Dragan Nikčević: The Origins of May Day


Have you ever noticed how so many protests happen in May? There is a reason for this, and it originates in the late nineteenth-century struggle for workers’ rights. The history of its commemoration is a microhistory of the Left.

In the beginning

In 1864, The International Workingmen’s Association is founded in London. The first of the Internationals, as it will be, was a heterogenous lot even before Bakunin’s arrival in 1868, founded by a motley crowd of political exiles from across Europe, piling up in London ever since the end of the revolutionary wave of 1848. Nonetheless, during its first general congress, which took place in Geneva in 1866, the organisation did agree on some fundamental positions, particularly on the curtailment of the working day down to eight hours. It was declared that the legal limitation of the working day is a preliminary condition for any further attempts to improve and emancipate the working class. The idea itself was not new: as early as 1817 it was proposed by Robert Owen and even implemented in his socialist utopia in the making at New Lanark. It was Owen who originally coined the slogan ‘Eight hours labour, Eight hours recreation, Eight hours rest’, which will eventually come to represent the great social consensus of the twentieth century, the welfare state. But what makes things happen is political action, not slogans. After the 1872 red-black split, The International Workingmen’s Association fell into decline, and was disbanded in 1876 with the Bakuninite Anarchist International of St.Imier outlasting it for no more than a year, but nonetheless both socialist and anarchist ideas were gaining momentum. In the US, The Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor, at first a loosely organised, anti-strike and somewhat grandmasonesque national organisation began losing ground to leftist political ideology as well as functioning as a proper labour union on local level, joining the efforts of so-called Eight-Hour Leagues for what became the central demand throughout the 1870s. In 1872, a hundred thousand workers in New York City struck and achieved the eight-hour limitation. Chicago emerged as a major hotbed of worker militancy. A labour union convention held in the city in 1884 was getting serious, declaring:

Eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labour from and after May 1, 1886, and that we recommend to labour organizations throughout this jurisdiction that they so direct their laws as to conform to this resolution by the time named. (source)

The Haymarket incident

1 May 1886 thus saw what may be considered the first modern May Day manifestation. The Chicago Knights of Labour led 80,000 people down one of the main city avenues. Nationwide strikes ensued. Class struggle was a much more literal term back then, and as matters escalated at least four people died on 3 May as police opened fire on protesters. The next day, a stick of dynamite was set off, killing seven policemen, at a rally protesting this violence after the police demanded that the crowds disperse. The number of dead and wounded from the ensuing retaliation remains unknown. Eight organisers of the May protests were arrested on charges of inciting riot and murder. After a lenghty trial, all eight were convicted in what is regarded as a complete show trial. One worker got fifteen years while the rest were sentenced to death, four of which were hanged, one committed suicide prior to execution and two got life after asking for clemency (and were released in 1893, in a time of public upheaval, by the new governor of Illinois). The execution produced some of the first martyrs of organised labour movements. As August Spies put it in his famous last words: ‘The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.

Workers for rights!

The Haymarket events and its aftermath brought together and stiffened the resolve of the various labour movements that were divided by political conviction, ethnicity and social stratification. The American Federation of Labour decided to resume the fight for the eight-hour day, calling for national protests on 1 May 1890. The decision was supported in Paris in 1889, with the centennial of the French Revolution also marking the first official congress of the Second International. The Paris declaration initiates the international campaign for the eight-hour day. As Rosa Luxemburg recalls in 1913:

The brilliant basic idea of May Day is the autonomous, immediate stepping forward of the proletarian masses, the political mass action of the millions of workers who otherwise are atomized by the barriers of the state in the day-to-day parliamentary affairs, who mostly can give expression to their own will only through the ballot, through the election of their representatives. The excellent proposal of the Frenchman Lavigne at the Paris Congress of the International added to this parliamentary, indirect manifestation of the will of the proletariat a direct, international mass manifestation: the strike as a demonstration and means of struggle for the eight-hour day, world peace, and socialism. (source)

Needless to say, not all were satisfied with the development of May Day manifestations. In 1894, from May to June, US railway workers carried the torch in the so-called Pullman Strike, which quickly escalated from a wildcat factory strike in the state of Illinois into a boycott and sabotage of rail cars across the country. An ensuing federal and military intervention sanctioned by US president Cleveland ended in blood once more. A mere six days after the end of the strike, with some thirty workers killed and substantial property damage done, Congress rushed a bill, hastily declaring Labor Day, the first Monday of September, a federal holiday. Labor Day, celebrating workers’ economic and social contributions, was an attempt to quell the explosive situation and at the same time separate American workers from the socialist imbued tradition of May Day celebrations. Incidentally, the leader of the railway strike (never supported by official unions), the young Eugene Debs, was not of socialist conviction at the time. Although arrested on federal charges including conspiracy to obstruct national mail service, he was in the end ‘merely’ sentenced to six months imprisonment. He spent this sentence in the age old tradition of doing Marxist literature while doing time, becoming in time a prominent socialist figure running for president on the Socialist Party ticket. Meanwhile, May Days were gaining wind elsewhere as well. The respectable history of strikes in Belgium originates in this period. In Russia, Lenin recalls the events of May Day 1912, picking up where the revolution of 1905 left off:

Weeks before May Day, the government appeared to have lost its wits, while the gentlemen who own factories behaved as if they had never had any wits at all. The arrests and searches seemed to have turned all the workers’ districts in the capital upside down. The provinces did not lag behind the centre. The harassed factory owners called conferences and adopted contradictory slogans, now threatening the workers with punishment and lock-outs, now making concessions in advance and consenting to stop work, now inciting the government to commit atrocities, now reproaching the government and calling on it to include May Day in the number of official holidays. (source)

Rights for workers?

Attempts to diminish the role of May Day became even more pronounced after the events of 1917. In the civil war following the October Revolution, several international forces came to support domestic reactionary forces, including two expeditions of American soldiers. On 1 May 1921, foreign war veterans begin observing Americanisation Day in order to counter what was perceived as a Communist celebration of the Russian Revolution. In 1949, the holiday is renamed Loyalty Day and dedicated to ‘the reaffirmation of loyalty to the United States and for the recognition of the heritage of American freedom’. Reagan later complemented it by adding Law Day. In the words of Chomsky, ‘a day of jingoist fanaticism, like an extra twist of the knife in the labor movement’. (source)

One cannot claim that such attempts were without success. The Labor Day in September and the May Day mark two faces of political tradition in the Western hemisphere. While the first was decreed top down, the second was established on the avenues and within the factories, sometimes in blood. While the former epitomises reformism and respectability, the latter marks a lost strength and potential of the working class movement, one that was capable of great lengths when it came to the question of common goals.

This is an important lesson for today. Consider how arguments in favour of austerity ultimately always point to circumstances beyond our control: accept this cut or the other, or else markets will frown, investors will be discouraged and companies will move offshore. In a way, a century ago the situation was obverse – consider the Internationals as rating agencies and leftist agitators as investors, while the only type of company moving was joining someone else’s strike. Rather than threatening with the Greek scenario, politicians were afraid of the Russian scenario. A century ago, the worker was capable of great leaps. When railway workers everywhere started to uncouple Pullman rail cars in solidarity with the plant workers, a single wildcat strike suddenly blocked half of the US transport system. Not only did the worker realise that he is in the same position as the one next to him, but this awareness of common faith also transcended barriers of company, profession and, ultimately, nationhood. It is fascinating how forgotten this history is. Indeed, as Chomsky says, ‘people seem to know about May Day everywhere except where it began, here in the United States of America’.

Where does this leave Slovenia? The so-called First of May (‘Prvi maj’) became a focal point of strikes directly after the Paris declaration, survived the crackdowns on political life throughout the interwar kingdom and was among the central holidays in post-war Socialist Yugoslavia. Today, it is still upheld as a national holiday, with a tradition of lighting up bonfires and carrying red carnations as the symbol of workers. Many people attend because it is part of a popular tradition and because continuities of cultural traditions survived independence and are in recent years even returning with a vengeance. But all this is of course problematic if it remains locked in the realms of nostalgia and a specific version of national pride of the past. On the other hand, it is telling that last year the ruling conservative party wanted to cut the additional day off, 2 May, as part of a huge reform package devoted to increasing austerity and productivity. The labour unions managed to renegotiate this, but lost 2 January as a day off. While such labour union action is necessary and is among the key reasons why Slovenia underwent a comparably mild post-socialist transition, one can go only so far in defending the old without thinking about the new. In an age when past workers’ achievements are increasingly under attack everywhere, labour will not come out on the good side of things by virtue of sectors and interest representation. A century ago, May Day represented a proactive stance, one that overarched generation, social strata and nationhood, making possible thinking and accomplishing achievements not imaginable when standing alone. Such a May Day is much needed again. As Rosa Luxemburg closes a letter in 1894: ‘When better days dawn, when the working class of the world has won its deliverance then too humanity will probably celebrate May Day in honor of the bitter struggles and the many sufferings of the past.’ (source)

Prispevek je bil prvotno objavljen v spremni knjižici k Prvomajski šoli 2013.


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