Echoes of the 1st of May

Agitiamoci per Socialismo Anarchico (May 8, 1897), single issue, replacement for No. 9 of L’Agitazone. Translated by Paul Sharkey and appeared in The Complete Works of Malatesta, Vol. 3: A Long and Patient Work

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, the strike on that day into mere holiday 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.