Sunday, May 1, 2016

May Day Musings: The Tragedy of Demonstrations (1936)

From the May 1936 issue of the Socialist Standard

On May 1st thousands of workers walk in procession and gather round platforms to listen to fiery speeches and pass idle and fruitless resolutions on questions of the day. For many years now these May Day demonstrations have been held, and the net result of them all is nil, as far as helping the workers out of their difficulties is concerned.

Like most things, whilst they were new they called forth great enthusiasm, but that was long ago. In pre-war days they were taken seriously, and budding Labour leaders felt that if they wished to make a mark they must appear prominently in these gatherings. Those were the days before Labour Parties had taken a hand in government. Nowadays “statesmanship " fills up the time of the former rebels, to the almost complete exclusion of popular demonstrations. In other words, the labour machine is now so effective that it no longer needs to depend on these demonstrations to the extent that it used to do.

Each year at May Day demonstrations there is a star question of temporary importance, about which the speakers lash themselves into a fury. In pre-war days Ireland and India frequently occupied first place. Since the war Russia, the Means Test and Fascism have competed for first place. This year repression in Germany and Italy will take an important place and the orators will doubtless shed a tear for Ethiopia. It is interesting to record, as an example of the futility of mere protests, that exactly 50 years ago, after eight years of savage repression of the workers' organisations in Germany, the Reichstag, despite the protests, extended the anti-Socialist law for a further two years. Jew-baiting and the repression of labour agitation were as strong in Germany then as now, so little do times change as long as the mass of the people fail to understand Socialism and its implications. Italy, too, in the 'nineties of last century, passed through a period which exhibited almost every feature repeated since the war under Mussolini.

Fundamentally, the speakers on May Day are mainly concerned with abstract questions of justice or detailed questions of hours and conditions of labour in particular industries. It is for this reason that people of great diversity of political opinion can gather together on the same platform, and this is also reflected in the conflicting political views of the audiences that unite to cheer the speakers. In pre-war days the writer has seen Cecil Chesterton, Victor Grayson, an Indian Nationalist, an Irish Home Ruler, and other speakers expressing sectional viewpoints, all uniting to pass the resolution of the day—a protest against something or other that was about as useful as appealing to the sky to cease raining.

It is for this reason, the failure to obtain any real alteration, that the popularity of May Day is waning. But the empty satisfaction of registering a mere protest will still draw large crowds to these and similar demonstrations.

Enthusiasm is an excellent and valuable thing when rightly applied, but when it is wasted in fruitless directions it only leads to disheartenment and apathy. It is partly on this account that we criticise the May Day demonstrations, and not with any desire to jeer at the genuine enthusiasm of misinformed workers. To watch the serried ranks of bannered processions marching by and to realise that it is but the enthusiasm of a day is heartbreaking to those who have witnessed them for years.

Many of those who in times gone by loudly proclaimed the solidarity of labour from May Day platforms were afterwards found either on recruiting platforms or in other ways supporting the war of 1914-1918. Doubtless any future war will show many who are now leading the processions following a similar course. Then it was resistance to the German attack on freedom and the plight of small nations. To-morrow it will probably be the same, only with a different name—possibly Fascism and Ethiopia in place of Prussianism and Belgium.

But back of it all there is a gleam of hope. One day the processions that pass will be different. The marchers will be bent on ending the system that exploits them and plunges them into wars, for they will understand the real cause of their troubles and the only way to end them.

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