[Marxism] May Day in books (Leo Panitch)

Richard Fidler rfidler at cyberus.ca
Sat Apr 30 08:26:40 MDT 2005

What you need to know about May Day

by Leo Panitch

[scanned from the Books section of The Globe and Mail, Toronto, April 
30, 2005]

(not on-line)

For more than 100 years, May Day has symbolized the common struggles of 
workers around the globe. Why is it largely ignored in North America? 
The answer lies in part in American labour's long repression of its own 
radical past, out of which international May Day was actually born a 
century ago.

The seeds were sown in the campaign for the eight-hour work day. On May 
1, 1886, hundreds of thou-sands 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 arrest-ed, tried and sentenced to death (three were later 

These events triggered international protests, and in 1889, the first 
congress of the new socialist parties associated with the Second 
International (the successor to the First International organized by 
Karl Marx in the 1860s) called on workers everywhere to join in an 
annual one-day strike on May 1-- not so much to demand specific reforms 
as an annual demonstration of labour solidarity and working-class power. 
May Day was both a product of, and an element in, the rapid growth of 
new mass working-class parties of Europe -- which soon forced official 
recognition by employers and governments of this "workers' holiday."

But the American Federation of Labor, chastened by the "red scare" that 
followed the Haymarket events, went along with those who opposed May Day 
observances. Instead, in 1894, the AFL embraced president Grover 
Cleveland's decree that the first Monday of September would be the 
annual Labor Day. The Canadian government of Sir Robert Thompson enacted 
identical Labour Day legislation a month later.

Ever since, May Day and Labour Day have represented in North America the 
two faces of working-class political tradition, one symbolizing its 
revolutionary potential, the other its long search for reform and 
respectability. With the support of the state and business, the latter 
has predominated — but the more radical tradition has never been 
entirely suppressed.

This radical May Day tradition is nowhere better captured than in Bryan 
Palmer's monumental book, Cultures of Darkness: Night Travels in the 
Histories of Transgression [From Medieval to Modern] (Monthly Review 
Press, 2000). Palmer, one of Canada's foremost Marxist labour 
historians, has done more than anyone to recover and analyze the 
cultures of resistance that working people developed in practising class 
struggle from below. He's strongly critical of labour-movement leaders 
who've appealed to those elements of working-class culture that crave 
ersatz bourgeois respectability.

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 in 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 20th century was out 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 neo-liberalism 
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 in 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 book out of Monthly Review Press --  
Ursula Hum'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 I still symbolizes the struggle for a future beyond 
capitalism rather than just a homage to the struggles of the past.

Leo Panitch, Canada Research Chair in comparative political economy at 
York University, is co-editor of The Socialist Register and author of 
Renewing Socialise Democracy, Strategy and Imagination.

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