Wednesday, May 01, 2013
May Day (also known as International Workers' Day) always seemed sinister when I was a kid. It took me decades to learn it wasn’t.
Growing up during the Cold War, it wasn’t hard to find May Day scary. TV news reports showed a parade through Red Square in Moscow, with the masses marching, waving huge red banners or carrying portraits of Marx, Lenin and whoever the Soviet leaders of the day were. The crowds seemed so fervent, so committed to their ideology. It wasn’t hard to be convinced that all the US propaganda was fact.
But it turned out the origins of May Day were much closer to home.
May Day began as a remembrance of the Haymarket Riots in Chicago, which happened on May 4 1886. During a peaceful rally supporting workers striking for an eight-hour day, an unknown person threw a dynamite bomb at police. That, and the gunfire that erupted afterward, killed seven police officers and at least four of the crowd. Dozens were injured.
A “red scare” followed, with police often brutally cracking down on socialists, anarchists and activists for workers’ rights. The bomber was never identified, but authorities tried and convicted 8 people for conspiracy—in a trial widely regarded as unjust. Four defendants were executed by hanging, the other four were pardoned in 1893 by the progressive Governor of Illinois, John Peter Altgeld (who was defeated in the next election, largely because of his support for labour).
In 1889, a privately funded statue honouring the dead policemen was erected in Haymarket Square. It was damaged several times, and was actually blown up twice by the Weathermen (in 1969 and 1970). Each time the statue was damaged, it was restored. In 1972, it was moved to the Chicago Police Headquarters (later to its training academy), but the pedestal remained empty for decades. In 1992, bronze plaque was placed on the spot where the wagon from which speakers addressed the crowd had stood. In 2004, a memorial sculpture—depicting a 15-foot speaker’s wagon—was unveiled.
Growing up, and believing the anti-socialist propaganda of the local, state and federal governments of the day, I had no reason to learn the real story of the Haymarket Riots, so I didn’t know it was the reason behind the selection of May Day as a day for workers. For that matter, I didn’t know the truth about social democratic countries.
Now, of course, I live in a social democracy, with its mix of market socialism, welfare state progressivism and market-focused capitalism. I’ve seen firsthand that social democratic programmes condemned in the USA, such as national healthcare, are actually good things that benefit society, and that such things are not evil, as I’d been taught to believe.
Still, on May Day in New Zealand we don’t break into a rousing rendition of “The Internationale”. I bet most Kiwis, like their American cousins, probably don’t even know what that is. Our Labour Day holiday—celebrating the 8-hour workday—is at the end of October.
The video at the top of this post is of Arturo Toscanini conducting a version of “The Internationale” in 1944. It’s part of a film featurette to honour the Allied victory in Italy in World War 2 in which Toscanini conducted Verdi’s “Hymn of the Nations”, adding “The Star-Spangled Banner” for the USA and “The Internationale” for the Soviet Union (until that year, “The Internationale” was the national anthem of the Soviet Union). In the “red scares” of the 1950s, US censors had other ideas about all this and deleted “The Internationale” from the film. The complete, uncensored version is on YouTube, of course (and, oddly enough, “The Star-Spangled Banner” follows “The Internationale”). The music was performed by the NBC Symphony Orchestra, with the Westminister Choir and the tenor Jan Peerce as soloist.
It turns out that the world is much more interesting than American propaganda led me to believe. History is almost never a simplistic binary story in which one side is all good and the other is all bad. Humans, and our stories, are far too complicated for that. So, the struggle for workers’ rights or the attempts to stop them, the Haymarket Riots and the origins of May Day, or even socialism itself—none of these are simplistic morality tales. They’re far more interesting.