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Make my May Day

By Rudolph J. Vecoli | Special to the Vermont Guardian

Posted April 27, 2007

May Day, the holiday of the workers. In days gone by, when men, women, and children often worked 10 or more hours a day, seven days a week, May Day was an assertion on the part of wage-slaves that they were sovereign human beings with control over their own lives and destinies.

Workers celebrated the day with marches gathering tens if not hundreds of thousands throughout the world. May Day was an expression of the international solidarity of the working class. “Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains,” was not just a slogan. It was a battle cry in the war between classes. Their marches and rallies, with fiery speeches, impassioned poetry, and stirring anthems, gave them a sense of their collective strength. It was an act of defiance of the combined forces of employers and public authorities. Often their gatherings were brutally attacked by police or thugs with clubs and guns.

Many, many of us have grandparents or great-grandparents who participated in these observances. Few of us acknowledge or are even aware of this inspiring part of our family histories. Recurring “red scares” in our history, when to be or thought to be a radical was to incur the wrath of conservatives, succeeded in driving the socialist and anarchist movements underground, both actually and psychologically. Sigmund Freud defined amnesia as the “the avoidance of the pain of remembering.” We, in this country, suffer from mass amnesia of the remarkable and sometimes glorious history of workers’ struggles for liberty of expression and social justice. Who now remembers May Day?

Although not often taught in U.S. history classes, May Day originated in this country during the campaign for an eight-hour work day. The Knights of Labor, the nascent American Federation of Labor (AFL), and various anarchist groups designated May 1, 1886, for nationwide demonstrations for the eight-hour goal. An incident that occurred several days later in Chicago made this the beginning of a global workers’ movement. Following a clash between strikers and police in which several workers were killed, a protest meeting was held in Haymarket Square.

When police attacked the gathering, a bomb was thrown, killing several officers. In the trial of anarchists (who were not accused of the bombing, but for advocating violence) that followed, eight were found guilty and four subsequently executed. These “Haymarket martyrs” quickly became revered heroes of labor movements throughout the world. With this tragic episode in the class war in mind, the International Socialist Congress meeting in Paris in 1889 designated May 1, 1890, as an eight-hour holiday to be observed by workers in all countries. An increasingly conservative Samuel Gompers and AFL had by the mid-1890s distanced themselves from May Day and embraced the legally sanctioned Labor Day, which was observed the first Monday in September. Coming from radical backgrounds, Finns, Slavs, East European Jews, Italians, and other immigrants found their cherished May Day opposed not only by capitalists but often by U.S. workers as well. Despite being denounced as “foreign born reds,” they kept the torch of May Day idealism burning for another generation.

The response of the “bosses,” political and economic, was two-fold: To allay the anger of the workers, measures were taken to ameliorate the worst abuses of the capitalist system, while extreme repression was used to silence the most vocal and active labor advocates. The case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian anarchist immigrants, electrocuted on August 23, 1927, following a blatantly biased trial, is the most heinous example of the latter.

However, the ideal of May Day had already been shattered by the collision of international solidarity of the “proletariat” with the fervid nationalism resulting from World War I. Patriotism trumped class consciousness, and millions of workers killed each other in the name of the fatherland. Meanwhile, the Bolshevik Revolution which appeared to fulfill the vision of a collective republic turned out to be a Trojan horse in the socialist camp. The Leninist-Stalinist regime proved to be a ruthless dictatorship presiding over state capitalism. Among the earliest and most passionate opponents of Communist Russia were socialists and anarchists whose comrades were being liquidated by the Bolsheviks.

The aspiration for the unity of workers was shattered by these developments.

In the United States, the Great Depression of the 1930s did not usher in communism but the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt that saved capitalism and laid the basis for a welfare state.

May Day was hijacked by the Soviet Union with its displays of military prowess in Red Square. While anti-communism was muted during World War II when we were allied with Russia against Hitler, it found full voice during the Cold War that followed. “McCarthyism” was yet another episode in the history of “Red Scares,” an exaggerated and illusory fear of an internal communist conspiracy, which was exploited by politicians. While there were Soviet spies among U.S. communists, most were true believers, some would say dupes, in their belief in the Soviet Union as a workers’ paradise. The association of May Day with Soviet communism has given it a bad name to this day.

In this age of globalization, when workers are pitted against each other, across oceans and continents, we have returned to conditions of pitiless exploitation of human beings. If greed ever was constrained by patriotism, it certainly is not today. The quest for profits knows no inhibitions by national ideologies or loyalties. Yes, we are involved in a class war, a war of oil companies, the military-industrial complex, the corrupted political institutions, against the workers and consumers.

We, this country’s working people, remain beguiled by symbols, the flag, the Fourth of July, the Thanksgiving turkey. It is time to revisit May Day in the spirit in which it was conceived more than 100 years ago. Only an international labor movement can hope to match the prowess of the amoral transnational capitalist system. Freeing ourselves from the sordid history that stained the banner of May Day, we need to raise a cleansed, purified standard on which is emblazoned once again: “Workers of the world unite.”

Rudolph J. Vecoli is professor emeritus of history and is the former director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. He speaks at the Old Labor Hall in Barre on Tuesday.

“Primo Maggio: Origins and History of the Workers’ Holiday” — BARRE — Presentation by Rudolph Vecoli. Also traditional Italian dinner, dessert, and coffee. Cash bar. Benefits the Old Labor Hall. $18. 6 PM. Old Labor Hall. Reserv., 476-8777 or

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