Leon Trotsky

The First Five Years of the Communist International

Volume 2

The Lessons of May Day

May 10, 1922

Genoa lays bare the contradiction between soviet Russia and the rest of the world. Our enemies are convinced that we are today further from capitulation than ever before. But our enemies are still powerful. The danger, too, is great.

* * *

Truly monumental in their proportions were the May Day demonstrations not only in Moscow and Petrograd but also in Kharkov and Kiev. Even those in charge did not expect such great numbers of demonstrators. Foreigners, including those very unfavourably inclined toward us, were astounded. One representative of the Amsterdam International remarked under the direct impact of the demonstration that he never saw anything comparable except at the funeral of Victor Hugo. [1] And he had opportunities to witness not a few mass demonstrations in various European countries. The moods among the demonstrators, of course, varied; some marched with enthusiasm, some with sympathy, others out of curiosity, stiff others out of imitation. But that is always the case in a movement embracing hundreds of thousands. On the whole, the throngs felt themselves part of a common cause. And the tone was naturally set by those who marched with enthusiasm.

A few days prior to May Day, comrades reported from the districts that Genoa [2] had raised to an astonishing degree the political interests and the revolutionary self-confidence of the working masses. Others added that the feeling of revolutionary pride was playing an important part in the prevailing moods; we forced them to talk to us almost like human beings!

To believe the White Guard and “socialist” publications issued in Berlin, the Russian working class is completely permeated with scepticism, with reactionary pessimistic moods and hostility toward the soviets. It is quite possible that not all of these reports are composed in Berlin which is now the centre not only of Russian monarchism but also of yellow socialism. It is quite possible that some of these reports are even copied from nature. But each one copies nature as he sees it. The Mensheviks approach everything in nature from the rear, and that is how they copy it. There is no doubt that in working-class neighbourhoods there is discontent with various aspects of today’s hard life. We can also grant that the slow tempo of the developing European revolution and the ponderous, full-of-pitfalls process of our own economic development engender among isolated, not purely proletarian but rather large circles of the working class, moods of pessimism and disorientation, verging even on mysticism. During weekdays – and our great epoch, too, has its weekdays – the consciousness of the class becomes absorbed and distracted by current cares and concerns; the differences in the interests and views among the various groups within the working class come to the forefront. But the very next major events completely reveal the profound unity of the working class that has passed through the fiery school of revolution. We had a chance to observe this on more than one occasion on the long road from the Czechoslovak mutiny in the Volga to the negotiations in Genoa. Our enemies have said more than once that the Czechoslovak uprising proved quite beneficial to the Soviet power. The Mensheviks, the Socialist Revolutionaries, and their older brothers, the Kadets of the Milyukov [3] group, keep repeating that military interventions are harmful precisely because the Soviet power is strengthened as a result. But what does this mean? It means nothing else than that all major and serious tests reveal the profound ties between the soviets and the toiling masses, despite the disorganization, the effects of devastation, and the incompetence, despite the exhaustion of some and the discontent of others.

Naturally even a state that is already in conflict with social progress can sometimes find itself strengthened at a moment of external danger. We saw this in the case of tsarism during the first phase of the Russo-Japanese War, and, on a still larger scale, at the beginning of the last imperialist war. But this held true only for the first phase, i.e., only until the consciousness of the popular masses was able to assimilate the new fact. Then came the settling of scores: the obsolete régime lost far more in stability than it was able to gain during the initial phase of the war. Why then does this phenomenon, which has the universality of a law, fail to manifest itself in the destiny of the soviet republic? Why did three years’ experience with military interventions impel our more perspicacious enemies to renounce the idea of further military assaults? For exactly the same reason that the Genoa Conference has aroused enthusiasm among the working masses, producing the unexpected, great demonstrations of May Day.

The Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries were, of course, against the workers’ marching, and they issued a call not to march. All the more clearly was revealed how unanimous the toilers were with regard to the basic questions involving the life of the Toilers’ Republic. It is of course possible to contend that repressions have hindered and are hindering the success of the White Guardist and yellow “Socialist” propaganda. This cannot be denied. But, after all, the struggle itself comes down to this, that they seek to overthrow the Soviet power, while the latter refuses to permit them to do it. We feel positively under no obligation to provide more favourable conditions for their counter-revolutionary struggle.

After all, the bourgeoisie nowhere strives to facilitate the conditions for the work of the Communists, nevertheless the revolutionary movement has grown and continues to grow. Tsarism had at its disposal the mightiest apparatus of repressions, but this could not save it from falling. Moreover, the Mensheviks themselves probably wrote and said more than once that tsarist repressions only serve to spread and to temper the revolutionary movement. And this was correct. During the initial period of the Russo-Japanese imperialist war, tsarism was still able to stage patriotic demonstrations, even if only on a very limited scale. But very soon the city streets began falling under the sway of revolutionary crowds. The reference to repressions, consequently, explains nothing, for the question naturally arises: Why are these repressions successful, while the struggle against them fails to meet with success? And the answer reads: Repressions fail to attain their aim whenever they are applied by an obsolete state power against new and progressive historical forces. In the hands of a historically progressive power, repressions can prove extremely effective in speeding the removal of outdated forces from the historical arena.

But since May Day has laid bare the closest internal bond between the toilers and the soviet régime and, in passing, also the complete impotence of the parties of White Guards and “socialists”, shouldn’t one therefore conclude that repressions are unnecessary? Why not legalize impotence, even if it does happen to be mortally hostile to the workers’ revolution?

This question, too, merits a completely clear reply. Had May Day been celebrated in the same way throughout the world, then the very question of repressions would never have arisen in Russia. The same thing would apply if Russia existed alone in this world. But, after all, the toilers on May Day come out so unanimously on the streets of Moscow and Petrograd, Kharkov and Kiev and other cities precisely because through Genoa they became more clearly and directly aware of their Workers’ and Peasants’ Russia standing alone against two-score bourgeois states. Within the national boundaries of Russia the Mensheviks and the SRs are an insignificant magnitude. But on an international scale the relation of forces appears differently. because in power everywhere – in Europe and throughout the world – stand the bourgeoisie, and Menshevism serves as its transmitting political mechanism.

Russian Menshevism is itself insignificant, but it represents a lever of a still mighty system, whose driving force is the stock market in Paris, London, and New York. This was revealed with exceptional clarity in the case of Georgia. The Mensheviks, under Vandervelde’s lead, demanded nothing less than the restoration of Menshevik Georgia. M. Barthou, the most reactionary of the French political profiteers, demanded that the former Menshevik Georgian government be invited to Genoa. And this same Barthou has a Wrangel detachment in reserve, in the event of an invasion of the Caucasian shores. And at bottom of it all is the stock market’s greed for Caucasian oil.

Within the national boundaries the Mensheviks and the SRs are insignificant. But within the boundaries of capitalist encirclement they were and remain the semi-political, semi-military agencies of imperialism, armed to its teeth. After the long stretch of weekdays, with the silent burrowing by both sides, Genoa has once again dramatically and dazzlingly revealed the contradiction between soviet Russia and the rest of the world. That is why the toilers of our country have rallied so unanimously to the soviet banners. This magnificent movement expressed the revolutionary power of the Republic, and also – the power of the dangers surrounding it. Today there are no fronts and no military hostilities, but we still remain a beleaguered fortress. Our enemies have granted us an armistice and have asked us to send negotiators. Our enemies have probed us and have become convinced that today we are further from capitulation than ever before. But our enemies are still powerful. And this means that the danger is great, too. These are the lessons of May Day. Legitimately proud of our strength, we must not, in the future as well, abate our vigilance by an iota.

First published in Pravda, Issue No.102, May 10, 1922


1. Victor Hugo, the famous French novelist of the Nineteenth Century, was a political opponent of Napoleon III (Louis Napoleon) and was exiled by the latter. Hugo’s funeral in 1885 was the occasion for one of the greatest mass demonstrations witnessed in Europe.

2. The all-European economic conference at Genoa (April 10-19, 1922) was called by the Supreme Allied Council for the purpose of reviving the economic life of Europe. It represented the first attempt by the Allied imperialists to extort “peacefully” a number of economic concessions from the Soviet Union, among them the recognition of the Czarist debts.

3. Miliukov, an outstanding historian, was the leader of the Russian liberal bourgeoisie and its party, the Cadets (Constitutional Democrats). After the February 1917 revolution, he held the post of Foreign Minister in the Provisional Government and tried to continue the foreign policy of Czarism. After the October revolution, he migrated to Paris, where he edited a Russian daily paper.

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Last updated on: 16.1.2007