This article aims to focus Labour Day in a political perspective that will help working people enjoy the celebration and participate in making genuine demands for change.
Labour Day is quintessentially an internationalist day. In a nutshell its slogan is: “Workers of the Whole Wide World unite, you have nothing to lose, but your chains!”
In Mauritius, the first abomination that has crept into the mainstream meetings marking Labour Day is that the events are increasingly “parochial”, even “nationalist”. Other than LALIT’s gathering, all the other meetings wilfully deny the international spirit of Labour Day. They distort the idea of the international union of labour. The Labour Party and the MMM had absolutely no international dimension to their 2011 Labour Day public gatherings. This is nothing new. Even supposedly leftist groups and unions downplay all internationalism. In their 2010 May Day celebrations participants could even be heard chanting nationalist slogans, “Enn sel lepep, enn sel nasyon”, seen carrying nationalist pancartes and bearing national flags. On Labour Day! Nationalism, which implies unity of “the nation”, workers and bosses all together in one unhappy family, is the exact opposite of the international unity of labour against all capital. (Clarification: Some will, of course, argue that “Enn sel lepep, enn sel nasyon” is intended to be an anti-communal slogan; the short answer to this is that workers’ unity is the only real answer to communalism, and this nationalist slogan is a “récuperation” of the anti-communalist struggle; a better anti-communal slogan, and better anti-communal practice, is embodied in the old MMM one of “Lalit de klas, pa lalit de ras! ”)
This denial of internationalism and this encroachment of nationalism both represent an inroad of bourgeois ideology into Labour Day.
It is not only in Mauritius that bourgeois ideology has made this precise type of inroad into Labour Day’s internationalist dimension. In the USA, from the beginning, there has been this tension. There was an agreement as early as 1887 between some union leaders of the Knights of Labour, the bosses and the US President Cleveland not to celebrate Labour Day on 1st May, but in September, so as to prevent the radical and internationalist unity that 1st May had already come to mean, especially following the police massacres in Chicago the previous year that reinforced 1st May as Labour Day world-wide. Later, in 1921, May Day was turned into the nationalist “Americanization Day”. From 1958 May First is called “Law Day” (read “law and order”, as if to exonerate the massacre by the police of the workers in the Chicago uprising) or the even more nationalist “Loyalty Day” (read “loyalty to the USA”). George W. Bush in 2007 re-affirmed this “day” in the calendar.
Bourgeois Parties bring Workers to their Rallies
In Mauritius parties with working class roots, like Labour until the 1950s and the MMM until 1981-2, which have since then become pro-capital, still until today, cannot hope to stand for election, given high enough levels of class consciousness in the country for this, without at least keeping their working class discourse, and without at least rallying workers on Labour Day! These are the mechanisms through which the parties are obliged to operate in order to maintain parts of the working class within their pro-capital “historic block”, so as to stabilize the rule of capital in Mauritius.
Labour and the MMM use the numbers present at their May Day rally to gauge their relative popularity in a macho competition of “my crowd is bigger than yours”. So this is the second major rot that has set into Labour Day celebrations: Labour Day is colonized by political parties that in fact represent capital. They do this not out of vice, but because bourgeois ideology is not strong enough for them to win elections without workerist demagogy which keeps their “historic block” in place.
This process is described rather inaccurately by trade unionists as the “hi-jacking” of Labour Day by “politicians”. The point is that bourgeois parties are strong enough to attract workers, by means fair and foul, to the rallies they organize, despite the fact that their politics are overall pro-capital! They have “historic blocks” that permit them to do this. They have trade union leaders who lend them credibility day in day out. What we need to do, on the working class side, is to build up a political platform independent of these parties and strong enough to draw mobilized workers’ support on Labour Day. Celebrating labour must become a conscious political process.
So, the two major parties that for decades have imposed capitalist policies, Labour and the MMM, hold public outdoor “workers’ meetings” on Labour Day and draw big crowds. For many years, but specially since the Guy Ollivry tactics in 1994 of giving take-aways etc, these parties not only “bus” workers to come to their meetings, and ruin public transport on the day by doing so, but they also treat workers in the buses to picnics afterwards, booze naturally included, and even bribe them with money payments to put in this appearance. It has for decades become a farce, and it is not only LALIT that says so. Everyone knows this is a farce. Every editorialist of the commercial press denounces it, too.
This farce is now finally exhausting these parties, themselves. The economic crisis period we are living through, the systemic crisis in the Mauritian economy in particular, brings political upheavals that mean the parties cannot ride this kind of farce as easily as before.
The Labour Day farce today leaves the Labour Party and the MMM owing huge debts to bus companies and to briani sub-contractors. It leaves MPs fighting with agents who didn’t pull in enough crowds, and agents fighting with sub-agents for the same reason. It causes fighting over who the speakers are (Labour tried to avoid this by having only 4 speakers, and the MMM by having 24!!). It causes fights between the allies making up “blocks” of parties. And then the whole match often turns out to be a “draw” or a series of futile post mortem fights as to who is tricking bits of film, photographs, estimates of attendance, etc.
This brought the Prime Minister, at a religious ceremony the week after Labour Day, to announce that he was sick and tired of it all. He was, he said, no longer willing to pay buses that went direct to the seaside for a picnic, without so much as popping in at the meeting to pump up crowd figures. The bill for the bus rental would in future, he threatened, be footed by bus drivers and conductors who took people direct to the seaside. Two of the main party spokespeople, Neeta Deerpalsing for Labour, and Rajesh Bhagwan for MMM, have publicly said they wish to put an end to this kind of meeting and all its unpleasantness. One Labour Party spokesperson said that they had at first booked the Swami Vivekananda Conference Centre at Pailles for May Day 2011, so as to avoid the whole bribery scenario, but that the Press (always there to heap the blame on) had said Labour was fleeing any public meeting for fear of getting a smaller crowd than the Opposition MMM, so Labour returned reluctantly to the big outdoor public meeting formula.
All this to say, that the bourgeois parties are in the process of attempting to withdraw from the farcical “celebration of Labour Day” that they have perpetrated for many years now, while they blithely advance the interests – the overall interests – of “capital”.
However, they are trying to do so in their own interests while leaning on the slogan that “politicians should not hijack Labour Day but leave the day for the Unions”. This daft idea that Labour Day should be “apolitical” is obviously extremely dangerous for the working class, which desperately needs political parties, independent of the State and capital, to defend its interests.
Since Karl Marx’s revolutionary breakthrough in his analysis of society, of history, and of the struggle socialism, “Labour” has been seen as a force that is in opposition to Capital. This is where the celebration of “Labour Day” comes from. The celebration is the unification of labour, world-wide, against international capital and all capital, and for the mobilization behind a program for building socialism.
These are two social forces: “labour” and “capital”. They are made up of human beings. They are not just two “types of merchandise” as bourgeois economists see them, or two of the factors of production. Labour, as a human force and as a social force, is until now subordinate to Capital, another human and social force. Capital manages to get ownership of what past labour has produced, calling it “capital”, while Labour sells its labour power to Capital just to stay alive until the next month’s pay. Labour is the force, the natural social force that has been, until now, enslaved. Labour is the vast majority of us, human beings. What we sell is our “labour power”, not our “labour”, which remains intrinsically our own humanity. So, liberation for human beings, means being liberated not from labour, but from the alienation of our labour power from us under capitalism. Labour is what makes us human. That is why we celebrate Labour Day. We want to get back control over our labour power, repair the fracture in our natures that capitalism maintains, whereby one third of our lives is outside our control. We want to plough back into nature all we take out, repair the “metabolic fracture” that Marx describes in such clearly ecological terms, instead of continuing to ransack the planet as capital makes us do.
Not just a Workers’ “Fet”, but Labour v. Capital
Some people, especially those without a real political platform for socialism, resort to wanting to see “Fet Travay” changed to “Fet Travayer”. This, they see as an “innovation”. Truth to tell, in Mauritius, there are “fet travayer” every Saturday night, mostly in shops and taverns. Workers do not need to be given a government public holiday to be able to throw a party.
But celebrating “labour” together is altogether a more advanced festival, a more advanced commemoration of where we, as socialists supporting the working class, are today in the long and varied history of working class confrontation with “capital” that still enslaves us all. In Mauritius, “labour” has fought 100 years under the labour laws of the slavery framework called the Code Noir, fought a subsequent 100 years under indenture-type labour law, followed by 100 years of struggle against the slavery to capital under capital’s “Labour Laws”, today since 2009 epitomized by the Employment Relations Act and the Employment Rights Act, taken together, of course, with the whole of the State apparatus that keeps in place the private ownership of the property that is necessary for our collective survival. Celebrating Labour on Labour Day thus means celebrating Labour’s past victories over slavery and indenture. Labour Day means celebrating future victory over capital. This means celebrating the coming of a socialist society where we will together, as class equals, expropriate those who have expropriated humans from the land and their production, and then, all together, own and produce what we all need, and take care of our planet and our production of our needs on it, democratically.
A festival called “May Day” was celebrated on 1st May from long before Labour Day in many northern countries, as the day of rebirth. So Labour Day being on May Day adds to this pre-Christian festival, where, often with long ribbons around a May Pole, young people met and danced, where people celebrated the coming of Spring, after long, cold winter months, in the northern hemisphere. Labour Day thus revives, in its quest for socialism, the ancient idea of the rebirth of society. From the long, cold years of capitalism, and of various forms of slavery, serfdom and feudalism before it, Labour will bring a rebirth of society in the form of socialism. And this will be international.
LALIT’s Labour Day
LALIT has built up a tradition of celebrating Labour Day around the theme of “Labour against Capital”, we take stock of past working class victories, and present dangers world-wide, we sing the “Internationale” in our mother tongue, we read and discuss international messages from all continents, we link in working class struggles, women’s struggles, cultural events and demands.