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May Day and the International

 May 1st, 1918    Featured, History, May DayPrint Print

We are publishing original material by Leon Trotsky on the origins and history of May Day. Be sure to register today for the International May Day 2016.


THE CHARACTER of the entire workers’ movement during the era of the Second International is reflected in the history and the fate of the May Day holiday.

May 1 was established as a holiday by the Paris International Socialist Congress in 1889.

The purpose of designating it thus was, by means of simultaneous demonstrations by workers of all countries on that day, to prepare the ground for drawing them together into a single international proletarian organization of revolutionary action having one world center and one world political orientation.

The Paris Congress, which had taken the above decision, was treading the path of the International Communist League and of the First International. For the Second International to adopt the pattern of these two organizations was impossible from the start. In the course of the 14 years which had passed since the days of the First International class organizations of the proletariat had grown up in every country which carried out their activity quite independently within their territory and were not adapted to international unification on the principles of democratic centralism.

The formation of an International as the organization of international revolutionary proletarian action, with one center and with one international political orientation, had not been achieved.

The celebration of May Day should have prepared them for such a unification and therefore the demand for the eight-hour working day was introduced as its slogan, which was conditioned by the development of the productive forces and was popular among the broad working masses of all countries.

The effective task which was assigned to the May Day holiday consisted of facilitating the process of transforming the working class as an economic category into the working class in the sociological sense of the word, into a class, conscious of its interests in their totality, and striving to establish its dictatorship and the socialist revolution.

From this point of view demonstrations in support of the socialist revolution were most appropriate to May Day. And the revolutionary elements at the congress achieved this. But at the stage of development through which the working class was then passing the majority found that the demand for the eight-hour working day provided a better answer for carrying out the task in front of them. In any case this was a slogan capable of uniting workers of all countries.

Just such a role was also played by the slogan of universal peace which was subsequently put forward.

But the congress proposed and the objective conditions of the development of the workers’ movement disposed.

The May holiday gradually turned from the means of struggle of the world proletariat into a means of struggle of the workers of each separate country for their local interests. And this was made more possible by putting forward the third slogan—universal suffrage.

In the majority of states May Day was celebrated either just in the evening after work was finished or else on the following Sunday. In those places where the workers celebrated it by a stoppage of work as in Belgium and Austria it served the cause of realizing local tasks but not the cause of closing the ranks of workers of all countries into one world working class. Side by side with progressive consequences (as a result of bringing together the workers of a particular country) it also had, therefore, negative conservative sides—it linked the workers too tightly with the fate of a particular state and in this way prepared the ground for the development of social-patriotism.

The Second International was merely a weak union of workers’ parties which were independent of each other in their activity.

The task which had been placed on the order of the day by the Paris Congress had not been realized. The formation of an International as the organization of international revolutionary proletarian action, with one center and with one international political orientation, had not been achieved. The Second International was merely a weak union of workers’ parties which were independent of each other in their activity.

May Day turned into its opposite. And with the war, the Second International came to an end.

Such were the consequences of the inexorable logic of the dialectical process of development of the workers’ movement.

Wherein lies the cause of this phenomenon? What guarantee is there against its repetition? What lesson for the future is drawn from this?

Of course, the basic cause of the failure of the May Day holiday lay in the character of the given period of capitalist development, in the process of its deepening in each separate country and the struggle conditioned by this process for the democratization of the state system and for the adaptation of the latter to the needs of capitalist development. But even in the development of a capitalist or of any other type of system there exist tendencies of two sorts— the conservative and the revolutionary; for the working class is the active participant in the historical process, and its vanguard, the socialist parties, is destined to go ahead of this process and counterpose its revolutionary tendencies to conservative trends at every stage of the workers’ movement and to put forward and defend the overall interests of the entire proletariat in its totality, independent of nationality. This is the very task which the socialist parties during the period of the Second International did not fulfil and this had a direct influence on the fate of the May Day holiday.

Under the influence of the party bosses made up of intellectuals and the labor bureaucracy, the socialist parties in the period described concentrated their attention on very useful parliamentary activity which was in its essence national and not international or of a class character. In their activity, the organization of workers was transformed from a means of class struggle into an end in itself. It is sufficient to recall how the leaders of German Social-Democracy argued for transferring May Day to the following Sunday. They said that one could not expose an exemplary party organization, parliamentary activity and numerous rich trade unions to danger merely for the sake of a demonstration.

The present epoch in the workers’ movement is directly contrary in character to the past epoch. Opened by the war, and in particular by the Russian October Revolution, it is the epoch of the direct struggle of the proletariat for power on a world scale.

Its character is favorable to May Day fulfilling that role to which the revolutionary elements at the Paris Congress of 1889 attempted to assign it. It is presented with the task of facilitating the formation of a Third Revolutionary International and of serving the cause of mobilizing proletarian forces for the world socialist revolution.

But to assist in the carrying out of this great role the lessons of the past and the demands of the present epoch powerfully dictate to socialists from all countries: 1) a radical change in their policy; 2) putting forward appropriate slogans for May Day.

In the first instance the following steps are necessary: 1) concentration of efforts on forming a Third Revolutionary International; 2) subordination of the interests of each country to the general interests of the international proletarian movement, and subordination of parliamentary activity to the interests of the struggle of the proletarian masses.

The main slogans of May Day in the present epoch should be: 1) The Third International; 2) The Dictatorship of the Proletariat; 3) The World Soviet Republic; 4) The Socialist Revolution.

International May Day

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About Leon Trotsky

More than seventy years after his death in 1940, Leon Trotsky, co-leader of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and founder of the Fourth International, remains a subject of the most intense historical controversy.

Having successfully defended the Soviet Union as commander of the Red Army, Trotsky led the opposition to the Stalinist bureaucracy that grew increasingly powerful in the 1920s. In 1927, just a decade after the revolution that he had led, Trotsky was expelled from the Soviet Communist Party and, soon after, exiled from the Soviet Union. Trotsky devoted the last decade of his life to the struggle against the Stalinist regime that had betrayed the socialist ideals of the October Revolution and to the building of a new international revolutionary working class party. In August 1940, Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico by an agent of the Soviet secret police.

During his lifetime, Trotsky was subjected to a campaign of political and personal vilification unequaled in history. The bloody purges carried out by the Soviet regime in the late 1930s were aimed at destroying all vestiges of Trotsky’s once great political and cultural influence on the working class and socialist intelligentsia within the USSR.

Remarkably, even as Trotsky waged his unrelenting struggle against Stalinism, he never retreated from his critique of capitalism and his vision of world socialist revolution.

While the dissolution of the USSR vindicated Trotsky’s opposition to Stalinism, the global economic crisis imparts to his critique of capitalism and world revolutionary perspective extraordinary political relevance. This is why, so many decades after his death, virtually every aspect of Trotsky’s life, the personal as well as the political, is bitterly contested by historians.

Read more about Trotsky in David North's In Defense of Leon Trotsky, second edition, published by Mehring Books.