The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) sends warmest socialist greetings to workers and young people everywhere who are fighting for justice and for socialism. We honour the pioneers of the labour movement and martyrs of the past; we remember those fighting capitalism and oppression in our lifetime who have risked their freedom and given their lives. We express solidarity with all who struggle against war, oppression and exploitation.
Origins of May Day
May 1st was long ago chosen as the day to celebrate workers’ struggles and solidarity world-wide. It dates back to 1886 when hundreds of thousands of workers in the US were conducting a strike struggle for an eight-hour day. A brutal police attack was made on a peaceful protest of striking workers in Haymarket Square, Chicago on the first day of May. Some were killed, many injured and hundreds arrested.
More demonstrations culminated in a major battle on 4 May in which the main leaders were arrested. Five were sentenced to death by hanging. In pursuing their vicious class interests to the end, the vicious Chicago bosses set off a proud tradition of annual workers’ demonstrations across the globe.
The first of May was first adopted in the US and then internationally as the day to hold strikes and demonstrations in pursuit of the eight hour working day. The idea was taken up and endorsed at a conference in Paris in 1889 of the forces that were to constitute the workers’ Second International.
More than two decades before this, at a meeting in 1866, the First International adopted the slogan: “Eight hours’ labour, eight hours’ recreation and eight hours’ rest”. At that time, Marx wrote in his great work, As Capital, that, “Extending the working day …not only produces a deterioration of human labour power …but also produces the premature exhaustion and death of this labour power itself”. How modern is this assertion! Even the latest scientific research backs it up with detailed statistics on health and life expectancy.
VI Lenin, the co-leader with Leon Trotsky of the 1917 Russian Revolution, was also an energetic campaigner for the eight hour day, long before the 1905 Russian revolution ‘dress rehearsal’ and its defeat. Lenin saw the May Day strikes that followed the massacre of striking workers in the Lena goldfields in 1912 as a sure sign of a revival of the workers’ movement.
When the Bolshevik-led government came to power in October 1917, the eight hour day was one of the first measures immediately implemented. This was essential if workers were to have time to participate fully in the discussion and decision-making involved in the democratic running of the new workers’ state.
100 years ago, the fist celebration of May Day in Russia after the victory of the revolution, saw an exuberant flowering of artistic experimentation and creativity. Later, as Stalin’s bureaucratic dictatorship replaced the original workers’ democracy, May Day lost much of its spontaneity.
It was maintained as a major national holiday, but saw less and less spontaneous expressions of international workers’ solidarity and more and more regimentation. Ironically, in the name of world peace, more and more military hardware and massed ranks of military forces were displayed in Red Square.
Similarly, in China and Eastern Europe after World War Two, when capitalist relations had been replaced by state ownership and planning, the same rituals were enacted. Ruling ‘in the name of the working class’, while not allowing workers to participate in government, and crushing any revolt from below, they Stalinist regimes would pay lip-service to the day of international workers’ solidarity. They organised regimented May Day parades with massed contingents of factory workers and students carrying red flags and singing the international revolutionary song, The International.
May Day today
Today, long after the collapse of Stalinism, and the decline of many traditional organisations of the working class, May 1st is still a publicly recognised holiday in 80 countries. Many of them are dictatorships or near dictatorships ,like Kazakhstan, Turkey, Russia and China. These are countries where hundreds of “dissenters” languish in state prisons for the ‘crime’ of fighting for basic democratic rights such as free speech, freedom of the press, free elections, free trade unions. And May Day is for remembering the martyrs of the past and vowing to free the world of all tyranny! It is the day for expressing international solidarity with all political prisoners and victims of state repression.
The CWI has constantly campaigned for the release of political prisoners. There are reports that human rights lawyer, Vadim Kuramshin, in Kazakhstan, may at last be freed. We have also seen in the past year that campaigns we have initiated or been closely involved in have brought success. This was the case with the Total workers of Yemen, with the journalist, Ali Feruz, released from prison and torture in Russia and the student activist, Mohammed Satti, in Sudan, who was released from arrest.
The CWI in Hong Kong supported the veteran democracy campaigner, ‘Long Hair’, on many occasions and is involved in an ongoing struggle against the corrupt Chinese-backed administration. On Thursday, 4 May, another day of international solidarity action for the ‘Stop Repression in Hong Kong’ campaign will take place.
CWI members in a number of countries have been actively involved in campaigning for abortion and other rights for women. In the Spanish state, Izquierda Revolucionaria and the socialist feminist organisation, Libres y Combativas, initiated strikes and demonstrations involving millions on 8 March this year. In Ireland, where three Socialist Party/CWI members are members of the Irish parliament, campaigning work by the socialist feminist ROSA, that involves many Socialist Party members, as well as many other activists, has been an important factor in the right wing government calling a referendum on abortion rights. Another recent solidarity campaign has been in support of youth and workers in Catalonia, fighting for the basic right to national self-determination.
Today’s state repression is a direct result of the survival of capitalism on a world scale. So too are horrific wars, like the seven year conflict in Syria, and the ethnic cleansing taking place in Myanmar. It is also capitalism that breeds racism and sexism world-wide. It leaves whole swathes of the world’s population homeless and yet more working as wage slaves for far longer than eight hours a day and in conditions that risk life and limb. There were estimated to be 45.8 million actual slaves around the world in 2016, with 58% of them in India, Pakistan, China, Bangladesh and Uzbekistan. Even in Europe and the US, there are millions living as slaves, often working for food and lodging alone.
And all this is in a world where the technology exists, with AI and robots, on the basis of public ownership and democratic planning, to cut the working week in half and take the drudgery and danger out of work.
May Day follows closely on International Workers’ Memorial Day that commemorates the millions of workers killed and maimed at work. This year is the fifth anniversary of the Rama Plaza factory collapse that killed 1,134 workers in Bangladesh. Up to 1,200 migrant workers are said to have died already in the construction of the 2020 football stadium in Qatar – the richest country in the world.
The International Labour Organisation estimates that some 2.3 million women and men around the world succumb to work-related accidents or diseases every year; this corresponds to over 6,000 deaths every single day. Worldwide, there are around 340 million occupational accidents and 160 million victims of work-related illnesses annually.
These days, in countries where workers’ action and mass movements have achieved a working week of forty hours, even thirty five, the demand for a minimum wage has come to the fore. In the US, the campaign for $15 an hour has been given huge impetus by the successful campaign on Seattle Council, spearheaded by the elected Socialist Alternative representative, Kshama Sawant. In Britain, on May 1st, young workers at scores of branches of McDonalds are striking for a minimum hourly rate of £10, setting an example to all.
War and revolution
May Day declarations for world peace take on a particular significance this year. A new trade war threatens between the biggest powers. And now we see the development of what is being called a new ‘Cold War’ (though unlike the 20th century Cold War this is not between two different social systems – capitalist and non-capitalist). There are fears too of a nuclear conflagration. Peace talks in the Korean peninsula are unlikely to see a significant reduction in global stocks of weapons that could annihilate the world’s population, many times over. The only comfort is that the prospect of ‘Mutually Acquired Destruction’ still holds back any first use of any nuclear weapon.
War or the threat of war could anyway see major protests developing world-wide, as was the case against the Vietnam war or more recently, the Iraq war. These, in turn, will bring to the fore, especially in the minds of the new generation, the question of who runs society and how much longer can they be allowed to do it.
The main campaigning work of the CWI is making the case for socialism. To actively help build the forces of mass parties of the working class to carry through fundamental socialist change and to establish a socialist world confederation. Our programme includes demands for a shorter working week, a minimum wage, jobs and homes for all, free health provision, abortion rights and many other vital issues.
We argue that there can be no lasting peace or harmony in society while 1% of the world’s population protects its massive wealth from the other 99%, with an elaborate state apparatus, including capitalist armies, parliaments, courts, police and mass media.
A recent projection by researchers of the British House of Commons library puts the richest 1% on target to own two-thirds of the world’s wealth by 2030. They warn that “the continued accumulation of wealth at the top will fuel growing distrust and anger over the coming decade, unless action is taken…to promote greater equality.” (Observer 08/04/18).
Fear for the future
You can hear in the voices of some of the top establishment figures – bankers and politicians – the fear of a social explosion. Anger is accumulating under the surface of society and can explode at almost any moment, as it did in France just half a century ago. The French revolutionary general strike of May 1968 showed that socialism in our time is a very real possibility.
The school students in the US, in Spain, in France who have demonstrated their anger on the streets, have shown a new generation is ready for a fight. Workers in many countries have begun to flex their muscles and stretch their limbs.
The modern day has its martyrs; fighters for the truth to be told and for justice to be done. This year has seen the murder of journalists Gauri Lankesh in Bangalore, Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta, Jan Kuciak in Slovakia and the black, gay socialist campaigner, Marielle Franco, in Rio de Janiero, Brazil.
Their deaths and those of past martyrs and socialist pioneers should be a reminder of why a serious struggle must be built to end the rule of the 1%. “Ye are many, they are few,” as the English poet Shelley put it in his ‘Ode to Anarchy’. He was writing angrily of the arrogant rulers who ordered a massacre of peaceful demonstrators in Manchester, in 1819, not dissimilar to that in Chicago in 1886, the Lena goldmines in 1912 or the Zhanaozen oilfields in 2011.
All the levers of economic power – the banks and major industries – must be taken out of the hands of the few. They must be owned by the overwhelming majority and run by the elected representatives of that overwhelming majority in society.
Let the rulers and the rich tremble! Workers and young people are angry. We can build strong, socialist-led organisations and “rise like lions” to put an end to the horrors of today’s capitalist world, and build a society of harmonious relations between peoples across the globe.