In many lands for many centuries, May celebrations marked the coming of Spring and the renewal of earth and crops and life for the masses of people. In our time, May Day, the international holiday of the labor and socialist movements, developed out of labor's struggle against exploitation and socialism's dedication to the regeneration and empowerment of the working class. And May Day began in the United States, even though its capitalist class has sought to erase that point from the the consciousness of the people of the United States.
May Day's roots are in the peaceful demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of U.S. workers in Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh, and other cities on May 1, 1886, for the eight hour day. Supported by the Knights of Labor, the new American Federation of Labor, and by various labor anarchists and socialists, the demonstrations were denounced by the capitalist press as conspiracies to revive the Paris Commune in the U.S.
In Chicago in Haymarket Square three days after the May first demonstrations, labor anarchists organized a protest demonstration following police killing of strikers at the McCormick Harvester plant. After a bomb was thrown at the large contingent of police there to intimidate the demonstration, the ensuing police riot, national Red Scare, and arrest and trial of eight of the demonstration's leaders (four were executed), made Haymarket an international symbol of capitalism's war against the working class.
With the Haymarket struggle as their precedent, an international Congress of Socialists and other labor activists, meeting in Paris in 1889 in the centennial of the French revolution, designated May 1st as a day of demonstrations for the eight hour day through the world.
As the socialist movement grew and a Second International of socialist parties developed in the 1890s out of the Paris meeting and the subsequent May Day demonstrations, May Day became an annual event, reflecting both workers pride and militancy. Although the AFL initially supported the demonstrations,Samuel Gompers, federation President and advocate of what came to be known as conservative craft oriented 'business unionism,' the distanced the organization from it and focussed on Labor Day as am 'American' national labor holiday.
But socialists, anarchists, immigrant workers pouring in to the U.S. from European countries with developing labor and socialist movements, celebrated May day as a day of mobilization and contemplation of Labor's past, present and future. The Soviet Socialist Revolution of 1917 made May Day both an official holiday and the symbol of a revolutionary workers state through the world, with huge peoples marches through the country.
May Day demonstrations were brought to the colonies and 'protectorates' of the world primarily by Communist supporters of the Third International in the interwar period, although Socialist and Labor parties throughout Europe, the United Kingdom, and the United States, whatever their divisions from Communist parties continued to celebrate May along with Communists.
In the post WW II period, when the colonial empires collapsed and socialist forces advanced, May Day in the 1950s through the 1970s became the most widely celebrated day in history, reaching more people than any religious or national holiday
In the U.S. though, where May Day demonstrations had been large in New York's Union Square in the 1930s and 1940s, legal restrictions, police abuse and organized street violence by right-wing elements shut down May Day for much of the 1950s and 1960s.
In Germany, when the Nazis came to power, they had 'replaced' May Day with a 'national day' and, among other things, outlawed the use of the word 'proletarian,' along with their public burning of Marxist books and the works of writers deemed 'racial subhumans' (Jews most of all but also others) In the U.S. May Day wasn't formally banned, although permits for demonstrations were nearly impossible to come by and local authorities cooperated often with McCarthyite elements to squelch any possible demonstration for the greater part of a generation. Cold Warriors even tried without much real success to sponsor 'law day' demonstrations to rival May Day in the 1950s.
This history of ugly repression and the resistance to it in the U.S. deserves to be remembered when we celebrate May Day, remembering that it is first and foremost the holiday that proclaims the inseparable bond and interdependency of the labor and socialist movements. It is the holiday of unity among all sections of the labor and socialist movements, not just Communists or Socialists.
Although some have noted that May Day in the cold war era came to be identified megatively with military parades in Red Square in Moscow reviewed by Soviet leaders (which always of course got the most coverage) May Day was about much more than that even in the Soviet Union, where it was celebrated at all levels through the Society, and throughout the world, where it was identified with peoples struggles against exploitation and oppression.
Happy May Day, in the struggle for working class unity, peace, and socialism! Like the working class itself, it unites the people of the whole world.
Norman Markowitz teaches history at Rutgers University and was a contributing editor of Political Affairs Magazine.
This article was originally published in Political Affairs.