May Day, the “holiday” of the organised working class and shepherded celebratory memorial for all of those who struggled in the past for the benefits of labour today. Yet after more than a hundred years of organised labour, “workers’ republics”, welfare statism, how much has been forgotten. What militancy remains is restricted to a pseudo-inflammatory rhetoric reserved to labour union bureaucrats and of which all meaning has been lost … red flags blow in the wind, declarations of working class unity are repeated as if in refrain, the Internationale may even be sung here and there, along with chants repeated mechanically of the “people united will never be defeated!” And we look around us at the defeated, hard pressed to count the victories of the “people”, of the many who were never included in the “social contracts” of welfarism (but whose exploitation made state welfare possible: women, the colonised, racial and ethnic “minorities”, etc.). We are just waiting to see if we can still remember the number of Soviets tanks that once formerly paraded before the leadership of the first socialist republic.
A text by the french anarchist Joseph Albert, more commonly known as Albert Libertad, or simply Libertad, of 1905, already speaks of the corruption of the occasion …
The national and international holiday of the organized proletariat.
The Bastille Day of the unionized working class, the replay of the holiday of the Bistros.
The tragi-comic anniversary of something that will be taken away …
May Day 1905: Prologue
In the archiepiscopal church the grand ceremony takes place: the high priests, who have been delegated to other places, are absent.
The tribune is filled. The office is invaded. The strangest looking faces appear there. An assessor, delegate and secretary of I-don’t-know-what, who has decorated his breast with a large tie, with his decoration and his lit up mug, set the appropriate tone.
Appearing in a curious parade, all alone come the eternal bit players and the future stars. In the wings we can imagine the presence of influential directors falsifying the system.
Alcohol overflows in smelly burps from almost every mouth.
A few ordinary workers, a hundred at most, have come in a spirit of combativeness, or through obligation. There are a few who are sincere, thinking they are working for their emancipation, and who are sickened and disillusioned by the drunken events around them.
A bizarre salad where the words “Organized proletariat,” “workers demands,” “Eight hour day,” dance about. “All arise in 1906,” “The Bosses,” “The Exploiters,” “The Exploited,” “My Corporation,” “Delegates,” “The Union of…,” etc. are seasoned before us.
One has the impression of listening to a constantly wound up phonograph, but whose worn out notches allow only a few words to escape.
Any attempt at serious debate is impossible. We are in the hall not to learn but — it appears — to impress the bosses.
We must all be in agreement, all friends, all brothers, so that the press can’t say there was any disagreement.
We are working for the gallery.
Should the press say tomorrow how many drunks there were at the tribune? Should it speak of the exceptional receipts at the bistros within a kilometer of the Labor Exchange? Should it count the number of men who came home at night with their bellies full of alcohol and their pockets empty?
Across from the Labor Exchange a group decorated in red is drinking… I pass by…a man detaches himself and gives me two sous “for good luck,” taking me for a poor devil and so as to get a laugh. Pieces of silver fall to the ground, rolling from his pockets.
Working class emancipation through union organization!
But let’s go back…Nevertheless, a few notes are interesting and throw a bit of light on this milieu. Two navvies speak with a simplicity, a great sobriety and please quite a few; a man who keeps his hat on and at whom the union crowd shouts: “Your hat!” says some true things; Gabrielle Petit, with her raw eloquence, maintaining her impulsive character, breaks up the disgusting monotony of the dogmatic ritual.
After an incident where we — the best as well as the worst — take on grotesque forms in the rapidity of our gestures, where can be felt the irritation of disgust and fatigue of some, of alcohol among others, afterwards, we must sing.
Sing the ditty that fits the circumstance.
It’s a family from Bercy, former owner of a special cabaret for snobs and the neurotic near Clichy that has made up the words and the music.
It’s not so much the ignorant crowd that wants the song, it’s the leaders: the director Pouget forgets himself so much as to leave the wings. One has to sing to the people. And the woman, with a certain courage, incidentally, not caring about our more or less correct shouting, waits for the right moment to emit her note. One must live, after all.
We do all we can so as not to sing, fully understanding how ridiculous this graceless song is between these four walls, giving this struggle a soppy character…But in France everything ends in a song. And we stop, vanquished not by the force of these men, whose cunning masters, slipping slander in, order them to respect us, but rather by their thoughtlessness, their blindness, by the atmosphere of alcohol that we can no longer breathe.
And here is the final scene.
Lepine has given his police clique the order to hold itself back… To let this religious crowd enjoy its icon, its idol, its flag. The doorways are clear; the policemen are behind the metro worksites, waiting for the opportune moment.
The Labor Exchange, squeezed in between two houses, in this narrow corridor, is ugly. Its base is covered in posters, its upper floors are slashed by a red band with gold lettering for 1906. A red flag with a black crepe (colors authorized by the law) recalls the tragedy of Limoges. Nothing is missing; neither the hosanna, nor the remembrance of the martyrs.
They’re going to raise the red flag at the window! The ditty was good, but the sight of the icon…that’s sublime! I look and I see once again… the scenes where to the cry of “God wills it,” brandishing the cross, the Peter the Hermits led the crowd to their death. Only here the preachers chew their tobacco and let the crowd leave on their own…In any event, the crowd’s enthusiasm is only on the surface.
A large mass heads toward the red flag, and a “Ca Ira,” broken up with hiccups, can be heard… It’s pure delirium.
The anger calms. The honest worker reappears… and flees, followed by the policemen’s boots.
The comedy is over… They have to disperse and the crowd flees, hiccupping and stumbling, while exasperated comrades, wanting to resist orders and shoves, shout “anarchy” in the face of the police workers as a challenge.
And in the distance…the cabarets, the bars, the thousand tentacles of that terrible octopus, alcohol, suck out and breathes in all this worker blood.
It’s the holiday of the organized proletariat.
It’s May Day.
(First published in l’anarchie, May 4, 1905. Available online at the Anarchist Library)
The domestication of May Day has never of course been complete, and in its short history since 1889, it has often defied established orders, from any source. Calls for its “liberation”, for its celebration not as pacified memorial, but as day of struggle, as a day, or as all days, when the martyred revolutionaries of the past come back to life in the passions of the present, to make of May Day a moment of rebellion, a momentum of insurrection, the inauguration of a time of permanent revolution.
To celebrate this May Day, we share a second text by Libertad …
To the Resigned
I hate the resigned!
I hate the resigned, like I hate the filthy, like I hate layabouts!
I hate resignation! I hate filthiness, I hate inaction.
I feel for the sick man bent under some malignant fever; I hate the imaginary sick man that a little bit of will would set on his feet.
I feel for the man in chains, surrounded by guardians crushed under the weight of irons on the many.
I hate soldiers who are bent by the weight of braids and three stars; the workers who are bent under the weight of capital.
I love the man who says what he feels wherever he is; I hate the voter seeking the perpetual conquest by the majority.
I love the savant crushed under the weight of scientific research; I hate the individual who bends his body under the weight of an unknown power, of some “X,” of a God,
I hate, I say, all those who, surrendering to others through fear or resignation a part of their power as men, not only keep their heads down, but make me, and those I love, keep our heads down, too through the weight of their frightful collaboration or their idiotic inertia.
I hate them; yes I hate them, because me, I feel it. I don’t bow before the officer’s braid, the mayor’s sash, the gold of the capitalist; morality or religion. For a long time I have known that all of these things are just baubles that we can break like glass…I bend beneath the weight of the resignation of others. O how I hate resignation!
I love life.
I want to live, not in a petty way like those who only satisfy a part of their muscles, their nerves, but in a big way, satisfying facial muscles as well as calves, my back as well as my brain.
I don’t want to trade a portion of now for a fictive portion of tomorrow. I don’t want to surrender anything of the present for the wind of the future.
I don’t want to bend anything of mine under the words fatherland, God, honor. I too well know the emptiness of these words, these religious and secular ghosts.
I laugh at retirement, at paradises the hope for which hope holds the resigned, religions, and capital.
I laugh at those who, saving for their old age, deprive themselves in their youth; those who, in order to eat at sixty, fast at twenty.
I want to eat while I have strong teeth to tear and crush healthy meats and succulent fruits. When my stomach juices digest without problem I want to drink my fill of refreshing and tonic drinks.
I want to love women, or a woman, depending on our common desire, and I don’t want to resign myself to the family, law the Code; nothing has any rights over our bodies. You want, I want. Let us laugh at the family, the law, the ancient form of resignation.
But this isn’t all. I want, since I have eyes, ears, and other senses, more than just to drink, to eat, to enjoy sexual love: I want to experience joy in other forms. I want to see beautiful sculptures and painting, admire Rodin or Manet. I want to hear the best opera companies play Beethoven or Wagner. I want to know the classics at the Comedie Française, page through the literary and artistic baggage left by men of the past to men of the present, or even better, page through the now and forever unfinished oeuvre of humanity.
I want joy for myself, for my chosen companion, for my friends. I want a home where my eyes can agreeably rest when my work is done.
For I want the joy of labor, too; that healthy joy, that strong joy. I want my arms to handle the plane, the hammer, the spade and the scythe.
Let the muscles develop, the thoracic cage become larger with powerful, useful and reasoned movements.
I want to be useful, I want us to be useful. I want to be useful to my neighbor and for my neighbor to be useful to me. I desire that we labor much, for I am insatiable for joy. And it is because I want to enjoy myself that I am not resigned.
Yes, yes I want to produce, but I want to enjoy myself. I want to knead the dough, but eat better bread; to work at the grape harvest, but drink better wine; build a house, but live in better apartments; make furniture, but possess the useful, see the beautiful; I want to make theatres, but big enough to house their me and mine.
I want to cooperate in producing, but I also want to cooperate in consuming.
Some dream of producing for others to whom they will leave, oh the irony of it, the best of their efforts. As for me, I want, freely united with others, to produce but also to consume.
You resigned, look: I spit on your idols. I spit on God, the Fatherland, I spit on Christ, I spit on the flag, I spit on capital and the golden calf; I spit on laws and Codes, on the symbols of religion; they are baubles, I could care less about them, I laugh at them…
Only through you do they mean anything to me; leave them behind and they’ll break into pieces.
You are thus a force, you resigned, one of those forces that don’t know they are one, but who are nevertheless a force, and I can’t spit on you, I can only hate you…or love you.
Above all my desire is that of seeing you shaking off your resignation in a terrible awakening of life.
There is no future paradise, there is no future; there is only the present.
Let us live!
Live! Resignation is death.
Revolt is life.
(First published in l’anarchie, April 13, 1905. Available online at the Anarchist Library)