May Day and the Creation of a New World
[Note: this was written for the 2006 MayDay march, which was organized around the direct action strikes taken by Latino workers in the USA – A “Day Without An immigrant.”]
Like anything else, May Day is at least partly what we make of it, and partly what it has been to other people in the past. Before Europe began its relentless conquest of the world, it was a celebration of Spring. During these ancient May Day celebrations, work was abolished in favor of play, dance, music, feasting, and love. The grim missionaries of early Christianity condemned the celebrations as pagan celebrations of vice, especially those of idleness and lust. They banned May Day and attempted to guilt and shame their subjects into postures of hard work and celibacy.
The modern celebrations of May Day as International Worker’s Day began in the United States at the turn of the Twentieth Century. Peasants from Europe forced off their traditional lands sought refuge and new chances in the United States; many immigrated to Chicago and found work in the factories there.
Being an immigrant demands the recreation of the world. An immigrant must carry her past with her, if she refuses to deny it. She must create a new world out of the memories of the old one, in the place of the new one. Because of their experience with different real societies, and in creating new worlds to live in, immigrants understand better than almost anyone that not all societies are the same, and that change is possible.
The immigrants who made Chicago the center of Midwestern America’s industrial belt had this practical experience in creating a new society, and maybe this is what made them see possibilities beyond the limits of what they were told was ‘possible.’ Injustice was not limited to the lands from which they came, but was rampant in the United States as well.
Workers were told to choose between working unbearably long hours for dismal compensation under cruel managers, or starving. They were told that their world was a world of hard work and celibacy, in which idleness necessarily meant starvation, and love was a waste of time.
But these immigrants, like those of today, refused this logic and insisted on the revolutionary possibilities of love and idleness. They founded the mass movement that won the eight-hour day. The state responded with deadly violence, murdering four innocent men. Without these Chicago martyrs the eight-hour workday might never have been established.
The Chicago martyrs were Anarchist and socialist immigrants who fought for their rights by choosing their values: idleness and love, instead of labor, shame, and isolation. And they didn’t stop by choosing their values – they seized the power to make their values a reality. They forced the bosses and the state to accept less work from each worker. Radical workers have followed in their tradition ever since. We choose the May Day of love and life, where our relationships with our families, friends, and fellow workers are the yardstick against which the value of hard work must be measured.
The United States insists that “Labor Day” happens in September, and renamed May 1st as both “Law Day” and “Loyalty Day.” The missionaries never left: they are still calling us to hard work and celibacy, away from our games, our society, and our love. They tell us that unless we allow them to isolate us and treat us as machines in their never- ending quest for more, our lives will have no meaning. But we choose our May Day, not theirs, and we have the power to make our values a reality.