The Idea of May Day on the March: By Rosa Luxemburg
May Day, or International Workers’ Day, has commemorated the struggles of the working class against capitalists since the late 19th century. It was first officially recognized in honour of the 1886 Haymarket riot in Chicago, which was prompted by police killing 2 workers who were striking for an 8 hour work day. The riot resulted in the deaths of 7 police officers and the hasty execution of a number of labour activists who were not given a fair trial.
For this month’s Our Legacies column, we are publishing an article that revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg wrote, published in Liepziger Volkszeitung (Liepzig People’s Newspaper) on April 30, 1913.
We chose this article because, 108 years later, Luxemburg’s observations on imperialism and economic crises feels relevant to our current situation. With China’s economic power seemingly threatening Western imperialist nations, we feel that revolutionary movements must foreground an anti-imperialist analysis, rather than fighting for reforms that will only benefit some portions of the world’s working classes, while naturalizing the ongoing exploitation of others.
The history of Mayday is lodged within a history that defines class struggle as predominantly the terrain of European, industrial, working men. That’s not how we think of class. We think of the working class as including everyone who is forced to sell their labour power to survive – including those who are punished with extreme poverty and police violence for not selling their labor power in capitalist markets, those who work in unwaged industries like housework, and those who work in illicit and criminalized socially reproductive industries like sex work and drug trades. And we consider Indigenous peoples to be outside of class society but – like working class people – oppressed by capitalist power in the form of colonial dispossession. We are saying that Mayday’s history is ours.
We can claim Mayday for the groups that – as Karl Marx argued in Capital – move the machinery that capitalism makes of all of social relations because history is not a thing that happened in the past; history is made by remembering. By claiming it, what was an industrial workers’ history becomes a history of service workers, unwaged workers, and colonized people who fight to the death against the raw violence of capitalist power. And by claiming Mayday, we write into the history, we shine a light on the precarious and temporary and unwaged workers of 1913 and the colonial violence that drags stolen wealth into the insatiable maw of capitalist industry. We have an opportunity to feel that we, today, are not alone – we join Our Legacies and continue their work.
In the middle of the wildest orgies of imperialism, the world holiday of the proletariat is repeating itself for the twenty-fourth time. What has taken place in the quarter of a century since the epoch-making decision to celebrate May Day is an immense part of the historical path. When the May demonstration made its debut, the vanguard of the International, the German working class, was breaking the chains of a shameful law of exception and setting out on the path of a free, legal development. The period of the long depression on the world market since the crash of the 1870s had been overcome, and the capitalist economy had just begun a phase of splendid growth which would last nearly a decade. At the same time, after twenty years of unbroken peace, the world breathed a sigh of relief, remembering the period of war in which the modern European state system had received its bloody baptism. The path seemed free for a peaceful cultural development; illusions, hopes of a reasonable, pacific discussion between labor and capital grew abundantly like green corn in the ranks of socialism. Propositions like “to hold out the open hand to the good will” marked the beginning of the 1890s; promises of an imperceptible “gradual move into socialism” marked its end. Crises, wars, and revolution were supposed to have been things of the past, the baby shoes of modern society; parliamentarism and unions, democracy in the state and democracy in the factory were supposed to open the doors of a new, better order.
The course of events has submitted all of these illusions to a fearful test. At the end of the 1890s, in place of the promised, smooth, social-reforming cultural development, began a period of the most violent and acute sharpening of the capitalistic contradictions – a storm and stress, a crashing and colliding, a wavering and quaking in the foundations of the society. In the following decade, the ten-year period of economic prosperity was paid for by two violent world crises. After two decades of world peace, in the last decade of the past century followed six bloody wars, and in the first decade of the new century four bloody revolutions. Instead of the social reforms – conspiracy laws, penal laws, and penal praxis; instead of industrial democracy – the powerful concentration of capital in cartels and business associations, and the international practice of gigantic lock-outs. And instead of the new growth of democracy in the state – a miserable breakdown of the last remnants of bourgeois liberalism and bourgeois democracy. Specifically in the case of Germany the fate of the bourgeois parties since the 1890s has brought: the rise and immediate, hopeless dissolution of the National Socialists; the split of the “radical” opposition and the reunification of its splinters in the morass of the reaction; and finally the transformation of the “center” from a radical peoples’ party to a conservative governmental party. The shifting in the development of the parties was similar in other capitalist countries. In general, the revolutionary working class sees itself today standing alone, opposed to a closed, hostile reaction of the ruling classes and their malicious tricks.
The sign under which this whole development, both economic and political, has been consummated, the formula back to which its results point, is imperialism. This is no new element, no unexpected turn in the general historical path of the capitalist society. Armaments and wars, international contradictions and colonial politics accompany the history of capitalism from its cradle. It is the most extreme intensification of these elements, a drawing together, a gigantic storming of these contradictions which has produced a new epoch in the course of modern society. In a dialectical interaction, both cause and effect of the immense accumulation of capital and the heightening and sharpening of the contradictions which go with it internally, between capital and labor; externally, between the capitalist states – imperialism has opened the final phase, the division of the world by the assault of capital. A chain of unending, exorbitant armaments on land and on sea in all capitalist countries because of rivalries; a chain of bloody wars which have spread from Africa to Europe and which at any moment could light the spark which would become a world fire; moreover, for years the uncheckable specter of inflation, of mass hunger in the whole capitalist world – all of these are the signs under which the world holiday of labor, after nearly a quarter of a century, approaches. And each of these signs is a flaming testimony of the living truth and the power of the idea of May Day.
The brilliant basic idea of May Day is the autonomous, immediate stepping forward of the proletarian masses, the political mass action of the millions of workers who otherwise are atomized by the barriers of the state in the day-to-day parliamentary affairs, who mostly can give expression to their own will only through the ballot, through the election of their representatives. The excellent proposal of the Frenchman Lavigne at the Paris Congress of the International added to this parliamentary, indirect manifestation of the will of the proletariat a direct, international mass manifestation: the strike as a demonstration and means of struggle for the eight-hour day, world peace, and socialism.
And in effect what an upswing this idea, this new form of struggle has taken on in the last decade! The mass strike has become an internationally recognized, indispensable weapon of the political struggle. As a demonstration, as a weapon in the struggle, it returns again in innumerable forms and gradations in all countries for nearly fifteen years. As a sign of the revolutionary reanimation of the proletariat in Russia, as a tenacious means of struggle in the hands of the Belgian proletariat, it has just now proved its living power. And the next, most burning question in Germany – the Prussian voting rights – obviously, because of its previous slipshod treatment, points to a rising mass action of the Prussian proletariat up to the mass strike as the only possible solution.
No wonder! The whole development, the whole tendency of imperialism in the last decade leads the international working class to see more clearly and more tangibly that only the personal stepping forward of the broadest masses, their personal political action, mass demonstrations, and mass strikes which must sooner or later open into a period of revolutionary struggles for the power in the state, can give the correct answer of the proletariat to the immense oppression of imperialistic policy. In this moment of armament lunacy and war orgies, only the resolute will to struggle of the working masses, their capacity and readiness for powerful mass actions, can maintain world peace and push away the menacing world conflagration. And the more the idea of May Day, the idea of resolute mass actions as a manifestation of international unity, and as a means of struggle for peace and for socialism, takes root in the strongest troops of the International, the German working class, the greater is our guarantee that out of the world war which, sooner or later, is unavoidable, will come forth a definite and victorious struggle between the world of labor and that of capital.