May Day Pasts: Moments and Movements

To celebrate May Day as a single event can lead one to miss the spirit that animated its origins as an international workers holiday.

Whether we use May 1st to protest, strike or celebrate, it is best understood as part of a continuum of assertions of rights, of expressions of hope, of the spirit of struggle through time that is at the heart of the socialist and labor movements. And that word, “movement,” is key, for it is not the day that matters so much as it is the movement of people acting collectively to create a world of justice, peace and meaning that was and remains critical.

Yet the day itself matters. Mass rallies and demonstrations serve to overcome the isolation of the exploited and oppressed when they seek to resist on their own. Simultaneous events in different cities and countries serve to highlight the connections in which victories in one place strengthen those facing defeat elsewhere, and defeats in one place remind the victorious of the fragility of any advance in human dignity that is not shared by all.  

Recalling May Days past as a day unto itself, as part of a lasting series of actions, therefore, forms part of our living heritage. What follows takes note of one of the winding roads that heritage has traveled.

May Day established: Paris, 1890

1890 marked the first attempt at a coordinated May Day following a decision of the founding Congress of the Socialist International (the Second International; the first had been in existence from 1864 - 1876) to hold strikes, rallies and demonstrations as an expression of workers power and to further the struggle to win the 8-hour day.

The rally in Paris, with tens of thousands participating, was the first public mass action of socialists and anarchists since the defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871 — a revolutionary uprising that sought to establish direct democracy, drowned in blood, with 30,000 workers executed and more imprisoned or exiled. In Germany, the march celebrated the re-emergence of a public face of the socialist movement which had survived 12 years of virtual illegality stronger than ever (anti-socialist laws imposed in 1878 were rescinded in January 1890). And in London, the rally was the largest since the mass demonstrations of the Chartists at the dawn of the industrial revolution, coinciding with the “New Unionism” of unskilled workers ready to confront capital at the workplace and in the political arena.

Eleanor Marx (Aveling) was one of the principal speakers at the rally. She was Karl Marx’s daughter, active in her own right as one of the founders of the British Socialist League, a unionist and as a strong supporter of women’s rights — especially of women and girls working in sweatshop factories. Her comments are relevant today, more than 100 years later:

“ … we have come here in the cause of labour, in its own defence, to demand its own rights. I can remember when we came in handfuls of a few dozen to Hyde Park to demand an Eight Hours' Bill, but the dozens have grown to hundreds, and the hundreds to thousands, until we have this magnificent demonstration that fills the park today. … Socialists believe that the eight hours' day is the first and most immediate step to be taken, and we aim at a time when there will no longer be one class supporting two others, but the unemployed both at the top and at the bottom of society will be got rid of. This is not the end but only the beginning of the struggle..."

The demand for the 8-hour day had particular resonance because it was not only a demand to slow the pace of work so that workers could have lives apart from toil (8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, 8 hours for what we will), but also as essential for creating organizers. People must have time to think, to learn and to know the world around them if they are to have the strength to resist, overcome and build anew. No union alone could win and hold onto such a victory: It had to be generalized.

Hence, socialists stressed the need for political action alongside labor action to secure a better life. So, too, gains made in one country could not be confined within national borders: Even in the 19th century, capital showed a propensity to move wherever labor was weak. Socialist labor leaders recognized that international solidarity was needed if the working class was to have the strength to challenge the capitalist system itself. Even then, many voices (though too few, as is the case today) understood that ties between working people across national borders had no greater enemy than war and militarism.

Therefore, the demand for peace, for an end to arms buildup, was part of May Day from its origins. Wilhelm Liebknecht, one of the co-founders of the German Social Democratic Party, expressed that clearly. He and SPD’s other co-founder August Bebel had been imprisoned in 1871 for their opposition to German annexation of Alsace Lorraine after the Franco-Prussian War (and then condemned again for their resolute support of the Paris Commune – i.e. for the workers of the defeated nation). In an essay written as a call for action for May Day in 1896, Liebknecht concluded:

"In their deathly fear of the rising tide of Social Democracy our enemies enlarge the size of standing armies, of naval fleets, the living and dead machinery of destruction. They can no longer create, they can only destroy. And to beautify the death cult they proclaim the thousand-year-old lie of barbarous times: If you want peace, you must prepare for war. We say: If you want peace, prepare for peace, you must overcome the power of the warmakers that today arises out of the bowels of capitalism...War against War! Down with capitalism! Working people of all countries stand in brotherhood!"

The Origins of May Day: Chicago, 1886

I want to take a short step backward and across the ocean to a slightly earlier action that inspired the world of labor:

“Bravely forward! The conflict has begun. An army of wage-laborers are idle.  Capitalism conceals its tiger claws behind the ramparts of order. Workmen, let your watchword be: No compromise! Cowards to the rear! Men to the front! The die is cast.  The first of May, whose historic significance will be understood and appreciated only in later years, has come.”

Thus ran an editorial in Die Arbeiter-Zeitung, a daily socialist/anarchist newspaper in Chicago, calling for workers to march on May Day 1886.

In November 1886, Liebknecht joined Eleanor Marx and her husband Edward Aveling on a tour of the United States hosted by the Socialist Labor Party (SLP) – the first nation-wide socialist political party in the US, founded in 1877. The SLP’s initial members were almost exclusively foreign-born — perhaps only 10% of its members spoke English as a first language — and organized largely through language groups. The most significant were German Americans; many refugees of the defeated 1848 Revolution, the repression from Prussia’s anti-Socialist laws, poverty, economic dislocation and lack of political rights. That brought thirst for knowledge but led too many into a kind of self-imposed isolation.

After reaching its nadir in 1880, the SLP had begun a slow revival alongside an overall increase in labor and popular movement growth. Their goal was not only to introduce socialist thought to circles of working people, reformers and feminists; they also sought to address some of the political issues that had been keeping socialists in the United States isolated. The time was ripe — there was an increase in labor organization, militancy and understanding — much of it expressed in the outpouring of working-class radicalism that was expressed on May Day in 1886.

Throughout the 1880s, the movement for an 8-hour day grew in intensity. A frequent union demand met with resistance and violence by employers, denunciation by the mainstream press and “respectable” opinion of the times. The still-new American Federation of Labor (AFL) put out a national call for all workers and labor organizations to strike on May 1, 1886. About 350,000 walked off the job for the day while employers granted nearly that same number reduced working hours to prevent their employees from joining the strike. May Day actions were largely peaceful, but not completely so: In Bay View, Wisconsin (by Milwaukee), four workers were killed by the National Guard for striking.

Chicago was the epicenter of the battle, with the largest and strongest strike action taking place there. That was partly due to the Central Labor Union, an independent formation of local unions in which the predominant force was the International Working People’s Association (IWPA) composed of revolutionary socialists and anarchists. The IWPA had separated from the Socialist Labor Party out of frustration with its insularity and its focus on elections. Instead, they built strong unions around revolutionary principles of solidarity, including self-defense forces in response to persistent police violence. Membership and leadership alike were largely composed of immigrant workers from central Europe, housed in tenement slums and working 10 to 12 hour days in industrial trades and crafts.

On May 1, strike actions and demonstrations were largely peaceful. Violence, however, broke out two days later at the McCormick Harvester factory. Police killed four and wounded many more strikers trying to block scabs from taking their jobs. On May 4, the IWPA held a mass rally to condemn the state-sanctioned violence. The rally itself was peaceful but was followed by a bomb hurled into the surrounding ranks of police, killing seven officers. The police then fired into the crowd.

The bomb thrower remains unknown, but civic authorities used the incident as an excuse to raid IWPA offices and printing presses and arrest their leaders. None of those arrested could be accused of guilt for the bomb, but that didn’t matter. Prosecutors sought to destroy the organization and terrorize those communities where socialist labor strength was greatest. Of the eight to stand trial, five were sentenced to death, three to life imprisonment. When the Socialist International chose May 1 as the working-class holiday, it was to built upon the example of those 1886 mass strikes and to honor the martyrs executed not for any alleged crimes, but for the work they were doing to build a society free of exploitation.

Executions took place a year later after all appeals were exhausted. One — Louis Lingg — committed suicide the evening before, for he would not let the powers of the state decide the time or manner of his death. The other four — August Spies, Albert Parsons, Georg Engel, Adolph Fischer — all spoke words of defiance before the hangman completed his work. 

José Marti, the Cuban revolutionary, poet and martyr, then living in exile in the United States, was amongst the onlookers. He initially accepted published accounts of the events in Haymarket and was unsympathetic to those arrested and charged. Marti, however, was to change his mind. Earning a living as a journalist, he went to Chicago to witness the trial and came to respect the defendants and the movement they had helped build:

"And two days later [after the hangings] – two days of terrible scenes in the executed men’s homes, an endless procession of weeping friends filing past the grimly bruised corpses, mourning crepe hanging beneath a red silk flower in a thousand doorways, and crowds gathering respectfully to place wreaths and roses at the feet of the coffins – a stunned Chicago watched as, behind a band that played funeral marches with a mad soldier waving an American flag defiantly at its head, Spies coffin went by, buried in garlands, and, after it Parson’s, which was black, with fourteen artisans walking behind it carrying symbolic flowers, Fischer’s, adorned with a colossal wreath of lilies and pinks, Engel’s and Lingg’s, draped with red flags, and the carriages of the widows who were swathed from head to toe in mourning veils, followed by workingmen’s associations guilds, vereins, singing societies, delegations, a company of three hundred women in black armbands, and six thousand workers with bared heads, waving the scarlet rose on their chests."

Class conflict was in the air during the Avelings’ and Liebknecht’s speaking tour. The question that sought to answer was how workers should organize themselves, and the political message they brought was built on the experience of defeat and regrowth of labor and socialism in Germany and England and the need to face the fact that socialist platforms had no impact unless connected to the broader stream of working-class activism.

The SLP practice of condemning all organizations that rejected its principles, they believed, only made its further isolation inevitable. Instead, following the advice of the still living Friedrich Engels, Marx’s closest collaborator, the Avelings stressed the need for SLP members to become part of the Knights of Labor, which at the time was the largest working-class organization in the United States and was composed of black and white workers, of the skilled and unskilled.  

They addressed remarks too, to the revolutionary activists in Chicago, who had become part of the broader movement, but whose rhetoric opened them up to the repression they had just suffered. Instead, to a packed assembly, Eleanor Marx put forward the three principles that, then as now, serve the socialist movement, proclaiming that they should, “throw three bombs amongst the masses: agitation, education, organization.”  

May Day and The War: Germany, 1916

Skipping forward a generation, Karl Liebknecht (Wilhelm’s son) went on a speaking tour of the United States in 1910, upon the invitation of the Socialist Party. Over the course of nearly two months he traversed the United States speaking in dozens of cities, not only in old socialist strongholds in the East and Midwest, but also further West, including Denver, Salt Lake City, San Francisco and Oakland. Karl was already well-known, having recently been imprisoned for his attacks on Germany’s army and the culture of militarism—he was followed by German undercover police throughout his tour.

The Socialist Party had emerged out of the old SLP and become a significant force throughout the country. It had been growing steadily in members and influence, as judged by the growth of its press and the increase in the number of its elected officials. Socialist influence within the mainstream of the US trade union movement had also grown – when Max Hayes, a leading figure in the Socialist Party in Cleveland and a member of the Typographical Union, challenged long-term AFL President Samuel Gompers in 1912, he received 30% of the vote. The strength of that vote was a sign that the political lessons imparted in 1886 had been learned.

Labor conflict overall remained as intense. After 1886, the labor movement continued to grow, suffered defeats, rose again and reorganized. Some unionists became more conservative, their vision narrowed. Others sustained an expansive vision of unionization and working-class power. Most of the 8-hour gains made after the May Day strikes were lost thereafter, 10 to 12 hour shifts returned in factories and in the trades. Yet the goal of “8 hours for what we will” remained a target for all wings of trade unionism, reflecting the needs and desires of working people that remained, no matter how often denied.

Similarly, those parts of the radical labor movement in Chicago and throughout the Midwest whose convictions were reflected in the procession José Marti described, strove to keep their organization and vision alive. Prison and dire poverty made it difficult for the most committed. Changes in the communities of which they were part undermined their base, and others withdrew from political engagement altogether. Within a decade, there seemed to be little left.

Yet the movement was not destroyed: Individuals continued to organize, resist and imagine, new formations emerged that drew from past defeats and people born after the Haymarket affair learned of the struggle that had been waged. The paths they took varied as did the lessons they imparted. The sacrifices made were not forgotten.  

That path took shape in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), founded in Chicago in 1905, which was in many ways the lineal descendant of the Haymarket martyrs to whom they paid tribute. The IWW’s watchwords — education, agitate, organize — mirrored those Eleanor Marx had spoken so many years before. A sign of the changing times was reflected in the fact that in 1907, for the first time since 1886, there was a mass workers parade on May Day in Chicago.

Yet, growth in strength never resolves anything in and of itself. The German Social Democratic Party was, at the time, the strongest in the world. Its trade unions were able to achieve significant gains by way of social insurance and workplace recognition. But that strength did not bring them any closer to political power as reflected in many arenas in life, not least the fact that German workers too had not yet won the 8-hour day.

The same question bedeviled the socialist and labor movement in the United States in all its formations, for growing numbers in no way brought it closer to overturning capitalism, brought it nowhere closer to ending poverty, slum life, brutal working conditions, child labor and miserly pay. Although the particular political structures of Germany and the United States were vastly different, the challenges of turning increasing strength into power were common to both.

Divisions in the labor movement grew in both countries. Liebknecht, who was increasingly allied with Rosa Luxemburg on the left-wing of German Social Democracy, was invited to bring that perspective to the socialist left in the US. His position against militarism was a starting point, because his stand against colonialism and racism was directed at those in unions. Those in the SPD, who began to accept the world view of their oppressors in order to gain acceptance by those in power – a perspective directly in contrast to the initial impulse of the Socialist International.

Liebknecht saw in the cult that had developed around President Theodore Roosevelt an imperialist and colonizing culture akin to what existed around the Kaiser. And he saw the industrial power and natural beauty of the country alongside slums and poverty and oppression that contrasted with the democratic language of the Constitution. Speaking in Chicago he stated that “democratic police and a democratic militia give workers a democratic beating with democratic clubs,” while the financial oligarchy ruled.

His concern over the growing conservatism of the German socialist and labor movement proved to be all too accurate. He was the first delegate of the German Reichstag to vote against war credits during World War I, joined later by a small but determined minority of other delegates. Meanwhile the dominant section of the SPD, backed by union leaders, agreed to a civil peace during the War, and gave full support for the German army. That did not stop growing opposition to the war. The Spartacus Bund, led by Liebknecht and Luxemburg, gained increasing support within the working-class as millions were killed or maimed in battle, while poverty and hunger grew at home.

The Reichstag happened to be in session on May 1, 1916. The Spartacists put out a call for an anti-war May Day protest in Berlin around the slogan: Bread, Freedom, Peace. Thousands of police were present, tens of thousands of Berliners came nonetheless, to hear Liebknecht, in full military uniform (he had been drafted into the army as punishment for his views), proclaim: “Down with the war, Down with the regime!” after which he was immediately arrested. His words echoed throughout Germany and throughout all the countries at war, that the enemy of the people were not other peoples but the rulers who sought war for profit.

The rest of the Spartacus leadership was arrested thereafter or forced into hiding. Nonetheless opposition grew, a revolution broke out in November 9, 1918 as the war was finally coming to an end – followed by a civil war which led to the murder of Liebknecht, Luxemburg and countless others. Future May Days demonstrations were held, but no longer conducted by a united movement. The road of war was also the road the Nazis would travel.

Liebknecht’s example was widely honored by war opponents in the Socialist Party and the IWW, but opposition to the war became more challenging after the US joined the conflict in 1917. Repression followed, including suppression of anti-war publications, refusal to seat elected Socialists in office, mass arrests, deportations, all of which continued after the war ended.

A particularly harsh year: 1919. Strikes were violently broken, racist attacks in East St. Louis and Chicago led to the death of scores of people, and May Day marches too came under attack by police and vigilantes. Cleveland, a center of socialist anti-war sentiment (though Hayes was not amongst them) stood out: Its legislators were denied office, and its May Day march attacked by demobilized soldiers, by police riding on horseback. Seven demonstrators were killed, and the Socialist Party’s office destroyed by “democratic” billy clubs, wielded by “democratic” police. Slowly, however, unity was rebuilt, labor was rebuilt, even the 8-hour day was won. The gains were real, but fragile. In Germany, in the United States, everywhere, organizing for solidarity need be ongoing, need be ever rebuilt, need to be ever spread more widely, if the promise of a world without exploitation and war is ever to be won.

Celebration: London, 1890

Working people are defeated more often than victorious, yet defeat is never final. The 8-hour work day that workers across the world sought was repeatedly gained, lost, and regained over the first half of the 20th century. In some places, that right is now commonplace; in others, it has yet to be achieved. New seeds always emerge, for hope has never been fully extinguished. That is why, as much as it is a day of struggle, May Day is also and has always been a day of celebration. And to keep that in mind, it may be well to keep this account of a London May Day in the 1890s, likely one at which Eleanor Marx herself spoke:

"First came a man on horseback, in a green jacket, with a scarf bearing the inscription ‘Legal Eight Hours.’ He was followed by the banner of the National Union of Gasworkers. Then came a sort of drum-major leading a brass band preceeding another section of gas workers. The North Kensington branch of the Socialist League, with another band, banner and drum major, followed. These were succeeded by the Holborn Liberal Club, whose banner bore the motto ‘Be not like driven cattle.’ Several federations of working men came behind, and a band of factory girls, singing and inclined to dance to the music of the band.”

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