Issue 230 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
The celebration of May Day as international workers' day has a long tradition. In pre-industrial days, the first of May was the date when workers were hired for the year. The hard reality behind the maypoles and Morris dancers was the hiring fair, which meant the difference between being able to live and eat for the next year or not.
In the US in 1886 a group of workers in Chicago organised a strike for a legally enforceable eight hour day. The strike was successful, but employers locked out some workers. In the picketing and protests that followed, a number of workers were killed by police. A demonstration followed and a bomb killed one policeman. Four trade union activists were tried, convicted and hanged for murder. None had been present at the protest. The state simply claimed that their words and actions had inspired the murder. One of those executed, August Spies, said from the dock:
An international wave of protest was sparked. In December 1888 the American Federation of Labour called a protest for 1 May 1890 and this was moved at the July 1889 congress of the Second International by the American socialist JF Busche. The International had already decided to begin a campaign for the 'three eights'--eight hours work, eight hours leisure and eight hours sleep. The causes of the eight hour day and the Chicago Martyrs were tied together, and May Day was launched.
The Second International meant business. It called not just for protests, but for international strike action on 1 May 1890. It was decided that the day would symbolise not just the struggle for an eight hour day, but the international power of the organised working class.
That first May Day in 1890 thousands of workers stopped work and took to the streets in Germany, there were mass strikes in Italy, and in Cuba the cigar workers struck. In Britain 10,000 workers marched behind a temperance band in Northampton, and in London there was a huge demonstration of 500,000 people. Observing it, Engels commented that he had heard 'for the first time in 40 years, the unmistakable voice of the English proletariat'.
May Day soon developed into a truly international workers' day. At the Hyde Park celebrations in 1904 German, Polish, Yiddish and Russian speakers were heard, reflecting the diversity of the working class movement. On May Day 1909 the march was led off by 2,000 children from Socialist Sunday Schools singing socialist hymns and 300 Clarion cyclists wearing red roses.
May Day sometimes took on a more sombre tone. It was on 1 May 1916 that the German socialist Karl Liebknecht was arrested for making an anti-war speech in Berlin and jailed. On May Day 1917 there were so many socialist conscientious objectors to the First World War in Dartmoor prison that they held their own celebration and sang the Red Flag.
The tradition has continued, but like all traditions it has been fought over. Following the victory of Stalinism in Russia, and particularly after the onset of the Cold War between East and West in the late 1940s, May Day in Moscow became a celebration not of workers' power but a display of Russian weaponry whose main consequence, if ever used, would have been to kill millions of workers. In many countries May Day became an officially recognised holiday, rather defusing the impact of unofficial workers' action on the day.
While May Day has been celebrated continuously since 1890, the strength of support has gone up and down with the class struggle itself. In London by the mid-1960s a serious tradition of celebrating the first of May had almost been forgotten. The London May Day Committee--still organising the London May Day march today--was formed in 1967 to revive the tradition of unofficial strike action on May Day. By the early 1970s those taking part in strikes to mark May Day had reached hundreds of thousands, as the traditional celebration tied in with opposition to the Tory government elected in June 1970, and particularly the hated Industrial Relations Bill.
At this time Britain was one of the few countries--apartheid South Africa was another--which did not recognise May Day as an official holiday. A few years of growing strike action led to the Labour government making it an official day off in 1978. However, the subsequent Tory governments, while being forced to retain the holiday, stripped it of any relationship to international workers' day.
The tradition of international solidarity could not be more relevant as Blair and Clinton bomb their way round the globe, and neither could the demand for an eight hour day. After all, EU legislation has just enforced a maximum working week of not 40 but 48 hours.