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The Incomplete, True, Authentic, and Wonderful History of May Day

Posted on April 29th, 2009 in Happenings, May Day

Tomorrow is Mayday. For the past couple of weeks, we’ve been posting things related to the international workers’ day. This time around, we thought we’d share an excerpt from Peter Linebaugh’s “The Incomplete, True, Authentic, and Wonderful History of May Day,” which originally appeared in 1986 (hence the reference to the Soviet Union). Peter outlines the long, indeed ancient, history of Mayday, from it’s “green” origins as a celebration of spring to it’s “red” associations with organized, and persecuted, labor.

Below we’ve excerpted Peter’s brief introduction and a section about Haymarket.

You can read the entire essay on the Midnight Notes website. Or, if you’re more inclined toward hard copy, AK carries it as a nice, glossy pamphlet.


A Beginning

The Soviet government parades missiles and marches soldiers on May Day. The American government has called May First “Loyalty Day” and associates it with militarism. The real meaning of this day has been obscured by the designing propaganda of both governments. The truth of May Day is totally different. To the history of May Day there is a Green side and there is a Red side.

Under the rainbow, our methodology must be colorful. Green is a relationship to the earth and what grows therefrom. Red is a relationship to other people and the blood spilt there among. Green designates life with only necessary labor; Red designates death with surplus labor. Green is natural appropriation; Red is social expropriation. Green is husbandry and nurturance; Red is proletarianization and prostitution. Green is useful activity; Red is useless toil. Green is creation of desire; Red is class struggle. May Day is both.

The Red: Haymarket Centennial

The history of the modern May Day originates in the center of the North American plains, at Haymarket, in Chicago – “the city on the make” – in May 1886. The Red side of that story is more well-known than the Green, because it was bloody. But there was also a Green side to the tale, though the green was not so much that of pretty grass garlands, as it was of greenbacks, for in Chicago, it was said, the dollar is king.

Of course the prairies are green in May. Virgin soil, dark, brown, crumbling, shot with fine black sand, it was the produce of thousands of years of humus and organic decomposition. For many centuries this earth was husbanded by the native Americans of the plains. As Black Elk said theirs is “the story of all life that is holy and is good to tell, and of us two-leggeds sharing in it with the four-leggeds and the wings of the air and all green things; for these are children of one mother and their father is one Spirit.” From such a green perspective, the white men appeared as pharaohs, and indeed, as Abe Lincoln put it, these prairies were the “Egypt of the West”.

The land was mechanized. Relative surplus value could only be obtained by reducing the price of food. The proteins and vitamins of this fertile earth spread through the whole world. Chicago was the jugular vein. Cyrus McCormick wielded the surgeon’s knife. His mechanical reapers harvested the grasses and grains. McCormick produced 1,500 reapers in 1849; by 1884 he was producing 80,000. Not that McCormick actually made reapers, members of the Molders Union Local 23 did that, and on May Day 1867 they went on strike, starting the Eight Hour Movement.

A staggering transformation was wrought. It was: “Farewell” to the hammer and sickle. “Goodbye” to the cradle scythe. “So long” to Emerson’s man with the hoe. These now became the artifacts of nostalgia and romance. It became “Hello” to the hobo. “Move on” to the harvest stiffs. “Line up” the proletarians. Such were the new commands of civilization.

Thousands of immigrants, many from Germany, poured into Chicago after the Civil War. Class war was advanced, technically and logistically. In 1855 the Chicago police used Gatling guns against the workers who protested the closing of the beer gardens. In the Bread Riot of 1872 the police clubbed hungry people in a tunnel under the river. In the 1877 railway strike, Federal troops fought workers at “The Battle of the Viaduct.” These troops were recently seasoned from fighting the Sioux who had killed Custer. Henceforth, the defeated Sioux could only “Go to a mountain top and cry for a vision.” The Pinkerton Detective Agency put visions into practice by teaching the city police how to spy and to form fighting columns for deployment in city streets. A hundred years ago during the street car strike, the police issued a shoot-to-kill order.

McCormick cut wages 15%. His profit rate was 71%. In May 1886 four molders whom McCormick locked-out were shot dead by the police. Thus, did this ‘grim reaper’ maintain his profits.

Nationally, May First 1886 was important because a couple of years earlier the Federation of Organized Trade and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada, “RESOLVED…that eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor, from and after May 1, 1886.

On 4 May 1886 several thousand people gathered near Haymarket Square to hear what August Spies, a newspaperman, had to say about the shootings at the McCormick works. Albert Parsons, a typographer and labor leader spoke net. Later, at his trial, he said, “What is Socialism or Anarchism? Briefly stated it is the right of the toilers to the free and equal use of the tools of production and the right of the producers to their product.” He was followed by “Good-Natured Sam” Fielden who as a child had worked in the textile factories of Lancashire, England. He was a Methodist preacher and labor organizer. He got done speaking at 10:30 PM. At that time 176 policemen charged the crowd that had dwindled to about 200. An unknown hand threw a stick of dynamite, the first time that Alfred Nobel’s invention was used in class battle.
All hell broke lose, many were killed, and the rest is history.

“Make the raids first and look up the law afterwards,” was the Sheriff’s dictum. It was followed religiously across the country. Newspaper screamed for blood, homes were ransacked, and suspects were subjected to the “third degree.” Eight men were railroaded in Chicago at a farcical trial. Four men hanged on “Black Friday,” 11 November 1887.

“There will come a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today,” said Spies before he choked.