Notes on 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.

Rosa Luxemburg, 1913

COMRADES, THE MAY DAY holiday was Instituted by the Second International 35 years ago. It was established by the direct pupils of Marx and Engels, amongst who was old Wilhelm Liebknecht, one of the founders of German social-democracy. On my way here I was flipping through the latest telegraph reports, which have not yet reached you owing to the absence of newspapers during this holiday period, and in these reports from the telegraph agencies I found a number of communiqués about how democratic Europe is preparing to celebrate May Day. Allow me to share them with you. The Bavarian government has issued an order forbidding the organization of a May Day demonstration. In Halle the social-democratic representatives in the government have prohibited the proposed May Day demonstration organized by the trade unions. The government of Saxony, in which the social-democrats have the majority, have banned the organization of May Day street demonstrations and finally in Berlin the social-democrat chief of police has banned the May Day street marches.

Just imagine to yourself for one moment that old Wilhelm Liebknecht, the founder of German social-democracy and institutor of the May Day holiday, were to turn up on the streets of Berlin and see and hear his pupils, or those who call themselves such, like the president of the German republic, the Berlin chief of police, the Saxon social-democratic government, in a word, how the “revolutionary, Marxist’, social-democratic party created by Wilhelm Liebknecht, is preparing to celebrate May Day! Just think of this: the Saxon social-democratic government has openly stated that all attempts to hold street marches will be crushed by armed force. There, comrades, is a little page of history for you: 35 years in all from the foundation of the holiday up till the present day and yet what a staggering history of world decay. In all the first line there is European social-democracy, with a history of the corruption of its leaders, a history of the fettering of the working masses by the trade union bureaucracies, a history of the treacherous deliverance of the toiling masses into the hands of degenerating capital in its bloody state of imperialism!

Leon Trotsky, 1924