Skip to content
More About Us
May Day: Festival for the Workers
Feature Article by Keith Flett, May 2002
May Day has long been a celebration of working class movements and struggle. Keith Flett looks at the radical history of international workers' day and how this can provide inspiration for today.
After a long period when the workers' day was either assumed to be nearly dead, or institutionalised and no longer a threat to authority, it is back. Recent years have seen growing protests on 1 May, and the anti-capitalist movement in many countries has made the day its own. The spirit of rebellion to be found in such protests is now being brought together to form a new and powerful movement. So the London May Day march in 2002 is organised not only by the rather low key Greater London Association of Trades Councils (I should know, I am a longstanding delegate and friendly critic of what form the May Day march should take) but also by, it is admitted on all sides, the somewhat more youthful and energetic forces of Globalise Resistance.
With these positive developments in mind, it is time to look back to the origins of May Day as a form of protest. Far from being a bank holiday on the nearest Monday or a chance for now collapsed Eastern European regimes to parade their latest tanks, the historian Eric Hobsbawm reminds us that the original impetus for May Day was always from below.
Hobsbawm sees May Day as a 'labour ritual', a characteristic form of organised labour, but actually the early May Days were a lot more exciting than that. The first International May Day was proclaimed by the socialist Second International in 1889. However, the origins go back decades before this. The link between May Day and the use of the red flag as a symbol for socialist workers is close, perhaps above all in France. The British angle is that not just of a demonstration, but of a workers' festival based on miners' galas. So that first May Day already inherited some complex traditions--a demonstration of working class power which had to be respected, and was respectable, but, again as Hobsbawm notes, combined with beer and skittles. It was both a tremendous celebration of working class culture and a display of working class organisation. There were political speeches, and there was also eating, drinking and games. This is what the social historian Peter Bailey has termed 'thinking and drinking', and to this day the London May Day events comprise not just a march and political rally, but a football tournament and an evening of culture as well.
The first British May Day demonstrations were actually held on Sundays. So it was on Sunday 4 May 1890 that Engels commented that 'the English working class joined up in the great international army...the grandchildren of the old Chartists are entering the line of battle'. Engels clearly saw the rise of the May Day demonstration as the rebirth of the international labour movement. At first getting united May Day demonstrations including both trade unionists and socialists was difficult, and unity had to be fought for over a number of years. A report of the 1898 Manchester May Day demonstration notes that '26 trade unions, the Independent Labour Party, the Social Democratic Federation and the Manchester Labour Church took part in the demonstration which was acknowledged to be the largest in point of numbers and the most successful May Day labour demonstration yet held'.
The first May Day was planned as a one-off demonstration. The fact that it became an annual event was due not to the leaders of the Second International but pressure from the grassroots. Some socialist leaders at the time felt that the May Day march should be an entirely serious, perhaps even glum affair. This view of life may be familiar to those who have experienced some British May Day activities in recent decades. However, by 1893 Engels was referring to May Day as a 'Maifeier' or celebration, and in the same year the workers' leader Costa argued that 'Catholics have Easter--henceforth workers will have their own Easter'. The Italian May Day perhaps led the way in the aspect of celebration.
An international movement
The original May Day demand was for a legal eight-hour day on an international basis. However as the years rolled on May Day came to assume the form of a wider demonstration of workers' power. It was here that arguably the most potent aspect of May Day arose, the festival becoming a one-day strike in many countries. For many others it was also a commemoration of the US 'Chicago Martyrs'--anarchists framed and executed by the state.
May Day, as Hobsbawm notes, became such a huge festival and demonstration that it also spawned a massive range of badges, flags, papers and cartoons. Much of this is still familiar today. However, an aspect which is less well known is the association of the May Day events with spring, youth and rebirth. Here the symbol was a flower. Almost always, whether a carnation in Austria or Italy, a paper rose in Germany or a poppy in France, the flower was red. May Day became an international socialist symbol of what the artist and designer Walter Crane called the 'dawn of labour'. A Crane cartoon for May Day 1896, for example, shows an English worker offering the hand of international socialist cooperation to Italian, German, French and other workers with the slogan 'International solidarity of labour--the true answer to jingoism'. Crane dedicated the cartoon to 'the workers of the world'.
Eric Hobsbawm has unearthed a marvellous quote from an Italian worker recalling what early May Days meant. The worker, Pietro Comollo, noted, 'Everybody used to say, "It's our festival--it's the workers' festival." We knew vaguely that it was in memory of those who'd fought for the eight hours, the Chicago Martyrs. So that was a symbolic fact. And then, well...it was just a holiday--there were the red carnations. It was a fighting demonstration...because we were all there together and united. Even the anarchists turned up.'
In some cases May Day demonstrations and strikes continued during the First World War. Following the arrest of the Scottish socialist leader John Maclean on 15 April 1918 and a charge of sedition against him, the Glasgow May Day Committee called a one-day strike for peace on 1 May 1919. Maclean's daughter Nan Milton has recalled that 'when the great day dawned, the most sanguine hopes were justified. One hundred thousand Glasgow workers took the day off to march in procession, and thousands more lined the streets to cheer the demonstrators as they passed by. Glasgow was on fire with red banners, red ribbons and red rosettes. The air was alive with the sound of revolutionary songs and with the blare of bands. Socialist literature was showered everywhere and eagerly purchased on all sides. On Glasgow Green orators spoke from 22 different platforms...sectarian bitterness was forgotten. There was plenty of friendly criticism, but the common struggle united all in bonds of real solidarity... This great celebration finished up with a huge crowd marching to Duke Street prison. Three times a tremendous shout arose from thousands of lusty throats: "John Maclean! John Maclean! John Maclean!"'
Such was the strength and power of those early May Day protests that those in authority tried to take it over. The Bolsheviks of course made it a genuine workers' day, but Hitler also made May Day a national holiday of labour, with very different imagery and meaning to that of 1889.
After the First World War the nature of May Day demonstrations began to change. For a start such huge expressions of working class organisation were only possible where the labour movement was legal. First in Italy, then in Germany and in numbers of other countries this was not the case. The tradition continued underground, but this was a very different matter to public displays. In general, certainly since 1945, two things can be said about the celebration of May Day. Firstly, it has ebbed and flowed depending on the general level of class confidence. Difficult though it may be to recall now, there were actually huge May Day marches in Britain involving strike action in the 1970s. Edmund and Ruth Frow have recalled how 'many factories' in Salford were closed as workers joined the protest. The continuing tradition of strike action on May Day was one reason why a Labour government acted to make it a public holiday. Even in the difficult years of the 1980s the tradition continued. In his diary for Monday 7 May 1984 Tony Benn recalls May Day celebrations in Chesterfield at the height of the 1984-85 miners' strike. He noted that it was the 'biggest ever, with 10,000 people marching through the town. There were one or two hiccups during the speeches. No woman speaker had been included, and the women demanded the right to speak'.
The second thing that has endured about May Day is the iconography. The colour red is still associated with 1 May, as are certain songs such as the Internationale and Bandiera Rossa.
It is important to remember both the history and traditions of May Day, not only because those in authority would like us to forget them, but also because in making May Day again a huge international celebration of working class politics and culture we can reappropriate this history and symbolism, and start to make some of our own.
Access to this website is free - help us keep it that way. Please make a donation.