May Day: Not a Victory, but the Class Struggle

Vijay Prashad May 1, 2015

May Day commemorates not victory, but the class struggle. A peaceful demonstration by workers in Chicago resulted in a melee, with bombs thrown by unknown provocateurs and police repression against the workers. The Second International adopted the day of the clash, May 1, as the day for workers across the world to fight for the Eight Hour Day. They had a unified demand. It is what the blood on the streets of Haymarket Square produced.

What is the common demand for workers today? Workers in some parts of the world can find no employment, or work for too few hours a day; in other parts of the world, workers find the hours slip by as they toil in fields and small shops. Conditions at work are execrable. We are now two years out from the April 24 Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh. Eleven hundred workers died in that tragedy, leaving many thousands injured. Few real reforms of the system have occurred since then. Factory “accidents” continue. Violence of a structural and overt kind against workers continues. The factories of twenty-first century globalization entrap workers – poorly built shelters for a production process geared toward long working days, third-rate machines, and workers whose own lives are submitted to the imperatives of just-in-time production. Writing about the factory regime in England during the nineteenth century, Karl Marx noted, “But in its blind unrestrainable passion, its wear-wolf hunger for surplus labour, capital oversteps not only the moral, but even the merely physical maximum bounds of the working-day. It usurps the time for growth, development and healthy maintenance of the body. It steals the time required for the consumption of fresh air and sunlight…. All that concerns it is simply and solely the maximum of labour-power that can be rendered fluent in a working-day. It attains this end by shortening the extent of the labourer’s life, as a greedy farmer snatches increased produce from the soil by reducing it of its fertility” (Capital, Chapter 10). This is the condition of work today. It is what makes the question of a common demand for workers moot – so much has to change, so where does the workers’ movement even begin?

Marxism throws itself into all struggles attempting to find breakthroughs of the working class toward greater and greater unity. Fights for the rights of women are as important as fights for a higher minimum wage, as are fights for national self-determination and for the rights of refugees to dignity. These are equivalent fights of members of the working class toward the reinvigoration and consolidation of social movements. This is the promise of May Day.

The International Labour Organisation’s current slogan is for Decent Work. The elements of the Decent Work Agenda are four-fold: promotion of jobs, establishment of rights at work, extension of social protection, and promotion of “social dialogue” between trade unions and employers’ organizations. This liberal platform seems radical in our times, when the mere existence of trade unions is questionable. The 2003 Indian Supreme Court judgment, T. K. Rangarajan vs. Government of Tamil Nadu & Others, is exemplary in the suffocation of worker power. In 2009, after a major labor struggle in Coimbatore, Jayanta Davar, president of the Automobile Component Manufacturers Association of India, spoke for his class, “We can’t be a capitalist country that has socialist labor laws.” These had to go. They have been slowly whittled away since the 1990s. A much more ambitious and confident capitalist class has reversed gains made by workers in their long struggle for self-emancipation. It has no use for liberal pieties. This is what makes the ILO’s liberalism seem radical.

The ILO sets a standard that is rarely followed. It is not the Second International. There is currently no labor international worth its salt. There are barely powerful enough national federations, let alone workplace unions. Workers might not have their associations any longer, nor is trade union organizing in this environment – and yet, the protagonist for the transformation, even in the twenty-first century, remains the working class. Whether employed or not, this is the class that has no capital and must forage in the dark alleyways for livelihood. It is this class that represents the majority of humankind, receives little but the leavings from the table and hopes for a great deal more. Rooted in hope for an alternative is its majestic bravery in taking on the congealed power of Today.

Kanyakumari Construction Workers.
Image Courtesy: Ryan on Flickr

What are the areas of potential in the present for the revitalization of working-class power? Let us explore the potential along three axes, culture, the rural and factories.

  • Culture. Neo-liberalism seeks to win the argument about its efficacy through culture – pointing to its shopping malls and its entertainment centers, its modern hospitals and its airports. It says nothing about the fact that more and more people cannot use these facilities and are disenfranchised from them. The Left’s great strength was that it battled the neo-liberal policies that would harm the vast mass of workers and peasants. But the Left was not opposed to “speedy trains” or modern hospitals or healthcare centres – in fact these are part of the future that the Left envisions. The problem has been to distinguish the critique of neo-liberalism with some of the developments that have taken place over these two decades. That the Internet, for example, was built by the public sector is of no consequence to a public that sees it as a fruit of the free market. That young women and men feel like they want control over public space and their own destinies is once more interpreted as a consequence of corporate enterprise, and not of a secular dynamic of freedom that comes out of the social movements of the past. This new confidence of young people and the new technologies that enhance people’s lives need to be taken in hand as part of the culture of our world, and so part of the Left’s own contribution, and not as the advantage of corporate enterprise, which the Left has set itself against. The complexity of these cultural advantages has the Left on the back foot.

  • Rural. In a country like India, the rural is a central place of economic and social existence, as well as politics. The immense power of the new landlords and their alliance with multinational farm companies, as well as the power of mechanization to displace labour power, has put rural movements of farm workers on the back foot. But rural areas are not quiet. One of the most interesting features of the way in which rural politics works in India is that it does not run in a straight line with cultivators and landless labourers on one side and landowners and the state on the other. Fractures of caste and gender run deep, and are deepened in the agricultural crisis. Caste assertions emerge as one way that some landless labourers and cultivators have moved their agenda for dignity. This is the reason why the CPI-M has been an active participant in the temple entry movement in southern Tamil Nadu. Gender questions have come to the fore in Haryana, where the khap panchayat has re-emerged as a central locus to fight a restive population made so by the agricultural crisis and the new cultural identities unleashed over the past few decades. It is here too that the Left, mainly the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) has led from the front, drawing in women to fight for their dignity alongside their livelihoods. The Left has to deepen its role in these sorts of “social” fights, because it is in these arenas that broad questions of rural power are being contested.

  • Factories. One of the most well-known effects of neo-liberal policy is the evisceration of trade unions – often through the reorganisation of industries around Free Trade Zones and around sub-contracted small manufacturing. A weakened trade union movement meant of course a weakened Left. It has been a challenge on the global stage to find ways to organise workers in the new kinds of industry, which have been designed to prevent trade union organisation. The nature of the global commodity chain, which disarticulates production across several countries, invalidates the one major political support that the workers and the Left could rely upon – the role of the State, whether to insist upon regulations that benefit workers or to utilise the policy of nationalisation to build power for their own citizenry. The new regime of the global commodity chain has made the state prone to global capital, eager to please firms that are otherwise footloose, and eager as well to attract foreign direct investment that relies upon a state’s commitment to Money over its population. Having lost one of its potential pillars of support, the workers and the Left are now thrown to the wolves. Absent a robust politics at the point of production, working class communities have thrown their rebellious energy into fights at the point of consumption. No more workers housing has meant the growth of slums, where facilities for adequate survival are simply not available. This is the reason why the fights over water and power, sanitation and safety take up the leisure time of India’s workers. A politics of the slum lands is essential for the Left to develop. As of now, the Left operates in these domains alongside their cadre and mass organisations, participating only because these are struggles that have broken out at the level of frustration of the people. It is necessary to develop an organisational theory of the slum lands and to move a precise agenda for slum politics. Workers’ movements and power might no longer grow from the factory to the community; it might work the other way round.

It is essential to see these areas of struggle as vital points of reunification of the working class, fragmented by neo-liberal policy. Marxism throws itself into all struggles attempting to find breakthroughs of the working class toward greater and greater unity. Fights for the rights of women are as important as fights for a higher minimum wage, as are fights for national self-determination and for the rights of refugees to dignity. These are equivalent fights of members of the working class toward the reinvigoration and consolidation of social movements. This is the promise of May Day.


Vijay Prashad is the author of No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (LeftWord, 2015).

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