May 1st: what you were not told before

1 May, 2021

May 1st 1896
May 1st 1896

Whenever May 1st draws near, the media tell us the story of the Chigago martyrs. The crackdown on a strike in the US would have stirred and organized European workers to the point of creating a worldwide day of celebration. The story implies a leadership of the US labor movement, something that is just the opposite of the reality of the moment. More importantly, it forgets the real context and purpose of the call, all too uncomfortable even today. May 1st is born in Paris, not in Chicago and not to pay tribute to anyone but to organize into a simultaneous struggle the universal working class.

In this article

Engels and the World Expo

The call for May 1st as an international day of struggle for the 8 hour workday takes place in the Paris of the 1889 World's Fair
The call for May 1st as an international day of struggle for the 8 hour workday takes place in the Paris of the 1889 World’s Fair

After the Paris Commune the First International is in practical dissolution. This is not only caused by the wounds left by Bakunin’s Alliance nor by the repression that followed throughout Europe after the Commune. Capitalism has consolidated itself throughout Europe and the heterogeneous set of organizations of the IWA no longer correspond – neither theoretically nor organizationally – to the conditions of struggle.

A new form of organization however, is taking shape in Germany driven by Marxist militants. German socialists also enjoy tremendous prestige among workers throughout Europe for their defense of revolutionary defeatism during the Franco-Prussian war leading up to the Paris Commune. However, the socialist conferences of Chur, Belgium and 1881 in Paris fail to launch a new International.

1890 is thought of as a tentative date for a new congress, but Engels hurries the Germans and French. From July 14, 1889 Paris is to become the capital of the capitalist world market. The Universal Exhibition which is building the Eiffel Tower promises to be the showcase of rising capitalism and progress… the working class has to appear there as an antagonist on a universal plane.

In addition, it is the first major world tourist event. Tens of thousands of people will come to Paris in those days encouraged by the wonders promised by the exposition… and by a novelty of the moment: 25% discounts on railroads and credits for the purchase of tickets. The Exposition marked a relaxation of police control and repression. Capitalism was in full swing and the Third French Republic, already in the hands of the republican sectors of the French bourgeoisie, showed its tolerance and liberalism on the eve of a new colonial expansion.

1889 First Congress of the Second International: struggle for the 8 hour workday and May 1st

Finally the founding Congress of the new International is convened from July 14 to 21, 1889 in Paris. Preliminary activity was frenetic. Lafargue mobilized Spaniards and Italians, Bebel the Dutch and Central Europeans, Jenny Marx the more than reluctant British members of the Socialist League, a sad mixture of liberalism with anarchist tendencies and reactionary guild nostalgia which sent among its delegates the last feudal socialist, William Morris.

But there’s a problem. French socialism is fracturing between Brousse’s possibilism and the Marxist tendency. Finally both tendencies go ahead. On July 14 a possibilist congress and a congress of revolutionaries which will constitute a new International are inaugurated. The congress opens with only four items on the agenda:

  1. International labor legislation. Legal regulation of working hours. Day work, night work, rest days, adult work, women’s work, child labor, surveillance of workshops in small and large industry as well as in domestic industry. Ways and means to obtain the demands.
  2. On the means and practices to be employed to establish constant relations between the workers’ organizations of all countries without, however, infringing on their autonomy.
  3. On the employers’ coalitions and the intervention of the public authorities.
  4. Setting of date and place for the next congress. Regulations to be adopted for the convocation its organization and the holding of the sessions.

The first point will easily converge towards common objectives, starting with the eight-hour working day. The real debate will emerge on the third point. While Merlino, an Italian anarchist, with the support of some British delegates defends the exclusive use of strikes; another part of the British and Belgians propose to rely on alliances with the progressive sectors of the bourgeoisie and the left-wing parties of the moment.

The Marxist majority however, passes a resolution which in the first place clearly states that the struggle for the improvement of working conditions is not an end in itself, but that:

It can justly be considered as a means to develop class consciousness among the workers, a necessary precondition for the emancipation of the working class itself.

Remarking, as far as the media are concerned, the need for independent workers’ political organizations because…

The history of the workers’ movement shows that appeals to the bourgeoisie are of no effect for the workers and serve only to constitute a political capital for the ruling class.

The resolution will eventually call, wherever the right to vote exists, for the presentation of workers’ deputies. It should be remembered, that following the German model, these deputies abstained from voting budgets or participating in governments… but voted legal reforms favoring workers’ organization and their capacity for political action (reduction of working hours, legalization of workers’ organizations and unions, extensions of the right to vote, etc.).

But after an intense debate with the anarchists on one side – who were eventually expelled – and those closer to the possibilists such as some of the British on the other, it became necessary to propose a form of struggle exemplifying the resolution. Moreover it was necessary to show that the struggle as a class was only in form a struggle in the national space, because both anarchists and possibilists, from the very elaboration of the agenda, had insisted on the supposedly sacred character of the autonomy of the national parties, wary of losing capacity for action if an International were to be consolidated.

It was then decided to begin the struggle for the legal restriction of the working week to 8 hours a week with a demonstration on May 1st of the following year.

The resolution on May 1st

Propaganda for the eight-hour workday by German trade unions in 1895, encouraging participation in May 1st demonstrations 1895
Propaganda for the eight-hour workday by German trade unions in 1895, encouraging participation in May 1st demonstrations, 1895

A great international demonstration will be organized every year on the same date so that in all countries and in all cities at the same time, on the same agreed day, the workers will exert pressure on the public authorities with the aim of legally reducing to eight hours the working day and applying the other resolutions of the Congress of Paris.

Since a similar demonstration has already been called for May 1st, 1890, by the American Federation of Labor, at its December 1888 congress in St. Louis, this date is adopted for the international demonstration.

The workers of the various European nations will carry out this demonstration under the conditions imposed upon them by the particular conditions of their country.

The resolution was accompanied by a second one, which entrusted the various socialist parties with the joint elaboration of a weekly entitled The 8-Hour Day, tasked with centralizing the results in the international movement in pursuit of the reduction of the working day. It was the first organ of the International.

Read also: Resolutions of the Second International and May 1st communiques up to 1902 (in French)

Why adhere to May 1st though it was a call from an organization that was neither a member nor on the same political line?

AFL Membership Certificate
AFL Membership Certificate. May 1st 1890 date was an AFL call before the International

It will be noted that at no time in the resolution creating May 1st as an international mobilization are the Chicago Martyrs or any particular struggle in the USA named. And on the other hand, the US was not among the 15 countries of origin of the participating organizations. Why then join the call of the American Federation of Labor?

The membership is all the more shocking because the AFL, a guild-based trades union, meant a step backward in the evolution of U.S. unions. Its neo-artisanal model – which in the US context would soon absorb racism and conservative anti-politicism – clung to the reactionary spirit of pre-capitalist guild worker privilege, it was in fact an expression of the same resistance to proletarianization of which lassalleanism and possibilism against which Marxists were battling in Germany and France respectively, were products.

But the reason was partly precisely that. The new International that was laboriously being constituted in Paris had as its focus and model the German party refounded in Gotha 13 years earlier by the fusion of the Marxists with a weakened Lassalleanism after the Commune and the death of its founder. The fusion would serve to unify the German militant proletariat and begin a massive growth at the cost of… temporarily accepting a program full of regrettable lassalleanisms at the Gotha congress. But in 1888 the Marxists were already preparing a satisfactory program which would be approved at the next congress, in Erfurt, and they considered the German party to have been put on the right track.

The French Marxists tried to do the same with the possibilists, the last great party of independent artisans and independent peasants of Western Europe. But in reality the social possibilist base, clinging to the conditions of rural France, will not end up leaning towards the proletariat but towards the provincial petty bourgeoisie. And correspondingly, the possibilist party will slide in less than a decade from a confused socialist localism to the bourgeois left and republicanism.

But what about the American AFL? It was clear to the International that the US was developing national capital at full speed and that North America was going to become the next massively industrialized continent. Everything pointed to the fact that the strike called for May 1st, 1890, with an explicit demand for legal reduction of working hours, could be the beginning of the end of American trade union apoliticism.

Binding that call which the AFL made for its own reasons (Chicago) to a world mobilization was aimed at reinforcing that process of politicization by connecting the American proletariat to that of the rest of the world and giving the International a foothold in the new great capitalist scenario.

Of course, the AFL turned a deaf ear and did not celebrate May 1st after 1890. And even though the guild resistance was running wildly away from the reality of a country undergoing accelerated industrialization, the logic of conciliation and the delusion of privileges of trade prevailed…. mixed with and clinging in part on racial segregation. Because transplanted to the conditions of the US South, that Lassallean and possibilist attachment to the feudal and identitarian distinction of the artisan, that faded aspiration to a democratic petty bourgeoisie, became racism and defense at all costs of small property hand in glove with the state. What later became mythologized as the American dream.

May 1st had nothing to do with Chicago

Poster of the German SPD during the time of the Second International.
Poster of the German SPD during the time of the Second International.

The Second International, like its predecessor and its successors, was born from the convergence of militant groups of workers around the practical needs of the class struggle in search of common tools to develop class consciousness.

In the context of 1888 the thrust of consciousness and struggles went through the practical assertion of the political and universal character of the workers’ struggle as a class. To emphasize that class struggle occurs when the class fights as such, not as a collection of company, branch or country detachments. It was also to show that “political” did not mean subservience to parliamentarism and that the centralization of a universal political organization did not imply a small group of international leaders holding all the power.

The result will be that great international demonstration every year on the same date, in every country and in every city at the same time, which year after year showed a single universal political subject, the working class, fighting for the same demands all over the world.

And for that demonstration, May 1st is chosen not because the Chicago Martyrs were of special relevance in the world proletariat, but because it was the only way for the International to include US workers, among whom the International would still struggle to have members, and help them to evolve in their movement.

That is, May 1st was not created as a festivity, but as a day of struggle. It was not created to highlight particularities or to meekly parade around, but as a practical demonstration of internationalism.