As far back as ancient Rome, May 1st – May Day – has been celebrated as a spring festival in the northern hemisphere. But in the nineteenth century, that changed. Ironically, though the change began in America, America eventually rejected it. In other parts of the world, however, the shift in May Day emphasis gave way to radical upheavals of whole societies with generational consequences.
Seeds of Revolution
It began in America. In the 1800s, unhappy workers in the industrializing US began to agitate for a shorter workday – eight hours, to be exact. And it was the eight-hour movement which directly gave birth to a revolutionalized May Day. Not long after the Civil War put an end to real slavery, the National Labor Union adopted the language of slavery to advance its cause. At its founding convention in August, 1966, the following resolution was passed:
The first and great necessity of the present, to free labor of this country from capitalist slavery, is the passing of a law by which 8 hours shall be the normal working day in all states in the American union. We are resolved to put forth all our strength until this glorious result is attained.
In September of the same year, the Geneva Congress of the First International, an international consortium of labor unions, resolved to issue the same demand:
The Congress proposes 8 hours as the legal limit of the working day.
Eight-hour leagues were subsequently formed in America, and several state governments adopted the eight-hour day on public work.
The following year, 1867, Karl Marx called attention to this development in the first volume of Capital (Das Kapital). In a chapter called “The Working Day,” Marx too compared the plight of workers to that of slaves and similarly attached his cause to theirs:
In the United States of America, any sort of independent labor movement was paralyzed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the republic. Labor with a white skin cannot emancipate itself where labor with a black skin is branded. But out of the death of slavery a new vigorous life sprang. The first fruit of the Civil War was an agitation for the 8-hour day – a movement which ran with express speed from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California.
May Day: A Day for Agitation
A young American labor organization which would later become known as the American Federation of Labor (A. F. of L.), was the first organization to call for specific action on May 1st. At a meeting in Chicago on October 7th, 1884, it passed the following resolution calling for a walkout eighteen months hence:
Resolved by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions the United States and Canada, that eight hours shall constitute legal day’s labor from May First, 1886, and that we recommend to labor organizations throughout their jurisdiction that they so direct their laws as to conform to this resolution by the time named.
A year later, the Federation reiterated the resolution on the planned walkout, and several national unions organized to prepare for the struggle. According to International pamphleteer Alexander Trachtenberg:
The rank and file of both organizations were enthusiastically preparing for the struggle. Eight-hour day leagues and associations sprang up in various cities and an elevated spirit of militancy was felt throughout the labor movement, which was infecting masses of unorganized workers.
There were detractors in this nascent worker’s paradise. Certain leaders of the Knights of Labor, especially one Terrence Powderly, were, according to Trachtenberg, “sabotaging the movement and even secretly advising its unions not to strike.” But the May 1st, 1886, demonstration took place, nonetheless. Its most intense concentration point was Chicago:
The May First strike was most aggressive in Chicago, which was at that time the center of a militant Left-wing labor movement. Although insufficiently clear politically on a number of the problems of the labor movement, it was nevertheless a fighting movement, always ready to call the workers to action, develop their fighting spirit and set as their goal not only the immediate improvement of their living and working conditions, but the abolition of the capitalist system as well.
This first May Day demonstration led to what became known as the Haymarket Affair, which left 18 people in Chicago, 10 strikers and 8 policemen, dead and more wounded. But it was the inaugural battle in the Marxian class struggle, and the war was on. At the first congress of the Second International (the First International had disbanded), held in Paris in 1889, May 1st was officially designated as a day on which workers of the world would organize in their political parties and trade unions to demand the 8-hour day. At the Congress of the International at Zurich in 1893 the following resolution was adopted:
The demonstration on May First for the 8-hour day must serve at the same time as a demonstration of the determined will of the working class to destroy class distinctions through social change and thus enter on the road, the only road leading to peace for all peoples, to international peace.
Thus did international unions pursue the glorious goals of the 8-hour day, social change, and the class upheaval that would eventually bring about world peace. May Day demonstrations grew in the east, and by 1900, the Russian revolutionary movement was gaining steam under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin, who wrote in the preface to a pamphlet, May Days in Kharkov, in November, 1900:
In another six months, the Russian workers will celebrate the first of May of the first year of the new century, and it is time we set to work to make the arrangements for organizing the celebrations in as large a number of centers as possible, and on as imposing a scale as possible, not only by the number that will take part in them, but also by their organized character, by the class-consciousness they will reveal, by the determination that will be shown to commence the irrepressible struggle for the political liberation of the Russian people, and, consequently, for a free opportunity for the class development of the proletariat and its open struggle for Socialism.
Revolutionary Success in the East
May Day became known as Red Day, and the cause achieved its stated goal with the Russian Revolution of 1917. Under Lenin’s leadership, the Russian people were politically liberated, the struggle for Socialism was won, and the Soviet Union was born.
But Failure in America
But in America, the May Day movement took a different turn. Certain “reformists” (a pejorative term used by Trachtenberg) after the manner of Terrence Powderly, were not sufficiently aggrieved to take up the struggle against their employers. They began scheduling May 1st demonstrations on the nearest Sunday and turning May Day into a day of rest and recreation instead of struggle, a day of labor holiday, games in the park or outings in the country instead of war.
This turn did not sit well with the International, to whom May Day was to be a “demonstration of the determined will of the working class to destroy class distinctions.” The reformists did not consider themselves bound by the decisions of international congresses, and this could not be tolerated. In 1904, the International demanded obedience, resolving:
The International Socialist Congress in Amsterdam calls upon all Social-Democratic Party organizations and trade unions of all countries to demonstrate energetically on May First for the legal establishment of the 8-hour day, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace. The most effective way of demonstrating on May First is by stoppage of work. The Congress therefore makes it mandatory upon the proletarian organizations of all countries to stop work on May First, wherever it is possible without injury to the workers.
It was an order that was, thankfully, more or less ignored, the Socialists having become more oppressive than industrial employers. The reformists moved American observances of Labor Day to the first Monday in September, thus inaugurating the national holiday Americans know today.
Russian novelist Leo Tolstoi, a contemporary of Lenin, wrote, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” These ‘misleaders,’ as the Socialists called them, wisely foresaw that the Socialists’ designs for changing the world were, at best, ill-advised. Whether it was because they valued their hard-won political liberties too much to kowtow to the International’s dictates, or, understanding real slavery enough to find the Labor unions’ analogies grotesque, or simply because the Judeo-Christian work ethic resided deeply in the American psyche, they have done a great service for subsequent generations.
We can remember them and thank them by likewise rejecting leftist agitation and keeping May Day as a spring festival.
*Information for this article was drawn from “The History of May Day” by Alexander Trachtenberg, Published: International Pamphlets, 1932, Proofed and Corrected: by Dawen Gaitis 2007 for Marxists.org