May 1 became an international day to commemorate workers–and more specifically, to agitate for an eight-hour work day–in 1889, on the anniversary of the Haymarket Massacre of 1886 in Chicago. It was rapidly adopted around the world, though not, ironically, in the United States, when President Grover Cleveland adopted the Knights of Labor’s proposal for a September Labor Day (in part, it is likely, to avoid commemoration of the Haymarket disturbances, the lethal bomb throwed by persons unknown, and the police massacre of protestors that followed). Canada followed the U.S. example, but May 1 remained, in effect, Labor Day virtually eveywhere else, remaining today a public holiday in over 80 countries. Even the Catholic Church followed the tradition, creating a May 1 feast for St.Joseph the Worker.
For obvious reasons, notably their increasingly spurious claims to function as worker-led socialist republics, Communist regimes made a big show of May Day. But they never owned the day, any more than they owned (or even allowed to exist) the free labor movement it honored, or its very practical goals. And International Workers Day has long survived the virtual end of the “Communist Bloc” as we knew it, and of communist regimes in Europe entirely.
I’ve gone through this brief history in reaction to reading a post at the conservative legal site the Volokh Conspiracy promoting the idea, as it has since 2007, of renaming May 1 “Victims of Communism Day.” I’m sympathetic to the basic idea of a day for reflection on the bloody record of communist regimes, and of their false claim to serve as emancipators of the working class. But that’s all the more reason not to do anything to perpetuate the confusion of communism with legitimate movements for workers’ rights.
The chief advocate of a May 1 “Victims of Communism Day,” Ilya Somin, claims the most likely alternative, November 7, the date of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, inaugurating the first communist regime, is too “Russia-centric.” Well, May 1 is insufficiently “Communo-centric.” All the communist regimes trace their roots back to November 7, and they don’t share it with non-communists. For all I care, we can commemorate victims of communism any day other than May 1; maybe August 23, the anniversary of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, which revealed even to the most naive the true nature of the Soviet regime and launched one of the most intensively horrific periods of bilateral murder in world history.
But leave May 1 to workers, particularly now that the eight-hour work day is again in peril.