Alternative Dates for Victims of Communism Day

Most of the commentary on my latest post advocating the transformation of May Day into Victims of Communism Day has been positive. A few people, however, have argued that some other date is more appropriate than May 1. Some claim that it is wrong to use May Day because of its former status as a labor union holiday in pre-communist days. I responded to this argument in a update to my original post:

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…. 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.

In my very first post on the subject, I noted the possibility of using November 7, the anniversary of the communist seizure of power in Russia. However, I also noted that this alternative is inferior to to May Day because it focuses primarily on one communist nation, whereas in reality the crimes of communism were international in scope. Bad as they were, communist atrocities in the USSR were outstripped in magnitude by those in China, and by Cambodia in terms of the proportion of the population murdered. North Korea probably takes the prize as the most thoroughly oppressive communist regime, controlling even more aspects of its people’s lives than the USSR under Stalin.

A few correspondents have suggested expanding “Black Ribbon Day,” the August 23 anniversary of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact, which has been endorsed by Canada and the European Parliament. Potentially, this day of commemoration could be expanded to cover all communist crimes, not just those directly associated with the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Unfortunately, however, August 23 suffers from the same shortcoming as November 7. It too focuses exclusively on the crimes of just one communist regime. In addition, Black Ribbon Day understandably focuses on the crimes of both the Nazis and the USSR. We already have a memorial day devoted to the Holocaust, and the victims of communism deserve a day of their own.

In sum, I still think that May 1 is the best possible date for Victims of Communism Day. No other day is both clearly associated with communism and at the same time not primarily associated with one particular communist dictatorship. That said, the best should not be the enemy of the good. It is more important that we have a widely recognized Victims of Communism Day than that we have it on the best possible date for that purpose. If a broad consensus develops in favor of August 23, November 7, or some other date, I will certainly support it.

UPDATE: Roderick Long responds here:

I strongly disagree with the suggestion by Jason [Brennan], Ilya, and others to rename May Day “Victims of Communism” Day.

The fact that Communist regimes have attempted to co-opt May Day is no reason to imitate them in a second co-opting attempt. May Day not only originally was, but still is, primarily a celebration of workers’s movements generally, not of the butchers of Kronstadt. The holiday is commemorated all over the world; it is not now and never has been mainly a Communist regime holiday…

Jacob [Levy] adds, rightly, that the war on May Day is “pointlessly antagonistic toward social democrats”; but I would just add to this that it’s not just social democrats who would be pointlessly antagonised. Free-market libertarians have been part of the labour movement since the beginning, from the individualist anarchists of the 19th century (including Thomas Hodgskin, Benjamin Tucker, Lysander Spooner, Ezra Heywood, Francis Tandy, Dyer Lum, Voltairine de Cleyre, and even to some extent Herbert Spencer, Gustave de Molinari, and Wordsworth Donisthorpe)…..

No amount of historical revisionism can overcome the reality that Communist regimes not only “attempted” but actually succeeded in “coopting” May Day. For many decades, it was and is the main holiday of international communism. Many of those who continue to celebrate it today are either communists themselves of sympathetic to communism. Just as there were and are non-Nazis uses of the swastika, there are non-communist uses of May Day. But that does not overcome the overwhelming totalitarian associations that have arise with both.

As for the issue of libertarian support for “the labour movement,” a lot depends on what one means by “labor movement.” Libertarians certainly have supported the rights of workers to freedom of contract and other economic liberties. On the other hand, libertarians have been deeply at odds with the vast majority of what is usually called the labor movement because that movement favors extensive government intervention in the economy, including numerous restrictions on the economic liberties of workers. That is certainly true of those labor movement activists who continue to celebrate May Day. And no more than a tiny handful of libertarians commemorate May Day today as anything other than a time of mourning for the victims of communism. Even if there is a labor unionist or “social democrat” case for keeping May Day as is, there is certainly no defensible libertarian case for it.

As noted above, I take seriously the possibility that it may be politically easier to establish a Victims of Communism Day on some other date. If we can get a broad consensus on November 7 or August 23, but not May 1, so be it. On the other hand, we should not lightly give up on the best available date for this commemoration. For that reason, we should urge “social democrats” to recognize the meaning that May Day has taken on over the last century and to pay more attention to the crimes of communism than many of them have been inclined to do so far.