May Day, or International Workers Day, is celebrated with marches and rallies every May 1 to lift up the working people and their demands for freedom, equality, and justice. That is the Red tradition of May Day. But there is also an older Green tradition in which cultures the world over celebrate as Spring arrives in temperate and arctic climates or the wet season arrives in tropical climates. This Green tradition of May Day celebrates all that is free and life-giving on the green Earth that is our common wealth and heritage. These Red and Green May Day traditions are complementary.
Historian Peter Linebaugh, in his The Incomplete, True, Authentic and Wonderful History of May Day, provides an evocative description of the Green tradition of May Day:
Once upon a time, long before Weinberger bombed north Africans, before the Bank of Boston laundered money, or Reagan honored the Nazi war dead, the earth was blanketed by a broad mantle of forests. As late as Caesar’s time a person might travel through the woods for two months without gaining an unobstructed view of the sky. The immense forests of Europe, Asia, Africa, and America provided the atmosphere with oxygen and the earth with nutrients. Within the woodland ecology our ancestors did not have to work the graveyard shift, or to deal with flextime, or work from Nine to Five. Indeed, the native Americans whom Captain John Smith encountered in 1606 only worked four hours a week. The origin of May Day is to be found in the Woodland Epoch of History….
Everywhere people “went a-Maying” by going into the woods and bringing back leaf, bough, and blossom to decorate their persons, homes, and loved ones with green garlands. Outside theater was performed with characters like “Jack-in-the-Green” and the “Queen of the May.” Trees were planted. Maypoles were erected. Dances were danced. Music was played. Drinks were drunk, and love was made. Winter was over, spring had sprung.
The Red tradition of May Day developed in response to the rise of capitalism, which undermined the Green tradition of May Day that people the world over had celebrated for millennia. Beginning in the 1500s in a process that continues to this day, landlords and capitalists have increasingly dispossessed working people from their land, their tools of production, and thus control over their means to life.
In the 1500s, rich landowners, with the support of the state, began to appropriate and take exclusive ownership of ancient public lands and forests, enclosing them for their own private profit-seeking purposes. Peasant communities lost their communal use of common fields and forests for grazing animals, hunting game, and gathering food and wood. This process continues today in many parts of the world.
The next stage of dispossession developed with the rise of the factories of industrial capitalism, which underpriced the handcrafted products of artisans, who then became dependent on capitalists for employment in the factories. In the U.S., the American ideal of republican liberty grounded in the economic independence of a free citizenry of small farmers and artisans gave way to a more inequitable class society of many workers and increasingly fewer capitalists, alongside a moderately-sized middle class of professionals and managers. The working people no longer had their freedom grounded in the economic independence provided by their own land and tools. They were now dependent on capitalists for their means of livelihood. When they crossed the threshold of the workplace, they entered a dictatorship where they had to work as directed and surrender their political rights to free speech, press, and assembly in the workplace. They received a fixed wage, while the owners took all the additional value that their labor created. They soon began to call their oppressive and exploited condition “wage slavery” in a conscious comparison to the conditions of African slaves on southern plantations.
The workers movement that arose in response began to organize labor unions and political parties around of program of cooperative production where workers would democratically manage their collective work and workers would receive the full fruits of their labor. They reasoned that economic democracy in cooperative production was the only way they could restore their freedom and achieve a decent standard of living under the conditions of large-scale production. The first political party in the world to raise this program – which soon became known as socialism – arose in Philadelphia and New York City in 1929 when labor unions organized the Workingmen’s Party. The “Workies” elected the president of the carpenters union to the state Assembly of New York.
The author of the Workies’ platform resolutions, Thomas Skidmore, soon penned a book called The Rights of Man to Property! He argued for common ownership of large-scale means of production, universal public education, a debt jubilee, and land redistribution. He called for the abolition of private inheritance with estates going into a public fund for distribution of a share to each person upon adulthood. He called not only for the abolition of slavery, but for reparations, for land and a share of the nation’s wealth to the former slaves to help them get started on their farms. He called for citizenship for American Indians and suffrage and equal rights for women. With an eye to environmental protection, he decried the destruction of the planet’s resources that would eventually result from capitalism’s promotion of the unrestricted use of unlimited private property.
This Red tradition of socialism can be seen as a way to recover the ecological sustainability that the Green tradition of May Day rejoiced and sanctified. It will take the full political and economic democracy of socialism to give the people the power to choose ecological balance instead being powerless subjects of capitalism’s competitive structural drive for the blind, relentless growth that devours the environment. Hence Green Party activists often describe their perspective as ecological socialism.
The Red tradition of May Day emerged in the 1880s in the United States. It arose out the workers movement fighting for the same kinds of demands that the Workies had raised in 1829. The immediate impetus came from the Haymarket Massacre in 1886. On the night of May 4, 1886, 176 Chicago police attacked about 200 workers who remained after a day long demonstration for the 8-hour day. The police fired live ammunition, killing four and wounding 70. Somebody threw a stick of dynamite. Eight of the labor organizers where charged and convicted. Four of them were hung to death. One of the Haymarket martyrs, Albert Parsons, a white former confederate soldier married to Lucy Parsons, a former slave of African, Indian, and Mexican descent, said at this trial, “What is Socialism or Anarchism? Briefly stated it is the right of the toilers to the free and equal use of the tools of production and the right of the producers to their product.”
Lucy Parsons campaigned across the United States and Europe to have the workers movement commemorate May 1 as International Workers Day. Many workers’ organizations supported her call, including the American Federation of Labor, which then urged its adoption by the Second International of socialist parties. The first international May Day celebration in 1890 was a big success. The demonstrations worried the establishments across the world. After Coxey’s Army descended on May 1, 1894 in the first mass march on Washington, D.C. to demand public works spending to employ the unemployed in the midst of a severe depression, President Grover Cleveland got Congress to declare a federal Labor Day holiday in September in move designed to divide the labor movement.
Green Party members will be joining with other working people’s organizations to commemorate International Workers Day this year online given the social distancing me must practice in this coronavirus pandemic. What Greens can to bring to these events is an understanding of the connections between the Red and Green traditions of May Day.
Conservatives try to red-bait Greens as “watermelons – green on the outside but red on the inside.” But we don’t take that as an insult. We will be on the ballot line in November as the Green Party, but there is plenty of Red as well as Green in our platform.