May Day
- Part 2 -

Sh. Ajit *

Marx on the Eight-Hour Movement

In the chapter on "The Working Day" in the first volume of Capital, published in 1867, Marx calls attention to the inauguration of the 8-hour movement by the National Labor Union. In the passage, famous especially because it contains Marx's telling reference to the solidarity of class interests between the Negro and white workers, he wrote:

In the United States of America, any sort of independent labor movement was paralyzed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the republic. Labor with a white skin cannot emancipate itself where labor with a black skin is branded. But out of the death of slavery a new vigorous life sprang. The first fruit of the Civil War was an agitation for the 8-hour day a movement which ran with express speed from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California.

Marx calls attention to how almost simultaneously, in fact within two weeks of each other, a workers' convention meeting in Baltimore voted for the 8-hour day, and an international congress meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, adopted a similar decision. "Thus on both sides of the Atlantic did the working class movement, spontaneous outgrowth of the conditions of production," endorse the same movement of the limitation of hours of labor and concretize it in the demand for the 8-hour day.

That the decision of the Geneva Congress was prompted by the American decision can be seen from the following portion of the resolution: "As this limitation represents the general demand of the workers of the North-American United States, the Congress transforms this demand into the general platform of the workers of the whole world."

A similar influence of the American labor movement upon an international congress and in behalf of the same cause was exerted more profoundly 23 years later.

May Day Born in the United States

The First International ceased to exist as an international organization in 1872, when its headquarters were removed from London to New York, although it was not officially disbanded till 1876. It was at the first congress of the reconstituted International, later known as the Second International, held at Paris in 1889, that May First was set aside as a day upon which the workers of the world, organized in their political parties and trade unions, were to fight for the important political demand: the 8-hour day.

The Paris decision was influenced by a decision made at Chicago five years earlier by delegates of a young American labor organization the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada, later known under the abbreviated name, American Federation of Labor. At the Fourth Convention of this organization, October 7, 1884, the following resolution was passed:

Resolved by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions the United States and Canada, that eight hours shall constitute legal day's labor from May First, 1886, and that we recommend to labor organizations throughout their jurisdiction that they so direct their laws as to conform to this resolution by the time named.

Although nothing was said in the resolution about the methods by which the Federation expected to establish the 8-hour day, it is self-evident that an organization which at that time commanded an adherence of not more than 50,000 members could not declare "that eight hours shall constitute a legal day's work" without putting up a fight for it in the shops, mills, and mines where its members were employed, and without attempting to draw into the struggle for the 8-hour day still larger numbers of workers.

The provision in the resolution that the unions affiliated to the Federation "so direct their laws as to conform to this resolution" referred to the matter of paying strike benefits to their members who were expected to strike on May First, 1886, for the 8-hour day, and would probably have to stay out long enough to need assistance from the union.

As this strike action was to be national in scope and involve all the affiliated organizations, the unions, according to their by-laws, had to secure the endorsement of the strike by their members, particularly since that would involve the expenditure of funds, etc. It must be remembered that the Federation, just as the A. F. of L. today, was organized on a voluntary, federation basis, and decisions of a national convention could be binding upon affiliated unions only if those unions endorsed these decisions.

May Day Becomes International

On July 14, 1889, the hundredth anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, there assembled in Paris leaders from organized revolutionary proletarian movements of many lands, to form once more an international organization of workers, patterned after the one formed 25 years earlier by their great teacher, Karl Marx. Those assembled at the foundation meeting of what was to become the Second International heard from the American delegates about the struggle in America for the 8-hour day during 1884-1886, and the recent rejuvenation of the movement. Inspired by the example of the American workers, the Paris Congress adopted the following resolution:

The Congress decides to organize a great international demonstration, so that in all countries and in all cities on one appointed day the toiling masses shall demand of the state authorities the legal reduction of the working day to eight hours, as well as the carrying out of other decisions of the Paris Congress. Since a similar demonstration has already been decided upon for May 1, 1890, by the American Federation of Labor at its Convention in St. Louis, December, 1888, this day is accepted for the international demonstration. The workers of the various countries must organize this demonstration according to conditions prevailing in each country.

The clause in the resolution which speaks of the organization of the demonstration with regard to the objective conditions prevailing in each country gave some parties, particularly the British movement, an opportunity to interpret the resolution as not mandatory upon all countries. Thus at the very formation of the Second International, there were parties who looked upon it as merely a consultative body, functioning only during Congresses for the exchange of information and opinions, but not as a centralized organization, a revolutionary world proletarian party, such as Marx had tried to make the First International a generation before.

When Engels wrote to his friend Serge in 1874, before the First International was officially disbanded in America, "I think that the next International, formed after the teachings of Marx, will have become widely known during the next years, will be a purely Communist International," he did not foresee that at the very launching of the rejuvenated International there would be present reformist elements who viewed it as a voluntary federation of Socialist parties, independent of each other and each a law unto itself.

But May Day, 1890, was celebrated in many European countries, and in the United States the Carpenters' Union and other building trades entered into a general strike for the 8-hour day. Despite the Exception Laws against the Socialists, workers in the various German industrial cities celebrated May Day, which was marked by fierce struggles with the police. Similarly in other European capitals demonstrations were held, although the authorities warned against them and the police tried to suppress them. In the United States, the Chicago and New York demonstrations were of particularly great significance. Many thousands paraded the streets in support of the 8-hour day demand; and the demonstrations were closed with great open air mass meetings at central points.

At the next Congress, in Brussels, 1891, the International reiterated the original purpose of May First, to demand the 8-hour day, but added that it must serve also as a demonstration in behalf of the demands to improve working conditions, and to ensure peace among the nations. The revised resolution particularly stressed the importance of the "class character of the May First demonstrations" for the 8-hour day and the other demands which would lead to the "deepening of the class struggle." The resolution also demanded that work be stopped "wherever possible."

Although the reference to strikes on May First was only conditional, the International began to enlarge upon and concretize the purposes of the demonstrations. The British Laborites again showed their opportunism by refusing to accept even the conditional proposal for a strike on May First, and together with the German Social-Democrats voted to postpone the May Day demonstration to the Sunday following May First.

In this way, Marx, starting from the economy's most basic unit the commodity brings out the nature of the economic laws governing capitalism. He thus exposes the scientific economic basis for the socialist revolution and the road to communism.

Concluded ....

* Sh. Ajit , a reisdent of Khongman, wrote this article for Imphal Times
This article was posted on May 15, 2017.

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