May Day 2017: Celebrating the Russian Revolution centenary

The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) sends solidarity greetings to workers, young people and all those exploited by capitalism around the world. We extend revolutionary greetings to all those in struggle. We stand shoulder to shoulder with workers and youth resisting war, racism, dictatorship and the capitalist system.


We celebrate this International Workers’ Day on the anniversary of the immortal Russian Revolution.

Notwithstanding the differences between Tsarist Russia and the situation today, the Russian revolution holds many valuable and fundamental lessons for socialists and workers in the struggle to change society.

The month of May 1917 saw a situation of dual power in Russia: the weakness of the Provisional Government, brought to power after the fall of the Tsar in February, was increasingly clear but the revolutionary movement was not yet able to take power. Right wing social democrats joined a coalition government with the capitalist and pro-imperialist war establishment. At the same time, the Bolsheviks strengthened their political position, following Lenin’s return from exile, putting forward a clearer socialist alternative and gaining ground amongst the working class.

Trotsky, who returned from exile on 4 May, referred to Lenin’s April Theses as “the struggle for the rearming of the Bolshevik ranks”. In essence, Lenin’s position coalesced with Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution i.e. the need for the independent action and organisation of the working class for a struggle to overthrow capitalism and feudalism and for the socialist revolution. On this political basis, the working class in Russia, led by the Lenin, Trotsky, and the Bolsheviks, prepared for and took power in October 1917 – the first successful socialist revolution.

Lessons of October

One hundred years later, the capitalist system globally remains mired in crisis economically, politically and socially. The horrors of capitalism and semi-feudalism are to be seen every day in Asia, Africa and Latin America. And even in Europe, austerity drives millions into deeper poverty and destitution, as can be seen by the continuing agony of the Greek people.

At the same time, Brexit signals the profound failure of the bosses’ European Union. Polarisation on left and right lines is deepening in many countries. Workers and youth are resisting the Trump administration and mobilising against the rise in support for far right politicians, like Marine Le Pen.

Yet in the face of these crises the leaders of the official trade unions and workers’ organisations are, in the main, failing to offer a fight back.

There is an urgent need to build a fighting workers’ movement and mass socialist alternative to capitalism. The potential for this is shown by the vote for Bernie Sanders in last year’s US presidential race, by Jeremy Corbyn’s victory over the Blairites in two Labour leadership elections in Britain, and by the vote received by Melenchon in the first round of the French presidential elections.

But successfully translating mass opposition to austerity and the ills of the capitalist system into action against racism, war, poverty and joblessness, depends on adopting a bold socialist programme. It also requires workers’ developing their own mass independent forces, democratically run, to unite the whole working class and poor to struggle for power. This is the most fundamental lesson of the Russian Revolution, which the CWI, around the world, both celebrates and defends (

We will continue our struggle to build a powerful international workers’ alternative to fight for a socialist alternative to capitalism and imperialism.

The real origins of May Day

Dave Nellist, from the Socialist (weekly paper of the Socialist Party – CWI England & Wales)

May Day has been a public holiday in the UK since 1978. But its real origins lie in the great struggles in America by working people for shorter working hours at the end of the 19th century, and the martyrdom of union leaders executed 130 years ago.

The centre of the movement for an eight-hour working day was Chicago, where some factories imposed an 18-hour day. An eight-hour law had actually been passed by the US congress in 1868. However, over the next 15 years, it was enforced only twice.

But over that same period workers began to take matters into their own hands. For example, in 1872 100,000 workers in New York struck and won an eight-hour day, mostly for building workers.
In the autumn of 1885, a leading union, the Knights of Labor, announced rallies and demonstrations for the following May – on the slogan of “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.”

Their radicalism and success in key railroad strikes had led to membership growth. From 28,000 in 1880, the Knights of Labor grew to 100,000 in 1885. In 1886 they mushroomed to nearly 800,000. The capitalists were increasingly frightened at the prospect of widespread strikes.

On 1 May 1886, the first national general strike in American history took place, with 500,000 involved in demonstrations across the country. As a direct consequence, tens of thousands saw their hours of work substantially reduced – in many cases down to an eight-hour day with no loss in pay.

The employers lost no time in executing their revenge. The New York Sun, as direct as its modern British namesake, advocated “a diet of lead for hungry strikers”!

Two days later, on 3 May, 500 police herded 300 scabs through a picket line at the Chicago factory of farm machinery firm International Harvester. When the pickets resisted, the police opened fire and several workers died


A protest meeting was organised for the following evening in Haymarket Square. Towards its end, in the pouring rain, with only a couple of hundred workers left, the police arrived to break it up.
The meeting had been orderly, but suddenly a bomb was thrown into the ranks of the police. Seven officers were killed and 66 injured.

The police turned their guns on the workers, wounding most of the demonstrators, and killing several. It was never established who threw the bomb – an ‘anarchist,’ or a police ‘agent provocateur.’ At the subsequent trial of the union leaders the prosecution said it was irrelevant, and the judge agreed.

Police raids rounded up hundreds of union activists throughout the country. Eight union leaders were put on trial. Seven of them had not been at the demonstration and the eighth was the speaker on the platform, so none of them could have thrown the bomb.

Legality was never the aim of that trial; revenge was. The Chicago Tribune of the day gave the game away with the headline: “Hang an organiser from every lamp-post.”

The trial began on 21 June. Instead of choosing a jury by picking names from a box – the normal method – it was rigged by a special bailiff, nominated by the prosecutor. He ensured the jury was made up of “such men as the prosecutor wants” – a practice echoed by today’s jury selection in Ireland’s Jobstown protest trial!

On 19 August that jury duly returned a verdict of guilty. Before sentence was formally announced, the defendants were allowed to make statements.

One of the eight, August Spies, a leader of the anarchist International Working People’s Association, made a powerful speech: “Your Honour,” he began, “in addressing this court I speak as the representative of one class to the representative of another…

“If you think that by hanging us you can stamp out the labour movement… the movement from which the downtrodden millions, the millions who toil in want and misery expect salvation – if this is your opinion, then hang us

“Here you will tread upon a spark, but there and there, behind you – and in front of you, and everywhere, flames blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out.”
On 11 November 1887, four of the union leaders were executed.

International protests followed. Huge meetings were addressed in England and Wales by Eleanor Marx, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde and William Morris. 200,000 people in Chicago lined the streets for the funerals.

Day of solidarity

From that day on, 1 May has grown to an international day of solidarity among working people.

In 1889, the founding meeting in Paris of what became known as the Second International passed a resolution calling for a “great international demonstration” to take place the following year. The call was a resounding success.

On 1 May 1890, May Day demonstrations took place in the United States and most countries in Europe.

Friedrich Engels joined half a million workers in Hyde Park in London on 3 May, and reported:

“As I write these lines, the working class of Europe and America is holding a review of its forces; it is mobilised for the first time as one army, under one flag, and fighting for one immediate aim: an eight-hour working day.”

As workers have emerged from tyranny and repression in whatever country, they have adopted May Day as theirs. Its true history will undoubtedly inspire a new generation of socialists, as it has done so often in the past.

Every year on May Day, the Socialist prints messages of solidarity from across the workers’ movement. Click here to see this year’s record 99 greetings across ten pages, which raised over £5,200 for socialist ideas.

Special financial appeal to all readers of

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April 2017