Engels in Arbeiter Zeitung 1890

May 4 in London

Source: Marx and Engels on the Trade Unions, Edited by Kenneth Lapides;
Written: by Engels, in Arbeiter Zeitung, May 23, 1890;
First Published: Articles on Britain, Progress Publishers 1871;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.

The May Day celebration of the proletariat was epoch-making not only in its universal character, which made it the first international action of the militant working class. it also served to register most gratifying advances in the various countries. Friend and foe agree that on the whole Continent it was Austria, and in Austria it was Vienna, that celebrated the holiday of the proletariat in the most brilliant and dignified manner, and that the Austrian, above all the Viennese, workers thereby won themselves an entirely different standing in the movement. Only a few years ago the Austrian movement had declined almost to zero, and the workers of the German and Slav crown territories were split into hostile parties wasting their forces on internecine strife. ...

But on May 4 Vienna was thrown into the shade by London. And I hold it to be the most important and magnificent in the entire May Day celebration that on May 4, 1890, the English proletariat, rousing itself from forty years’ winter sleep, rejoined the movement of its class. To appreciate this, one must look into the events leading up to May 4.

Towards the beginning of last year the world’s largest and most wretched working-class district, the East End of London, stirred gradually to action. On April 1, 1889, the Gas Workers’ and General Labourers’ Union was founded; today it has a membership of some 100,000. Largely with the cooperation of this partner union (many are gas workers in winter and dock workers in summer), the dockers’ big strike started on its way and shook even the bottom-most section of the East London workers out of stagnation. As a result, trade union upon trade union began to form among these, mostly unskilled workers, while those already in existence there, which till then had barely kept themselves going, now blossomed forth quickly. But the difference between these new trade unions and the old was very great. The old ones, which admit none but “skilled” workers, are exclusive; they bar all workers who have not been trained according to the statutes of the guild concerned, and thereby even expose themselves to competition from those not in the guild; they are rich, but the richer they become, the more they degenerate into mere sick-funds and burial clubs; they are conservative and they steer clear above all of that socialism, as far and as long as they can. The new “unskilled” unions, on the other hand, admit every fellow-worker; they are essentially, and the Gas Workers even exclusively, strike unions and strike funds. And while they are not yet socialists to a man, they insist nevertheless on being led only by socialists. But socialist propaganda had already been going on for years in the East End, where it was above all Mrs. E. Marx-Aveling and her husband, Edward Aveling, who had four years earlier discovered the best propaganda field in the Radical clubs consisting almost exclusively of workers, and had worked on them steadily and, as is evident now, with the best of success. During the dock workers’ strike Mrs. Aveling was one of the three women in charge of the distribution of relief. ... Mrs. Aveling led almost unaided last winter’s strike in Silvertown, also in the East End, and on the Gas Workers’ committee she represents a women’s section she has founded there.

Last autumn the Gas Workers won an eight-hour working day here in London, but lost it again, after an unhappy strike, in the southern part of the city, acquiring sufficient proof that this gain is by no means safe in the northern part either. Is it surprising, then, that they readily accepted Mrs. Aveling’s proposal to hold the May Day celebration, decided on by the Paris Congress, in favour of a legalised eight-hour working day, in London? In common with several socialist groups, the Radical clubs and the other trade unions in the East End, they set up a Central Committee that was to organise a large demonstration for the purpose in Hyde Park. As it turned out that all attempts to hold the demonstration on Thursday, May 1, were bound to fail this year, it was decided to put it off till Sunday, May 4.

To ensure that, as far as possible, all London workers took part, the Central Committee invited, with uninhibited naivete, the London Trades Council as well. This is a body made up of delegates from the London trades unions, mostly from the older corporations of “skilled” workers, a body in which, as might be expected, the anti-socialist elements still command a majority. The Trades Council saw that the movement for an eight-hour day threatened to grow over its head. The old trades unions stand likewise for an eight-hour working day, but not for one to be established by law. By an eight-hour day they mean that normal daily wages should be paid for eight hours — so-and-so much per hour — but that overtime should be allowed any number of hours daily, provided every overtime hour is paid at a higher rate — say, at the rate of one and a half or two ordinary hours. The point therefore was to channel the demonstration into the fairway of this kind of working day, to be won by “free” agreement but certainly not to be made obligatory by parliamentary act. To this end the Trades Council allied itself with the Social-Democratic Federation of the above-mentioned Mr. Hyndman, an association which poses as the only true church of British socialism, which had very consistently concluded a life-and-death alliance with the French Possibilists and sent a delegation to their congress and which therefore regarded in advance the May Day celebration decided on by the Marxist Congress as a sin against the Holy Ghost. The movement was growing over the head of the Federation as well. but to adhere to the Central Committee would mean placing itself under “Marxist” leadership; on the other hand, if the Trades Council were to take the matter into its own hands and if the celebration were held on the 4th of May instead of on the 1st, it would no longer be anything like the wicked “Marxist” May Day celebration and so they could join in. Despite the fact that the Social-Democratic Federation calls in its program for a legalised eight-hour day, it eagerly clasped the hand proffered by the Trades Council.

Now the new allies, strange bedfellows though they were, played a trick on the Central Committee which would, it is true, be considered not only permissible but quite skillful in the political practice of the British bourgeoisie, but which European and American workers will probably find very mean. The fact is that in the case of popular meetings in Hyde Park the organisers must first announce their intention to the Board of Works and reach an agreement with it on particulars, securing specifically permission to drive over the grass the carts that are to serve as platforms. Besides, regulations say that after a meeting has been announced, no other meeting may be held in the Park on the same day. The Central Committee had not yet made the announcement; but the organisations allied against it had scarcely heard the news when they announced a meeting in the Park for May 4 and obtained permission for seven platforms, doing it behind the backs of the Central Committee.

The Trades Council and the Federation believed thereby to have rented the Park for May 4 and to have a victory in their pocket. The former called a meeting of delegates from the trades unions, to which it also invited two delegates from the Central Committee; the latter sent three, including Mrs. Aveling. The Trades Council treated them as if it had been master of the situation. It informed them that only trades unions, that is to say, no socialist unions or political clubs, could take part in the demonstration and carry banners. just how the Social-Democratic Federation was to participate in the demonstration remained a mystery. The Council had already edited the resolution to be submitted to the meeting, and had deleted from it the demand for a legalised eight-hour day; discussion on a proposal for putting that demand back in the resolution was not allowed, nor was it voted on. And lastly, the Council refused to accept Mrs. Aveling as a delegate because, it said, she was no manual worker (which is not true), although its own President, Mr. Shipton, had not moved a finger in his own trade for fully fifteen years.

The workers on the Central Committee were outraged by the trick played on them. It looked as if the demonstration had been finally put into the hands of two organisations representing only negligible minorities of London workers. There seemed to be no remedy for it but to storm the platforms of the Trades Council as the Gas Workers had threatened. Then Edward Aveling went to the Ministry and secured, contrary to regulations, permission for the Central Committee as well to bring seven platforms to the Park. The attempt to juggle with the demonstration in the interest of the minority failed; the Trades Council pulled in its horns and was glad to be able to negotiate with the Central Committee on an equal footing over arrangements for the demonstration.

One has to know this background to appreciate the nature and significance of the demonstration. Prompted by the East End workers who had recently joined in the movement, the demonstration found such a universal response that the two organisations — which were no less hostile to each other than both of them together were to the fundamental idea of the demonstration — had to ally themselves in order to seize the leadership and use the meeting to their own advantage. On the one hand, a conservative Trades Council preaching equal rights for capital and labour; on the other, a Social-Democratic Federation playing at radicalism, and talking of social revolution whenever it is safe to do so, and the two allied to do a mean trick with an eye to capitalising on a demonstration thoroughly hateful to both. Owing to these incidents, the May 4 meeting was split into two parts. On one side were the conservative workers, whose horizon does not go beyond the wage-labour system, flanked by a narrow-minded but ambitious socialist sect; on the other side, the great bulk of workers who had recently joined in the movement and who do not want to hear any more of the Manchesterism of the old trades unions and want to win their complete emancipation by themselves, jointly with allies of their own choice, and not with those imposed by a small socialist coterie.

On one side was stagnation represented by trades unions that have not yet quite freed themselves from the guild spirit, and by a narrow-minded sect backed by the meanest allies, on the other, the living free movement of the reawakening British proletariat. And it was apparent even to the blindest where there was fresh life in that two-faced gathering and where stagnation.

Around the seven platforms of the Central Committee were dense, immense crowds, marching up with music and banners, over a hundred thousand in the procession, reinforced by almost as many who had come severally; everywhere was harmony and enthusiasm , and yet order and organisation. At the platforms of the combined reactionaries, on the other hand, everything seemed dull; their procession was much weaker than the other, poorly organised, disorderly and mostly belated, so that in some places things got under way there only when the Central Committee was already through. While the Liberal leaders of some Radical clubs, and the officials of several trades unions rallied to the Trades Council, the members of the very same unions — in fact, four entire branches of the Social-Democratic Federation — marched with the Central Committee. For all that, the Trades Council succeeded in winning some attention, but the decisive success was achieved by the Central Committee.

What the numerous onlooking bourgeois politicians took home with them as the overall effect was the certainty that the English proletariat, which for fully forty years had trailed behind the big Liberal party and served it as voting cattle, had awakened at last to new, independent life and action. There can be no doubt about that: 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. The grandchildren of the old Chartists are stepping into the line of battle.