Rewinning our day

It is time we reclaim May Day from the Stalinists, says Eddie Ford

The motive force and backbone of May Day mobilisations in Britain has throughout most of the 20th century traditionally been supplied by the CPGB and its allies. The annual demonstrations acted as a barometer measuring all strands of working class struggle.

The steady decrease in the numbers mobilised on May Day during the 1970s and 1980s reflected the decline of the revolutionary left, and the ideological and organisational weakness of the CPGB. Turkish and Kurdish left groups have come to provide the biggest and most militant contingents in recent years, with their revolutionary music, chants, banners and flags. (It must be said that the isolation of these groups from the British working class movement has been a major strategic error.)

May 1 has long been a public holiday in most European countries, where demonstrations have often been taken over by reformists and channelled into support for reformist parties and governments. As it had by linking Saint Phillip and Saint James to the original pagan festival, the catholic church has attempted to 'christianify' May Day, declaring it the feast day of Saint Joseph the Worker.

In Britain, the Wilson government finally acceded in 1975 to the long-standing demand for a May Day bank holiday, but it chose the first Monday in May, rather than May Day itself. Even this was too much for rightwing sections of the establishment and ever since they have called for this alien, socialist holiday to be abolished and replaced by a holiday in the autumn - perhaps Winston Churchill's birthday or even Margaret Thatcher's.

The Tory government in the early 1990s considered abolishing the May Day bank holiday on the grounds that it disrupted business and honoured socialism, but they knew that depriving workers of a day off would not be popular, especially since Britain has fewer public holidays annually than most European countries. For the British establishment years when May Day fell on a Monday and thus coincided with the bank holiday have been particularly distasteful.

In 1995 the Tory government neatly avoided the unseemly spectacle of British workers having a day off on a socialist holiday by moving the bank holiday to May 8 and declaring that it was a holiday to commemorate VE day, the liberation of Europe from Nazi occupation in 1945. Veterans of World War II were granted cut-price train tickets to get to London for celebratory events.

In 2000 May Day was again on a Monday, and this bank holiday saw the impotence of the rightwing trade union leadership on full display. The TUC proved how completely the official labour movement has been neutered by eschewing any march or demonstration in favour of a 'TUC May Day in the Millennium Dome'. For £10 a head trade union members could attend special union events in the dome designed to "celebrate Britain's racial and cultural diversity, speak out against low pay, and promote trade unionism".

Meanwhile, anarchists and militant environmentalists organised a completely separate 'guerrilla gardening' protest - a conscious return to the agricultural origins of May Day, planting flowers and seeds in Parliament Square and generally turning it into a tip.

This protest was backed by an array of disaffected youth, alienated by bourgeois society and its commodified values. A handful symbolised their opposition to capitalism by smashing up a McDonald's and breaking a few windows, as well as daubing a statue of Winston Churchill and the Cenotaph. The establishment exacted their revenge the next year: in 2001, the police lured several thousand young marchers into a trap - they were held in the pouring rain for seven hours at Oxford Circus.

This year's May Day takes places in the direct aftermath of the conquest of Iraq by the US-UK coalition. What has been of particular significance and bodes so well for the future are two things. Firstly, demonstrations against the war, especially before the fighting broke out, were huge. Numbers were counted in their hundreds of thousands and millions. Two million in London, five million in Spain, etc.

Secondly, they were coordinated internationally. People marched on the same day across the whole world. Internationalism lives and is growing. The shadow of the Soviet Union and its perversion of communism are being left behind. Capitalist triumphalism is being answered by a new movement and a new generation.

The anti-war movement and the workers' movement must be brought together. We must reclaim May Day. It belongs to those who want a world without war. It belongs to those who want to end wage slavery. It belongs to those who want to see a world fit for human beings.