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What You Need To Know About May Day

Labour

For more than 100 years, May Day has symbolized the common struggles of workers around the globe.

The seeds were sown in the campaign for the eight-hour workday. On May 1, 1886, hundreds of thousands of North American workers mobilized to strike. In Chicago, the demonstration spilled over into support for workers at a major farm-implements factory who’d been locked out for union activities. On May 3, during a pitched battle between picketers and scabs, police shot two workers. At a protest rally in Haymarket Square the next day, a bomb was tossed into the police ranks and police directed their fire indiscriminately at the crowd. Eight anarchist leaders were arrested, tried and sentenced to death (three were later pardoned).

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Set amid chapters on peasants and witches in late feudalism, on pirates and slaves during the rise of mercantile imperialism, on fraternal lodge members and anarchists in the new cities of industrial capitalism, on lesbians, homosexuals and communists under fascism, and on the mafia, youth gangs and race riots, jazz, beats and bohemians within modern U.S. capitalism, are two chapters that brilliantly tell the story of May Day.

One locates Haymarket in the context of the Victorian bourgeoisie’s fears of what they called the “dangerous classes.” This account confirms the central role of the “anarcho-communist movement in Chicago [which] was blessed with talented leaders, dedicated ranks and the most active left-wing press in the country. The dangerous classes were becoming truly dangerous.”

The other chapter, a survey of “Festivals of Revolution,” locates “the celebratory May Day – a festive seizure of working-class initiative that encompassed demands for shorter hours, improvement in conditions, and socialist agitation and organization” – against the backdrop of the traditional spring calendar of class confrontation.

Over the past century communist revolutions were made in the name of the working class, and social-democratic parties were often elected into government. In their different ways, both turned May Day to the purposes of the state. Before the end of the twentieth century the communist regimes imploded in internal contradictions between authoritarianism and the democratic purpose of socialism, while most social-democratic ones, trapped in the internal contradictions between the welfare state and increasingly powerful capital markets, accommodated to neoliberalism and become openly disdainful of “old labour.”

As for the United States, the tragic legacy of the repression of its radical labour past is an increasingly de-unionized working class mobilized by fundamentalist Christian churches. Canada, with its NDP and 30-per-cent unionized labour force, looks good by comparison.

Working classes have suffered defeat after defeat in this era of capitalist globalization. But they’re also in the process of being transformed. The decimated industrial proletariat of the Global North is being replaced by a bigger industrial proletariat of the Global South. In both regions, a new working class is still being formed in the new service and communication sectors spawned by global capitalism (where the eight-hour day is often unknown). Union movements and workers’ parties from Poland to Korea to South Africa to Brazil have been spawned in the past 20 years.

Two more books from Monthly Review Press – Ursula Huw’s The Making of a Cybertariat (2003) and the late Daniel Singer’s Whose Millennium? Theirs or Ours? (1999) – don’t deal with May Day per se, but capture particularly well this global economic and political transformation. They tell much that is sober yet inspiring about why May 1 still symbolizes the struggle for a future beyond capitalism, rather than just a homage to the struggles of the past.

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