The First of May

Awakened early in the morning by strains of music and song, I went out into the street. The city was in gala attire: flags and banners fluttered in the air; red carpets and curtains hung from windows and doors, the variety of shade and design producing a warm, Oriental effect.

On the Nevsky a large automobile passed me, stopping a few paces ahead. A curly, black head rose from the depths of the machine, and someone hailed me: “Hello, Berkman, come and join us.” I recognized Zinoviev.

Detachments of military filed by, singing revolutionary songs, and groups of boys and girls marched to the strains of “The Internationale.” “Subotniki,”19 Zinoviev remarked, “going to Marsove Pole to plant trees on the graves of our heroic dead.” Our car moved slowly between phalanxes of revolutionary youths and Red Army men, and my mind reverted to a previous May Day demonstration. It was my first experience of the kind, in New York, in the latter part of the 80’s. Radicals of every camp had cooperated to make the event successful, and a huge demonstration was expected on the historic Union Square. But the majority of the American workers of the city remained deaf to our proclamation, and only a few thousands attended, mostly of the foreign element.

The meeting had just begun when suddenly the blue-coated giants appeared, and the gathering was attacked with riot clubs and dispersed into the side streets. Some of us had foreseen such a possibility, and a little group of the younger element had prepared to resist the police. But on the eve of the demonstration, in our last committee conference, H⁠⸺, the leader of the older members, had warned us against “being provoked into violence,” and well I remember how passionately I resented the “arguments” of the pusillanimous Social Democrat. “We are the teachers of the people,” he had said, “and we must lead them to greater class consciousness. But we are few and it were folly to sacrifice ourselves unnecessarily. We must save ourselves for more important work.”

I scoffed at the cowardly warning and called it the spiritual acme of our Christian civilization which has turned the bold eagle, man, into a fox. But H⁠⸺’s speech paled the enthusiasm of our group, and there was no resistance to the police brutality. I went home discouraged by the ignominious failure of our 1st of May demonstration.

The metallic thunder of “The Internationale,” struck up by several bands at once, recalled me to the present. Here, indeed, was the First of May of my youthful dreams. Here was the Revolution itself!

At the Uritsky Square we alighted. Affectionately I looked at the workers and soldiers that joined our group. Here were the builders of the Revolution who, in the face of insurmountable difficulties, are leading it to victory. I glanced at Zinoviev⁠—he looked weary, overworked, heavy rings under his eyes⁠—the “Communist look” I had become familiar with.

The procession formed. Zinoviev put his arm through mine, and someone pushed us into the front rank. Holding hands, the lines marched toward the Field of Mars, Zorin carrying the huge red banner. His slender figure staggered beneath its weight, and willing hands stretched out to relieve him. But Zorin would not be deprived of the precious burden.

The Field of Mars was dotted with bending figures busily at work⁠—the subotniki decorating the graves of the revolutionary martyrs. They labored joyfully, snatches of their song reaching us between the pauses of the brass bands in our rear.

I stood with Zinoviev on the reviewing stand, interpreting his answers to the American correspondent whom Chicherin finally admitted into Russia. As far as the eye could reach, soldiers and workers filled the huge square and adjoining streets. Proletarians from the factories marched by, each group with its crimson banner inscribed with revolutionary mottoes. Red Army nurses, women employees of shops and Soviet institutions, regiments of the Communist Youth, the vsevobutch of the armed workers, and long lines of children, boys and girls, filed by with the flags of their organizations.

It was the most imposing demonstration of revolutionary consciousness I had ever seen, and I felt inspired by it. But the appearance of the marchers was depressing; they were undernourished, exhausted, poorly clad, and I noticed many children walking barefoot. It was probably due to their physical weakness, I thought, that the paraders showed so little enthusiasm⁠—they barely responded to the greetings of the Communists on the reviewing stand, and the frequent “Hurrah, Hurrah, Tovarishi!” shouted by Lashevitch and Antselovitch, Zinoviev’s lieutenants, found but a weak, spiritless echo in the ranks of the passing demonstrators.

The festivities closed in the evening with an open air mass spectacle, illustrating the triumph of the Revolution. It was a powerful portrayal of the age-long slavery of the people, of their suffering and misery, and the underground revolutionary activities of the pioneers of liberty. The best artists of the city participated in the portrayal of the great Russian drama and gave an intense and moving presentation. I was spellbound by the horrors of the Tsars’ tyranny; the clanking of the slaves’ chains echoed in my consciousness, and I heard the muttering of approaching storm from the depths. Then sudden thunder of cannon, groans of the wounded and dying in the world slaughter, followed by the lightning of rebellion and the Triumph of the Revolution.

I lived through the whole gamut of the great struggle within the two hours of the performance, and I was profoundly stirred. But the huge audience remained silent⁠—not a sign of approval was manifested. Was it the apathy of the northern temperament, I wondered, when I heard a young workman nearby saying: “What’s the use of it all! I’d like to know what we have gained.”