The Sterile Spirit of the Overseer

By Richard Pithouse · 30 Apr 2013

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The deep roots of May Day lie in the ancient forests of Europe. Long before the idea of one God, one stern God, had made its way across the Mediterranean Spring was marked by planting trees, adorning people and homes with sprigs, blossoms and garlands, the erection of Maypoles, lighting bonfires on hilltops, dancing, drinking and general revelry. This celebration of the shared bounty of the natural world was incorporated, along with many other ideas and festivals, into European Christianity but it did not fit well with the attempts to crush popular autonomy, dispossess people of their land and venerate work as virtue that characterised the rise of capitalism. After the great Pan-European witch hunts in the 15th century and the rise of English Puritan movement from the 16th century the festival often went underground and took on a dissident character. In England, for instance, Maid Marion, an ancient character in the May games, was brought into the Robin Hood myth, a myth that affirms the autonomy of the commons against the enclosure of land and forests that would, in time, make the dreary subordination of wage labour the only viable life for millions.

The increasingly dissident character of the ancient European festival was carried across the Atlantic with the beginning of the colonial occupation of North America. On the 1st of May 1627 a  Maypole was erected in Merry Mount Massachusetts which, the historian Peter Linebaugh writes, “became a refuge for Indians, the discontented, gay people, runaway servants, and what the governor called 'all the scume of the countrie'.” The Puritans cut the Maypole down and burnt the settlement. In 1644 they sought to suppress May Day altogether in England. A priest published a pamphlet against May Day in which he raged against "ignorants, atheists, papists, drunkards, swearers, swashbucklers, maid-marians, morrice-dancers, maskers, mummers, Maypole stealers, health-drinkers, together with a rapscallion rout of fiddlers, fools fighters, gamesters, lewd-women, light-women, contemmers of magistracy, affronters of ministry, disobedient to parents, misspends of time, and abusers of the creature, &c."

The festival survived underground in the United States and, by the early 1800s, had been taken up by African-Americans in New Orleans. But the first stirrings of the modern incarnation of the ancient festival go back to 1886 when 400 000 workers, women and men, black and white, American born and immigrants, struck across the United States to demand an eight hour day. Their anthem declared:

We want to feel the sunshine;
We want to smell the flowers;
We’re sure God has willed it.
And we mean to have eight hours.

We’re summoning our forces from Shipyard, shop and mill;
Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, Eight hours for what we will.

On the 3rd of May strikers rushed to confront scabs in Chicago and the police opened fire. Two workers were killed. A meeting was called in Haymarket Square for the following night to protest the murder. When the police tried to shut the meeting down a homemade bomb was thrown at them, killing one officer, after which the police opened fire killing six strikers and wounding more than seventy others. Eight men, all anarchists, were brought to trial before a rigged jury and seven sentenced to death. After a massive international campaign the sentences of three were commuted to life imprisonment. When the other four were hanged more than two hundred thousand people lined the route taken from their shared funeral.

The Second International, a collection of socialist and labour parties, first declared May Day as International Workers’ Day in 1889, at a meeting in Paris on the centenary of the French Revolution. In April 1912 striking miners were shot down in Siberia and on May Day that year hundreds of thousands of workers struck across the country in protest at the massacre. The following year Rosa Luxemburg wrote that “The brilliant chief idea of the May Day celebration is the independent action of the proletarian masses”. But when May Day became an official holiday in the Soviet Union it took the form of something entirely different – a spectacular display of state power in the form of its military power.

Although working class movements around the world struggled for the recognition of the day, and it became an official holiday in much of the world, the US elites still saw May Day as a Soviet linked threat to American values. In 1958 Dwight Eisenhower announced that 1 May would be Law Day in the US. Ronald Regan did his best to get Americans to take Law Day seriously but, unsurprisingly, it never found any popular traction. From Latin America to Europe the ascent of right wing governments to power usually meant that the May Day holiday would be set aside and so it became something of an indication of where a society located itself politically.

In South Africa the black trade union movement, which had rebuilt itself from the Durban strikes in 1973, began to refuse work on the 1st of May from 1986. This took on a political charge that far exceeded that of strike action centred around wages and working conditions. Now, nineteen years into democracy, we are about to celebrate our first May Day since the Marikana Massacre. Around the country shack dwellers are naming new land occupations after Marikana, mineworkers are deserting the National Union of Mineworkers in their thousands and the South African Communist Party - entirely alienated from and often hostile to popular struggles, and with no serious project beyond securing support for Zuma’s increasingly authoritarian form of crony capitalism - is doing all it can to purge COSATU of critical voices and what remains of its commitment to independent workers’ power. Bureaucratic intrigue is being mobilised to isolate and contain individuals and currents within the federation that are unwilling to go along with toadies like Sidumo Dlamini and Blade Nzimande.

Zuma, Nzimande and Dlamini will offer the usual pompous catalogue of empty rhetoric on Workers’ Day. But it will be animated by what Rosa Luxemburg called ‘the sterile spirit of the overseer’. We will have to look elsewhere for the affirmation of life that, from the ancient forests of Europe to modern Chicago and cities across South Africa in 1986, has animated the celebration of May Day back into the earliest reaches of human memory.
Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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