May Day Without Crowds

A Historian Reflecting on May Day and the Pandemic

Published by Bare Life Review

Long before I decided to become a historian, taking part in May Day always made me think historically. The commemoration of the workers’ rally in Chicago on May 4, 1886, the “holiday of the proletariat,” has long had that historic ring. Writing on the celebrations in 1890, Friedrich Engels described the rally-turned-riot “epoch-making… in its universal character, which made it the first International action of the militant working class.”

I felt this universal character the first time I marched in the May Day Parade, a hundred odd years later, in the Tehran of early 2000s. The day is an official holiday in Iran and has been a source of conflict between the ruling Islamists and the left ever since the regime was founded in 1979. Showing up at a Tehran May Day rally in those years made me feel a strong connection both with the recent Iranian history as well as the longer history of global working-class action. Thousands of workers and socialists turned out on the streets, just as people did in Paris, Manila, and Beijing. For an afternoon, it felt like our isolated Islamic Republic was connected to the broader world.

Since then, I’ve tried never to miss a May Day parade. In 2005, at the age of 17, I attended my first foreign parade in London. Trafalgar Square was filled with trade unionists, popular anti-war movements, small Trotskyist groups and emigre Turkish socialist parties, all marching shoulder to shoulder, carrying their own banners, giving out leaflets. The ideas we discussed clandestinely in Iran were talked about openly on streets and shouted in squares. Going back to Iran, pictures I had taken of the May Day rally were my most prized souvenir. I knew I had witnessed history, but thinking back now, I didn’t realize in precisely what way.

Fifteen years later, so many of our heated debates from that day seemed obsolete, just as many continue to rage. With elections on the horizon, and disaffection with Labor growing after eight years under Tony Blair, much hope on the left had lain with George Galloway, a 52-year-old fire brand ex-Labor MP. Many saw his Respect Party as the future. But it turned out quite differently. Respect Party self-destroyed and Galloway became a clownish figure, going on to endorse Nigel Farage’s far-right Brexit Party. Although very few on that day would have thought, the most exciting development on the left came from within the Labor Party, in the persons of the far-left London MPs Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, then on the margins.

As we are about to approach May Day 2020, the socialist historian in me wonders: What will be its historical significance?

In the past few weeks, we’ve seen nearly all of life driven into the ‘private sphere.’ Even religion: Jews couldn’t hold their family Seders, Christians had to resort to online Easter prayers and Muslims might very well have to cancel plans for the annual pilgrimage to the holy land of Arabia. The global left will presumably have to cancel May Day rallies too.

As the lockdown continues, some have found ways to hold socially distant protests. The ‘Black Flag’ democratic protests in Tel Aviv, for instance. A wide range of speakers—from stalwart Zionists to Palestinian Marxists—has been speaking out against Benjamin Netanyahu’s self-interested abuse of the health crisis, among other issues. In Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli, people have rekindled the country’s protest movement; the enforced poverty and lack of protection brought by the lockdown justifies taking to the streets, even in such conditions. But for most of us, this May Day will have to be one without crowds. There will be dozens of online rallies and speeches, but isolation from our fellow workers and comrades will make it a solemn occasion. Absent the joy of marching together in the streets, perhaps we could use this moment to reflect on what May Day is truly about: ordinary people leaving their own mark on history.

The historian in me will also use the moment for a different reflection: on the reality that most people my age (born in 1988) — and younger — have not faced the sorts of truly grave historical circumstances—gravities far beyond shutting down of May Day rallies—that defined the lives of so many of the subjects I write about. War, genocide and famine are still very much with us and, depending on where in the world you live, they might have been at the center of your life for the past few decades. But massive global cataclysms have not been imaginable experiences for most of us.

This was how I experienced the lockdown when, on March 16, I arrived in New York on one of the last flights from London. I had come to pass the storm in the city I call home, but to see it so deserted, to see its broad streets empty of life was a shock. The city depicted so often by filmmakers in scenes of dystopian disaster was now seeing one in real life. Did a deserted New York herald the end of an era on a world scale? Was the world of relatively easy global travel that had allowed an Iranian boy, descended from a provincial working-class family, to become a world traveler, coming to its end? I thought of nostalgic accounts of the world before 1914, when many needed no passport at all to traverse the globe. More morosely, I thought of those souls who had taken their own lives when faced with the unprecedented storm of World War II. My mind went to the great Jewish Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, who killed himself in 1942, one day before finishing his World Before Yesterday, a book intended to tell the fore-coming world of “what it meant to be alive between 1881 and 1942.” How apt! For whatever our world became after 1945, it was a different universe from Zweig’s.

Comparing our predicament with the lives of those who lived just a few decades ago — our ‘yesterday’ — should be humbling. Anxiety-ridden and terrible as the Covid-19 pandemic will be, it still pales in comparison to the scale of calamities witnessed by Zweig’s generation. How fully must this alienate us—historians coming of age in the 21st century—from predecessors such as the great British Marxist and chronicler of the 20th century, Eric Hobsbawm, who, towards the end of his life, incensed the liberal Canadian historian Michael Ignatieff when he replied ‘yes’ to a question about whether the loss of 15 to 20 million people “might have been justified” had the communist promise of “the radiant tomorrow” turned true? The old Marxist’s reply rightly outraged many, but Hobsbawm’s full response is often ignored. He spoke of having been a teenaged Jewish communist in inter-war Berlin; of having been born in a world in which “mass murder and mass suffering [were] absolutely universal.” His metrics, his calculations, his visions all emerged from a world drastically different from Ignatieff’s. Could these two historians ever hope to understand one another?

The arrival of Covid-19 might cause us to ask: Are we now condemned to live through previously unimaginable gravities that would make real for us the violent lives and eras we study? It’s my fervent hope that the collective humanity could manage the outfall of the current pandemic and the coming economic recession without allowing the ugly monsters of the 20th century to rise anew. In lieu of the old Chinese proverb “Shall you live in interesting times!” I hope for the relatively boring past few decades to continue. This is not, for me, a conservative position, but a faith that struggles for revolutionary transformations can be carried out peacefully and without a world of “mass suffering” that Hobsbawm had to live through. But we may also hope that the relative gravity of the pandemic gives us a little jolt; to remind us much in our lives, from competent statecraft to availability of foodstuff, shouldn’t be taken granted; and to help the historians in us to get closer to the bygone universes of the olden days; those we must fairly reconstruct without ever living through.

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