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Workers Vanguard No. 981

27 May 2011

A Revolutionary Marxist History of May Day

The following is a presentation, edited for publication, given by comrade Jacob Zorn at a May 7 forum in New York City.

Every year on the first of May, workers throughout the world celebrate May Day. Like International Women’s Day in March, May Day originated in the heat of class struggle against the U.S. capitalist class, but it has not been celebrated in the United States for decades—that is, until several years ago, when tens of thousands of immigrants began demonstrating for immigrant rights.

The Spartacist League and the Spartacus Youth Clubs go to these May Day protests with our paper, Workers Vanguard, and the paper of our comrades in Mexico, Espartaco, to put forward our demand that the workers movement fight for full citizenship rights for all immigrants. We also raise our Marxist program of working-class independence in counterposition to the labor bureaucrats and liberals in the leadership of these protests: that the working class must struggle in its own interests, here and internationally, against the capitalists, and that the Democrats and other bourgeois politicians and their allies in the labor bureaucracy are enemies of the fight for workers emancipation.

In Europe and Latin America, celebrating on May Day is much more common. Yet the politics of these celebrations, as pushed by the social democrats, the trade-union bureaucrats and, in the semicolonial world, bourgeois nationalists, obscure not only the origins of May Day but also its historic revolutionary political message. This forum will emphasize this revolutionary heritage, based on the need for the working class internationally to make a socialist revolution, expropriate the capitalist parasites and create a society based on proletarian rule.

The 1886 Haymarket Police Riot

For most people, the origins of May Day are synonymous with the Haymarket demonstration in Chicago on 4 May 1886, which took place amid a large struggle for an eight-hour day. In order to understand what happened in Haymarket Square 125 years ago, it’s important to have a sense of this struggle in Chicago, which was largely organized by anarchist labor leaders August Spies and Albert Parsons, who would go on to become two of the Haymarket martyrs. During these protests, some 400,000 workers struck in Chicago on 1 May 1886; 45,000 other workers had won the eight-hour day without striking.

The first of May demonstrations were peaceful. But this was not due to any effort by the bourgeoisie in Chicago. More than 1,000 National Guard troops were on standby in their armories, which were fortresses built in most cities after the 1877 railway strike. The Chicago capitalists and their hirelings in the police were looking to nip the growing labor movement in the bud, including by going after its leaders. So a Chicago newspaper on May 1 declared: “There are two dangerous ruffians at large in this city; two sneaking cowards who are trying to create trouble. One of them is named Parsons. The other is named Spies.... Mark them for today.... Make an example of them if trouble does occur!”

Well, there wasn’t any trouble on that day. And the strike continued for several days. On May 3, as part of the eight-hour struggle, 6,000 union lumber-shovers [lumber yard workers] held a mass rally. By chance, the rally was held near the McCormick Harvester Machine Company plant. There had been a strike against this company, whose owners were particularly anti-union, going on since February 1886, unrelated to the eight-hour day struggle. But by May, about half of the employees of the plant had joined in the eight-hour movement. So 500 McCormick strikers came out for the protest on May 3.

On that day, as August Spies, one of the leading German labor-anarchist radicals of Chicago, was speaking, some of the strikers and lumber-shovers protested as scabs were leaving the McCormick plant. Suddenly 200 cops swarmed down on the workers, killing one, critically injuring five or six more and wounding unknown numbers. Outraged by this attack, Spies helped organize a protest the next day at Haymarket Square against this police violence.

On the evening of May 4, this 3,000-strong protest was relatively subdued, and the fact that it started to rain at the end meant that most of the people had left. Some of the most important labor leaders, particularly the anarchists such as Parsons and Spies, were on the speakers list. The mayor of Chicago observed most of the demo but left early because it was uneventful. Just as the demonstration was about to end, some 280 cops showed up and ordered the 200 remaining protesters to disperse. As the protesters began to leave, a bomb exploded suddenly. Nobody knows who threw the bomb. The only thing that’s certain is that it wasn’t anybody who was later convicted of throwing the bomb. The bomb itself was not responsible for most of the deaths. The deaths of seven cops, as well as the killing and injuring of protesters, occurred mainly because the police pulled out their guns and started shooting in all directions.

The cops, and the Chicago bourgeoisie, were incensed by the growing radical labor movement, and they saw in the Haymarket police riot a chance to get Spies and Parsons. What followed was an almost archetypal display of how the capitalist state—armed bodies of men, including the police, the prisons and court system—has nothing to do with justice and everything to do with protecting the rule and profits of the capitalists through violent force. This was the first red scare in U.S. history. Lucy Parsons, who was the wife of Albert Parsons, described the atmosphere shortly after the riot: “A reign of terror has been inaugurated which would put to shame the most zealous Russian blood-hound.” The police, disregarding all laws, rounded up leftists, unionists, immigrants. And once they narrowed down who their “suspects” were going to be, the court system then proceeded to legally lynch the anarchists and workers’ leaders.

The trial was one of the most blatant examples that there is no justice in the capitalist courts. The judge, Joseph Gary, turned the trial into an inquisition, with the Haymarket defendants tried for something they had no part in. They were supposedly co-conspirators with somebody—unnamed and unidentified—who threw the bomb. To assure a conviction, the jurors were not chosen at random but were preselected to make sure there were no workers and that all were sufficiently reactionary. When some of the prospective jurors said that they were too biased against the defendants, Gary argued to seat them nonetheless.

On 11 November 1887, Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engel and Adolph Fischer were hanged by the state of Illinois. Louis Lingg died in mysterious circumstances in his cell the day before his planned execution. Michael Schwab and Samuel Fielden had their death sentences commuted to life in prison. Oscar Neebe was sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor. As James P. Cannon, who went on to become one of the founders of the American Communist Party and then the American Trotskyist movement, put it in a 1927 article titled “The Red Month of November”: “They were the pioneers of the eight-hour day movement, and their crime was so heinous in the eyes of the master class that nothing but their blood would satisfy the vampires whose profits and power they menaced.” May Day honors these proletarian heroes.

In 1893, Illinois governor John Altgeld released the remaining anarchists who were still in jail. So obvious was the anti-working-class bias of the court that Altgeld in his pardon noted what he called Gary’s “malicious ferocity.” But that is really the way that bourgeois democracy works: the state acts as the brutal enforcer of bourgeois rule, but it gets dressed up to make it prettier. One of the reasons May Day is not celebrated in the U.S. is that the bourgeoisie has a long memory and remembers what it really means. When I gave this forum in Chicago, the comrades pointed out that the police department’s training facility used to have a statue honoring the cops in the Haymarket riot, in the courtyard. Anybody who wanted to be a Chicago policeman saw that statue every day.

Class Struggle and Black Oppression in the U.S.

The key to why this riot and this day became so important lies in the context of the class struggle in the U.S. during the period of the 1880s, a period referred to today as the “Great Upheaval.” Unfortunately many people, including many radicals, don’t know very much about this period, even though to a large degree it laid the basis for the labor struggles of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the 1910s and the CIO in the 1930s.

As with many things in American history, a good place to start is the Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865. The Civil War was a bourgeois revolution, one of the most progressive wars in modern history. The war freed black people from slavery and paved the way for the full development of capitalism in the United States. During the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War, the Federal government extended the rights of citizenship to black people through the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. It used the power of the Army to protect former slaves and establish the Freedmen’s Bureau. And it even mooted land reform. But the bourgeoisie did not complete the task of ending black oppression.

By this time, the American capitalist system was well on its way to becoming imperialist, something that would blossom fully over the next decades. Especially after the Paris Commune of March-May 1871, which was the first time the working class took power, continuing the social revolution that black liberation would have entailed was far from the minds of most capitalists in the U.S., even among “progressives” in the Republican Party. With the Compromise of 1877, the capitalist class betrayed the freedmen and removed the last Federal troops from the South, slamming the door shut on the hopes of black freedom.

The Civil War also inaugurated a fierce class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie in the industrializing North and West. Karl Marx has a famous quote in the first volume of Capital:

“In the United States of North America, every independent movement of the workers was paralysed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded. But out of the death of slavery a new life at once arose. The first fruit of the Civil War was the eight hours’ agitation, that ran with the seven-leagued boots of the locomotive from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California.”

One of the main results of the failure of Reconstruction is that the labor movement and the fight for black freedom remained separate. To be sure, there were some links. Ira Steward, the founder of the eight-hour movement in the 1860s, is rumored to have fought with John Brown in Kansas, and abolitionist and Republican leader Wendell Phillips advocated the eight-hour day after the Civil War.

Another exception is Albert Parsons himself. Parsons grew up in the South and as a youth fought in the Confederate Army. During Reconstruction, he sympathized with the Radical Republicans and believed that the former slaves had rights. He married Lucy Parsons, who was of mixed-race background. Because of their support to Reconstruction and the fact that they were in a mixed marriage, they were essentially driven out of the South. They moved to Chicago, throwing themselves into the radical labor movement. As Parsons put it in his autobiography, which he wrote from his prison cell: “I have made some enemies. My enemies in the southern states consisted of those who oppressed the black slave. My enemies in the north are among those who would perpetuate the slavery of the wage workers” (“Autobiography of Albert R. Parsons,” reprinted in The Autobiographies of the Haymarket Martyrs [1969]).

But while the shadow of the Civil War hung over the 1880s, it was a failing that the importance of the continued fight for black liberation remained alien to most of the labor movement. It was only after the October Revolution of 1917 that the importance of fighting for black liberation was driven home among left-wing workers in the United States, at the insistence of the Communist International under V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky. The race-color caste oppression of black people at the bottom of American society is integral to the capitalist system itself. A key part of our understanding of black oppression is that it will take a third revolution—a workers revolution to smash capitalism—to achieve black liberation. And thus our slogans: Finish the Civil War! For black liberation through socialist revolution!

The Early Labor Movement

It was no exaggeration when Marx said that the labor movement began in earnest after the Civil War. William Sylvis, an iron-molder, made the first attempt at a national trade-union federation in 1866, the National Labor Union. At the time of his premature death in 1869, Sylvis was in correspondence with the First International, of which Marx was a principal leader. The eight-hour day movement was the first real cause of the American labor movement. And in fact, the first May Day was not in 1886 but in 1867, when workers in Chicago demonstrated in support of a state law guaranteeing an eight-hour day. Like most such reforms, the bourgeoisie found a way around these laws.

Compared to Europe, the condition of the U.S. working class was contradictory. On the one hand, class relations between workers and capitalists were more brutal. In 1886, Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor and her husband, Edward Aveling, toured the United States. In their book, The Working-Class Movement in America, they wrote: “The first general impression left on the mind is, that in this country of extremes, those of poverty and wealth, of exploitation in its active and passive form, are more marked than in Europe.... There are in America far more trenchant distinctions between the capitalist and labouring class than in the older lands.”

On the other hand, many workers did not see being proletarian as a permanent condition. Friedrich Engels called America “the ideal of all bourgeois: a country rich, vast, expanding, with purely bourgeois institutions unleavened by feudal remnants or monarchical traditions, and without a permanent and hereditary proletariat. Here everyone could become, if not a capitalist, at all events an independent man, producing or trading, with his own means, for his own account. And because there were not, as yet, classes with opposing interests, our—and your—bourgeois thought that America stood above class antagonisms and struggles” (“Engels to Florence Kelley-Wischnewetzky,” 3 June 1886).

Since the age of President Andrew Jackson in the 1830s, most white male workers could vote, and they did so, supporting the Democratic Party. Workers could learn a trade and, after an apprenticeship, could become master workmen or small businessmen. Many could move to the countryside and make a good living as small farmers. Until the 1920s, more Americans lived in the countryside than in urban areas. This is almost exactly the opposite of most every other capitalist country, where peasants move to the city to escape the problems of the countryside.

Now as Marxists, we define one’s class based on one’s relationship to the means of production. Under capitalism, the bourgeoisie owns the means of production. The proletariat, or the working class, are those who are forced to sell their ability to work to the capitalists. Workers are exploited by the capitalists, who appropriate the products of their labor but pay only a fraction of their value back in wages. But class consciousness also has a different dimension: not just what one’s position is at any given time, but how one sees one’s position in the future. As Engels put it in “The Labor Movement in America” (26 January 1887):

“In February 1886, American public opinion was almost unanimous on this one point: that there was no working class, in the European sense of the word, in America; that consequently no class struggle between workmen and capitalists, such as tore European society to pieces, was possible in the American Republic; and that, therefore, Socialism was a thing of foreign importation which could never take root on American soil.”

The Haymarket events really punctured the myth of there being no classes or class struggle in the United States.

The last quarter of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th century were marked by massive class battles in an almost endless class war. And I’m not using the term “war” lightly. Hundreds of strikers were killed and thousands imprisoned. In the 1880s, there were some 30,000 Pinkerton strikebreakers; the U.S. Army had less than 27,000 soldiers, and of course the soldiers could be used to break strikes as well. There was the first general strike in the United States, in St. Louis, as part of the national railway strike of 1877. There was the Haymarket police riot in 1886; the Homestead strike against Carnegie Steel in 1892; the Pullman railway strike in 1894; the Coeur d’Alene (Idaho) miners strikes in the 1890s; the so-called “Uprising of the 20,000” among women textile workers in New York in 1909-10 that gave rise to International Women’s Day. There were the 1912 Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile strike; the Paterson, New Jersey, silk strike of 1913; the Ludlow Massacre of 1914 in Colorado; the Phelps Dodge strike in Bisbee, Arizona, in 1917; the 1919 steel strike.

But despite this massive class struggle, the proletariat in this country has always been among the most politically backward. If nothing else, this should prove the truth of Lenin’s assertion that economic struggle does not in and of itself lead to socialist consciousness, which needs to be brought to the working class from without. This requires the intervention of a revolutionary party into class and social struggles.

A defining feature of the U.S. historically is the lack of a mass social-democratic party or any other workers party that recognizes the division of society between workers and capitalists and the struggle between these two classes, if even in a crude way. Now I just want to make clear that our goal is not the creation of a social-democratic party. Following Lenin, we call such parties, like the British Labour Party, bourgeois workers parties, because while their base is in the working class, their leaderships and programs are dedicated to maintaining capitalism. What we stand for is the forging of a revolutionary workers party that fights for all the oppressed. In countries with social-democratic parties, this means splitting the base from the top. In the U.S., this means fighting to break the working class from the capitalist Democratic Party.

Bourgeois historians and political scientists have made a cottage industry of explaining why there is no labor party in the United States. Now, there are lots of reasons. One is the historic ethnic divisions among workers. Another is the importance of farmers in American society and the sense of upward mobility, real or illusory. For much of the 1880s and 1890s, it was not the working-class movement but the petty-bourgeois Populist movement that was seen as the vanguard of fighting against the excesses of capitalist industrialization. As the name implies, however, Populists saw the world divided not into classes but into the producers, or so-called “little people,” on one side and the parasitical financiers, bankers and speculators on the other. Instead of socialism, populists advocated a whole array of schemes, some of them supportable and some of them rather bizarre—everything from nationalizing the railroads to a tax on land and printing “cheap money” based on silver instead of gold.

The fundamental reason why the American working class does not have even a rudimentary labor party is, as I mentioned before, the role that black oppression plays in maintaining capitalism. As we write in the Programmatic Statement of the Spartacist League/U.S.:

“The central enduring feature of American capitalism, shaping and perpetuating this backward consciousness, is the structural oppression of the black population as a race-color caste at the bottom of society. Black oppression with its profound and pervasive ideological effects is fundamental to the American capitalist order. Obscuring the class divide, racism and white supremacy have served to bind white workers to their capitalist masters based on the illusion of a commonality of interest based on skin color.”

The Knights of Labor

I want to get back to the labor movement in the 1870s, a period of tremendous economic hardship. Until the 1930s, this period was called the Great Depression; today it’s generally known as the Long Depression because it lasted throughout most of the 1870s. The bourgeoisie used the state and armed thugs to wage war against the working class. Trade unions generally stagnated and became very weak, with one exception. In 1869, tailors in Philadelphia, under the leadership of Uriah Stephens, began to organize a group that became known as the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor, the first national labor organization.

Who and what were the Knights of Labor? They’re very hard to understand today. They changed over time and were, in practice, very decentralized, with different regions having different politics and different attitudes on various questions. As their name implies, the Knights at first were heavily influenced by Masonic traditions. They were originally a secret organization. You couldn’t even tell somebody the name of the group before they joined. They had all kinds of rituals and handshakes and stuff like that.

In terms of their politics, on the one hand they were based on a pre-industrial republicanism and reflected populism. Their original declaration of principles stated: “We mean no conflict with legitimate enterprise, no antagonism to necessary capital.” But on the other hand, Stephens had also called for “the complete emancipation of the wealth producers from the thraldom and loss of wage slavery.” Their watchword was solidarity, and their motto was: “An injury to one is the concern of all.” In their book, the Avelings described the Knights as “the first spontaneous expression by the American working people of their consciousness of themselves as a class.”

The Knights are sometimes described as an industrial union. That’s not exactly true. They had locals of skilled trades and also had what were called “mixed” locals, which contained unskilled workers. As opposed to the skilled craft unionists of the time, they believed in class solidarity and also understood that industrialization created a mass of unskilled and semiskilled workers in need of organization. Two of the earliest industrial unions originated from the Knights of Labor: the brewery workers union and the United Mine Workers. The brewery workers were devastated by Prohibition, but the United Mine Workers went on to be key in the founding of the CIO industrial unions in the 1930s.

The Knights leadership under Terence V. Powderly, who succeeded Stephens in the 1880s, was opposed to strikes. But, as is often the case, the rank and file often felt differently. And in this period workers were eager to organize. As the country climbed out of the depression in the early 1880s, the percentage of nonagricultural workers in unions jumped from 2 percent to 12 percent in about five years. In 1885, railroad workers organized in the Knights faced down robber baron Jay Gould—one of the strongest, most powerful capitalists of the period—forcing him to accede to some of their demands and to agree to negotiate with the union. This was seen as a major defeat for Gould and caused the prestige of the Knights to soar, along with their membership.

The Knights went from less than 10,000 members in 1878 to as many as 700,000 in 1886. In February of that year alone, the Knights organized 515 local assemblies. They had become truly a national union. They put out propaganda in various languages to attract immigrant workers, although it’s worth noting that, like most unions, they excluded Chinese workers. They organized women workers. They also organized locals in England, Belgium, Ireland and Australia and New Zealand. And at times the Knights broke through the color bar. In November 1887, they organized a three-week strike of some 10,000 overwhelmingly black sugar plantation workers in Louisiana. The strike was broken by racist vigilantes who mowed down, by one estimate, as many as 300 black workers.

By the time of Haymarket in 1886, the Knights were the largest union in the country. But they were not the only national union. In 1881, the much smaller Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions was founded, and this would eventually become the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Its key leaders were Samuel Gompers and Adolph Strasser, both from the Cigar Makers union, and P.J. McGuire, the founder of the Carpenters union. In the 1880s, the Cigar Makers split from the Knights in a very sordid way, involving pretty much all the elements you would expect from Gompers, including jurisdictional disputes, scabbing on other unions and anti-socialism.

Gompers, Strasser and McGuire are often described as having cut their teeth as Marxists. And it’s true that they—like many successful trade-union bureaucrats since—had some kind of a leftist background. But it was not Marxism but social-democratic reformism, which they adapted to American conditions. Like the revisionists in the German Social Democracy, the AFL’s early leaders accepted capitalism. Here is Strasser in 1883: “We have no ultimate ends.... We are fighting only for immediate objects—objects that can be realized in a few years.”

Unlike the inclusive Knights of Labor, the AFL leadership focused on skilled craft workers. It became increasingly anti-black, anti-Chinese and all-around piggish. Gompers emphasized what he called “pure and simple” trade unionism. He was vehement in his opposition to creating a working-class political party. The heritage of Gompers and the AFL accounts for much of the weakness of the American labor movement today, led by its pro-capitalist bureaucracy. The fruits of its class collaboration can be seen in the fact that today unionization rates have fallen to the point that they are about the same as they were in the mid 1880s.

Working-Class Politics in the 1880s

I had mentioned that there was no socialist party in the United States. Now in point of fact this isn’t strictly speaking true. Although much weaker than in Europe, in the U.S. at this time there was a tradition of socialism, broadly defined. By the 1880s and 1890s, there were two main trends within the American socialist movement. The first was social-democratic, the second anarchist. And I just want to make a point that it is not always easy to separate these two trends when looking at the period. Both contained working-class militants who saw their fight as putting the proletariat in power. It really wasn’t until the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 that there was a clear differentiation between revolutionary and reformist in the socialist movement.

The first socialist organization in the U.S. was the Socialist Labor Party (SLP), which was founded in Newark, New Jersey, in 1877. A lot of people know about the SLP because in the 1890s it would be led by Daniel De Leon. Before this, the SLP largely consisted of German-speaking immigrants, who often had a higher theoretical level than American workers but remained aloof from American reality, including the centrality of black oppression in maintaining capitalism.

In the 1880s, many socialists split from the rather legalistic SLP in the direction of anarchism, with many joining the International Working People’s Association (IWPA). By 1885, this group had some 7,000 members, compared to 4,000 members in the SLP. Until about the time of World War I, the American bourgeoisie saw anarchism as a more dangerous threat than the legalistic social democrats and reserved the harshest repression for anarchists.

What was called “anarchism” really comprised two very different trends. The first was led by a German immigrant, Johann Most. Although he had been a Social Democratic delegate to the German Reichstag [parliament], Most became a leading proponent of what was known as revolutionary terrorism, particularly involving dynamite. He wrote a whole book on dynamite. In 1879, when Most was in exile in London before he finally moved to America, Marx wrote to Friedrich Sorge in Hoboken that “Our complaint against Most is not that his Freiheit is too revolutionary; our complaint is that it has no revolutionary content, but merely indulges in revolutionary jargon.” That kind of described what Most was about, very vehement phraseology without really a lot behind it.

There was another trend within the anarchist movement, the so-called “Chicago Idea” centered around Chicago anarchists Parsons and Spies. Both had been active in the SLP, including running for office, and also in the Knights of Labor, but had gravitated toward anarchism. Their anarchism was very similar to what would later be known as syndicalism: the idea that revolutionary unions were the basis of getting rid of capitalism and building socialism. There were some five to six thousand members of the IWPA in Chicago alone. The IWPA had five papers, including a biweekly English paper, which Parsons edited, a daily German paper edited by Spies and a daily Bohemian (Czech) paper. The Parsons wing of the anarchist movement, with its emphasis on militant unionism, is a thread that runs through the Industrial Workers of the World, which formed later on. Some of the best IWW elements, such as Cannon, found their way to revolutionary Marxism after the Bolshevik Revolution.

The Eight-Hour Day Movement in the 1880s

After Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling visited the U.S. in 1886, they described how many workers they met toiled 55, 60 or even 80 hours over a six-day workweek. Some industries were worse than others. Bakers were probably the worst of all—anybody who has read Marx’s Capital probably remembers the description of bakers. Transportation workers were also forced to work long hours.

As an aside, although the 40-hour week is supposedly enshrined today in labor law, it’s still out of reach for a lot of workers. Many are still cheated out of pay, or even if they are paid, they are made to work mandatory overtime. Even if it’s not mandatory, many are compelled to work overtime, or to take another job, just to survive. While I was working on this forum, two things happened that drew my attention to the importance of the eight-hour day. The first were those two long-distance bus accidents in New York and New Jersey that highlighted the fact that for many workers, workdays of 12 or more hours are still common. And then within the last several weeks was the rash of air traffic controllers falling asleep. Now that’s really scary, but it’s also a predictable result of the busting of the PATCO union in the early 1980s, which resulted in horrid working conditions.

Basing ourselves on the Transitional Program, which was written by Trotsky for the founding of the Fourth International in 1938, we call for “30 for 40”—30 hours’ work for 40 hours’ pay. This links the fight for humane work to the struggle for jobs for all. I am sure that to many Americans, this sounds completely unreal. But it was the same for the 40-hour week in the 1880s. The capitalist class and its press argued that death by overwork was an inalienable right, and if a man wanted to work—or a woman or a child—for that long, it was nobody else’s business. The more honest argued that it would hurt the capitalists’ profits to limit the workday.

In 1884, the forerunner of the AFL declared that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s work from and after May 1, 1886.” Gompers’ name is often associated with this motion, but I want to make two points. The first is that the craft-union federation was much smaller than the Knights of Labor and had less to lose. The Knights were officially opposed to the call to strike for the eight-hour day. Terence Powderly refused to participate in the 1 May 1886 strike. Some anarchists also originally opposed the eight-hour day slogan, arguing that it didn’t matter how many hours you worked because you were still working for the capitalists. But in Chicago, it was the anarchists, particularly Spies and Parsons, both members of the Knights, who made this struggle come to life. The May Day strike was largely coordinated by the Central Labor Union, led by Parsons and Spies.

The Haymarket riot and the subsequent witchhunt created a massive anti-radical scare that set back the labor movement quite a bit. Anarchist newspapers were shut down, and the anarchist movement never really achieved the same success that it had before. The Knights of Labor, even though they were not involved as an organization in the eight-hour day struggle, were basically swept away by this reaction. The main beneficiaries within the labor movement of the destruction of the anarchists and of the overall reactionary atmosphere were Gompers and the AFL, with their narrow focus on skilled workers.

May Day: International Workers Holiday

In the years following the Haymarket affair, the tradition of May Day was kept alive in the U.S. largely by socialists and anarchists. By the late 1890s, the AFL bureaucracy under Gompers had abandoned any celebration of May Day, with its hint of radicalism. Instead, they began to push Labor Day in September. Labor Day represents almost the exact opposite of May Day. Where May Day is a day of international proletarian struggle, Labor Day was instituted to celebrate the American worker’s contribution to American politics. For Gompers, this meant skilled, English-speaking men, dressed up in the finest clothes, coming out to show their respectability.

However, May Day and the struggle for an eight-hour day soon became a focal point of class struggle throughout the world. In 1889, an American delegate to the Paris Congress of the Second (Socialist) International called to make May Day a day of international labor struggle. Why did workers in Europe and across the world heed this call? One reason is that workers in the U.S. came from all parts of the world, so their struggles were closely followed elsewhere. Another big reason is that the U.S. in the 1880s was an up and coming imperialist power, and workers’ struggle here resonated loudly elsewhere. As did the point that in the U.S., with its claims of democracy and social mobility, bourgeois rule depends on naked violence against the working class.

This is clear if you read what some European Marxists wrote at the time. The founder of Russian Marxism, Georgi Plekhanov, wrote in an 1890 article about May Day:

“The practical Yankees have forgotten all shame and every tradition of political freedom since they noticed the bugbear of communism. The judicial murder of the anarchists in Chicago showed that in the struggle for existence all means are as suitable for the American bourgeoisie as for the European. ‘The specter’ of communism has become a universal guest; the workers’ question a universal question in the full sense of the word.”

Or as the German revolutionary Karl Liebknecht put it in his famous book, Militarism and Anti-Militarism (1907), “The gruesome judicial sequel of 4th May, 1886, which proved in a striking way what American democratic class justice is capable of is universally known.”

Within a decade of the Haymarket affair, workers across the world were celebrating May Day as a day to fight for their class interests. The first congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1898 explicitly included organizing May Day demonstrations as a task of its Central Committee. Back in the U.S., by the early 20th century the Socialist Party was holding massive rallies, including here in New York where it was common for some 30,000 to 50,000 workers to march under the party’s banners. One hundred years ago, May Day commemorated the 146 mainly female Jewish and Italian garment workers who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.

In a 1924 speech, Trotsky noted that “the eight-hour working day…the international solidarity of workers and the struggle against militarism are the three fundamental May Day slogans.” May Day developed at the same time as the rise of imperialism, the last stage of capitalism, marked by the dominance of finance capital and the struggle of the richest capitalist powers to divide the world among themselves. May Day became a day for the working class to show solidarity with its class brothers and sisters in other countries and to oppose the inevitable wars that imperialism has on offer.

In 1898, the New York City police chief banned the SLP from celebrating May Day. This was the year of the Spanish-American War, the bloody debut of U.S. imperialism. According to the New York Times of that day, the chief “had heard that inflammatory speeches would be made denouncing the course of the United States with Spain” and demanded the right to read the rally’s resolutions before the march. When the SLP refused, he revoked their permit to march.

As imperialism developed and moved toward the carnage of the First World War, when workers from different countries would be forced to kill their class brothers from other countries, May Day became even more a symbol of proletarian internationalism. In 1913, on the eve of the war, Rosa Luxemburg wrote in “The Idea of May Day on the March”: “And the more the idea of May Day, the idea of resolute mass actions as a manifestation of international unity, and as a means of struggle for peace and for socialism, takes root in the strongest troops of the International, the German working class, the greater is our guarantee that out of the world war which, sooner or later, is unavoidable, will come forth a definite and victorious struggle between the world of labor and that of capital.”

But far from fighting against the war, most of the leadership of the Second International betrayed the working class, showing their social chauvinism by supporting their “own” bourgeoisies against the workers of other lands. But there were socialist militants who fought against this betrayal. In 1916, Karl Liebknecht was arrested in Germany for his proletarian internationalism, which he expressed in a speech on May Day, when he declared:

“Forward, let us fight the government; let us fight these mortal enemies of all freedom.... Workers, comrades, and you, women of the people, let not this festival of May, the second during the war, pass without protest against the Imperialist Slaughter. On the first of May let millions of voices cry, ‘Down with the shameful crime of the extermination of peoples! Down with those responsible for the War!’”

Here in New York City in 1917, when the left wing of the Socialist movement was swelling with workers and immigrants, 125,000 people marched on May Day.

The Bolsheviks and May Day

Amid the wreckage of the imperialist war, the working class in Russia, under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolshevik Party, seized power from the capitalists in the October Revolution of 1917. The Revolution stood as the living embodiment of the ideals of May Day, and it is the Bolsheviks who made May Day synonymous with Communism internationally. In April 1918—some six months after the Revolution—Lenin signed a decree to “mark the great revolution that has transformed Russia,” declaring that tsarist monuments should be replaced with tributes to the working class and that by May Day, “some of the more monstrous statues will have already been removed and the first models of new monuments set out for the masses to see.” These would display “the ideas and mood of revolutionary working Russia.” By the first May Day after a victorious revolution in this country, the working class should have torn down the monuments to the leaders of the Confederate slavocracy and to the imperialist war criminals who came after them.

In his 1924 speech, Trotsky stated: “We represent not merely the irreconcilable opponents and enemies of today’s Second International but we also represent its direct heirs: everything that was liberating, progressive and forward looking in it we have taken over, including the May Day holiday. For us this is a great festival of liberation at the same time as German social-democracy suppresses it by force. And the same thing with the eight-hour working day and with all the rest of the May Day slogans.”

At that time, a conservative bureaucratic caste led by Stalin had arisen and begun to consolidate control over the Bolshevik Party and the Communist International. This was to take on a programmatic expression in late 1924, as the Stalinist bureaucracy propounded the anti-Marxist dogma of “building socialism in one country.” May Day would become a tribune to push not revolutionary internationalism but the narrow interests of the bureaucratic regime that sat atop the workers state. Through its futile pursuit of accommodation with imperialism and its opposition to international revolution, the Stalinist bureaucracy undermined the gains of the revolution and ultimately opened the door to capitalist counterrevolution in 1991-92.

In most of the world, May Day is still celebrated by millions of workers. However, what dominates these protests is not the Bolshevik program of revolutionary proletarian internationalism but the illusions and reformist program pushed by the trade-union bureaucrats, the social democrats and what remains of the Stalinists. But as highlighted by the imperialist wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, by the onslaught against unions, black people and immigrants, the revolutionary lessons of May Day are crucially relevant today, as are the lessons of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. There is a need for hard class struggle to fight for immigrant rights, to organize the unorganized, to establish working-class independence from the bourgeois parties, to oppose imperialism—struggles that must be linked to the fight for socialist revolution. These tasks demand building a revolutionary workers party, the task that the Spartacist League, U.S. section of the International Communist League, sets for itself.


Workers Vanguard No. 981

WV 981

27 May 2011


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