Honouring the dead, fighting for the living
Four decades have sped by and old Piyasena undoubtedly would have
left the living world by now, but I shall always recall him about this
time of the year: the crotchety, silent loom-fixer in overalls with the
wrench hanging at his side. I had just been introduced to the 20th
century mysteries of our industrial civilization in the somewhat humble
post of a trainee work-study analyst in one of our textile mills.
Old Piyasena was a wizard with the looms and the weavers liked him
although they scarcely understood his strange quips which, I suspected,
they regarded as the foibles of approaching senility.
"May Day is the workers' New Year Day," he said. "Man who works for a
living starts his year on May Day."
Forty May Days have passed since old Piyasena told me that and I have
come to believe he wasn't far from right. He had said, with a sweep of
his arm that nobody here understood what May Day meant, but that the
time would come when they, like him, would regard it as the year's
beginning. They're a fresh crop of working people, he said, and they
have a lot to learn. But learn they would, as he had learned. He was too
old, now, and feeble, he indicated, to teach much, but there were
younger men doing the job. May Day, he said, means freedom; all over the
world it comes in the springtime and, in Sri Lanka, it comes just couple
of weeks after Aluth Aurudda, when workers think of a better life.
Today I pay homage to old Piyasena, one of the obscure, unsung
millions of Sri Lankan workers; he crops up in my mind every time May
Day rolls around. I thought of him those many May Days when I saw our
labouring men and women parading through the streets; I thought of him
when the newspaper reports would come in from London, Moscow, Paris and
Berlin, telling cryptically of the march of working men and women.
This year the workers across the world will commemorate May Day in
one of the most turbulent and traumatic periods in history. The world is
ravaged by wars, terrorism, bloodshed, economic catastrophe and
unprecedented poverty, misery, disease and destitution.
The vast majority of the human race has been plunged into the abyss
of deprivation, hunger and agonising suffering.
After the failure of the Keynesian model in the 1980s, free market
enterprise or the 'trickle down' economy has led to the biggest
financial crash in the history of capitalism. And the exploitation and
drudgery of the working classes has worsened. The gains of the workers
through immense struggles of the last 12 decades are being drastically
slashed even in the advanced capitalist countries.
In the largest capitalist country of the world, the USA one percent
of the richest households now own more wealth than the 95 percent of the
rest of the population.
The same story is repeated throughout the Western world. India has 20
percent of world's population yet hosts about 40 percent of world's
poverty and yet now there are more billionaires in India than in Japan.
In his latest book, 'Reformism and revolution', the renowned
theoretician, Alan Woods gives a graphic description of this decline.
He writes, "The crisis of the capitalist system is reflected in a
crisis of materialistic values, morality, religion, politics and
philosophy. The mood of pessimism that afflicts the bourgeoisie and its
ideologues in this period is manifested in the emptiness of its
In the context of these stirrings of the working class, May Day 2012
attains an extraordinary significance.
The unique feature of May Day is that it is perhaps the only
anniversary that is commemorated all over the world. It cuts across the
prejudices of race, colour, creed, religion, nationality, ethnicity and
caste. Hence the real message of May Day is that of worker power. It is
also the reaffirmation of the pledge for unity in struggle on a class
basis against this system of exploitation and plunder.
Narrow trade unionism cannot offer any way out of this misery. Most
of the corporate investment today is not labour intensive in character,
but it is capital intensive.
This means it will create more unemployment rather than generating
any new jobs. All the technological advances enhance exploitation rather
than alleviating the plight of the workers.
The capitalist system cannot cope with the spirit of the new
technology to which it has given rise. In the present era we live not
only in a world economy, but most social and political relations have
also been moulded by this crushing domination of the world market.
That explains why any struggle for worker rights cannot survive on a
national basis for long.
Today the workers celebrate May 1st with a new meaning. Out of the
demands that once loomed so large long time ago have today become
The 8-hour day has become the standard of production; in every
country universal suffrage is either realized or on the eve of its
On the other hand, international disarmament is still a cherished
desire, permanent peace an empty phrase, a dream that will not and
cannot be fulfilled so long as super powers exist with greed for
territories, markets and spheres of influence.
But arrayed against the precursors of new wars that sit in Western
cities and in Washington is a working-class that comes to a truer
understanding of worker brotherhood that grows more desperately ready to
give its devotion to a cause that has become living reality.
It is because of these facts that the class-conscious workers
demonstrate on May Day for redress with the deathless slogan: "All power
to the workers!"
As long as the struggle of the workers for betterment of their lives
continues, May Day will be the yearly expression of these demands.
And, one fine day, when the working class of the world has won its
deliverance then too humanity will probably celebrate May Day in honour
of the bitter struggles and the many sufferings of the past.