May Day: Time for a change

[Green Left Weekly, #143, May 18, 1994]

In Melbourne on May 1, about 1500 people took part in the annual Sunday afternoon May Day march and rally. As usual, the bulk of the participants came from the various left-wing, migrant and solidarity organisations.

In Melbourne, no less than in other major cities, May Day is a tradition on the left. People know that the march and rally will take place on the Sunday closest to May 1, and a hard core turns out for it, come what may.

That's just as well, because otherwise the event would probably have long since died.

May Days are frustrating: the event is so dull when it could be so much bigger and so much livelier. Why don't thousands more turn out to protest against the crimes and injustices of capitalist society and to celebrate the struggle for a better world? After all, we are not exactly short of issues to feel concerned and angry about — in Victoria especially!

One important reason is that, for over a decade, the May Day organising committee in Melbourne has been dominated by a tiny Stalinist-Maoist group heavily oriented to the trade union officialdom. No effort is made to reach out and involve broader forces. The publicity effort is pathetic and purely token. One can only conclude that they like to keep things small and cosy.

The result is that the great bulk of those who attend May Day have no input whatsoever into the character or building of the event.

Moreover, whole sectors of potential participants are neglected. For instance, thousands march on International Women's Day, but they largely ignore May Day. It's not seen as relevant, or perhaps they just don't know about it. Whatever the case, the all-male platform at this year's Yarra bank rally would hardly have encouraged any feminists present. (Bougainville activist Lillian Crofts was invited to speak but couldn't make it. However, she is not the only woman in Australia with something important to say.)

These are challenging times for the left. The collapse of bureaucratic 'state socialism' in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union has enabled the capitalist media to mount a damaging offensive against the whole socialist project. One key task facing socialists today is surely to reaffirm the inherently democratic character of genuine socialism.

Trying to sheet home all the problems of the former Soviet Union — as two speakers did — to that old Maoist scapegoat Khrushchev won't really wash here. And having a big picture of Stalin on a banner right in front of the official platform certainly wouldn't do anything to reassure people shaken by the capitalist propaganda campaign.

If May Day is to avoid becoming simply a stagnant or declining ritual, if it is to retain any real significance, it's high time for some serious changes in the way it's organised.