Malatesta's account of Mayday it's turn from a day of workers',strike into a labor holiday and the state of the anarchist movement
The 1st of May
Six or seven years ago, the approach of this date used to arouse great hopes and great fears. The bourgeois quaked, the police made ready for a crackdown, the revolutionaries stood in readiness for the struggle, and huge masses of proletarians looked forward eagerly to that date like some mystical day fated to signal the end of their suffering
Since then, the movement has, little by little, been dwindling in importance until it has been forgotten by some, and looked upon by others as one more innocuous anniversary on the calendar of the revolutionary merry-makers
What should have been the tangible sign of the solidarity pact between the oppressed of every country, what should have been a review of the proletarian forces, what should have helped prepare the people for today’s great revolutionary means—the general strike—has turned into the feast of labor—and a feast day little observed!
Why such a stark and swift decline?
Who is to blame?
Pretty much everybody. The democratic socialist who, in Europe anyway, had come up with the idea and taken the initiative with the movement, were almost scared by the enthusiasm it inspired and by the revolutionary tenor it went assuming in a few months in all countries, and they immediately strove to play down its significance and drain it of the pugnaciousness it had acquired. In the bigger towns, where their party could marshal impressive numbers, they turned the First of May strike into a feast held on the first Sunday of the month, thereby sapping it of its character and raison d'être; or they sought to whittle down the demonstration to a procession of delegates walking into parliament to hand in a petition, thereby creating the belief, congruent with their tactics, that everything could be obtained trough the law and that there was no point in street agitation.
The anarchist were divided, prey as they were of those germs of dissolution that, after dissipating so many energies, eventually led to sharp separation and to the present new direction. One faction remained indifferent, or opposed the movement either because it was hostile to any movement of the organized masses or because this one did not have the outward appearance of an anarchist movement. The other faction enthusiastically embraced the idea, tried to imbue it with a pronounced revolutionary character, but having no broad base with the workers’ movement, could only produce unavailing efforts attested by personal sacrifices of varying gravity.
Only in Spain, precisely because there they were the soul of the workers’ movement, were anarchist able to set off and sustain really noteworthy agitation that first year. But then in Spain too the movement faded and perished: partly because there too the germs of disintegration afflicting anarchist bodies in other countries were making headway, and partly because of another factor that was everywhere the primary reason for the decline of the 1st of May.
And that factor was immoderate, untimely enthusiasm. The notion had taken root in the people that revolution would take place on the First of May in a year or two. One year went by and then the next and another and still no revolution came. Disillusionment set in and the subject of the First of May was dropped.
The movement is in need of of an overhaul: overhauling it with serious intent, without unwarranted short -term expectations, but with the firm intention of never halting again.
We are not going to make the revolution in 20 days: the police need not panic. We shall abstain from working, try to get as many people as possible to abstain too, and seize the opportunity to carry out as much propaganda as possible.
This is all our forces allow us to do now. We shall think about the rest in due time.
L’Agitazione (Ancona) 1, no.5 (Apri 12,1897).
The 1st of May
At the time of writing, we do not yet know how important the 1st of May demonstration will be this year. Unfortunately, we do not have high Hopes.
The democratic socialist, who could ensure a solemn demonstration if only they committed to this agitation—in which class struggle could really be affirmed and organized—a tenth of the effort they put into the election campaign, stage the event indolently, merely because, at this point, staging it is a habit. Right from the outset they strove to turn the workers’ strike into a labor holiday, mounted, if possible, with the assent of the masters, and they so far as to want governments to declare it an official and mandatory holiday—and they are now carrying on in the same vein. They are afraid of playing with fire, afraid that the people might start to become conscious of their own strengths and start doing things for themselves. In their eyes, there is nothing but Parliament, and any other approach is a hurdle that they hearty abhor, even when they are required by convenience to consider it.
And what about us? Right now we are powerless to embark on anything of note, especially in the conditions presently being enforced on us by the government. This is to our shame, for the fault is largely our own, but the shame and blame would be beyond repair, if we did not have courage to own up to it and if we stayed on the wrong road.
We have moved away from the people and that has been our downfall. Going back among the people is the only way of salvaging our movement and our idea. It is through our efforts that the great Workers’ International must be reborn, corrected, and bolstered by the experience and study of the last 25 years, so that every 1st of May it will be able to review its forces and, once strong enough, achieve the yearned-for emancipation.
We need to get it into our heads— since the facts furnish us with daily proof of it—that thing cannot be improvised. Making preparations a fortnight in advance for some one-off publication, issuing an eleventh-hour appeal to the people who do not know us, who may never have heard of us or of our ideas, is of little or no use.
In order to succeed, it takes long-term, constant, day-to-day work; it takes practical work, done in conjunction with resistance societies, cooperatives, and educational circles, of gradually marshaling, organizing, and educating all the fighting forces of the proletariat. That much we promise to our comrades. That much we ask of them.
And if we all buckle down on this, the next 1st of May will find us in quite different conditions.
Agitiamoci per Socialismo Anarchico (May 1, 1897), single issue, replacement for no.8 of L’Agitazone
Echoes of the 1st of May
As we had forecast, the 1st of May this year was a very poor show. And, most hurtful of all, the process of decadence tending to turn the demonstration, thestrike on that day into mereholiday has become even more pronounced.
Drinking, marquees, balls: these are the key features of the day in those places where anything at all took place.
Not that we despise amusements; in fact we should like to see the workers get used to them and demand time and wherewithal to indulge in them. Neither would we have have preferred riots and upheavals, which would have gifted the government with an outlet for its lust for persecution, since it is our conviction that persecution is not welcome, unless one is in position to resist it successfully.
But the 1st of May was the day on which workers of the world over should have signalled their determination by striking, despite the masters, in the name of the cause of labor, and affirmed their wishes and reviewed the forces available to them in demanding the satisfaction of those wishes. This is the character that should have been been preserved, and this is the character that needs to be put back into it, lest we completely spoil that idea, which, as it appeared like a brilliant invention in the history of the workers’ movement, immediately elicited so much enthusiasm and so many hopes.
A worker who squares up to his master and runs the risk of losing his job, out of labor solidarity, and in order to abide by the watchword passed around his comrades, is a moral example for the present and a fighting force for the future. The same cannot be said of one who goes and gets plastered one more time with the master’s blessing.
We appreciate just how hard a sacrifice it is for a family man to place his bread in jeopardy and that not everybody has the strength to do that–for, if everyone had that strength, victory would already be ours and sacrifice would be uncalled for.
But, alas! The proletariat can only emancipate at cost of tough sacrifices.
The democratic socialist have a tendency that society can be transformed without the proletarians’ facing suffering and danger. That too is a by-product of the electoral tactic, of the yearning to pick up votes at any price. In fact we remember seeing socialist newspaper that were unabashed about telling voters: “They want to buy your vote? Fine, go ahead and grab the money… and cast your vote for the socialist candidate. The master is making you vote for the would-be minister? Tell him yes and cast your vote for the socialist.” Is it by schooling people in this way, that they expect to have conscious and dignified men, capable, in great historical events, of standing up to have their rights respected and knocking down the bourgeois world?!
No. The proletariat’s fight is a harsh one, demanding plenty of sacrifices, and the 1st of May ought to be primarily a school in sacrifice, solidarity, and concerted action.
A master who willingly concedes a day off and encourages the workers to avail of it, a government that declares the 1st May a public holiday would be fallowing a shrewd conservative policy; they would be depriving the workers of a weapon. But for that very reason, it is unfathomable how socialist would want to celebrate the 1st of May along with the masters and, if possible, with the official sanction of the established authorities.
The vital point, again, is that workers get used to asserting their will and to doing it all together, so as to add strength to their determination.
It is a matter of secondary importance what more or less effective or delusive reform the workers demand. Once the workers know how to demand, once the are determined to live well and have seen, I practice, that by standing together they can get what they want, it becomes much easier to get them to comprehend what they should demand.
In the early years of the 1st of May demonstrations, the demand most in vague was for the eight-hour work day. A poor reform, indeed, which in certain circumstances would bring a small benefit to the workers, in others would prove delusive, and in very many circumstances would be completely unworkable in the absence of radical overhaul of the existing order.
Never mind! If only workers had really wanted it and set out to obtain it directly, without any hope to receive it from the hands of the governments and deputies!
Many anarchist took no interest in the movement, because the workers’ demands fell short of our program. And they were wrong, because it is not by abandoning workers to the influence of politicians that we can steer them on to the road to full emancipation.
True, it is childish and silly for anodyne reforms when it has been shown that it takes as much energy and sacrifice to wrest from the ruling class a petty concession or a major one, and that in any case small reforms, for what they are worth, are extracted only when more substantial demands are made. But in order to get this across to the workers, we need to be in their midst, fighting alongside them, expediting as much as possible those practical experiments that are worth more than any theory.
Anyway, people won’t accept our ideas in one fell swoop, and society won’t switch abruptly and without transition from today’s hell to the paradise which we yearn.
Every step taken is a real advantage, provided it is a step in the right direction, which is to say, as long as it is a step in the direction of the abolition of authority and private property and as long it nurtures the spirit and practice of free and voluntary cooperation in the workers.
Agitatevi per il Socialismo Anarchico (May 8, 1897), single issue, replacement for no.9 of L’Agitazone
All articles where translated by Paul Sharkey and appeared in The complete Works of Malatesta vol.3: A Long and Patient Work