What Did May Day Mean To Us In 1898?
Editor’s Note: The following article was published in the May 1, 1898 edition of the Forverts.
I still recall the first of May in 1890 when fate sent me to Geneva where a May Day celebration was to take place for the first time since last year’s International Congress. Geneva’s workers decided to celebrate it that evening with a demonstration and mass gathering. Waiting on those demonstrations, we all took a stroll through the city meanwhile, meeting up with the German Social-Democrats and Russian immigrants who could always be found en masse in Geneva.
The landscape was breathtaking: the richness of the lawns, the flowers, the famous charming Lake Geneva that was reflected through the thick trees. From the other side of the mountains, those captivating Alps with their well earned pride, beneath the incredible Swiss sky. In this wonderful spot in the world, in the lap of such rare natural wonders, our little worker’s International celebrated May 1st. Here the Germans together with the French, the Poles and the English, leaders of various countries and nationalities came together in friendship and with warmth and caught each other up on the great progress of the workers’ movements in their countries.
Only the Russian Social-Democrats, upon walking onto the stage had not much happy news to share from their country. Persecuted by the Russian government, outside of the country as well, without any means of subsistence, unrecognized by all other revolutionary groups, the Russian Social-Democrats, beneath the unceasing hail of painful shots, shortly thereafter published a complete social-democratic literature that has already produced positive results.
Russian Social-Democrats had no connections with Russia’s workers yet, yet if they had wanted to express some joy, it would have been joy commingled with pain. Joy for the success of the worker’s movement in hundreds of other countries and pain for their own country where it seemed to be mute or even dead.
That was expressed by our friend who confessed that regardless of the double chains the Russian workers were soldered into by the Asiatic nature of their regime and the young developing bourgeoisie–all signs pointed to the awakening of the Russian workers who it was impossible to ignore and who would shortly take their rightful place among all the class-conscious fighting proletariat in Europe.
It’s been several years since then and those words of our friend came true. The Petersburgian and the Bialystoker went on strike and the movement in other cities proves that the Russian workers awoke from their long slumber, proceeded to bathe themselves in water that was soaked with the blood of those first fighters. A new tree now grows, a new movement that will overtake the previous one. The Social-Democrat movement is still young, but is full of talent. In Russia a working class has already grown that matches those in other countries where capitalism developed. In Russia, the workers fight and organize themselves. As it goes in other countries, so it does in Russia, and so workers celebrate May 1st.
The eight-hour workday! That is the cry of Mary 1st first heard at the Paris Congress of 1889. This unifies all workers of all lands as if in one place, with the same economic needs, with similar practical concerns that signify Social-Democracy leaders as the true leaders of the working class.
The eight-hour workday! For the workers this means eight hours of freedom. Freedom in which to do whatever one wants, to consider one’s conditions, to educate one, to develop to fight for their interests.
The eight-hour workday! It means strengthening the proletariat’s reserve army, easing up on the competition between workers and making them equal partners in leadership roles.
The eight-hour workday! It means one stage closer to Socialism, a step forward in evolution of our society, it means an economic opportunity to broaden and eases the political horizons for workers.
May 1st, in which a normal eight-hour workday is accepted as our motto, is the kind of May that creates solidarity and power among the workers and ruptures and extinguishes the world of capitalistic exploitation.
Translated from the Yiddish by Chana Pollack