Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2015 > Why ‘May’ Day?

Mainstream, VOL LIII No 19 New Delhi May 2, 2015

Why ‘May’ Day?

Saturday 2 May 2015, by Anil Rajimwale

This year again, the world is celebrating the First of May as the May Day, a day of labour struggle, solidarity and festival. It would be interesting to learn why the month of May was chosen for the first all-American industrial strike in 1886, which led to the birth of May Day or the International Labour Day.

The month of May has traditionally been a festive one in Western history. May was celebrated as ancient spring festival in the northern hemisphere. In ancient Rome, days in May were celebrated as festival days, some of them being called ‘Floralia’, in worship of the forces of Nature. In many of them, the common people, particularly the working people, gathered together and enjoyed. In England and some other countries of Europe, several kinds of festivities were traditionally held in this month, among them the setting up of the ‘Maypole’. In British villages, people used to bring trees from the forest and set them up in the centre, with coloured ribbons wound around. It was accompanied by singing and dancing. It was also supposed to be a kind of exercise of the people’s rights over the forest. This was also common in the US.

Since the reform of the Catholic calendar, the First of May was designated as the day of ‘St Joseph the Worker’, the saint of the workers. Seeding in agricultural activities used to be complete by this time, and it was possible to give farm labourers a day off.

Struggle for Shorter Work Day

Since the beginnings of industrial capitalism, the struggle for the shortening of working hours had been a key feature of workers’ life. The birth of industrial capitalism was marked by long and unlimited work hours, often stretching beyond 20 hours. The history of industrialism is replete with examples where men, women and children worked for 16, 18, 20, even 22 to 24 hours in cases. There were examples in English industry when workers, particularly children, just went to sleep at the machines in the midst of hard workday. Deaths due to harsh and long work were quite common. Frederic Engels in his famous work The Conditions of the Working Class in England and E.P. Thompson in his seminal work The Making of the English Working Class provide well-researched description and analyses of conditions of the working class. The British labour inspectors themselves, by no means supporters of the workers’ cause, describe the horrible and unimaginable conditions of industrial workers in their survey reports. Their reports are valuable source material for the study of the subject.

The first ever legislations on reduction of the work hour dealt with the work of children. Their work hour was sought to be reduced to around seven hours (!) through legislation. One can imagine the work conditions of the adults. It is a most fascinating and yet painful subject for study.

One of the most famous movements for shortening work hours took place in England in the first few decades of the 19th century. The movement is known as the Chartist movement after the ‘charter’ the workers presented to the authorities. The movement lasted mainly from 1838 to 1844, although it was in existence sometime before and after the dates.

The movement advanced two main demands, which became the hallmarks of the workers’ movement all over the world: right to vote and reduction of the work hour to 10. At that time 10 hours was an advance. The two demands were political in nature, which showed the high level of the workers’ consciousness. Voting right was obviously a political demand. The work hour demand was also political in the sense that it went beyond the economic framework and became a class demand in the face of the government and state policies as representative of the capitalist class. Memorable struggles took place in the course of the Chartist movement.

The work hours gradually came to be reduced basically because of three factors: 1) pressure of the workers’ movements, 2) growing cyclical capitalist-industrial crisis, a law discovered by Karl Marx, 3) competition between and among the industrial capitalists.

The Chartist movement deeply influenced the class consciousness of the international working class movement, and was a milestone. It underlined the great significance of the voting rights for the workers and of the struggle for the shortening of work hours as an effective weapon against the rising capitalist class, particularly the ever-concentrating big capital.

Working Class Movement in US

There already existed an effective labourers’ movement in the US since the late 18th century. The working class movement in the US has a rich tradition of class struggle for its demands including for reduction of working hours. The American workers were closely related with the ideals of human rights as enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence of 1776. In fact, the workers left a deep impact upon the Declaration. As has been mentioned by this author on another occasion, the American Declaration of Independence was deeply influenced by the common working people, and was written by Thomas Jefferson in a worker’s hut.

The workers also took active part in the Civil War (1861-1866) in the US. The Civil War was in fact the first industrial war, in which various industrial means and methods and classes were in use. As such, the working people took an active part in the struggle against slavery. Many industries and unions were destroyed and many others came into being after the War.

Among the most effective demands of the American workers was that for reduction of the working hour. After the Civil War, the American workers regrouped in new and more industrial conditions. Their movement step by step came under the impact of the world movement and became its part. The Chartist movement of England deeply impacted it. With the coming on the stage of Marx, Engels and Marxism, the American workers’ movement gained clearer idea of its goals, aims and strategic objectives.

Effective movements took place in the 1830s to 1860s all over America to shorten the work hour. Workers’ struggles, strikes, processions, mass meetings etc. took place all over the country to demand regularisation and reduction of the work hour. By that time the demand was to reduce the duration of work from 10 to eight hours.

Often the movements were a kind of festival, with people and their families coming out in large numbers, all decked up in red ribbons, festoons and banners and red flags fluttering from all possible places, much before the events of May 1886. Red colour had become a banner of the US working class in the first half of the 19th century itself. So, its birth was in no way related to the events of May 1 (1886).

The founding conference of the National Labour Union or NLU of the US was held on August 20, 1866 in Baltimore. It was led by William Sylvis of the Moulders’ Union. He was an inter-nationalist in outlook and was in contact with the International Workingmen’s Association or the First International. This union put in active efforts to agitate for an eight-hour workday. Its activities constituted an important source of the May Day struggle of 1886.

On July 14, 1877 began the 45-day great strike of the American railroad workers in Martinsburg, West Virginia. They were later joined by other workers. It was in protest against the third cut in wages in a row. The post-civil war period saw an expansion in demand for construction and capital. The owners of private railroads, industrial owners, steel makers etc wanted to concentrate as much capital as possible to invest and to garner huge profits. The struggle spread all over the US and to other industries. The railroad (railway) and steel workers took part on a wide scale in Pennsylvania and elsewhere such as in Philadelphia, Missouri, Illinois etc. It was the first all-American working class industrial action, leaving a deep impression on history. It was brutally suppressed, and several workers were killed in cold blood and many others were sent to the gallows.

The Federation of Organised Trades and Labour Unions (FOTLU) of the United States and Canada, known more popularly as the American Federation of Labour or the AFL, resolved in 1884 that eight hours would be the norm from 1886, and called for action on May 1, 1886 in its support. They got huge popular support, and later the workers’ organisation, called the Knight of Labour (K of L), and several other unions also joined the massive workers’ action all over the US.

The decade of 1880-1890 was one of industrial expansion in the US. But in between, the years 1883 to 1885 were those of depression as a result of the cyclical crisis of capitalism, following the crisis of 1873. This was in accord with the theory of cyclical crisis developed by Karl Marx. It was precisely the assimilation of this theory that helped the working class to plan its united protest movement.

The number of strikes grew in numbers and strength. Their number doubled in 1885 compared to 1884. The number of affected establishments grew rapidly during 1884 to 1886: while their number was only 2467 in 1885, it rose to more than 12,000 in 1886.

It was this recessionary period of mid-1880s that prompted the decision to organise a nation-wide workers’ strike in 1886. It was a shift from the usual period of activities of the American workers in September. The idea was to treat the action not as some holiday or festivity but an effective political-economic class action to press for certain key demands. These economic, political and organisational considerations prompted choosing of the month of May for nation-wide action.

Marxism versus Anarchism

The middle of the 19th century in the US saw a serious transition in the form of workers’ struggles: from workers’ festivals to mass workers’ actions including political ones related to work-hours. The process was accelerated due to and after the Civil War of the 1860s. It should be realised that without the influence and guidance of the emerging Marxist thought, the May Day movement in the US would not have succeeded. Marxism, as worked out by Karl Marx and Frederic Engels, was an emerging force in the international working class movement. Often attempts are made to erase or sidetrack the contribution and decisive role Marxism in the working class struggle. It is being done even today by both the modern-day Anarchists and the bourgeois theoreticians and ideologists.

The headquarters of the First International (International Workingmen’s Association) had to be shifted in 1872 from London to New York, where it functioned till 1876. This was done at the request of Marx himself, who wanted to save the organisation from further disruption by the Anarchists. Marx and his group were fighting severe theoretical and practical battles against them, in the course of which they succeeded in rolling Anarchism back. Marxism came to be accepted as the dominant ideology and theory of the working class and socialist movement in Europe and the US, that also attracted the cream of the intelligentsia.

It was Marxism which provided the working class with a clear scientific concept of socialism, and of the class demands, aided by a historical materialist analysis of the capitalist mode of production. This proved to be the most potent theoretical weapon for the class of labourers and their organic intellectuals to fight the new class of concentrated capital. That is how the working class came to the forefront of history for the first time, guided by Marxism. Marx deduced the role of the working class by its place in production, which determined its revolutionary nature.

Anarchism refused to understand and assimi-late the new scientific discoveries of Marxism, and stuck to the old utopian concepts of socialism, which were more of a subjectively imposed will and wish of a handful of conspiratorial leaders. They refused to accept any change or development, and thus to change their tactics and methods. The revolution they professed based itself entirely on the so-called armed struggle carried out secretly by groups of revolutionaries. In practice, this attitude destroyed considerable working class forces in self-destructing adventurist acts including in the US, and damaged the workers’ organisations. The Anarchists engaged in serious splitting activities in order to impose their wrong, unscientific concepts. They set up their own parallel International (the so-called ‘Anarchist International’).

It was in these circumstances that Marx and Engels requested shifting of the headquarters of the First International to New York.

Marx and Engels have severely criticised the utopian and sectarian concepts and actions of the Anarchists, in the course of which the two of them developed their scientific concepts, preparing firm grounds for the future of socialism.

Anarchism in American Labour Movement: Role of First International

The first fruit of the American Civil War (1861-66) was the struggle and partial implementation of the eight-hour working day. The First International, in its meeting in Geneva in September 1866, adopted the decision of the Baltimore Convention of the NLU of the US held in August, about two weeks previously. The International noted that the resolve of the Baltimore Convention had now become the resolve of the international working class movement.

It was not easy, no cakewalk, for the American working class to reach the heights of May Day and win the struggle not only for an eight-hour day but also of democratic rights and the socialist concepts. Before the action of May 1, 1886, Anarchist consciousness was quite widespread and did much damage to the movement. It opposed the very concept of an organised trade union and labour movement. Their ideas had to be fought back before the all-US labour strike took place.

The Anarchist newspapers in the US published provocative adventurist materials, inciting the workers to self-destructive armed actions. For example, just before May 1, 1886, the Anarchists gave a call for ‘Workers to Arms’, adding that ‘One pound of dynamite is better than a bushel of ballots’, etc. Thus they tried, unsuccessfully, to channelise the movement away from the struggle for democratic and voting rights.

The Anarchists also tried to show the Marxist movements and organisations like the American Socialist Party in bad light and carried on a sustained disruptive campaign against them. Outstanding Marxists and mass labour leaders like Weydemeyer, Eugene Debs, William Sylvis and others meticulously and step by step built up the fighting organised capacities of the American working class. Sylvis was in corres-pondence with the First International, and helped the NLU to contact the International.

Despite the misgivings of many Anarchists, a quarter million workers came out in Chicago in a peaceful show of workers’ might on May 1, 1886 for an eight-hour workday. They were accompanied by many millions throughout the US. Workers in 13,000 businesses across the US walked out of work. The whole action of strikes and processions was entirely peaceful. It showed the class maturity and mighty unity of the working class to fight for its demands in a peaceful yet effective manner.

It was the mighty and united class unity of the international working class, educated and tempered by scientific Marxist theory, that helped spread the message of May Day the world over with the help of the Second (Socialist) International.

The author is a Marxist ideologue.