A history of Mayday

An article looking at the ancient pagan roots of Mayday, through the Haymarket martyrs to International Workers Day and the UK anti-capitalists in the late 1990s.

The Ancient Origins of Mayday
Mayday originated as a pagan festive holy day celebrating the first spring planting. The ancient Celts and Saxons celebrated May 1st as Beltane, which means the day of fire. Bel was the Celtic god of the sun. The Saxons began their Mayday celebrations on the eve of May, April 30. It was an evening of games and feasting celebrating the end of winter and the return of the sun and fertility of the soil. Torch bearing peasants and villagers would wind their way up paths to the top of hills or mountain crags and then ignite wooden wheels, which they would roll down into the fields below.

The May eve celebrations were eventually outlawed by the Catholic Church, but were still celebrated by peasants until the late 1700's. While good church going folk would shy away from joining in the celebrations, those less afraid of papal authority would don animal masks and various costumes. The revellers, lead by the Goddess of the Hunt, Diana (sometimes played by a pagan-priest in women's clothing), and the Horned God, Herne, would travel up the hill shouting, chanting, singing, and blowing hunting horns. This night became known in Europe as Walpurgisnacht, or night of the witches.

The Celtic tradition of Mayday in the British Isles continued to be celebrated throughout the middle ages by rural and village folk. Here the traditions were similar with a goddess and god of the hunt. As European peasants moved away from hunting gathering societies their gods and goddesses changed to reflect a more agrarian society. Thus Diana and Herne came to be seen by medieval villagers as fertility deities of the crops and fields. Diana became the Queen of the May and Herne became Robin Goodfellow (a predecessor of Robin Hood) or the Green Man. The Queen of the May reflected the life of the fields and Robin reflected the hunting traditions of the woods. The rites of mayday were part and parcel of pagan celebrations of the seasons. The Christian church later absorbed many of these pagan rites in order to win over converts from the 'Old Religion'.

The two most popular feast days for medieval craft guilds were the Feast of St. John - the Summer Solstice - and Mayday. Mayday was a raucous and fun time, electing a queen of the May from the eligible young women of the village, to rule the crops until harvest. Besides the selection of the May Queen was the raising of the phallic Maypole, around which the young single men and women of the village would dance holding on to the ribbons until they became entwined, with their (hoped for) new love. There was also Robin Goodfellow - the Green Man - who was the Lord of Misrule for this day. Mayday was a celebration of the common people, and Robin would be the King, Priest or Fool for a day. Priests and Lords were the butt of many jokes; mummers would make jokes and poke fun at the local authorities.

The church and state did not take kindly to these celebrations, especially during times of popular rebellion. Mayday and the Maypole were outlawed in the 1600's. Yet the tradition still carried on in many rural areas and the trade societies still celebrated Mayday until the 18th Century. As trade societies evolved from guilds, to friendly societies and eventually into unions, the craft traditions remained strong into the early 19th century.

In London the May Fayre was transferred from Haymarket in 1686 to Mayfair. The May Fayre lasted for up to 16 days and it soon became notorious for riotous and disorderly behaviour. In 1708 the May Fayre was abolished, only to be revived again with similar results. Building on the site was probably the most effective way of permanently suppressing the fair and by the mid-18th century almost the whole of modern Mayfair was covered with houses.

International Workers’ Day
The celebration of Mayday as a working class holiday evolved from the struggle for the eight-hour day in the 1880’s. In 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions passed a resolution stating that eight hours would constitute a legal day's work from and after May 1, 1886. The resolution called for a general strike to achieve the goal. With workers being forced to work ten, twelve, and fourteen hours a day, rank-and-file support for the eight-hour movement grew rapidly, despite the indifference and hostility of many union leaders. Revolutionaries believed that the struggle for an eight-hour day would evolve into a struggle to overthrow capital.

By April 1886 hundreds of thousands of American workers, increasingly determined to resist subjugation to capitalist power, had joined a fledgling trade union, the Knights of Labor. The heart of the movement was in Chicago, organised primarily by the revolutionary International Working Men's Association (the First International). Workers there had been agitating for an 8-hour day for months and, on the eve of May 1st, 50,000 were already on strike. 30,000 more swelled their ranks the next day, bringing most of Chicago manufacturing to a standstill, as they took to the streets to demand universal adoption of the 8-hour day. By May 1st the movement had already won gains for many Chicago clothing cutters, shoemakers, and packinghouse workers. But on May 3rd police fired into a crowd of strikers at the McCormick Reaper Works Factory, killing four and wounding many. Angered by the state violence and murderous police, a group of anarchists, led by August Spies & Albert Parsons, called on workers to arm themselves & participate in a massive protest demonstration in Haymarket Square the following evening. The meeting proceeded without incident, and by the time the last speaker was on the platform, the rainy gathering was already breaking up, with only a few hundred people remaining. It was then that 180 cops marched into the square and ordered the meeting to disperse. As the speakers climbed down from the platform, a bomb was thrown at the police, killing one and injuring seventy. Police responded by firing into the crowd, killing one worker and injuring many others.

Although it was never determined who threw the bomb, a reign of terror swept over Chicago. The press and the pulpit called for revenge, insisting the bomb was the work of socialists and anarchists. Meeting halls, union offices, printing works and private homes were raided. All known socialists and anarchists were rounded up. Even many individuals ignorant of the meaning of socialism and anarchism were arrested and tortured. "Make the raids first and look up the law afterwards" was the public statement of Julius Grinnell, the state's attorney. Eight of Chicago's most active anarchists were charged with accessories to murder. They were August Spies, Albert Parsons, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Fielden, Michael Schwab, Louis Lingg and Oscar Neebe.

In a spectacular show trial which opened on June 21st 1886, a kangaroo court found all eight guilty, despite a lack of evidence connecting any of them to the bomb-thrower (only one was even present at the meeting, and he was on the speakers' platform), and they were sentenced to death. Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolf Fischer, and George Engel were hanged on November 11th, 1887. Louis Lingg committed suicide in prison.

250,000 people lined Chicago's street during Parson's funeral procession to express their outrage at this gross miscarriage of justice. The campaign to free Neebe, Schwab and Fielden continued. On June 26th 1893 Governor Altgeld set them free. He made it clear he was not granting the pardon because he thought the men had suffered enough, but because they were innocent of the crime for which they had been tried. They and the hanged men had been the victims of "hysteria, packed juries and a biased judge".

For revolutionaries and workers everywhere, Haymarket became a symbol of the struggle for a new world. In Paris in 1889 the founding congress of the Second International declared May 1st an international working class holiday in commemoration of the Haymarket Martyrs and the red flag became the symbol of the blood of working class martyrs in their battle for workers rights.

The Second International’s commitment to internationalism was shown when they condemned millions of workers to death in the trenches of the First World War in defence of ‘their fatherland’. After the two world wars, the labour movement continued to pay lip service to Mayday and the occasion became a day for making grand speeches, but little else. In London a march continued to be organised, but this became more and more irrelevant except on the few occasions when it happened to coincide with a major dispute, the last being Wapping. The annual march became dominated by Stalinists, which led on one occasion to anarchists being attacked, and generally went round back streets.

Modern Mayday
In 1998 a number of revolutionaries, most of whom had been involved with the Class War Federation and paper, organised a conference with the aim of bringing the broad ‘movement’ together and opening up new dialogues. The conference was hosted in Bradford, where local anarchists and others had been attempting to reclaim Mayday. About 1,000 activists attended the Conference and, although it was not designed to be a decision-making conference, the result was renewed co-operation from groups and individuals who put aside personal disputes. This new found unity was experienced in action a year later at the J18 Carnival Against Capital in the City of London. The Mayday march itself in Bradford was a sea of red and black flags and was followed by a gig in the city centre.

In 1999, inspired by the Bradford conference and determined not to tail end the official march any longer, a small group of activists from Reclaim the Streets (RTS) and West London Anarchists & Radicals (WAR) set about organising a tube party in opposition to privatisation of the tube and in solidarity with tube workers. Mayday fell on a sunny Saturday and over 1,000 people crowded onto a circle line train, which was symbolically placed under ‘workers and passenger control’. A leaflet, mimicking in style official London Underground information leaflets, was distributed which declared:

"If we want another world we’ve got to stop maintaining this one through our action and inaction. The power of our rulers is based on the fact that they have separated us from each other, and we act as alienated individual workers and as passive consumers. By endlessly repeating the same patterns – paying our fares and bills, going to work, watching the world unfold on TV – we recreate this world every day. Today we attempt for a brief period to upset the normal pattern, to feel the power that we have when we act together. That we do this on International Workers’ day should remind us that despite the attempt by Blair and others to consign it to the past, one of the most powerful forms of direct action remains the withdrawal by workers of their labour. Workers can bring this world to a halt. Today we attempt to take over the tube, but we do so in solidarity with the tube workers".

Afterwards we partied on Clapham common at Jayday. This event marked a turning point: Mayday would never be the same again.

J18 transformed the ‘anti-capitalist movement’ in the UK and the following year a much larger group came together to organise a four-day Mayday 2000 - Festival of Anti-Capitalist Ideas and Action. This began on a wet Friday night with a Critical Mass cycle ride in Central London and a revolutionary history walk of the East End. The highlight of the latter was the surreal sight of a group of revolutionaries standing outside the former Match Girls strike factory, which is now Yuppie flats, in the pouring rain surrounded by cops! Over the next two days about 2,000 people attended a well-organised conference with a diverse range of workshops. Many were from differing backgrounds and political traditions and there was an exciting exchange of ideas.

On Mayday itself, which fell on a bank holiday, Parliament Square was transformed by Guerrilla Gardening. "Resistance is fertile" was the declaration and the banner tied across the treasury building in Parliament Square read "the earth is a common treasury for all". The enduring image was of the statue of mass murderer Churchill dressed in a green turf mohican and the desecration of the cenotaph. Mayday was followed by the official visit of Putin, who had overseen the death of 20,000 Chechnyans as Russia bombed Chechnya back into the Dark Ages, but damaged statues are of much more concern to the ruling class. As RTS said afterwards: "we do not necessarily celebrate the generals and the ruling class that send these people to their deaths in order to protect the privileges and control of the few. The abhorrence of sending millions of men to their deaths in the trenches dwarfs the stupidity of any possible slogan on any possible piece of stone".

Last year [2001] Mayday fell on a working day. The theme of the action was Mayday Monopoly and participants were invited to consider the possibilities of the Monopoly board and organise autonomous actions. The beauty of the concept was that Monopoly is a game played by every child. As the Mayday Monopoly Game Guide, a well-produced pamphlet circulated for free, put it: "The game of monopoly is one of accumulation, making it perfect for our times. The aim is for each player to make profits through the sale of a single commodity - land - and to expand their empire. In real life one single commodity generates all profits - our labour power. Since labour power cannot be separated from people, we are literally bought and sold in the market place".

The cops through the media threatened to shoot people with rubber bullets, press hysteria reached a new high, Mayor Livingstone took paid adverts telling people to stay away and even Prime Minister Blair got in on the act, but about 5,000 anti-capitalist protestors turned out to play Mayday Monopoly in London. The actions included a office invasion against the arms trade, a giant veggieburger give-away at MuckDonald's, building cardboard homes in Mayfair, a picket of Coutts Bank for the abolition of money, a demonstration outside HMP Pentonville, and, for the finale, a party against consumerism in that metropolis of shopping, Oxford Street. In fact Oxford Street had been boarded up and thousands of police replaced the shopaholics.

The cops tactic was to pen everyone in. They were assisted by the Trotskyist front group Globalise Resistance marching into Oxford Circus early and by the rain. Still, those who tried managed to break out and spread out as a far as Tottenham Court Road. Central London was closed down and the cost in lost business was put at £20 million. The end result was the most surreal gathering ever. The Financial Times meanwhile lamented "Business needs to do more to demonstrate the benefits... Governments must defend globalisation more vigorously - Otherwise, [the protesters] may win the battle for public opinion."

A more in-depth history of Mayday can be found at http://www.mayweek.ab.ca/history.html.