The birth of revolutionary May First -- a short story

Several years ago I wrote "The Origins of May First: Haymarket 1886 and the Troublesome Element.” That essay uncovers the origins of revolutionary May Day in the dreams and desperate acts of immigrant workers in Chicago.

This year I was asked by Occupy Wall Street Journal (OWSJ) to write a version that could fit into their much shorter format. (From 6200 words to 400 words! Grrrrr!) All kinds of detail and texture gets removed. Verdicts become hyper-terse.

I still recommend reading the full original piece.

But here is the sound-bite version I have shared with readers of OWSJ.

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The Birth of Revolutionary May Day: That Troublesome Element in Haymarket Square

By Mike Ely


A circular passed hand-to-hand, calling for militant action in the U.S. on May 1, 1886:

“One day of revolt – not rest! A day not ordained by the bragging spokesmen of institutions holding the world of labor in bondage. A day on which labor makes its own laws and has the power to execute them!”

The workers who struck on May 1st faced police bullets. Their leaders were executed. Outraged, an international gathering of revolutionary workers declared that May First would become a worldwide day of resistance and revolution.


May First is our day and this is its story:

In 1886, American capitalism felt triumphant. Its armies had carved up Mexico and defeated the Southern slaveowners. Its government had betrayed the African American people and created Jim Crow. Its armies were hunting down Native peoples on the plains.

But meanwhile, in the slums of Chicago, dreams of working men and women found expression – as radical politics.

Chicago was alive with revolutionary newspapers, underground union networks and armed militias of workers. Some workers were veterans of class war in Europe. Albert Parsons participated in struggles of freed slaves in Texas. Their movement embraced “The Chicago Idea” – a militant form of syndicalist anarchism.

The Arbeiter Zeitung wrote:

“If we do not soon bestir ourselves for a bloody revolution, we can not leave anything to our children but poverty and slavery.”

The rightwing press called radical immigrants “the troublesome element.”


May Day!

The Philadelphia Tribune reported:

“‘The labor element’ has been bitten by a kind of universal tarantula – it has gone ‘dancing mad.’”

Chicago authorities feared they might lose control of the city. When 30,000 struck in Chicago on May First, police attacked. After two workers were shot, a leaflet proclaimed,


Thousands gathered at Haymarket Square on May 4. Armed police demanded that workers disperse. Suddenly a bomb went off among the cops. Hundreds were shot in the volleys of police bullets. Several died.


A frenzy of repression erupted. Newspaper subscription lists were used to round up thousands. Captives were tortured. Leaders of Chicago’s movement were put on trial for murder. A hysterical press demanded their execution.

The defendant Louis Lingg died violently in his cell. Then Nov. 11, 1886, four heroic men — August Spies, George Engel, Albert Parsons and Adolf Fisher — were hung. Workers around the world mourned.

Ever since, May First is the day we rise, we dream, we fight, together each year.

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Mike Ely is an editor at

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