Love or Labour - the significance of May Day in the Czech Republic

In the Czech Republic the first of May traditionally marks Labour Day, a national holiday which is celebrated not only here but all around the world, in commemoration of various historic achievements of the Labour movement. In the days of the Cold War Czechs were as good as forced to take part in massive May Day parades, and not surprisingly now most prefer to treat the holiday as nothing more than a welcome day off work. Alternatively, they celebrate May Day as a symbol of spring and love, as most famously marked in the great Czech romantic poem, Maj, by Karel Hynek Macha. So does Labour Day bear any significance at all for Czech people any more?

To answer this question and joining me now in the studio I have four distinguished guests. I'd like to welcome to the studio Czech journalist, politician and former advisor to Margaret Thatcher, Alexandr Tomsky. Alongside him is Dr. Jan Rychlik, a specialist on Czechoslovak history at Charles University in Prague. Also we have Erazim Kohak, Professor at the Institute of Philosophy and Religious Studies also of Charles University. And representing the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, I'm joined by Dr. Josef Skala. Welcome to the studio. We're recording this programme a couple of days before the holiday, so could I begin quite simply by asking what you personally will be doing on Monday to mark May 1st? Erazim Kohak?

Erazim Kohak: "First of all I will take my wife to the statue of Karel Hynek Macha and kiss her under the blooming tree. And then of course I shall go and gather with other Social Democrats and remember something."

And Dr. Rychlik will it be a similar thing for you?

Jan Rychlik: "Well, I must confess that I do not celebrate anything except Christmas and Easter Monday, despite the fact that I am a Social Democrat."

And Alexander Tomsky, what about yourself?

Alexandr Tomsky: "Well I never celebrate public holidays anyway. I might celebrate some feast days, but I'm not on the left so I think the whole thing is completely pointless anyway."

What do you have to say to that Dr. Skala?

Josef Skala: "I would have an itinerary just in the opposite order of Professor Kohak. Since our celebrations of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia are in the morning in the same location, and then I would go with my wife and my daughter to a flourishing park and kiss them, obviously."

So to provide a little background, could I ask how the phenomenon of Labour Day first came about in the Czech Republic? Dr. Rychlik could you start us off?

JR: "Yes well of course it was a holiday of the workers movement and the social democratic party first celebrated it here in 1890. And since that time it was celebrated throughout the years, with the exception of course of the First World War and the Second World War when it was forbidden. It was a public holiday already in the first republic and it was a public holiday after the war. The significance of this holiday changed throughout this time because I would like to say that it was somehow privatised or maybe nationalised, if you prefer, by the Communist party of the coup of 1948. And generally speaking participation at the May Day celebrations was mandatory. It didn't mean that everyone had to go. I for instance never did, but it was expected that everybody would, as it was a state holiday. And I think that after the fall of the Communist regime in 1989 it obtained a new significance, it returned somehow back to the pre-war period when it is again a public holiday of the working people. So now all political parties from the centre to the left are celebrating it differently and separately. And I think, unlike Mr. Tomsky, that it has some significance."

And so after the Communists took power how was the first of May celebrated?

AT: "Well, it was of course compulsory to go there. There were sanctions and problems with it. I never took part as my parents never allowed me to take part in it. As a result I couldn't continue my studies, I couldn't get to grammar school and I was punished by that of course, and not only by that but by the general attitude of my parents. So my memories are extremely sad, extremely bad. I remember we lived here on the main street, and this compulsory rejoicing took place and, of course, was greatly manipulated by the party workers. People had to shout and so on and you saw secret agents milling in the crowd. It was a very strange event. People were afraid on the one hand, on the other hand there was a lot of rejoicing and shouting and that kind of thing, and I think the whole thing has been totally discredited. But apart from that, I think, even if it had not happened, as in the West for instance, if we did not have a totalitarian system here, nevertheless the days of massive workers movement are bygone, a thing of the past."

Dr. Skala, are your memories of the Communist celebrations similar?

JS: "There were many points raised here, and in order to react to all of them it would take half an hour which is not my right, but it has already been said that one cannot say it was compulsory. There was certain, say, interest to bring people there, which was promoted by certain people by methods, which I personally would disagree with, but it was not compulsory. Secondly, there were certain stages in the 41 years of the developments, let's say, in our country, and I would say that for instance the first May Days, after '48 and before '48, after '45, were full of people with enthusiasm. Three, I am very critical to the form which May Day celebrations took in the sixties, seventies and eighties. It was outdated."

Am I right to draw three categories from this? We have people who perhaps did feel that there was some significance in the event and went voluntarily, perhaps that is true. Then there seems to be a second category for whom it was merely ritual, and for whom there was no thought process going into it. And then we have a category of people for whom this was more of an obligation to go rather than a simple ritual. Would I be correct to draw those three categories, Dr. Kohak?

EK: "It seems to me that in speaking of this we are shifting our focus from what the significance of Labour Day to what happened in Czechoslovakia between the years of 1948 and 1989. But it seems that the significance of Labour Day is not exhausted by one little country in one short period of time. It still stands for something; for a very dramatic change which takes place in Europe in the latter half of the 19th century, when labouring people, what we now call "people of labour", come out of the shadows, become human and start thinking of themselves as human. And of course it had two stages. The aim of a great part of the labour movement was not to create a self-conscious labouring class and victory for the working class, but rather first to give the worker's the self-confidence of a class and then secondly to integrate them into the society at large, which has to a great extent happened. And of course with that the May Day parade, as a sign of the triumphant workers, fades. They have become dreadfully bourgeois."

JR: "I would like to add that I remember that when I was not even 14 years old in 1968 during the period of the Prague Spring there was a May Day parade in which I took part and it was something totally different. People were bringing different slogans and different, and then I think it had some sense, because it was a test of what the people really thought. I think it was significant that in 1969, there was no May Day parade; it was forbidden. Czechoslovakia was probably the only socialist country in the world where the May Day parade was forbidden and the streets were watched by the police so that no one could take to them."

JS: "I think what Professor Kohak and Professor Rychlik have said here is quite productive. Let's speak, if you agree gentlemen, rather about today's importance, today's implications and today's message. Coming back to what Professor Kohak raised here, I'd like to say that for me May Day symbolises what I would call the cradle of modern democracy, because nothing substantial was given to the people of labour for free, nothing. They should push at each and every step by different forms of struggle and we can analyse later what and how and so on, but it's not our main topic. Today, paradoxically, the capability of people to self-defend their rights is substantially weakened. There are many factors which have caused this, and again this could be a matter of deep and broad analysis, and I think that at least three of us may have a brainstorming here or anywhere else on that very topic; what we should do so that the actually message of May Day is refurbished and, let's say, provides what the majority needs, vis-à-vis the key trends of globalisation and so on. That is I think the key topic which may be interesting to all of us."

Alexandr Tomsky, do you think that the next generation, who perhaps don't remember what happened during the Communist period, will come to appreciate Labour Day for what is represented previously?

AT: "No, I don't think so. I think it will be entirely forgotten, but of course predicting is a strange art, you know. Very often when people predict, then the next generation will come and do something entirely different. So, prediction apart, I think that the significance has gone. The massive Labour or Trade Union movement as it then existed had a point; I mean they were struggling in those days for an 8 hour working day for instance so this was a massive organisation that indeed, and even conservatives will agree, fought for certain basic rights which were given to them reluctantly, so I can see that. But as the blue-collar workers have almost disappeared and we have a different class, perhaps, of the underprivileged today, it is very difficult to see how you could link that symbolism, that ritual with those people. I think the modern problems are entirely different."

EK: "I think May Day was the function of a particular situation and as you say the situation has changed, but I have lived too long to think that it has changed forever or definitively. I think that next time we have such a situation for instance where people who now work in chain stores sometimes speak to a cashier about working conditions in a major chain. Once they realise they can do something about it by organising, we might have a May Day again. And I'll march with them."

Would you agree with that Dr. Skala?

JS: "I would like to have a follow up if possible. Let's distinguish very clearly among the rituals, forms, dates and the contents. That is substantial. Whether and how it will be reflected on the first of May is a secondary issue. And I think what we can easily agree, gentlemen, let's say, belonging to the left-wing sector of politics is that there is and there will be many more losers of what is called globalisation than winners, and the proportion is getting worse and worse. And, yes, some conditions changed very substantially and they should be addressed properly. Very shortly, blue-collar workers have moved to China, India and so on, but there is a big fragmentation and a complicated fragmentation of those who are also losers of globalisation in the United States, in Western Europe, in our country and so on. The old paradigms, the old ways of thinking are not attracting them. This should be invented in a way so that they understand their own interests. The biggest trouble is that people do not understand their own interests from time to time. Secondly, generally decision making in politics is moving even above governments. Even liberalists are saying that politics is disappearing as such, which is a huge problem."

Alexander Tomsky, you were shaking your head there...

AT: "I don't want to go into a lecture on the meaning of conservatism or liberalism; I will leave that aside. But we were talking about May Day and I feel that the days of organised labour and the trade union movement are over and in this country the day has been particularly discredited by the Communist regime that lasted 42 years and the new problems are entirely different."

Jan Rychlik
JR: "In this country, the beginning of May was also celebrated for other reasons. It was simply a symbol of spring and a symbol of love and so on. So, maybe they will mix together one day. But this would be predicting the future, which I would prefer to avoid."

EK: "But it's not predicting the future; it's predicting timelessness. Young people in spring. That's strictly a biological matter. There is something that young people do in spring. They do it all year round but in spring they celebrate it. Labour Day is not dependent on it. In some parts of the world, Labour Day is celebrated on the first Monday of September when, presumably, the genes are dormant. It seems to me that the coinicidence of Labour Day and May Day is fortuitous, the coincidence which is celebrated in the timeless fashion by young people rejoicing in the spring."

Did that psychology maintain through the Communist times, despite all the demonstrations on the Letna plain etc, for example?

EK: "Young people were still meeting by Macha's statue. Even in 1969, when there were no demonstrations."

JS: "I'm still a Communist, still a Marxist, and in the 70s and 80s I was enjoying the same things like those who perhaps today say 'never ever' and what more. Society is not divided politically on this. We were young boys and girls and we were normal people. This is a tradition that goes beyond politics. If people want to follow it they will and it's in no way stipulated by any political changes and so on."

JR: "Certainly in that level of celebration of spring and love it will remain but politically, I think your question can not get a general answer. It depends on the political orientation of the particular segment of the people. I believe that it will still have some significance for the poorer people, for the Communists, and the Social Democrats, but it will never again be the national holiday that is celebrated by everybody."

JS: "There will be reasons, and I think they will be more substantial than we can predict today, for people to seek collective ways of defending and promoting their rights. I personally believe that, following what is happening in Western Europe and Latin America, this will gain a bigger momentum here, which will have been partially imported from abroad. This is because the country is, in this respect, still in shock and it will gradually be brought closer and closer to the example of what is happening in Britain and in France where people are fighting about their working time. This is very significant. In Germany, for example, they are fighting for eighteen minutes a day. What is to be done on May Day, I don't know. But what I'm sure of is that this wave of self-defence of the losers will get stronger."

Alexander Tomsky, do you think that this kind of lasting expression of a person's rights is a permanent concept?

AT: "No, I don't. I see society in a completely different way. The problems of Europe are that the population is ageing, the social status of incredible impediment to material progress, people are no longer interested in secular symbolism. This was done in the days when religion was still very strong. In the nineteenth century it was quite a religious period. If you look at London, there are so many Methodist churches and many other Christian denominations that were very active.

"So, any movement or any political party needed a lot of symbolism and that is gone completely. We may have large demonstrations, as we have seen in the places where the G8 met, or the World Bank met. We have young people joining various ecological movements like Greenpeace, or perhaps even sectarian movements in a secular sense. But the problems of economics are entirely different, I think. With the ageing population, with globalisation, with the big companies, with the inability of the European populations to accept lowering standards of living and perhaps even harsher conditions, which are necessary in order to compete. It's a problem and these problems will change. So, it's no good predicting what will happen. Certainly organised labour will not be the thing that we are talking about. I'm pretty sure of that."

EK: "I would be a bit careful about saying that there is this unwillingness of Europeans to accept lowering standards. I would say there is an unwillingness of a certain segment of Europe but I don't see anybody asking the owners of factories to accept lowering standards. They wish for the lowering standards of the workers so that there standards will go even higher for the 'maximisation of profit'. It's a slogan. So, I think Europeans have shown that they can accept a tightening of belts when it is ask fairly and universally. England is an example of that."

Do you have a response to that, Alexander Tomsky?

AT: "Well, I don't think so. I think the wealth of the few that are great entrepreneurs is neither here nor there. Whether somebody earns ten million or five million makes no difference. So, to compare the wealth of the entrepreneur with the problem is ridiculous, I think. But the second and more important point is that we have seen that Europe is not able to relax the labour laws, to make it easier to hire and fire people, in order to become competitive. Europe is not even producing engineers and technical staff as China and India are. You might recall Tony Blair's speech on that. So, the problems are simply different. We cannot always think in the categories of the past."

Dr. Rychlik, what's your stance on this?

JR: "Well, I think that we are indeed living in the age of paradox because you mentioned China, which is a Communist country - if we can still call it a Communist country by Marxist definition, when they have now developed the private sector. But the question is should we tighten our belts and should we lower our standards to be compatible with Communist China which is a mixture of Big Brother and big business? I don't think so. They should accommodate to our terms and not we to theirs. We didn't bring capitalism to this country simply to be compatible with Communist China or maybe tomorrow with Communist North Korea."

JS: "There is a paradox of today also consisting of what was said. It's nice to say that people should accommodate and adjust but in the end, the uncertainties and wins of the market are only reserved for certain people. Those who are really sitting on the big money and have the real power are more and more protected from all these uncertainties. On the other hand, those who can only sell their labour are getting fewer certainties to even get a job. Let's think about what will happen in ten or twenty years here in the Czech Republic. How many percent of your students at the university will get a dignified job in five, ten or twenty years? I'm afraid that there will be a segment of this society that will be jobless by definition...."

AT: "You mean the uneducated?"

JS: "No. Look, you're living in the west and I also know something about it. You should know thousands of students who are changing faculties three or four times in their life because they are preparing themselves for a certain economic development that they are discovering. One job is not right, so they move to another one and so on and by then they are 35 years old. I have met many of them and it's not a dignified life."

JR: "My opinion is that there are simply too many people in the world. I know that this is not a very popular idea. People are getting older and we cannot think in the narrow limits of Europe. We should think in the limits of the world and there are more and more people and they are simply not necessary, economically. This is a capital problem and I don't think that we will be able to solve it and it's a problem which simply concerns everybody today in developed countries. This is for another discussion but I think that this is the biggest problem."

JS: "Aren't you afraid of right-wing demagogues, who can easily get the sympathy of people who feel that there is no dignified future? I agree with you. Technologically and economically, if you look at how many people you need today, you can write off one third of them or maybe even one half in a few years. But are we a jungle, are we a zoo?"

JR: "If in twenty years the global population has doubled, then there is no way to feed them."

JS: "I'm afraid feeding them is one thing but to give them reasonable jobs even if the population remains as it is because the organic proportion of the capital, as Marx calls it, is growing and we should address it somehow."

EK: "Perhaps we could start addressing it. If we are going export factories to China, let us also export labour unions. That might change the picture a bit."

JR: "That's by the way what the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions is doing. They are trying to export trade unions to China with not much success, I must say."

So, it seems that we are drawing quite a wide significance from the discussion of Labour Day. Could I bring the debate to a close now with a few final words from each of you?

Photo: CTK
EK: "I think of Masaryk marching with the workers on May 1 1890 and I think it is worth repeating the experience even under changed conditions, just in memory of it."

JR: "I believe that Labour Day on May 1 will remain as a public holiday and that it will still be significant for a big part of the population. Certainly, it will not be simply the national holiday as it was, neither in the First Republic or it will not be discredited as it was in the Communist regime but it will prevail."

AT: "Of course, I disagree. I think that nothing lasts in history, everything comes to an end and I'm not a left-wing sentimentalist at all."

JS: "I think May Day shouldn't be privatised by anybody. It should be a framework and symbol of all those who simply care and who do not ignore that there are people who should get support, more rights, and more guarantees."