People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 19

May 13, 2012

ON MAY DAY 2012  


Sharpening Contradiction between Labour & Capital


Sukomal Sen


MAY DAY is now universally recognised and observed as International Labour Day. The eight hours' struggle of the American working class, which reached its climax in the Haymarket episode of 1886, continues to inspire the working class of all lands to fight.




The men who led the struggle of the American working class and finally em­braced martyrdom were not moved just by the demand for an eight hours' workday. Behind their heroic deeds lay a revolutionary philosophy which gave them the impulse to fight for an end to capitalism and creation of a socialist society.


The heroic and revolutionary deeds of American working class and their immortal leaders acted as an inspiration to the Indian working class too in its struggle for eight hours’ day, and for ending the exploitation of capitalism and building the higher social order of socialism.


During the Chicago episode of 1889, the multi-racial working class stood solidly in resistance against the cruel capitalist exploitation, fully backed by the US government.


The last quarter of the nineteenth century saw the development of capitalism to a stage where it indulged in forceful exploitation of the working class not only in regard to working hours but also to wages and service conditions. This inhuman exploitation and repression as was fully permitted by US law. Moreover, not to speak of other necessities of life, the availability of food was so bad that food riots frequently took place. The working class had to join the struggle for food in a big way. However, the administration acted extremely vindictively and sought to put down every outburst of struggle with heavy hands.


This was the situation in the US in which, at a certain stage of the labour movement, their leaders had to raise the cry of “Down with Capitalism.” The workers’ response was exciting.




Ultimately, the mass working class struggle demanding eight hours’ work spread all over the industrial world after the May Day episode and continued its spread in the first quarter of the 20th century also, when workers in most of the countries won it.


That the working class movement is an international one was what Karl Marx stated in his inaugural address to the International Workingmen’s Association in 1864. That statement of Marx was confirmed in practical experience by the May Day episode.


Though the Second Inter­national, founded in 1889, generally held a Marxist position in the beginning, the most signifi­cant and sinister characteristic of its Brussels (August 1891), Zurich (August 1893) and Lon­don (July 1896) congresses was the continuously growing rightist tenden­cy in the working class movements and political actions. These years were, in general, a period of rapid capitalist deve­lopment in Europe and the US. Industrialisation was growing fast; monopoly capitalism and imperialism were rapidly becoming dominant, and big powers were dividing up Africa among themselves. England was heavily exporting capi­tal. It was a time of sharpening tensions among the great industrial states and of increasing class struggle in capitalist countries.      .


Among the many outstanding strikes of the period was that of 2,00,000 British coal miners in 1893. In the US the class struggle was specially fierce, the period being marked by such bitter strikes as that of steel workers at Homestead in 1892, the New Orleans general strike of the same year, the big coal strike of 1893, the national railroad strike in 1894 and several strikes of Western metal miners in the early 1890s. All these big American strikes reached the acuteness of a virtual civil war.


Side by side with the consolidation and development of capitalism and sharpening of class struggle, however, an opportunist and reformist trend became visible in the Second International. The working class struggles that developed in various countries were not necessarily, in all cases, led by those adhering to the principles of scientific socialism. Other trends also wielded a powerful influence.


Thus while the principles of scientific socialism constituted the Second International's ideological basis, its activity inescapably reflected something different. Its congresses were attended by representatives of trade unions, including those with convictions far removed from scientific socialism, and persons from reformist organisations though the majority of delegates to its congresses in the 1890s were revolutionary socialists and Marxists. During the debates and adoption of resolutions, reformists usually found themselves in a minority, but they by no means abandoned their views.


This motley composition harboured definite dangers and there were indications that the opportunist trend was prepared to sacrifice the movement's basic aims for transient successes and partial reforms. Electoral gains and parliamentary means of struggle appeared as a strong line of thinking in the Second International. However, despite the bitter tussle between the opportunist and revolutionary ideologies, the question of an organisational break did not yet arise.


The general popularity and solemnity of May Day was also sought to be utilised by the fascists but with a different purpose --- to organise and defend counter­revolution and to create illusions and confusion in workers’ mind. It happened in Germany after Hitler rose to power. The Hitlerites practised utter hypocrisy in order to hoodwink the people and lull their vigilance by masquerading themselves as the champions of the working class cause.




While the early 20th century witnessed the First World War for a re-division of the world among the rich imperialist powers, the post-war period saw the bourgeois system passing through a series of crises one after another. In the second quarter of the 20th century, the biggest of the crises shook the capitalist world in 1929 and continued up to 1933. That was the severest world capitalist crisis till then.


Obviously, the working class was the biggest loser during that crisis. Tens of thousands of workers were laid off or retrenched in different countries. Financial institutions collapsed one after another; many manufacturing industries came to a standstill, resulting in huge job losses, misery and poverty.


Workers had to fight for defence of their jobs and living standard which was rapidly eroding.    


In September 2008, world capitalism again went through a grave crisis with the crumbling of the Wall Street, which exerted its deep impact in the USA, Europe, Japan, and also in the rest of the world including India. In the developed countries, the unemployment rate averaged 8.6 per cent in 2011; in the US it has remained over 9 per cent since 2009. The ILO estimated that by the first quarter of 2011, almost one third of the unemployed in developed countries were without a job for more than a year, with the situation affecting about 15 million workers. The jobless rate among youth increased from 13 per cent in 2008 to 18 per cent at the beginning of 2011. The drastic public spending cuts, being implemented today, are leading to a further deterioration of employment situation.


The gap between the rich and poor in the advanced capitalist countries has reached its highest level over the last 30 years. An OECD report found that the average income of the richest 10 per cent is now about 9 times that of the poorest 10 per cent across the OECD. In the US, the total wealth of top one per cent is more than the total wealth of bottom 90 per cent. With the housing boom collapsing in the US, millions of houses have been repossessed by the mortgaging banks. Americans lost more than one million houses in 2010 alone. This has badly hit the middle classes.


But this period is also witnessing an outburst of working class and toiling people's struggles all over the world, the latest being the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. The latter originated in New York on September 17, 2011 and spread to all parts of the world, and is directed against corporate exploitation, neo-liberalism and at some places against the very system of capitalism. The slogan “Corporate Greed is Revolution's Seed” provides inspiration to revolutionaries all over the world.


This extremely significant development of mass upheaval against capitalist exploitation shows how the contradiction between labour and capital is sharpening today and preparing a fertile ground for the working class struggles aiming at ultimate replacement of the system of capitalism itself. Thus the objective condition is there though its fruition depends on subjective factor.   




In India, the neo-liberal economic policies have produced two Indias --- one very rich and the other mired in poverty and misery.


Big capitalists are the main beneficiaries of the neo-liberal reforms. The assets of Indian big business houses have skyrocketed over the past two decades. In the Forbes list, the number of dollar billionaires (net worth over one billion dollars or approximately Rs 5,000 crore) in India increased from 13 in 2003 to 55 in March 2011. On the other hand, the Planning Commission’s great discovery was that earning Rs 22.40 per head per day, millions of rural adults were no more poor!


The miserable plight of the working class is clear from the following facts. The total employment in organised sector, which was 2.82 crore in 1998 stood at 2.75 crore in 2008. As per the Annual Survey of Industries, the share of wages in the net value added went down to a low of 10 per cent by 2008-09 while it was close to 30 per cent in the 1980s and around 20 per cent in the 1990s. On the other hand, while the share of profits in the net value added was lower than the share of wages throughout the 1980s, (around 20 per cent), it went above the wages’ share in the post-1990 period of liberalisation and was around 30 per cent for most of the 1990s. Since 2001, it increased still faster and reached 60 per cent by 2008. The share of contract workers in the total workforce in the factory sector increased from 20 per cent in 1999-2000 to 32 per cent by 2008-09. These contract workers are not only deprived of security of tenure but also of social security.


At this critical juncture with backbreaking burdens on workers and other toiling masses, a series of struggles against neo-liberal agenda of the government and their effects are bursting forth in different sectors in India. But apart from sectoral struggles, there was the historic united strike of working class on February 28, 2012, at the call of all central trade unions and national federations on a 10-point charter of urgent demands of workers. This strike was not only countrywide; it also united all sections of the working class who joined hands to make it a unique success; at least 10 crore workers participated in it. Preceding the observance of May Day 2012, this general strike is a significant prelude to what is to come in near future if the government of India does not change its pro-imperialist neo-liberal economic policies. A good warning indeed!  


In this context, the Indian trade union movement has the responsibility of mobilising and uniting the workers of all categories as a class and bring them to join the international working class in the struggle for overthrowing the very system that exploits them. The struggle is, in the words of Marx, not for any “smoothing over of the class antagonism, but the abolition of class, not the improvement of existing society, but the foundation of a new one."