MONEY AND WORK

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May 1, 2009

RECOVERED HISTORY: HARD TIMES FOR MAY 1

Socialist Project, Canada - For more than 100 years, May Day has symbolized the common struggles of workers around the globe. Why is it largely ignored in North America? The answer lies in part in American labor's long repression of its own radical past, out of which international May Day was actually born a century ago.

The seeds were sown in the campaign for the eight-hour work day. On May 1, 1886, hundreds of thousands of North American workers mobilized to strike. In Chicago, the demonstration spilled over into support for workers at a major farm-implements factory who'd been locked out for union activities. On May 3, during a pitched battle between picketers and scabs, police shot two workers. At a protest rally in Haymarket Square the next day, a bomb was tossed into the police ranks and police directed their fire indiscriminately at the crowd. Eight anarchist leaders were arrested, tried and sentenced to death (three were later pardoned).

These events triggered international protests, and in 1889, the first congress of the new socialist parties associated with the Second International (the successor to the First International organized by Karl Marx in the 1860s) called on workers everywhere to join in an annual one-day strike on May 1 -- not so much to demand specific reforms as an annual demonstration of labor solidarity and working-class power. May Day was both a product of, and an element in, the rapid growth of new mass working-class parties of Europe -- which soon forced official recognition by employers and governments of this 'workers' holiday.'

But the American Federation of Labor, chastened by the 'red scare' that followed the Haymarket events, went along with those who opposed May Day observances. Instead, in 1894, the AFL embraced president Grover Cleveland's decree that the first Monday of September would be the annual Labor Day. The Canadian government of Sir Robert Thompson enacted identical Labor Day legislation a month later.

Ever since, May Day and Labor Day have represented in North America the two faces of working-class political tradition, one symbolizing its revolutionary potential, the other its long search for reform and respectability. With the support of the state and business, the latter has predominated -- but the more radical tradition has never been entirely suppressed.

Guardian, UK -
Why was there no Marxism in Britain? Both Marx and Engels spent the better part of their lives here, pamphleteering and electioneering, trying to organize the workers and accelerate the revolution. But it was abroad – in Germany, France, Italy and even America – where their ideas gained traction and Marxist parties prospered.

Historians have long emphasized economics and sociology as the insurmountable obstacles. Ross McKibbin has pointed to the lack of collectivism among an English working class employed, for the most part, in small firms, and a service sector with not enough antagonism towards the boss class. Furthermore, there was a traditional radical English hostility towards collectivism and a rich civil society of clubs and institutes not overly seduced by continental communism. . .

The hidden truth is that Engels bears a heavy responsibility. After Marx's death in 1883, "The General", as he was known, was in charge and it was a disastrous series of decisions on his behalf which crippled UK communism to this day.

Most debilitating was Engels's inability to get on with anyone. He could not forgive Henry Hyndman, the leader of the Marxist Social Democratic Federation, for inspiring G20-style riots in the West End and thereby equating "socialism with looting in the minds of the bourgeois public". The Fabians were even worse: "A dilettante lot of egregiously conceited mutual admirers." Engels invested some hope in William Morris, as a result of a shared enthusiasm for Old Norse mythology. But when Morris flirted with anarchism, Engels expelled him as "a sentimental dreamer pure and simple". And as for poor Keir Hardie – "a cunning, crafty Scot, a Pecksniff and arch-intriguer, but too ­cunning, ­perhaps, and too vain".

Such hostility would have been understandable if Engels had had an ­outstanding candidate to lead the movement. Unfortunately, he anointed Edward Aveling – a brilliant philosopher and the lover of Marx's daughter Eleanor, but someone intensely disliked in socialist circles as a philanderer and thief with an infamously low character. Resentful at Engels's attempts to "foist" the distrusted Aveling "as a leader upon the English Socialist and Labour movement", activists shunned Engels and the Marxist influence over the political direction and ideology of British socialism diminished. Right from its birth, communism was denied an effective political voice in the UK and it has never recovered.

So as today's rally hears from the Cuban ambassador and messages of solidarity from workers' parties across the world, British activists might like to ponder the awkward fact that part of the reason why there is no Marxism in Britain is because Marx and Engels actually lived here.

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