Liberty & Labor Day in the Park

How Americans Turned Karl Marx’s Revolution Day into Labor Day

As far back as ancient Rome, May 1st has been celebrated as a spring festival in the northern hemisphere. But that changed in the nineteenth century.

It began in 1800s America, when unhappy workers in the industrializing U.S. began to agitate for a shorter workday. Soon after the Civil War put an end to legal slavery, the National Labor Union adopted the language of slavery at its founding convention in August 1866, when 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 an eight-hour day for public workers.

Marx Takes a Cue from American Labor Unions

The following year, 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.

Apparently to Marx, slavery being abolished didn’t count as a “fruit” of war. What counted was a way to advance the revolution.

Anyway, 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, AFL passed the following resolution calling for a walkout:

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.

The Haymarket Affair

But there was already dissent among the American laborers. 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.”

The May 1st, 1886, demonstration took place, nonetheless, with its most intense concentration point in 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 dead in Chicago, ten strikers and eight policemen.

May Day East Goes Red

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. May Day demonstrations grew in the east alongside the Russian revolutionary movement under Vladimir Lenin. In 1890, Lenin wrote in the preface to the pamphlet, May Days in Kharkov:

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.

May Day became known as Red Day, and the cause achieved its stated goal with the Russian Revolution of 1917. The struggle for Socialism won, the Soviet Union was born.

Meanwhile in America

But in America, the May Day movement took a different turn. Certain “reformists” (a pejorative term used by Trachtenberg) were not sufficiently aggrieved to take up the struggle against their employers. They began scheduling their May 1st activities on the nearest Sunday and making it a day of recreation in the park or the country, instead of a day for political 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.” 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. Eventually, the reformists moved American observances of Labor Day to the first Monday in September, and years later, President Eisenhower declared May 1st to be Law Day, U.S.A., to recognize the importance of law as the foundation of liberty for a nation.

If Communism had not proved to be such an unmitigated human disaster, it would be comical that the labor revolutionaries ended up imprisoned in the Soviet Union, while the Labor “reformers,” in the West, i.e., those who just said no to socialism, retained liberty for themselves and for their posterity. The fact that they got an annual holiday added to the American calendar was just more ironic icing on the capitalist cake.

** All quotations taken from, “The History of May Day”.

 is Deputy Editor of Salvo and writes on apologetics and matters of faith.

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