May Day, November Day


It’s May the 1st, and so I can’t help but remember the May Day marches of my Polish childhood; all that sea of red, big portraits of the current and the past communist greats, flags and banners with stilted commo-speak slogans (a Communist Bingo would have been an entertaining game to play, though in a good Eastern European tradition you would be blind drunk pretty quickly), local dignitaries watching and waving from the specially erected stands as rows after rows of cheerful workers and farmers representing their factories and enterprises pass by to the sound of marching bands. All like a very boring Mardi Gras, with bad music and no (thankfully) no flesh.

I was fortunate never to have to participate in “Pierwszego Maja” pageants, probably because my parents were not manual workers. I can’t say I consider my childhood to have been deprived on that account. The International Workers’ Day, one of the grandest holidays in the communist calendar or religious observance, was one day a year the Party allowed the people to pretend it was all about them and not the Party. Communist countries when I was growing up were certainly nowhere near workers’ paradises (and equally certainly far far behind their oppressive capitalist competitors), but they were no longer Stalinist workers’ hells; being perhaps closest to workers’ purgatories, if a purgatory really is a “hell with hope”, however timid and nebulous of that hope might have been in the 1970s and 80s.

Neither the past communist association nor the present day unions’ obscurantism, corruption and thuggery should dispose us to disparage May Day. It is an important and much needed occasion to acknowledge the grand contribution to our societies of all those who labour with their hands and in the proverbial sweat of their brows. A few of their jobs are dangerous, many are tedious or hard or both, a lot are not nice and sexy, and thus can too easily be sneered upon by the snobbish. As my grandmother used to often repeat the old Polish saying, “zadna praca nie hanbi”, which roughly translates as “no work shames”. Those who have marched and celebrated for generations (and many more generations before them) are the people whose hands built our societies and our civilisation. The fruits of their work are literally around you everywhere you look, and in everything you touch.

But neither would our societies and civilisation exist without those we might loosely term the capitalists: owners, managers, entrepreneurs, innovators – people who imagine things, people who take risk, people who finance, people who direct, people who know how to take ideas, resources and people and turn dreams into reality. Contrary to Marxist fantasy, workers and capitalists cannot exist without each other (though perhaps robotics and AI in the the future will change that nexus). Contrary to related left-wing fantasy, virtue and vice, good and evil, are not the monopolies of any class or a group of people. There are good and bad bosses, there are good and bad workers; we should judge people not by their place in society but by the content of their character. And we should remember that in the yin and yang of life we all complement each other and we all need each other.

Should we then celebrate some other time of the year the Entrepreneur Day as a counterpoint and a counterpart to the Labour Day? Many, including I imagine most unionists, would say we don’t need to lionise the capitalists even more – they already are well looked after by virtue of their social status, their wealth, and often their prominence and fame. This is all true on one level, but I think it is the wrong perspective to look at this issue, because these sorts of public holidays in the end are not about any particular individuals per se, but about concepts. So just as May Day is about acknowledging the dignity and the worth of labour, I think it would be equally worthy some other time to acknowledge other qualities – imagination, innovations, risk-taking, organisation – that have been and continue to be the other side of the coin of the success and prosperity of societies in which we live today.

With the rise of the labour movements and socialism in the 19th century, the Catholic Church proclaimed May the 1st as the feast day of St Joseph the Worker, all in an attempt to stake a religious claim on the day’s celebrations in the battle for the hearts and minds – and souls – of the working men and women. The times when our societies revolved around religious calendars are long gone, but I can’t help but to – perhaps half-jokingly – suggest November 19, the feast day of Saint Homobonus, the patron saint of business people and investors, the 12th century tailor and merchant from Cremona, Italy, as a useful date. To celebrate the Capitalist Day (or the Enterprise Day, or the Business Day) after the good Homobonus would no doubt elicit plenty of giggles and obvious jokes. The original Italian Omobono is only slightly more helpful, as is the German version, Gutmann. Ancient Romans, however, used to say “nomen omen” (there is a sign in the name). Homobonus/Omobono/Gutmann, whichever language you use, really translates to “good man”. And this is perhaps an important pointer – we shouldn’t as a society forget that the owners, the entrepreneurs, the innovators can be good people too, and – again putting aside individuals and their character – “good” as in useful and necessary for our society to function. To acknowledge that simple fact would, I think, be a bonus for all of us 21st century Homo Sapiens.