[Marxism] FYI - On The First May Day In Germany (1890) [Long]

Bill Quimby wquimby at embarqmail.com
Thu Apr 30 14:51:10 MDT 2009

I've been reading "The Outlawed Party: Social Democracy in Germany
1978-1890" by Vernon L. Lidtke (Princeton, 1966) primarily to learn more
about the anti-Socialist Law, passed/pushed by Bismarck in 1878, and in
spite of Bismarck's insistence that it be continued and strengthened allowed
to lapse in 1890. I found this on the very first May Day in Germany - you
may, if you wish, read into it a forecast for German socialism up to 1933!

- Bill

[Note: In processing this through OCR I cut out the footnotes (all for German
sources). Scholars should go to the book.]


Those who wanted a further demonstration of the buoyant strength
of the Social Democratic movement had a ready-made issue. The first
meeting of the Second International at Paris in July 1889 had resolved
that a "great international demonstration" for the eight-hour working
day should take place on May 1, 1890. The labor leaders in each coun-
try were left to decide the specific form of the demonstration.

In Germany it was up to the Social Democratic Reichstag deputies
to spell out what should be done about May 1. But the newly elected
delegation had no reason to convene during March and April since the
Reichstag was not called into session until the first week of May. 0
word came from the party executive throughout March. The most
powerful leaders of the party, such as Bebel, Liebknecht, and Singer,
were all silent. But other voices were heard. During the first week of
March, the Berliner Volkstribuene, edited by Max Schippel, discussed
the possibility of a general holiday (Feiertag) for May 1, without spe-
cifically endorsing such a plan. In the middle of March the same
paper reported that 90,000 workers in Hamburg had demanded that
May 1 be observed as a general Feiertag when no one would report for

The workers thus set a course of their own, independent of the So-
cial Democratic party leadership. Then the momentum increased. One
week later, representatives of the Berlin Social Democrats publicly an-
nounced that they called for a general work stoppage on May 1.
This shifted the center to Berlin, the home of the most radical Social
Democrats. At the end of March, the Berliner Volkstribuene fully en-
dorsed the plan that the Social Democratic party call upon all German
workers to celebrate May 1 with workers' meetings in the morning and
festivities in the afternoon. Still no word came from the executive

The silence of the executive committee was not entirely accidental.
In truth, the established Social Democratic leaders had no taste for a
gigantic demonstration on May 1 . Work stoppages and huge demon-
strations throughout Germany, they feared, would become uncontrol-
lable and open physical conflict might ensue. They preferred to draw
back, even though a mass of German workingmen clamored for a
show of strength.

The supreme commander of the party, Bebel, reflected all of these
fears. He showed how much he preferred order and regularity to wild
excitement and spontaneity. The masses, he admitted to Engels in a let-
ter on March 31, had to be restrained before they jeopardized the or-
derly development of matters. Engels had already warned the German
Social Democrats not to fall into Putsches, because "the increase of So-
cial Democratic votes proceeds forward at every new election with the
irresistibility of a natural process .... "  Here are Bebel's views on
the same subject:

       I agree completely with you [Engels] that we in Germany find
       ourselves in a situation which demands the greatest tact and skillful-
       ness. For this reason we have every cause to hold the masses within
       bounds in connection with the demonstration on May 1, so that no
       conflicts arise. Should we give the people free reins such conflicts
       would be inevitable, for the elections have turned the heads of the
       lesser trained masses and they believe that all they need is an act of
       will and anything can be achieved. Some people [meaning Social
       Democratic leaders], who certainly have no reputation for anxiety
       and over-cautiousness, even complain that they can hardly keep the
       reins on the masses.

Since now the course of business, by and large, is such that it
creates a demand for workers, the strike fever is general and the
noisiest possible demonstration on May 1 would lead immediately to
strikes in unthought-of dimensions.

       Yesterday's Volkszeit [ung] was completely correct when it wrote
       that February 20 was a demonstration of the German workers which
       could not be outdone in magnificence. Nevertheless, we shall seek to
       do our duty on May 1.

Bebel aptly expressed the general view of his colleagues: They
viewed the May 1 demonstration as a "duty" which they would have
to perform despite their obvious preference to back away from it.
Their attitude is not surprising. During the Socialist Law, they had
learned how to handle the orderly routine of parliamentary activity,
but they had practically no experience with really mass activity. For
years they had learned that prudence called them to avoid situations
which could lead to violence. The Social Democratic tactic, Bebel
wrote to Engels on April 9, would be to avoid all "provocations" by
assuming a "waiting posture" at least until the Socialist Law had defi-
nitely expired on September 30.

The Social Democratic Reichstag delegation finally met on April 13
to formulate party policy for May 1. It flatly rejected all plans for a
general walkout on the grounds that the walkout would not succeed,
and further, that the government had no greater wish than to see a
conflict provoked so that force could be used against the labor move-
ment. The deputies stressed the greatness of the election victory on
February 20. The enemies of labor, they said, were waiting for a
chance to destroy the "fruits of the victory of February 20 ... "
"After the great mobilization [Aufmarsch] and victory of February
20, German Social Democracy has no need to hold a military parade
[Heerschau]." The deputies therefore called upon the workers to cele-
brate May 1 by holding workers' meetings and festivities in the eve-
ning at which resolutions for the eight-hour day could be passed. If in
some places, walkouts could be carried out without conflicts, the lead-
ers did not forbid it. In this way, the deputies had performed their
"duty," and also sought to keep the reins on the mass of workers.

Throughout Germany, May 1 passed without any disturbing inci-
dents. After working hours, meetings and festivities took place at
which resolutions were passed. Order had been maintained in the labor

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