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This year marks the 125th International Workers' Day, or 'May Day'. The original call for workers' demonstrations around the world on 1 May was made in July 1889 at the International Socialist Workers Congress in Paris. That founded the international organisation that became known as the 'Second International'.
1 May was chosen to mark the 1886 'Haymarket Massacre'. During a general strike in Chicago demanding an eight hour day, a bombing took place that resulted in a frame-up trial and, in 1887, the execution of four workers' leaders and activists on "conspiracy" charges. Such was the success of the 1890 May Day that in 1891 another international congress decided it should become an annual event.
The original aim of May Day was to show the strength of the workers' movement, draw a balance sheet of its recent experiences and to re-affirm its resistance to capitalism and war, its fighting spirit and objective of socialism.
Launched at a time when, in many countries, the workers' movement had started to grow steadily, and in some cases rapidly, May Day initially expressed the socialist optimism of that time.
But much water has flowed under the bridge since that first international May Day. Despite the building of many powerful workers' organisations and despite thousands of often bitter and bloody struggles and revolutions, the world remains dominated by capitalism.
The capitalist ruling class carries out endless 'austerity', driving down living standards and eroding working conditions. The globe is plagued by conflicts, imperialist armed 'interventions' and terrible civil wars, including Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Ukraine.
The recent tragic drownings of desperate refugees in the Mediterranean are the responsibility of imperialist warmongers and capitalist EU, whose actions have helped create the largest number of refugees since WW2.
This does not mean nothing has been achieved by years of workers' organisation and battles. In many countries important gains were made for the working class: democratic rights for all and social services, education and public health gains were conquered.
Workers' higher living standards are the result of mass struggles or the threats of struggles. But, as the current crisis shows, all these gains can be threatened and even removed so long as capitalism remains in place.
Today, while we are facing one of the worst ever crises of capitalism, when even the strategists and thinkers of capitalism cannot put forward an optimistic perspective, we have to recognise that the workers' movement is, in many countries, facing severe crises.
The conservative union leaders have failed to lead and to develop militant struggles to effectively resist austerity and other attacks on working people and the poor. Building combative, democratic trade unions remains a key task facing the working class.
This is not in any way to say that struggles have disappeared. On the contrary, struggles are regularly seen around the world. Every decade since the first May Day has seen big class battles and revolutions occur somewhere.
Now we are seeing a tremendously important radicalisation and the beginning of struggles in the US, the number one imperialist power, particularly around the demand for a $15 an hour minimum wage and against police brutality.
Many parts of the world have seen working people and youth protesting and fighting for their demands over the past year. Brazil saw mass protests around the World Cup and students protested in Chile, a powerful strike wave took place in South Africa, strikes increased in China. Belgium has seen powerful strike movements and mass protests against new taxation are taking place in Ireland.
It is not only strikes and protests - January saw the election of a Syriza government that pledged to oppose austerity in Greece.
Two stunning by-election results that saw Socialist Party (CWI Ireland) members elected to the Irish parliament showed that the working class will resist austerity. In Africa there are renewed movements against authoritarian regimes. Burkina Faso's dictator, Compaore, was removed after 27 years in power.
These are just some of the latest examples of working people being prepared to struggle. Even if there are long periods of what appears to be acquiescence and hardly any class struggle, this does not continue indefinitely.
However, in many countries the past disappointments and defeats are weighing heavily on the workers' movement - a situation made worse by the offensive that the ruling classes launched.
This offensive has not simply been in terms of lower living standards but also included an ideological offensive against the ideas of collective action and socialism. The propagandists of capitalism have also used the counter-revolution in North Africa and the Middle East - imperialist armed interventions, the growth of religious and ethnic sectarianism and bloody civil wars - to counter the worldwide enthusiasm sparked off by the 2011 revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.
What has happened since the 'Arab Spring' is not an argument against revolution. But for real, lasting change, a mass, united workers' movement has to be built which has a clear socialist programme and an understanding of what concrete steps are needed to end the rule of capitalism and its elites.
In building such movements, socialists have to be able to answer the questions of whether 'socialism' failed in countries like the former Soviet Union. This means explaining the two essential elements to beginning to create a socialist society - namely the taking over of the commanding heights of the economy and the vital democratic control and planning of these resources in the interests of the majority. This requires stringent measures to prevent the development of a new privileged, bureaucratic elite.
The many experiences of so-called 'socialist', 'social democratic' or 'labour' governments, which failed to carry out their promises and tried to work within the straitjacket of the capitalist system, still calls into question the idea of socialism as the viable alternative to capitalism.
The Syriza government in Greece is in danger of ultimately failing in its aim of confronting austerity because of its refusal to mobilise popular support for a break with capitalism. Internationally the workers' movement has, unfortunately, seen many such lost opportunities, which is why the building a force with clear socialist ideas and a confidence to end capitalism is so important.
Despite these complications, the idea of socialism as the alternative to capitalism will revive as more and more look for a way out of the impasse facing the world. At this moment, this is seen most clearly in the US, partly because until now the idea of socialism in that country has been weak. The breakthrough election of socialist Kshama Sawant to Seattle City Council in 2013 was an indication of the important radicalisation beginning to affect sections of US society.
The dead-end of capitalism is seen by the mess its ruling representatives have made of the last two decades when, in some areas, they had a 'free-run'. This ended in a mighty crash that led to economic stagnation, at best.
We have also witnessed the piling up of huge contradictions due to many economic, social and environmental crises, at a time when the rapid development of science and technology offers huge potential for humankind. Yet capitalism still cannot even provide safe water to every human being and presides over vast inequalities in all parts of the world.
The task for socialists and worker-activists is not just building, or rebuilding, combative class organisations, vital as that is. We must also learn lessons from the last 125 years and skilfully apply them to today's situation.
Firstly, we must argue that the key to changing the world is through ending capitalist dictatorship over the economy. Secondly, we must build mass forces that can win support for a bold socialist programme, especially among the working class, poor and youth.
This is not done in the abstract, but through active propaganda and participation in the struggles that inevitably will arise. In this way, socialists can provide an answer to the question of "what can be done?" and help create a mass movement that will, finally, achieve the objectives of the founders of May Day.
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Article dated 30 April 2015
The Socialist, weekly newspaper of the Socialist Party
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