May Day is an ancient festival of spring, marked with flowers, maypoles, and picnics. But starting in 1889, May 1 also became International Workers Day (in part to commemorate the bloody Haymarket Affair), celebrated with speeches and parades. Hurray for picnics and the eight-hour work day! Would that it remained thus.
The American labor movement, seeking to distance itself from radicals, shifted its celebration to the end of the summer, marking Labor Day at the beginning of September. That left May 1 as an occasion celebrated in the United States by radicals, all but erasing it from the civic calendar. In 1929, a skeptical Time magazine explained May 1 to its readers: "To old-fashioned people, May Day means flowers, grass, picnics, children, clean frocks. To up-and-doing Socialists and Communists it means speechmaking, parading, bombs, brickbats, conscientious violence.” Here are two proposals for reviving May Day by recognizing its history.
The libertarian law professor Ilya Somin nods to this history in his case for rededicating May 1 as "Victims of Communism Day."
May Day began as a holiday for socialists and labor union activists, not just communists. But over time, the date was taken over by the Soviet Union and other communist regimes and used as a propaganda tool to prop up their regimes. I suggest that we instead use it as a day to commemorate those regimes’ millions of victims. The authoritative Black Book of Communism estimates the total at 80 to 100 million dead, greater than that caused by all other twentieth century tyrannies combined. We appropriately have a Holocaust Memorial Day. It is equally appropriate to commemorate the victims of the twentieth century’s other great totalitarian tyranny. And May Day is the most fitting day to do so.
...for many decades it was and still is the major holiday of international communism. To try to disssociate it from that history is much like trying to separate the swastika from the Nazis on the grounds that it was once an ancient religious symbol unrelated to Nazism. Many of those who celebrate May Day since the fall of communism in the USSR are either communists themselves or radical leftists sympathetic to communism. Not all are, of course. But the communist connection is is clear and recognized around the world. No other date – including the anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet Pact is so clearly symbolic of communism as an international phenomenon. Nor do I think that there is any real danger that a May 1 date for Victims of Communism Day will somehow “perpetuate the confusion of communism with legitimate movements for workers’ rights.” To the contrary, it would help clear up that confusion by clearly indicating that the chief holiday of the international communist movement should be a day of mourning rather than celebration. Nations that wish to commemorate “workers’ rights” should do so on some date not associated with brutal totalitarian dictatorships, as the US and Canada have done by creating a separate Labor Day.
To hell with Communism!
And to hell with the Red Scare, the subject of one last May Day reflection. This one is known to me because it occurred at my alma mater, Pomona College. I quote from The Student Life newspaper of May 9, 1952, which recounted the incident in an editorial:
Limit to Laughter
Last week, a small group of Pomona students pulled a "college prank" that had the campus and the community up in arms. The matter was so serious that a meeting of the City Council had to decide what was to be done with the participants in the May Day parade. According to the regulation governing communist activity, students had their names sent in to the FBI. Their future careers will perhaps be menaced by the undeserved taint of "red."
The parade, foolish though it may have been, was begun as a joke. Ten years ago it would have ended as such. It is the atmosphere of the times that made it come so near to being severely damaging to the college. To increase the "funniness" of the joke, the parade planned to stop first in front of the house of Dean Raymond F. Iredell, newly appointed liaison officer to the Senate Committee on Un-American Activities. As we, and the paraders found out, that kind of joke can no longer be tolerated.
Doubtless the Senate Committee has America's best interests at heart. We must keep our government from being overthrown and undermined by the real threat of Stalinist Communism. Because of this, the necessity for limiting "what we can laugh at" is forced upon us by our place in history. For the same reason that Al Capp let Lil' Abner marry Daisy Mae, we must refrain from laughing at that which is unfortunately, no longer laughable. It's too bad, but it's a sign of our times.
Though inclined to mark Victims of Communism Day, I also say, "Long live joke parades mocking the Senate Committee on Un-American Activities, and to hell with limits to laughter."
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