What is International Workers' Day?

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What is International Workers' Day?

A brief insight into May Day

Bliss Winters

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Born in commemoration of the Chicago Haymarket Affair (1886) and as part of the great socialist struggle for eight-hour workdays, May Day, or International Workers’ Day, is an annual event in which working people unite to fight for basic workers’ rights. This involves strikes and protests, often, though not always, featuring conflict with repressive law enforcement.

The Haymarket Affair was a large mobilisation of the masses to fight for the eight-hour workday, organised with contributions from many staunch radicals. This event grew over multiple days until the climate of tension prevailed, with small scale run-ins with the police taking place. The subject of the Affair began when a bomb was thrown into a group of police. Multiple police officers were killed by the blast; however, gunfire from the police after the explosion left many civilians wounded and numerous dead. Following this incident, a small number of Anarchists who had attended to protest for the eight-hour workday, and even some who had not, were condemned to hanging.

International Workers’ Day became a recurring event on May 1st every year shortly after, in which the labour movement would campaign tirelessly to secure their entitlement to fair working conditions, the eight-hour workday and other gains such as higher wages. This was a profound display of cross-industry collaboration and quickly became a beacon of, as the name implies, internationalism. From its American origins, International Workers Day quickly spread into mainland Europe drawing praise from key traditional Marxists along the way. Engels himself is on record saying he wished Marx was still alive to see May Day in action. Lenin placed great emphasis on May Day and can in part be given credit for its progression into Russia. Luxemburg too is among those to endorse International Workers’ Day and its place in proletarian liberation.

One of the main arguments over May Day as it expanded was as to whether it should maintain its radical nature as a battleground for labour rights or whether it should become a more passive commemoration. This argument was fought between the socialist and socially democratic left primarily. It should be fairly clear as to which side has won out over time, with the celebration angle being most mainstream.

While in the USSR, May Day quickly became a propaganda piece, especially later during the Cold War, outside of the USSR, attempts to pacify and erase the history of May Day have equally succeeded. America now has a separate celebratory day for labour in September, split from the rich history of May Day and treated as a public holiday, presumably so that strike action is not a factor. Other nations have followed a similar pattern to America.

Here in the UK, the bank holiday of May Day was not created until the late seventies, and it is arguably not until later that associations between May Day and International Workers’ Day truly formed, due to the May Day (festival) traditions that most Europeans are familiar with being stronger in the public consciousness. That is not to say that May Day has not been commanded here in protest, as there are clear, although small scale, examples of this being the case, such as one instance in which a statue of Winston Churchill was vandalised. May Day is however not quite so acknowledged as it deserves to be.

While May Day is now no longer the annual event of a noble struggle it once was in most countries, those with socialist history or socialist intentions can be seen to still treat it as a significant time. Those aware of May Day, especially those in leftist spaces, do still aim to maintain the tradition of May Day and it is worth seeing how you may be able to contribute on this upcoming International Workers’ Day, if only in spreading awareness of this too often forgotten area of labour movement history.

May Day may have lost its way, becoming a hollow acknowledgement of solidarity devoid of any protest or radicalism in most nations, but it is not forgotten so long as we remember it, and it is not dead so long as we fight to keep it alive. We must not lose sight of the conflicts in our history, for however far we may have come, the war against capitalism is not yet over. This May Day, remember the distance we have travelled, and remember too, the distance we have left to travel. Keep socialism in your hearts and do not rest until liberation has been achieved.