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James M. Fenwick

Off Limits

A May Day to Remember

(29 April 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 17, 29 April 1946, p. 4-M.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

May 1, 1916. That was thirty years ago to the day – a whole generation as our grandfathers reckoned time, and in terms of working class political consciousness it seems ever more distantly remote, so severe has been the ebb of worldwide revolutionary thought in our time.

May 1, 1916, found Germany caught midway in the horrible carnage of World War I. Though the war was not to end for two more years, the German workers and soldiers, then the most politically educated of the entire world, were already deadly sick of the seemingly endless slaughter.

Betrayed by the social democratic party, which had preached international Socialism before the war and had turned rabidly patriotic when war was declared, propagandized by the German capitalist press, and enslaved by the notorious discipline of the German military machine, thousands of German workers were waiting only for leadership to demonstrate their international working class solidarity.

Their chance came.

Potsdam Square, May 1, 1916, 8 p.m.

Posters, illegally printed and bearing the following words. “All out for the May Day demonstration,” appeared in working class neighborhoods. Leaflets were distributed by militant workers saying, “All who are against the war, come to Potsdam Square, May 1, 8 p.m. Bread! Liberty! Peace!”

The posters and leaflets were the work of Karl Liebknecht and the Spartacists. Liebknecht, a member of the social democratic (socialist) fraction in the Reichstag, was the first parliamentary representative of the German working class to oppose the imperialist war. The Spartacists were the members of the social-democratic party who were opposed to the war on a Marxist basis.

On the evening of May 1, despite masses of mounted and foot police who had been ordered out, ten thousand Berlin workers mobilized on Potsdam Square to demonstrate against the war. At eight o’clock Liebknecht, who had been drafted by the government so as to curb his activity, appeared and began to speak.

He was able to shout only “Down with the war! Down with the government!” before he was pulled down by the police and arrested. The police then attempted to break up the crowd, but they continued to march around the square demonstrating for two hours before they were dispersed.

Simultaneous with the Berlin demonstration, similar mass meetings were being held by the Spartacists all over Germany – in Dresden, Jena, Stuttgart, Magdeburg, Braunschweig, Leipzig, Kiel, Bremen and Duisburg.

The Rising Tide

After a prolonged trial Liebknecht was sentenced to four years in jail. Shortly thereafter his associate, the famous revolutionist, Rosa Luxemburg, was similarly sentenced to jail, as was the courageous Franz Mehring, the brilliant scholar and internationalist, who was then a man of seventy.

But the tide was not to be turned.

As the butchery continued anger continued to mount. The October revolution in Russia added fuel to the fire. On October 21, 1918, Liebknecht was liberated from prison through the pressure of the masses, though only half his sentence had been served. Finally, mutinies broke out in the navy and revolts in the army. The German capitalists, faced with allied military superiority and the opposition of workers, soldiers, and sailors, had to sue for peace.

The bloody butchery was over.

A Lesson for Our Times

Contrast the course of events in Germany in World War II with the events of World War I. In this last war, despite the unparalleled length and frightfulness of the destruction, for lack of a socialist consciousness in Germany the Wehrmacht fought from the last pile of rubble in Berlin.

For lack of socialist consciousness among the ranks of the workers, soldiers, and sailors of allied armies the slaughter of the workers of the world was allowed to continue unhindered.

Only socialism can ultimately drive war from our planet.

Let every veteran who has seen the horrors of the recent simple war of mechanical force, ponder those facts carefully in the face of war of atomic force which our capitalist masters are coolly preparing for us unless socialism intervenes.

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