Th. Rothstein 1920

The Call of May Day

Source: Th. Rothstein, under his pseudonym John Bryan, “The Call of May Day” The Call, 29 April 1920, p.9, (1,442 words);
Transcribed: Ted Crawford,
HTML Markup: Chris Clayton
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

Thirty years after its establishment May Day is being for the first time celebrated by the entire working class of this country as a Labour holiday. It is no longer an affair of small Socialist groups supported by foreign comrades and a few banners kindly lent by half a dozen Trade Unions. Throughout the length and breadth of the land Labour is turning out into the streets and open places in massive columns to mark the day as the day of freedom and vindication of its rights.

The watchwords which are being put forward by various labour bodies on this occasion do not strike one as particularly revolutionary. Two definite demands — a Forty-Four Hour Day and nationalisation of the mines — and two vaguer principles: reduction, of the cost of living and international labour solidarity, are inscribed on the banner, for instance, of the boilermakers, a body of workers who are by no means conservative and who are led by a man who stands on the “left” of the trade union and political movement. Not word about the curse of capitalism as a whole, not a word about the crimes of the capitalist Government at home or abroad, not a word about Socialism, and only an indistinct hint about Russia. There can be no doubt that this “moderation” expresses but the timidity and the narrow mental horizon of the trade union bureaucracy which will rather retard the pace of the movement in agreement with its most backward sections than give a push to it by co-operating with the most advanced ones.

Yet the fact itself that, Labour as a whole has at last adopted the symbol of protest and class-solidarity embodied in May Day is a revolutionary sign. It is the outward ex­pression of the new psychology of the slow-thinking and slow-moving British working class, generated by the new conditions of war and so-called peace, the automatic re­action of the new proletarian mentality and morality against the economic and social disorganisation of capitalist society which we are witnessing to-day all over the world, Including even this country, the motherland and the stronghold of capitalism. It is, indeed, but an incident (though a very eloquent one) in the general revolutionary unrest in which has seized upon the working class in every country.

For this is a fact which begins to dawn even on our rulers (as witness the haste with which some of them are now trying to undo the effects of the war and the subsequent “peace”) that the problems which have arisen and are now confronting capitalist society as a result of the tremendous destruction of the war and the peace treaty, are of a magnitude and urgency which place their solution far the powers of the powers of the present day economic organisation. The accumulated wealth of generations has been destroyed in five years so completely as to reduce the greater part of the world to sheer beggary, with mountains of paper of fictitious value to console the propertied classes. The entire system of transport in Europe has been ruined. The stocks of raw material have been exhausted and cannot easily be replenished. Coal is lacking in all countries of the European continent, and still more so, food. The housing problem is weighing with increasing heaviness upon the entire European population, while production and exchange are hampered more and more not only by the lack of raw materials and fuel, but also through the complete disorganisation of the world’s currencies, the result of the ruin of the chief markets. Add to this the immense financial difficulties, which no country, not even Britain, has yet attempted to tackle, arising from the colossal debt liabilities contracted by the States during the war, and the irre­pressible and elemental rise of the cost of living, due to all the above factors and lead­ing to constant and violent interruptions of production, exchange and distribution, and you will have some measure of the problems which must be solved in the shortest possible time, if not actually simultaneously, if life is to go on at all, and if civilisation is to be saved from destruction by a complete break up of the mechanism of modern society.

But how are they to be solved? It is obvious that their solution requires the concerted and sustained effort of the entire world, the co-operation of all peoples on a universal scale and plan, together with the concentration of every ounce of strength on productive objects. The victors and the vanquished in the late war must vanish as categories of states and nations, all that has been taken away or still remains must be thrown into the common pool, and the entire human race must set to work, to intensive and universally extended work, as one huge .association pursuing one, and only one object: to save itself from hunger and from cold, from nakedness and from homeless­ness, from physical deterioration and from mental retrogression, from pain, and from crime.

Can this be realised under, the capitalist system? Obviously it cannot. Obviously a capitalist society will not wipe out the verdict of the war and establish an economic internationalism. Obviously the propertied classes will not allow any work to be done without exacting the utmost possible profit. Obviously; too, the working classes will no longer work intensively, much less increase that intensity, so long as they know that ­by their work they are helping to keep a large idle class in existence, which will appropriate the best part of the fruit, and will, more­over, set a considerable section of the workers themselves to produce articles which will be of no use whatsoever for the resuscitation of the ruined world. It is obvious, in short, that the capitalist system cannot solve the present-day problems, and that, consequently, if it remains in power, the world will be destroyed. Only under Socialism is such a world-wide co-operation and such concerted intensive effort possible, which are indispensable, as pointed out above. This is the meaning of .the new labour discipline which has been introduced in Socialist Russia — another tremendous advance in the amazing revolution which that country commenced two and a half years ago. Either the world adopts the Russian example, or it goes down to the very bottom of the now yawning economic and social abyss — this is the alternative which inexor­able history has placed before us as the result of the “Great” War.

Gradually the ruling classes are learning this truth, and so do the working masses everywhere. The former are beginning to see the fatal mistake they made in letting loose the chains of war in August, 1914, and in drawing up a peace such as they did at Versailles and St. Germain. They are also seeing more and more clearly the disastrous blunder of their intervention against the Russian Revolution. They, or at least the most far-seeing among them, are now endeavouring to undo some of the mischief, still, apparently, believing that the world can be restored, even though Capitalism con­tinues to be the system of the world. But they will soon see that they are mistaken, and that the foundations on which, they pro­pose to carry out the immense reconstructive work are nothing but shifting sand. The gaps made by the war and the peace in the economic system of the world are so large and numerous that no amount of patching up here and patching up there will avail. The time for reforms is gone: now is the time for a radical change in the basis itself, that is, for a Revolution.

On their part, too, the workers are beginning to understand that the economic system of Capitalism has practically broken down, and in every department of life there is the same vicious circle which they have already discovered empirically in the relation between the wages and the cost of living. So far this relation has, of course, been nearest, and, therefore, most visible to them. But soon the stocks, of raw material that have been accumulated from every part of the globe during the war and since will be exhausted — some branches of production are already being, overtaken by a paralysis — and then they will discover the same vicious circle in other economic domains. They will then find that Capitalism can no longer grapple with the situation and only a Socialist revo­lution will save them and the world at large.

Labour’s universal response to the May Day call this year shows its deep and in­stinctive presentiment of the events that are to come at no very distant date.