125 years since first May Day – Build a united workers’ movement for socialism!

The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) sends socialist greetings and solidarity to workers, young people and all those exploited by capitalism.

This year marks the 125th International Workers’ Day, or ‘May Day’. The original call for workers’ demonstrations around the world on May 1 was made in July 1889 at the International Socialist Workers Congress in Paris that founded the international organisation that became known as the ‘Second International’. May 1st was chosen to mark the 1886 “Haymarket Massacre”. During a general strike in Chicago demanding an eight hour day, a bombing took place that resulted in a frame-up trial and, in 1887, the execution of four workers’ leaders and activists on “conspiracy” charges. Such was the success of the 1890 May Day another international Congress in 1891 decided it should become an annual event.

The original aim of May Day was to show the strength of the workers’ movement, draw a balance sheet of its recent experiences, re-affirm its resistance to capitalism and war, and display its fighting spirit and the objective of socialism. Launched at a time when, in many countries, the workers’ movement had started to grow steadily, and in some cases rapidly, May Day initially expressed the socialist optimism of that time.

But much water has flowed under the bridge since that first international May Day. Despite the building of many powerful workers’ organisations and countless often bitter and bloody struggles and revolutions, the world remains dominated by capitalism.

The capitalist ruling class carries out endless ‘austerity’, driving down living standards and eroding working conditions. The globe is plagued by conflicts, imperialist armed ‘interventions’, hugely wasteful militarisation and terrible civil wars, including in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Ukraine. The recent tragic drownings of desperate refugees in the Mediterranean are the responsibility of imperialist warmongers and the capitalist EU, whose actions helped laid waste to entire countries and created the largest number of refugees since WW2.

This does not mean nothing was achieved by decades of workers’ self-organisation and battles. On the contrary, in many countries very significant gains were made for the working class: important democratic rights, for example, were wrested from the ruling class, as well as big improvements in welfare, education and health and in other areas. Higher living standards for workers were the result of mass struggles or the threats of such struggles. But, as the current crisis shows, all these gains can be threatened and even removed so long as capitalism remains in place.

One of capitalism’s worst crises

Today, while we are facing one of the worst ever crises of capitalism, when even the strategists and thinkers of the profit system cannot put forward an optimistic perspective, we have to recognise that the workers’ movement is, in many countries, facing severe difficulties and complications. The conservative union leaders have failed to lead and to develop militant struggles to effectively resist austerity and other attacks on working people and the poor. Building combative, democratic trade unions remains a key task facing the working class.

This is not in any way to say that struggles have disappeared. On the contrary, struggles are regularly seen around the world. There has not been a decade since the first May Day which has not seen big class battles and revolutions occur somewhere.

Now we are seeing a tremendously important radicalisation and the beginning of struggles in the US, the number one imperialist power, particularly around the demand for a $15 an hour minimum wage and against police brutality.

Over the past year, many parts of the world have seen working people and youth protesting and fighting for their demands. Brazil witnessed mass protests around the World Cup and students protested in Chile; a powerful strike wave took place in South Africa; strikes increased in China; Belgium has seen powerful strike movements and mass protests against new taxation are taking place in Ireland. Two stunning by-election results in 2014 saw Socialist Party (CWI) candidates elected to the Irish parliament, joining Joe Higgins TD, and showed that the working class will resist austerity. The CWI is also an important part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition in Britain, which is standing over 100 candidates in the current general election.

As well strikes and protests, last January saw the election of a Syriza-led government that pledged to oppose austerity in Greece. In Africa there are renewed movements against authoritarian regimes. Burkina Faso’s dictator, Compaore, was removed after 27 years in power.

These are just some of the latest examples of working people being prepared to struggle. Even if there are long periods of what appears to be acquiescence and hardly any class struggle, this does not continue indefinitely.

However, in many countries the past disappointments and defeats are weighing heavily on the workers’ movement, a situation made worse by the offensive that the ruling classes launched. This offensive has not simply been in terms of lower living standards but also included an ideological offensive against the ideas of collective action and socialism. The propagandists of capitalism have also used the counter-revolution in North Africa and the Middle East – imperialist armed interventions, the growth of religious and ethnic sectarianism and bloody civil wars - to counter the worldwide enthusiasm sparked off by the 2011 revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

What has happened since the ‘Arab Spring’ is not an argument against revolution, but that to achieve real, lasting change requires a united workers’ movement to be built which has a clear socialist programme and an understanding of what concrete steps are needed to end the rule of capitalism and its elites.

In building such movements, socialists have to be able to answer the questions of whether “socialism” failed in countries like the former Soviet Union. This means explaining two essential elements to begin to create a socialist society, namely the taking over of the commanding heights of the economy and the democratic control and planning of these resources in the interests of the majority, something that requires stringent measures to prevent the development of new privileged, bureaucratic elites.

The many experiences of so-called ‘socialist’, ‘social democratic’ or ‘labour’ governments, which failed to carry out their promises and tried to work within the straitjacket of the capitalist system, still calls into question the idea of socialism as a viable alternative to capitalism. The Syriza government in Greece is in danger of ultimately failing in its aim of confronting austerity because of its refusal to mobilise popular support for a break with capitalism. Internationally the workers’ movement has, unfortunately, seen many such lost opportunities, which is why building a force with clear socialist ideas and the confidence to break with capitalism is so important.

Idea of socialism as alternative to capitalism will revive

Despite these complications, the idea of socialism as the alternative to capitalism will revive as more and more workers and young people look for a way out of the economic and social impasse facing the world. At this moment, this is seen most clearly in the US, partly because until now the idea of socialism in that country has been historically weak. The breakthrough election of socialist Kshama Sawant to Seattle City Council, in 2013, was an indication of the important radicalisation beginning to effect sections of US society.

The dead-end of capitalism is seen by the mess its ruling representatives have made of the last two decades when, in some areas, they had a ‘free-run’. It ended in a mighty crash that led to economic stagnation, at best, and the piling up of huge contradictions due to many economic, social and environmental crises. The capitalist system is in a cul-de-sac at a time when the rapid development of science and technology offers huge potential for humankind. The profit system cannot even provide safe water for every human being and presides over vast inequalities in all parts of the world.

The task for socialists and worker-activists is not just building, or rebuilding, combative class organisations, vital as that is. We must also learn lessons from the last 125 years and skilfully apply them to today’s situation. These can be summed up as, firstly, arguing that the key to changing the world is through ending capitalist dictatorship over the economy and, secondly, building mass forces that can win support for a bold socialist programme, especially amongst the working class, poor people and youth.

This is not done in abstract, but by promoting collective action and socialist ideas and by active participation in the struggles that inevitably will arise under the exploitative capitalist system. In this way, socialists can provide an answer to the question of “What can be done?” and help create a mass movement that will, finally, achieve the objectives of the founders of May Day.

Members of the groups and sections of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) will be celebrating May Day 2015 across the world. The CWI appeals to workers, unemployed, young and poor people everywhere to join us in the struggle to make possible a socialist world.

Committee for a workers' International publications

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