"Harvest" by Leon Augustin Lhermitte

The incomplete, true, and wonderful history of May Day

  • May 1, 2016

Work & Workers

The real meaning of May Day has been obscured by the designing propaganda of the American and Soviet governments. The truth is totally different.

This article is excerpted from Peter Linebaugh’s The Incomplete, True, Authentic and Wonderful History of May Day (2016) published by PM Press.

The Soviet government paraded missiles and marched soldiers on May Day. The American government has called May 1 “Loyalty Day” and associates it with militarism. The real meaning of this day has been obscured by the designing propaganda of both governments. The truth of May Day is totally different. To the history of May Day there is a Green side and there is a Red side.

Under the rainbow, our methodology must be colorful. Green is a relationship to the earth and what grows there-from. Red is a relationship to other people and the blood spilt there among. Green designates life with only necessary labor; Red designates death with surplus labor. Green is natural appropriation; Red is social expropriation. Green is husbandry and nurturance; Red is proletarianization and prostitution. Green is useful activity; Red is useless toil. Green is creation of desire; Red is class struggle. May Day is both.


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The Green

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 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.

In Europe, as in Africa, people honored the woods in many ways. With the leafing of the trees in spring, people celebrated “the fructifying spirit of vegetation,” to use the phrase of J.G. Frazer, the anthropologist. They did this in May, a month named after Maia, the mother of all the gods according to the ancient Greeks, giving birth even to Zeus.

The Greeks had their sacred groves, the Druids their oak worship, the Romans their games in honor of Floralia. In Scotland the herdsmen formed circles and danced around fires. The Celts lit bonfires in hilltops to honor their god, Beltane. In the Tyrol people let their dogs bark and made music with pots and pans. In Scandinavia fires were lit and the witches came out.

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 history of these customs is complex and affords the student of the past with many interesting insights into the history of religion, gender, reproduction, and village ecology. Take Joan of Arc who was burned in May 1431. Her inquisitors believed she was a witch. Not far from her birthplace, she told the judges, “There is a tree that they call ‘The Ladies’ Tree’—others call it ‘The Fairies’ Tree.’ It is a beautiful tree, from which comes the Maypole. I have sometimes been to play with the young girls to make garlands for Our Lady of Domrémy. Often I have heard the old folk say that the fairies haunt this tree.” In the general indictment against Joan, one of the particulars against her was dressing like a man. The paganism of Joan’s heresy originated in the Old Stone Age when religion was animistic and shamans were women and men.

Monotheism arose with the Mediterranean empires. Even the most powerful Roman Empire had to make deals with its conquered and enslaved peoples (syncretism). As it destroyed some customs, it had to accept or transform others. Thus, we have Christmas trees. May Day became a day to honor the saints, Philip and James, who were unwilling slaves to Empire. James the Less neither drank nor shaved. He spent so much time praying that he developed huge calluses on his knees, likening them to camel legs. Philip was a lazy guy. When Jesus said “Follow me” Philip tried to get out of it by saying he had to tend to his father’s funeral, and it was to this excuse that the carpenter’s son made his famous reply, “Let the dead bury the dead.” James was stoned to death, and Philip was crucified head downward. Their martyrdom introduces the Red side of the story, even still the Green side is preserved because, according to the floral directory, the tulip is dedicated to Philip and bachelor buttons to James.

The farmers, workers, and child bearers (laborers) of the Middle Ages had hundreds of holy days which preserved the May Green, despite the attack on peasants and witches. Despite the complexities, whether May Day was observed by sacred or profane ritual, by pagan or Christian, by magic or not, by straights or gays, by gentle or calloused hands, it was always a celebration of all that is free and life-giving in the world. That is the Green side of the story. Whatever else it was, it was not a time to work.

Therefore, it was attacked by the authorities. The repression had begun with the burning of women and it continued in the sixteenth century when America was “discovered,” the slave trade was begun, and nation-states and capitalism were formed. In 1550 an Act of Parliament demanded that Maypoles be destroyed, and it outlawed games. In 1644 the Puritans in England abolished May Day altogether. To these work-ethicists the festival was obnoxious for paganism and worldliness. Philip Stubbs, for example, in The Anatomy of Abuses (1583) wrote of the Maypole, “and then fall they to banquet and feast, to leape and daunce about it, as the Heathen people did at the dedication of their Idolles.” When a Puritan mentioned “heathen” we know genocide was not far away. According to the excellent slide show at the Quincy Historical Society, 90 percent of the Massachusetts people, including Chief Chicatabat, died from chicken pox or small pox a few years after the Puritans landed in 1619. The Puritans also objected to the unrepressed sexuality of the day. Stubbs said, “Of fourtie, threescore, or an hundred maides going to the wood, there have scarcely the third part of them returned home again as they went.”

The people resisted the repressions. Thenceforth, they called their May sports the “Robin Hood Games.” Capering about with sprigs of hawthorn in their hair and bells jangling from their knees, the ancient characters of May were transformed into an outlaw community, Maid Marians and Little Johns. The May feast was presided over by the “Lord of Misrule,” “the King of Unreason,” or the “Abbot of Inobedience.” Washington Irving was later to write that the feeling for May “has become chilled by habits of gain and traffic.” As the gainers and traffickers sought to impose the regimen of monotonous work, the people responded to preserve their holyday. Thus began in earnest the Red side of the story of May Day. The struggle was brought to Massachusetts in 1626.

Thomas Morton of Merry Mount

In 1625 Captain Wollaston, Thomas Morton, and thirty others sailed from England and months later,

taking their bearings from a red cedar tree, they disembarked in Quincy Bay. A year later Wollaston, impatient for lucre and gain, left for good to Virginia. Thomas Morton settled in Passonaggessit, which he named Merry Mount. The land seemed a “Paradise” to him. He wrote, there are “fowls in abundance, fish in multitudes, and I discovered besides, millions of turtle doves on the green boughs, which sat pecking of the full, ripe, pleasant grapes that were supported by the lusty trees, whose fruitful load did cause the arms to bend.”

On May Day, 1627, he and his Indian friends, stirred by the sound of drums, erected a Maypole eighty feet high, decorated it with garlands, wrapped it in ribbons, and nailed to its top the antlers of a buck. Later he wrote that he “sett up a Maypole upon the festival day of Philip and James, and therefore brewed a barrell of excellent beare.” A ganymede sang a Bacchanalian song. Morton attached to the pole the first lyric verses penned in America which concluded:

With the proclamation that the first of May
At Merry Mount shall be kept holly day

The Puritans at Plymouth were opposed to May Day. They called the Maypole “an Idoll” and named Merry Mount “Mount Dagon” after the god of the first oceangoing imperialists, the Phoenicians. More likely, though, the Puritans were the imperialists, not Morton, who worked with slaves, servants, and Native Americans, person to person. Everyone was equal in his “social contract.” Governor Bradford wrote, “they allso set up a Maypole, drinking and dancing aboute it many days together, inviting the Indean women for thier consorts, dancing and frisking together (like so many faires, or furies rather) and worse practise.”

Merry Mount became a refuge for Indians, the discontented, gay people, runaway servants, and what the governor called “all the scume of the countrie.” When the authorities reminded him that his actions violated the King’s Proclamation, Morton replied that it was “no law.” Miles Standish, whom Morton called “Mr. Shrimp,” attacked. The Maypole was cut down. The settlement was burned. Morton’s goods were confiscated; he was chained in the bilboes, and ostracized to England aboard the ship The Gift at a cost, the Puritans complained, of twelve pounds seven shillings. The rainbow coalition of Merry Mount was thus destroyed for the time being. That Merry Mount later (1636) became associated with Anne Hutchinson, the famous midwife, spiritualist, and feminist, surely was more than coincidental. Her brother-in-law ran the Chapel of Ease. She thought that God loved everybody, regardless of their sins. She doubted the Puritans’ authority to make law. A statue of Robert Burns in Quincy near to Merry Mount quotes the poet’s lines,

A fig for those by law protected!
Liberty’s a glorious feast!
Courts for cowards were erected,
Churches built to please the priest.

Thomas Morton was a thorn in the side of the Boston and Plymouth Puritans, because he had an alternate vision of Massachusetts. He was impressed by its fertility; they by its scarcity. He befriended the Indians; they shuddered at the thought. He was egalitarian; they proclaimed themselves the “Elect.” He freed servants; they lived off them. He armed the Indians; they used arms against Indians. To Nathaniel Hawthorne, the destiny of American settlement was decided at Merry Mount. Casting the struggle as mirth vs. gloom, grizzly saints vs. gay sinners, green vs. iron, it was the Puritans who won, and the fate of America was determined in favor of psalm-singing, Indian-scalpers whose notion of the Maypole was a whipping post.

Parts of the past live, parts die. The red cedar that drew Morton first to Merry Mount blew down in the gale of 1898. A section of it, about eight feet of its trunk, became a power fetish in 1919, placed as it was next to the president’s chair of the Quincy City Council. Interested parties may now view it in the Quincy History Museum. Living trees, however, have since grown, despite the closure of the shipyards.

[…]

The Red: Haymarket

The history of the modern May Day originates in the center of the North American plains, at Haymarket, in Chicago — “the city on the make” — in May 1886. The Red side of that story is more well-known than the Green, because it was bloody. But there was also a Green side to the tale, though the green was not so much that of pretty grass garlands, as it was of greenbacks, for in Chicago, it was said, the dollar is king.

Of course the prairies are green in May. Virgin soil, dark, brown, crumbling, shot with fine black sand, it was the produce of thousands of years of humus and organic decomposition. For many centuries this earth was husbanded by the Native Americans of the plains. As Black Elk said, theirs is “the story of all life that is holy and is good to tell, and of us two-leggeds sharing in it with the four-leggeds and the wings of the air and all green things; for these are children of one mother and their father is one Spirit.” From such a green perspective, the white men appeared as pharaohs, and indeed, as Abe Lincoln put it, these prairies were the “Egypt of the West.”

The land was mechanized. Relative surplus value could only be obtained by reducing the price of food. The proteins and vitamins of this fertile earth spread through the whole world. Chicago was the jugular vein. Cyrus McCormick wielded the surgeon’s knife. His mechanical reapers harvested the grasses and grains. McCormick produced 1,500 reapers in 1849; by 1884 he was producing 80,000. Not that McCormick actually made reapers; members of the Molders Union Local 23 did that, and on May Day 1867 they went on strike, starting the eight-hour movement.

A staggering transformation was wrought. It was: “Farewell” to the hammer and sickle. “Goodbye” to the cradle scythe. “So long” to Emerson’s man with the hoe. These now became the artifacts of nostalgia and romance. It became “Hello” to the hobo. “Move on” to the harvest stiffs. “Line up” the proletarians. Such were the new commands of civilization.

Thousands of immigrants, many from Germany, poured into Chicago after the Civil War. Class war was advanced, technically and logistically. In 1855 the Chicago police used Gatling guns against the workers who protested the closing of the beer gardens. In the Bread Riot of 1872, the police clubbed hungry people in a tunnel under the river. In the 1877 railway strike, federal troops fought workers at the Battle of the Viaduct. These troops were recently seasoned from fighting the Sioux who had killed Custer. Henceforth, the defeated Sioux could only “Go to a mountain top and cry for a vision.” The Pinkerton Detective Agency put visions into practice by teaching the city police how to spy and to form fighting columns for deployment in city streets. A hundred years ago during the streetcar strike, the police issued a shoot-to-kill order.

McCormick cut wages 15 percent. His profit rate was 71 percent. In May 1886 four molders whom McCormick locked out were shot dead by the police. Thus did this “grim reaper” maintain his profits.

Nationally, May First 1886 was important because a couple of years earlier the Federation of Organized Trade and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada, “resolved . . . that eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor, from and after May 1, 1886.”

On May 4, 1886, several thousand people gathered near Haymarket Square to hear what August Spies, a newspaperman, had to say about the shootings at the McCormick Works. Albert Parsons, a typographer and labor leader, spoke next. Later, at his trial, he said, “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.”

He was followed by “Good-Natured Sam” Fielden who as a child had worked in the textile factories of Lancashire, England. He was a Methodist preacher and labor organizer. He got done speaking at 10:30 p.m. At that time 176 policemen charged the crowd that had dwindled to about 200. An unknown hand threw a stick of dynamite, the first time that Alfred Nobel’s invention was used in class battle.

All hell broke loose, many were killed, and the rest is history.

“Make the raids first and look up the law afterwards,” was the sheriff ’s dictum. It was followed religiously across the country. Newspapers screamed for blood, homes were ransacked, and suspects were subjected to the “third degree.” Eight men were railroaded in Chicago at a farcical trial. Four men hanged on “Black Friday,” November 11, 1887. “There will come a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today,” said Spies before he choked.

Order The Incomplete, True, Authentic, and Wonderful History of May Day via PM Press’ website and get 50% off until the end of May!

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Peter Linebaugh

Peter Linebaugh is an American Marxist historian who specializes in British history, Irish history, labor history, and the history of the colonial Atlantic. He is the author of The London Hanged and The Many-Headed Hydra (with Marcus Rediker), among many other books.

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