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What are the origins of May Day?

Rosa Luxemburg on the origins of May Day as International Workers Day.

Tempest celebrates May Day, in part, with our republication of “What are the origins of May Day?” written by a 23-year-old Rosa Luxemburg in 1894. Almost twenty years later, writing in 1913, Luxemburg summarized,

“The brilliant basic idea of May Day is the autonomous, immediate stepping forward of the proletarian masses, the political mass action of the millions of workers who otherwise are atomized by the barriers of the state in the day-to-day parliamentary affairs, who mostly can give expression to their own will only through the ballot, through the election of their representatives.”

At a moment in the U.S. where the hopes for the revitalization of the socialist movement have moved decisively back to the struggles in the workplace, the reminders of the roots of May Day are especially welcome. Just as when the mass mobilization of immigrant workers shut down the U.S. economy in the spring of 2006, Luxemburg’s celebration of mass action and worker organizing speaks to the lived reality and potential power of the Amazon and Starbucks workers, the Amazon Labor Union, the Chicago Teachers Union, and  the bakers, carpenters, nurses, and  teamsters, and hundreds of thousands of other concrete, factory, refinery, retail, transportation, and warehouse, etc. workers. In all of their diversity they are collectively pushing back against the basic hypocrisy of our twenty-first century condition. These current struggles, as Luxemburg reminded us more than one hundred years ago, represent the possibility of overcoming an “atomized” existence and politics, a necessary leap beyond the narrow horizons of “parliamentary affairs,” and the limits of the possible in our capitalist republic. The thread that connects “eight hours for what we will,” to “si se puede,” to “the great resignation” and the “revenge of the essential workers” is powerful in transcending the limits of our own lifetimes, and ties us to a ongoing historic struggle to realize that another world is, in fact, possible. Long live International Workers Day! Long live May Day!

The happy idea of using a proletarian holiday celebration as a means to attain the eight-hour day was first born in Australia. The workers there decided in 1856 to organize a day of complete stoppage together with meetings and entertainment as a demonstration in favor of the eight-hour day. The day of this celebration was to be April 21. At first, the Australian workers intended this only for the year 1856. But this first celebration had such a strong effect on the proletarian masses of Australia, enlivening them and leading to new agitation, that it was decided to repeat the celebration every year.

In fact, what could give the workers greater courage and faith in their own strength than a mass work stoppage which they had decided themselves? What could give more courage to the eternal slaves of the factories and the workshops than the mustering of their own troops? Thus, the idea of a proletarian celebration was quickly accepted and, from Australia, began to spread to other countries until finally it had conquered the whole proletarian world.

The first to follow the example of the Australian workers were the Americans. In 1886 they decided that May 1 should be the day of universal work stoppage. On this day 200,000 of them left their work and demanded the eight-hour day. Later, police and legal harassment prevented the workers for many years from repeating this [size] demonstration. However in 1888 they renewed their decision and decided that the next celebration would be May 1, 1890.

In the meanwhile, the workers’ movement in Europe had grown strong and animated. The most powerful expression of this movement occurred at the International Workers’ Congress in 1889. At this Congress, attended by four hundred delegates, it was decided that the eight-hour day must be the first demand. Whereupon the delegate of the French unions, the worker Lavigne from Bordeaux, moved that this demand be expressed in all countries through a universal work stoppage. The delegate of the American workers called attention to the decision of his comrades to strike on May 1, 1890, and the Congress decided on this date for the universal proletarian celebration.

In this case, as thirty years before in Australia, the workers really thought only of a one-time demonstration. The Congress decided that the workers of all lands would demonstrate together for the eight-hour day on May 1, 1890. No one spoke of a repetition of the holiday for the next years. Naturally no one could predict the lightning-like way in which this idea would succeed and how quickly it would be adopted by the working classes. However, it was enough to celebrate the May Day simply one time in order that everyone understand and feel that May Day must be a yearly and continuing institution […].

The first of May demanded the introduction of the eight-hour day. But even after this goal was reached, May Day was not given up. As long as the struggle of the workers against the bourgeoisie and the ruling class continues, as long as all demands are not met, May Day will be the yearly expression of these demands. And, when better days dawn, when the working class of the world has won its deliverance then too humanity will probably celebrate May Day in honor of the bitter struggles and the many sufferings of the past.

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Rosa Luxemburg View All

Rosa Luxemburg was one of the most important leaders of the international socialist movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. An unwavering and committed revolutionary, she was first active in the movement in Poland and Austria, but became a decades-long leader in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). Following the outbreak of WWI and then the Russian Revolution, Rosa Luxemburg was a prominent leader of the revolutionary wing of the German movement, including through the Spartakusbund and then the German Communist Party (KPD). She was murdered during the German revolution in Janury 1919 by the far-right wing Freikorps, with the complicity of the SPD government.