Can Obama Change America’s Understanding of Class and Dissent?

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Ms. Haverty-Stacke, Associate Professor of History, Hunter College, CUNY, is the author of "America’s Forgotten Holiday: May Day and Nationalism, 1867-1960" (NYU Press, 2008).

Class conflict.  Political dissent.  What it means to be an American.  Many people assume these things are incompatible.  Throughout America’s history, most U.S. citizens denied the reality of class divisions in their midst, seeing them as either European or somehow related to Soviet communism.  And political dissent has not been understood to be central to American political culture either. By its very nature, dissent bucks the mainstream.  Because this protest has often been staged by radicals (anarchists, socialists, and communists) many Americans have traditionally seen it as essentially foreign. That there could be indigenous sources for class divisions and political dissent in the United States is a notion most Americans struggle to accept. 

The trouble acknowledging native inequality and protest has been true for much of America’s past, but has remained particularly acute during the past eight years.  During that time, the national political leadership in Washington has worked to assert an aggressively narrow definition of Americanism in which concern for economic inequity was ignored and protest of any kind was deemed “un-American.”  As many historians of labor and the working class have recently come to acknowledge afresh, politics and the state matter when it comes to how questions of economic fairness and democracy—including industrial democracy—can be addressed. 

The inauguration of Barack Obama on January 20, 2009 may well bring the change many have been waiting for when it comes to such a discussion.  There is hope that the political atmosphere will shift, opening up room both for dissent and for the recognition of the role class divisions play in American society and in the country’s economy.  Obama’s promise to address questions of inequity and to refashion America’s relationship with the world may allow the U.S. to break out from the historic sense of its own uniqueness, an idea cultivated and embraced during the past two-hundred years.

The unique story that Americans have told themselves about their nation—what can be termed an exceptionalist narrative—developed, in part, through communal expressions on public holidays like the Fourth of July and Inauguration Day.  Such events allowed Americans to celebrate their shared political ideas, which have served as a binding force for a multicultural nation.

But there has been another type of public holiday that was not used to celebrate social and political harmony.  Bucking the mainstream trends of the nation’s celebratory traditions, workers and left-wing radicals in the United States created May Day—a new holiday, distinct from the older spring rites that traditionally marked the first of May.  Beginning at the height of America’s industrial era, these outliers represented their working-class concerns and left-wing radical political protest each May first. 

From the 1880s until the 1960s, those who created the May Day holiday in the United States offered an alternative to the martial, masculine, assimilationist, and occasionally reactionary definition of American nationalism forged, in part, during public celebrations like the Fourth of July and Memorial Day.  May Day, which came from and remained on the dissenting margins, never became an official holiday in the United States for one simple reason: its raison d’être was protest and it became a foil against which the nation’s traditional narrative was constructed.  Opposition to May Day fueled mainstream definitions of American exceptionalism. The rejection of this radical holiday was so complete that by the mid-twentieth century very few Americans observed May Day.  And to this day, most Americans have no idea that what has become an international workers holiday originated in the United States.

Conceived in response to the economic upheaval wrought by the processes of industrialization in America’s great cities during the 1870s and early 1880s, and midwived by the growing trade union, anarchist, and socialist movements, May Day was born on May 1, 1886 as a child of protest in one of the greatest demonstrations of labor’s strength in American history: a nationwide strike for the eight-hour day.  Although trade unionists and political radicals managed to sustain an alliance for this historic moment, the aftershock of the Haymarket tragedy (the bombing of an anarchist protest meeting in Chicago on May 4, 1886) and the European socialists’ adoption of May Day in 1890 would undermine that cooperation.  While the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which had initially supported the May holiday, tried to maintain the focus of this new event on workers’ push for the eight-hour day, anarchists and socialists took up the more radical implications that Haymarket and the new international reach of May Day offered them.

By the late 1890s, politically moderate trade unionists in the AFL instead increasingly gave their support to the September Labor Day holiday, a uniquely American demonstration through which workers made their bread-and-butter demands while expressing their respectability and patriotism as American laborers.  Anarchists and socialists—many of whom were also workers—continued to embrace the radical implications of May Day as the harbinger of the international socialist order that they hoped to realize. 

By the turn of the twentieth century, the young Socialist Party (SP) forged broad working-class coalitions and organized large-scale parades with up to 60,000 participants on May first.  The radical implications of the annual event were plain to see by the 1910s, but those implications did not always translate into simple opposition to the existing order.  In their May Day demonstrations, SP members vigorously defended their right to carry the American flag alongside the red flag as socialist Americans, who believed that the promise of democracy inherent in their nation’s political system would only be fulfilled through the creation of a socialist commonwealth. 

Despite the best efforts of SP leaders to identify with America's democratic heritage, their May Day parades and mass meetings became targets of both political persecution and vigilante violence during the first Red Scare of 1919 - 1921.  Both conservative and progressive groups created new events to supplant the radical May first displays during the 1920s, including American Day, Loyalty Day, and National Child Health Day.  Even within organized labor there was a continued movement away from the observation of May Day during the first decades of the twentieth century, as AFL leadership supported Labor Day instead. 

Within the context of the Great Depression of the 1930s, socialists and communists revived their outdoor May Day parades and mass meetings, and the holiday reached its climax in numerical strength and cultural relevance.  It is amazing to contemplate that nearly 700,000 people celebrated the day in New York in 1939. 

But such enthusiasm would not last.  Because the Communist Party (CP) came to dominate the celebration in this decade, May Day would wane once again, as the accusation of its having been a foreign-controlled event found traction, first among anti-communists on the left, and later, during the Cold War, within the wider American public.  In this Cold War climate, and reeling from the witch hunts of the second Red Scare, those communists and progressive unionists who tried to maintain May Day’s presence in the United States found it increasingly difficult.  The holiday’s detractors, including military veterans, religious and community groups, and certain labor unions, dominated city streets with Loyalty Day celebrations that helped forge a new Cold War Americanism characterized by militant anti-communist and pro-free market sympathies.  Those detractors captured the front pages of the major newspapers to promote this new Americanism, while they cast May Day as a foreign-inspired rally supported only by puppets of Moscow. Consequently, as May Day essentially disappeared from the streets of America, so its history disappeared from the nation's popular memory.    

Although the alternative radical Americanisms created on May Day always existed on the edges of American political culture, they found a home there, and during the 1930s even thrived when questions of equity became a pressing national concern.  This remained true until the Cold War shifted the political balance, pushing America’s radical elements beyond the pale of political acceptance.

While protest and dissent have remained possible within American political culture, their economic focus has been limited.  Such protest has not included a questioning of the nation's capitalist economy, nor have dissenters been able to capture and redefine the core symbols of the nation. The implications of this weakness for the political left in the latter half of the twentieth century have been profound.  To be both a patriotic and dissenting American has remained a formidable challenge. 

With the arrival in Washington of the Obama administration, this challenge may lessen.  But the desire for Americans to come to terms with questions of inequity and class—even in the midst of one of the worst economic crises in decades—seems unlikely. It will take more than just a change in the political atmosphere in Washington.  It will require nothing short of reshaping Americans’ understanding of themselves as a nation in order to recognize that class does matter. If history can teach us anything, however, it is that such a transformation will not come easily.

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Larry N Stout - 2/4/2009

Dear Mr. Olerud,

Amending your lead-in, should we not say "Middle Class doesn't exist"?

Do you condone the extreme division of wealth that has snowballed since Reagan?

John Olerud - 2/2/2009

You can do accomplish anything you want in this country if you are willing to work hard, live within your means, and get an education.

Lorraine Paul - 1/28/2009

What a pleasure to read!

I look forward to reading your book, Prof Haverty-Stacke.

I am very proud that my mother marched in every May Day up until just a few years before she died.

In Melbourne, as in the US, the interest in May Day has gone from tens of thousands to almost tens, however, it has always been observed.

Australia was the first nation in the world to achieve the 8 hour day, and only the second to give women the vote (New Zealand being the first). We have a proud working class tradition which has managed to survive even the draconian inroads of the Chicago School of "Economics".

I am proud to be a woman of, and for, the working class!