May Day, May Day, May Day

No one or no thing is coming to save us. No force of historical necessity, no interventionist God or alien race. We must look inwards and find the necessary strength and resolve to fight for a just world. If we don’t, we face a common ruin.

It’s in this spirit that the American labour movement marked 1 May 1886 as the target date for the standard 8 hour working day. There was a wave of strikes and rallies across the United States leading up to and on 1 May 1886. As this wave of struggle and repression rolled on a rally was organised for Tuesday 4 May 1886 at Haymarket Square in Chicago in response to the killing of striking workers. By the time the police had finished firing on the crowd after the explosion of a pipe bomb, at least 4 workers and 8 police officers had been killed (the police managed largely to fire on themselves). The Haymarket massacre moved the Second International to adopt 1 May 1890 as the date for a global demonstration for the adoption of an 8 hour day. May Day is a celebration of workers maintaining solidarity in the face of overwhelming force on the part of the state.

It appeared as if all that was needed were the combined actions of workers to usher in a new era. Just as the Australian labour movement had been the first to win the 8-hour day, it was to be the first to feel the crushing limits of its industrial power. General strike after general strike was crushed from 1891 to 1894, and the power of the unions at the time was largely broken. The power of the employers and the state had successfully combined to beat the threat of organised labour.  From this debilitating defeat a new strategy was born – the founding of the Australian Labor Party.

Meanwhile, William Lane led a group of unionists over to Paraguay to set up a utopian socialist society – New Australia. They would build the new society everyone else was struggling for. It didn’t really work out.  Although, just because one strategy fails under one set of circumstances doesn’t mean you should write it off.

May Day is a celebration of the struggle to end exploitation. This struggle has gone through grand highs and ignoble lows – it has seen three strategies come into prominence at different points.

1. Reformist party politics – the strategy is to take power of the existing state, and collaborate with the ‘business community’ to achieve better outcomes for workers.

2. Anarchist community building – the strategy is to build alternative modes of living outside the state, and ignore the ‘business community’ to make a better world for workers.

3. Revolutionary confrontation – the strategy is to have a head on confrontation with the existing state, and the ‘business community’ so that workers can victoriously take power.

Each strategy has its strident critics. I would see the three strategies though as complementary like interwoven strands in a rope – tying the three together makes them exponentially stronger. If the Left today is to achieve anything it needs connections between good people pursuing each strategy – these connections need to be based on good relationships and a common meta-strategy that underpin the three strategies. It needs a common narrative of struggle that reinforces and highlights the limits of each strategy.

We live in a time of advanced capitalism – the system is starting to decay and shut down. We know because today it survives only by feeding on itself. We face a simple choice – either we die with capitalism, unable to imagine any other life – or we transition to a new system as the old dies away. We need the anarchist thread to build the embryonic form of the new system, we need to be able to point to something real, and concrete to show people the way. We need the social democratic reformist thread to direct enough of the energy of capitalism to nurture and build the strength of the new, and use the power of the state to protect it. We need the revolutionary thread to effect the final victory of the new system, and push us away from the dying vestiges of capitalism.

On May Day 2011, it’s up to us to do this. No force of magic will save us otherwise.

*I’d like to give all credit to Erik Olin Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias  (2010) for the discussion on models of social change –  see especially Figure 8.1 Three Models of Transformation: Ruptural, Interstitial, Symbiotic, p.304.

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