May Day at the height of the Cold War was a time for self-confident Communists to roll their rockets through Red Square and ridicule America’s early failures in the space race. Then widespread disillusionment with the ideals of Marx and Lenin and their workers’ revolution led to collapse of the Soviet Union. This week’s May Day rallies in Moscow were geared more toward advancing the political interests of President Dmitry Medvedev and President-elect Vladimir Putin, who have to appease old Communists unhappy with post-Soviet Russia.
Around the world, May Day protesters went on the march not so much to foment a revolution as to prevent one. The lines between political ideologies are more blurred than they were during the Cold War, with western nations having adopted some of the social welfare policies they once condemned as ultra-leftist radicalism. At issue currently is whether Europe can afford to continue the generous benefits won by its labor unions. Spain, Greece, Ireland and Portugal are among the nations needing either bailouts or austerity measures to get out from under their onerous public debt.
The Associated Press reported tens of thousands demonstrated in France, where a Socialist is expected to win a presidential runoff Sunday. They see conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy’s program of budgetary discipline as a threat to hard-won protections for French workers.
May Day turned violent in Oakland, Calif., although the demonstrations were less disruptive than those at last year’s Occupy Wall Street encampments. Tuesday, diehard Occupiers clashed with police in New York, 200 people took over a building in San Francisco, 2,000 marched for immigration reform and worker protection in Chicago and 100 rallied against an illegal immigration crackdown in Atlanta.
Americans have mixed feelings about all this. Many worry about the still-stagnant economy and the prospect of a lower standard of living but don’t trust big government to solve the problems. As displeased as they may be that 1 percent of the population holds a lion’s share of the nation’s money, most probably do not want a wholesale redistribution of wealth, which could produce chaotically unpredictable consequences. Some fear a reelected President Obama would inflict upon us a social welfare system like those of western Europe while others are just as convinced Republican Mitt Romney would build an administration that’s too cozy with the rich, too insensitive to the needs of regular people.
In general, we don’t want a government that promiscuously meddles in our private affairs but neither do we want to be under the thumb of a corporate dictatorship. Maybe we want it both ways: just enough social humanism to take the hard edge off life’s rough spots and just enough capitalism to produce a reliable supply of consumer goods.
It’s an elusive balance. Young Chinese rose up for more human rights to go with western-style economic opportunities in the 1980s only to be crushed in the bloodbath of Tiananmen Square. While China has achieved remarkable influence on the global economy, personal liberty ranks low among its priorities.
The ideological divide seemed straightforward enough half a century ago, but May Day in the 21st century is a time of unsettling ambiguity for the working classes. “Security” at the expense of freedom is no bargain and the blind pursuit of unlimited growth in a world of finite resources is just another form of worker (and consumer) exploitation.