May Day: What’s Left of the Left

Published: May 3, 2013

This past week a fortuitous stopover landed me in London on May 1st, historically “May Day,” the day commemorating international working class solidarity since Chicago’s Haymarket Massacre in 1886…

We’re less familiar with the historic significance of May Day because in 1894 the Canadian government created Labour Day as an alternative holiday, which now marks the unofficial end of summer with a long weekend featuring back-to-school sales more than workers’ rights.

We decided first to mark the occasion with a visit to Trafalgar Square, the endpoint of the annual May Day march and rally. Apparently the Left, unlike the private sector, doesn’t really operate on a tight schedule so were left waiting, in itself not an unpleasant experience given the sunny weather and a chance to touch base with the radical newspaper sellers, pamphleteers and advocates of various causes. I thoroughly enjoyed my brief conversation with a very earnest young man who was surprised to learn I knew much more about Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis than he did—surely what he did not expect from the be-speckled woman old enough to be his mother. I kindly pointed out to the sandwich-board wearers with the tiny-print notice on the front about rights for working mothers that perhaps their mode of communication wasn’t up to 21st century means of getting the message out; they responded with surface cheer but were obviously a tad perturbed by my intervention. The publications contained what I sadly expected: grief over the death of Hugo Chavez, celebration of Cuban democracy, shame about European imperialism and Israeli apartheid. One bulletin was listed as an affiliate of the Internationalist Communist Tendency: a group with at least enough self-awareness of their own marginalization to avoid the word “Party.” Overall, the crowd was modest and quiet: the Internationale was hummed and sung as the marchers entered the square, but they hadn’t even 10% of the energy one felt at Zucotti Park in Lower Manhattan at the height of Occupy Wall Street in 2011, despite obvious dissatisfaction with Prime Minister David Cameron’s austerity measures. I attempted to generate a round of applause when the recent Bangladeshi factory collapse was mentioned, surely a good a reason as any for international worker solidarity, but too few responded. The largely gray-haired demonstrators seemed to care more about the survival of the National Health Service and pensions than reaching the next generation: a fact betrayed by the event’s almost non-existent web presence.

Recognizing, like Freud, the narcissism of minor difference, it was difficult to tell the various groups apart—no doubt one of the reasons for the earnest calls for unity by the Trades Union Congress. Lots of red banners with the usual slogans, but surely Stalin on the same banner with Marx draped at the bottom of Nelson’s column did more to discredit than advertise the movement. It’s actually hard to find a member of the Old, New, or any Left to actually have the gumption or idiocy to defend the Soviet dictator anymore; it’s certainly much easier to make the case that Marx, more an effective analyst of the contradictions of globalizing capitalism than a theorist of revolutionary action in any event, is figure of contemporary relevance despite various regimes held up in his name in the 20th century.

Tony Benn was scheduled to speak, surely a crowd pleaser. I hadn’t even realized the ancient aristocrat of the British Labour Party was still alive; my cousin recalled that he had retired after an impressive 50 years in the House of Commons, not to spend more time with his family, as is usually offered as the perennial excuse, but in order to spend more time on politics. We were disappointed—after the fourth speaker, we were told that the 88 year-old Benn was not well enough to attend. Fair enough, but I couldn’t help feeling that the delayed announcement was designed to keep the meager crowed there just a touch longer—a tactic affirmed by our quick departure, and of many others. I privately wondered if Benn’s appearance is advertised every year to boost the crowd.

Our next stop was Highgate Cemetery, to visit its most famous resident, Karl Marx. Actually, six members of the Marx family are buried at the site (including his long-suffering wife Jenny, daughter Eleanor, several grandchildren and his former housekeeper and paramour Helene Demuth), which includes an impressive bust of Marx on a stone plinth. There were a few fresh flowers scattered about. We had a charming exchange with an American family of CPUSA origins, New Yorkers now transplanted to DC who were bemused to discover their new graveside acquaintance was conducting research on trials of American communists in the 1950s while working at a Canadian military staff college on a publicly-funded research grant. I enjoy cracking stereotypes wide open and passed around my business card. I regaled them with what I knew of Claudia Jones, buried appropriately to the left of Marx—a well-known and respected communist from Trinidad who wrote on the intersections of race, class, and gender long before second wave feminism made the topic one of interest in nascent women’s studies departments. Jones was deported from the US after being indicted with 20 other communists in 1951for conspiracy to teach and advocate the overthrow of the US government by force and violence. The evidence was both thin and, according to one FBI informer-witness who later recanted, fabricated. Needless to say, the trial was deeply political, the guilty verdicts all but inevitable. Jones’ trial was one of 15 similar trials held all over the United States—from Puerto Rico to Hawaii, Connecticut to Denver, involving more than 135 people. Today those trials are all but forgotten.

We rounded out the day’s events with a pub dinner and attendance at the 2013 annual Marx lecture organized by the Friends of Highgate. This was no radical gathering, resembling something more akin to a Monty Python sketch. The featured speaker was erudite and interesting enough, a Cambridge professor of intellectual history who aimed to situate Marx into 19th century legal debates about the origins and continuing examples of village communal life, from the Russian mir to the Iroquois confederacy. Nevertheless, one had to wince at the befuddled nature of his presentation, with dropped pages and too many moments of dead air time; he couldn’t quite manage the simple effort of speaking into the microphone. He seemed to principally address the middle-aged woman with the plummy accent wearing the purple sweater and pearl necklace that had introduced him. I’m sure his writing is infinitely better, but it saddens me to think of my many marginally and unemployed academic friends who would do better on a bad day to a large hall filled with unruly undergraduates.

My May Day experience was amusing and depressing in equal measure. Marx had once famously claimed after his dissatisfaction with the “revolutionary phrase-mongering” of French socialists Jules Guesde and Paul Lafargue, “…ce qu’il y a de certain c’est que moi, je ne suis pas Marxiste” (“…what is certain is that [if they are Marxists], [then] I myself am not a Marxist.” I could not have summed up the day better myself.