May Day is the day of annual celebration of the international working-class movement. It originated in the United States, where it was particularly associated with the struggle for the working day to be reduced to eight hours. In the mid-19th century, the conditions in which the working class lived and worked in the United States, as in Europe, were harsh and for this reason:
“At this time, socialism was a new and attractive idea to working people, many of whom were drawn to its ideology of working-class control over the production and distribution of all goods and services. Workers had seen first hand that capitalism benefited only their bosses, trading workers’ lives for profit. Thousands of men, women and children were dying needlessly every year in the workplace, with life expectancy as low as their early twenties in some industries, and little hope but death of rising out of their destitution. Socialism offered another option.” (The brief origins of May Day by Eric Chase, 1993, IWW archive)
Socialist demands, and especially the demand for the eight-hour day, were very widely supported by the working-class masses, who formed eight-hour leagues all over the country to further their aims, and very frequently went on prolonged strikes to achieve them, with their actions all too often being suppressed by the violent mobilisation of the army and the police, leading to many deaths among the strikers.
In 1884, the Federation of Organised Trades and Labour Unions of the United States and Canada, later known under the abbreviated name, American Federation of Labour, meeting in Chicago on 7 October, passed the following resolution:
“Resolved by the Federation of Organised Trades and Labour Unions [of] the United States and Canada, that eight hours shall constitute legal day’s labour from May First, 1886, and that we recommend to labour organisations throughout their jurisdiction that they so direct their laws as to conform to this resolution by the time named.”
It was envisaged that workers throughout the country would strike from that day to ensure that their resolution was implemented. The importance of this was that the Federation had united unions from all over the country, which, acting in concert with each other, would greatly strengthen the power of the striking workers.
In his 1932 book, Alexander Trachtenberg gave some idea of the growing power of the workers’ movement:
“The best way to learn the mood of the workers is to study the extent and seriousness of their struggles. The number of strikes during a given period is a good indicator of the fighting mood of the workers. The number of strikes during 1885 and 1886 as compared with previous years shows what a spirit of militancy was animating the labour movement. Not only were the workers preparing for action on May First, 1886, but in 1885 the number of strikes already showed an appreciable increase.
“During the years 1881-84 the number of strikes and lockouts averaged less than 500, and on the average involved only about 150,000 workers a year. The strikes and lockouts in 1885 increased to about 700 and the number of workers involved jumped to 250,000. In 1886, the number of strikes more than doubled over 1885, attaining to as many as 1,572, with a proportional increase in the number of workers affected, now 600,000.
“How widespread the strike movement became in 1886 can be seen from the fact that while in 1885 there were only 2,467 establishments affected by strikes, the number involved in the following year had increased to 11,562.” (The History of May Day)
Particularly militant were the workers of Chicago, whose militancy struck such terror into the hearts of the exploiters that the military were called out to try to suppress them. On 3 May, at the McCormick Reaper works, striking workers were fired on with the result that six were killed and many others wounded. As a result, a public protest meeting was called at short notice for the following day in an area of the city called the Haymarket.
Although it was an entirely peaceful meeting, with a relatively modest attendance of only some 3,000 because of the short notice, as it was reaching its conclusion the police moved in to demand – quite unnecessarily as most people had drifted away because of the late hour and bad weather – that all participants should immediately disperse. While the speaker on the platform, the socialist Samuel Fielden, was reassuring them that the meeting was peaceful and would shortly come to an end anyway, some unknown person detonated a bomb among the police ranks, causing a number of deaths.
Although it was never established who had thrown the bomb, and it had certainly been done without the knowledge or consent of the organisers or speakers, the US authorities, as crude and brutal then as they are now, arrested eight people associated with calling the meeting or speaking at it (Albert Parsons, August Spies, Samuel Fielden, Oscar Neebe, Michael Schwab, George Engel, Adolph Fischer and Louis Lingg). They were all leading members of the International Working People’s Association, an organisation broadly inspired by the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, and who believed that capitalism needed to be overthrown by force to be replaced by a workers’ ‘commonwealth’, devoid of any hierarchical structures.
The IWPA was very popular among America’s hard-pressed working class, which had in the previous few years been subjected to two economic recessions causing widespread indigence and despair. The organisation, therefore, was extremely active in organising many of the effective strikes that had taken place in recent years. For this reason, the American bourgeoisie had every interest in destroying it.
Despite a complete lack of evidence, all eight of the anarchist leaders were convicted by a jury entirely made up of employers and sentenced to death amid a hysteria whipped up to the effect that anarchists were an existential threat to all Americans and had to be eliminated. On 11 November 1887, after many failed appeals, Parsons, Spies, Engel and Fisher were executed by hanging. Louis Lingg committed suicide in prison.
However, the egregious injustice of the convictions also gave rise to major protests that six years later eventually led to the remaining three accused being released.
Following these momentous events, Trachtenberg explained: “On 14 July 1889, the hundredth anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, there assembled in Paris leaders from organised revolutionary proletarian movements of many lands, to form once more an international organisation of workers, patterned after the one formed 25 years earlier by their great teacher, Karl Marx.
“Those assembled at the foundation meeting of what was to become the Second International heard from the American delegates about the struggle in America for the eight-hour day during 1884-86, and the recent rejuvenation of the movement. Inspired by the example of the American workers, the Paris congress adopted the following resolution:
“‘The congress decides to organise a great international demonstration, so that in all countries and in all cities on one appointed day the toiling masses shall demand of the state authorities the legal reduction of the working day to eight hours, as well as the carrying out of other decisions of the Paris congress. Since a similar demonstration has already been decided upon for 1 May 1890 by the American Federation of Labour at its convention in St Louis, December, 1888, this day is accepted for the international demonstration. The workers of the various countries must organise this demonstration according to conditions prevailing in each country.’”
Although 1 May was not necessarily thereafter turned into a day for mass strikes, the date has stuck as the international day of the working class.
In his preface to the fourth German edition of the Communist Manifesto, which he wrote on 1 May 1890, Friedrich Engels, reviewing the history of the international proletarian organisations, called attention to the significance of the first international May Day:
“As I write these lines, the proletariat of Europe and America is holding a review of its forces; it is mobilised for the first time as one army, under one flag, for one immediate aim: an eight-hour working day, established by legal enactment … The spectacle we are now witnessing will make the capitalists and landowners of all lands realise that today the proletarians of all lands are, in very truth, united. If only Marx were with me to see it with his own eyes!”
And in 1896, VI Lenin wrote a May Day leaflet from prison for the St Petersburg Union of Struggle for the Liberation of the Working Class, one of the first Marxist political groups in Russia:
“In France, England, Germany and other countries where workers have already been united in powerful unions and have won for themselves many rights, they organised on 19 April (1 May) [the Russian calendar was then 12 days behind the west European] a general holiday of labour. Leaving the stifling factories they march with unfurled banners, to the strains of music, along the main streets of the cities, demonstrating to the bosses their continuously growing power.
“They assemble at great mass demonstrations where speeches are made recounting the victories over the bosses during the preceding year and lay plans for struggle in the future. Under the threat of strike the bosses do not dare to fine the workers for not appearing at the factories on that day. On this day the workers also remind the bosses of their main demand: eight hours work, eight hours rest, and eight hours recreation. This is what the workers of other countries are demanding now.” (The workers’ holiday – May first)
In the preface to a pamphlet, May Days in Kharkov, published in November 1900, Lenin wrote:
“In another six months, the Russian workers will celebrate the first of May of the first year of the new century, and it is time we set to work to make the arrangements for organising the celebrations in as large a number of centres as possible, and on as imposing a scale as possible, not only by the number that will take part in them, but also by their organised character, by the class-consciousness they will reveal, by the determination that will be shown to commence the irrepressible struggle for the political liberation of the Russian people, and, consequently, for a free opportunity for the class development of the proletariat and its open struggle for socialism.”
And in 1904, Lenin wrote: “Comrade workers! May Day is coming, the day when the workers of all lands celebrate their awakening to a class-conscious life, their solidarity in the struggle against all coercion and oppression of man by man, the struggle to free the toiling millions from hunger, poverty and humiliation. Two worlds stand facing each other in this great struggle: the world of capital and the world of labour, the world of exploitation and slavery and the world of brotherhood and freedom.
“On one side stand the handful of rich bloodsuckers. They have seized the factories and mills, the tools and machinery, have turned millions of acres of land and mountains of money into their private property. They have made the government and the army their servants, faithful watchdogs of the wealth they have amassed.
“On the other side stand the millions of the disinherited. They are forced to beg the moneybags for permission to work for them. By their labour they create all wealth; yet all their lives long they have to struggle for a crust of bread, beg for work as for charity, sap their strength and health by backbreaking toil, and starve in hovels in the villages or in the cellars and garrets of the big cities.
“But now these disinherited toilers have declared war on the moneybags and exploiters. The workers of all lands are fighting to free labour from wage slavery, from poverty and want. They are fighting for a system of society where the wealth created by the common labour will go to benefit, not a handful of rich men, but all those who work.
“They want to make the land and the factories, mills, and machines the common property of all toilers. They want to do away with the division into rich and poor, want the fruits of labour to go to the labourers themselves, and all the achievements of the human mind, all improvements in ways of working, to improve the lot of the man who works, and not serve as a means of oppressing him.
“The great struggle of labour against capital has cost the workers of all countries immense sacrifices. They have shed rivers of blood in behalf of their right to a better life and real freedom.
“Those who fight for the workers’ cause are subjected by the governments to untold persecution. But in spite of all persecution the solidarity of the workers of the world is growing and gaining in strength. The workers are uniting more and more closely in socialist parties, the supporters of those parties are mounting into millions and are advancing steadily, step by step, towards complete victory over the class of capitalist exploiters.” (May Day)