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MAY DAY: A Brief History 

by Eric Chester

May 1, 2024

May Day is celebrated around the world as a day to advance the international solidarity of the working class and to support all of those who resist oppression and seek a new society based on cooperation and equality. Although it has become a global holiday, it has its roots in events that took place in Chicago more than one hundred and thirty-five years ago.


The Haymarket Confrontation

            In October 1884 the federation of craft unions that would become the American Federation of Labor approved a resolution at its national convention held in Chicago declaring that an eight hour day would become the standard as of May 1, 1886. The delegates agreed that mass rallies and strikes would be organized to enforce this decision.

            Needless to say, employers refused to concede this demand. On May 1, 1886, a Saturday, large rallies were held in cities around the country. In Chicago, then a major industrial center, forty thousand marched peacefully through the streets of the downtown Loop.

            On the following Monday, May 3, a violent clash took place at the McCormack plant which produced tractors and agricultural implements. The corporation had cut wages, triggering a long and bitter strike. Early Monday morning, a large crowd tried to block strikebreakers from entering the plant. Stones were thrown and a large contingent of mounted police charged the crowd and started beating them. Some of the strikers threw stones at the cops, who then opened fire. Two of those in the crowd supporting the strike were killed and several others were severely injured.

            The events at the McCormack plant were basically a spontaneous outburst. Still, as word spread there was talk of retaliation. August Spies, a leading Chicago anarchist, wrote a flyer following the clash at the McCormack plant urging workers to “rise in your might” to “destroy the hideous monster” of capitalism. The flyer ended with: “To arms we call you.”

            The flyer reflected the general viewpoint of a small group of militants who had broken with the predominant trend on the Left which relied on electoral activity as the primary means toward a socialist future. This anarchist grouping rejected electoral politics, convinced that only direct action could overturn the capitalist system. Furthermore, they believed that the revolution would require a military confrontation with the army and the police. Finally, Chicago’s anarchist network was certain that the revolution was imminent and that militants should arm themselves in preparation for the coming clash.

            The anarchist network made no secret of these beliefs. Newspapers aligned with this tendency printed articles providing a detailed explanation of how to make bombs. It is not surprising given this context that some of Chicago’s anarchists began to take action. Paramilitary militia units were formed and began drilling with weapons. The most determined activists took a further step and started to build a cache of bombs in preparation for the imminent uprising.

            On Tuesday, May 4, 1886, the day after the clash at the McCormack plant, the anarchist grouping called for an evening rally at Haymarket Square, a large square on the near west side of Chicago. The organizers were hoping for a mass rally of twenty thousand, but only two thousand actually attended. The crowd remained calm and orderly. The first two speakers denounced the police and the corporation, but generally avoided making provocative statements. By the time Samuel Fielden, the third and final speaker, began the crowd had dwindled to three hundred with the threat of a storm. As Fielden came to an end of his speech, he declared that workers had to “throttle” and “stab” the law.

            These remarks provided the authorities with an excuse to quash the rally. Two detectives monitoring the rally rushed back to a nearby police station where dozens of mounted police were being held in reserve. Hearing that Fielden had threatened the use of force against the law, the inspector in charge ordered the police to disperse the crowd. The mounted police unit then rode into the crowd and began to randomly club protesters. At this critical moment, someone threw a bomb into the ranks of the charging police. Several police officers responded by shooting wildly and indiscriminately. A few of those attending the rally had come armed and they began to fire back at the police.

            In a few moments, a small rally had turned into a major disaster. Seven police officers were killed and sixty suffered serious injuries. Many of them were shot by other police officers. There is no definitive count of the casualties suffered by those in the crowd as many of those wounded refused to go to a hospital for fear of arrest. A careful count estimated seven protesters killed and thirty injured.

            For months after the confrontation at the Haymarket Square, Chicago was under virtual martial law. Police arbitrarily arrested suspected troublemakers and harshly interrogated them. Strikes were crushed and rallies were dispersed.

            In the end, eight of the most well known anarchists in Chicago were arrested and tried on the charge of participating in a conspiracy that had led an unknown person to hurl a bomb into the ranks of the mounted police. Several of the defendants had not attended the rally. The most prominent of them, Albert Parsons, had been one of the speakers, but had left the scene before the police charged. Only one of those indicted, Louis Lingg, was directly involved in the production of bombs and no evidence was presented that linked him to the bomb that was actually used at Haymarket.

            The trial was held in the midst of a media circus. Evidence to support the charge of conspiracy to commit murder was lacking. The three speakers at exercised their First Amendment rights to criticize the police and the McCormack corporation. Their speeches that evening did not constitute an incitement to violence. Lingg was the only defendant guilty of a felony, possession of explosives, but he too was not guilty of the charge before the jury.

            In spite of this, all eight of the defendants were convicted and seven of them were sentenced to die. Throughout the country mass rallies were held to protest these draconian sentences. At the last moment, the governor of Ilinois, Richard Oglesby, commuted the death penalty for Fielden and one of the other prisoners, both of whom had submitted a plea for a reprieve. Lingg committed suicide in his jail cell on the day before his execution using a dynamite pill that had been smuggled into the prison. On November 11, 1887, four of the defendants, including Albert Parsons, were hanged.

            For the next six years, a massive protest movement was organized to demand the release of the three Haymarket defendants who remained in a maximum security prison outside of Chicago. Finally, in June 1893 Governor John Peter Altgeld pardoned Fielden and the two other prisoners and the Haymarket incident had come to an end.

            The confrontation at the Haymarket Square was a tragedy that should have never happened. As with most historical events, assessing the ultimate responsibility is a difficult task. There can be no doubt that the police were the primary offenders. They had no valid reason to charge a crowd that was already dispersing without incident. Furthermore, the Chicago police were too ready to use lethal force, as had already been demonstrated when they opened fire on unarmed strikers on the previous day.

            Still, the unknown person who hurled the bomb, in all likelihood an anarchist militant, must also bear much of the responsibility. Obviously, he had come to the rally with a bomb because he expected the authorities to act and he was ready to put the lives of those attending a peaceful rally at a far greater risk than that posed by the police.

            This leaves the question of the responsibility to be assigned to the Haymarket defendants and their supporters. Legally they were exercising their free speech rights. Nevertheless, the defendants and Chicago anarchist group they represented do bear a moral responsibility for the tragic events at the Haymarket. There can be little doubt that the talk of imminent violent revolution encouraged the bomber to hurl his explosive at the police. In his plea to the governor, Fielden admitted that his remarks were intemperate. While “aroused to a pitch of excitement,” he had spoken phrases that were “in a sense irresponsible”. Fielden’s admission could be extended to several of the other defendants as well.

            More importantly, the political perspective held by the Chicago anarchists was fundamentally mistaken. Wishful thinking is not an effective basis for a socialist strategy. Chicago was nowhere near a revolutionary moment in 1886. Furthermore, a socialist revolution will not come to power through an armed victory over the military forces of the state. Revolutions succeed when the system is in crisis and when a social movement demanding fundamental change undermines the morale of the army and the police. Finally, it was naive to believe that a few rifles and homemade bombs could defeat the repressive forces of the state.

            The perspective advanced by the Chicago anarchists represents only one strand of anarchist thought. Other strands, such as anarcho-syndicalism, have made important contributions to the strategic and theoretical thought of the radical Left. On the other hand, over the century and more since Haymarket, there have been several efforts to revive the Chicago tradition. These ventures have been organized by groups espousing a variety of ideologies and yet the core beliefs of these groups have been very similar to those held by the Chicago anarchists in the 1880s. The outcome of these ventures has almost always led to the same disastrous results as those that followed from the events at the Haymarket Square.

The Second International

            News of the mass rallies for an eight hour day and of the clash at the Haymarket Square reverberated around the world. These events in the United States sparked the establishment of May Day as an international holiday for the working class.

            In December 1888 the American Federation of Labor held its convention in St. Louis. The delegates decided to again push forward the demand for an eight hour day. May 1, 1890, a Thursday, was fixed as the day for rallies and strikes to pressure employers to implement the eight hour day.

            News of this decision spread rapidly overseas. In July 1889, delegates from socialist parties and radical trade unions gathered in Paris to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution and to revive the international. (The First International had dissolved in April 1876.) The AFL was not represented at Paris conference, but delegates knew of the decision to establish the next May Day as another day of protests. Furthermore, the movement to free the three remaining Haymarket prisoners continued to gain momentum.

            On the last day of the conference, Raymond Lavigne, a delegate from the French syndicalist union, proposed that May 1, 1890, be set as an international working class holiday. His resolution did not specify what form the protests should take. The May Day proposal was approved with little debate and without dissent.

            The decision to make May Day an international holiday would prove to be a momentous one. From the start, May Day would be a controversial issue which sharpened the divisions within the Second International. The more militant sections of the International organized events on May 1. These events took the form of rallies and, where possible, one day general strikes.

            The more moderate, social democratic sections of the International adopted a more cautious approach. The German Social Democratic Party (SPD) was the largest and most influential member of the Second International. Its leaders were anxious to avoid any conflict with the autocratic regime of the Prussian Kaiser. For 1890, the SPD therefore opted to celebrate May Day on the Sunday after May 1 by holding a rally. This would set the pattern for future years. German social democrats downplayed the importance of May Day and held its rally on the Sunday after May 1 to avoid any call for a one day strike.

            In Czarist Russia and Russian occupied Poland the situation was very different. Socialist organizations were illegal and operated underground. Beginning in 1890, May Day was celebrated on May 1 with rallies and strikes. Indeed, May Day became the most important event on the socialist calendar.

            Antagonisms within the International between social democratic reformists and revolutionary socialists were sharpened to the point of a split during the First World War. As a young socialist activist in Czarist Poland, Rosa Luxemburg had written her first published articles in support of May Day. In May 1898, she moved to Germany and became the most prominent exponent of a radical alternative to the cautious pragmatism of the SPD’s leadership. When the social democrats decided to support the German war effort, Luxemburg joined Karl Liebknicht and a few other stalwart socialists in forming the Spartakus Bund.

            In April 1915, Spartakus circulated a flyer in Berlin calling for a mass rally on May 1, a Saturday. Any form of opposition to the war was illegal in wartime Germany so May Day protests were banned. Nevertheless, several hundred militants joined the rally which was quickly and forcibly dispersed. Liebknicht was arrested and sentenced to four years in prison. He was only free in October 1917, in an amnesty granted a few weeks before the revolution that overthrew the Kaiser and brought an end to the war.

            May Day has always been a key moment for the radical Left. It is a special day to celebrate the international solidarity of the working class and to support all who struggle to overcome oppression.

            This May Day we are especially aware of insurgent movements in Argentina, Iran and Myanmar, as well as here in the United States. In Argentina, mass strikes and demonstrations are contesting the draconian measures proposed by a right-wing government intent on destroying social services and entrenching the power of the wealthy elite. In Iran, women are leading the way in an effort to overthrow the reactionary regime of the Islamic fundamentalists. Their continued determination in the face of cruel repression has been exemplary. In Myanmar, the entire populace is united in a determined effort to overthrow a military junta and restore democracy, FOR A SOCIALIST FUTURE


Further Reading

Avrich, Paul. 1984. The Haymarket Tragedy. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

Braunthal, Julius. 1966. History of the International, 1864-1914. Thomas Nelson, London, England.

Foner, Philip S. 1986. May Day: A Short History of the International Workers’ Holiday,1886-1986. International Publishers, New York, NY.

Nettl, J. P. 1966. Rosa Luxemburg. (Two Volumes). Oxford University Press, London, England.

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