“We Have to Be Happy”: A True May Day Parade

It’s not a celebration if you're afraid not to attend

Is it time for the annual kerfuffle over May Day? I think it probably is.

May Day, which used to be marked by raucous celebrations of floral and human reproductive capacities, was long ago borrowed by Communists and Socialists as a day to celebrate the productivity of the worker and of the planned economy in a festival renamed International Workers Day, marked primarily by massive parades.

I’m a big fan of parades. One of my favorite annual events is the Fourth of July parade in the small town where my family goes for vacation. The community orchestra and school band play. There are beauty queens and clowns. And every local business has a float or a decorated car or a group of employees marching to celebrate their town, their business, and the things they love best about their country.

But May Day parades were something else entirely. And people who think that libertarian distaste for May Day parades is about hating blue collar workers need to understand that. They need to listen to someone who was there.

In her graphic novel Marzi, the Polish artist Marzena Sowa recalls attending these parades in Poland as a young girl. Though she tells her story simply, as befits the pre-teen narrator, it is chilling.

It begins in front of the cultural center. There are loudspeakers everywhere proclaiming the benefits of socialism. I don’t understand anything but it seems to please everyone because they smile and applaud whenever the voice stops. The people are required to behave this way so no one can accuse them of having a bad attitude.

Illustrated with somber grey and white pictures, enlivened only by the red of the party posters and the orange of Marzi’s hair, the parade continues.

We traverse the city this way for several hours, singing and shouting loudly how much we love socialism and our work on this day. We have to be happy.

And why do they have to be happy? Because if they aren't, they will be reported and denounced.

Marzi is too much of a child to understand the full implications of what could happen to someone who doesn't attend the parade. But she knows there will be dire consequences. The fear in her eyes in the illustrations vividly captures that memory. And the adults who surround her have no doubts

I’m pretty sure it’s not a celebration if you're afraid not to attend. I’m pretty sure you aren't happy if you’re making sure that everyone sees how happy you are so you won’t suffer the consequences of discontent.

And I’m pretty sure that, for an awful lot of people, those May Day parades would more accurately be called a forced march.

Further Reading

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