May Day Greetings to the workers of the world!

One of the things people do when annual festivities come inexorably around is to retell the stories about why we celebrate what we celebrate. Christians retell the Christmas and Easter narratives; Americans have some odd stories accompanying their Thanksgiving holiday, and it’s good for leftists likewise to re-narrate the story of May Day every year, to continue to reclaim the holiday from the Soviet bloc states’ celebrations of Stalinist power and remember the origins of the May Day hoiday as a mass international movement from below which very suddenly transformed this particular bit of the (Gregorian) Calendar. It’s particularly appropriate to do this this year, the year of the 15 February expression of worldwide wrath against American aggression in the Middle East.

The ever-informative, ever-entertaining Daily Bleed has a good presentation of the American side of the May Day story.

Hundreds of thousands of American workers, increasingly determined to resist subjugation to capitalist power, poured into a fledgling labor organization, the Knights of Labor. Beginning on May 1, 1886, they took to the streets to demand universal adoption of the 8-hour day. Chicago was the center of the movement. Workers there had been agitating for an 8-hour day for months, & on the eve of May 1, 50,000 were already on strike. 30,000 more swelled their ranks the next day, bringing most of Chicago manufacturing to a standstill.

Fears of violent class conflict gripped the city. No violence occurred on May 1 � a Saturday � or May 2. But on Monday, May 3, a fight involving hundreds broke out at McCormick Reaper between locked-out unionists & non-unionist workers McCormick hired to replace them. The Chicago police, swollen in number & heavily armed, quickly moved in with clubs & guns to restore order. They left four unionists dead &many others wounded.

Angered by the deadly force of the police, a group of anarchists, led by August Spies & Albert Parsons, called on workers to arm themselves & participate in a massive protest demonstration in Haymarket Square on Tuesday evening, May 4. The demonstration appeared to be a complete bust, with only 3,000 assembling. But near the end of the evening, an individual, whose identity is still in dispute (possibly a police agent provocateur), threw a bomb that killed seven police & injured 67 others.

Hysterical city & state government officials rounded up eight anarchists, tried them for murder, & sentenced them to death.

On 11 November 1887, four, including Parsons & Spies, were executed. All of the executed advocated armed struggle & violence as revolutionary methods, but their prosecutors found no evidence that any had actually thrown the Haymarket bomb. They died for their words � not their deeds.

250,000 people lined Chicago’s street during Parson’s funeral procession to express their outrage at this gross miscarriage of justice.

For radicals & trade unionists everywhere, Haymarket became a symbol of the stark inequality & injustice of capitalist society. The May 1886 Chicago events figured prominently in the decision of the founding congress of the Second International (Paris, 1889) to make May 1, 1890 a demonstration of the solidarity & power of the international working class movement. May Day has been a celebration ever since.

This is the traditional story of the American events — which prompts, as ever, the traditional observation that it is a comic irony of history that the USA is one of the only countries which does not celebrate May Day, preferring to celebrate its own “Labor Day” in September. (Perhaps we will be able to talk of an “international community” when America finally does fall into line with the rest of the world and learns to give May Day its due).We turn to Eric Hobsbawm for a useful presentation of the European end of the story, which he gave in the first annual Bindoff Lecture, “Birth of a Holiday: The First of May”, delivered at the College formerly known as Queen Mary and Westfield, 3 May 1990.

To summarise his account: May Day was not so much an invented tradition, as the popular eruption of a new tradition: in July 1889, during the centenary year of the Great French Revolution, representatives of European workers’ parties gathered in Paris for the founding congress of the Second International. That congress resolved that rest of the world’s socialists should join in with the American protests on 1 May 1890, again lobbying for an eight-hour day. This was intended as a one-off expression of the international reach of the workers’ movement, and on the day itself thee were widespread demonstrations and festivals across Europe: 300,000 workers in London converged on Hyde Park.

The enthusiasm from below which these rallies generated led to the demands for repeat performances the following year, and to the rapid institutionalisation of May Day as an annual event, with the Brussels congress of the International in 1891 committing the movement to a regular May Day celebration, insisting that the demonstration take place on the first of the month (rather than at the nearest weekend, and so on), in order to emphasise “its true character as an economic demand for the eight hour day and an assertion of class struggle”. The rest, as they say, is history.

(An often interesting history to be sure: the Bolshevik regime was unsurprisingly the first regime to mark the day as a public holiday; and by the 1930s the symbolism of May Day was sufficiently intense that the Nazis became the second. All this, and more, in Hobsbawm. I think it’s still true to say that it’s the holiday that is celebrated in more countries around the world than any other, whether or not you count the UK May Day Bank Holiday, which is always on the following Monday…)

It is a quite splendid festival, and one which I always enjoy, whether or not I end up going on anyone’s march. (Not this year, although the Oxford trade unions did rally in Bonn Square earlier in the day). Happy May Day, everybody!

4 Comments


  1. Interesting – I wasn’t aware that the Nazis adopted May Day as a public holiday (not exactly the sort of thing you’d expect from them) but maybe they were also harking back to the day’s pagan roots, some sort of effort to reclaim a day of the Volk from the Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy?May Day’s not the only holiday the US has switched around, of course. The US equivalent of Rememberance Day is in May. Maybe that’ll be a pretext for invading someone when they’ve run out of ones that are even vaguely credible… harmonisation of international holdays in the name of business stability.

    Quote | Posted 1 May, 2003, 6:44 pm

  2. Predictably, the city of Chicago put a freeway through much of what used to be the Haymarket earlier in the century. A monument — a statue of a policeman, of course — was first erected in the area in 1889, got moved around a bit over the decades, and was finally relocated to the grounds of the Chicago police academy after being blown off its pedestal with explosives in 1970. But the site of the explosion can still be found, marked with a very small plaque, on the edge of a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, just a brick’s throw from one of my favorite yuppie-scum restaurants, in fact.

    (The Chicago public library website has some interesting pictures, including one of the Haymarket Five — you forgot to mention to one who committed suicide.)

    Quote | Posted 1 May, 2003, 7:47 pm

  3. It’s funny when you write that out as a function (that’s not a function by definition).

    Quote | Posted 3 March, 2009, 3:27 pm

  4. Ever so many posters here, no doubt feeling very smug now that they don’t live in the leading imperial city in the world, insist on saying that “the US” does not support Labor Day and one that it will truly be an international day when America comes around. So first, there are plenty of us here who celebrate the real labor day – had an immigrant march today in DC, just for example – and no one who does likes to be equated with a government. When all the capitalist governments of the world celebrate May Day, it will signal only full-scale co-optation. We’ll have something that matters when all the workers of the world celebrate, know their history, and organize a new society without governments.

    Happy May Day to all comrades world-wide!

    Quote | Posted 1 May, 2009, 9:30 pm

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