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How Spirit of May Day Flamed
in World War I

Today as Then, Working-Class Internationalism Will Emerge
Triumphant Over Suppressions and Betrayals

(25 April 1942)

From The Militant, Vol. 6 No. 17, 25 April 1942, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

How happy the rulers of every capitalist nation would be on this First of May if they could only forget the imperishable history of the May Days during World War I.

Darkest reaction holds sway throughout the world, just as in the first years of the last war. Working-class international ism, the very essence of May Day, seems almost dead.

But it still lives. It lives on in the concentration camps and dungeons and bloody terror of the fascist countries. The tiny flame is kept alive by courageous handfuls, who like their predecessors of the last war, must meet furtively behind dosed doors.

It survives among the Trotskyist adherents of Leninism in the bourgeois-democratic countries, despite the effects of the bosses and the Social-Democratic and Stalinist betrayers to stifle all manifestations of internationalism and class struggle on this May Day.

It lives in the hearts of the heroic Red Army soldiers and the Soviet workers and peasants, whose revolution was saved from imperialist intervention in 1918–20 by a policy of revolutionary internationalism.

May Day cannot be destroyed. That is the lesson of May Day in World War I. And that is why the capitalists of the world will not rejoice nor sleep easy at night on this May 1, 1942.

The First Blow

The very day, the very hour can be named when the blow was Struck which first began to undermine the ruling class war machines in the last war. It was May Day, 1916, in Berlin, Germany.

Less than two years before, in August 1914, German imperialism seemed to have swept everything before it. The great German Social-Democratic Party, which up to the last moment had been pledged to oppose the war, folded up like a wet rag, and joined with the capitalists and Junkers in voting support for the War.

On August 3, 1914, three days after the Kaiser’s declaration of war on Russia, the Socialist deputies in the Reichstag met and voted 78 to 14 to support the war appropriations. And on the next day, when the majority declaration was read amidst wild cheers in the Reichstag, even the 14 who opposed the declaration maintained party discipline and remained silent.

Among the 14 was Karl Liebknecht, the most outspoken and courageous of the German socialist anti-war fighters. He, too, was momentarily unable to stand up to the wave of chauvinism that spread throughout the Second (Socialist) International parties of the warring countries.

When May Day 1915 came, the streets of the capitals of Europe, were silent and deserted. In former years they had rung to the tread of marching millions threatening the war-lords if they should go through with their known war plans. Never, it seemed, would the spirit of socialist internationalism rise again.

But in those darkest hours, there remained enduring and uncompromising revolutionists – a few dozen perhaps in all Europe – who kept up the battle. A Lenin, a Trotsky, a Rosa Luxemburg, a Liebknecht.

‘The Main Enemy’

In early 1915, on the occasion of Italy’s entrance into the war, when Karl Liebknecht heard that The Italian socialists had voted to continue opposition to the war, he penned his immortal appeal to the German workers:

“The main enemy of the German people is in Germany: German imperialism, the German war party, German secret diplomacy. The German people must wage a political struggle against this enemy in its own country, in conjunction with the struggle of the proletarians of other countries against their own imperialists ...

“Proletarians of all countries! Follow the heroic example of your Italian brothers! Unite for the international class war against the conspiracy of secret diplomacy,. against imperialism, against the war, for a socialist peace!

“The main enemy is in your own country!”

On May Day, 1916, Liebknecht spoke to a huge May Day demonstration in Berlin. Almost alone he had summoned the masses, in the very midst of the German victories. His message of the year before had been heard. Thousands turned out to voice their protest at the war. And the fear-stricken German ruling class brushing aside Liebknecht’s parliamentary immunity, rushed him to jail.

But there was no stopping the rising anti-war tide. It affected all the armies, even the victorious armies of the Kaiser. One well-planned offensive in 1917 might have won the war for Germany; but the generals dared not call it.

For on May Day, 1917, there were monster strike demonstrations throughout Germany, immediately inspired by an order reducing the civilian bread rations. In Berlin alone, 250,000 workers were out. 125,000 munitions workers throughout the country joined the strike; 10,000 downed tools in the chief naval yards at Kiel.

Mutiny, 1917

And just outside the Kiel harbor, a powerful section of the German navy mutinied. The crews of several ships in Squadron IV, anchored at Schillig Road, set up committees and seized control of their vessels. This mutiny was finally suppressed, but with the greatest difficulty.

And while the German workers were demonstrating against their rulers, across the border in France, the French workers were also rising in struggle against their capitalist war leaders.

On May 1, 1917, for the first time since the war began, Paris witnessed a great demonstration. Ten thousand workers attended a mass meeting called by a “Committee for the Renewal of International Relations.” The strikes that broke out on May Day, began to sweep France. By the end of the month almost all Paris was out. Of the scenes in the streets and public cafes, Michael Corday wrote in The Paris Front: “It made one think of the French Revolution, With the populace overrunning the royal palaces ...”

‘Viva la Revolution!’

The disaffection on the home front was linked to that on the battle front. After a disastrous attempt at an offensive in the latter part of April 1917, the French troops returning to the rear were shouting “Long Live Peace!” and “They have been assassinating us!”

On May 3, paralleling the growing strikes there began a wave of mutinies in the army, until, in the words of the then French Minister of War, Painlève, “no more than two divisions between Soissons and Paris could be absolutely relied on.”

Poincaré, the French President, wrote in his memoirs of those days:

“Colonel Herbillon informs me of new mutinies ... Men have refused to go into the trenches ... Order is menaced everywhere ... The fever is spreading. Symptoms of a breakdown of discipline in the army are multiplying ... At Dorman a few days ago soldiers cried out: ‘Viva la Revolution! Down with the war!’”

But the greatest of all the May Day 1917 demonstrations – in fact, the mightiest the world had ever known up to then – took place in Russia, where but a year before not a single worker had dared to speak out openly against the war.

Greatest May Days in All History

The streets of every Russian city were choked with the monster mass outpouring. It was the triumphal celebration of the overthrow of Czarism in February 1917. And it was also a gathering of forces for the final overthrow of Russian capitalism which was to come six months later.

Leon Trotsky, in his History of the Russian Revolution, recorded for all time the description of that historic May Day:

“... All the cities of Russia were drowned in meetings and demonstrations. Not only the industrial enterprises, but the state, city and rural public institutions were closed. In Moghilev, the headquarters of the General Staff, the Cavaliers of St. George marched at the head of the procession. The members of the staff – unremoved czarist generals – marched under May 1 banners. The holiday of proletarian anti-militarism blended with revolution-tinted manifestations of patriotism.

“In both capitals and in the industrial centers the workers dominated the celebration, and amid them the strong nuclei of Bolshevism stood out distinctly with banners, placards, speeches and shouts. Across the immense facade of the Mariinsky Palace, the refuge of the Provisional Government, was stretched a bold red streamer with the words: ‘Long Live The Third International.’ The authorities, not rid of their administrative shyness, could not make up their minds to remove this disagreeable and alarming streamer. Everybody, it seemed, was celebrating. So far as it could the army at the front celebrated. News came of meetings, speeches, banners and revolutionary songs in the trenches, and there were responses from the German side.”

The Russian May Day celebration in 1918 included no Czarist generals or capitalist politicians. It was the greatest May Day of all – the first May Day to be observed in a workers’ state, the Soviet Union. The titanic revolution it celebrated had ended the war for the Russian workers and peasants and speeded the end of the entire world war. The capitalist leaders in every land, frightened at the prospect of spreading revolution, patched up their armistice. And the German masses, remembering the slogan of Karl Liebknecht, overthrew the German monarchy and made a heroic but unsuccessful attempt to establish workers’ power.

May Day Lives On

Not merely in Europe, but in America the spirit of May Day survived the impact of the war. May Day 1917 was marked by tremendous anti-war demonstrations and bitter battles with the police and “patriotic” bosses’ gangs.

The government then prohibited May Day demonstrations in 1918, aided in its attempts to suppress all expression of working-class internationalism by the reformist socialist and labor leaders who supported the war.

But once more, in 1919, the workers stormed the streets of he American cities in one of the largest and most militant May Day demonstrations ever held in this country,

As the revolutionary spirit and character of May Day, its flame of proletarian internationalism, burned on through the darkest lays of the last war, so it will continue to burn today. This May Day may be observed in deepest secrecy in the fascist hell-holes of Europe. In the bourgeois democracies it may be perverted by he Social Democrats and Stalinists into a mere jingo rally for “national unity” with capitalist reaction. But the spirit of May Day that lived on through the last war, that broke through the ramparts of imperialism and gave birth to the Soviet Union, will yet triumph. The end of this war is certain to witness a May Day such as the world has never known – marking the victory of the struggle for world socialism.

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