The First of May

The First of May

“Organized a little we control a little,” the Wobblies liked to say, “organized more we control more; organized as a class we control everything.” On May Day 1914, however, such unity was by no means apparent. 

May Day 1913 in NYC's Union Square (Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

New York’s labor unions had a banner day planned for the First of May in 1914, with parades and celebrations scheduled across the city. Finnish and Bohemian socialists were congregating on the Lower East Side. Carpenters and cloak-makers would begin their march from Chelsea, while the United Hebrew Trades intended to start near Little Italy. By the afternoon, all these various strands would join in Union Square for an inspiring demonstration of working-class power in the nation’s greatest metropolis.

Yet a note of apprehension threatened to spoil this grand pageant of solidarity. Anarchists and members of the Industrial Workers of the World—radicals far to the left of the socialists and trade union members—had their own designs on May Day. The various factions had a long history of rancor and rivalry, and officials feared that a confrontation could flare into catastrophe.

All went well—at first. Mild weather ensured a tremendous turnout. For hours, 40,000 or so paraders marched with a “joyous spirit” through the city’s streets and filtered into Union Square. Then, around 5 p.m., a shouting match between anarchists and socialists degenerated into a terrifying melee. In a misguided attempt to restore order, hundreds of cops charged into the crowd, sparking pandemonium. “Clubs flew right and left,” the New York Times reported, with “police jumping over the bodies of prostrate women, men, boys, and even two babies,” until the “din of the stampede and the screams of women and children” echoed round the plaza. When order finally returned, bloodied victims lay everywhere, police and organizers faced widespread criticism, and another May Day had ended in disaster.

1914 was a year of exceptional crisis in New York. Mass unemployment inspired weekly demonstrations where anarchist orators denounced the predations of Wall Street. Police lashed out brutally against peaceful protesters, while the mayor of the time—a young reformer named John Purroy Mitchel—struggled to balance law and order with civil liberties. In short, the dramas and confrontations of a century ago were a remarkable precursor to the events surrounding today’s Occupy movement. As organizers call for a general strike to coincide with this year’s May Day, a backward glance at the experiences of a century ago suggests dangers to be skirted, opportunities to be grasped, and some intriguing lessons about the similarities and differences between two seminal moments in history.

“The Dreaded May Day,” it was called, and with good reason. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the workers’ celebration was inevitably a nervous time for government authorities. Rumors of bloodshed and mayhem—of “Red Plots” and “radical outbreaks”—tended to proliferate in the waning days of April. First celebrated officially in the 1880s, the holiday was intended to serve as a demonstration of working-class solidarity. One day a year, all men and women who labored would come together to voice their opposition to capital. In practice, however, such unity remained elusive as labor’s various representatives each held a different vision of what the holiday should signify.

Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor—which was simultaneously the nation’s largest and most moderate union—simply refused to acknowledge it. “To American labor, May Day . . . is exactly like any other day,” he insisted. “May Day means nothing more to American workers than it does to any other Americans.” Instead, his organization backed the officially sanctioned Labor Day, celebrated—then, as now—on the first Monday in September. “American labor is evolutionary and constructive,” Gompers reasoned. “It is not revolutionary and it declines to adopt any of the shibboleths or symbols of revolutionary movements.”

Anarchists also decried the celebrations of May Day: Not because the holiday was too radical, but because in the hands of milquetoast socialists it had grown too placid. “The influence of Socialist politicians threatens to turn the First of May, the symbol of revolutionary awakening and international solidarity of labor, into as inane a face as the legally permitted Labor Day,” proclaimed Mother Earth, the anarchist magazine edited by Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, in 1912.

The demonstration is conducted under the escort—almost by the direction—of the police, and the national rag is proudly carried at the head of the march, as if to proclaim the demonstrants desirable, law-abiding men and women. The bands play alternately the “Marseillaise” and the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Add to this the stereotyped resolutions, previously framed in the party headquarters, and which are—of course!—passed unanimously, and the program of the First of May is complete.

With such dissension it is hardly surprising that so many May Days fell so far short of the goal of demonstrating unity. Year after year, anarchists and socialists—and, following the Russian Revolution, communists—undermined their own proclamations of class consciousness by indulging in internecine squabbles. If only you could “fight capitalism as well as you fight one another,” a member of the IWW had urged his comrades in 1914, the revolution might actually be accomplished.

These divisions stemmed as much from real contradictions as from organizational jealousies. It was easy, in the abstract, to acknowledge the notion of workers’ solidarity against owners and industrialists. “Organized a little we control a little,” the Wobblies liked to say, “organized more we control more; organized as a class we control everything.” For practical day-to-day purposes, however, such unity was by no means apparent. Many organized trade unions, for instance, denied membership to women, unskilled workers, and people of color. Not only was the workforce divided into dozens of ethnic and linguistic groups, but factory and agricultural labor had divergent, and often contradictory, economic priorities, as did residents of different regions of the country.

As a symbolic, once-a-year demonstration, May Day—even if its participants could manage to cooperate—would never have amounted to anything but a performative enactment of workers’ power. “To those who expect to bring about ‘the revolution’ in a day,” the AFL’s Gompers sneered, “May Day is as good as any other, particularly if it does not rain.” For anarchists, long-lasting social change would require direct action of a more sustained nature. To that end, they propounded the theory of a general strike.

“The social revolution will not ‘just happen,'” Alexander Berkman once elaborated. “It will have to be prepared, organized. Yes, indeed, organized—just as a strike is organized. In truth, it will be a strike, the strike of the united workers of an entire country—a general strike.” But for workers who could not combine in a peaceful daylong parade, a coordinated, indefinitely prolonged general strike was an ambitious goal indeed. “Socialist congresses and theoreticians have persistently denounced and opposed the general strike idea,” Berkman complained in 1912, “they have condemned it as ‘general nonsense,’ the miscarriage of an overheated Anarchist imagination, and fought it by all means, fair and foul.”

As participants in Occupy Spring prepare to combine May Day with a general strike they might keep these precedents in mind. And they should take solace in the paradoxical possibility that conditions in the twenty-first century may prove more conducive to societal change than those faced by radicals of the past. The social, political, and economic alienation of protesters today offers a solid foundation for concerted action. Working people, college students, the unemployed, young professionals, immigrants, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender activists of all races seem less concerned with doctrinal divisions than with voicing their grievances against neoliberalism and finance capital. May Day demonstrations have been held for 125 years, but never before has the holiday been celebrated by the 99 percent.

Thai Jones has a PhD from Columbia University. His new book—More Powerful Than Dynamite: Radicals, Plutocrats, Progressives, and New York’s Year of Anarchy—tells the forgotten history of a protest movement that divided the city in 1914. It is published by Walker Books and is in stores now.