‘The Story of May Day’ by Robert Minor from The Liberator. Vol. 7 No. 5. May, 1924.

Robert Minor goes deep for this wonderful essay on the counter-cultural history of May Day. From pagan slave festivals to Dissenters under Cromwell; by way of Charles Dickens and Terence Powderly, from rebellious sailors to martyred anarchists; to Soviet Russia.

‘The Story of May Day’ by Robert Minor from The Liberator. Vol. 7 No. 5. May, 1924.

“We carry Death out of the village, We bring Summer into the village.” Old Bohemian folk-song of May Day.

BACK into the shadowy centuries before man made written records of his doings one must grope for the origin of May Day.

From the remotest times, it seems, there have been two seasons of the year whose mysteries profoundly touched the human mind, and which were, therefore, made the principal seasons for religious ceremonial, or times of festival. Historians mention that in the five hundred and sixteenth year after the founding of Rome, ceremonies were held on the first of May to prevent blasting and barreness of trees and fruits.

Frazer, in “The Golden Bough,” writes that these festivals are frequently associated “with one or other. Of the agricultural seasons, especially with the time of sowing or of harvest. Now, of all these periods of license the one which is best known and which in modern language has given its name to the rest, is the Saturnalia.

This famous festival fell in December, the last month of the Roman year, and was popularly supposed to commemorate the merry reign of Saturn, the god of sowing and husbandry…His reign was the fabled Golden Age…Slavery and private property were alike unknown: all men had all things in common. At last the good god, the kindly king, vanished suddenly; but his memory was cherished to distant ages …

“But no feature of the festival is more remarkable, nothing in it seems to have struck the ancients themselves more than the license granted to slaves at this time. The distinction between the free and the servile classes was temporarily abolished. The slave might rail at his master, intoxicate himself like his betters, sit down at table with them, and not even a word of reproof would be administered to him for conduct which at any other season might have been punished with stripes, imprisonment, or death. Nay, more, masters actually changed places with their slaves and waited on them at table; and not till the serf had done eating and drinking was the board cleared and dinner set for his master. So far was this inversion of ranks carried, that each household· became for a time a mimic republic in which the high offices were discharged by the slaves, who gave their orders and laid down the law as if they were indeed vested with all the dignity of the consulship, the praetorship, and the bench.”

And throughout the folk-lore of these customs we find running like a red thread the eternal suggestion of the downfall of the ruler and the reversal of the social order, in parallel to the process of death and renewed life in Nature. There is a persistent note of the killing of the king, both in the Roman mid-winter Saturnalia, after which the mock king must kill himself on the altar of the god Saturn, and in the May Day festival where occurred the mimic beheading of a king who symbolized the dying winter season.

The practical identity of spirit and purpose of the May Day season with the mid-winter Saturnalia is shown by William Howitt, who on May 2, 1846, wrote of May Day: “But we have traces of it as it existed among the Saxons, whose barons at this time going to their Wittenagemote, or assembly of Wise Men, left their peasantry to a sort of Saturnalia, in which they chose a king, who chose his queen. He wore an oaken wreath; and together they gave laws to the rustic sports, during those sweet days of freedom…That man as man again ascended above and judged kings. Certainly it is that here the people, if they saw cause, deposed or punished their governors, their barons, and kings. ‘It was one of the most ancient customs,’ says Brand, ‘which has by repetition been from year to year perpetuated.”

Charles Dickens wrote of May Day:

“In the nebulous days of those dread, mysterious despots, the Druids, the first of May was a national festival for the Celts of Britain and Gaul; while the Teuton worshippers of Thor kindled fresh fires in honor of Ostai-a, goddess of Spring, and their long processions wound, by torchlight, up the hills, singing and invoking her protection against the Jotans, the powers of darkness’ and malignant evil.”*

“The Druidical epoch of May Day solemnities may be regarded as expiring Anno Domini one hundred and seventy-seven. The Druids practised their rites with great pomp and exactness in Britain till the reign of King Lucius, when Christianity was embraced by that sovereign and other princes of the island. Being deprived of the countenance of the civil government, they disappeared at the date referred to, though a semblance of their ceremonies and sacrifices were long afterwards clung to by the mass of the people, and were at last only got rid of, as distinct religious observances, either by being incorporated with ceremonies sanctioned by the Christian Church. or by being winked at, if they were not at variance with its doctrine and rules.”

Brand, in his Popular Antiquities says: “After the Conquest, the May games were continued as a national festivity, and archery meetings appear to have taken the place of the ancient open-air courts. But the most interesting circumstance, connected with them, as the years roll on, is their evident association with the first successful struggle for English freedom, when the confederated barons wrested the Great Charter from the worthless John.”

“Towards the close of the fifteenth century,” says Dickens, “May Day observances became greatly altered in character. They were then, in a great measure, merged into the popular honours enthusiastically paid to the famous outlaw, Robin Hood.”

But, says Dickens, “That Mayday, even in the sixteenth century, was regarded with some apprehension by the ruling powers, is evident from what occurred upon what is known as Evil Mayday in 1517.” The events of

“Evil Mayday” of 1517 are given in an old book:

“The 28th day of April, 1517, divers yong-men of the citie picked quarrels with certaine strangers, as they passed along the streets: some they smote and buffetted, and some they threw in the channell: for which, the lord maior sent some of the Englishmen to prison, as Stephen Studley, Skinner, Stevenson, Bets and other.

“Then suddenly rose a secret rumour, and no man could tell how it began, that on May-day next following, the citie would slay all the aliens: insomuch that divers strangers fled out of the citie.

“This rummour came to the knowledge of the kings councell: whereupon the lord cardinalI sent for the maior, and other of the councell of the citie…But the prentices resisted the alderman, taking the young-man from him, and cryed prentices, prentices, clubs, clubs; then out at every doore came clubs and other weapons, so that the alderman was forced to flight. Then more people arose out of every quarter, and forth came serving-men, watermen, courtiers, and other, so that by eleven of the clocke, there were in Cheape, 6 or 7 hundred, and out of Pauls churchyard came about 300. From all places they gathered together, and brake up the Counter, took out the prisoners, which had been committed thither by the lord maior, for hurting the strangers; also they went to Newgate, and tooke out Studley and Bets, committed thither for the like cause. The maior and sheriffes were present, and made proclamation in the kings name, but nothing was obeyed….Sir Roger Cholmeley, Lievtenant of the Tower, during the time of this business, shot off certaine peeces of ordnance against the city, but did no great hurt…A commission of oyer and determiner was directed to the duke of Norfolke, and other lords for punishment of this insurrection…The duke of Norfolke entred the city with one thousand three hundred men, and the prisoners were brought through the streets tyed in ropes, some men, some lads but of thirteen or fourteene yeeres old, to the number of 278 persons. That day Iohn Lincolne and divers other were indicted, and the next day thirteen were adjudged to be drawne, hanged, and quartered: for execution whereof ten payre of gallowes were set up in divers places of the city.”

And so the pagan holiday persisted, preserved in the great mysterious heart of the people, more perhaps by the annual rising of the spring sap than by any arbitrary tradition of the calendar …. Every springtime there came an issue between the master and “prentices and servingmen, watermen and other.” May Day became an issue between the Puritan and the Church. May Day was destined to become an issue between Cromwellism and the King.

And now it became an issue for those harbingers of Capitalism- the Puritan ministers. For the pious Phillip Stubbes, in his “Anatomie of Abuses,” pUblished in 1583, complained:

“Against May, Whitson day, or other time, all the. yung men and maides, olde men and wives, run gadding over night to the woods, groves, hils, and mountains, where they spend all the night in plesant pastimes; and in the morning they return, bringing with them birch and branches of trees, to deck their assemblies withall. And no mervaile, for there is a great Lord present amongst them, as superintendent and Lord over their pastimes and sportes, namely, Sathan, prince of hel. But the chiefest jewel they bring from thence is their May-pole, which they bring home with great veneration, as thus. They have twentie or fortie yoke of oxen, every oxe having a sweet nose-gay of flouers placed on the tip of his hornes, and these oxen drawe home this May-pole (this stinkyng ydol, rather), which is covered all over with floures and hearbs, bound round about with strings, from the top to the bottome, and sometime painted with variable colours,…And then fall they to daunce about it, like as the heathen people did at the dedication of the Idols, whereof this is a perfect pattern, or rather the thing itself. I have heard it credibly reported (and that viva voce) by men of great gravitie and reputation, that of fortie, threescore, or a hundred maides going to the wood over night, there have scaresly the third part of them returned home againe undefiled.”

In 1660 Thomas Hall, a parish minister, published a pamphlet (quoted two centuries later by Charles Dickens) in which he said:

“Flora, hold up thye hand! Thou art here indicted by the name of Flora, of the city of Rome, in the county of Babylon, for that thoue, contrary to the peace of her sovereign lord, his crown and dignity, hast brought in a pack of practical fanatics; viz., ignorants, atheists, papists, drunkards, swearers, swash-bucklers, maid-marrions, morrice-dancers, maskers, mummers, Maypole stealers, health drinkers, gamesters, lewd men, light women, contemners of magistrates, affronters of ministers, rebellious to ‘masters, and disobedient to parents.”

“But,” wrote William Howitt in the People’s Magazine of May 2, 1842, “in came Puritanism, and down went all old festivities and pageants. In April, 1644, there was an ordinance of the two houses of Parliament, for taking all and singular May-poles. The people kicked, even in the days of Cromwell and the commonwealth, at this ordinance.

At the Restoration, there was an attempt to restore also May-day to its ancient jollity, but all in vain, it never recovered the prostrating stroke of puritanism …. The spirit and the necessities of the present times is, ‘Work, work, work!…Whichever way we turn a giant-monster meets us, and startles us out of our dreams of poetry. We call this an enlightened age. In what is it enlightened? With all our light and knowledge can any man tell us, even on this question of May-day, how the ‘people, as one universal people, could turn out for a single day and enjoy themselves? No! the mills want us, the shops want us, the banks and railroads· want us. We want our daily bread, and Mammon wants his. He opens all his thousand mouths of gaping smithies, workshops and offices, to swallow us up.”

The Sailors on May Day

As the original celebration was of a period or “Maytide” rather than of a definite day, it mayor may not have been by an accidental coincidence of dates that the great Nore mutiny of 1797 in the British navy began on April 17 and that the first of May, 1797, found a movement of sailors’ delegates sent from the fleet at Spithead to the mutinous ships at Nore. On the twelfth of May, 1797, all ships of the British fleet at Nore hoisted the red flag, elected their own “admiral” (remember the May Day custom of electing a mock king) in the most deadly earnest, established their own discipline under committees of sailors’ delegates, were joined by a large portion of the entire British navy, and for many days held London at their mercy.

And, anyway, it was again a clear event of May Day when on May 1, 1824, the British sailors went on a mad tear to the scandal and fear of their masters.

The Modern May Day

But the story of the final adoption of the first of May as International Labor Day is bound up with the great Eight Hour movement which swept through Europe and America from the time of the American Civil War up to the Great Upheaval of 1884-6. The first regular convention of the International Workingmen’s Association in 1864 put the proposition that “the limitation of the workday is the first step in the direction of the emancipation of the working class,” and specified the eight-hour day as an objective. In 1866 the National Labor Union ‘raised the demand for the eight-hour day, and later the Industrial Brotherhood took up the issue. In 1878 the Knights of Labor made the eight-hour day a slogan.

The Baltimore organization of the Knights of Labor proposed that May 1, 1884, be made the day for beginning the fight for the eight-hour day, though the proposal was not accepted by the parent body. Curiously, the leaders of the Knights of Labor, so often credited with being revolutionary, were opposed to the general strike for the eight-hour day, and opposed to May First because of its historical association with the spirit of rebellion. Terrence V. Powderly, Grand Master Workman of the order, was interpreting the slogan “An injury to one is an injury to all” by inserting parentheses as follows: “An injury to one (employer) is an injury to all (his employes)” and was in the midst of a bitter fight against “Those who parade the streets waving red and black flags.” Powderly squelched all sentiment for the fixing of May 1 as a date for the eight-hour fight, which would have implied a general strike. Instead, he arranged that all members of the order should simultaneously write letters to the newspapers on Washington’s Birthday (February 22), 1885. After the letter writing campaign was over Powderly pronounced it a great success in “creating a healthy public opinion,” for “manufacturers began to discuss the question and study its possibilities.”

Then, curiously enough, the constituency of the American Federation of Labor took the definite step’ that made May First echo through the world as the international labor day of the revolutionary proletariat. At the 1885 Convention of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada (predecessor of the American Federation of Labor), a motion was made by the Furniture Workers’ Union that May 1, 1886, should be the day on which to put the eight-hour system in operation. There may be some justification for Mr. Samuel Gompers’ claim that the American celebration of May Day had its origin in the influence of foreign-born immigrants; for the resolution which sanctified May Day was supported by a young immigrant Jewish cigar maker whose name was Samuel Gompers. Mr. Gompers supported the resolution with a strengthening amendment adding to its effectiveness, and the motion was carried.

So aptly adjusted to the temper of the masses of the workers was this proposal, that it swept America like a storm. Essentially the eight-hour day war-cry was an organization slogan. It proved to be exactly the slogan for a hybrid mixture of political party and general union such as the Knights of Labor. And so, paradoxically, the slogan of a general strike on May 1 for the eight-hour day, was by popular fancy made the slogan of the Knights of Labor. Grand Master Workman Powderly was frightened by the floods of hundreds of thousands of new members that began pouring into the organization. He issued a secret circular to the Knights of Labor, repudiating the call for May 1, declaring that “neither employer nor employee are educated to the needs and necessities for the short hour plan.” Of course, in the implied general strike, rather than the time chosen, lay the essence of what frightened Powderly, but Powderly showed plainly that he regarded the date of May First as having ominous significance.

Never before had a popular slogan gripped the hearts of American toilers as did the eight-hour call. Popular fancy persistently forced the glory upon the Knights of Labor in spite of all the heads of that organization could do, and its membership leaped in a few months from about 100,000 to three-quarters of a million members. But withal, it was only a slogan. The leaders didn’t accept it. There was no organization ready and willing to take the impact of the action.

May 1, 1886 was destined to be hallowed with blood; and this blood, it was, that forever fixed May Day in the revolutionary workers’ calendar. On May 3, in Chicago, four striking workers were murdered by the police. On May 4 the mounted police charged upon the peaceful protest meeting, the bomb was thrown that killed many policemen and then the long reign of terror, the prison suicide of Lingg and the hanging of four other martyrs of the eight hour movement.

May, 1886 was a time that tried men’s hearts. Joseph Dietzgen, socialist (communist, we’d say today), the friend whom Marx called “unser Philosoph,” volunteered to take the place of the arrested Anarchist editors of the Chicagoer Arbeiter-Zeitung. But it is not all a story of heroism. While the terror was at its height, and after sentence of death had been passed upon Lingg, Parsons, Fischer, Engel, Spies, Fielden and Schwab, the Knights of Labor came into its annual convention at Richmond, Va. Delegate James E. Quinn from New York offered the resolution:

“That this General Assembly regards with sorrow the intended execution of seven workingmen in Chicago, and appeals for mercy in behalf of the condemned.”

Grand Master Workman Powderly left the chair in order to oppose this resolution with a speech in which he said:

“Instead of owing them sympathy we owe them a debt of hatred for their unwarrantable interference at a time when labor had all it could do to weather the storm which had been precipitated upon it by men who apparently did not look very far into the future when naming the first of May as the date on which to put in operation a plan which, from its very nature, must revolutionize the industrial affairs of the country.”

But the First of May as the classic date of the eight hour-day fight, was not to be killed so easily. For in the 1888 convention of the American Federation of Labor the eight-hour-day committee reported a recommendation:

“…That the incoming executive council shall arrange upon Washington’s birthday, 1889, simultaneous mass meetings in all cities of the country, such meetings to be addressed by speakers appointed by authority of the Executive Council, and that on Independence Day, July 4, the same action under the control of the Executive Council shall be pursued, and that on Labor Day, 1889, a like action be again taken, to be followed upon the succeeding Washington’s birthday, 1890, by another series of grand simultaneous mass meetings … (But) Your committee was unable to agree upon selecting a fixed date for the practical enforcement…”

And then the convention of the American Federation of Labor by a large majority, vote added May First as the date on which to enforce the plan.,

It was not an accident that May First, the holiday, was added’ to the holidays, Washington’s birthday and July 4, as the culminating date for a new demonstration. The convention voted down three contrary proposals: a motion to make the date June first, an amendment to refer to the executive council, and an amendment to confine the plan to the building trades. The convention of the A.F. of L. voted in effect for a general strike on May First because of the day’s historic associations.

The next year, 1889, the Second International was founded; and in its first international congress it selected the first day of May of each year to come as a day on which there were to be labor demonstrations in all countries in behalf of the eight-hour-day.

Thus it came about that Charles Dickens, who made himself the veritable “historian of May Day,” felt obliged to write on April 29, 1893:

“Compared with the Mayday of the poets, and with that depicted by the annalists of ancient sports and customs, the Mayday of our present era shows a curious contrast. ‘Preparations for Mayday,’ which formed the headline of paragraphs in the daily papers of last year, have no connection with maypoles, garlands, morris dancers, or festive milkmaids. The preparations are in the way of massing troops and police about the chief public resorts of the capital cities of the Continent. We even read of a Spanish squadron of an ironclad and three cruisers, as ordered to the scene of apprehended disturbances. For last year, as Mayday fell on a Sunday, the conjunction was deemed ominous of danger to public security.”

And in these days of Bolshevism, “prince of hell” the ancient Pagan holiday grows to mightier significance. The procession of “prentices, serving-men, watermen, courtiers, and other” has swollen to a mighty torrent that pours through the world’s cities on our international holiday.

A mighty Red Army marches in May Day processions, and the little red rag, once furtively clutched under the coat for momentary and desperate flaunting under the clubs of police, has become a great, proud banner borne by the freed millions of the sovietized world-mutineers, and saluted unwillingly, fearfully, in temporary truce, by the masters of the non-Russian earth.

“We carry Death out of the village, We bring Summer into the village”

And the Revolution of which May Day is the heyday, is gathering momentum. I pick up a magazine for April, 1924. It is a frank organ of the biggest and most reactionary of the bourgeois reaction. On its cover are printed the titles of the six most prominent articles:

“The ‘Nordic’ Race; the Claim to Superiority Denied.” “American Labor Party in the Making.” “U. S. Bans Latin-American Rebellions.” “The Rise of Ramsay MacDonald.” “Changes Among American Socialists.” “Rykov the Successor of Lenin.”

Each of these items has something to do with the decay of an institution sacred to the editors of that magazine. But there is no other news. All news is news of the Revolution. In the past few months the political dome of the Capitol at Washington has fallen in, and in the halls below, now opened to the cold political rains of the future, we hear the voice of another King John -an American King John -quarreling with his Parliament. Coolidge is telling his “barons” of the senate, that “instead of a government we have a government of lawlessness;” and the barons -the “progressive” senators-have so far lost their sense of class relations in this country as to consider it natural to have a private millionaire pay for the processes of government.

All this is the news of the decay, the break-down, the demoralization of current social forms-the news of contradictions for the solution of which there is no machinery in our social forms.

All news is the news of the Revolution-impending.

“We carry Death out of the world, We bring Summer into the world.”

The Liberator was published monthly from 1918, first established by Max Eastman and his sister Crystal Eastman continuing The Masses, was shut down by the US Government during World War One. Like The Masses, The Liberator contained some of the best radical journalism of its, or any, day. It combined political coverage with the arts, culture, and a commitment to revolutionary politics. Increasingly, The Liberator oriented to the Communist movement and by late 1922 was a de facto publication of the Party. In 1924, The Liberator merged with Labor Herald and Soviet Russia Pictorial into Workers Monthly. An essential magazine of the US left.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/culture/pubs/liberator/1924/05/v7n05-w73-may-1924-liberator-hr.pdf

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