May Day, the First of May is worth celebrating! That’s not a matter of nostalgia. It is not a matter of just dusting off an old tradition, just because of the warm feeling it brings us. The First of May had its reasons, and those reasons today are alive and kicking. If we push forward a tradition on that day, we do so with a view on the present and future. The fight of which the First of May was a part is a fight we are still fighting.
The First of May as a day of workers’ struggle reached a climax in 1886 in the USA. In the years before, an idea arose from within the trade unions: “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest and eight hours for what we will”. This was, in a time when working days of ten, eleven or even twelve hours were very common, a very radical demand. For the moderate Left, this already went too far. For many anarchists, it didn’t go far enough: they wanted the abolition of capitalism and wage labour right away. But workers, who knew the difference between eight and twelve hours from their own experience, picked up the idea. Especially in Chicago, anarchists were part of the workers’ movement that embraced the idea of the 8-hour working day.
In April and May 1886, a wave of workers’ rallies and strikes flooded through American cities. In Chicago, at Haymarket Square, the protests led to a tragedy and a state crime. At the end of a public strikers’ meeting a bomb went off, which killed a number of police agents. Police then attacked the workers. Soon after that, police arrested eight anarchist worker activists. After a show trial, seven of the eight got the death sentence, the remaining one got life imprisonment. One of them killed himself before the execution. In the end, the state hanged four of the other anarchists.
In the following years, the First of May grew into a day of struggle for those eight hours, but also into a day of remembrance for the Haymarket martyrs. Fighting to better the position of workers, and commemoration of those who were killed by state and capital in the struggle: these things belonged together. Both are part of the fight for workers’ liberation, a struggle in which victory means no less than the end of capital and the state.
Soon, however, the tradition was tamed. Social democrats limited the struggle to a symbolic protest, while they put their cards on elections, taking part in government and very limited reforms within the system. The Bolsheviks who took power in 1917 in the Russian Revolution, turned the First of May into a celebration of the new regime. Their political fellow thinkers in similar regimes did the same. On the First of May, workers in such regimes were allowed to celebrate their own oppression, carried out in their own name. Even fascists took up May Day, as a day to emphasize Labour for the Fatherland. The first country where May Day was declared an official holiday, was Soviet Russia. The second country where this happened, was Nazi Germany. In that way, a tradition that belonged to us was forged into a weapon against us.
All these distortions of what the First of May is about are an attack on and an insult to what it stands for: a fight for bread and freedom. That struggle continued, often underground, often marginalized. In the Netherlands it was especially the Orange tradition of 30 April (for many years the date that the birthday of the queen was celebrated), what encouraged loyalty to the state. This loyalty stands opposite to the solidarity of workers crossing all borders.
Still, there always have been groups that continued to celebrate May Day. Workers and other oppressed stand opposed to capital, the state and their assistants, just as in 1886. We still have working hours that are too long, wages that are too low, irregular, heavy workloads, and public services that are destroyed by austerity. Others still play boss over us and destroy our lives. Protest encounters police violence all too often, sometimes with deadly results. The fight of yesterday is the fight of today, and we need to win that fight.
To stoke up the fighting spirit, to show that worldwide solidarity is alive and kicking, to show that we defend and support each other, whatever our origin, skin colour, gender, sexual orientation might be. That is why we celebrate the First of May. On May 2 we continue the fight! Until this world is liberated from the dictatorship of state, capital and everything that keeps us in subjection.