By Rebecca Anderson The year 1890 saw the first ever May Day demonstration, called by the First Congress of the Second International, with more than 300,000 workers filling London’s Hyde Park. Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor, herself a prominent figure in the New Unionism movement which was then at its peak, addressed the crowds:
“I am speaking this afternoon not only as a trade unionist, but as a socialist. Socialists believe that the eight hours’ day is the first and most immediate step to be taken, and we aim at a time when there will no longer be one class supporting two others, but the unemployed both at the top and at the bottom of society will be got rid of. This is not the end but only the beginning of the struggle; it is not enough to come here to demonstrate in favour of an eight hours’ day. We must not be like some Christians who sin for six days and go to church on the seventh, but we must speak for the cause daily, and make the men, and especially the women that we meet, come into the ranks to help us.”
It wasn’t only in Britain that workers took to the streets. The May Day demonstrations in 1890 were called by the Second International as part of a world-wide struggle for the eight-hour day. At the International Workers’ Congress in 1889, the decision was made to launch an international struggle for the eight-hour day and to hold it on 1 May 1890 to coincide with the strike already planned by American workers.
When we celebrate May Day this year with demonstrations of trade unions, Labour Party branches, socialist organisations and campaigns, we will protesting against the attacks on most of the gains that workers have won since the May Day tradition began. The NHS and welfare state are being dismantled, working conditions and pay are worsening and our civil rights are being eroded. Soon a new anti-Trade Union Act will become law – with shamefully little opposition from the union leaders.
We face austerity imposed across the European Union and wars and the threat of war coming from increased imperialist rivalries in Eastern Europe, Syria and Southeast Asia. The rich and powerful make decisions on an international scale but the workers’ movement doesn’t yet cross national borders. To silence the war drums and thwart the European capitalists’ plans to make us pay for the crisis, the working class once again needs an international organisation of class struggle.