As the London May Day demonstrators assembled outside Marx House, Clerkenwell Green, for the march to Trafalgar Square, the colourful proliferation of banners representing a wide range of organisations, together with the much higher trade union turn-out than in recent years, meant that one began to see what a great day of celebration this important day in the socialist calendar could be.
On this day, millions across the world have taken to the streets ever since 1889, when the first congress of the Second International declared 1 May as International Workers’ Day. This day was initially chosen to honour the American workers’ triumphant strike for the eight-hour day on 1 May 1886 and as a homage to those gunned down by the Chicago police as well as their leaders – Albert Parsons, August Spiers, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Michael Schwab, Samuel Fielden and Louis Lingg – who were condemned to death for their leadership of the strike and declared “guilty of murder” (policemen also died when they attacked the assembled protesters in Haymarket Square). One hundred and twenty years later, the echo of Spiers’ words from the gallows must continue to remind us of our strength: “There will be a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.”
The strength and power of the working-class movement has been demonstrated all over the globe ever since. May Day has become an occasion when we celebrate our achievements, express international solidarity and reaffirm that socialism is the way forward for humanity. With the establishment of socialism in the USSR and its historic victory over Nazi fascism, millions of toiling people have been inspired to fight for a better life.
From the storming of the Winter Palace in 1917 to the victorious end of the anti-fascist war, when the red flag was raised on the Reichstag in Berlin in 1945, the flying of the red flag with its hammer and sickle has been indelibly linked to the achievements of our movement and is a symbol of progressive humanity. Whereas internationally, from east to west, from Asia to South America, red flags have dominated May Day, in the imperialist heartlands, far fewer are seen, as our historic day has been hijacked as a ‘spring holiday’ and drained of all revolutionary fervour by the dominance of the social-democratic leadership. It is time that socialists in Britain reclaimed the day, increased our symbolic use of the hammer and sickle, proudly declared our communist ideals and explained that communism is still the only way forward for humanity.
However, to our shame, British May Day demonstrations continue to be ‘led’ by the social democrats, who control and dominate the platform. The mobilisation of trade unions was greater than usual this year because the TUC has been forced to campaign for a Trade Union Freedom Bill, demanded by workers in response to significantly worsening conditions of work. But the majority of the trade-union leaders had none of the venom that would have been used to attack the Tory anti-trade union laws, because now they are in existence as Labour anti-trade union laws. Instead, there were mealy-mouthed appeals for the Labour government to institute “workplace justice”, whatever that might be. Just as in 1926, the social-democratic trade union leadership is selling out the working class, while appearing to give a lead and occasionally making loud, if empty, statements at rallies. Brendan Barber (TUC General Secretary) thus wrote in the Morning Star that “All workers should have the right to strike” . Yet what this actually means is just a bit of cosmetic tinkering with the anti-union laws. He concludes: “at the very least, legal loopholes that allow employers to stop action directed against them should be closed” and he then lists three such ‘loopholes’! (‘Trade union laws must be changed’, 1 May 2006)
A particularly pertinent example of social-democratic treachery is the way in which trade union leaders have been using the Gate Gourmet dispute. While on the one hand claiming to support the Transport & General Workers’ Union members who have been locked out by Gate Gourmet at Heathrow airport, Tony Woodley (T&GWU General Secretary) is behind the scenes ‘negotiating’ deals that will leave many of the workers high and dry without jobs. We cannot help but remember, on a much larger scale, the trade union leaders who grovelled to Prime Minister Baldwin in achieving what they called a ‘settlement’, but what was in reality a complete sell out, of the British General Strike in 1926.
The Labour Party played a dirty role in 1926 and has continued to do so until the present. It has clearly and consistently demonstrated itself to be a party of imperialism and yet the social-democratic trade union leadership continues, in the face of all the evidence, to spout the myth that Labour is a working-class party, and it does everything it can to maintain the link between the trade unions and the Labour Party. Through his own union experience, Bob Crow, RMT leader and for many years a Labour supporter, has acknowledged the need to break the link with Labour. When he spoke at the May Day rally saying the trade-union movement has got to start “showing its teeth to the Labour government, like it would to a Tory government”, the public protestation he got from Derek Simpson of Amicus showed clearly how protective most trade union leaders are of the Labour Party.
The labour aristocratic union leaders want to maintain imperialism, which provides them with very comfortable lives. The majority of workers, despite the effect that being in an imperialist country has on the general standard of living, face the evils of wage slavery – increasing unemployment, decreasing wages, cuts in services and being expected to provide cannon fodder for the imperialist army. The working class has no option but to fight back against these encroachments on its living standards and it cannot do so successfully while its hands are tied to bureaucratic trade union leaders and the Labour Party. It has to ‘Break the link with Labour’ and to ‘Defy the anti-trade union laws’, which the Labour Party stubbornly, but quite in character, refuses to remove from the statute book in spite of empty phrase-mongering while in opposition. The much-promoted Trade Union and Freedom Bill is a prime example of the social-democratic cowardice of the current crop of union leaders, calling as it does merely for the right to take “limited supportive action” in “specific circumstances”.
It is a reflection on the state of the working-class movement in the imperialist heartlands that May Day is no longer celebrated here as a high point on the socialist calendar. However, whereas the platform in Trafalgar Square was dominated by social-democratic ‘leaders’, the streets outside Marx House at the start of the demo and on the march itself were alive with international music, dancing, anti-imperialist slogans, pro-socialist slogans and red hammer-and-sickle flags. This was much more in keeping with the revolutionary celebration of May Day and the reaffirmation of our communist goals, as portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao Zedong were proudly held high, particularly by the Turkish/Kurdish parties. The CPGB-ML was honoured to march among their highly disciplined and effective contingents, as we held high our portrait of Joseph Stalin, the man who led the building of socialism in the USSR.
Let us resolve to build a working-class movement that will make May Day celebrations take up the challenge that Lenin put to Russian workers in 1896: “It is high time for us … to break the chains with which the capitalists and the government have bound us in order to keep us in subjection… [and] … to join the struggle of our brothers, the workers in other lands, to stand with them under a common flag upon which is inscribed: Workers of the World, Unite!” (Union of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class, 19 April 1896)
> History: The British General Strike of 1926
> Report: May Day by James Carpenter aged 11
> Industry matters: Trade unionism and opportunist social chauvinism – December 2004