From the May 1949 issue of the Socialist Standard
May Day, as a day of celebration, has a history that passes well back through the ages. In the days of ancient Greece and Rome it had a significance. In medieval England it was a national holiday celebrated on village green and market square with maypoles, Morris dancing, stage plays and bonfires. The remnants of these celebrations in modern times are the parades of decorated horses and vans that are held on May Day.
The May Day political demonstrations have a separate history. In 1889 a conference of the Second International, held in Paris, decided to proclaim the first of May as a day for demonstrations to agitate for the eight-hour working day. Since then, in many parts of the world, the first of May, or the first Sunday in May, has been a day when workers have marched with banners and bands to some suitable open space to listen to political and trade union speakers.
In London the demonstrators usually congregate in Hyde Park. Workers assemble in outlying districts and march to the park carrying the banners of their trade union branches or lodges, and posters and placards bearing topical slogans. Each contingent is shepherded by detachments of police and is frequently led by a band whilst the tail end is composed of small groups of workers who chant slogans in chorus as they march.
The contingents enter the park by different gates and proceed to the platforms that have been previously erected for the occasion. When all are assembled, speakers of many shades of so-called “left” opinion, often sworn political enemies, will mount the platforms and utter protests for or against the existing government, or declare what they, or their respective organisations would do if given the opportunity. The proceedings invariably end with the passing of some wordy, pious, meaningless resolution and the crowds drift away to other meetings or to the gates of the park where the literature of a variety of organisations is offered for sale.
In former days, men who have figured prominently in Labour Governments were to be found on these platforms, even, at times, in the ranks of the marchers. But today most of these men are too respectable to indulge in that sort of thing. Besides, they have affairs of state to attend to. A "big name” on the platforms is something of a rarity these days.
The slogans on the marchers' placards indicate the text of the speeches. Points of popular discontent are dealt with in a manner calculated to please the main part of the audience. In recent years we have heard harangues about increased production, friendship with the Soviet Union, the high taxation on cigarettes, delay in bringing the troops back from Greece, the Marshall Plan, the repatriation of prisoners-of-war, etc. Looking farther back we can remember fire eating oratory on such subjects as the means test, cuts in unemployment pay, the Government’s attitude to Spain, demands for peace, demands to open a second front in the last world war, the Trade Disputes act, and a host of other aspects of Capitalism.
The procedure and the speeches in other towns and cities are similar.
Where these demonstrations gather, in the larger cities of this country, there will also be found the platform of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. Our speakers will not be found on the larger rostrum. They have something to say that cannot be heard from there. We have an object that precludes us from association with the woolly, reformist notions that emanate from the other speakers. We are hostile to them. They offer the workers nothing but a continuation of the problems that they demonstrate against. The Marshall Plan has faded from prominence to make way for a new red herring—the Atlantic Pact. The troops are home from Greece and more are recruited or conscripted to be sent elsewhere. The problem of the means test has passed and the problem of atomic warfare is to be faced. The Trade Disputes Act is slightly amended but the Emergency Powers Act remains. All through the years the workers have been encouraged to deal with effects and not causes. We present an opposite view. We state that all these things are secondary problems springing from Capitalist society; Capitalism will continue to produce fresh crops of them; abolish Capitalism and solve the lot for ever.
We are interested in May Day. We want it to be a real labour day. A day on which workers will demonstrate their determination to end for all time the system that keeps them in subjection. A day on which they will demonstrate to that effect with such purpose that their masters will realise that the days of Capitalist privilege are numbered. We want a May Day that will end with the passing of a resolution that will have some meaning, in that those who pass it will be organised as a class and determined to put it into operation. To that end we erect our platform in the parks on May Day and invite all workers to come around, not merely to listen, but to question and discuss with our speakers on matters that affect the lives of all.
It was a common practise in past years, to move and carry a resolution at the demonstration, voicing solidarity with workers in other lands. Leaders who sponsored such resolutions have, on two occasions, betrayed their followers by urging them to sally forth to destroy Prussianism or Fascism by slaughtering their fellow workers in other parts of the world. Our May Day message on both those occasions, and today, faced with preparations for the next war, was and is, "having no quarrel with the working class of any country, we extend to our fellow workers of all lands the expression of our goodwill and Socialist fraternity, and pledge ourselves to work for the overthrow of Capitalism and the triumph of Socialism.” That was our stand in 1914 and in 1939. It will be our stand when the present international conflict comes to a showdown, whatever the consequences to ourselves.
We recommend to all workers, in particular to those who attend May Day demonstrations, to think back over the years as far as they can remember. They will see that with each new hardship that has arisen the majority of working class organisations have devoted their time and energies to its removal until some fresh imposition or hardship has attracted their attention. So it has gone on, year after year. Some remedies have been found, some hardships removed, but a fresh crop has taken their place. The fundamental problem of poverty remains and wars continue. They will continue until the workers bring to an end the system of society that produces them.
When the mines, the land, the factories, the laboratories, the workshops, the oil wells; the ships, lorries and aeroplanes and all the other means of production and distribution—when all these things are in the hands of society as a whole (not the state) the need for expressions of solidarity will not arise; there will be no grounds for antagonism. Then, if the people wish, May Day can again become a holiday with all the spontaneous expression of joyousness that characterised it in medieval times.