FOR OVER 100 years workers have celebrated May Day. It began in the United States as part of the fight for an eight hour day. Since then May Day has become a symbol of resistance and solidarity across the world. Even during the darkest years of war, nationalism and division, workers have held aloft the banner of international working class unity through celebrating May Day.
KARL LIEBKNECHT focused resistance to the horror of World War One
DURING THE First World War May Day became the rallying point for those who opposed the senseless waste of life in the trenches. But at first only a handful stood out against the tide of nationalism and asserted the unity of workers of all lands. In Germany socialists Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were amongst them.
Liebknecht was the only member of the German parliament to vote against the war. It was not until he spoke out in the German parliament that the revolutionary case against the war was heard in public. Liebknecht said, "This war is not being waged for the benefit of the German or any other peoples. It is an imperialist war, a war over the capitalist domination of the world market."
The might of the state was thrown against the socialists. By May Day 1915 Rosa Luxemburg was in prison and Liebknecht was sent to the front. But May Day 1916 was the occasion of the first anti-war demonstration in Berlin. Luxemburg's biographer Paul Frlich describes how: "It was a great success. At eight o'clock in the morning a dense throng of workersalmost 10,000assembled in the square, which the police had already occupied well ahead of time. Karl Liebknecht, in uniform, and Rosa Luxemburg were in the midst of the demonstrators and greeted with cheers from all sides. Liebknecht's voice then rang out: 'Down with the war! Down with the government!' The police immediately rushed at him and tore him out of the crowd. For two hours after Liebknecht's arrest masses of people swirled around Potsdamer Platz and the neighbouring streets and there were many scuffles with the police. For the first time since the beginning of the war open resistance to it had appeared on the streets of the capital. The ice was broken."
When Liebknecht was put on trial later for his "speech" 55,000 metal workers struck in protest. The war also produced revolution in Russia. In February 1917 workers overthrew the Tsar and demanded change. Trotsky described how, on May Day in 1917, "all the cities of Russia were drowned in meetings and demonstrations. "News came in of meetings, speeches, banners and revolutionary songs in the trenches, and there were responses from the German side, sometimes singing the same song in different languages." The First World War was finally ended when German workers rose up in revolution in 1918.
DURING THE Second World War socialists marked May Day in almost unimaginable conditions. In Poland the Nazis forced over 300,000 Jews into the Warsaw Ghetto before transporting them to the extermination camps. But a group of socialists organised armed resistance to the Nazis' liquidation of the ghetto.
Marek Edelman was one of the participants. He describes how, on 1 May 1943, "the Command decided to carry out a 'holiday action'. In the evening a May Day roll call was held. The partisans were briefly addressed by a few people and the Internationale was sung. The entire world, we knew, was celebrating May Day on that day, and everywhere forceful, meaningful words were being spoken. But never yet had the Internationale been sung in conditions so different, so tragic, in a place where an entire nation had been and was perishing. The words and the song echoed from the charred ruins and were, at that time, an indication that socialist youth were still fighting in the ghetto, and that even in the face of death they were not abandoning their ideals."
IN NORTHERN Italy workers celebrated May Day in 1945 for the first time since Mussolini came to power in 1921. Around 100,000 joined the groups of partisan fighters who resisted the Nazis during the war. But in the spring of 1945 an insurrection spread across the whole of northern Italy. The cities of Genoa, Turin and Milan rose up. In Genoa there was fierce street fighting against the Nazis. In Turin a strike by workers began the insurrection and workers occupied their factories. In Milan partisans stormed the fascists' barracks. There was fighting in and around the major factories. The resistance gradually took control, and Mussolini took flight. He failed to escape, however, and was taken prisoner on 27 April. The leaders of the resistance ignored instructions from allied generals and executed him. By 1 May 1945 the whole of northern Italy was free. There was mass rejoicing as workers celebrated May Day.
REVOLUTION IN Portugal in 1974 was sparked by resistance in the then Portuguese colonies in Africa Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bissau. The wars of resistance in Africa tied down the Portuguese armed forces in a series of costly and unwinnable wars. Discontent and radicalisation throughout both the army and society brought about the collapse of Europe's longest lasting fascist dictatorship. Left wing army units overthrew the regime in April 1974 and before long mass discontent spilled into the streets.
MAY DAY in Lisbon 1974: The door of revolution seemed open again
"On May Day it became obvious what the sentiment of the people was. May Day left no doubt," says one writer. A participant in Lisbon's May Day march describes how: "We have never seen anything like it before. The whole of Lisbon is out, the emotion beyond belief. We stand at the corner of Alameda and try to absorb it all: the noise, the spirit, the joy surging out in flood after half a century of being bottled up. This the day of the workers and all of Lisbon is here. There are lorries, obviously borrowed for the day, packed with people coming in from the surrounding towns and suburbs. I could cry. Others are weeping already. All day we marchflowers, carnations everywhere. Young workers are dancing to the music. A bus passes, the driver tooting his horn in rhythm with other noises. There's no telling where that bus will end up. It's going in the opposite direction to the destination written on the front. I shall never forget that 1 May. The noise, the noise, the noise still ringing in my ears. The horns tooting in joy, the shouting, the slogans, the singing and dancing. How can words describe 600,000 people marching in a city of one million? The doors of revolution seem open again, after 48 years of repression. In that single day everything was placed in perspective. Nothing was god given. All was man made."
The mood of workers in Portugal not only unleashed revolution at home, it stopped right wing generals continuing the war in the colonies, which gained their independence the following year.
"IT IS not worth fighting. It is not worth protesting," politicians say today. But Vietnam nails that lie. In April 1975 the greatest military power on earth, the US, fled from Vietnam in humiliation and defeat. It was beaten by one of the world's smallest and weakest countries in a war that lasted for over 20 years and consumed vast amounts of the US budget. The North Vietnamese had no air force at all. The US army and navy were vastly superior. The US sprayed napalm on Vietnamese children, massacred civilians and razed villages to the ground.
One million Vietnamese were killed and another one million died when the US spread the bombing to neighbouring Cambodia. But the spirit and determination of the Vietnamese people combined with anti-war protests in the US and Europe eventually won out. Anti-war protests were small at first. Those opposed to war were again an isolated minority. But as news of the massacres of Vietnamese civilians emerged, and as US troops began to die, a mass anti-war movement spread across the world and connected with millions. Anti-war demonstrators were radicalised further when they experienced the brutal actions of the police. On 1 May 1975 vast victory parades marched through Vietnamese streets. One of the smallest nations on earth had humbled the mightiest and radicalised a generation.
MAY DAY is international workers' day. It is the day when the working class across the world mark the struggles that have taken place and the struggles to come. This century has been 100 years of wars and revolutions. In 1916 in Germany, May Day was the focus for all of those who opposed the carnage of the First World War.
In Russia in 1917 May Day fell between two revolutionsone that had brought down the Tsar, and the October Revolution that carried the working class to power and heralded the end of the war in Europe. As the century draws to a close we are once again faced with the choice of socialism or barbarism.
Last year workers in Indonesia showed us a glimpse of one future when they rose up and toppled the US backed dictator Suharto. Today we see another futurethe future of our rulers everywhere. We see NATO's bloody war in the Balkans that has turned a tragedy into a catastrophe and spills more blood every day.
That is why Socialist Worker sees it as urgent that the real tradition of May Day lives again. We wish to reassert the spirit of internationalism and workers' power.
Workers of the world, unite!
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