May Day

Twenty-Five Years of Eight-Hour Propaganda

Hubert Langerock

Published: International Socialist Review, May 1914;
HTML: for in March, 2002;
Proofed and Corrected: by Dawn Gaitis, 2007.

I STILL remember it, as if it had occurred yesterday. It was in Paris, in 1889, during the closing hours of the International Congress. Delegates were anxious to get away. On the stage behind the chairman there was a dying man in an armchair. He was a pathetic figure. For years he had given the best of his brilliant intellect and simple proletarian life – enough to make him a saint of some religion, had he lived at the time when saints were made – to his party, and no one in that gathering appreciated more keenly the potentiality of the resolution about to be passed than the kind and grim fighter in the eventide of his well-filled career.

What was a swan song to him, was an introduction to action for a lot of youngsters, of whom I was one, who had come to see the World's Fair, and incidentally dropped in at the International Convention of that Socialism with which the teachings of Laveleye and the “Katheder-Socialisten,” then at the zenith of their popularity in European universities, had given them a kind of book acquaintance.

There, in the confusion of the closing hours, hailed in a dozen tongues with shouts of joy and songs of hope, was born the international labor celebration with its specific purpose – the eight-hour day.

It was a wonderful tactical move, the prelude to the rebirth of the International, the prologue to the world-wide federation of the conscious proletariat on modern lines.

They decided that the first day of May should be a universal holiday. This was in itself a master stroke, the proclamation of a red Easter.

Easter, no more than Christmas, is Christian in its origin. The pagans celebrated it, not because they were pagans, but because they were men. For May day and Easter Sunday are the idealization of springtime, of the resurrection of nature, the time of the year when the rays of the sun become warm enough to tear the cloud-veils to shreds, pump the sap back up to the bursting ends of the twigs and make the blood of men course quicker in their veins. As far back as human history goes, this period of enhanced vitality has always been the signal of a deeper altruism within the class and a stronger impulse to fight outside the class.

If the choice of May day, with its garland of traditions in the folk lore and historical economic development of all nations, was a master stroke of social psychology, the connection of the International Labor day with the specific reform of the reduction of the day's work to eight hours by economic pressure or legal statute was no less of a testimony of the degree to which this gathering synthesized the aspirations of the world's workers.

There were many precedents, helpful data gathered from every industrial country and given to the Congress in the reports of the various nationalities.

Australia was, for various local causes, the foremost eight-hour land in the world.

In 1881 the “New Unionism” was born in Great Britain. The London dockers had gone on strike, led by John Burns and Tom Mann. Trade unionism, staid and formal, was proving inefficient. A necessity for a new form of organization arose from the ranks of the modern proletarians, the so-called but no longer unskilled, the men who have no specialized mechanical skill, but bring for sale upon the labor market a general faculty of adaptability to the processes of machine production. England's old trade unionism, in which Marx, during his lifetime, had placed such fond hopes, had degenerated into a self-centered craft aristocracy, bent upon securing for itself advantages within the economic system, politically neutral, but in practice shifting its allegiance from Whig to Tory and back from Tory to Whig, pursuing the illusory aim of playing both capitalistic factions against each other and only succeeding in being disappointed and fooled by the party in power and the opposition at the same time.

Capitalistic judges may at all times be relied upon to give a practical application of Richelieu's oft-quoted saying: “Give me four lines of a man's writing and I can hang him.” It takes them less than four lines and sometimes four words to send a man to jail by weaving around his words a mass of legal jargon, which nobody understands, but which clouds the whole process of capitalistic revenge or repression with a haze of class-made legality, whose volume alone is enough to overawe the simple-minded.

When they turned the trick on John Burns, he replied by defining the “New Unionism” in court and flaunting in the face of judge and jury the intimate connection of this more aggressive unionism with class action and Socialism.

An echo of that British court room reached the Paris convention, while from across the Atlantic there came another revelation.

Since 1801, American wage workers had more or less consciously rebelled in spasmodic movements, asking now for shorter hours and then for higher pay, without differentiating the nature of their demands. Later, Ira Stewart and George E. MacNeill had launched their eight-hour propaganda and the A. F. of L. had adopted the purpose, method and spirit of Stewart and decided to strike for an eight-hour day, one trade at a time, the carpenters being chosen for the first skirmish in 1890.

The whole movement was typically American and, as such, it embodied a feature entirely individualistic in origin and cause and which the composing units of the American labor movement have not been able to discard, even today. I would like to call it simplistic. It is an inordinate liking for a simple, partly true, narrowly defined and unduly inflated specific often justified by superficial study or doubtful observation, elevated to the pompous dignity of a cure-all and launching out with uncommonly intensive intolerance to excommunicate all other remedies.

The state of mind of the social simplist expresses itself thus: I am an, hurrah for ......ism, the other fellow is a crook. Adapt this formula to eight-hourism, pure-and-simplism both political and economic and industrial unionism and you will have the war-cries of the bitter struggles, wherein the working class of America has frittered away so much of its energy. This attitude of arrogant exclusiveness fails to notice the complexity of social phenomena, the multiple nature of the class struggle, the resulting necessity of using one of several simultaneous methods with temporary preference, according to time and place.

The trouble with most of us is that we do not realize the limitations of our social environment, that we are too self-conceited and self-satisfied and fancy ourselves social messiahs, when we are just poor individualists struggling on the brink of a social age.

Ira Stewart was the father of “simplism” in the American labor movement. He realized the advantages of a reduction of the hours of labor to eight and spilled the value of his own argument by proclaiming that the eight-hour day was a complete social program in itself. Such was the birth of eight-hourism and to help this short-lived gospel along Stewart backed it up with his “eight-hour philosophy.” The high sounding name did not prevent the philosophy from being intensely bourgeois in spirit and method, giving as the initial reason for the reform a vaguely theoretical necessity of raising the standard of living through the extended leisure granted all citizens and as a secondary motive the possibility of maintaining the amount of surplus value by increasing the productivity of the shortened labor time. The latter consideration confined “eight-hourism” entirely within the framework of the capitalistic system.

In the United States also, an official Labor Day had been appointed as a national holiday and had begun to be the occasion for the conventional and characterless craft-union processions, parading through the streets from year to year the weakness of their caste-snobbery and the stupidity of their dormant and unused class power.

All these national features were the subjects of reports at the Paris Congress. They became a basis for discussion and brought what constructive value was hidden in them to the final synthesis elaborated by the Congress: a yearly review of the conscious masses of labor in honor of the world-wide solidarity of the modern proletariat and in pursuance of an immediate demand for an eight-hour work day.

Why, of all possible immediate demands of the working class, was the eight-hour day chosen to be the special demand of labor's hosts on the from now on eventful May day?

It was not entirely on account of historical or national precedents but, because of all the demands which labor make under capitalism, a reduction of the hours of labor is the only one which is not susceptible of a capitalistic interpretation, the only one which unequivocally strikes at the root of the system. A reduction of the hours of labor embodies the experimental logic of facts and therefore it remains independent in its results from the words or formulas wherein it is expressed, it forces the most conservative craft-union man into an attitude which is revolutionary, whether he likes it or not.

No other demand of labor under capitalism is susceptible of the same interpretation, whether it be minimum-wage, or old-age pensions or unemployment benefits or feeding of school children or many more all such measures, unless backed up by a strong revolutionary feeling which makes them indisputable conquests of a forward-moving proletariat, become mere philanthropies of the bourgeois, surface measures of the master class. The bourgeois of today knows that he can recede from the orthodoxy of his old Manchesterianism without pecuniary loss, if he can prevent the birth of an efficient working class economic organization, which would cut the cost of his social emotionalism out of his profits.

Such was the reason for which eight hours became the specific demand of the marchers on May day.

I have always wondered, and today, after twenty-five years, more than ever, if the crying leader in his armchair on the stage of the convention, genial optimist as he was, did really guess the success reached after this propaganda of a quarter of a century.

Ira Stewart wished to placate the capitalists by telling them that the same production could be crowded in 8 or 10 hours. It was not quite true in direct production and besides, there were indirect results which had a real influence on the labor market. It was never true for labor of attendance. Nevertheless such was the intensity of the demand of May day, that the largest employer of that class of labor had to come to terms and that employer is none other than the capitalistic state itself.

It behooves us then, workers of the present day, compelled by the fierceness of our struggle to search for efficiency in method and tactics to gather unto ourselves some of the sober judgment and sense of practical reality of the men who launched the eight-hour movement a quarter of a century ago, to remember their tolerance and strive to gain their scientific accuracy. The tangible results of a quarter century of eight-hour propaganda stand as their monument today.

Could we not, following in their footsteps, take out of every one of our pettyisms the modicum of truth hidden in them and solve our problems accordingly, organizing the vast army of the machine process hitherto unorganized upon industrial lines and uniting the craft groups in the industrial groups, in such a measure as the technical development of the mode of production makes necessary and above all penetrating all the economic organizations of labor with the constructively revolutionary frame of mind and capacity for action, which includes the ballot-box and reaches far beyond, if necessary. This would only be an up-to-date version of the vision of the men who inaugurated labor's May day, one of whom gave us a surmise of our mission in these words:

Ours is the future,
Conscious, we raise our heads,
Under our rhythmic tread the world is shaking,
When over our ranks flutters in the morning breeze
The glorious thrill of our scarlet banners!