Friday, May 01, 2009

May Day

May Day is upon us and, with the global economic crisis reminding everyone who didn't know it already that Wall Street excess isn't a soft, win-win engine of growth, the streets have been especially lively this year. See BBC's video of protests in Turkey, the Philippines, Germany and Russia here.

Few remember that the holiday was originally designated by the Second International as, in part, a day of remembrance for the Hay Market martyrs, anarchists who were tried and hanged largely for their political beliefs after a bomb was thrown at police by an unknown individual during a peaceful protest in Hay Market Square in Chicago in 1886.

The protest in Hay Market Square had been called in response to police shootings during a previous rally outside the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co's factory. That rally, in turn, grew out of a nationwide mobilization for an eight-hour day. Wikipedia has the full chronology here.

Though it seems a little silly, I am particularly impressed by the mustaches and beards of those radicals of times gone by (see the photo above). Their facial hair speaks---at least I think---to their close association with their time and place, a contrast with some radicals today who make a point of distinguishing themselves from their milieu. Orwell had some choice words over half a century ago on this subject:

The first thing that must strike any outside observer is that Socialism, in its developed form is a theory confined entirely to the middle classes. The typical Socialist is not, as tremulous old ladies imagine, a ferocious-looking working man with greasy overalls and a raucous voice. He is either a youthful snob-Bolshevik who in five years' time will quite probably have made a wealthy marriage and been converted to Roman Catholicism; or, still more typically, a prim little man with a white- collar job, usually a secret teetotaller and often with vegetarian leanings, with a history of Nonconformity behind him, and, above all, with a social position which he has no intention of forfeiting....

One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words 'Socialism' and 'Communism' draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, 'Nature Cure' quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.
One day this summer I was riding through Letchworth when the bus stopped and two dreadful-looking old men got on to it. They were both about sixty, both very short, pink, and chubby, and both hatless. One of them was obscenely bald, the other had long grey hair bobbed in the Lloyd George style. They were dressed in pistachio-coloured shirts and khaki shorts into which their huge bottoms were crammed so tightly that you could study every dimple. Their appearance created a mild stir of horror on top of the bus. The man next to me, a commercial traveller I should say, glanced at me, at them, and back again at me, and murmured 'Socialists', as who should say,'Red Indians'. He was probably right--the I.L.P. were holding their
summer school at Letchworth.

I'm not on board with all of Orwell's stereotypes ("Quakers" and "feminists" and "Red Indians" don't seem particularly wacky to me). And making fun of counterculture has gone a bit too far nowadays, with jokes about the 60s and 70s covering over the serious questions raised by communes, anti-war and anti-nuclear advocacy, drug experimentation, etc. But Orwell, a socialist himself, had a point.

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