‘The Workers’ Holiday, May First’ (1896) by V.I. Lenin, introduced by Alexander Trachtenberg from The Communist. Vol. 10 No. 5. May, 1931.  

A meeting of the St. Petersburg League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class, 1897. Shortly after the picture was taken the whole group was arrested by the Okhrana. From left to right (standing) : A.L. Malchenko, P. K. Zaporozhets, Anatoly Vaneyev. (sitting) : Victor V. Starkov, Gleb Krzhizhanovsky, Vladimir Lenin and Julius Martov.
‘The Workers’ Holiday, May First’ (1896) by V.I. Lenin, introduced by Alexander Trachtenberg from The Communist. Vol. 10 No. 5. May, 1931.  

Editorial Note: THE May Day leaflet which is reprinted below was written by Lenin while he was incarcerated in a St. Petersburg jail awaiting trial in the Spring of 1896. When arrested in December, 1895, Lenin, at the age of 25, was already the leader of the central organization of the Social-Democrats in St. Petersburg. Lenin’s characteristic method was to gather first-hand information about living and working conditions of workers, carefully check and analyze the information obtained, and write leaflets in the most simple terms so that the least developed workers could understand. While Lenin had already then to his credit a number of serious Marxist studies, New Tendencies in Peasant Economy, etc., and polemics with the Populists (Who Are the “Friends of the People”, etc.), he particularly enjoyed writing for the masses, and his training during the period impressed itself on his writing during the following thirty years.

The May Day pamphlet was written at the request of the St. Petersburg Union of Struggle for the Liberation of the Working Class, one of the first Marxist organizations in Russia which helped to found the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party in 1898. The May Day leaflet was smuggled out of the prison and mimeographed in 2,000 copies, an edition considered at that time as very large. It was distributed among the workers of 40 shops and factories with what proved, very soon, great success. Contemporaries write that “when a month afterwards the famous strikes of 1896 broke out, workers were telling us that this modest little May Day leaflet was the first impetus to their organization.” The comrade who attended to the technical end of getting out and distributing the leaflet wrote as follows about the effect of this leaflet on the St. Petersburg workers: “In issuing and distributing this May Day leaflet we felt that we accomplished a great revolutionary task. The calling of the great strike one and a half months afterwards by the weavers, among whom the movement began and was spreading precisely under the influence of the May Day leaflet and was only awaiting the opportunity to assert itself openly, demonstrated to us and to the whole world that we were not wrong in our estimate. The strike developed exactly in those shops where our leaflet was best distributed.”

We reproduce the Lenin May Day leaflet not as a relic dugout from the dusty archives, but rather as a living piece of simple and direct writing for workers on a revolutionary theme. Although written 35 years ago, it serves as an example for a May Day leaflet in any of the capitalist countries today. The Lenin leaflet “produced results” because it was written in a language which the workers could understand, because it was concrete and dealt with problems which the workers could identify as their own, because it was distributed not indiscriminately, but directly to workers in the shops and factories, and, naturally, because of previous work in these shops and factories.

1895 mugshot.

In this leaflet Lenin reveals himself not only the brilliant teacher but the successful organizer and leader of the masses as well. Alexander Trachtenberg.


Comrades! Let us look carefully into the conditions of our life; let us observe that environment wherein we pass our days. What do we see? We work hard; we create unlimited wealth, gold and rich fabrics, brocade and velvet; we dig iron and coal from the bowels of the earth; we build machines, ships, castles, railways. All the wealth of the world is created by our hands, is obtained by our sweat and blood. And what reward do we receive for our hard labor? In justice we should live in fine houses, wear good clothing, and in any case not want for our daily bread. But we all know very well that our wages scarcely suffice for a bare existence. Our bosses lower the wage-rates, force us to work overtime, unjustly fine us. In a word, they oppress us in every way, and, in case of dissatisfaction on our part, they promptly discharge us. We time and time again discover that those to whom we turn for protection are friends and lackeys of our bosses. We, the workers are kept in ignorance, education is denied us, that we may not learn to struggle to improve our conditions. They hold us in bondage, discharge us on the slightest pretext, arrest and exile anyone offering resistance to oppression, forbid us to struggle. Ignorance and bondage, —these are the means by which the capitalists and the Government, always at their service, keep us in subjection.

What means do we have to improve our conditions, to raise our wages, to shorten our working day, to protect ourselves from abuse, to read intelligent and useful books? Everybody is against us—the bosses (since the worse off we are, the better they live), and all their lackeys, all those who live off the bounty of the capitalists and who, at their bidding, keep us in ignorance and bondage. We can look to no one for aid; we can rely only upon ourselves.

“Long live May 1 – international proletarian holiday! The first of May is the day of the strengthening of proletarian enlightenment. Agitation Department of the St. Petersburg Committee of the RCP 1920.

Our strength lies in union; our salvation in united, stubborn, and energetic resistance to our exploiters. They have long understood wherein lay our strength, and have attempted in all manner of ways to keep us divided, and not to let us understand that we workers have interests in common. They cut wages, not everybody’s at once, but one at a time. They put foremen over us, they introduce piece work; and, laughing up their sleeves at how we workers toil at our work, lower our wages little by little. But it’s a long lane that has no turning. There is a limit to endurance. During the past year the Russian workers have shown their bosses that slavish submission can be transformed into the staunch courage of men who will not submit to the insolence of capitalists greedy for unpaid labor.

In various towns strikes have broken out; in Yaroslavl, Taikovo, Ivanovo-Voznesensk, Belostok, Vilna, Minsk, Kiev, Moscow and other towns. The majority of the strikes ended successfully for the workers, but even unsuccessful strikes are only apparently unsuccessful. In reality they frighten the bosses terribly, cause them great losses, and force them to grant concessions for fear of a new strike. The factory inspectors also begin to get busy and notice the beams in the capitalists’ eyes. They are blind until their eyes are opened by the workers calling a strike. When in fact do the factory inspectors notice mismanagement in the factories of such influential personages as Mr. Tornton or the stockholders of the Putilov factory?

In St. Petersburg, too, we have made trouble for the bosses. The strike of the weavers at Tornton’s factory, of the cigarette workers at the Laferm and Lebedev factories, of the workers at the shoe factory, the agitation among the workers at the Kenig and Varonin factories, and among the dock workers, and finally the recent disturbances in Sestroretsk have proven that we have ceased to be submissive martyrs, and have taken up the struggle. As is well known, the workers from many factories and shops have organized the “Union of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class,” with the aim of exposing all abuses, of eradicating mismanagement, of fighting against the insolent oppressions of our conscienceless exploiters, and of achieving full liberation from their power. The “Union” distributes leaflets, at the sight of which the bosses and their faithful lackeys tremble in their boots. It is not the leaflets themselves which frighten them, but the possibility of our united resistance, of an exhibition of our mighty power, which we have shown them more than once. We workers of St. Petersburg, members of the “Union” invite the rest of our fellow workers to join our “Union” and to further the great cause of uniting the workers for a struggle for their own interests. It is high time for us Russian workers to break the chains with which the capitalists and the Government have bound us in order to keep us in subjection. It is high time for us to join the struggle of our brothers, the workers in other lands, to stand with them under a common flag upon which is inscribed: Workers of the World, Unite!

In France, Great Britain, Germany, and other countries, where the workers have already united in strong unions and have won many rights, they have established the 19th of April (the First of May abroad) [Before the October Revolution the Russian calendar was 13 days behind the West-European] as a general Labor holiday.

Long live the labor army! Long live the Third International! 1 of May Day is a holiday of workers all over the world! State Publishing House, Moscow, 1920.

Forsaking the stuffy factories, they march in solid ranks, with bands and banners along the main streets of the towns; showing the bosses the whole might of their growing power, they gather in numerous large meetings, where speeches are delivered recounting the victories over the bosses in the preceding year, and indicating the plans for struggle in the future. Through fear of a strike, not a single factory owner fines the workers for absence from work on this day. On this day the workers also remind the bosses of their chief demand: the eight-hour working day—8 hours work, 8 hours sleep, and 8 hours rest. This is what the workers of other countries are now demanding. There was a time, and not so long ago, when they, like we now, did not have the right to make known their needs. They, too, were crushed by want and lacked unity just as we now. But they, by stubborn struggle and heavy sacrifices, have won for themselves the right to discuss together the problems of the workers’ cause. We send our best wishes to our brothers in other lands that their struggle should quickly lead them to the desired victory, to the time when there shall be neither masters nor slaves, neither workers nor capitalists, but all alike will work and all alike enjoy life.

Comrades! If we will energetically and wholeheartedly strive to unite, the time will not be far distant when we, having joined our forces in solid ranks, will be able openly to unite in this common struggle of the workers of all lands, without distinction of race or creed, against the capitalists of the whole world. And our sinewy arm will be lifted on high and the infamous chains of bondage will fall asunder. The workers of Russia will arise, and the capitalists and the Government, which always zealously serves and aids the capitalists, will be stricken with terror!

April 19, 1896. Union of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class, St. Petersburg.

There are a number of journals with this name in the history of the movement. This ‘Communist’ was the main theoretical journal of the Communist Party from 1927 until 1944. Its origins lie with the folding of The Liberator, Soviet Russia Pictorial, and Labor Herald together into Workers Monthly as the new unified Communist Party’s official cultural and discussion magazine in November, 1924. Workers Monthly became The Communist in March, 1927 and was also published monthly. The Communist contains the most thorough archive of the Communist Party’s positions and thinking during its run. The New Masses became the main cultural vehicle for the CP and the Communist, though it began with with more vibrancy and discussion, became increasingly an organ of Comintern and CP program. Over its run the tagline went from “A Theoretical Magazine for the Discussion of Revolutionary Problems” to “A Magazine of the Theory and Practice of Marxism-Leninism” to “A Marxist Magazine Devoted to Advancement of Democratic Thought and Action.” The aesthetic of the journal also changed dramatically over its years. Editors included Earl Browder, Alex Bittelman, Max Bedacht, and Bertram D. Wolfe.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/communist/v10n05-may-1931-communist.pdf

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