Origin of May Day

On July 14, 1889, the hundredth anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, leaders from organized revolutionary proletarian movements of many countries came together in Paris to found what became known as the Second International. Although he could not personally attend this conference, Frederick Engels played a guiding role in its proceedings. In the period since the First International founded by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Marxism had won a decisive victory in the working class movement over anarchism and other petty bourgeois trends. Working class parties had emerged and grown strong in all the capitalist countries of Europe and North America. The working class movement for political rights had become strong in many countries. In these conditions, the Paris Congress declared that May 1, 1890 will be celebrated as Labor Day internationally.

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”.

First May Day in India

May Day celebrations in India have been an integral part of the International Working Class Day celebrations that are organised throughout the world every year on May 1.

The first May Day celebration in India was organised in Chennai (formerly Madras) by the Labour Kisan Party of Hindustan on May 1, 1923. This was also the first time the red flag was flown in India. The party leader Comrade Singaravelu Chettiar made arrangements to celebrate May Day in two places in 1923. One meeting was held at the beach opposite to the Madras High Court; the other meeting was held at the Triplicane beach. 

The May Day celebration organized in Chennai reflected the rise of socialist consciousness amongst the working class. The Indian working class had already shown its revolutionary potential in the anti colonial struggle through the great strike movement that followed the arrest of Lokmanya Tilak on sedition charges.

Following the end of the First World War, a massive strike movement swept India in the period 1918-1921. The end of 1918 saw the entire Mumbai cotton mill industry shut down as a result of workers strike for better wages and working and living conditions. Railway workers and textile mill workers throughout India were in the forefront of powerful struggles against the fascist Rowlatt Act. In November 1921, millions of workers participated in a countrywide general strike to protest the visit of the Prince of Wales, with the workers of Mumbai textile mills bringing the city to a grinding halt.

Trade unions were being formed in large numbers in this period. The All India Trade Union Congress was founded as the first center for Indian trade unions on October 31, 1920.

India’s working class was inspired by the heroic deeds of the Ghadar revolutionaries during and after the First World War, and the triumph of the Great October Socialist Revolution in the Soviet Union in 1917.

Singaravelu chettiar was one of the founder members of the Communist Party of India in 1925.

The Triumph of Labour statue on Marina Beach in Chennai marks the country’s first May Day celebrations.

The origin of May Day is closely bound up with the struggle for the shorter workday – a demand of major political significance for the working class. This struggle started almost from the beginning of the factory system in Britain, the US and European countries.

Although the demand for higher wages was the most prevalent cause for strikes, the demand for shorter hours and the right to organize were always kept in the foreground when workers formulated their demands against their capitalist employers.

The increase in the number of strikes during 1885 and 1886 in the US as compared with previous years showed the fighting spirit of workers. Workers in many cities and different trades began to unite around the demand “8 hours work, 8 hours recreation and 8 hours rest”. They began to prepare for a major strike action around this demand on May 1, 1886.

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.

On May 1, 1886, 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 8-hour movement in the US, culminating in the strike on May 1, 1886, forms by itself a glorious chapter in the fighting history of the working class.

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, 1886 which led to what is known as the Haymarket Affair were a direct outgrowth of the May 1 strike.

On May 3, police brutally attacked a peaceful meeting of striking workers at the McCormick Reaper Works in Chicago, resulting in the death of six workers. In response to this unprovoked barbaric attack by the police, the workers organised a demonstration on May 4 at the Haymarket Square. The meeting was peaceful and about to be adjourned when agent provocateurs working for the police threw a bomb into the crowd. In the anarchy and violence that was deliberately organized by the police and agent provocateurs, several people were killed and many injured.

The capitalist media in the US then launched a massive anti worker campaign, painting workers as anarchists and criminals and calling for their hanging. Seven workers were sentenced to death. Among them one committed suicide and four workers were hanged. Later on the entire trial was exposed as a farce. For a time, the capitalist class in the US was able to suppress the working class movement for rights by unleashing a ferocious onslaught on workers. However, it was unable to destroy the fighting spirit of the workers, who decided to organize rallies throughout the US on May 1, 1990.

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, called 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 Flag, 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”!

Since then, workers throughout the world have celebrated May 1 as a day of solidarity among workers of all lands, in the common struggle against capitalism and for liberation from all forms of exploitation.                                                     


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First May Day in India    Origin of May Day    Apr 16-30 2017    Voice of the Party    History    Rights     2017   


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