The Lessons of May Day

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Author(s) Leon Trotsky
Written 10 May 1922

First published in Pravda, Issue No.102, May 10, 1922
"Published in The First Five Years of the Communist International
Published in International Press Correspondence, Vol. 2 No. 43, 30 May 1922, p. 321 (alternative translation)
Collection(s): Pravda
Keywords : May Day

Genoa lays bare the contradiction between soviet Russia and the rest of the world. Our enemies are convinced that we are today further from capitulation than ever before. But our enemies are still powerful. The danger, too, is great.

* * *

Truly monumental in their proportions were the May Day demonstrations not only in Moscow and Petrograd but also in Kharkov and Kiev. Even those in charge did not expect such great numbers of demonstrators. Foreigners, including those very unfavourably inclined toward us, were astounded. One representative of the Amsterdam International remarked under the direct impact of the demonstration that he never saw anything comparable except at the funeral of Victor Hugo.[1] And he had opportunities to witness not a few mass demonstrations in various European countries. The moods among the demonstrators, of course, varied; some marched with enthusiasm, some with sympathy, others out of curiosity, stiff others out of imitation. But that is always the case in a movement embracing hundreds of thousands. On the whole, the throngs felt themselves part of a common cause. And the tone was naturally set by those who marched with enthusiasm.

A few days prior to May Day, comrades reported from the districts that Genoa[2] had raised to an astonishing degree the political interests and the revolutionary self-confidence of the working masses. Others added that the feeling of revolutionary pride was playing an important part in the prevailing moods; we forced them to talk to us almost like human beings!

To believe the White Guard and “socialist” publications issued in Berlin, the Russian working class is completely permeated with scepticism, with reactionary pessimistic moods and hostility toward the soviets. It is quite possible that not all of these reports are composed in Berlin which is now the centre not only of Russian monarchism but also of yellow socialism. It is quite possible that some of these reports are even copied from nature. But each one copies nature as he sees it. The Mensheviks approach everything in nature from the rear, and that is how they copy it. There is no doubt that in working-class neighbourhoods there is discontent with various aspects of today’s hard life. We can also grant that the slow tempo of the developing European revolution and the ponderous, full-of-pitfalls process of our own economic development engender among isolated, not purely proletarian but rather large circles of the working class, moods of pessimism and disorientation, verging even on mysticism. During weekdays – and our great epoch, too, has its weekdays – the consciousness of the class becomes absorbed and distracted by current cares and concerns; the differences in the interests and views among the various groups within the working class come to the forefront. But the very next major events completely reveal the profound unity of the working class that has passed through the fiery school of revolution. We had a chance to observe this on more than one occasion on the long road from the Czechoslovak mutiny in the Volga to the negotiations in Genoa. Our enemies have said more than once that the Czechoslovak uprising proved quite beneficial to the Soviet power. The Mensheviks, the Socialist Revolutionaries, and their older brothers, the Kadets of the Milyukov[3] group, keep repeating that military interventions are harmful precisely because the Soviet power is strengthened as a result. But what does this mean? It means nothing else than that all major and serious tests reveal the profound ties between the soviets and the toiling masses, despite the disorganization, the effects of devastation, and the incompetence, despite the exhaustion of some and the discontent of others.

Naturally even a state that is already in conflict with social progress can sometimes find itself strengthened at a moment of external danger. We saw this in the case of tsarism during the first phase of the Russo-Japanese War, and, on a still larger scale, at the beginning of the last imperialist war. But this held true only for the first phase, i.e., only until the consciousness of the popular masses was able to assimilate the new fact. Then came the settling of scores: the obsolete régime lost far more in stability than it was able to gain during the initial phase of the war. Why then does this phenomenon, which has the universality of a law, fail to manifest itself in the destiny of the soviet republic? Why did three years’ experience with military interventions impel our more perspicacious enemies to renounce the idea of further military assaults? For exactly the same reason that the Genoa Conference has aroused enthusiasm among the working masses, producing the unexpected, great demonstrations of May Day.

The Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries were, of course, against the workers’ marching, and they issued a call not to march. All the more clearly was revealed how unanimous the toilers were with regard to the basic questions involving the life of the Toilers’ Republic. It is of course possible to contend that repressions have hindered and are hindering the success of the White Guardist and yellow “Socialist” propaganda. This cannot be denied. But, after all, the struggle itself comes down to this, that they seek to overthrow the Soviet power, while the latter refuses to permit them to do it. We feel positively under no obligation to provide more favourable conditions for their counter-revolutionary struggle.

After all, the bourgeoisie nowhere strives to facilitate the conditions for the work of the Communists, nevertheless the revolutionary movement has grown and continues to grow. Tsarism had at its disposal the mightiest apparatus of repressions, but this could not save it from falling. Moreover, the Mensheviks themselves probably wrote and said more than once that tsarist repressions only serve to spread and to temper the revolutionary movement. And this was correct. During the initial period of the Russo-Japanese imperialist war, tsarism was still able to stage patriotic demonstrations, even if only on a very limited scale. But very soon the city streets began falling under the sway of revolutionary crowds. The reference to repressions, consequently, explains nothing, for the question naturally arises: Why are these repressions successful, while the struggle against them fails to meet with success? And the answer reads: Repressions fail to attain their aim whenever they are applied by an obsolete state power against new and progressive historical forces. In the hands of a historically progressive power, repressions can prove extremely effective in speeding the removal of outdated forces from the historical arena.

But since May Day has laid bare the closest internal bond between the toilers and the soviet régime and, in passing, also the complete impotence of the parties of White Guards and “socialists”, shouldn’t one therefore conclude that repressions are unnecessary? Why not legalize impotence, even if it does happen to be mortally hostile to the workers’ revolution?

This question, too, merits a completely clear reply. Had May Day been celebrated in the same way throughout the world, then the very question of repressions would never have arisen in Russia. The same thing would apply if Russia existed alone in this world. But, after all, the toilers on May Day come out so unanimously on the streets of Moscow and Petrograd, Kharkov and Kiev and other cities precisely because through Genoa they became more clearly and directly aware of their Workers’ and Peasants’ Russia standing alone against two-score bourgeois states. Within the national boundaries of Russia the Mensheviks and the SRs are an insignificant magnitude. But on an international scale the relation of forces appears differently. because in power everywhere – in Europe and throughout the world – stand the bourgeoisie, and Menshevism serves as its transmitting political mechanism.

Russian Menshevism is itself insignificant, but it represents a lever of a still mighty system, whose driving force is the stock market in Paris, London, and New York. This was revealed with exceptional clarity in the case of Georgia. The Mensheviks, under Vandervelde’s lead, demanded nothing less than the restoration of Menshevik Georgia. M. Barthou, the most reactionary of the French political profiteers, demanded that the former Menshevik Georgian government be invited to Genoa. And this same Barthou has a Wrangel detachment in reserve, in the event of an invasion of the Caucasian shores. And at bottom of it all is the stock market’s greed for Caucasian oil.

Within the national boundaries the Mensheviks and the SRs are insignificant. But within the boundaries of capitalist encirclement they were and remain the semi-political, semi-military agencies of imperialism, armed to its teeth. After the long stretch of weekdays, with the silent burrowing by both sides, Genoa has once again dramatically and dazzlingly revealed the contradiction between soviet Russia and the rest of the world. That is why the toilers of our country have rallied so unanimously to the soviet banners. This magnificent movement expressed the revolutionary power of the Republic, and also – the power of the dangers surrounding it. Today there are no fronts and no military hostilities, but we still remain a beleaguered fortress. Our enemies have granted us an armistice and have asked us to send negotiators. Our enemies have probed us and have become convinced that today we are further from capitulation than ever before. But our enemies are still powerful. And this means that the danger is great, too. These are the lessons of May Day. Legitimately proud of our strength, we must not, in the future as well, abate our vigilance by an iota.

Alternative translation in Inprecor[edit source]

The Russian Proletariat and the Soviet Power

Not only were the May Day demonstrations in Moscow and Petrograd gigantic, but also those of Kharkoff and Kiev. The organizers themselves had not reckoned on such a number of demonstrators. The foreigners, including those who are by no means kindly disposed towards us, were astonished. Under the immediate impression of the Moscow demonstration, one of the representatives of the Amsterdam International declared that he had seen nothing like it except at the funeral of Victor Hugo. Of course, all demonstrators did not share in the same feeling: one element was enthusiastic, another was moved by sympathy, with another it was a case of mere curiosity, with another again it was a case of just going with the crowd. So, however, are all movements which embrace hundreds of thousands. In general the masses felt that they were taking part in a common thing. The enthusiastic portion, of course, set the pace for all the rest.

Some days before the First of May the comrades in the local organizations said, “You cannot imagine how the Genoa Conference has increased the political interest and raised the revolutionary self-confidence of the working masses.” Others added, “The feeling of revolutionary pride plays a great part in the present mood — we have compelled them to deal with us almost as human beings!”

If one were to judge from the foreign White Socialist paper, appearing in Berlin it would seem that the Russian working class is permeated through and through with scepticism, with a decadent reactionary mood and with hatred of the Soviets. It is quite possible that not all of these reports are concocted in Berlin, the centre not merely of Russian Monarchism, but also of White Socialism. Everyone describes what he sees; the Mensheviks, however, consider every object from the inverse position and portray it accordingly. There is no doubt that in the workers’ quarters there exists discontent due to various inconveniences caused by the present hard life. One can also add that the slow pace of the development of the European revolution and the arduous and painful process of our economic reconstruction evoke in certain rather important, not purely proletarian, sections of the working class the feeling of decadence and lack of clearness which even goes over to mysticism. On weekdays (and our greatest epoch has also its weekdays) the consciousness of the working class in considering and judging the questions of the days is not united; the difference of interests and views of various sections of the working class come to the front. At the next great event, however, the deep unity of the proletariat which has passed through the fiery trial of the revolution becomes perfectly evident. We have observed this fact several times on that long road from the insurrection of the Czechoslovaks in the Volga area up to the negations at Genoa. Our enemies have claimed several times that the rising of the Czecho-Slovakians was helpful to the Soviet power. The Mensheviks, the Social Revolutionaries and their older brothers the Cadets, and the Milioukoff group are continually repeating that military intervention is so mischievous because it only serves to consolidate the power of the Soviets. But what does this mean? It means precisely that in the difficult and serious times of trial the close union of the Soviets with the working masses in spite of disorder, in spite of grievances, in spite of unskilfulness, in spite of the weariness of many sections and in spite of the discontent of others always comes to light.

Of course, a state regime which happens to be at variance with social development can also consolidate its position at a time when outward danger threatens. This we observed to be the case with Czarism during the first period of the Russo- Japanese war. This applies, however, only to the first period, that is to say only so long as masses of the people have not yet assimilated the new facts. The settlement follows later; the out-of-date regime loses much more of its stability than it gained in the first period of war. Why therefore do we not witness this invariable phenomenon in the history of the Soviet Republics? How was it that the experience of three years of military intervention compelled our far-sighted enemies to come to the idea of renouncing the continuance of military attacks? For the same reason for which the Genoa Conference gave a great uplift to the mind of the working masses, which against expectations resulted in the colossal success of the May Day demonstrations.

The Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries were of course opposed to the demonstrations of the workers and appealed to them not to participate in them. The more clearly therefore was the unanimity of the working masses expressed with regard to the fundamental and vital questions of the Workers’ Republic. One can of course say that repression has hindered and is hindering the successful propaganda of the White Socialists. This cannot be denied. But the struggle between them and ourselves consists in that they endeavor to overthrow the Soviet Power and the Soviet Power does not permit them to do so. We do not feel obliged to provide them with favorable conditions for their counter-revolutionary activities.

Not is the bourgeoisie endeavoring to lighten the conditions of work of the Soviets; the revolutionary movement developed in spite of it, and is still developing. Czarism had at its disposal the most powerful instrument of suppression, but this did not prevent its overthrow. Nay more; the Menshevists themselves have several times written and stated that the Czarist suppressions only strengthened and deepened the revolutionary movement. And this was true. In the first period of the Russo- Japanese imperialist war, Czarism was still successful in arranging patriotic demonstrations, though very small ones. Soon, however, the revolutionary masses dominated the streets of the cities. The statement with regard to suppressions therefore proves nothing, as the question arises: why are these suppressions successful, whilst the struggle against them remains without success? The answer is: repressions are futile when they are adopted by an outworn state power against the new progressive historical forces. In the hands of the historical progressive power repression can prove to be a very effective means of emancipation in the arena of history from the out-of-date forces.

On the 1st of May, the close connection of the working masses with the Soviet Government and the total powerlessness of the party of White Socialism made themselves apparent. Cannot the conclusion be drawn that repression is unnecessary? May we not legalize this impotence although it is a deadly enemy of the Workers’ Revolution?

This questions must be quite dearly answered. Had the May Day festivals throughout the whole world had the same character, the question of repression in Russia would not have arisen. The same would have been the case if Russia alone existed in the world. The reason, however, why the working masses demonstrated so unitedly on the last May in Moscow, Petrogad, Charkoff, Kiev and other towns was that they felt, thanks to the Genoa Conference, their love for their Russia of Peasants and Workers, confronted by about 40 bourgeois states, more deeply and intimately. Within the national limits of Russia the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries are a disappearing influence, but in the international field the relation of forces is different as the bourgeoisie throughout Europe and the whole world has control of power and Menshevism is its political intermediary.

Russian Menshevism is very weak, but it is a lever of the still powerful system, the driving forces of which are the Paris, Loudon and New York stock exchanges. This was perfectly clear in the Georgian question. The Mensheviks, led by Vandervelde, asked for no more and no less than the restoration of Menshevik Georgia. M. Barthou, the most reactionary political negotiator of France, demanded the administration [admission ?] of the former Menshevik government of Georgia to the Genoa Conference. This same Barthou keeps the Wrangel troops in reserve in case troops are needed for landing on the Caucasian coast. All these things are the outcome of the greed of the stock exchange for Caucasian oil.

From the point of view of domestic politics the importance of the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries is very negligible. But in consideration of the capitalist cordon they have been and still are the semi-political and semi-military agents of imperialism armed to the teeth.

After long weekdays with their quiet mutual undermining work, the Genoa Conference showed anew in clear dramatic form the contrast between Soviet Russia and the rest of the world. Therefore the working masses of our country gathered so unanimously beneath flag of the Soviets. This great movement of the masses showed the revolutionary power of the republic, but it also showed the vastness of the dangers which threaten it. At present there are no fronts and no military actions; we are, however, still a beleaguered fortress. Our enemies have concluded an armistice with us and asked us to send them envoys. The enemies are informed and convinced that we have at present less reason than ever for capitulating. But the enemy is still strong, the danger is therefore also great. The lesson of May Day is: Though conscious of our strength, none the less we must not reduce our vigilance by one iota.

  1. Victor Hugo, the famous French novelist of the Nineteenth Century, was a political opponent of Napoleon III (Louis Napoleon) and was exiled by the latter. Hugo’s funeral in 1885 was the occasion for one of the greatest mass demonstrations witnessed in Europe.
  2. The all-European economic conference at Genoa (April 10-19, 1922) was called by the Supreme Allied Council for the purpose of reviving the economic life of Europe. It represented the first attempt by the Allied imperialists to extort “peacefully” a number of economic concessions from the Soviet Union, among them the recognition of the Czarist debts.
  3. Miliukov, an outstanding historian, was the leader of the Russian liberal bourgeoisie and its party, the Cadets (Constitutional Democrats). After the February 1917 revolution, he held the post of Foreign Minister in the Provisional Government and tried to continue the foreign policy of Czarism. After the October revolution, he migrated to Paris, where he edited a Russian daily paper.