Tuesday, May 01, 2007

What are the Origins of the First of May?

The fortunate idea to use the celebration of a proletarian day of rest as a means of obtaining the 8-hour day first originated in Australia. In 1856 the workers there decided to organise a day of a total stoppage of work to demonstrate for the 8-hour day. The date of this demonstration was to be 21 April. In the beginning the Australian workers had envisaged this only for the year 1856. But this first demonstration had such an effect on the proletarian masses of Australia, stimulating them and leading to new campaigns, that it was decided to repeat this demonstration every year.

What in fact could give workers more courage and more confidence in their own strength than a massive stoppage of work which they have themselves decided? What would give more courage to the eternal slaves of the factories and workshops than the gathering of their own troops? Thus the idea of a proletarian festival was rapidly accepted and began to spread from Australia to other countries until it conquered the whole proletariat of the world.

The first to follow the example of the Australians were the Americans. In 1886 they decided that the first of May would be a universal day of stopping work. That day 200,000 of them left their work and demanded the 8-hour day. The police and legal harassment later prevented for some years the workers from repeating demonstrations of this size. However in 1888 they renewed their decision, planning that the next demonstration should be the first of May 1890.

In the meantime the workers’ movement in Europe had strengthened and motivated itself. The strongest expression of this movement took place at the congress of the Workers International in 1889. At the congress, made up of 400 delegates, it was decided that the 8-hour day should be the priority demand. The delegate of the French unions, the worker Lavigne from Bordeaux, proposed on this that this demand should be expressed in all countries by a universal stoppage of work. The delegate of the American workers drew attention to the decision of his comrades to go on strike on the first of May 1890 and the congress decided on this date for the universal proletarian festival.

On this occasion, as thirty years before in Australia, the workers were actually thinking of a one-off demonstration. The congress decided that the workers of all countries should demonstrate together for the 8-hour day on the first of May 1890. Nobody spoke about repeating the day without work in the following years. Naturally, nobody could foresee the brilliant success that this idea was to have nor the speed with which it was to be adopted by the labouring classes. However, it was enough to demonstrate once on the first of May for everybody to understand that the first of May had to be annual and perennial.

The first of May demanded the establishment of the 8-hour day. But even after this aim has been achieved the first of May should not be abandoned. As long as the struggle of the workers against the bourgeoisie and the dominant classes continues, as long as all the demands are not met, the first of May will be the annual expression of those demands. And, when the better days come, when the working class of the world has won its emancipation, then humanity will probably also celebrate the first of May in honour of the determined struggles and numerous sufferings of the past.
(Article by Rosa Luxemburg published in the Polish journal Sprawa Robotnicza in 1894, translated from the French translation at:

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