Once again, workers across the length and breadth of Nigeria will join workers of all lands in commemorating May 1, as the International Workers’ Solidarity Day, better known as May Day. It is, or at least should be a day to reflect on our struggles as the toiling class, and to express our solidarity, with which we can bring to birth a new world on the ashes of the dying but far from dead old world of capital, which we live in today. This article (which draws from an earlier article of mine in The Health Worker of May 2007), attempts to put the origins and significance of this our day, in perspective.
The celebration of the May Day as well as the practice of setting a day aside for the demonstration of workers solidarity, go way back beyond the historic events of Haymarket Square in 1886 and the subsequent resolution of the founding congress of the Second International in 1889, which initiated May I, with effect from 1890 as what we now know as the International Workers' Solidarity Day.
In ancient Europe, particularly amongst the Celts and Saxones May 1 was known as the May Day. It marked the beginning of summer and was seen as the beginning of humankind's regeneration. Not surprisingly it was taken as a day to honour sexual fertility amongst the working people.
A Maypole would be danced around all night by men and women finding a mate for the night. The Saxons called the day Beltane; the day of fire, in recognition of their sun god.
In the 1600s the state and the church all over Europe began persecution of those that celebrated the early May Day. And in 1644 the British parliament banned the then May Day, describing it as immoral.
The church went a mile further, assimilating what it considered a paganistic tradition into the rites of Christendom, making it "all saints’ day". It would not be the first time the church on realizing how entrenched some days and the rites that go with them (which they considered paganistic) were with the masses it sought to convert, would absorb such days and rites into the orthodoxy of Christendom. Many have linked Easter with the worship of the goddess "Ishta," Sunday with the worship of the Roman Sun-God, and Christmas day which marks the beginning of the winter solstice in Europe, used to be the sol-invictus. This was the day of worship for the "Invincible Sun god". This process is known in symbology as transmutation, The industrial revolution of the late eighteenth century re-defined the working people in society as the proletariat; the working class. It brought hitherto unheralded sufferings and deprivations to workers, many of whom toiled and sweated for upwards of fourteen to eighteen hours in the mines, plantations and factories. The cause for a humane work- day which was considered to be 8 hours was born; exploitative oppression had bred resistance as its negation.
The first time in the history of the proletariat that a day was set aside to demonstrate its solidarity and struggle for an 8 hour workday was in 1856. This was on April 21, 1856 and was in Australia. It was to be according to its proponents "a day of complete stoppage together with meetings and entertainment as a demonstration in favour of an 8 hour day". It was initially meant to be an occasional event, but “the massive support for this clarion call inspired the Australian working class to make it an annual event”. This could be said to be a forerunner to the events thirty years later in Chicago, which paved the way for such a day to become internationally enthroned by the workers of the world.
In 1884, the United States Federation of Organized Trade and Labour Unions gave an ultimatum to the American ruling class for the work day to be made 8 hours. The ultimatum was to expire in two years after which a General Strike was to be summoned on May I, 1886.
The American capitalists refused to heed the ultimatum and on May I, 1886, over 350,000 workers across the country began a General Strike with hundreds of thousands joining protest marches in leading cities in America.
On the third day of the strike, Albert Parsons editor of the anarcho-socialist newspaper, Alarm, and trade union activist in the Illinois city of Chicago was addressing works at the McCormick Reaper Works when policemen fired into the crowd killing six workers and leaving many wounded.
The following day members of the anarchist International Working People’s Association (now known as International Workers of the World (IWW), which Ralph Chaplin, that composed “Solidarity Forever” in January 1915, belonged to, organized a rally at Haymarket Square. Thousands of workers turned up on that fateful rainy evening. With the rain and the long speeches presented though, just about two hundred workers were still left at the rally when a sergeant led 180 policemen armed to the teeth to demand that the workers disperse. This was while the last speaker, Parsons, was making his speech.
In the midst of the policemen, a bomb suddenly exploded killing seven of then
Hot lead from their smoking guns was let loose on the workers with death in its tow.
Eight leaders of the International Working People's Association in Chicago Illinois, were tried and found guilty. This was in spite of the fact that only four of them were present at the rally. These were: Albert Parsons, August Spies, Lou Lingg, Michael Schwab, Samuel Fielden, Adolf Fischer, George Engel and Oscar Neebe. They were sentenced to death and life imprisonment. Parsons, Spies, Engel and Fischer were summarily executed, Lingg committed suicide in prison, while Schwab, Fielden and Neebe were pardoned by the American State in 1893 due to massive workers protests demanding a reversal of their unjust condemnation.
Schwab captured the fact that their condemnation was an attempt to humiliate and intimidate the labour movement when during their show trial he said: "it was the movement the blow was aimed at. It was directed against the labour movement against socialism, for today every labour movement must, of necessity be socialistic".
The American working class movement was becoming a class for itself and not just a class in itself. It was discovering itself, and with this, the ideology which alone clearly represents the interests of the working class and indeed the future of the human race. This the bourgeois ruling class could not take. It thought that, by snuffing the lives out of those great martyrs of the working class, it could extinguish the fire they represented and still represent. Parsons however, boldly telling the judges of infamy the truth at their trial stated that, in “addressing this court, I speak as the representative of one class to the representative of another”. He further showed the futility of the "judicial murder" that was about to take place, when he rightly said: "Here you will tread upon a spark, behind you and in front of you and everywhere, flames will blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out; the ground is on fire upon which you stand".
The "Pirates called detectives of Chicago" in Oscar Neebe's words found a red flag when his apartment was searched. It has since then become a symbol to remind the working class of the blood bled and that it continues to bleed in the struggle for its emancipation and society’s transformation.
Two and a half years later in December 1888 the American Federation of Labour held its convention where it resolved on commemorating May 1, 1890 with demonstration's and mass meetings to demand an 8 hour work day.
The deciding event that gave birth to May 1 as International Workers Day of Solidarity took place at Paris, France in July 1889. This was at the Founding Congress of the Second International in Salle Petrelle, Paris, convened on July 14, 1889 to commemorate the century of the fall of the Bastille. On July 20 at the end of the Congress which lasted almost a week, Raymond Lavigne, a worker from.
Bordeaux representing the French trade unions moved the motion that: "A great
International demonstration shall be organized for a fixed date in such - a manner that workers in all countries and in all cities shall on a specified day simultaneously address to the public authorities a demand to fix the working day at eight hours".
The motion which was unanimously adopted as a resolution of the congress noted that "such a demonstration has already been resolved upon by the American Federation of Labour at its convention of December 1888 in in St. Louis for May 1, 1890" the Congress thus upheld that day which marked the first "May Day" of the international working class.
It was realized that conditions differed in the various countries where delegates at the congress came from. The resolution thus included a provision that "the workers of the various nations shall organize the demonstration in a manner suited to the conditions in their country. On May 1, 1890 workers downed tools in 138 cities and mining areas in France. In Rome, Turin, Milan, Naples and other cities of Italy, tens of thousands of workers marched through the streets. There were mass demonstrations in Sweden, Britain, Portugal, Belgium and Catalonia and in Polish urban areas such as Lodz and Warsaw workers demonstrated even when denied permission by the authorities. The government in Austria Hungary called out its army while employers went on a general lockout, in Bohemia, Catalonia and some other Germanic cities to preempt work stoppages. On Sunday May 4, 1890 over 100,000 British workers demonstrated in London while in Germany public meetings were held in several cities.
The first May Day to be celebrated in Russia was the following year. In 1891inspite of the Czarist autocracy the revolutionary Russian Social- Democrats mobilized workers for work stoppages on May 1. In China it was in 1920, while Indian workers commemorated it for the first time 1927.
In Nigeria, for several years workers particularly activists of the NTUC had marked May Day with meetings and seminars. The first time it was celebrated as a public holiday however, was in 1980. This was in the People's Redemption Party-led state of Kano. The following year, the NPN Federal Government had no choice but to make May Day a national public holiday. And so it has been ever since.
This year's May Day seems to be a very symbolic one for Nigerian Workers or more properly put, the geographical expression known as “Nigeria”. It has somehow been dubbed a “centenary May Day celebration”. A question that has raged in many a mind is why 2013, considering the fact that the amalgamation being “celebrated” was in 1914. Others have bothered on why the amalgamation needs to be celebrated in a general sense. Along this line, October 1, 1963 whence Nigeria became a Republic, might make much more sense to be commemorated as the amalgamation was done by the British colonialists, for the interests of the British colonialists, sor mente! But these not insignificant questions might even be the least of concern to the spirit of Haymarket and its martyrs whose blood marked the pathway to this day.
As Christians would argue, it could be apt to be in the world and not of the world. Workers of course live in the capitalist world, but as wage slaves. Malcolm X further points out that there are two nations in each nation i.e. the nation of the oppressor and the nation of the oppressed. Whose centenary are we celebrating? In my view, it has been a century of the oppressors, by the oppressors for the oppressors. These exploiters who have sat on our backs have had, at different times, white, and black faces, but their domination of the working people and their sucking our blood, appropriating the wealth we create and farting at our despair, has been a constant element irrespective of amalgamation, de-colonization, militarization or democratization.
This year’s May Day is coming up after half a decade of the most severe capitalist crisis in almost a century, but despite this, in a sense, capitalism itself is not in crisis. Why is this so, we might ask? Because, I would say, even as we fight, with bold resistance, the prevailing thinking, not the least in Nigeria, is that of reforming the system. But the capitalist system has shown itself to be beyond reforms. The “stake-holders” ideology and commitment primarily to “social dialogue” that could have informed such “centenary May Day” formulation aid the oppressors and not we, the poor and working people, who cannot but continue to be the wretched of the earth, in the capitalist system.
But of course, as Walter Rodney puts it: “this act in itself will not delay their day of judgment”. The challenge, in the spirit of those who died that we might be free, is that we break the chains that still enthrall us. To do this, we must know how “we and them are go work this out”. It is through relentless struggle against the capitalists and their system. Not all will come to this consciousness at once. But the advanced layers of the working class must continue to organize, educate and agitate. We have spent a hundred years as a “nation” under capitalism; humankind cannot spend another hundred years, within this same inhuman system. The “choices” before us are plain and unfolding: socialism or barbarism.
Baba Aye, a trade unionist blogs at: http://solidarityandstruggle.blogspot.com/