PROLETARIAN HISTORY: China Celebrates First May Day in 1920

By Leslie Kovner. Version en español.

In 1920, early Chinese communists organized rallies and marches to celebrate International Workers’ Day across the country, foreshadowing the mighty revolutionary storm that would soon sweep across the oppressed nation.

For decades, famine, warlords, instability, and corruption had weighed heavily on the backs of the Chinese people. The moment of inspiration from the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912 was beginning to fade, and although the May 4 movement of 1919 had excited many intellectuals, the workers and peasants were still largely unaware of theoretical discussions happening in the lecture halls.

Li Dazhao, Chen Duxiu, the young Mao Zedong, and other early communists, began to realize that the revolution could not be restricted to universities and study circles; the working class must be at the helm of the movement. International Workers’ Day provided a perfect opportunity to politicize the struggles of the Chinese workers and stir them into action.

From Beijing to Shanghai, in the large cities and small towns, people rallied in the town markets, met to discuss workers’ demands, and distributed leaflets about May Day. Students and intellectuals worked tirelessly to bridge the gap between themselves and the workers.

At Beijing University’s Second Hospital, Li Dazhao helped to organize an event where 500 workers and students met to discuss the demands of workers. “Up, up, up! Hardworking workers!” Li and others chanted, “Today is the day you wake up!”

Later in the day, communists rode to the east-west city parade, flying banners and handing out copies of “The Beijing Labor Declaration on May 1,” which was addressed directly to the workers themselves and encouraged rebellion against their oppressors, including “bureaucrats, politicians, and capitalists who do not work for their food.” In the suburbs of Beijing, Deng Zhongxia distributed the same declaration to railway workers.

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The city of Shanghai also buzzed with activity that day. Before May 1, Shanghai Public Welfare Department and the Shanghai Police Department put up posters forbidding the congregation of workers. In spite of military interference, more than 5,000 workers from seven major trade unions rallied together in front of the Shanghai Ximen Stadium and openly distributed the “Shanghai Workers’ Declaration,” demanding an 8-hour work day and access to education. In a shining example of revolutionary courage, they stood resolute in the face of state repression and used it as an opportunity for bold agitation and mobilization of the working class. Throughout the rest of China, workers and students participated in a variety of rallies and parades, writing and distributing May Day pamphlets and reports.

Early Chinese communists recognized the importance of International Worker’s Day as a way to unite the working class, and one year after the 1920 May Day they would establish the Communist Party of China.

The workers who took part in the prohibited, rebellious marches and rallies in 1920 would go on to fight warlords, Japanese imperialism, and the Chinese nationalists in a heroic protracted people’s war that would culminate in the founding of the New Democratic People’s Republic of China in 1949. Early communists planted the seeds for the Party, the People’s Army, and the United Front as they organized the workers. Mao Zedong would grow to become the great leader that would eventually lead the Party through the Long March toward the triumph of the revolution and the seizure of state power, as well as bringing the construction of socialism to the greatest heights the world has ever seen. The communists had much work to do before China would be truly red, but on May Day 1920 they took a great step forward.