[OPE] Rosa Luxemburg The Idea of May Day on the March (1913)

From: Gerald Levy <jerry_levy@verizon.net>
Date: Fri May 01 2009 - 06:56:57 EDT

In some ways this sounds dated; in other ways, it's very timely.


In solidarity, Jerry

Rosa Luxemburg
The Idea of May Day on the March

Written: First published in Liepziger Volkszeitung, April 30, 1913.
Published: From Selected Political Writings of Rosa Luxemburg, tr. Dick
Howard (NY: Monthly Review Press, 1971).
Online Version: marxists.org April 2002.

In the middle of the wildest orgies of imperialism, the world holiday of the
proletariat is repeating itself for the twenty-fourth time. What has taken
place in the quarter of a century since the epoch-making decision to
celebrate May Day is an immense part of the historical path. When the May
demonstration made its debut, the vanguard of the International, the German
working class, was breaking the chains of a shameful law of exception and
setting out on the path of a free, legal development. The period of the long
depression on the world market since the crash of the 1870s had been
overcome, and the capitalist economy had just begun a phase of splendid
growth which would last nearly a decade. At the same time, after twenty
years of unbroken peace, the world breathed a sigh of relief, remembering
the period of war in which the modern European state system had received its
bloody baptism. The path seemed free for a peaceful cultural development;
illusions, hopes of a reasonable, pacific discussion between labor and
capital grew abundantly like green corn in the ranks of socialism.
Propositions like "to hold out the open hand to the good will" marked the
beginning of the 1890s; promises of an imperceptible "gradual move into
socialism" marked its end. Crises, wars, and revolution were supposed to
have been things of the past, the baby shoes of modern society;
parliamentarism and unions, democracy in the state and democracy in the
factory were supposed to open the doors of a new, better order.
The course of events has submitted all of these illusions to a fearful test.
At the end of the 1890s, in place of the promised, smooth, social-reforming
cultural development, began a period of the most violent and acute
sharpening of the capitalistic contradictions - a storm and stress, a
crashing and colliding, a wavering and quaking in the foundations of the
society. In the following decade, the ten-year period of economic prosperity
was paid for by two violent world crises. After two decades of world peace,
in the last decade of the past century followed six bloody wars, and in the
first decade of the new century four bloody revolutions. Instead of the
social reforms - conspiracy laws, penal laws, and penal praxis; instead of
industrial democracy - the powerful concentration of capital in cartels and
business associations, and the international practice of gigantic lock-outs.
And instead of the new growth of democracy in the state - a miserable
breakdown of the last remnants of bourgeois liberalism and bourgeois
democracy. Specifically in the case of Germany the fate of the bourgeois
parties since the 1890s has brought: the rise and immediate, hopeless
dissolution of the National Socialists; the split of the "radical"
opposition and the reunification of its splinters in the morass of the
reaction; and finally the transformation of the "center" from a radical
peoples' party to a conservative governmental party. The shifting in the
development of the parties was similar in other capitalist countries. In
general, the revolutionary working class sees itself today standing alone,
opposed to a closed, hostile reaction of the ruling classes and their
malicious tricks.
The sign under which this whole development, both economic and political,
has been consummated, the formula back to which its results point, is
imperialism. This is no new element, no unexpected turn in the general
historical path of the capitalist society. Armaments and wars, international
contradictions and colonial politics accompany the history of capitalism
from its cradle. It is the most extreme intensification of these elements, a
drawing together, a gigantic storming of these contradictions which has
produced a new epoch in the course of modern society. In a dialectical
interaction, both cause and effect of the immense accumulation of capital
and the heightening and sharpening of the contradictions which go with it
internally, between capital and labor; externally, between the capitalist
states - imperialism has opened the final phase, the division of the world
by the assault of capital. A chain of unending, exorbitant armaments on land
and on sea in all capitalist countries because of rivalries; a chain of
bloody wars which have spread from Africa to Europe and which at any moment
could light the spark which would become a world fire; moreover, for years
the uncheckable specter of inflation, of mass hunger in the whole capitalist
world - all of these are the signs under which the world holiday of labor,
after nearly a quarter of a century, approaches. And each of these signs is
a flaming testimony of the living truth and the power of the idea of May
The brilliant basic idea of May Day is the autonomous, immediate stepping
forward of the proletarian masses, the political mass action of the millions
of workers who otherwise are atomized by the barriers of the state in the
day-to-day parliamentary affairs, who mostly can give expression to their
own will only through the ballot, through the election of their
representatives. The excellent proposal of the Frenchman Lavigne at the
Paris Congress of the International added to this parliamentary, indirect
manifestation of the will of the proletariat a direct, international mass
manifestation: the strike as a demonstration and means of struggle for the
eight-hour day, world peace, and socialism.
And in effect what an upswing this idea, this new form of struggle has taken
on in the last decade! The mass strike has become an internationally
recognized, indispensable weapon of the political struggle. As a
demonstration, as a weapon in the struggle, it returns again in innumerable
forms and gradations in all countries for nearly fifteen years. As a sign of
the revolutionary reanimation of the proletariat in Russia, as a tenacious
means of struggle in the hands of the Belgian proletariat, it has just now
proved its living power. And the next, most burning question in Germany -
the Prussian voting rights - obviously, because of its previous slipshod
treatment, points to a rising mass action of the Prussian proletariat up to
the mass strike as the only possible solution.
No wonder! The whole development, the whole tendency of imperialism in the
last decade leads the international working class to see more clearly and
more tangibly that only the personal stepping forward of the broadest
masses, their personal political action, mass demonstrations, and mass
strikes which must sooner or later open into a period of revolutionary
struggles for the power in the state, can give the correct answer of the
proletariat to the immense oppression of imperialistic policy. In this
moment of armament lunacy and war orgies, only the resolute will to struggle
of the working masses, their capacity and readiness for powerful mass
actions, can maintain world peace and push away the menacing world
conflagration. And the more the idea of May Day, the idea of resolute mass
actions as a manifestation of international unity, and as a means of
struggle for peace and for socialism, takes root in the strongest troops of
the International, the German working class, the greater is our guarantee
that out of the world war which, sooner or later, is unavoidable, will come
forth a definite and victorious struggle between the world of labor and that
of capital.

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