Keeping the politics in May Day

1st May 2022

The political history of May Day as International Worker’s Day stretches back into the 19th century.  The first May Day was called for at an 1889 international conference in Paris by workers’ organisations and early Marxist-oriented socialist parties calling for an international day of demonstrations, for an eight-hour working day and other workers’ rights.  The date was chosen by the conference to honour demonstrations which had taken place in the United States on 1st May 1886 demanding a working day of eight hours.   

From 1890 onwards 1st May demonstrations spread and grew, becoming part of a new International of Marxist socialist parties, which called for the building of socialist parties to advance political democracy allied to trade unions to build economic democracy.

May Day became an official holiday in socialist countries and in many other parts of the world where strong Communist Parties and workers movements were present.  Elsewhere, May Day became an unofficial holiday, seen as a day for workers to hold marches and meetings which focused on the most pressing issues facing the working-class movement.

In Britain, unlike most of Western Europe, May Day itself is not a public holiday but the first Monday in May is designated a Bank Holiday, an initiative taken by the Labour government in 1978, too timid to declare 1st May itself a public holiday.

This radical association and significance of May Day is often deliberately blurred in the public consciousness in Britain by two things.  The first is the historic association of May Day as a traditional celebration of spring and the resurrection of nature after the winter months. It is normally associated with flowers, dancing and Maypoles, with celebrations sometimes including the crowning of a ‘May King’, or ‘Queen’.

Promoting such an association for May Day is clearly much more desirable for the capitalist class than the notion of red flag waving workers, demanding their rights and calling for the overthrow of the system in order to meet their needs.

More subtle, but growing in prominence in recent years, is the promotion and engagement in International Workers’ Memorial Day.  This day was designated as the 28th April in 1989 by American trade union confederation AFL-CIO to commemorate and remember workers killed or injured on the job and to renew the fight for strong health and safety protection.

The date has been taken up with some enthusiasm by the TUC and a number of trade unions in Britain.  Local councils are often involved and memorial services are held in local churches to mark the day.

It is vitally important to challenge unsafe working practices and to acknowledge those who have died as a result of unscrupulous employers, cutting corners on health and safety practices in order to reduce their costs and push up their profits.  It is equally vital however that such practices are acknowledged as being endemic to capitalism as an economic system, that the drive for profit over meeting public need will always mean that corners will be cut and employers will rail against so called ‘red tape’ and regulation.

The original demands which led to the establishment of May Day, including that for an eight hour working day, had their origins in the need for workers to have safer conditions and more leisure time.  The economic demands put forward by workers were always seen as a first step towards the need to more comprehensively address the failings of capitalism and build a society which would address the needs of the many not the few.

The danger of emphasising International Workers’ Memorial Day over the historic International Workers Day is that the political dimension becomes lost or diluted.  Demands for reform within capitalism will only ever be able to take us so far.  Until the demand to change the entire system is more widely understood and taken up, any gains are destined to be limited.

For a fuller statement on the international significance of May Day 2022 see that put out by international solidarity organisation, Liberation, here

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