Noam Chomsky: May Day
April 30, 2012
People seem to know about May Day everywhere except where it began, here in the United States of America. That's because those in power have done everything they can to erase its real meaning. For example, Ronald Reagan designated what he called "Law Day" - a day of jingoist fanaticism, like an extra twist of the knife in the labor movement. Today, there is a renewed awareness, energized by the Occupy movement's organizing, around May Day, and its relevance for reform and perhaps eventual revolution.
If you're a serious revolutionary, then you are not looking for an autocratic revolution, but a popular one, which will move toward freedom and democracy. That can take place only if a mass of the population is implementing it, carrying it out and solving problems. They're not going to undertake that commitment, understandably, unless they have discovered for themselves that there are limits to reform.
A sensible revolutionary will try to push reform to the limits, for two good reasons. First, because the reforms can be valuable in themselves. People should have an eight-hour day rather than a twelve-hour day. And in general, we should want to act in accord with decent ethical values.
Secondly, on strategic grounds, you have to show that there are limits to reform. Perhaps sometimes the system will accommodate to needed reforms. If so, well and good. But if it won't, then new questions arise. Perhaps that is a moment when resistance is necessary, steps to overcome the barriers to justified changes. Perhaps the time has come to resort to coercive measures in defense of rights and justice, a form of self-defense. Unless the general population recognizes such measures to be a form of self-defense, they're not going to take part in them, at least they shouldn't.
If you get to a point where the existing institutions will not bend to the popular will, you have to eliminate the institutions.
May Day started here, but then became an international day in support of American workers who were being subjected to brutal violence and judicial punishment.
Today, the struggle continues to celebrate May Day not as a "law day" as defined by political leaders, but as a day whose meaning is decided by the people, a day rooted in organizing and working for a better future for the whole of society.
Noam Chomsky’s new book is "Making the Future: Occupations, Interventions, Empire and Resistance,'' a collection of his columns for The New York Times Syndicate. Chomsky is emeritus professor of linguistics and philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.