Perhaps it was an irrational aversion to Morris-dancing that made me almost prefer the Communist celebration of May 1st. Maypoles I could perhaps bear; but the sight of men dressed in psychiatric white, hopping up and down with sticks and handkerchiefs, fills me with empathetic embarrassment. And then, there are the funny hats.

And yet I’m accused of being “a man of the thirteenth century.” Surely I should like all “mediaeval” things.

But an explanation comes soon to hand. For I gather Morris-dancing (or, “Moorish” by etymology) was an innovation of the fifteenth century. No wonder I sneer. It was a decadent century.

Truth told, I didn’t like the parade across Red Square, either, with all those tanks and missiles. It seemed a strange way to celebrate the “Victory of Labor.” Better, I thought, for the workers of the world – and across the Soviet Union in particular – to just down tools and walk. (So long as they didn’t Morris-dance.)

Shouldn’t the day be celebrated with an absolutely gratuitous, international strike? Wouldn’t this be a good way to remind Management of its place in the grand economic scheme of things? And soldiers, too, could leave their tanks blocking traffic, and spend the day drinking in the traditional Russian style.

Even at the age of nineteen – the age at which I first entertained reactionary thinking on such things – it seemed to me that the labor movement lacked spontaneity. This was true of other public holidays, too, such as “August Bank Holiday” – in England, Canada, Switzerland, and elsewhere. Where’s the fun in that?

The Irish had, until recently, a racial understanding of what I’m getting at here. They referred to any day off work as a “bank holiday.” Perhaps they still do. When the need arises to express droll contempt for secular authority, I have always looked to the Irish.

For those authorities reduce even Christmas to a bank holiday. Then as now, the “content” is extracted from the celebration, and everything spelt out in banker’s terms. Legislation is passed to specify exactly who gets what concessions on any given day. The thing becomes “transactional.” Everything is a transaction.

This might almost apply to Morris-dancing, whatever its folk ancestry. For it had died out in the Victorian age. It was consciously revived in the twentieth century. Let me grant the revivalists were probably well intentioned, but a certain artificiality gives the show away. This could partly account for my snickering.

“Christ in the House of His Parents” by John Everett Millais, 1850 (Tate Britain, London)
“Christ in the House of His Parents” by John Everett Millais, 1850 (Tate Britain, London)

From May poles, to May proles: so did May Day evolve. The whole history, from standard American sources – the Haymarket riots in Chicago, and so forth – is a grim affair. Sixty-hour weeks, strikes and strikebreakers, policemen, anarchists, and dynamite bombs – there is not much humor in it. For those raised in the Protestant culture (as was I), Catholics were associated with low hourly wages. Their propensity to vote “progressive” as a consequence remains an artifact of that history today.

If there are two things I hate about modern industrialism they are: 1. management, and 2. unions. The antagonistic relation between them might as well have been “legislated” from the start. It has been consistently in the interest of the state to encourage this antagonism, which guarantees the state’s role, as referee and welfare-provider.

There arose, in place of the old aristocracies, the new elites. We had, rising like weeds through the poisoned landscape of the Industrial Revolution, “captains of industry” on the one side, and “union leaders” on the other; then politicians rising over both.

We glimpse in retrospect a transformation from the idea of husbandry, to the idea of mutual exploitation – as the normal condition of human economic life. A better system could not have been devised for the diminution of each interest by the other; for the reduction of man to warring collectivities, and of the individual to a cog caught somewhere in the middle.

Indeed, I blame Morris-dancing for this: a world in which the individual tries instinctively to distinguish himself – to recover the dignity of his “personhood,” as it were – by the adoption of silly hobbies. He may “express himself” in his uniqueness: but only in his spare time. His freedom now consists of “consumer choices,” in the moments when he is off work.

A noble attempt to counter the Communist, and Capitalist, conceptions of labor, was launched by Pope Pius XII in 1955. He created an optional memorial of “Saint Joseph the Worker” for May Day. In the flutter of other liturgical revisions, beginning about that time, it had little chance of resonating, but the intention was good.

Human labor is exemplified by Joseph the Carpenter. Note that it is an independent craft, conducted in the traditional way, from his own domicile, with the probable employment of child labor. This would be against every conceivable urban by-law, if he tried it today.

Each is endowed with his own unique talents, according to the received Catholic view of the human universe. Thus no two could possibly have exactly the same job. Men are not horses, or any other sort of draught animal, to be linked in harness. We are not beasts of burden. From the beginning, institutions of slavery were not to the Christian taste.

From acknowledgement of various economic realities, the Church nevertheless embraced the terms by which modern wage slavery is negotiated. Reasonably, she insisted that if a man is to be used like that, he should be entitled to a living wage: a wage at which, even after taxation, he (gender-specific) will be able to support a family.

A century ago, thanks to war and taxation, the dual income was normalized, by way of subverting even this. By now it is a commonplace – not an option – that both parents work. It’s children who have become optional.

We have drifted very far from the dignity of labor. We should try at least to remember this hard truth about our situation, on each May 1st.

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: