For more than 100 years, the 1st of May has come to symbolise the united struggle of the international working class against the capitalist system. When workers anywhere rally together and raise the red flag on this day – whether at the gates of their factory, on the streets of their cities, or across their countries – they are part of the international army of the proletariat.
They are part of a proud fighting tradition of generations of workers who have fought against exploitation and oppression. The history of May Day around the world has been and continues to be the history of unity, struggle and sacrifice of the class whose destiny it is to overthrow capitalism and build the new world where the toilers will rule.
Capitalism and the growth of the class struggle of the proletariat
With the growth and development of capitalism began the struggle of the working class against capitalist exploitation and oppression. In the words of the famous Communist Manifesto written by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “with the development of industry, the proletariat not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more.”
The Communist Manifesto goes on to describe how this process leads to the organisation of the proletariat:
“…the collisions between individual workmen and individual bourgeois take more and more the character of collisions between two classes. Thereupon, the workers begin to form combinations (Trades’ Unions) against the bourgeois; they club together in order to keep up the rate of wages; they found permanent associations in order to make provision beforehand for these occasional revolts. Here and there, the contest breaks out into riots.
Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers. This union is helped on by the improved means of communication that are created by modern industry, and that place the workers of different localities in contact with one another. It was just this contact that was needed to centralise the numerous local struggles, all of the same character, into one national struggle between classes. But every class struggle is a political struggle. And that union, to attain which the burghers of the Middle Ages, with their miserable highways, required centuries, the modern proletarian, thanks to railways, achieve in a few years.”
The international organisation of the working class
As the strength of the working class organisations grew in the most advanced capitalist countries of Europe and North America in the nineteenth century, the need was felt for closer ties between them. This was necessary to combat the efforts of the capitalist class to utilise every kind of division within the ranks of the workers, including national divisions, to weaken the working class and intensify its exploitation. On the initiative of Marx and Engels and several other working class leaders, the International Workingmen’s Association was founded in London in 1864, and held its first Congress in 1866. The IWA presided over the great growth in the size and activities of the working class parties and unions until it was disbanded in 1876. The international organisation of the working class was later revived under Engels’ leadership in 1889 as the Second International.
The struggle for the eight-hour day
Under capitalism, the labour power of the worker is a commodity, which the capitalist buys and puts to use for the purpose of enhancing his profits. The more that he can make the worker slave for him, the greater his profits. It is only through the relentless and united struggle of the working class that the worker has been able to put some limit on the number of hours that he is made to toil for the capitalist boss.
In the nineteenth century, it was common for workers to have to toil for 12, 14 and even 16 hours a day. They had no other life than to slave in the sweatshops of the capitalists day after day. Increasingly, working class organisations came to recognise the crucial nature of the demand for a shorter working day, for the workers to lead lives fit for human beings rather than beasts of burden. A shorter working day was also essential for the worker to be able to engage in political activity. Initially, the demand was for restricting the working day to 10 hours; later, the slogan was raised of “8 hours of work, 8 hours of recreation and 8 hours of rest”.
The struggle for an eight-hour day developed into a working class movement of major proportions in North America and Europe. In 1866, the National Labour Union in the United States declared: “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 attained.”
The Geneva Congress of the First International in the same year also declared: “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.”
In 1884, the American Federation of Labour declared that May 1, 1886, would be the day from which an eight-hour day would become the legal working day.
The first May Day
On May 1, 1886, nearly half a million workers in cities across the United States struck work on the issue of the eight-hour day. The epicentre of the strike was the great industrial city of Chicago. On May 4, a public rally was organised in the Haymarket square area to protest against the killing of striking workers by the police on the preceding day. Police ruthlessly fired into the crowd, killing several demonstrators and injuring scores of others. The Haymarket massacre, and the subsequent police persecution including the execution of four labour leaders, angered and aroused thousands more to join the struggle for the eight-hour day and for the rights of the workers.
Following these events, the first congress of the Second International, held in Paris in 1889 declared May 1 as the day of struggle of the international working class. The resolution of the Congress read: “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. … The workers of the various countries must organize this demonstration according to conditions prevailing in each country.”
Writing on May 1, one year later, in 1890, Engels said “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.”
May Day, the day of international working class struggle and unity
It is now more than 120 years that May Day has been celebrated throughout the world. As the growth of the modern socialised production spread and a new proletariat emerged in countries throughout the globe, millions upon millions of workers have on May 1, laid down their tools and marched shoulder to shoulder for the victory of their cause. In India, the first celebration of May Day took place in Chennai in 1923, and has been a proud tradition ever since.
Over the years, in addition to the original demand for an eight-hour day and other improvements in their working conditions, the working class has fought unitedly for their political rights, against imperialist war, against fascism, and for socialism.
The victory of the October Revolution in Russia, followed by the establishment of socialism there and in other countries, was the greatest milestone in the struggle of the working class. The victory over fascism 65 years ago this month, the establishment of Peoples Democracies, and the dismantling of the colonial system through the struggles of the proletariat and peoples marked a high tide in the struggle of the working class. The capitalist class the world over was forced to accept some of the demands of the working class, to stave off proletarian revolution.
The retreat of revolution on world scale, following the collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in a new period. The strategic aim of the working class has remained unchanged — the triumph of revolution and socialism as the condition for the emancipation of the class and all of humankind. Simultaneously, the world proletariat has been confronted with the most ferocious offensive of capital. Imperialism has declared that the proletariat submits to the slogan that the state and society has no responsibility to its members and that the working masses must fend for themselves. It has declared that the only responsibility of the capitalist states is to bail out the capitalist class and the financial oligarchy in times of crisis, like at the present time, and use the state machinery to suppress the struggle of working class, the peoples and nations for their rights.
In these conditions, the May Day movement is growing from strength to strength. All across the world, this May Day, the workers are demanding a solution of the crisis in favour of the working masses. They are opposing the bailout of the financial oligarchy at public expense. They are demanding that they have rights as the producers of wealth, and that they will fight for political power in their own hands to ensure that these rights are guaranteed and enforceable.
May Day 2010 is a harbinger of the growing unity of the world proletariat in the struggle for the victory of the next round of revolutions against capital.