The Meaning of May Day

May 8, 2003

May Day, much like other holidays, is an occasion to break bread with family and friends in a festive atmosphere. Who in their right mind could be against that? What makes May Day different from other holidays is that it hasnt been drained of its meaning and commercialized by corporate interests.

Indeed, the same spirit of struggle that emboldened the marchers in Chicagos Haymarket Square, where May Day began more than a century ago, animates todays celebrations here in our country and around the world.

Back in 1886, Albert and Lucy Parsons and their comrades refused to be silenced by entrenched corporate power and demanded the 8-hour day and the fulfillment of the most noble ideals that our nation proclaimed in its founding documents.

They were met, as we know, by brutal repression and eventually some, including Albert, were hung. What the authorities and a stacked judicial system couldnt kill, though, was the righteousness of their cause and the legacy of resistance that they passed on to us.

Despite the best efforts of the ruling elite to remove May Day from our collective memory, celebrations of this working class holiday even at the height of the Cold War — never completely disappeared.

In recent times May Day has been making a comeback, and not only in left circles. It is finding its way, not all at once, but here and there, into the labor movement.

On this May 1st, the struggle for peace a struggle that has always been woven into the fabric of the class struggle occupies a privileged place. It is well that it does, for we are living in exceedingly dangerous times.

Dangerous turn

The use of immensely powerful conventional and non-conventional weapons is becoming the main instrument to resolve disputes in the world. Whole nations and peoples are labeled as rogues. Leaders are demonized as a first step in preemptive war against entire nations. International politics is being cast as a struggle over moral absolutes of good vs. evil that invariably end up precluding diplomatic options and push the world into unending and, eventually, calamitous war.

A decade ago few of us imagined this scenario. In fact, with the end of the nuclear standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, millions of people felt enormous relief, believing that what had been a balance of terror was giving way to a new era of peace.

Fair winds and sunny skies, it was said, were humankinds future.

A liberating and comforting thought at the time, but subsequent events showed it to be wishful thinking. How did so many get it so wrong?

The end of the Cold War coincided with the collapse of only one the Soviet Union – of the two powers that had dominated world politics for nearly half a century. The other power the United States of course remained and morphed overnight into the sole superpower.

For the first time in a half-century, policymakers in Washington looked across the oceans and saw no single state or even combination of states that could effectively balance its power or deter its actions. After five decades of unrelenting efforts to roll back the Soviet Union, U.S. imperialism found itself in the unfamiliar position of unrivaled world dominance.

This basic alteration in the structure of power set the stage for a dangerous new turn in the world, but what was of decisive importance in bringing this about was the ascendancy of the most right-wing sections of transnational capital in American political life over the past decade. Had the extreme right wing not grabbed all the main levers of power, culminating with the theft of the White House in 2000, it is extremely doubtful that our government would be pursuing such an adventurist and dangerous foreign policy.

Since Sept. 11, the Bush administration has turned into a pit bull. Its teeth are bared and the blood of innocents has been spilled first in Afghanistan and more recently in Iraq. And its thirsting for more.

Might doesnt make right

The grossly lopsided war against Iraq was illegal, unjust, and unnecessary. Might still does not make right. There was no imminent threat, no weapons of mass destruction, and no connections to Al Qaeda to justify the invasion.

Had diplomatic means been pursued, no blood would have been spilled; no lives would have been needlessly lost. We should not give an inch on this point for Bush would like to turn his preemptive strike into a legitimate and universally accepted norm of inter-state relations in this century.

In fact, with the U.S. military coming up empty in their efforts to find weapons of mass destruction, sensible people are asking: was the war based on a lie? So far and I dont things will change much it seems as if it was.

It is an inescapable fact that the terrain and conditions of the struggle for peace have shifted now. Regrouping is understandably taking place and new tasks are coming to the fore.

Of immediate importance is the struggle against the U.S. occupation. President Bush will announce tonight that the war is over and that we have liberated Iraq, but with each passing day, the self-proclaimed liberators are turning into colonizers and empire builders.

Shooting protesters, maneuvering its puppets into positions of political and economic power, handing over multibillion-dollar contracts to corporations in its political orbit, securing control over Iraqi oil, turning temporary military bases into permanent ones, and elbowing out the United Nations in the post war construction process are symptomatic of an occupation that is getting nasty and coercive.

What is more, it tells us that the Bush administration is not going to champion democracy in Iraq. Why would an administration that is so quick to severely restrict democratic rights in our own country do any less in Iraq? The installation of a servile regime, the plundering of wealth, and empire building are incompatible with an independent and democratic Iraq.

This evolving and increasingly volatile situation should compel the American people to say: end the occupation, bring out the troops and bring in the UN, and no reprisals against the democratic forces in Iraq, including the communists.

Another task for the peace movement is to prevent any further U.S. aggression against sovereign states. While threats against Syria have toned down, the most important question isnt will Bush order an attack on another country. He will.

As neo-conservatives William Kristol and Lawrence Kaplan write in their new book, The mission begins in Baghdad, but it does not end there. Thus, the main questions are: Who will be the next target? When will it happen? Will it accidentally coincide with Bushs election campaign?

Normally, I am not inclined to think along these lines, but in this case it is entirely plausible that the drumbeats of war will sound loudest as we get closer to the November elections next year, especially if the economy continues to weaken.

In any event, Bushs policy of unending war makes imperative that the House bill sponsored by Rep. Barabara Lee (D-Calif.), which prohibits pre-emptive strikes, receive the most vigorous support.

It would be Pollyanna-ish to suggest that the passage of this bill will be easy. Bush and his team will fight it ferociously. They are well aware that congressional law carries substantially more force than international law and world public opinion in the present scheme of things. Nevertheless, this is a winnable struggle. In a recent public opinion poll, more than half of the respondents opposed the doctrine of pre-emptive strikes.

Another obvious task is to organize against the mounting costs of war and their negative impact on the peoples needs and U.S. economy. One economist said that the occupation alone could cost $500 billion. To this you have to add billions more for new weaponry and the stationing of troops in more than 100 bases around the world.

When you combine all that with the tax cut of $550 billion you have to conclude that the war abroad has as its domestic counterpart a war at home. One writer said that the Bush administration is trying to rollback the 20th century. Hes right.

Where does Bush stand on nutritional programs for 10 million children against. On constitutional rights against. The right to organize into unions against. Affirmative action against. Prohibitions on racial profiling against. Measures to eliminate poverty, which is growing among Black children against. Environmental protections against. Extending unemployment benefits against. Protecting pension plans against. Immigrant rights against. Abortion rights against. Universal health care against. Medicare and Medicaid against. Gay and disabled rights against. Low-income housing against. Aid to our cities and rural communities against. Funding education against.

Never have we witnessed such a brutal offensive against peace and peoples needs, but growing all-peoples unity opens up new avenues to build a majority movement for peace and progress.

Abolition of weapons of mass destruction

Another task of the peace movement is to call for the abolition of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. In the 20th century, the world was lucky to avoid a nuclear war engulfing all of humanity. In this century we may not be so lucky, particularly given the Bush administrations objective of world empire and its ruthless pursuit of it.

The lesson that some countries must have drawn from the Iraq war is that the regime made the mistake of disarming rather than arming itself with weapons of mass destruction. This certainly must enter the thinking of the North Korean government.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty never intended to institutionalize a two-tier system whereby a few powers possess huge stockpiles of nuclear weapons and the rest either disarm or never acquire them. Such a system, it was felt, would be unstable. Thats why Article 5 of the treaty instructs possessing countries to systematically eliminate its own stockpiles. For disarmament to be a force for peace and stability it has to be enforceable and universal.

For those who say it is unrealistic, we reply that there is no alternative, that the elimination of weapons of mass destruction is necessary for humankinds survival.

A final task facing peace activists is to connect the struggle for a peaceful world to the defeat of Bush and his right-wing congressional counterparts in the 2004 elections. For peace forces in our country to distance themselves from this struggle would be a fundamental mistake. Instead, they have to bring the issue of peace into every phase of the election process, beginning with the Democratic Party primaries.

Soundly thrashing Bush and the extreme right is the main way and maybe the only way to put brakes on the perilous direction in which the world is moving. As I said earlier, there is no counterweight on the global level to the power of U.S. imperialism. In fact, never in human history has there been such lopsidedness in the distribution of power among the major states.

In these circumstances the role of the American people grows exponentially. Never before has the fate of the world rested so heavily on the American people and the outcome of next years elections. Not in 1940, not in 1968, not in 1984.

Tall order, but doable

All of this is a tall order for the peace movement and I didnt even mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the new threats against Cuba.

It could easily feel overwhelming. But we should remind ourselves that a movement has been born – worldwide in scope, spontaneous in character, and inclined towards action.

Despite the ebbing of mass protest actions, the mass sentiment that drove those marches hasnt dissipated. It cuts across nearly every sector of our society, and especially the labor movement and the movements of the racially and nationally oppressed. Even sections of the ruling class and we should not underestimate the importance of this are at loggerheads with the Bush doctrine.

In a sense, the genie of peace is out of the bottle.

Now someone might be thinking: What about the public opinion polls? Bushs rating spiked some, but the reflect short-term moods and they obscure deeper and contradictory thought patterns among people. They dont tell us to what degree people are enthusiastic and invested in Bushs war policies.

In my opinion, peace is a deeply felt need among the American people. It continues to amaze me how this sentiment bubbles to the surface despite the relentless demagoguery, lies, and fear-mongering orchestrated by the Bush administration.

It provides the grounds on which to win wider sections of the people to struggle against the Bush doctrine, including many who supported the war.

To put it another way, turning people and politicians attitude to the Iraq war into a litmus test determining whom we can and cant coalesce with as millions address new tasks in appreciably different conditions is counterproductive. The peace movement has to and Im sure it will — give both people and their elected representatives space to move into the peace camp where they belong.


Albert Einstein once said, Imagination is more important than intelligence. The peace movement needs imagination in three directions. In one direction it has to visualize what the possible consequences and likely scenarios are if the world continues on its present course, including the possibility of nuclear war?

A second direction is to envision what rules, norms, institutions, and alterations in the structures of power are necessary to preserve the peace. We are against Bushs form of global governance, which is heavy on preemption, regime change, an unending arms race, and U.S. hegemony over every region and continent. It is a prescription for war, economic crisis, inequality, denial of democratic rights, terror attacks, more division in the world, and national insecurity.

But what is the alternative? Communists favor socialism a society that would eliminate the economic and political pressures that generate exploitation, inequality, aggression, terror, and war, while at the same time creating the conditions for deepening democracy and extending the boundaries of human freedom.

But we are also realistic enough to know that socialism isnt on the peoples agenda at this moment. So what is the peoples alternative to the Bush doctrine? This we have to answer and it will take political imagination.

A final challenge to our powers of imagination is to construct a mental picture of the class and social forces that have to be assembled in our country in order to reverse the present direction that we are moving in.

In our view, it is a broad all-peoples coalition at the core of which is labor, the racially oppressed and women. But it also extends it reach to every possible social grouping that is negatively affected by Bushs policies. Anything less will not have the strength to out-muscle Bush and his transnational corporate backers.

Our country is at a crossroads and we the people have to decide what road our nation takes, knowing full well that it could make all the difference in the world.

The choices are clear:

Will it be preemptive strikes or the non-use of force to settle differences?

Will it be regime change or respect for national sovereignty rights?

Will it be American military superiority or universal disarmament?

Will it be world domination or an equal place in the world community of nations with no special privileges?

Will it be narrowing of the boundaries of freedom and democracy or the expansion of them?

Will it be growing class, racial, and gender inequality or the empowering of the exploited and oppressed in every area of life?

Will it be harboring ill will, even hatred, for our neighbors or a deep belief that that every life is precious in this fragile and interdependent world?

Those of us in this room and millions in our country and worldwide have made our choices, but the verdict is still out as to where humanity will go.

But I am convinced that the people will make the right choices.

Of course, it will take a struggle. As Frederick Douglass said, Power concedes nothing without struggle.

So on this May Day, let me end by saying:

Peace is possible!

Victory is within reach!

Solidarity forever!

Workers and peoples of the world unite!

Happy May Day and let the celebration continue!


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