Peter Sedgwick

Why May Day?

(1 May 1965)

Written anonymously, from Labour Worker, 1 May 1965, p.1.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

May Day has long ceased to function as an international day of celebration of opposition to the capitalist social order. In a number of countries over the world, Labour’s festival has become no more than a Bank Holiday with pink trimmings and a vaguely rhetoric. This is not only true of countries under governing Communist Parties, which have transformed the nineteenth-century commemoration of anarchist martyrs into a grand jubilee of rampant militarism and totalitarian Statism. A number of capitalist governments, in Europe and elsewhere, have some time in the past thought it advisable to give Labour an official day off for its celebrations. Thus the workers of France, Belgium, Norway, Iceland, Mexico, Finland and Sweden are lawfully out with their banners every First of May, and the trade unionists of Canada and the United States have an official Labour Day in early September (with statutory extra pay for those who have to work over the holiday). Turkey, with its succession of Right-wing semi-authoritarian regimes, has traditionally organised a Labour Day on May 1st, as has (more recently) Tanganyika, where the trade unions are directly ruled by the Minister of Labour. Most paradoxically of all, the only German government to have sanctioned May Day was that of Adolf Hitler, who proclaimed “National Labour Day” to a million workers gathered in Berlin on May 1st 1933, even receiving a resolution of gratitude and approval from the reformist trade-union leadership, who were still at large (though not for long, since on May 2nd, 1933, their offices were raided by Nazi squads, who forced them to perform repeated knee-bends before packing them off to concentration camps).

Perhaps it is just as well, then, that the British Labour movement commemorates May Day in the leisure-time of its members. At least we are beholden to nobody for the right to hold our demonstration and mass our banners. But, given the present performance of Labour's ministers, we have every reason to wonder whether our celebration of the international solidarity of the working class is not just as empty, as farcical even, as the regimented mass processions of Moscow and Peking, and the institutionalised picnics of North American labour. We gather on May Day to express, in the most visible and concentrated fashion, the independent organisation of the working class as a class for itself – and will we not hear speeches from a Prime Minister whose fireside sermonizing on workshop morality would do credit to MRA, from a Chancellor who has just produced an orthodox deflationary budget, from an Economic overlord whose “incomes policy” strikes at the independent negotiating function of trade unions? We proclaim working-class internationalism and human brotherhood on May Day – but Wilson's solidarity is with the bombers over Vietnam, not with the bombed, and Soskice is Keeping Britain White, committing racial propaganda by the deed (will he be prosecuted for this?).

May Day in Opposition was too often a tired procession of the Party faithful, listening to the annual platitudes, conniving with the platform to remember, for once, that the Labour movement was founded on a Socialist vision. May Day in Office with Labour's actions as they are, is a disgusting and impossible occasion; if we were genuinely to commemorate its meaning, the ceremony would disintegrate in anger and passion. Let May Day be kept, then, as it will be, in the conscious organisation and the collective intervention of the working class, on the 364 other days of the year.


Last updated on 5.12.2004