May 2, 2009

May Day’s New Roots

I had a thought-provoking May Day.

It started on teh Intertubes. The social networking space called Facebook, or at least the small self-created corner of it where I rattle around, was awash in May Day greetings, forwardings and comments. I clicked the li’l thumbs-up button to register my approval of every one that came my way. Literally dozens of my Facebook friends chipped in on the theme.

Some included snatches of poetry, verses to The Internationale, embedded YouTube videos or links to articles on the holiday, like this and others at Kasama and some Rowland Keshena Robinson posted at By Any Means Necessary.

Meanwhile, on Leftist Trainspotters, an oddball internet group for people whose hobby is following left organizations around the world (especially small and peculiar ones), the estimable David Walters, of the Marxist Internet Archives, encouraged everyone to report in on their local International Workers Day activities.

Thus prodded, I headed out to check out two rival May Day rallies called in downtown Manhattan yesterday afternoon. I can’t claim that it was altogether a heartening or uplifting trip.

Two Rallies

The first rally, at Union Square, was sponsored by the May 1st Coalition, an outfit in which—how shall I put this delicately?—members of the Workers World Party seemed to play quite the central role. The theme was very much about immigration—the largest visible contingent was day laborers from NJ, Los Jornaleros de Freehold and a big sign at the front read:

Dear President Obama,
100 Days have passed.
We need fair and humane immigration reform now.
[signed] May 1 Coalition
There were maybe 200 people there at 2:00, two hours into the event, spread across a largish plaza. At least four self-styled socialist groups had tables and were attempting to distribute their press to each other’s cadres. A friend reports that the crowd grew somewhat larger and developed a clear immigrant majority by the time a short late afternoon march took place in the rain.

The second rally was at the same time, maybe seven or eight blocks to the north at Madison Square. With around 600 people present when I was there, it was overwhelmingly made up of immigrant workers, mainly Latina/o, mostly from non-union, CBO-type organizations, the largest contingents those of Make the Road by Walking and La Union.

There were a score of staffers and members of SEIU Local 32 BJ, some teachers and other public sector workers, and I spotted Ed Ott from the NYC Central Labor Council. To be fair, early afternoon on a Friday isn’t the easiest time to draw out the employed. A clump of strikers from the nearly seven months old picket line at the Stella D’Oro Bakery were also there. Not much identifiably socialist presence.

All of this has prompted a few thoughts on where May Day is at today and how we got here.

The Revival of May Day

We are in the second distinct stage in the revival of May Day. May Day was once the central holiday of working class revolutionaries in this country, before it was broken by McCarthyism and the subsequent all-but-total collapse of the Communist Party during the ‘50s and ‘60s.

The first stage came in the 1970s, and drew on the huge layers of advanced fighters thrown forward by the decade of upheaval we call The Sixties. The main organized forms this revival first took were marches and rallies sponsored by left groups, especially those of the New Communist Movement. These tended to be very militant and Red in flavor, and were almost invariably held by a single organization and its supporters. With the collapse of the NCM by the early ‘80s it seemed likely that May Day would vanish again.

But veterans of those organizations and other radical and labor activists kept it alive. In some places May Day became an annual event observed with rallies and concerts, if not parades. The radical press invariably carried articles on the history. In a few areas, unions and other people’s organizations which had come under left leadership since the start of this first stage started taking part in or holding May 1 observances.

The Revival Leaps Ahead

The second stage in the revival of May Day came with the great levantamiento that shook this country so profoundly during the Spring of 2006, when millions of immigrant workers struck to protest anti-immigrant attacks and demand justice. May 1, 2006, was the largest single day of protest during the whole upsurge.

As the Freedom Road/El Camino De La Libertad statement this May Day correctly highlighted, the result is that the essential character of May Day is now that of an immigrant holiday. More particularly, it is an immigrant workers' holiday. This is hardly surprising. Immigrants to the US, especially the undocumented ones, are workers, and they know that they are workers. Further, they come from countries (pretty much anyplace else in the world) where May Day is the working class holiday, whether the tame equivalent of our Labor Day or the occasion for launching or escalating campaigns against the employers and the government.

At the same time, the native-born base for May Day has grown as well. Its history as a proletarian holiday, a socialist holiday, a holiday born in the class struggle right here in the US, has been spotlighted by the likes of Howard Zinn—and by the thousands of teachers and professors who have drawn on that understanding in their work with young people over the last 30-plus years.

New Roots As Change Unfolds

This renewed revival has left May Day more deeply rooted than it has been in well over half a century. I don’t want to get ahead of myself here. It’s still on the radar of a very small section of the population in this country. On the other hand, it is no longer the property of what Marta Harnecker calls the “party left,” but is more broadly recognized and embraced as an intrinsic part of radical culture in the US.

And, by me, that’s a very hopeful thing at a time when, as a Rasmussen poll recently reported:
Only 53% of American adults believe capitalism is better than socialism. The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey found that 20% disagree and say socialism is better. Twenty-seven percent (27%) are not sure which is better.
This pro-socialist tide (strongest among the young, incidentally) has little to do with anything we’ve done and everything with the palpable failures of capitalism and with the yahoos who are out there denouncing anything faintly progressive or egalitarian as “socialism.”

May Day in many ways embodies our broad vision and our hopes for humanity and can surely be one door that the folks polled by Rasmussen walk through toward revolutionary socialism.

1 comment:

celticfire said...
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