By George Buskell
Yesterday was May Day, or International Workers’ Day, a holiday observed across the world by people of all cultures and nationalities. May Day was traditionally an ancient spring festival celebrated across Europe, yet since the 19th century it has become an almost universal day of celebration and mourning for members of the working class on all corners of the Earth. The late Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote that May Day is “perhaps the only unquestionable dent made by a secular movement in the Christian or any other official calendar”. So what are May Day’s origins? And why is the spirit of May Day so crucial for the modern world?
International Workers’ Day was set up by members of the Second International, an organisation of socialist and labour parties set up to carry the torch of the International Workingmen’s Association, of which Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Mikhail Bakunin were members. The Second International saw itself as representing the interests of the working class of the world, and – much like the First International before it – aimed for the emancipation of all the labouring classes through the establishment of a socialist society based on common ownership and control of the means by which society produces its wealth. In 1889, the first congress of the Second International declared May 1st to be a day of international demonstrations to mark the anniversary of the 1886 Haymarket Affair – a workers’ demonstration in Chicago that resulted in the trial and execution of several anarchists and other working class activists, who became known as the Haymarket martyrs. May Day was subsequently recognised at the Second Congress the following year, and has been celebrated ever since (similarly, another major celebration was also first declared by the Second International in 1910 – International Women’s Day! Which, coincidentally, was originally International Working Women’s Day).
So why do we celebrate May Day today? Aren’t the days of striking for the 8-hour day over? Didn’t capitalism win? We celebrate May Day today to uplift the voices of those in struggle, to have a day where the issues of migrant cleaners at European universities, sweatshop workers across the Global South and the precariously employed might all be put on the top of the agenda. We celebrate to acknowledge that while poor job security, low pay, discrimination and exploitation might be over for a lucky few, these victories were not handed to us but fought tooth and nail for. For many across the world the darkest nightmares of the industrial revolution are still the realities of everyday life. We live in a world scarred by massive economic inequality and exploitation on a global scale. Since the 1980s, capital – anxious and hungry for growth and power – has been unleashed upon the world through a neoliberal revolution that severed every bind and broke every chain that kept it in check. Just a mere handful of billionaires now hold as much wealth as the poorest three and a half billion individuals on the Earth.
With the advent of the Coronavirus pandemic, these gross inequalities have become even more visible. The COVID-19 death rate for individuals from poor communities is almost double that from those who live in well off areas. Millions have lost jobs across the world, many are having to choose between food and rent, and those who work essential jobs are often the worst paid and least likely to be able to work from home. Many workers have died due to lack of protective equipment, especially those working in health and social care. The spirit of May Day is more important now than ever. We celebrate May Day so that we might build a better world.