Today is May Day. Since 2007, I have been commemorating this day here at the Volokh Conspiracy as Victims of Communism Day. Various other websites and blogs have promoted the same concept. In time, we hope to make this a worldwide commemoration similar to Holocaust Memorial Day. I explained the rationale for this idea in my very first post on the subject:
May Day began as a holiday for socialists and labor union activists, not just communists. But over time, the date was taken over by the Soviet Union and other communist regimes and used as a propaganda tool to prop up their regimes. I suggest that we instead use it as a day to commemorate those regimes’ millions of victims. The authoritative Black Book of Communism estimates the total at 80 to 100 million dead, greater than that caused by all other twentieth century tyrannies combined. We appropriately have a Holocaust Memorial Day. It is equally appropriate to commemorate the victims of the twentieth century’s other great totalitarian tyranny. And May Day is the most fitting day to do so. I suggest that May Day be turned into Victims of Communism Day….
The main alternative to May 1 is November 7, the anniversary of the communist coup in Russia. However, choosing that date might be interpreted as focusing exclusively on the Soviet Union, while ignoring the equally horrendous communist mass murders in China, Camobodia, and elsewhere. So May 1 is the best choice.
Since I wrote that post, historian Frank Dikotter has unearthed new evidence solidifying China’s status as the communist regime with the most extensive record of mass murder. This makes it all the more preferable to choose an international rather than Russia-centric date for Victims of Communism Day.
Back in 2009, I sought to explain “Why the Neglect of Communist Crimes Matters.” In this post, I discussed the contentious question of whether various Soviet atrocities qualify as genocide. It is likely that only a minority of communist crimes fall under the current legal definition of genocide. The lion’s share are examples of “mere” mass murder. However, for reasons I explain here and here, I don’t think this distinction carries any significant moral weight.
UPDATE: Ed Kilgore of the Washington Monthly responds to this post here. After noting the pre-communist history of May Day as a pro-union holiday, he adds:
I’ve gone through this brief history in reaction to reading a post at the conservative legal site the Volokh Conspiracy promoting the idea, as it has since 2007, of renaming May 1 “Victims of Communism Day.” I’m sympathetic to the basic idea of a day for reflection on the bloody record of communist regimes, and of their false claim to serve as emancipators of the working class. But that’s all the more reason not to do anything to perpetuate the confusion of communism with legitimate movements for workers’ rights.
The chief advocate of a May 1 “Victims of Communism Day,” Ilya Somin, claims the most likely alternative, November 7, the date of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, inaugurating the first communist regime, is too “Russia-centric.” Well, May 1 is insufficiently “Communo-centric.” All the communist regimes trace their roots back to November 7, and they don’t share it with non-communists. For all I care, we can commemorate victims of communism any day other than May 1; maybe August 23, the anniversary of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, which revealed even to the most naive the true nature of the Soviet regime and launched one of the most intensively horrific periods of bilateral murder in world history.
But leave May 1 to workers.....
I don’t deny that May Day has a pre-communist history. However, for many decades it was and still is the major holiday of international communism. To try to disssociate it from that history is much like trying to separate the swastika from the Nazis on the grounds that it was once an ancient religious symbol unrelated to Nazism. Many of those who celebrate May Day since the fall of communism in the USSR are either communists themselves or radical leftists sympathetic to communism. Not all are, of course. But the communist connection is is clear and recognized around the world. No other date – including the anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet Pact is so clearly symbolic of communism as an international phenomenon. Nor do I think that there is any real danger that a May 1 date for Victims of Communism Day will somehow “perpetuate the confusion of communism with legitimate movements for workers’ rights.” To the contrary, it would help clear up that confusion by clearly indicating that the chief holiday of the international communist movement should be a day of mourning rather than celebration. Nations that wish to commemorate “workers’ rights” should do so on some date not associated with brutal totalitarian dictatorships, as the US and Canada have done by creating a separate Labor Day.
Finally, I should point out that neither I nor the Volokh Conspiracy generally are “conservative.” Most of the bloggers here are libertarians, myself included.