I woke up this morning and realized it was May Day — and was unutterably relieved things have changed from the May Days of my childhood.
May Day was a holiday — no work/school — being International Worker’s Day. I remember dreary days with nothing on the TV but the might of the USSR and its satellites, in fantastic display.
Troops and groups of workers, flying red flags paraded before podiums ornamented with red paraphernalia, a seemingly invincible might, a proud and unquestionably enthusiastic multitude of workers and soldiers, of farmers and peasants. It seemed the whole world was submerged in red for the occasion, and our own local idiots would demonstrate and commit acts of senseless violence, which was the reason I resorted to the TV. Mom wouldn’t let me go out.
(I believe people in Seattle and other US enclaves afflicted by the Marxist bug still make themselves a nuisance on May Day. As in Portugal at that time, this is mostly the sport of students and “intellectuals” not of anyone who has ever done an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.)
Usually, the unctuous and respectful narration in Portuguese said things along the lines of “look upon this parade and despair.” “Now we see the blah blah missile, an improvement on the whatever missile and a symbol of Soviet industry and science.”
Or it could be the new tractors or the new tanks that were thus described, and always, always, in the narration, was the assumption that the numbers coming out of the USSR were real, and that it was a model of creativity, influence, and efficiency. The May Day displays convinced everyone — more or less — that the future was inevitably communist. How could the disorganized, muddled, flailing efforts of capitalists match it? Didn’t we know how often we worked at cross purposes? Look at all the Soviet workers united! And look at how proud Soviet workers and soldiers were!
This was the seventies, and in 20 years all that might, all that “efficiency” and all that pride would be revealed for what they were: a hollow shell, a projection of force abroad, a shout of defiance from a dying, sclerotic regime, upon which the dead hand of the past and the even deader hand of Marx weighed like the agonies of death.
However, the scene setting was fantastic. And because no contrary words made it out of the totalitarian hell that was the USSR, the world believed it.
Meanwhile the US, with its moon landings, its large and wasteful cars, its loud-and-proud tourists abroad, was treated as a braggart, and it was assumed that the good things we saw were exaggerated, while the bad things that the US’s own press said about the country, the bad things that Jimmy Carter himself often said in speeches (“malaise” and getting used to lower expectations, etc.) was the absolute truth. The US often got compared to Rome in the decadence of the Empire (whose structure was more similar to the USSR but never mind.)
Even for someone like me, who was, at best, skeptical of communism, it was impossible, looking at the coordinated displays on one side, and the almost uncaring attitude on the other to avoid the certainty the USSR would win this match.
Turned out we were wrong, of course. But it is almost impossible to convey to those who didn’t grow up in Europe at the time, how little sure we were of that, and in fact, how sure we were of the contrary.
We — my generation of Western Europeans — watched the Berlin Wall come down in as much shock as we more recently watched the returns of the 2016 presidential election in the US.
And then the horrible truth was revealed, of what a hollow shell the USSR had been. Those missiles they displayed, at least those that were sold to other countries after the fall of the USSR, had a tendency to fall back upon those who fired them; the tractors and cars were – if functional at all – pieces of archaic and inefficient machinery that made the landboats of the 70s in America look like technological marvels.
And the workers that the “International Worker’s Day” was supposed to celebrate, were at best serfs, in a corrupt system which pretended to pay them while they pretended to work. The free health care to which the workers of the great and glorious socialist republic were entitled included such things (we heard of a group of Russians come to one of our civic clubs to beg for syringes and other medical supplies after the fall) as disposable syringes being used over and over again, no access to modern medications, and the terrible and funny story of the group of men who all shared a condom and – because they worked at a rubber plant of some sort – patching it up when they needed to.
Sure, they made a brave display when passing before those stands, because who would dare not display their enthusiasm when the result could be death? And anyway, they read only the controlled press, and thought Americans had it worse. They had to have it worse, or else why would all the soft heads on the left here praise the USSR?
May Day, a celebration of labor, instituted by the Socialists and Communists of the Second International to commemorate the Haymarket affair in Chicago, was supposed to be a boost for laborers, and for those who worked – mostly in manual industries – for a living. It was supposed to show them their own strength and aid them in acquiring more benefits.
It was supposed to be all about Marxism being a boon to such people; to communism and socialism being governments of “the workers.”
The display of tanks and armaments told the other story. It is possible that Marx — who was rather soft-headed by all accounts — actually believed that workers would be in charge of this utopian regime he foresaw. In reality, workers, particularly the new factory workers, proved amazingly difficult to weaponize. Sure, they’d smash and grab when pushed to do it and they’d take advantage of the nationalizing of factories to work less and at least attempt to get more. But they really just wanted a middle-class living and came to resent those who didn’t work at all in their numbers. When there was no opportunity for decent work for decent pay, they traded on the black market and did what they needed to do to survive. The farmers were worse, attached to land and tradition, and mouthing the words but looking askance at the political officers who couldn’t tell a cow from a bull.
And as for all that international brotherhood of workers? The Soviets might dress their wars abroad as “liberation of workers” but everyone knew them for what they were: acquiring from abroad that which they could not produce at home, and keeping the population at least contented enough they didn’t rebel.
Which is why the “International Workers’ Day” looked much like a military parade.
Of course, they marched and saluted when told to. What else could they do, die?
Communism and socialism talked pretty about the rights of workers and used that pretty talk to foment unrest abroad. But at home? At home, it was completely different.
Because there never were any workers. There were only serfs and slaves.