Leon Trotsky

The Lesson of May Day

Source: The Communist Review, June 1922, Vol. 3, No. 2.
Translator: J. Feinberg
Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Proofreader: David Tate
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2006). 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.

THE May Day demonstrations, not only in Petrograd and Moscow, but also in Kharkov, were, in truth, of grandiose dimensions. The organisers of the demonstrations themselves did not expect such an enormous number of demonstrators. Foreigners, including those that are not our friends, were amazed. One of the representatives of the Amsterdam International, in expressing his impressions of the demonstration, said that he had not seen anything like it except at the funeral of Victor Hugo; and he has had occasion to witness many mass demonstrations in various countries in Europe. Of course, the temper of the demonstrators was not equal; some marched with enthusiasm, others came out of sympathy with us, others, again, came out of curiosity, and, finally, there were those who merely followed the crowd. But this is what always happens in a movement that embraces thousands of people. In the main, the enormous crowd felt that it was taking part in some common cause, and, naturally, the tone of the demonstration was given by those who came with enthusiasm.

Already several days before May 1st, the comrades in the localities remarked that it was difficult to imagine the extent to which Genoa had roused the political interest and revolutionary consciousness of the labour masses. Others added that what was particularly observable was a sense of revolutionary pride in that “we had compelled them to talk to us as man to man.”

If one were to be guided by the White-socialist publications abroad, one would be led to believe that the Russian working class were thoroughly imbued with scepticism, was reactionary, and hostile to the Soviet Government. It is quite possible that not all this correspondence is compiled in Berlin, which is a centre not only of Russian Monarchism, but also of White Socialism. Probably some of it are descriptions from life. But everyone describes life as he sees it, and the Mensheviks, at any rate, see life in a very perverted manner. That there is dissatisfaction in working class districts with various aspects of the present difficult conditions of life, there can be no doubt. We may even admit that the slow rate of development of the European revolution and the ponderous and uneven progress of our economic development, gives rise in some rather considerable, not in the purely proletarian sections of the working class, loss of heart and to some confusion of ideas that transcends into mysticism. On ordinary days—and our great epoch has its ordinary days—the consciousness of the working class is divided on the questions of the given day; the differences of interest and views of the various groups of the working class come to the front. But, immediately some great event takes place, the profound unity of the proletariat, which has passed through the fires of the revolution, is revealed in all its completeness. We have more than once observed this on the long road from the Czecho-Slovak mutiny on the Volga, to the Genoa Conference. Our enemies have more than once declared that the Czecho-Slovak mutiny rendered a service to the Soviet Government. The Mensheviks and the S.R.’s, and their elder brothers, the Millukoff Cadets, frequently declare that intervention is harmful, because it only leads to the strengthening of the Soviet Power. What does this show? It shows that in the hour of trial, in spite of the disorder, in spite of disorganisation and incapacity, in spite of the weariness of some and the dissatisfaction of others, the strong ties between the Soviets and the toiling masses are revealed.

Of course, even a regime that is running counter to the social development of the State, may appear to have become stronger in the hour of danger. We observed this in the first period of the Russo-Japanese war, and, on a still greater scale, at the beginning of the last imperialist war. But this took place only in the first period, while the consciousness of the masses had not yet absorbed the new facts. Later on comes the day of reckoning. The obsolete regime then loses more stability than it gained in the first period of the war. Why is this phenomenon, which has the generality of a law, not observed in the Soviet Republic? Why as three years of experience of intervention induced the more farsighted of our enemies to abandon the idea of military invasion? For the very same reason that the Genoa Conference aroused such enthusiasm among the masses of the workers and led to the unexpected, but enormous success of the May Day demonstration.

Of course the Mensheviks and the S.R’s were opposed to the demonstration, and called upon the workers to boycott it. But this only the more strikingly reveals the unanimity of the toilers with regard to the fundamental questions affecting the life of the Labour Republic. It may also be said that repressions hindered and still hinders the success of the White socialists propaganda. But their aim is the overthrow of the Soviet Government, and the latter will not permit itself to be overthrown. We do not, by any means, feel called upon to create favourable conditions for their counter-revolutionary struggle.

The bourgeoisie nowhere facilitates the work of the Communists, and yet the revolutionary movement has grown and is growing. Tsarism possessed the mightiest engine of oppression, but that did not prevent its fall. Moreover, these very Mensheviks have probably more than once said and written that Tsarist repression only extended and intensified the revolutionary movement. And this was true. In the first period of the Russo-Japanese war the Tsarist Government managed to organise patriotic demonstrations, but even these were very limited in scope. Very soon after, however, the streets were taken possession of by revolutionary crowds. The repressions argument, therefore, explains nothing, for it gives rise to the question: Why are the repressions successful, and the struggle against them a failure? The reply to this question is repressions never achieve their aim when they are employed by an obsolete ruling power against new progressive historical forces. In the hands of a historically progressive power repressions may be a very powerful instrument for the purpose of sweeping the historical arena, clean from obsolete forces.

But if the 1st of May demonstration has revealed the deep inherent ties between the toilers and the Soviets, and in passing, has exposed the complete powerlessness of the White socialist parties, does this not prove that repressions are unnecessary? Should we not grant legality to feebleness, even if it is a deadly enemy of the proletarian revolution? This question must be replied to with the greatest possible clearness. If the celebration of the 1st of May was the same in all countries, the question of repressions would not arise at all. The position would be the same if Russia was the only country in the world. But the reason why the workers so unanimously came out on the streets of Moscow, Petrograd, Kharkov, and Kiev, on the 1st of May, was precisely because they, through Genoa, more clearly than ever, saw Russia as their Worker and Peasant Russia, which for four years had stood out against a score of bourgeois states. Within the limits of Russia the Mensheviks and S. R.’s are a negligible quantity but, on an international scale, the relation of forces are somewhat different, for everywhere in Europe and in the whole world, the bourgeoisie are in power and Menshevism is its political transmitting mechanism.

Russian Menshevism is a negligible quantity, but it is the lever of a still powerful system, the driving power of which are the London, Paris, and New York Stock Exchanges. This was revealed with unusual clearness in connection with the question of Georgia. Led by Vandervelde, the Mensheviks demanded nothing more nor less than the restoration of Menshevik Georgia. The most reactionary of political profiteers, Barthou, demanded that the former Menshevik Government of Georgia be permitted to attend the Genoa Conference. This very same Barthou is keeping the Wrangel detachments in reserve in the event of it being necessary to make a landing on the Caucasian coast. At the bottom of the whole thing is the striving of the Stock Exchange for the Caucasian oil.

Within the limits of Russia the Mensheviks and S.R.’s are insignificant; but within a capitalist environment they have been and remain a semi-political, semi-military agency of Imperialism armed to the teeth. After a prolonged period of quiet everyday existence, Genoa clearly and dramatically revealed the contradiction between Soviet Russia and the rest of the world. And it was because of this that the toilers rallied unanimously under the banner of the Soviets. In this grand gesture they revealed the revolutionary power of the Republic, but it also revealed its surrounding dangers. There are no fronts and military operations to-day, but we are still a besieged fortress. Our enemies have given us an armistice and have invited us to send our parliamentarians for negotiations. Our enemies have tried us and have found that we are as far off from capitalism as ever we were. But our enemies are still strong, and therefore the dangers are still great. This is the lesson of the 1st of May: while justifiably conscious of our strength, nevertheless, we must not for a single moment slacken our vigilance.