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May Day: A century of struggle for peace

by Keith Flett

IF THE left remembers May Day 1916, it is perhaps because German socialist leader Karl Liebknecht was arrested for making an anti-WWI speech at the Berlin May Day rally. The Daily Herald (weekly in wartime) described him in its May 13 1916 issue as a “courageous and untiring leader.”

There are also memories of the Dublin Easter Rising which had concluded, Easter being late that year, only on April 30. Its leaders, including James Connolly, were yet to be shot by the British.

Going back to the late 1880s, London had developed a tradition of two May Day demonstrations. One took place on the day itself, which involved workers taking strike action, and another which was organised for the Sunday immediately afterwards.

The Daily Herald reported that there was no London May Day demonstration on May 1 1916 and its correspondent wrote of walking the empty streets of central London where the demonstration would otherwise have been. He reported: “The fraternity of the proletariat is no more.”

Yet this wasn’t really the case even in the middle of a bloody imperialist war. There were May Day demonstrations around Europe on May 1 and in Britain on Sunday May 7 in 1916.

The Herald in its May 6 1916 issue had noted that May Day marches and meetings in Milan and Austria had been banned but in its next issue reported that in Milan “a small socialist demonstration against the war” had taken place.

The Austrian Arbiter Zeitung reported that May Day had “passed quietly” in Vienna with an “ardent desire for peace” but there had been 20 arrests in Prague.

The Herald also noted that Madrid workers had a “manifestation of imposing proportions and earnest spirit” on May 1.

It also mentioned the May 1 1916 issue of the Italian socialist paper Avanti which had a feature on the “apostles and fighters of International Socialism.” These included Ramsay Macdonald, Jowett, Glazier, Keir Hardie and Philip Snowden.

The May 13 1916 edition of the Herald covered two of the demonstrations on May 7. One was in Leicester where a “united Labour Day procession” marched to a mass meeting in the marketplace where the chief speaker was J Ramsay MacDonald MP.

The main report however was of events in Glasgow. The Herald reported this was the “greatest May Day demonstration” ever in the city despite “an incessant downpour of rain.” There were, it seems, 3,000 socialists and trade unionists who were “accompanied by their wives, children and friends.” Fortunately the character of the labour movement has moved on a bit in the intervening 100 years in this respect.

Glasgow Green saw 14 platforms, before the era of loudspeakers and megaphones, to allow “the gigantic crowd to hear the various speakers in comfort.” Taking into account the rain, there were still 60 speakers.

The Herald reported that “each platform carried with acclamation a resolution pledging those present to work for the overthrow of the capitalist system.”

In a strikingly modern echo the Herald also noted “it would have done the Parliamentary Labour Party good if they had been present to hear how their Glasgow constituents cheered for peace and denounced conscription.”

Conscription for single men, later extended to all under 50, had been introduced in March 1916.

Finally the Herald reported that on May 1 and subsequent days the Glasgow Independent Labour Party had seen female members and children sell 50,000 red flowers symbolising socialism.

Those who stood out for socialist internationalism in the middle of a world war in 1916 should inspire us a century on.

  • On Sunday May 1 the May Day celebrations kick off at 11.30am at Clerkenwell Green, with the march to Trafalgar Square departing at 1pm. Speakers include Jeremy Corbyn and Frances O’Grady.

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