May Day

Image: Mike Bird


History and meaning of this date that is celebrated in more than 80 countries

“[…] the working class has unlearned both hatred and the will to sacrifice. For both are nourished by the vision of enslaved ancestors, and not by the ideal of freed descendants” (Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History”).


On May 1, 1886, the first general strike in the United States took place, and the second in the world, since only in London had a strike of the same magnitude occurred 56 years earlier. The strike managed to bring together workers, trade unionists, socialists and anarchists, as well as countless sympathizers under the agenda of reducing the working day to 8 hours; whose hymn, quite audacious for the time, was: “Eight hours of work. Eight hours of rest. Eight hours to do whatever we want.”

On that May 1, 1886, about 300 workers went on strike in the United States. In Chicago alone, the epicenter of the movement, it is estimated that around 40 workers have stopped and around 80 people have taken to the streets. Protests in Chicago were scheduled to take place over several days – however, the brutality of police repression quickly made itself felt: on May 3, one person was killed and several were injured in a clash between police and strikers.

To protest police violence, anarchist leaders called a mass meeting for the following day, May 4, in Haymarket Square. At one point in the hitherto peaceful meeting, riots were caused by the police, which resulted in a bomb being thrown at the police. In the ensuing chaos, a shootout broke out, which according to witnesses was also started by the police. Between civilians and police, ten to fifteen people were killed and approximately 60 were injured.

The author of the attack was never identified, although the effects of the bomb have, so to speak, spread throughout the country. Public opinion was instantly co-opted by the press against the anarchists, and a whole climate of anti-red hysteria was set in motion. Chicago newspapers ran a series of unsubstantiated stories in which anarchists were portrayed as agents of an anti-American conspiracy carried out by immigrants, which gave rise not only to a defamatory association between anarchists and immigrants, but also to inflame the public outcry for merciless vengeance: “They must be hanged!” - shouted in the streets.

After dozens of arrests, seizures and arrests, eight anarchists were held responsible for the attack, although there was no evidence to prove the direct involvement of any of them. Of the eight sentenced, only one was not condemned to death, and, among those who were, two appealed in a letter to the then governor of Illinois; and had the sentence commuted to life imprisonment. A clemency on the part of the authorities that, above all, resulted from the campaign against the arbitrariness of the trial, supported by illustrious personalities such as Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw and Friedrich Engels.

Of the five men who chose not to appeal in order to remain faithful to their convictions -, only the young immigrant Louis Lingg was not hanged, since he committed suicide, with a detonator, in his cell, the day before the execution, then scheduled and held on November 11, 1887. Thousands of people attended the funeral of the five condemned to capital punishment in the name of order and the law. Six years later, in 1893, the three jailed survivors were pardoned by the then new governor of Illinois, John Peter Atgeld – who had sacrificed his political career by enforcing the written letter of the law to miserable sizes. Today, the trial is regarded as one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in American history.


Albert Parsons was one of the anarchists executed for the Haymarket bombing – of the eight convicted, he was the only one who was not an immigrant. Albert Parsons, married to the famous black anarchist Lucy Parsons, was editor in chief of the newspaper The Alarm. August Spies, another of those executed, led the Editorial Zeitung, aimed specifically at immigrants. Through the work of Parsons and Spies a bridge was built between immigrants and Americans regarding the anarchist movement in the United States. In both newspapers, several articles were published, in which the use of violence in revolutionary methods was justified: readers were encouraged to study chemistry books with the aim of learning how to manufacture all kinds of explosives, as a form of self-defense against violence. carried out by the US government – ​​the case of the necessarily bloody repression of strikes, for which the army itself was usually called upon by law.

A significant part of these writings in which an open defense of what is now commonly called “political terrorism” was authored by Johann Most, a German immigrant, who, in 1885, one year before the Haymarket tragedy, published in New York , a compilation of his writings and speeches, entitled Science of Revolutionary Warfare: Handbook of instructions for the use epproduction of nitroglycerin, dynamite, guncotton, mercury fulminate, bombs, explosives, poisons, etc – the collection gained great prominence during the Haymarket incident trial. Johann Most was also known as the person responsible for popularizing, in the United States, the expression “propaganda by deed”, a fundamental postulate for any political group that deems the use of violence in direct action necessary. It is no exaggeration to say that he only escaped hanging for the Haymarket incident because he was already in prison serving time for the crime of "inflammatory speech".

Both The Alarm, how much Editorial Zeitung were suspended on the day of the Haymarket tragedy, with all members of both teams arrested. With Albert Parsons in prison, the anarchist Dyer D. Lum, who at the time of the incident was living in New York, moved to Chicago with the aim of resuming publication of the newspaper – which he achieved, precisely, five days before the execution. In this first new edition, a note by Albert Parsons himself was published encouraging his companions to continue with the fight, as well as, later, Louis Lingg's suicide note was published. More than publishing the note, it was Dyer D. Lum who provided Lingg with the detonator that would kill him after six hours of agony, on the eve of his execution. The newspaper's activities were definitively suspended at the end of 1888.

Dyer D. Lum committed suicide in 1893 after suffering from severe depression; he never resigned himself to the fact that no retaliation on the part of anarchists, or radicals generally, had been undertaken to avenge the Chicago martyrs. He even created a plan to release those condemned to death before execution, through explosions in different parts of the city and a simultaneous armed attack on the prison, but no action was taken in this regard. Dyer D. Lum was convinced of the indispensability of the use of violence in the fight against oppression and the fact that he himself had failed in this, it seems, was the reason for him never to forgive himself.

The memory of the Haymarket tragedy overwhelmed him. He even considered using his suicide as a political act of protest and revenge, but with the plunge into depression, which was accompanied by the abuse of alcohol and opiates, he committed suicide in the decadence of a hostel room in New York City, by ingesting a poison capsule. Faced with the bloodthirsty absurdity that the initially grandiose fight became (the strike was demoralized by the attack), the defeated fate of Dyer D. Lum also retains its exemplary character.

Although the aim of the authorities' reaction was to stifle any sympathy and allegiance to anarchism, the effect was largely the opposite. Many had their political conscience awakened by the blatant opposition between the injustice of the trial and the legitimacy of the strikers' agenda, the case of two recognized anarchist women today: Emma Goldman and Voltairine de Cleyre. As Emma Goldman relates in her autobiography: “Chicago was very significant in my life. I owe my spiritual birth to the martyrs of 1887”. Or as Voltairine Cleyre ponders in The making of an anarchist: “the specific occasion which was responsible for maturing my anarchist tendencies concerns the case of 1886-87, when five innocent men were hanged in Chicago for the action of a culprit that still remains unknown. Until then I believed in the essential fairness of American law and trial by jury. After that case, I couldn't do it anymore."

At the first congress of the Second International, in Paris, on July 14, 1889, the centenary of the French Revolution, the date May 1 was established as International Workers' Day, in honor of the Chicago martyrs and their struggle for the day of work. eight hours of work a day. Only in 1937, the eight-hour day was enacted, in the form of law, for the entire US territory. International Workers' Day is celebrated on May 1st in more than 80 countries, including Brazil. In the United States, ironically, on May 1st, “Loyalty Day” is officially celebrated – loyalty, in this case, to the United States and the American tradition of freedom –; President Eisenhower decreed the holiday in 1955, during the cold war, in order to avoid any hint of complacency towards the 1st of May from the “workers of the world”. [I]


It should not be thought of little importance here that the framework chosen for the workers' struggle began with an act of desperation; this, it is true, only in case it was indeed some anonymous radical who threw the bomb at the police, instead of the authorities themselves, as not so rarely happens even today, when it is necessary to justify the exceptionality in the eyes of public opinion. from state repression towards a certain group and/or greater investment in security and armed forces.

Be that as it may, making free use of the words of Walter Benjamin, quoted in the epigraph: let us bow, taken by due pathos, enslaved ancestors via direct or indirect State sanction, instead of narcotizing ourselves with infantilizing fantasies about the ideal future of freed descendants; ideal that, at this late hour of ours, long after the fire alarm has sounded and resounded, as we know, is becoming confused with some obscure utopia now dubbed the “multipolar world” – which, from a certain anarchist and political perspective, feminist, sounds as absurd as celebrating the move from a patriarchal world to a multipatriarchal world, to the new era of geopolitical multipatriarchalism…

*Mariana Lins Costa is a postdoctoral researcher in philosophy at the Federal University of Sergipe (UFS).


[I] The historical reconstruction presented here is part of my translation of the work Direct action and other writings by the American anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre, organized by Acácio Augusto, to be launched by Hedra. The main source of the facts narrated here consists of the work of Paul Avrich, The Haymarket Tragedy. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1984.

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