Across the globe, May Day is Worker’s Day, a celebration of Labor forged in what may well be the first Big Idea that transcended national boundaries. In the USofA, we made sure our Labor Day was insulated by all of summer from this idea because it was so troublesome. Marxism, Communism, and all of the various isms that make up this Big Idea have their day everywhere but here. For all of the trouble they gave us this seems almost quaint in today’s world.
I like to say that the world is divided into people who believe that Marx was right about everything and those who believe Marx was right about nothing, which is a terrible shame since he had a tendency to be half-right about everything. I mean this as no insult to Marx because by the end of his life he was forced to say that “The last thing in this world I want to be called is a Marxist”. His work was careful and methodical, asking more questions than he was capable of answering; I have a natural soft spot for this problem because I do it too. More than anything, he saw the changes that were taking place in his world and wanted them to work for the people, not against them.
The first time his work was put to the test was in the revolutions of 1848. Germany was captivated by the Big Idea of workers owning the means of production – and how that would be put into practice to create a modern state. It failed, and did so miserably. One of the strange effects of this was a massive emigration to America by many of those whose lives were caught in the struggle, with a lot of the people settling in Wisconsin (which gained statehood in 1849) and Minnesota (a territory in 1849). Their desire to create a “Perfect Society”, hardened in the streets of Germany, became a founding principle of the upper Midwest.
The various isms lay dormant for a while, but came to life when Russia collapsed. Alexsander Kerensky failed to deliver a free Russia to his people (partly because he didn’t get the Hell out of WWI) and the Bolsheviks took over after a nasty civil war. Communism became closely associated with totalitarianism, and within a generation the Cold War was on.
When I was a kid, we logically assumed that the world would end in some kind of nuclear holocaust. Hearing Mr. Williams speak to us in Junior High about the Cuban Missile Crisis didn’t help, as he recounted being under martial law as Dixie Highway was closed to move tanks and artillery down to Homestead Air Base. It seemed obvious that in this world someone would eventually do something stupid.
I once nearly got into a fight in a bar over how we got out of this. I said that Pope John Paul gets the most credit for the end of the Cold War, and my drinking partner said it was Ronald Reagan. It was a heated argument, to say the least, and we never resolved it. What we do know is that 20 years on from the death of Communism as we knew it, Pope John Paul is on the verge of Sainthood. I only hope that exorcising the world of Communism is one of the reasons given for this canonization.
Recently, President Obama lifted some travel restrictions on Cuba. I heard a whiff of desperation in the announcement, the idea that we have to do something. I immediately thought of the old Cuban guys at Domino Park on Calle Ocho, people that jumped into a boat with what they could carry to avoid living under Castro. Their story is one of strength and determination that I can’t help but admire and feel compelled to support. Yet I invariably think that we have to acknowledge that things were so screwed up under Fulencia Batista that Communism actually looked like a good idea to many people.
But it did look a good idea to a lot of people, all over the world. At the core is a basic philosophy that the system chosen needs to work for everyone in a society. Like so many Big Ideas, putting this into practice is so difficult that it wound up dividing people and causing them to focus on power rather than principle.
There’s still something worth celebrating, even if Marx ultimately didn’t give us a Communist system that gave real power to the people and a “withering away of the state”. The Big Idea wound up being a part of our better nature, a place where the power and politics necessary to put it into practice often fears to go near.
We do not work for an elite – we work for ourselves and our children. The enemy of this is not Communism but Totalitarianism, in any form, regardless of what Big Idea it claims to represent. We stand up to it with a very little idea, a little idea that had its place at the core of what May Day was once all about – screw you guys, this is ours!