The Origin and Meaning of May Day


The People
May, 1996
Vol. 106 No. 2


People of medieval times went "a-Maying" in the woods. The Maypole festivities, which many of today's grandparents may still remember from their childhood years, are very likely rooted in primitive custom as a celebration of the end of a harsh and infertile season and the coming of a warm and lush time in which the earth would yield its bounty.

With this bit of history as background, the choice of May First by the Paris Congress of the Second International as labor's own holiday was particularly fitting. However, there was also some strategy involved.


Initially, the reason for May Day was to demonstrate for an eight-hour day. In the spring, there are generally greater job opportunities; or, to put it another way, capitalists require more wage slaves. Agriculture reawakens and some forms of commerce are freer -- perhaps a seasonal distinction more applicable in 1889 than now. Obviously, if workers were to demonstrate for an eight-hour day, the time to do it was when they were most needed.

But that wasn't the only reason for May Day. Being international, it embraced the workers of all nations, transcending national boundaries. May Day's observance gave substance to a memorable statement by Abraham Lincoln: "The strongest bond of human sympathy, outside of the family relation, should be one uniting all working people, of all nations and tongues, and kindred."


Regarding the history of the Second International's May Day resolution, the Socialist Labor Party appears to have played a part. A Frenchman by the name of Lavigne was the original mover, according to the WORKMEN'S ADVOCATE, Aug. 17, 1890. One of the seconders, according to a Letter Box item by Daniel De Leon in the DAILY PEOPLE, April 20, 1913, was SLP delegate J.F. Busche, who was a member of the "American Section" of the SocialistIC Labor Party and editor of the WORKMEN'S ADVOCATE.


The capitalist class did not take graciously to a working-class holiday. As Olive M. Johnson, editor of THE PEOPLE from 1918 to 1938, wrote: "...The workers from the first had to fight for their day -- literally. To leave work to demonstrate on May Day was often to jeopardize their jobs, and many a bitter strike was fought to reinstate these workers. Then once on the street in demonstration or at a great outdoor mass meeting, new troubles were liable to set in. Police and cossacks of the various countries got into action by order of the powers of state, clubbing, maiming, arresting and killing the peacefully demonstrating workers."

Later, techniques at undermining labor's holiday became more sophisticated. In the United States, for example, May Day was smeared as "foreign" and subversive. Elsewhere, particularly in the former Soviet Union, "May Day" was perverted into a state function, with large displays of military might and chauvinistic flag waving and speeches. In some other nations, religious observances have taken over.


Today, May Day is noted in its original design as the international holiday of the international working class by the Socialist Labor Party and by all those who still retain an understanding of the holiday as a sign of the international solidarity of workers. In that spirit the SLP and THE PEOPLE mark the 107th observance of May Day by sending greetings to all our working-class readers on six continents around the globe.