How the United States Whitewashes May Day

Source: Daily Kos

Author: Paul Hogarth

Emphasis Mine

When I was an 11-year-old kid in Chicago, my 5th Grade Class was assigned to do a School Assembly for the month of May.  As my teacher brainstormed what holidays are in May, I innocently suggested May Day.  “No, Paul,” she replied sternly.  “May Day is only celebrated in Communist countries – we can’t do a play about a Communist holiday.”  see:

Of course, Miss Barth was wrong – May Day is celebrated in almost every country in the world, except the United States.  Even though the holiday commemorates the Haymarket Riot of 1886, which happened – of all places – in Chicago.  But for years, the United States has intentionally whitewashed May Day from our culture and our consciousness.

Even in Chicago, it’s almost impossible to find Haymarket Square where the riot occurred – because it basically no longer exists.  As Occupy protesters plan to wage massive May Day rallies today across the country, they will have a basic problem – outside a circle of left-wing activists, most Americans have never heard of May Day.  People may be drawn to protest because of their economic woes or Wall Street greed, but not because of some holiday that they never learned about in school.

When I suggested May Day to my 5th Grade teacher for our school play, I was not a very precocious 11-year-old – or even a red-diaper baby.  I had just vaguely heard about May Day, as the holiday of fertility where you make flower baskets to celebrate the coming of spring.  Any association that May Day has to workers rights – or left-wing causes – was foreign to me.  But we should have learned about it in school, because the Haymarket Riot happened in Chicago.

On May 4, 1886, as part of a national effort by labor unions to pass an eight-hour workday, activists held a peaceful rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square.  At around 10:30 p.m., a dynamite bomb exploded in the crowd – killing seven police officers and four civilians.  No one knows who threw the bomb, but the Police suspected and arrested eight anarchists.  They were tried and convicted in what everyone admits was a sham trial – and four of them were executed (one committed suicide in jail.)

The Haymarket Riot and its aftermath outraged working people and their allies across the world, and they started May Day to remember its martyrs and celebrate the struggles of working people.  Today, May Day is a national holiday in over eighty countries across the world.  While celebrated in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries, it is also a holiday in countries like the United Kingdom and Spain.  After South Africa had its first free elections in 1994, May Day became a holiday.

In these countries, workers typically get the day off – and mass rallies are held to celebrate the struggle of working people for fair wages and an eight-hour workday.  My father now lives in Barcelona, Spain (after teaching at the University of Chicago for twenty years) – and only first learned about May Day because of its rallies there.

But May Day never took hold in the United States.  In 1894, after the Pullman Strike (which also happened in Chicago), President Grover Cleveland made Labor Day – the first Monday in September – a national holiday.  Labor Day was chosen to intentionally co-opt May Day, because they feared commemorating the Haymarket Riot would build support for communism and other radical causes.  In 1958 during the McCarthy Era, President Dwight Eisenhower took it even further by signing a law making May 1st Loyalty Day.  And in the 1980’s, President Ronald Reagan enacted May 1st as “Law Day.”

Unless you were a red-diaper baby, Americans don’t grow up learning about May Day.  We did not get the day off in school, and we certainly didn’t do a 5th Grade play about it.  But when I was in the Chicago Public Schools, we got a three-day weekend in early March for Casimir Pulaski Day – because of Chicago’s large Polish-American community.  Even the first grade class at Lincoln Elementary School did a play about Pulaski Day.

Haymarket Square?  I lived in Chicago for 18 years, and only discovered its location while researching this article.  There isn’t much left of it, frankly.  What used to be Haymarket Square is a block of West Randolph Street – between the Loop & the Kennedy Expressway.  But we all knew Mrs. O’Leary’s barn where her cow kicked the lantern, because the Chicago Fire Department now has a Training Academy there.  Even though 20 years after the Great Chicago Fire, a reporter admitted he made it all up just to sell papers.

Which is why the Occupy Movement’s goal of a “General Strike” with thousands of people in the streets on May Day is a little tone-deaf.  Yes, May Day 2006 was a huge success – when thousands of Latino immigrant families marched in cities across the country.  But they were not marching to commemorate the Haymarket Riot – they were protesting mass deportations and the right-wing anti-immigrant hysteria.

What made the May Day 2006 rallies so powerful and influential was it rounded upmore than the usual suspects.  Spanish radio stations, churches and groups with deep ties in the Latino community spent weeks mobilizing people – so that folks who you would never expect to be political suddenly got involved.  Here in San Francisco, we’re used to seeing a left-wing political protest every week with the same crowd.  But the sight of immigrant moms marching down Market Street with baby strollers – and kids waving Mexican and American flags – was a sight to see.

Can the Occupy Movement generate a huge turnout of families being foreclosed on by the Wall Street banks, or young college graduates struggling for a job while under crushing debt?  Sure, but you won’t get the masses to turn out because it’s May Day.  And yet, all the flyers I’ve seen cater to the same left-wing crowd.  If you want to shut down the Golden Gate Bridge (which Occupy organizers now admit they can’t do), you need to expand your movement beyond the usual suspects – i.e., people who don’t know about May Day.

My 5th Grade Class at Lincoln Elementary School never did a school assembly about May Day – in fact, Miss Barth could never find a good holiday in May to do instead.  So we did a humorous play about a school cafeteria.  I played the mashed potatoes, who none of the children ate because they all wanted French fries.  Despite living in Chicago, it would be over a decade before I would learn the significance of May Day.

I often like to imagine what might have been if I were in Miss Barth’s shoes.  As the 5th Grade teacher, I would have had the kids do a play about May Day – where they re-enact the Haymarket Riot, and the conviction of eight anarchists.  The kids would have learned about Chicago’s proud labor history, and that these militant struggles brought workers’ rights we take for granted today – like the eight-hour workday.

After the play, the kids would turn to the audience and sing “Solidarity Forever” and “The Internationale” – before concluding the assembly by enthusiastically shouting: “Workers of the world unite!  You have nothing to lose but your chains!”  It would probably be at this point, where our School Principal – whose name (ironically) was Mr. May – would have walked up to me in the auditorium, and fired me on the spot.

Paul Hogarth is a writer and attorney living in San Francisco.  He is the Managing Editor of Beyond Chron, San Francisco’s Alternative Online Daily, where this piece was first published.


Who’s Afraid of Communism?

The story of communism’s struggle against fascism and white supremacy has been repressed for generations, but this grip on our collective memory is slipping fast.

Source: New Republic

Author: Malcom Harris

Emphasis Mine

With the Berlin Wall barely a memory and Airbnb in Havana, American anti-communism is probably at its historical nadir. Bernie Sanders has proven the word “socialism” doesn’t scare the next generation; a lot of us even seem to like the idea. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, remembers a different time, when griping about the Reds was an American hobby. She writes fondly about it in her memoir Living History: “We sometimes ice-skated on the Des Plaines River while our fathers warmed themselves over a fire and talked about how the spread of communism was threatening our way of life.”

During the April Democratic primary debate, the candidates were asked about NATO, and a curious thing happened. Donald Trump had called for European nations to contribute more to the organization’s budget; Bernie Sanders more or less agreed. But when it came her turn, Hillary Clinton praised NATO, calling it “the most successful military alliance in probably human history.” Neither the moderators or Sanders pressed her on this point, but it’s a bizarre assertion, on par with some of Trump’s goofier statements. In its 67-year history, NATO has conducted a handful of major military operations, all centered on the breakup of Yugoslavia or the (disastrous) American-led War on Terror. The most powerful? Maybe. The most successful? Not a chance. 

The only way anyone could possibly think of NATO as among the most successful military alliances in human history is if they thought NATO won World War II. But NATO was formed in 1949, and World War II ended in 1945. Still, weren’t the Allies a sort of proto-NATO? For millennials in particular, that makes a lot of sense: Forged in the victory over Nazi Germany, the story goes, a group of Western democracies (led by the U.S., U.K., and France) formed a mutual-defense pact to prevent the same thing from happening again. World War I gave us the UN, and its sequel gave us NATO. But anyone over 35 should know this story’s wrong; there’s a character missing.

The Soviet Union didn’t just help win World War II; they were, by most metrics, the most important player. They lost the most people, 50 times as many as America did. But even in formerly occupied territory, the memory of the USSR’s role seems to be fading along with its monuments. In a post about this particular lapse in historical recollection at Vox—tellingly titled “The successful 70-year campaign to convince people the USA and not the USSR beat Hitler”—Dylan Matthews cites the French blogger Olivier Berruyer’s analysis of poll data. Asked to choose from the U.S., the U.K., and the USSR, 58 percent of French citizens credited America with doing the most to defeat Germany, while 20 percent picked the Soviets. In 1945, with the liberation just complete, those numbers were reversed. 

I imagine that if you asked the average young American what army liberated Auschwitz, they would say ours. Which is wrong, but it’s hard to blame them: Capitalism won, and we’ve moved on to new bogeymen. If you don’t need to warn innocent children away from Soviet seduction, there isn’t much need to tell them about communism at all. We can fill the gaps in the history books with patriotism. 

Ignoring history, however, won’t make it go away. Without the Soviet threat, the anti-communist barricades are a little understaffed. And with faulty censors, who will stop the culture industry from making communism seem cool? The two most famous Soviets right now are probably Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, the KGB spy stars of the critically acclaimed F/X show The Americans. Despite having been created by a former CIA agent and set in the 1980s, Elizabeth and Philip aren’t the bad guys. They’re the good ones. In Nicaragua, in El Salvador, in South Africa, in Afghanistan, the American government’s policies are portrayed as worth fighting against by any means necessary. It’s a more honest description of the history than Clinton’s, in her memoir. “In the past,” she writes of the Cold War in the Western Hemisphere, “American policy in the region led to the funneling of foreign aid to military juntas that opposed communism and socialism but sometimes repressed their own citizens.”

Anti-communism has been a powerful force within American politics and culture for over 150 years. In their book The American Slave Coast, Ned and Constance Sublette date its inauguration to the 1850 Nashville convention on Southern secession, when Langdon Cheves, former Speaker of the House and South Carolina congressman, denounced abolitionists as communists:

What we call the rights of man, or the admission of great masses to the power of self-government, has brought into action the minds of persons utterly unqualified to judge of the subject practically, who have generated the wildest theories…. This agitation has recently reached the United States…, and has brought under its delusions the subject of African slavery in the Southern States. It is of the family of communism, it is the doctrine of Proudhon, that property is a crime.

Cheves’s speech, the Sublettes write, was no fluke: “Proslavery writers formulated the first generation of American anticommunist rhetoric.” Cheves and co. weren’t wrong: Communists (including Karl Marx) really did want to destroy slavery, but patriotic American history books don’t have room for left-wing internationalism. Anyone involved in creating one of those textbooks grew up in a time when Marxists were the Bad Guys and people who questioned that got in trouble.  

You might not know it from the history books, but American communism has always been racialized. When Jim Crow laws banned interracial organization, the Communist Party was the only group that dared to flout the rule. In 1932, when the Birmingham, Alabama police went to shut down a Party meeting, a present national guardsman wrote his superior: “The police played their only trump by enforcing a city ordinance for segregation which, of course, is contrary to Communist principles.” Now we tell the story of the Civil Rights Movement within liberal parameters, but everyone who fought for black liberation was called a communist at one time or another, and not always inaccurately. 

This legacy might be largely forgotten in the United States, but it isn’t gone. President Obama’s deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told The Atlantic that the rapprochement with Cuba began at the funeral for Nelson Mandela, where Obama shared the stage with Raul Castro:

We had used the black-and-white version of history to justify Cuba policy that didn’t make much sense; that was far past its expiration date. I think that he had enough of an understanding of history to know that whatever we think about the Cuban government’s political system and human-rights practices that, in fact, when it came to the anti-apartheid movement, they had a place on that dais at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, and he was not going to, essentially, disrespect the legacy of Nelson Mandela by carrying forward that history and snubbing the Cuban president because of our bilateral relationship.

Mandela, in addition to being a hero to American liberals, was most likely a member of the Central Committee of the South African Communist Party. And while America was denying that NATO’s attention to the shipping lanes around the South Atlantic had anything to do with supporting apartheid, tiny Cuba was sending tens of thousands of soldiers to fight against white nationalism in Angola on principle. Many historians credit Cuban intervention with delivering the deathblow to apartheid; at the time, The New York Times Magazine called the Cuban mission “strange.” If Obama wanted to share the stage with Castro, he had to drop decades of American bullshit.  

The story of communism’s struggle against fascism and white supremacy has been repressed for generations, but this grip on our collective memory is slipping fast. David Simon is planning a series about the Abraham Lincoln Brigade—American leftists who fought against fascism in Spain. Steve McQueen is doing a Paul Robeson biopic, whose 1956 testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee is already the most cinematic thing I’ve ever heard. When asked about his membership in the Party, he invoked the Fifth Amendment (“Loudly”), at great personal cost. “Wherever I’ve been in the world,” he told them, “the first to die in the struggle against fascism were the communists.” 

A new poll of adults under 30 found that 51 percent “do not support capitalism.” Zach Lustbader, a college senior involved in conducting the poll, told The Washington Post: “The word ‘capitalism’ doesn’t mean what it used to.” And if capitalism isn’t the Good Guy, young people might go looking for a more nuanced version of the Cold War narrative. Hollywood might even bring it to us first. Without the anti-communist lid, it’s hard to tell what we’ll find, and how the political landscape will change.

Hillary Clinton’s shoddy but common recollection can’t withstand a tablespoon of earnest scrutiny. As a new generation of Americans starts digging through the records, we’re going to hear a lot more questions.


Give Karl Marx a Chance to Save the World Economy: George Magnus

s he wrote in “Das Kapital,” companies’ pursuit of profits and productivity would naturally lead them to need fewer and fewer workers, creating an “industrial reserve army” of the poor and unemployed: “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery.”

Karl Marx and the World Economy

By George Magnus

Policy makers struggling to understand the barrage of financial panics, protests and other ills afflicting the world would do well to study the works of a long-dead economist: Karl Marx. The sooner they recognize we’re facing a once-in-a-lifetime crisis of capitalism, the better equipped they will be to manage a way out of it.

The spirit of Marx, who is buried in a cemetery close to where I live in north London, has risen from the grave amid the financial crisis and subsequent economic slump. The wily philosopher’s analysis of capitalism had a lot of flaws, but today’s global economy bears some uncanny resemblances to the conditions he foresaw.

Consider, for example, Marx’s prediction of how the inherent conflict between capital and labor would manifest itself. As he wrote in “Das Kapital,” companies’ pursuit of profits and productivity would naturally lead them to need fewer and fewer workers, creating an “industrial reserve army” of the poor and unemployed: “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery.”

The process he describes is visible throughout the developed world, particularly in the U.S. Companies’ efforts to cut costs and avoid hiring have boosted U.S. corporate profits as a share of total economic output to the highest level in more than six decades, while the unemployment rate stands at 9.1 percent and real wages are stagnant.

U.S. income inequality, meanwhile, is by some measures close to its highest level since the 1920s. Before 2008, the income disparity was obscured by factors such as easy credit, which allowed poor households to enjoy a more affluent lifestyle. Now the problem is coming home to roost.

Over-Production Paradox

Marx also pointed out the paradox of over-production and under-consumption: The more people are relegated to poverty, the less they will be able to consume all the goods and services companies produce. When one company cuts costs to boost earnings, it’s smart, but when they all do, they undermine the income formation and effective demand on which they rely for revenues and profits.

This problem, too, is evident in today’s developed world. We have a substantial capacity to produce, but in the middle- and lower-income cohorts, we find widespread financial insecurity and low consumption rates. The result is visible in the U.S., where new housing construction and automobile sales remain about 75% and 30% below their 2006 peaks, respectively.

As Marx put it in Kapital: “The ultimate reason for all real crises always remains the poverty and restricted consumption of the masses.”

Addressing the Crisis

So how do we address this crisis? To put Marx’s spirit back in the box, policy makers have to place jobs at the top of the economic agenda, and consider other unorthodox measures. The crisis isn’t temporary, and it certainly won’t be cured by the ideological passion for government austerity.

Here are five major planks of a strategy whose time, sadly, has not yet come.

First, we have to sustain aggregate demand and income growth, or else we could fall into a debt trap along with serious social consequences. Governments that don’t face an imminent debt crisis — including the U.S., Germany and the U.K. — must make employment creation the litmus test of policy. In the U.S., the employment-to-population ratio is now as low as in the 1980s. Measures of underemployment almost everywhere are at record highs. Cutting employer payroll taxes and creating fiscal incentives to encourage companies to hire people and invest would do for a start.

Lighten the Burden

Second, to lighten the household debt burden, new steps should allow eligible households to restructure mortgage debt, or swap some debt forgiveness for future payments to lenders out of any home price appreciation.

Third, to improve the functionality of the credit system, well-capitalized and well-structured banks should be allowed some temporary capital adequacy relief to try to get new credit flowing to small companies, especially. Governments and central banks could engage in direct spending on or indirect financing of national investment or infrastructure programs.

Fourth, to ease the sovereign debt burden in the euro zone, European creditors have to extend the lower interest rates and longer payment terms recently proposed for Greece. If jointly guaranteed euro bonds are a bridge too far, Germany has to champion an urgent recapitalization of banks to help absorb inevitable losses through a vastly enlarged European Financial Stability Facility — a sine qua non to solve the bond market crisis at least.

Build Defenses

Fifth, to build defenses against the risk of falling into deflation and stagnation, central banks should look beyond bond- buying programs, and instead target a growth rate of nominal economic output. This would allow a temporary period of moderately higher inflation that could push inflation-adjusted interest rates well below zero and facilitate a lowering of debt burdens.

We can’t know how these proposals might work out, or what their unintended consequences might be. But the policy status quo isn’t acceptable, either. It could turn the U.S. into a more unstable version of Japan, and fracture the euro zone with unknowable political consequences. By 2013, the crisis of Western capitalism could easily spill over to China, but that’s another subject.”

(George Magnus is senior economic adviser at UBS and author of “Uprising: Will Emerging Markets Shape or Shake the World Economy?” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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emphasis mine