A Different May Day in 1918

Our latest translation from Kommunist is the editorial to issue number 2. It was translated some time ago but we decided to issue it now as an alternative to those dreary spectacles which have once again become the ritual May Day of the reformists.

For Russian revolutionaries these were indeed “days of hope” and the editorial reflects that. It actually contrasts with much of the rest of the content of Kommunist. After all the journal was set up by the Left Communists specifically because they feared that the revolution which they had supported, a revolution based on the self-activity of the Russian working class, was already in danger of taking a wrong turn. We have already published some of these criticisms and will continue publishing them until all five issues are in English.

In the meantime this editorial not only demonstrates the depth of the gulf between social democratic reformism and genuine revolutionary politics based on the formation of class bodies like workers’ councils, but also shows that “the victory of the proletariat is impossible without international action”. No-one in the Bolshevik Party or indeed in the wider working class really believed that it was possible to establish socialism in Russia alone. Internationalism, as even historians hostile to the October Revolution are forced to agree, was at the heart of working class action in an unprecedented way.

Unsurprisingly then, May Day 1918 in Russia was a genuine celebration of both the revolution that had taken place and also the future international revolution that would come to make the vision of socialism possible.

It is a sad contrast to today where trades union rituals have replaced the real class movement and class struggle origins of May Day have long been forgotten. As our comrade in Battaglia Comunista wrote in the May Day edition of their paper, today “There is nothing to celebrate, there is only a struggle for a society without classes or exploitation.” And today the outcome of such a struggle becomes more critical with each passing year.

The First of May

Editorial from Kommunist 2

For the fourth time the proletariat is celebrating its festival during the storms of the First World War. And for the first time the Russian proletariat is celebrating it by being in power, after having overthrown the national bourgeoisie on the way to overturning the capitalist order. Whilst the looting of the world war continues to monstrously destroy human culture, the international revolution overthrew the yoke of the Russian bourgeoisie in a single blow, and is ready to deliver further blows – this is the picture on 1 May 1918.

This “workers’ holiday” draws the line between two periods of development of the proletarian socialist movement, between peaceful reformism and the domination of the Second International, (1) and that of the “assault and the ‘socialist’ storm” with the new Third International (2), that of the all-conquering proletarian councils in the course of the communist revolution.

The Second International, which had given birth to the celebration of May Day (3), killed it at the same time. The Workers' Day should have been a review of revolutionary forces, the parade of the army of the proletariat ready to do battle. It gradually turned into a peaceful bourgeois celebration, and the theorists of the Second International who spoke of the meaning of the First of May did not go beyond a suggestion of disarmament and verbal protests against the militarist yoke. Pacifism is the banner carried by the Second International. It is not surprising that this passive tactic, lacking fight and revolutionary spirit has inevitably led to the results we are seeing: the complete bankruptcy, the infamous fall, the odious degradation of the Second International, its decomposition into “national” guard dogs of the capitalist state, stifling the revolutionary energy of the masses.

If, on its international festive day, the proletariat used to raise the flag of disarmament and peace, from now on it waves the rebel flag of the socialist revolution, the one of arming of the workers and the class war against the bourgeoisie. A lasting peace is impossible as long as capital is not overthrown. Liberation from the militarist yoke is not possible as long as the bankocracy holds power: this is what the bloody experience of war and the great Russian revolution of the working class teaches us.

But this experience also teaches us something else. It demonstrates that that the victory of the proletariat is impossible without international action. The Russian proletariat attacked by international capital sees it; the worker suffocated by the bloody hands of the Finnish bourgeoisie, with the help of German troops, sees it (4); the Ukrainian proletariat devoured by the plundering states of Central Europe sees it; the German and Austrian working class, which the imperialist rapists transform into the executioner of the socialist revolution, sees it.

So this bright spring day becomes a terrible new day of revolutionary demonstration. Those who are chained to the bourgeois state, to the homeland, like the convict to his wheelbarrow (5), refuse to celebrate this big day. But the ranks of the toiling workers, who celebrate it, and go out on the street without being afraid of the Schutzmann sabres (6) and machine guns of police ambushes, are full. The bourgeois peaceful festival is becoming a combative action around which workers close ranks in their revolutionary struggle against the imperialist state.

Russia is the first country where the assault of revolutionary workers has broken through the front of the capitalist state. It is the first country where the revolution is celebrated by a working class that has taken power, where the May Day celebration is organised by the workers' power, by the proletarian State, where the revolutionary workers’ councils form the backbone of the proletarian army. For workers from Berlin and Vienna, to Budapest and London, Dublin and Paris, this first May will not be an intoxicating day of enjoyment of total victory and rest after a severe struggle, but a terrible day of preparation for great battles, a first outing. Thus, for the Russian proletariat, this May Day will be the day to review the armed and civilian forces of the red socialist republic.

We are the fighting detachment of the communist revolution. More than anyone else, we have the opportunity to prepare our forces, to form the red regiments. "To whom much is given, much is demanded." We listen to the May Day preparations of our comrades. We know that on that day, they will be at our side. We know that, every hour, their forces increase, whatever monstrous cannons the Krupp company (7) points at them, and even if the "democrat" Lloyd-George is enraged. The will to revolution and its final international victory: that is our flag! The international insurrection of the proletariat – that is our slogan! This May Day, let us proclaim the words of the Communist Manifesto:

It is no accident that the ruling classes tremble at the threat of a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of all countries, unite!


(1) Formed in 1889 by the federation of the Socialist parties of several countries the Second International passed many resolutions at Congresses in Stuttgart, Copenhagen and Basle as well as mobilising large working class demonstrations against war between 1910 and 1912. At Basle in 1912 the resolution passed concluded that the coming war could only be imperialist and thus should be opposed by all socialists. In the event only the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party and the parties associated with it in Serbia, Bulgaria and Poland stuck to the policy. In Germany, Austria, France and Britain the class war was called off in defence of the nation. [See leftcom.org and leftcom.org for more on this]. The Second International thus ceased to exist.

(2) The Third International would not be formed until March 1919 but the editors of Kommunist are here referring to those elements (based on the left at the conferences of Zimmerwald (1915) and Kienthal (1916) who were already ready to turn the imperialist war into a class war.

(3) May Day was instituted by the Second International in July 1889 in response to the events of 1886 in Chicago and the subsequent state repression there. The first formal International Workers May Day was held in 1891, but from 1904 its principle demand was to call for the eight hour day.

(4) A former Tsarist Grand Duchy, Finland declared its independence on December 6 1917, and this was formally recognised by the Soviet Government twelve days later. In January 1918 a “red” government was established (mainly in the southern cities of Tampere and Helsinki) which led to a brutal civil war between “reds” and “whites” backed by Germany. The Soviet Government was then in no position to offer much support to the Finnish workers and 30,000 of them (mostly Red Guards) were massacred. Many more died in appalling concentration camps in the months that followed (all in a country of just 3 million inhabitants).

(5) In Tsarist Russia convicts, serving a second or further sentence, who tried to escape, were locked up with the feet and hands chained to a wheelbarrow heavy enough to prevent their movements and small enough to be slipped under their bench at night. See Anton Chekov, Sakhalin Island (One World Classics, 2007)

(6) A German word for police agent. The sabre was used by mounted police.

(7) The Krupp company was a steel firm specialising in the production of machine guns and armoured vehicles and a major component of the German military-industrial complex in two World Wars.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019