May 2004 Journal

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May Day (editorial)

After the bleak midwinter and hesitant early spring, May Day at last announces the advent of the best season of the year. No wonder that celebrating the first day of May is a custom of venerable antiquity.

The Romans dedicated the day to Flora, the goddess of flowers. In the French revolutionary calendar May even became Floréal, while Wagner, with characteristic hyperbole, dubbed the month Wonnemond, or month of bliss.

In medieval England May Day was marked by feasting, sport and games, dancing round the Maypole, and the crowning of the fairest maiden as the May Queen. (In the village where Britten's opera Albert Herring is set, the dearth of virtuous maidens compels the residents to choose a May King.)

An English tradition gradually evolved whereby Robin Hood and Maid Marion presided over the day's festivities; by the sixteenth century May Day was Robin Hood's Day, on which plays about the outlaw of Sherwood Forest were customarily performed.

In popular mythology Robin Hood was a fighter for social justice who 'took from the rich to give to the poor'. It was, therefore, quite appropriate that at its foundation conference in Paris in 1889 the Socialist International designated 'his' day, the First of May, as the Day of International Labour.

Accordingly on May Day 1890 tens of thousands of workers in London, Paris, Berlin and Vienna marched in the streets demanding a 48-hour working week, trades union recognition and votes for all.

In Russia the authorities banned May Day demonstrations and rallies, but the 1905 revolution led to a relaxation of the ban. At this time there were thousands of Jewish artisans and workers in Russia's industrial labour force. Many of them joined the Bund, an organisation that aimed to set up an autonomous Yiddish-speaking enclave in a socialist Russia.

The Bundists were virtually wiped out by Stalin and Hitler, but before that happened some escapees from Russian pogroms and poverty carried left-wing ideas into their countries of immigration, principally the USA and South Africa. This is the provenance of the legendary anarchist Emma Goldman and of the linguistics pioneer-cum-Marxist philosopher Naum Chomsky in America, and of Joe Slovo, leader of the ANC's military wing, in South Africa.

Modern May Days are about class - and their respective class origins created salient differences between Jewish socialist leaders hailing from Eastern Europe, and those who, born further west, benefited from Jewish emancipation and upward mobility. The original founder of the German labour movement, Ferdinand Lassalle, just like the leader of Austrian Social Democracy, Viktor Adler, was a bourgeois university graduate; one became a writer and the other a doctor. Neither moved as far to the left of the political spectrum as the immigrant Ostjuden Goldman or Slovo.

But to return to the main story: Hitler, who dominated the continent in the 1930s, had adroitly stolen the left's clothes, calling himself a National Socialist and making red the background colour of the swastika flag. He also elevated May Day into a paid holiday under the grandiloquent designation Day of National Labour. On 1 May 1933 millions of German onlookers were treated to the spectacle of industrial tycoons - Krupp, Thyssen, Flick - marching in step with their workers through the thoroughfares of major cities.

The Nazi-drilled multitude watching these unprecedented May Day processions shouted, with tears in their eyes: 'An end to the division between bosses and workers; we're all Germans now!'

Meanwhile in Britain a division was opening up on the left. The leader of the Labour Party, George Lansbury, was a pacifist who, a little earlier, had played host to Mahatma Gandhi, a kindred soul in his advocacy of non-violent resistance. However, the most influential trade unionist was Ernest Bevin, who considered pacifism inappropriate in the age of Hitler and Mussolini, and made Lansbury step down as Labour leader.

The post-Lansbury Labour Party has been pretty robust ever since - though never entirely. Pacifism is part of the socialist mindset, especially on the continent - and, most surprisingly, in countries like Germany and Spain, that were Fascist within living memory.

Given the less than cohesive state of European socialism - no less than that of the enlarged EU itself - May Day 2004 may well prompt mayday calls.

next article:From Karl's prophecy to repatriated eggs