Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

May Day 2020: the Working Class and Socialism

May Day

May 1st is known as International Workers' Day and is a celebration of the working class. The date was chosen to commemorate the Haymarket demonstration and subsequent violence which occurred in Chicago on 4 May 1886 (see E. Marx Aveling and E. Aveling, THE CHICAGO ANARCHISTS, 1887).

The Second International was founded in 1889, under the banner of workers' internationalism. A key resolution of the first congress, proposed by the American labour federation, was that in memory of the Chicago martyrs. Workers in every country would strike and demonstrate for the eight-hour day every May 1, which would become known as international workers' day, a day of international working class solidarity.

The first May Day demonstration in Britain was held on Sunday 4 May 1890 in Hyde Park. A speech was given, from among others, by Eleanor Marx, who ended her speech with Shelley's poem The Mask of Anarchy (1819)

"Rise like Lions after slumber,
In unvanquishable number
To shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you
Ye are many - they are few"

(Speech on the First of May, Eleanor Marx, Vol. 2, Yvonne Kapp, Pantheon 1976)

Engels commented with enthusiasm with the May Day demonstration, which was formed of 100,000 workers. He wrote:

"...on May 4, 1890, the English working class joined the great international army. And that is an epoch-making fact. The English proletariat has its roots in the most advanced industrial development and, moreover, possesses the greatest freedom of political movement. Its long slumber - a result, on the one hand, of the failure of the Chartist movement of 1836-50 and, on the other, of the colossal industrial upswing of 1848-80 - is finally broken"
(ARBEITER ZEITUNG, May 23, 1890)

Engels clearly saw the rise of the May Day demonstration as the rebirth of the international labour movement. Engels was wrong. Seven years later, tens of thousands of workers lined London streets in 1897 to cheer Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee and many more did the same, following her death in 1901. Streets were also lined with workers waving marching troops off to South Africa and the Boer War.

In the same year as the establishment of the Socialist Party of Great Britain in 1904, the Sixth Conference of the Second International, called on "all Social Democratic Party organisations and trade unions of all countries to demonstrate energetically on the first of May for the legal establishment of the 8 hour day, for class demands of the proletariat and for universal peace"
(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Workers%27_Day).

10 years later, in 1914, workers were cheering the troops as they marched to war to fight and kill other workers in other countries, supposedly united by the Second International. Many of the leaders of the Second International went on to support the First World War. The war was opposed by the Socialist Party of Great Britain on grounds of class and class interest.

In 2020 there are no May Day demonstrations. Most workers are self-isolating against a global pandemic. Millions are on furlough or have lost their jobs. 8 hours employment is a luxury. Many workers would grab more than that time to make up for lost wages. Nurses are working 12 hour shifts. Amazon and Supermarket workers are working compulsory overtime and 8 hour shifts to tackle huge demand (BBC 17 March 2020 and BISINESS INSIDER, April 16 2020).

When the lock-up ends, capitalism might be in a deep economic depression with millions of worker unemployed. Already about 1.5 million people have signed up to apply for universal credit payments. Almost one in four adults have already suffered financially, according to the Office of National Statistics (GUARDIAN 24 April 2020). There will not be demands for eight hour days but for as much employment as possible.

Why be employed at all? Why do you have to go to work for an employer? Why do we have to worry about the capitalist's system of class exploitation? Surely we should realise that we create the social wealth. We create the profits which go to the capitalist class in the form of the unearned income of rent, interest and profit. We, as a class, create more social wealth than we receive in wages and salaries.

Surely production should take place to just directly meet social need. We have the skill to organise society in a way that is not determined by the profit motive. On this May Day we should use the time to think of a world radically different to the one we are forced to live in now. We have time to look at the socialist alternative to capitalism. We have the time to think and the time to act.

And we have the time to question. And one of the first questions to be asked is who we are?

The Working Class

Among the cries and chants and slogans of May Day, only one has meaning: "Workers of all countries unite!" So, who are these workers?

The pandemic has identified many of these workers; teachers, shop assistants, refuse collectors, doctors, nurses, midwives, transport workers, care assistants and the, emergency services. They have one thing in common. They all have to earn a wage. They are like the millions of us locked away in flats and in houses. We are all workers, all wage slaves, all of us who are forced onto the labour market to sell our ability to work to an employer.

We are the majority; we are the working class. We form a majority in this country, in Europe and in the world. But socialists do not want to remain a class of wage slaves. We want to be free of class, class relations and class struggle.

We are a class because the means of production and distribution are privately owned by another class who do not take part in May Day demonstrations. They do not have to demonstrate because they do not work, they do not have to seek employment and they do not have to worry about the unpredictability of unemployment. They are the capitalist class; the Richard Branson's of the world with their private islands and billions of pounds stashed away in investments portfolios.

Without having class conscious and knowing that our interests are not the same as Rupert Murdoch, Lord Rothermere, the Barclay Brothers and those who make up the capitalist class, we will be forever condemned to reproduce ourselves as an exploited class.

We struggle against our employers over the rate and intensity of exploitation on a daily basis whether we are aware of it or not. But class consciousness, if it means anything, is political. It is the realisation that the only way to end class society with all its economic and social problems is to establish socialism.

Our demand, the demand of the working class should be to establish the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society. That is the only demand of the working class. Demand the establishment of Socialism. And that demand needs political action; it needs active socialists taking political action in socialist political parties with socialism and only socialism as its aim.

Class Consciousness

Class consciousness was never more needed than now. Class-consciousness is the breaking-down of all barriers to understanding capitalism, why capitalism cannot be run in the interest of all society and the necessity for the socialist alternative to the profit system. It is the breaking down of barriers which see the working class attacking immigrants, blaming the unemployed, in supporting capitalism's wars and conflicts, in cheering political leaders, and in seeing nothing beyond the wage packet. Class ignorance just continues class slavery.

And workers must not have anything to do with reforms and the politicians who offer them as cures for this or that social problem. Has poverty been abolished? The current pandemic has thrown a light on the poverty that exists in the United Kingdom; the "care" homes, those that live and work in them, the parents stranded with children in high rise flats with no garden; the workers in the unpredictable low-paid gig economy on zero hour contracts; the mentally and physically ill and the health service cut to the bone. Working class action, in fact, has to be revolutionary. That is the real message of May Day, for workers all over the world.

And class conscious workers have no need for leaders. We have no need for political leaders, - the likes of Boris Johnson or Kier Starmer - to tell us what to think or how to behave. Nor do we need the professional revolutionaries from the capitalist Left. Capitalist politicians only reflect and pursue the class interests of the capitalist class. They do not represent our interests.

Capitalism causes the problems our class faces on a day to day basis, so that the remedy - the only remedy - is to abolish capitalism. To abolish capitalism requires the working class to democratically take hold of the powers of government - for one purpose only: to end the rule of one class over another.

Universal Peace

And what of "universal peace"; that is, a world without war and conflict? Universal peace is impossible under capitalism. Since the first May Day demonstration in 1890, millions have been killed in capitalism’s wars. A world artificially divided into competing nation states is world of violence, death and destruction. Even during the global pandemic there still have been conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere. Socialism would have no national boundaries, no borders and no border guards. There would be one world and one human race.

Workers in Britain have common cause with the workers of every other country. We are all members of an international class, faced with the same problems, holding the same interests. There is only one way of realizing those interests: the establishment of socialism.

Locked away in enforced isolation, workers should take this opportunity of looking at the case for socialism and the establishment of a world without employment, without class and without war.

Back to top

Socialist Studies

email: enquiries@socialiststudies.org.uk | www.socialiststudies.org.uk