The Radical Origins of May Day

By Paul Inglis, Scottish Labour Young Socialist Activist.

May Day, or International Workers’ Day, is a tradition that many who are new to the socialist movement may not know much about. While there are always marches on or around the first of May every year by trade unions and political parties, the historical meaning and significance of the day might not be immediately clear to newcomers. Indeed, some might even make the unfortunate mistake of thinking that May Day is just a dusty old hangover from Victorian times that has no relevance to the modern world. The reality is, however, that May Day holds a special place in the history of our movement- One that inspires militant action against capitalism to this day.

May Day did not start out as an international phenomenon. It began, rather, with the demands of American workers for an eight-hour workday. The first of May, 1886, saw 300,000 workers go on strike, with demonstrations continuing for days afterwards. Chicago saw some of the most militant action, but also heavy-handed suppression by the state, with police shooting into a crowd of striking workers on May the third. At a rally put on at Haymarket square to protest this act of brutality, a bomb was thrown at police by a to-this-day unknown member of the crowd (the anonymous bomb-thrower is thought to have been an agent paid by the bosses to stir up trouble), leading officers to once again fire on the people. In the aftermath of the Haymarket events, eight leaders of the Chicago radical movement, committed anarchists and socialists all of them, were swept up by the law on flimsy, unproven charges of murder and four of them executed: George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Albert Parsons and August Spies.
The fight for the eight-hour workday continued in spite of this, and when the Socialist International met for its inaugural congress at Paris in 1889, it was decided that an international day of action for this goal would take place on the first of May the following year, in honour of the Haymarket martyrs.

The historian George Lichtheim describes the ensuing scene: “Work stopped on May 1, 1890, in 138 French cities and in a few mining areas. In Milan, Turin and other Italian centres the workers marched in serried formation. Demonstrations also took place in Britain, Belgium, Sweden, Portugal, Catalonia and (illegally) Warsaw and Lodz.” The Times of London also recorded rallies in Cuba, Peru and Chile. Meanwhile in Germany, May Day celebrations in the industrial cities broke out into fierce battles with the police, and in Austria-Hungary the striking workers made such an impression that the authorities thought an uprising had started! Clearly, May Day has carried a radical character from the very start. Every year since, in memory of the Haymarket martyrs and every other fighter for working class freedom, our movement has taken to the streets to demand better pay, better hours and better working conditions- In short, a better world.

This radicalism is not a thing of the past. On May Day this year, workers will be out in the streets fighting for their rights from Seoul to Santiago, sometimes amid bleak conditions of state repression. Our comrades in Turkey, for example, usually have to take on hordes of riot cops to be able to even demonstrate near Istanbul’s Taksim square, and this year will be no different. Over in America, our comrades are putting together what some are predicting to be the largest mobilisation of American workers in a decade, a nationwide “day without immigrants” that will involve strikes, demonstrations, teach-ins and marches, all with the aim of standing up for the rights of workers and marginalised communities against the racist, exploitative policies of the United States government at home and abroad. In their attention to the downtrodden and the poor, these May Day actions look set to carry the spirit of the Haymarket cause to a new generation of politicised Americans.

This sort of militant protest is exactly the kind of rebellion that May Day is all about. It is only through such struggle and sacrifice that the rights of the working class have been won, and it is essential that we remember this fact as the Tory government continues to hammer away at poor folk all across the country. If we want to put up an organised fight against the austerity policies that are tearing our communities apart, then it couldn’t hurt to look to the planned American strikes for inspiration. The global, radical traditions of May Day are our heritage too. Let’s make use of them.


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