May Day is a holiday that is perhaps best known for its association with communist or former communist countries but what is the holiday all about, and why is it so specifically associated with communism?
Way back May Day
The earliest celebrations of May Day took place long before communism was a thing – in the debauched days of Ancient Rome, where it was celebrated in the name of the goddess Flora (no prizes for guessing what she was the goddess of). The festival later morphed into a month-long bacchanalia where people drank, revelled and did naughty things to each other. Christian Emperor Constantine would later suppress this tradition, but Maydayers gon’ Mayday, and the tradition survived.
May Day as a socialist tradition
None of the above really explains why anarchists and communists latched onto the holiday and transformed it into what became International Workers’ Day, however. If you were making an educated guess, where would you have expected the tradition to have originated? Russia? Cuba? China? How about the least communist country ever?
The Haymarket Affair
May Day as a celebration of the proletariat came about as a commemoration of a bloody clash between labourers and the police in the US city of Chicago, known as the Haymarket Affair. Long story short: on May 1st 1886, a bunch of disaffected workers in Chicago took part in a general strike, demanding the establishment of an 8-hour working day. Business interests generally don’t like it when their workers get crazy ideas in their heads like ‘organising’ and ‘better working conditions’, and on May 3rd the police fired upon the strikers, killing several of them.
This culminated in further violence the following day, when someone lobbed a dynamite-based bomb at the police and killed 12 people. The aftermath saw several prominent anarchists and socialists arrested and, after what some might claim as something of a show trial, seven of the eight arrested were sentenced to death.
The Second International and the establishment of International Workers’ Day
The Haymarket Affair resonated with communists and anarchists worldwide; it was seen by many as blatant establishment suppression of the proletariat, and in remembrance of the event, an international organisation of socialists and anarchists called the Second International convened in Paris for their first congress. During the congress, May 1st was proclaimed International Workers’ Day, where the proletariat were exhorted to lay down their tools and campaign for an eight-hour working day.
Adoption of International Workers’ Day by communist countries
The Second International didn’t survive long past World War I, but had several successors. One of these was an organisation called Comintern, created by a little-known organisation called the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Amongst other things, Comintern adopted the International Workers’ Day tradition promulgated by the Second International, and it became a staple holiday throughout the USSR and its associated client states. Comintern was eventually dissolved by Great Cartoon Villain, Joe Stalin, in 1943, but International Workers’ Day lived on.
So it is that International Workers’ Day persists as a hugely important holiday in, amongst other countries, Cuba and North Korea, where it remains a celebration of socialist values. In certain countries featuring socialism with Chinese characteristics it’s now mostly a retail holiday, but in some places — such as the Maoist commune of Nanjiecun — it’s a popular day for weddings and for pledging one’s allegiance to following the socialist path.