The Decline of May Day
Capitalism pollutes almost every institution with which it comes into contact. Whether such institutions are absorbed from a previous social system or whether they grow from the foundations of the capitalist system itself, they are either moulded to suit the interests of the capitalist class or are deflected from their original purpose to meet the needs of capital May Day is no exception.
From time immemorial men have adopted the practice of setting aside a day in each year to celebrate or commemorate some event. In earliest recorded times such days usually had a religious significance. Prior to the rise of the modern religions when men imagined that supernatural agencies were at work in everything around them, they set aside annual days for the worship of their various gods. With the spread of Christianity and other religions that accepted the central theme of “the one god,” the annual days of pagan worship disappeared, but their place was taken by a considerable number of saints’ days. On the days dedicated to the greater of the saints men rested from their work. G. M. Trevelyan in his “English Social History” tells us that:
“But men rested on Sundays and an indefinite number of greater saints’ days. Custom enforced this rule, and the church courts did useful service in exacting penance or fine for work on Sundays and Holy Days.”—(Longmans Edition, p. 88).
The urge to produce wealth for an ever expanding market gave rise to the determination to keep men, and women, at work for as many days and hours as possible. Nothing could be allowed to interfere with a workers right to work and to create profit for his employer. If religious custom stood in the way, then religious custom must be overthrown. The saints days, as holidays, disappeared until today the only religious days of significance that remain as customary holidays, in an emaciated form, are Good Friday and Christmas Day.
Capitalism in its turn adopted the practice of days of celebration, although not in the form of days of rest. In different countries the day selected for flag-wagging and fireworks, patriotic speech making and military parades, is a day to commemorate the emancipation of the national capitalist class, either from the yoke of Feudalism or from the domination of a foreign capitalist power.
In America, the Fourth of July is the anniversary of American independence from British domination-independence Day. In France, the Fourteenth of July is a day to celebrate the acquisition of political power by the French capitalist class in 1789. It was the day of the fall of the Bastille. In Russia, the Seventh of November, the day of the fall of the Provisional Government and the seizure of power by the Bolshevik party, is a day of national celebration. In Britain, a day is earmarked on the 24th of May, the anniversary of the birth of Queen Victoria, to enable children to parade and rejoice over the “Glorious British Empire.” These celebrations, like the empire, are dwindling. So on at length. New Zealand and Canada have Dominion Days on September 26th and July 1st respectively, whilst Northern Ireland has its Orangeman’s Day.
In July 1889 the First Congress of the Second International met in Paris. This was a second attempt to form an international organisation of working class political parties, many calling themselves Socialist parties, in an endeavour to achieve international working class solidarity. The issue of an eight hour working day was foremost. In many countries, with varying degrees of success, the struggle for a reduction of the working day to eight hours had been carried on for the past decade. The Congress set about the task to make the eight hour day international and legal.
To this end the representatives of workers of 22 countries carried a resolution:
“.. . There shall be organised a great International Demonstration on a fixed date, so that in all countries and towns simultaneously on the given day the workers shall demand of the authorities the legal reduction of the working day to eight hours.”-(Quoted in “Labour’s Turning Point,” edited by E. J. Hobsbawm.)
The day selected was May 1st and the first May Day Demonstrations were held in 1890.
This was not a day of celebration or commemoration but a day of demonstration; not a day of rejoicing or puerile sentiment but a day of demand with determination. It was to be a day on which the workers in all lands should cease work in order that they might congregate in some local, central place to evince their solidarity with one another. It was the beginning of a new kind of annual day—the workers’ day— a day of prominence in the class struggle.
The leaders of the reformist, self-styled “Socialist parties,” had little conception of the class struggle. At the outset they altered the date of the demonstrations to avoid any question of strike action. Instead of the 1st of May they chose the first Sunday in May. The Congress carried a further resolution urging:
“. . . to hold a single demonstration for the workers in every country and that this demonstration should take place on the First of May, and recommends strike action everywhere where such action is not impossible.”—(Quoted by Emile Burns in “Labour Monthly,” April 1932
The Amsterdam Congress of the Second International in 1904, also found it necessary to resolve on the matter.
“Whereas the unity of the demonstration only exists in some countries, and in others not the First of May, but the first Sunday in the month is celebrated, the Amsterdam Congress reaffirms the resolution (of proceeding Congresses) and asks all socialist parties and trade unions of all countries to organise energetically for working-class demonstrations on the first of May . . . but this demonstration can be most effective only through the suspension of work on the 1st of May.”— (Quoted by Emile Burns in “Labour Monthly.” April 1932.)
The idea of a day of working class idleness was abhorent to the employers. Their toadies and cronies in the reformist political parties set to work to render May Day harmless. The Second International was not an alliance of Socialist parties but of parties akin to the British Labour Party; parties which neither accepted nor recognised the class struggle; parties which were nationalist in outlook and reformist m character. The International was powerless to enforce its will on its component parties. Gradually the class character of the May Day demonstrations evaporated. Not only were the demonstrations organised for the first Sunday in May instead of May the First, but where any demonstration was held on May the First it was invariably in the evening, so as to avoid dislocation to trade and stoppage of work. In 1927 the London Labour Party, soon followed by the Labour Party and trade union officials throughout the country, set out to boycott the “single demonstration of the workers in every country” by organising a series of local demonstrations in preference to the main demonstration that had always been held in Hyde Park, London and in similar open spaces in other cities and towns.
May Day today has little of its original character left. It is not taken seriously by many workers. Whereas it was once an opportunity for an outing with a definite purpose in view, it is now merely an opportunity for an outing, which few are prepared to take.
The national political parties that formed the Second International lined up with their respective capitalist gangs in the 1914-1918 war and urged their members at each others throats in a war they said would end war. No May Day demonstrations were held in this country during that war. The discontent amongst the workers following that war caused a brief revival of the May Day demonstration spirit. On May 2nd, 1920, the Daily Herald estimated that “not less than 8,000,000 workers took a full day’s holiday” and the London demonstration was estimated at nearly one million. Similar demonstrations were held throughout the capitalist world and demonstrations were held in Japan, China, India and other eastern and colonial countries where they had not been previously organised. 1926, the year of the General Strike in this country, was another year of large May Day demonstrations, but, apart from these occasional bursts of enthusiasm, May Day as a day of demonstration of working class solidarity has steadily declined. The labour and trade union leaders have assisted this decline and helped to ensure that May Day shall not embarrass the capitalist class by providing an opportunity for international working class activity. Because, if the workers can act in world wide co-operation on one day in the year, there is no reason to suppose that they will not do so on the other 364 days.
As class consciousness grows amongst the workers in all lands, co-operative action will be planned. It will not stop at the organisation of marches and demonstrations to the parks and squares of the great cities. It wifi be co-operation to speed the abolition of capitalism.
Until then we will use May Day to re-emphasise our very real and genuine expression of solidarity with our fellow workers all over the world and to reiterate our pledge to oppose all capitalist wars and to work for the emancipation of our class without distinction of race or sex.