought: the rise and imme­di­ate, hope­less dis­so­lu­tion of the Nation­al Social­ists; the split of the “rad­i­cal” oppo­si­tion and the reuni­fi­ca­tion of its splin­ters in the morass of the reac­tion; and final­ly the trans­for­ma­tion of the “cen­ter” from a rad­i­cal peo­ples’ par­ty to a con­ser­v­a­tive gov­ern­men­tal par­ty. The shift­ing in the devel­op­ment of the par­ties was sim­i­lar in oth­er cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries. In gen­er­al, the rev­o­lu­tion­ary work­ing class sees itself today stand­ing alone, opposed to a closed, hos­tile reac­tion of the rul­ing class­es and their mali­cious tricks.

The sign under which this whole devel­op­ment, both eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal, has been con­sum­mat­ed, the for­mu­la back to which its results point, is impe­ri­al­ism. This is no new ele­ment, no unex­pect­ed turn in the gen­er­al his­tor­i­cal path of the cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety. Arma­ments and wars, inter­na­tion­al con­tra­dic­tions and colo­nial pol­i­tics accom­pa­ny the his­to­ry of cap­i­tal­ism from its cra­dle. It is the most extreme inten­si­fi­ca­tion of these ele­ments, a draw­ing togeth­er, a gigan­tic storm­ing of these con­tra­dic­tions which has pro­duced a new epoch in the course of mod­ern soci­ety. In a dialec­ti­cal inter­ac­tion, both cause and effect of the immense accu­mu­la­tion of cap­i­tal and the height­en­ing and sharp­en­ing of the con­tra­dic­tions which go with it inter­nal­ly, between cap­i­tal and labor; exter­nal­ly, between the cap­i­tal­ist states – impe­ri­al­ism has opened the final phase, the divi­sion of the world by the assault of cap­i­tal. A chain of unend­ing, exor­bi­tant arma­ments on land and on sea in all cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries because of rival­ries; a chain of bloody wars which have spread from Africa to Europe and which at any moment could light the spark which would become a world fire; more­over, for years the uncheck­able specter of infla­tion, of mass hunger in the whole cap­i­tal­ist world – all of these are the signs under which the world hol­i­day of labor, after near­ly a quar­ter of a cen­tu­ry, approach­es. And each of these signs is a flam­ing tes­ti­mo­ny of the liv­ing truth and the pow­er of the idea of May Day.

The bril­liant basic idea of May Day is the autonomous, imme­di­ate step­ping for­ward of the pro­le­tar­i­an mass­es, the polit­i­cal mass action of the mil­lions of work­ers who oth­er­wise are atom­ized by the bar­ri­ers of the state in the day-to-day par­lia­men­tary affairs, who most­ly can give expres­sion to their own will only through the bal­lot, through the elec­tion of their rep­re­sen­ta­tives. The excel­lent pro­pos­al of the French­man Lav­i­gne at the Paris Con­gress of the Inter­na­tion­al added to this par­lia­men­tary, indi­rect man­i­fes­ta­tion of the will of the pro­le­tari­at a direct, inter­na­tion­al mass man­i­fes­ta­tion: the strike as a demon­stra­tion and means of strug­gle for the eight-hour day, world peace, and social­ism.

And in effect what an upswing this idea, this new form of strug­gle has tak­en on in the last decade! The mass strike has become an inter­na­tion­al­ly rec­og­nized, indis­pens­able weapon of the polit­i­cal strug­gle. As a demon­stra­tion, as a weapon in the strug­gle, it returns again in innu­mer­able forms and gra­da­tions in all coun­tries for near­ly fif­teen years. As a sign of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary rean­i­ma­tion of the pro­le­tari­at in Rus­sia, as a tena­cious means of strug­gle in the hands of the Bel­gian pro­le­tari­at, it has just now proved its liv­ing pow­er. And the next, most burn­ing ques­tion in Ger­many – the Pruss­ian vot­ing rights – obvi­ous­ly, because of its pre­vi­ous slip­shod treat­ment, points to a ris­ing mass action of the Pruss­ian pro­le­tari­at up to the mass strike as the only pos­si­ble solu­tion.

No won­der! The whole devel­op­ment, the whole ten­den­cy of impe­ri­al­ism in the last decade leads the inter­na­tion­al work­ing class to see more clear­ly and more tan­gi­bly that only the per­son­al step­ping for­ward of the broad­est mass­es, their per­son­al polit­i­cal action, mass demon­stra­tions, and mass strikes which must soon­er or lat­er open into a peri­od of rev­o­lu­tion­ary strug­gles for the pow­er in the state, can give the cor­rect answer of the pro­le­tari­at to the immense oppres­sion of impe­ri­al­is­tic pol­i­cy. In this moment of arma­ment luna­cy and war orgies, only the res­olute will to strug­gle of the work­ing mass­es, their capac­i­ty and readi­ness for pow­er­ful mass actions, can main­tain world peace and push away the men­ac­ing world con­fla­gra­tion. And the more the idea of May Day, the idea of res­olute mass actions as a man­i­fes­ta­tion of inter­na­tion­al uni­ty, and as a means of strug­gle for peace and for social­ism, takes root in the strongest troops of the Inter­na­tion­al, the Ger­man work­ing class, the greater is our guar­an­tee that out of the world war which, soon­er or lat­er, is unavoid­able, will come forth a def­i­nite and vic­to­ri­ous strug­gle between the world of labor and that of cap­i­tal.

First pub­lished in Liepziger Volk­szeitung, April 30, 1913.

Author of the article

was a Marxist revolutionary, prolific theorist, and leading member of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and the Communist Party of Germany (KPD).