Political Animal


May 01, 2012 6:16 PM Preserving May Day

By Ed Kilgore

May 1 became an international day to commemorate workers—and more specifically, to agitate for an eight-hour work day—in 1889, on the anniversary of the Haymarket Massacre of 1886 in Chicago. It was rapidly adopted around the world, though not, ironically, in the United States, when President Grover Cleveland adopted the Knights of Labor’s proposal for a September Labor Day (in part, it is likely, to avoid commemoration of the Haymarket disturbances, the lethal bomb throwed by persons unknown, and the police massacre of protestors that followed). Canada followed the U.S. example, but May 1 remained, in effect, Labor Day virtually eveywhere else, remaining today a public holiday in over 80 countries. Even the Catholic Church followed the tradition, creating a May 1 feast for St.Joseph the Worker.

For obvious reasons, notably their increasingly spurious claims to function as worker-led socialist republics, Communist regimes made a big show of May Day. But they never owned the day, any more than they owned (or even allowed to exist) the free labor movement it honored, or its very practical goals. And International Workers Day has long survived the virtual end of the “Communist Bloc” as we knew it, and of communist regimes in Europe entirely.

I’ve gone through this brief history in reaction to reading a post at the conservative legal site the Volokh Conspiracy promoting the idea, as it has since 2007, of renaming May 1 “Victims of Communism Day.” I’m sympathetic to the basic idea of a day for reflection on the bloody record of communist regimes, and of their false claim to serve as emancipators of the working class. But that’s all the more reason not to do anything to perpetuate the confusion of communism with legitimate movements for workers’ rights.

The chief advocate of a May 1 “Victims of Communism Day,” Ilya Somin, claims the most likely alternative, November 7, the date of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, inaugurating the first communist regime, is too “Russia-centric.” Well, May 1 is insufficiently “Communo-centric.” All the communist regimes trace their roots back to November 7, and they don’t share it with non-communists. For all I care, we can commemorate victims of communism any day other than May 1; maybe August 23, the anniversary of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, which revealed even to the most naive the true nature of the Soviet regime and launched one of the most intensively horrific periods of bilateral murder in world history.

But leave May 1 to workers, particularly now that the eight-hour work day is again in peril.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • thersites on May 01, 2012 6:34 PM:

    Well said!

  • Anonymous on May 01, 2012 6:39 PM:

    What about August 23, the date when a police state murdered Sacco and Vanzetti? That would be the same thing as workers sacrificed by the communists.

  • suitworld on May 01, 2012 6:40 PM:

    It's even a little older than that. Illinois passed an 8 hour law in 1867, to take effect on May 1. Workers were thrilled, until Chicago business owners broke the law and threatened workers with firing if they left after 8 hours. That was deep origin of Mayday.

  • Flora on May 01, 2012 8:00 PM:

    And some of us remember the "May Day" of our childhoods - the celebration of Spring, originally a pagan holiday, we danced around the May pole (weaving ribbons). My sisters and I used to pick flowers and leave them on our neighbors' doorsteps, ring the doorbell and run away. It was fun and the neighbors loved being remembered.

    Workers' rights are of course far more important, but I wonder if anyone in the US still celebrates the "Spring May Day" celebration. Being nostalgic, I guess.

    Now back to your regularly scheduled programming.

  • matt w on May 01, 2012 9:50 PM:

    Conflating the labor movement with Communism isn't a bug for the Volokhi. It's a feature.

  • ericfree on May 01, 2012 10:16 PM:

    Yes, I remember the neopagan May Day celebrations of my childhood -- we celebrated it by dancing around a Maypole, in public school, in Oklahoma. Try doing that now. For "victims of Communism" day, why not Solzhenitsyn's birthday. For "victims of Capitalism" day, 21st Century-style, how about the day the Supreme Court anointed Bush the Shrub president?

  • jhm on May 02, 2012 6:32 AM:

    Curious fact which I just learnt yesterday: Since 1958, May 1, has been Loyalty Day in the US, and by statute Presidents pen proclamations. To wit:

    "In order to recognize the American spirit of loyalty and the sacrifices that so many have made for our Nation, the Congress, by Public Law 85-529 as amended, has designated May 1 of each year as "Loyalty Day." On this day, let us reaffirm our allegiance to the United States of America, our Constitution, and our founding values."


  • lefty68 on May 02, 2012 10:22 AM:

    matt w is correct. Volokh's proposal is obviously in bad faith and is an attempt to delegitimize labor and the May Day observance for their own ideological purposes. Call it what it is.

  • Cathy on May 02, 2012 2:05 PM:


    Yes, it's fun remembering the May Day of our childhoods. I remember (in the 60's and 70's) making may baskets every year to put on the porches or doors of neighbors. They often contained lilacs, as that seemed to be one of the flowers most likely to be blooming on May 1.

    I, too, have wondered if those traditions are still celebrated anywhere.

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