May Day was initiated in 1884 by the national convention of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions. It stated that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.” This later became the American Federation of Labor.
May Day 1886 saw 300,000 workers celebrate by taking the day off. Forty thousand went on strike in Chicago alone, led by anarchists, mostly immigrants. The main demand was the eight-hour day. On the third day of the strike, police fired on a crowd confronting strikebreakers. A massive rally the next day at Haymarket Square was threatened by an order for the police to disperse the rally. A bomb exploded in the path of police near the rally point, killing a police officer and wounding seven.
Eight labor leaders and activists, six of them immigrants, were accused on flimsy evidence. Four were executed in 1887. These were the Haymarket Martyrs with whom May Day is associated. May Day is the day when immigrants in the U.S., and people in nearly every country, stand up in solidarity and leadership. Politicians and pro-capitalist labor officials, fearing solidarity, especially international working-class solidarity, have succeeded in nearly suppressing May Day in the U.S.
An exception was the general strike led by Mexican immigrants, centered in Los Angeles, in 2006. That action has echoed since and has prepared some U.S. workers, mostly immigrants, for active opposition to the current campaign of deportations and anti-immigrant hate.
As the main fortress of world imperialism, the U.S. has a prevailing culture of entitlement to dominate and bully the rest of the world. We who work for social justice and workers’ rights depend on struggles abroad, often against our own rulers, to sustain our own struggle.
In return we have an obligation to oppose Washington’s military moves above all. Our international solidarity is what keeps our own work alive.
International solidarity in the U.S. against the expansionist aggression of Washington goes back at to the war of 1845-1848 that seized half of Mexico. Writers Mark Twain and Henry David Thoreau condemned it, as did abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass. The convention of the New England Workingmen’s Association opposed the war as a support for the extension of slavery to new territories, which it was.
As the U.S. prepared to go to war against Spain to seize Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, many labor unions saw through the patriotic hysteria and condemned that war. Authorities stopped a May Day parade in New York in 1898, organized by the Socialist Labor Party
Our socialist internationalist tradition is that of the Industrial Workers of the World, founded in the U.S. in 1905. The IWW was a branch of socialism known as “anarcho-syndicalist” because it called for one big union that would overturn capitalism. The IWW still exists. Many Socialist Party members belong.
International solidarity requires unification of feuding socialist groups. Division is an unhealthy tradition of U.S. socialism. The International Workingmen’s Association (the First International) tragically divided around the time of the U.S. Civil War, separating anarchists from socialists. There was no need for that split. Likewise there was no need for socialists to divide over trade-union tactics around the turn of the century, with a group led by Daniel DeLeon feuding with a group led by Eugene V. Debs.
Moreover, the split in U.S. socialism after the Russian Revolution weakened it fatally, socialism having been a mass party before that time. After socialist parties in Europe fragmented by taking opposing sides in the world war, a tragic crumbling of the international socialist movement took place. It has not healed yet.
We also can look back proudly, however, to the antiwar activism of the Socialist Party, founded in 1901. When the U.S. joined predatory European powers to engage in the slaughter of World War I, in 1917, socialists led antiwar protests. They paid the price of going to prison or being deported for it.
Today U.S. imperialism wages war without end, mostly in the region of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, but including Palestine and Yemen via its junior partners Israel and Saudi Arabia. A basic obligation of socialists is to actively oppose these wars as a top priority, including by making common cause with forces we disagree with against a common adversary, the U.S. ruling class and its military.
An example is the recent missile attack against Syria. It was intended to limit Russian and Iranian engagement in that region and to serve notice on all around that world that bipartisan Washington can get away with firing missiles where it chooses and under any pretext. Relatively small protests answered this missile attack; their small size was an encouragement to Washington, and we can expect to see more such open violations of international law and the U.S. constitution.
International solidarity includes solidarity with all people in the world against whatever ruling classes oppress them, whether allies of the U.S. or not. In Syria, the population rose up in 2011 on the example of Egypt and Tunisia, challenging the dictator Bashar Al-Assad. The Syrian government replied with heavy weapons, killing, imprisoning, murdering, and torturing protesters. Our solidarity is with the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people against both their own regime and our imperialist rulers.
The left in the U.S. is currently bitterly divided over Syria, on top of all the previous divisions and splits. On one side are some who reply to U.S. aggression by defending the regime in Damascus. On the other side, separated, are others who embrace the Syrian popular neighborhood committees but shun antiwar actions. Socialists are faced with a dilemma over how to express international solidarity.
One way is to publish the truth both about U.S. militarism and about the Syrian dictatorship and similar apparatuses of oppression. Another is to join in common action with diverse, even opposed, forces wherever we can agree. We can build solidarity with popular struggles by working with activists from countries like Syria and Iran to publicize those struggles – even in cases where those activists or people they work with in countries like Syria might have illusions about the likely results of U.S. intervention. We can build solidarity against U.S. interventions by working for anti-intervention actions with anyone who is prepared to work with us, including supporters of governments we don’t support.
What can tie together our tactics is international socialist and working-class solidarity, a basic obligation we accept on May Day, because that’s what May Day means.