Rebloggged from Barbarie della Reflessione:
In 1940, Marxist literary critic Walter Benjamin wrote,
The initial day of a calendar presents history in time-lapse mode. And basically it is this same day that keeps recurring in the guise of holidays, which are days of remembrance. Thus, calendars do not measure time the way clocks do; they are monuments of a historical consciousness of which not the slightest trace has been apparent in Europe, it would seem, for the past hundred years.
For someone of his politics, it might seem strange that Benjamin didn’t consider the first of May, officially recognized as International Workers’ Day since 1890, to count as such a monument. Far from oversight, however, it is doubtless that from Benjamin’s perspective, May Day was a monument to a century of struggle whose legacy stood in doubt. Fascists were in power across the continent, due in large part to the failures and defeats of the socialist movement. As grim as the atmosphere was, the revelation of the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939, which consummated the counter-revolutionary degeneration of the Soviet Union, only served to blot out the last glimmer from a utopian horizon that once seemed due to burst with the light of a new dawn. Benjamin lived this tragedy, fleeing the Gestapo across Europe, finally taking his own life to escape them seven months after writing the words quoted above.
That century was defined by the heroic rise and horrific collapse of the socialist workers’ movement. If May Day’s earliest celebrations commemorated not only the accomplishments, but more importantly, the hard-won lessons of its first half, those punctuating its second half eventually began to trail off like an ellipsis, becoming ever more distant from what they were supposed to enshrine. Historical consciousness unraveled as the impediments to progress became more daunting, and the injuries resulting from failed attempts to dislodge them became more debilitating and painful.
May Day once marked the commencement of each year of renewed struggle of the working class for their emancipation from wage slavery and all the social miseries that accompany it. On that day the past was projected onto the present moment as a silhouette whose outline lent the living struggle a definition it would otherwise lack. The holiday is the point at which history forms a constellation with our time, laying its claim upon those who celebrate.
In 1939, American labor radical Elizabeth Gurley Flynn could still measure her life by the recurrence of that holiday. “Thirty-three May Days have come and gone since my activities in the American labor movement began. In memory I view them – an endless procession of red banners, flying high and wide, in the eager hands of marching, cheering, singing workers.”  Only a year later, Benjamin could already recognize the loss of that experience of time to which Flynn testified. If the perseverance of such historical consciousness was already doubtful then, what has become of it 70 years later?
While fascism may have exited the world stage not long after Benjamin’s death, it nonetheless seems to have left a more enduring impact upon those who survived it than socialism. What remains of the welfare state, that bitter red pill liberal democracy was forced to swallow, is under unceasing attack by forces that already halted the miserable slog of “Really Existing Socialism”. Everywhere the right in ever more brutish and benighted forms is ascendent. Where political struggles of some consequence do still occur, they are more likely than not between right-wing contingents, with the left nowhere to be seen.
The palpable lapse in historical consciousness is glaringly evident. How many of us can say we remember the history we celebrate on May Day? How may who would answer in the affirmative could convincingly illuminate the significance of that history? In 1941, in an article titled “May 1st, the Sun of Tomorrow”, Flynn reflected on the bearing of May Day’s history in its contemporary iteration:
Always a people’s natural holiday, since time immemorial it was the occasion for the gathering of the of the poor and lowly for one gala day of festivity. For the last fifty-five years it has been universally recognized and cherished by workers around the world as an International Labor Holiday. It is actually the only holiday celebrated internationally. It obliterates all differences of race, creed, color, and nationality. It celebrates the brotherhood of all workers everywhere. It crosses all national boundaries, it transcends all language barriers, it ignores all religious differences. It makes sharp and clear, around the world, the impassable chasm between all workers and all exploiters. It is the day when the class struggle in its most militant significance is reaffirmed by every conscious worker. 
The struggles May Day marks cannot be assimilated to the timeless suffering of the “poor and lowly”, nor is it identical to the annual day of respite from that suffering once celebrated at the same time of year. Rather, it marks a radical break in such prehistorical bondage, through which the possibility of the emancipation of all humanity becomes evident for the first time. Flynn continues,
This day is to the enlightened worker an augury of a new world, a classless world, a peaceful world, a world without poverty or misery. It is the glowing promise of socialism, the real brotherhood of mankind. On this day in 1941 the wise words of Lenin; “Life will assert itself. The Communists must know that the future at any rate is theirs,” will light up the lonely jail cells of Browder and Thaelman and countless others. Lowhummed snatches of revolutionary song will be heard in concentration camps. On the sea, in military barracks, in the forced labor of factory or mill, the hearts of the driven workers will beat to unison with those far away who parade joyously behind gleaming red banners, to stirring music on Moscow’s Red Square. “Do your damnedest to us!” they mutter between clenched teeth, the conscripts in European trenches, the prisoners in Franco’s dungeons, in Hitler’s hell holes, in Mussolini’s prisons; “Your days are numbered. You can’t stop the final victory of the people!”
We who still care to celebrate this holiday, by and large no longer calling ourselves Communists or even Socialists, cannot say with the same aplomb that the future will be ours. We wonder how much future is even left along our present course. Meager gains in the direction of universal emancipation have fallen into disrepute and disrepair; the fruit of generations of struggle grows ever more rotten.
If May Day should be a monument to the historical memory of the workers’ movement, its establishment is also inseparable from the constitution of that memory itself. The recognition of May Day as labor’s day of remembrance was itself a sign of the transformation of that movement on the basis of recognition of its own historical character. Rosa Luxemburg, that towering figure of German Communism, recounts this transformation as follows:
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. 
Following this massive strike, a demonstration of solidarity at Chicago’s Haymarket Square erupted into chaos following a mysterious explosion and a rash of gunfire. In the aftermath, seven clearly innocent labor militants were found guilty for provoking the riot and sentenced to death. Four of them,
Engel, Fischer, Parsons, and Spies—were taken to the gallows in white robes and hoods. They sang the Marseillaise, then the anthem of the international revolutionary movement. [...] According to witnesses, in the moments before the men were hanged, Spies shouted, “The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today!” Witnesses reported that the condemned men did not die immediately when they dropped, but strangled to death slowly, a sight which left the spectators visibly shaken. 
Despite these tragic events, American workers resolved to take to the streets again on the first of May three years later in 1890. Luxemburg goes on,
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 Congress to which Luxemburg refers would become known as the Second International, in tribute to the International Workingmen’s Association led by Karl Marx decades earlier. The Second International united socialist parties across the world around a common revolutionary ideal and project. Under its banner, the working class would no longer express its discontent through isolated insurrectionary outbursts, but instead would embark upon a struggle to educate itself, to win the masses over to a political program of universal emancipation, and to seize power from their exploiters by “winning the battle of democracy”. 
Mass strikes of the sort called on May Day, while formerly of a piece with revolutionary street-fighting, barricades, assassinations, and conspiracies, were transformed into a component of a very different revolutionary strategy. Fredrick Engels reflected on this transformation at the midpoint of the century of socialism:
Let us have no illusions about it: a real victory of insurrection over the military in street fighting, a victory as between two armies, is one of the rarest exceptions. And the insurgents counted on it just as rarely. For them it was solely a question of making the troops yield to moral influences which, in a fight between the armies of two warring countries, do not come into play at all or do so to a much smaller extent. [...] The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of masses lacking consciousness is past. Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organisation, the masses themselves must also be in on it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are fighting for, body and soul. The history of the last fifty years has taught us that. But in order that the masses may understand what is to be done, long, persistent work is required, and it is just this work that we are now pursuing, and with a success which drives the enemy to despair. 
The socialism of the Second International was inseparable from the transformation of May Day from an arbitrary occasion for mass demonstration into an annual reflection upon the historical tasks proudly shouldered by the working class. No longer a unpredictable outburst, the mass strike became the point at which months, years, decades of struggle condensed in the passionate commitment of masses become conscious of their historical significance as the standard bearers of a new world. Luxemburg writes elsewhere:
Since then there began a new phase. In place of spontaneous revolutions, risings, and barricades, after which the proletariat each time fell back into passivity, there began the systematic daily struggle, the exploitation of bourgeois parliamentarianism, mass organizations, the marriage of the economic with the political struggle, and that of socialist ideals with stubborn defense of immediate daily interests. For the first time the polestar of strict scientific teachings lit the way for the proletariat and for its emancipation. Instead of sects, schools, utopias, and isolated experiments in various countries, there arose a uniform, international theoretical basis which bound countries together like the strands of a rope. Marxist knowledge gave the working class of the entire world a compass by which it can make sense of the welter of daily events and by which it can always plot the right course to take to the fixed and final goal. 
After 1940, the deterioration of historical consciousness Benjamin had registered became terrifyingly rapid. The Second International collapsed under the pressures of the first World War. Those still committed to revolutionary transformation continued to carry its spirit forward, leading revolutions in Russia, Germany, Hungary and Italy, all but the first of which were quashed. Yet by 1940, Russia, which had become the USSR, the first workers’ state in world history, itself had succumbed to a deep inner rot that would be its ultimate undoing fifty years later. The organizations tasked with preserving and perpetuating the historical consciousness of the workers movement became fraught, sclerotic, simultaneously degenerating internally and facing immense hostility from without. By and large they were domesticated by the carrot of the New Deal and the stick of the Red Scare.
Now, more than a century on from the first May Day, with the last remnants of those organizations as good as dead, how confident are we that our celebrations still testify to the historical consciousness they made manifest? How much do we not even know we’ve forgotten? The silence that followed Spies’s last words no longer has the power he claimed for it. The struggle to win the support of a democratic majority for an emancipatory political program has long since been abandoned. Conditions are no better than a century ago, when Luxemburg wrote,
A chain of unending, exorbitant armaments on land and on sea in all capitalist countries because of rivalries; a chain of bloody wars which have spread from Africa to Europe and which at any moment could light the spark which would become a world fire; moreover, for years the uncheckable specter of inflation, of mass hunger in the whole capitalist world – all of these are the signs under which the world holiday of labor, after nearly a quarter of a century, approaches. 
Yet can we sincerely claim, as she could, that “each of these signs is a flaming testimony of the living truth and the power of the idea of May Day”? If we cannot understand our history, our role within it, the tasks it assigns us and the painful lessons it offers, then mustn’t we say that idea has grown weak and lifeless? Of course, it is not dead, we still remember it and rehearse some version of its rituals, but how many May Days backward can we count? Is our historical consciousness capable of piercing the fog of trauma that set in midway through the 20th century?
Flynn writes of her memory of the holiday, “I ask you, could a person want happier, more colorful, more adventuresome, and inspiring May Days than I have had? East and West, North and South, “mine eyes have seen the glory” of labor’s coming of age in America. “I expect to live to see socialism in my country,” in the memorable words of Lenin. That will be the best May Day of all!” Today, can we honestly claim to have the same expectation? Have we truly seen the glory in which Flynn stubbornly reveled? Should we continue to cling desperately to the happiness and color of our celebration in a world cast in hopeless grey, or should our tone instead be mournful and reflective?
2. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory”, (see Marxists.org)
3. Flynn, “May 1st: The Sun of Tomorrow”, (see Marxists.org)
4. Rosa Luxemburg, “What are the Origins of May Day?”, (see Marxists.org)
6. A reference to the Manifesto of the Communist Party by Marx and Engels, (see Marxists.org)
7. Frederick Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, (see Marxists.org)
8. Luxemburg, The Crisis of German Social Democracy, a.k.a. The Junius Pamphlet, (see Marxists.org)
9. Luxemburg, “The Idea of May Day on the March”, (see Marxists.org)
10. Flynn, “Mine Eyes”