T.J. O’Flaherty travels from to London to participate in the May Day celebrations during that year’s General Strike and penned this wonderful essay on the day’s events.
‘An Historic May Day in London: New Days in Old England’ by Thomas J. O’Flaherty from the Daily Worker Saturday Supplement. Vol. 3 No. 134. June 19, 1926.
I LEFT the usually turbulent but now comparatively peaceful Dublin on the evening of the 30th of April, bound for London. Dublin is not an easy place to leave—particularly for those with a thirst for the dramatic.
But May Day in London in 1926 with 1,000,000 coal miners out of the pits! And with a general strike threatened! This was something that many men and women would sacrifice years of ordinary existence to experience.
So I resisted the temporary invitation of friends to spend a week shooting curlews in the heather-clad mountains of Wicklow, or discussing the futility of things in general with the cynical intelligentsia of Dublin who survived the gats of Black and Tans, Regular and Irregular Republicans and Free States.
BUT MAY DAY, 1926, dawned rather auspiciously on the city of fogs, alias London. Perhaps the sun was just as benevolent when Oliver Cromwell, the pious bourgeois cutthroat, sent his troops into the house of commons and dispersed the jabbering flunkeys of the Stuart king. Also on the day the royal Stuart had his royal head chopped off by the psalm-singing Covenanteer headsman.
The “tight little isle” has a history alright, but one would never dream of such things waiting in the offing as the Holyhead flier flew into a London station on May 1st, 1926.
“So you are not on strike yet,” I remarked to the taxi driver who drove me to a hotel.
“We are waiting for the call, sir,” he replied.
Yes, British workers use polite expressions, just as a Chicago gunman wears a silk shirt. But I frankly believe that a perfectly proper and smooth-tongued British worker would bore word holes in the body of a British aristocrat with the same feeling of satisfied legality that a Berlin porter would express in accepting a mark for tipping his hat to a guest.
I have known good Irish Roman Catholics who would applaud the execution of a counter-revolutionary cardinal even tho they might thump their chests in devotion, mixed with religious horror over the contemplation of the 5th commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.”
All roads lead to Hyde Park on May Day. And on this May Day more than ever.
One million miners on strike!
Four million workers in other industries, under the leadership of the General Council of Trade Unions, threatening to strike in sympathy.
Of course, the right wing leaders, led by Mr. J. H. Thomas, proletarian by origin but flunkey by nature—emphasize that this was an industrial and not a political struggle—that the General Council was not fighting the government or aiming to destroy the “constitution.”
But who believed in Thomas? Only the capitalists and unfortunately large sections of the workers. The villain of “Black Friday” was out to beat his second, and he succeeded—on the evening of May 11.
But on May Day! Who could foretell what might happen, once the masses began to move. The masses are dangerous—to the ruling classes; to those who prey on them.
“Revolutions never take place until the pains of rebellion are no greater than the pains of obedience.” And this stage has arrived for the British working class.
J. H. Thomas, privy councilor to his majesty, the inebriated monarch of Britain, Ireland, India, Egypt, etc., would do his best to break the solidarity of the workers, but the best of prophets make mistakes.
And the government was taking no chances.
I watched the May Day parade at the Marble Arch, one of the entrances to Hyde Park, where the procession dispersed.
How many of you remember what David Lloyd George said of the socialist propaganda carried on in this famous meeting place, while speaking on the rise of the working class movement in the commons a few years ago?
George is a clever political opportunist. He is an astute reader of mass psychology. He reminded his colleagues in the historic house of the days—30 years ago—when socialist soap-boxers “raved” in Hyde Park, and the silk-hatted crowd laughed at them, the police tolerated them and the ruling class felt quite happy in the thought that the workers were too stupid to unite and the “nuts” were too crazy to lead.
But the ’nuts” have changed, said the wily George and so have the times, which is responsible for all change. The wily Welshman likes to scare the bourgeoisie, so be can get a better price from them for his sense.
But the Hyde Park demonstrations are no longer sneezed at by Scotland Yard. Mounted police were there on May Day, 1926—plenty of them. Lloyd George, the flunkey of British imperialism, knew what he was talking about. The British working class movement is no longer a thing to be sneezed or laughed at.
YOUNG, old and middle-aged, marched or rode from the Embankment to Hyde Park. Policemen on slick mounts accompanied the parade. The horses pranced and “did their stuff” perhaps to impress the workers with their mobility. At that, they looked as precocious as those who sat on their backs.
The present London police force is comparatively new. None of those who went on strike a few years ago were reinstated. This is not surprising. It is a serious matter for the ruling class to allow their uniformed hirelings to affiliate with the Labor Movement.
Don’t forget that Calvin Coolidge is “our” president, because he claimed credit for breaking the Boston policemen’s strike, tho be should give the undeplored deceased Gompers a share of the credit.
ON they came in thousands, on foot and in many types of conveyances —young, middle-aged and old.
“Stand by the Miners,” “Down with the Fascisti,” “Support the Workers’ Defense Corps,’ “Read the Sunday Worker.”
Slogans—fighting slogans. “What kind of a paper is this Sunday Worker?” I asked quite Innocently of a portly person who watched the procession with much interest,
“A labor paper,’’ he replied proudly, “You should secure a copy.” And so I did, and met Comrade William Paul, the genial editor, and the equally scintillating Charlie Ashleigh, whose name is quite familiar to those who have even a nodding acquaintance with the revolutionary movement in the United States. Communists, I.L.P.’ites, Young Communists, Young Pioneers, Labor Party branches, Trade Unions—they were all there marching together.
“This looks like what we in the States would call a ‘United Front’,” says I to myself, but just then there was a commotion down the line. I could hear angry shouts, “Get the bastards.”
Two lorries came tearing along loaded with fascisti. And you never witnessed such a scurvy collection of human beings!
Perhaps everybody on the side-lines were not workers or radicals. But there was no sympathy for the blackshirts. Fortunately for them, the drivers stepped on the gas and they escaped with their hides. But they did not capture any red flags, as the capitalist press reported.
I AM in Hyde Park. It looks like I am in the vicinity of a picket line in an American industrial struggle. Police! Police! Police! Mounted and on foot. A disturbance in the distance and mounted police dash to the scene of trouble.
There are many kinds of people there—some hunting for amusement. But then, even during the French revolution, the theaters were open!
Here is George Hardy, sturdy and red-faced, acting secretary of the National Minority Movement. The secretary, Harry Pollitt, is in jail, but his wife, Marjorie, is on the job. She makes a hit with the crowd.
George Hardy was delivering a speech or reading a resolution. He was on the Seamen’s platform. George is an old “Wob” and is just as proud of the fact as even Bill Haywood. I stepped behind the platform and pulled his leg—literally.
“There are three bastardly finks out here,” he whispered. “I will meet you at…”
Scotland Yard men were busy with their notebooks. Not that they needed any. The British “stools” are the most accomplished liars in the world. And the judges usually take their word.
Nat Watkins of the National Minority Movement totes a considerable pipe, but, unlike that worn by our Hell and Damnation Dawes, it is not upside down. Neither is Nat.
The park was congested. Police lying on the grass, smoking pipes. Yodlers fiddling or dinging or whatever yodlers do. “No more war” banners in dangerous proximity to Communist banners that told the workers it was no use blinking the class war. It was there.
A tall fellow was in the center of the angry crowd. He wore an undertakers’ collar. But perhaps it was his own. He was defending the government and the capitalist system.
“The workers are alright as long as they stay where they belong,” he was saying, much to the disgust of a tall man who wore a button with the cryptic letters, “I.C.W.P.A.,” the counterpart of the I. L. D. (International Labor Defense).
A lady of indifferent pulchritude was boosting the Prince of Wales, while a stately matron with a child on her shoulder more than suggested that the prince’s supporter was, to put it mildly, of unquestionable virtue, since she admitted having a very warm spot in her heart for the prince, tho she never had the pleasure of seeing his royal countenance.
The woman with the child shot a leading question to her opponent:
“Would you marry the prince?”
“You bet your bleedin’ lives,” was the reply.
“Then you are no better than a bloody prostitute,” said the woman with the child. “How could you love a blighter you never saw?”
“But he is our prince,” retorted the suspected virgin, “and if all the royal family were like him there would not be so much trouble.”
“Well, we would not ran out of bastards,” snorted the woman with the child. “For my part, I say damn ’em all The working class can bloody well get along without ’em.”
Still no blows were struck, tho plenty of hard words were passed. I trotted hither to the no-war meeting. Perfectly liberal and non-factional. About one hundred persons listened more or less attentively while a speaker dwelt on the horrors of war. He did not mention the Chinese, Hindoo or Egyptian wars, even at that moment, in course of prosecution by the British government. Evidently that kind of thing was more or less immaterial. What he did not like was war between the big capitalist powers. Still he was a good fellow.
Turning around for consolation, I noticed a demonstration. There was a semi-balded man carried on the shoulders of husky fellows with several hundred in the procession.
“There is Sak!”
“What the blazes is Sak?” I queried.
“Why, Saklatvala, of course,” was the reply, “the M. P. of Battersea. He is a Communist.”
And almost everybody in the vicinity began to cheer.
Sure enough, there was Saklatvala, a Hindoo, elected to the commons from Battersea, which sent John Burns to the house. But Burns is now rather quiet, tho some say he has not forgotten the working class.
Saklatvala is not quiet, tho. Rather funny to see a member-of the Hindoo race elected to the commons by a typical British electorate. But they are exploited just as Saklatvala’s people in India are. And Saklatvala, being a Communist, knows that the interests of the exploited colonial workers and those of the workers in the chief city of the empire are identical.
“Three cheers for Saklatvala.”
There was a rush for his platform. The poor devil on the “no more war” platform did the best he could. His few listeners were leaving to hear “Sak.”
“I am not surprised,” he said, “that Saklatvala should get the crowd. They know he is loyal to the working class and that he is unafraid. They are confident that he will fight for them, regardless of consequences. But…”
And then he tried to induce a few people to remain, because the next speaker was a “Miss So and So,” who was not bad to look at. But the audience did not stay. They went to be near “Sak” who was having the time of his life taking liberties with the Union Jack.
The workers listened to him and applauded. The detectives listened and took notes. And effectively. “Sak” got two months in jail for the speech he made on that May Day.
It was a glorious May Day.
But the best was yet to come.
The Daily Worker Saturday Supplement, later changed to a Sunday Supplement, of the Daily Worker was a place for longer articles with debate, international focus, literature, and documents presented. The Daily Worker began in 1924 and was published in New York City by the Communist Party US and its predecessor organizations. Among the most long-lasting and important left publications in US history, it had a circulation of 35,000 at its peak. The Daily Worker came from The Ohio Socialist, published by the Left Wing-dominated Socialist Party of Ohio in Cleveland from 1917 to November 1919, when it became became The Toiler, paper of the Communist Labor Party. In December 1921 the above-ground Workers Party of America merged the Toiler with the paper Workers Council to found The Worker, which became The Daily Worker beginning January 13, 1924.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/dailyworker/1926/1926-ny/v03-n135-supplement-jun-19-1926-DW-LOC.pdf