Most Americans think of May Day, if they think of it at all, as some sort of communist holiday. Their awareness of it is based mainly on a vague memory of parades of military hardware on Red Square and Soviet leaders’ “fraternal greetings” to leaders of the state communist regimes of their Warsaw Pact satellites. If you’re unfamiliar with the history of May Day, you might be surprised to learn not only that it originated in the United States, but that it was strongly supported by American free market anarchists. May Day — the international holiday of the workers’ and socialist movements — was created by American workers, right here in the good old U.S. of A.
In 1884 the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions called for a nationwide general strike for an eight-hour day, to be launched May 1, 1886. The political strife associated with that movement culminated in the Haymarket bombing and the subsequent police riot and judicial murder of the Haymarket martyrs. May Day was chosen by Chicago workers to commemorate the show trial and execution of the scapegoat anarchists.
It was quickly adopted as a workers’ holiday by the international labor movement — including the anarchist movement. More specifically, it was supported from the very beginning by the individualist anarchists — as free market as you can get — loosely grouped together as the Boston Anarchists, associated with Benjamin Tucker and the individualist journal Liberty. Tucker, Ezra Haywood, J.K. Ingalls and William Greene, all prominent individualist anarchists, enthusiastically endorsed the New England Labor Reform League and the International Working People’s Organization. Dyer Lum , a labor radical whose philosophy fluctuated between free market individualism and “anarchism without adjectives,” actively promoted free market radicalism as a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (the “Wobblies”).
May Day’s communist associations were a result not only of the Marxist-Leninist regimes’ attempts at co-option, but of a massive campaign of anti-worker propaganda by the state-corporate nexus in the United States. The period from the 1880s through 1920 were a very scary time for American capitalist elites. In the devil’s bargain of 1877, the conquered south threw its support behind losing candidate Rutherford B. Hayes, essentially handing the national government over to the GOP’s plutocratic corporatism, in return for a free hand in restoring racial apartheid in its own domain. The post-Civil War amendments originally passed to protect freed slaves were instead used to protect corporations. Thus began the Gilded Age — not a period of laissez-faire, as portrayed in the official history, but an imposition of corporate rule on the economy by state fiat.
The Knights of Labor, Grange, and other labor and farm-populist movements were created to resist this corrupt seizure of power. The next forty years were a virtual civil war between these two sides. During the Depression of the 1890s, the rising tide of worker radicalism was reflected in the Pullman Strike, Coxey’s Army’s march on Washington, and the rise of Big Bill Haywood’s Western Federation of Miners (direct precursor to the IWW). In 1896, business interests threatened a nationwide “capital strike” and lockout if Bryan won the presidency.
The ideological offensive centered on “100% Americanism,” the Pledge of Allegiance, worship of Old Glory and the cult of “Loyalty,” culminating in the creation of the American Legion and Woodrow Wilson’s political imprisonment of the Left in WWI, was an outgrowth of American elite fears in the 1890s. May Day — the real labor holiday — was replaced by the state’s “Labor Day,” and May Day was officially designated “Loyalty Day.”
This campaign was largely successful — as demonstrated by the popular image of May Day in the United States. But it’s a lie that we will not allow to stand. So this May Day, spread your best checkered tablecloth and picnic on hot dogs, potato salad and apple pie, and give a thought or two to the fight for economic justice to working people. That’s a struggle we market anarchists at Center for a Stateless Society fight every day.