May Day 2009 takes place against the background of a historic crisis of the capitalist system.
Everywhere, the impact of the crisis is being felt. Tens of millions are being thrown out of work around the world, including millions in the heart of world capitalism, the United States. People find themselves unable to make their credit card payments or afford housing, education, health care and the other basic necessities of life. Hundreds of millions are being pushed into extreme poverty and hunger.
Against the background of these events, the significance of May Day assumes enormous importance. This is especially true under conditions in which all the old organizations—the Social Democratic parties, the ex-Communist parties, the trade unions, the “left” and “anti-capitalist” parties—collaborate with big business and the banks in attacking the working class and smothering every independent initiative of workers to fight back.
The significance of May Day is rooted in its origins. A reconnection with this history is necessary to combat all those who say that nothing can be done and nothing can be fought for, who seek to abolish from the consciousness of the working class any connection to its great traditions.
May Day’s origins lie in the early and bitter struggles of the industrial working class in the United States, which were centered on the fight for the eight-hour day.
An attempt to demonstrate the unity and strength of the working class was a call for a strike of all workers on May 1, 1886 to demand the establishment of eight hours as a legal day’s labor in the US. Some 350,000 workers took part—an important step in the long fight of the working class for basic social and economic rights.
Frightened by this display of working class unity, the ruling class responded with a brutal counteroffensive. In Chicago, a center of the May 1 strike, where 40,000 workers participated, police responded with an attack on unarmed strikers two days later, killing six people. A protest the next day in Haymarket Square led to the infamous Haymarket Massacre. As the demonstration came to an end, a bomb—almost certainly from a provocateur—was set off. The police responded by firing indiscriminately into the crowd, killing an unknown number of men, women and children and injuring at least 200.
The massacre at Haymarket became the occasion for the Chicago business establishment and the capitalist newspapers to whip up a campaign against “bomb-throwing anarchists.” Eight leading organizers of the May 1 demonstrations—Albert Parsons, August Spies, Samuel Fielden, Eugene Schwab, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Louis Ling and Oscar Neebe—were arrested and, after a travesty of justice overseen by a corrupt judge, seven were sentenced to death. Four of the Haymarket martyrs were eventually executed and one committed suicide. After an international campaign, two of the convicted had their sentences commuted. The three who remained alive were eventually freed.
The events of May 1886 in the US reverberated around the world, which was passing through a period of international labor upsurge. At its founding congress in 1889—120 years ago this July—the Second (Socialist) International passed a resolution adopting May 1 as the international day of working class solidarity. At the heart of May Day is the conception that the working class can advance its interests only though its international unity in opposition to the capitalist class.
The American ruling class was so fearful of the implications of the principles of May Day that in 1894 it established, on a different date, Labor Day as a federal holiday. This decision was made two months after major May Day demonstrations following the panic of 1893 and a rapid rise of unemployment.
The central slogans of the early May Day demonstrations were for the eight-hour day and the improvement of working class living standards, international solidarity and the struggle against militarism and war.
Tragically, the principles of May Day were betrayed by the mass organizations of the working class—first and foremost the Second International itself. In 1914, the main parties of this organization supported their respective bourgeois governments in the prosecution of World War I.
In 1918, drawing a balance sheet of these experiences and demarcating genuine socialism from opportunism, Leon Trotsky, then a leading figure in the workers’ state established by the Russian Revolution, explained that the purpose of May Day “was, by means of a simultaneous demonstration 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 centre and one world political orientation.”
The development of “a single international proletarian organization of revolutionary action” emerges as a pressing necessity today. The crisis that has overtaken capitalism is a world crisis, and the fate of the world’s population is more intertwined today than at any time in history. None of the basic problems confronting humanity can be solved on a national level.
The working class, however, is the only truly international class—the only class whose interests transcend all national borders. The response of the ruling classes of the world to the economic crisis is to intensify the struggle for their national interests, a struggle that leads inevitably to war. In the coming years, the fight against war will become one of the basic life-and-death questions facing the working class in every country.
The economic crisis will bring with it a resurgence of the class struggle, including in the United States. There are already initial signs of a radicalization—from the seven-fold increase in the number of labor disputes in China, to the joint demonstration of French and German Continental Tire workers and the revolt of French Caterpillar workers against the unions, to the bitter opposition among American auto workers to the coordinated attack on their jobs and living standards by the government, the corporations, and the United Auto Workers.
As they enter into struggle, the central issue that will confront workers in every country will be the question of leadership and political perspective. The extreme growth of class tensions is accompanied by the utter bankruptcy of all those organizations that once claimed to represent the working class.
As if in mockery of the traditions of May Day, on April 29 the UAW pushed through a contract at Chrysler that eliminates what little remains of the past gains of auto workers. Among the concessions agreed to by the union was the elimination of overtime pay for work beyond eight hours in a single day. This latest betrayal is the culmination of decades of class collaboration. In the American unions, one finds only the most naked expression of a global phenomenon.
But the laws of history, as Trotsky noted, are stronger than the bureaucratic apparatus. The pressure of the capitalist crisis is leading inexorably toward a new upsurge of the working class on a global scale.
Today, the only party that preserves the true ideals of May Day is the International Committee of the Fourth International. In its long history, the ICFI has carried out a principled struggle against all those political tendencies that adapted to nationalism, Stalinism and the capitalist system. It is with great confidence that the ICFI anticipates the growth of international working class struggle and the revival of the perspective of world socialist revolution.