Professor Anwarul Karim, PhD :
The world today observes May day as a mark of victory of the working class throughout the world and it is they who, after a long struggle of untold and inhuman sufferings, torture and deaths by gun shots, could finally fix an 8-hour work schedule in place of working either from dawn to dust or for fourteen to sixteen hours a day. The eight hour work schedule was a major victory of the laboring class all over the world as they fought for it tooth and nail. Chicago in America was the place where such fight commenced against the bourgeois and the capitalist bosses resulting in a blood stained victory to the suffering laboring communities.
The first day of May was possibly chosen as 'May Day' by the leaders of the International workers association with a view to connecting it with the Traditional May Day that stands for merriment and rejoicing for years. It had religious implications. This Traditional May Day which symbolizes Maypole and Column stands for fertility in life and earth. Symbolic fire on May Day is one of the main rituals of the festival, helping to celebrate the return of life and fertility to the world. When the Romans took over the British Isles, they brought with them their five-day celebration known as Floralia-devoted to the worship of the goddess of flowers, Flora.
The May Day of the workers' community has also something sacred in it. The fight was held between the working class and the mills and factory owners - the capitalist or the bourgeois for attaining an 8-hour work schedule. The fight that followed the working or laboring class was denied all rights by the rich to live as others do and thereby they had to satisfy the lust of the rich to exploit the poor. But as they were organized and braved death for realizing their rights, the bourgeois or the rich had no way out than to surrender to them. This happened in Chicago. The police fired upon the peaceful demonstration of the workers and killed a good number of innocent workers. The agitation got momentum following unjust police firing, the workers were further organized, and bloodshed and gunshots could not stop them. The victory was earned at the cost of lives. The evil was thus defeated and the humanity was restored to life.
The May Day of the workers thus represents death and life. The period of struggle and the inhuman sufferings which the workers experienced throughout these days facing death and annihilation is considered the 'darker' aspect of May Day and the day they won the battle was taken as the 'light' for them and this coincides with the observance of festivals like Maypole and column and other festivities. 'The May Day festival was thought to divide the year in half, between the light and the dark. May Day for the workers is thus taken as most sacred because this day ushered in a new life for the working class. The battle which the workers of the world won helped build a brave new world.
Such is the message we get each time the world celebrates the May Day.
Maslin victims of British Bengal: The fore-runner of May Day
Maslin, the fabric is believed to have originated in Dhakeshwari, now Dhaka the capital of Bangladesh. History speaks that for centuries under the Mughols the handloom weavers of Bengal had produced some of the world's most unique and fine fabrics as of maslin, 'light as woven air' was traded throughout the Muslim world, from the Middle East to Southeast Asia. In many Islamic regions, such as in Central Asia, the maslin as cloth was named Daka, after the city of Dhaka.
According to history, in the 17th and 18th centuries, when Bengal was under the Mughols, she emerged as the foremost muslin exporter in the world. Dhaka was the capital of the worldwide muslin trade. During the Roman period Khadi maslin was also introduced in Europe and vast amounts of fabrics were traded to Europe for many centuries. Shashi Tharoor, in his book , ' An Era of Darkness The British Empire in India' speaks "As late as the mid-eighteenth century, Bengal's textiles were still being exported to Egypt, Turkey and Persia in the West, and to Java, China and Japan in the East, along well-established trade routes, as well as to Europe. The value of Bengal's textile exports alone is estimated to have been around 16 million rupees annually in the 1750s, of which some 5 to 6 million rupees' worth was exported by European traders in India. ….. In addition, silk exports from Bengal were worth another 6.5 million rupees annually till 1753. …..The Indian textile industry became more creative, innovative and productive; exports boomed. But when the British traders took power, everything changed.
In power, the British were, in a word, ruthless. They stopped paying for textiles and silk in pounds brought from Britain, preferring to pay from revenues extracted from Bengal, pushing prices still lower. They squeezed out other foreign buyers and instituted a Company monopoly."
Shashi Tharoor further said, "…… Indian textiles were remarkably cheap --- so much so that Britain's cloth manufacturers, unable to compete, wanted them eliminated. The soldiers of the East India Company obliged, systematically smashing the looms of some Bengali weavers and, according to at least one contemporary account ( as well as widespread, if unverifiable, belief), breaking their thumbs so they could not ply their craft." The weavers of muslin cloth in Bengal could not weave any more. What a torture! The British claims they are civilized and humane. But their stay in India and Bengal for over two hundred years speak that they looted out the treasures of Bengal, crushed artisanal and other industries and drove Bengalis and Indians to agriculture "beyond levels the land could sustain". In fact, Indian textiles were wiped out by the machines of Britain's Industrial revolution.
The May Day speaks of a work schedule from 16 hours to 8 hours for the workers as a right to work. It is undoubtedly a marvelous achievement. But what happened in India, the British crushed and eliminated a laboring community who were artisans. A community who moved the world by their craftsmanship is completely wiped out! What a tragic ending of a working community. Could the organizers of May Day international ever thought it out?
During the British colonial rule in the eighteenth century, the Bengali muslin industry was ruthlessly suppressed by various colonial policies, which favored imports of industrially manufactured textiles from Britain. Brutality to muslin weavers was intense, William Bolts noting in 1772 that "instances have been known of their cutting off their thumbs to prevent their being forced to wind silk."
Origin and history of May Day
Today, May Day is an official holiday in over 66 countries and unofficially celebrated in many more, but ironically it is rarely recognized in the country where it began-the United States of America. After the 1894 Pullman Strike, President Grover Cleveland officially moved the U.S. celebration of Labor Day to the first Monday in September, intentionally severing ties with the international.
In the 19th century, with the victory of the workers over the bourgeois, May Day took on a new meaning that connects it as an International Workers' Day for an eight-hour work day in the United States.
The contemporary history speaks: "The origin of May Day is indissolubly bound up with the struggle for the shorter workday - a demand of major political significance for the working class. Although the demand for higher wages appears to be the most prevalent cause for the early strikes in this country, the question of shorter hours and the right to organize were always kept in the foreground when workers formulated their demands against the bosses and the government. As exploitation was becoming intensified and workers felt more and more the strain of inhumanly long working hours, the demand for an appreciable reduction of hours became more pronounced". In the late nineteenth century, working conditions were severe and it was quite common to work 10 to 16 hour days in unsafe conditions. Death and injury were commonplace at many work places. This struggle is manifest almost from the beginning of the factory system in the United States. As early as the 1860's, working people made demonstration and agitation against the industrialist and factory owners to shorten the workday without a cut in pay, but it wasn't until the late 1880's when the workers in a meeting declared the 8-hour workday. This proclamation was without consent of employers, but the working class in America and elsewhere called for its immediate implementation. At this time, Socialism was a new and attractive idea to working people, many of whom were drawn to its ideology of working class control over the production and distribution of all goods and services. Workers had seen first-hand that Capitalism benefited only their bosses, trading workers' lives for profit. Thousands of men, women and children were dying every year in the workplace, with life expectancy as low as their early twenties in some industries, and little hope but death of rising out of their destitution. Socialism offered another option.
A variety of Socialist organizations sprung up throughout the latter half of the 19th century, ranging from political parties to choir groups. In fact, many Socialists were elected into governmental office by their constituency. But again, many of these Socialists were ham-strung by the political process which was so evidently controlled by big business and the bi-partisan political machine. Tens of thousands of Socialists broke ranks from their parties, rebuffed the entire political process, which was seen as nothing more than protection for the wealthy, and created anarchist groups throughout the country. Literally thousands of working people embraced the ideals of anarchism, which sought to put an end to all hierarchical structures (including government), emphasized worker controlled industry, and valued direct action over the bureaucratic political process. It is inaccurate to say that labor unions were 'taken over' by anarchists and Socialists, but rather anarchists and Socialists made up the labor unions.
The twenties and thirties, in fact, are replete with strikes for reduction of hours of work and definite demands for a 10-hour day were put forward in many industrial centers. The organization of what is considered as the first trade union in the world, the Mechanics' Union of Philadelphia, preceding by two years the one formed by workers in England, can be definitely ascribed to a strike of building trade workers in Philadelphia in 1827 for the 10-hour day. During the bakers' strike in New York in 1834 the Workingmen's Advocate reported that "journeymen employed in the loaf bread business have for years been suffering worse than Egyptian bondage. They have had to labor on an average of eighteen to twenty hours out of the twenty-four."
The demand in those localities for a 10-hour day soon grew into a movement, which, although impeded by the crisis of 1837, led the Federal government under President Van Buren to decree the 10-hour day for all those employed on government work. The struggle for the universality of the 10-hour day, however, continued during the next decades. No sooner had this demand been secured in a number of industries than the workers began to raise the slogan for an 8-hour day. The feverish activity in organizing labor unions during the fifties gave this new demand an impetus which, however, was checked by the crisis of 1857. The demand was, however, won in a few well-organized trades before the crisis. That the movement for a shorter workday was not only peculiar to the United States, but was prevalent wherever workers were exploited under the rising Capitalist system, can be seen from the fact that even in far away Australia the building trade workers raised the slogan "8 hours work, 8 hours recreation and 8 hours rest" and were successful in securing this demand in 1856.
A few years after the Haymarket Riots and subsequent trials shocked the world, a newly formed coalition of Socialist and labor parties in Europe called for a demonstration to honor the 'Haymarket Martyrs.' In 1890, over 300,000 people protested at a May Day rally in London. The history of May 1 was embraced by many governments worldwide-not just those with strong Socialist or Communist influences.
At its national convention in Chicago, held in 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (which later became the American Federation of Labor), proclaimed that "eight hours shall constitute a legal day's labor from and after May 1, 1886."
On May 1, 1886,on being encouraged by the Knights of Labor (then America's largest labor organization), the workers in USA decided to strike and demonstrate against the industries, mills and the factory owners for their rightful demand. More than 300,000 workers (40,000 in Chicago alone) from 13,000 businesses walked out of their jobs across the country. In the following days, more and more workers continued to walk off their jobs until the numbers swelled to nearly 100,000.
The protests were peaceful, but suddenly things changed on May 3 when Chicago police and workers clashed at the McCormick Reaper Works. The next day a rally was planned at to protest the killing and wounding of several workers by the police. As the police advanced, a bomb exploded. Chaos ensued. At least seven police officers and eight civilians reportedly died and an untold number of others were injured.
The Haymarket Riot set off a national wave of repression. In August 1886, eight men labeled as anarchists were convicted in a sensational and controversial trial despite there being no solid evidence linking the defendants to the bombing. The jury was considered to be biased, with ties to big business. Seven of the convicted men received a death sentence, and the eighth was sentenced to 15 years in prison. In the end, four of the men were hanged, one committed suicide and the remaining three were pardoned six years later.
Today one sees tens of thousands of activists embracing the ideals of the Haymarket Martyrs and those who established May Day as an International Workers' Day. One hundred thirty two years have passed since that first May Day.
Truly, : History has a lot to teach us about the roots of our radicalism. When we remember that people were shot so we could have the 8-hour day; if we acknowledge that homes with families in them were burned to the ground so we could have Saturday as part of the weekend; when we recall 8-year old victims of industrial accidents who marched in the streets protesting working conditions and child labor only to be beat down by the police and company thugs, we understand that our current condition cannot be taken for granted - people fought for the rights and dignities we enjoy today, and there is still a lot more to fight for. The sacrifices of so many people cannot be forgotten or we'll end up fighting for those same gains all over again. This is why we celebrate May Day".
May Day as an old traditional culture in Europe
May Day has been a traditional day of festivities throughout the centuries, most associated with and villages celebrating springtime fertility of the soil, livestock, and revelry with village festivity and community gatherings. Villagers would enter the woods to find a maypole that would be set up for the day in small towns (or sometimes permanently in larger cities). The day's festivities involved merriment, as people would dance around the pole clad with colorful streamers and ribbons. Historians believe the first maypole dance originated as part of a fertility ritual, where the pole symbolized male fertility and baskets and wreaths symbolized female fertility.
In English calendar April is the harbinger of spring. The month of May is the continuation of spring. To quote John Keats: "If winters come Can spring be far behind?" May becomes the blithe spirit of the Earth. So sings Chaucer, (1340-1400 AD) the noted poet of the Old English Literature: thus sings: WHAN that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendered is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heath
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open ye,
So priketh hem nature in hir corages:
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmers for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The holy blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seke
Both Chaucer and Keats as the romantic poets of old age and modern glorify the months of April and May as the 'Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, conspiring with sun how to load and bless'. This spirit lives through the May Day observation and this inspired the leaders to choose May 1 as the gala day of victory when the good crushed the evil forces of life.
May Day, in fact, 'has a long and varied history, dating back millennia. Throughout the years, there have been many different celebrations worldwide, almost all with the express purpose of welcoming in a change of season (spring in the Northern Hemisphere)'.
(The writer was a former Visiting Scholar at the Divinity School (1985), Harvard University and presently Pro-Vice Chancellor, Northern University Bangladesh and Founder, Lalon Academy, Kushtia. E-mail: dranwar.karim@gmail/yahoo.com)