Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The Forgotten History of May Day

May Day: The holiday of the workers. In days gone by, when men, women and children often worked 10 or more hours a day, seven days a week, May Day was an assertion on the part of wage-slaves that they were sovereign human beings with control over their own lives and destinies. They celebrated the day with marches of tens and hundreds of thousands throughout the world.

May Day was an expression of the international solidarity of the working class. "Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains," was not just a slogan. It was a battle cry in the war between classes. Their marches and rallies, with fiery speeches, impassioned poetry and stirring anthems, gave them a sense of their collective strength. It was an act of defiance of the combined forces of employers and public authorities. Often their gatherings were brutally attacked by police or thugs with clubs and guns.

Although not often taught in American history classes, May Day originated in the United States during the campaign for an eight-hour day. The Knights of Labor, the nascent American Federation of Labor and various anarchist groups designated May 1, 1886, for nationwide demonstrations for the eight-hour goal.

The response of the "bosses," political and economic, was extreme repression to silence the most vocal and active labor advocates. An increasingly conservative Samuel Gompers and AF of L had by the mid-1890s distanced themselves from May Day and embraced the legally sanctioned Labor Day, which was observed the first Monday in September. The aspiration for the unity of workers was shattered by these developments.

Meanwhile, the Bolshevik Revolution turned out to be a Trojan horse in the socialist camp, as the Leninist-Stalinist regime proved to be a ruthless dictatorship presiding over state capitalism. May Day was hijacked by the Soviet Union with its displays of military prowess in Red Square. The association of May Day with Soviet Communism has given it a bad name to this day.

In this age of globalization, when workers are pitted against each other, across oceans and continents, we have returned to conditions of pitiless exploitation of human beings. If greed ever was constrained by patriotism, it certainly is not today. It is time to revisit May Day in the spirit in which it was conceived over a hundred years ago. Only an international labor movement can hope to match the prowess of the amoral trans-national capitalist system.

Excerpt from Rudolph J. Vecoli, "Mass Amnesia Makes Americans Forget the Story behind May Day,"
Barre Montpelier Times Argus, April 26, 2007

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