The Incomplete and Wonderful History of May Day: Peter Linebaugh & Avi Lewis


Author and professor Peter Linebaugh discusses his new book, The Incomplete, True, Authentic, and Wonderful History of May Day. Later in the show filmmaker Avi Lewis discusses worker-owned factories in Argentina, and Laura focuses on the intersectional feminism of 19th Century Anarchist Lucy Parsons. Peter Linebaugh is professor emeritus at the University of Toledo, and the author of many books, including the Magna Carta Manifesto; Stop Thief, The Commons, Enclosures and Resistance, and his newest, The Incomplete, True, Authentic, and Wonderful History of May Day. Avi Lewis is a filmmaker known for The Take, co-directed by Naomi Klein, and This Changes Everything, a documentary on climate change and resistance, released in 2015.


Laura Flanders: If people have heard of the holiday of May Day, they've probably usually heard either of an ancient pagan spring festival, or a modern celebration of worker resistance. Well our next guest has a new book that brings all of those holidays together. Peter Linebaugh is professor emeritus at the University of Toledo and the author of many books, including The Magna Carta Manifesto, Stop, Thief!: The Commons, Enclosures, and Resistance, as well as his newest, The Incomplete, True, Authentic and Wonderful History of May Day. Just out from PM Press. It is my enormous pleasure to welcome you back to the show, Peter.

Peter Linebaugh: It's good to be here, Laura.

Laura Flanders: Incomplete, true, authentic, and wonderful ... Sounds like a good thing.

Peter Linebaugh: It is, it is. Hooray, hooray, the first of May. Outdoor effing begins today.

Laura Flanders: All right. Well tell us a few of the roots. You're taking us right into the heart of things, the spirit of it, which is clearly what animates you in the book. For a lot of people out there, there's a pagan festival, spring festival, there's the worker day holiday, and then there's even a distress signal. How do all these relate, and which comes first?

Peter Linebaugh: Well May Day is the international emergency distress signal, and it's French. It just means "come to my aid," "Please help me."

Laura Flanders: Okay, so check that off the list.

Peter Linebaugh: Well no, I think we need help now. I think all of us, but we can only help one another collectively. This is ... We are in an emergency situation. Least coming from Michigan, where they're even poisoning the water. Okay. We need help, but the help must come from one another. As you say, May Day is a day without work. It's a day without the job. It's a day without money. It's a day of fellowship. It's a day of nature-loving, at a time when nature is collapsing. Nature has ... May Day itself I think, Laura, is neolithic because it has to do with the fertility of the ground.

Laura Flanders: That was the first ... The first May Day holiday was the spring festival.

Peter Linebaugh: Yes, exactly.

Laura Flanders: And who would celebrate now?

Peter Linebaugh: Who celebrates May Day now?

Laura Flanders: Who celebrated then and how did they do it?

Peter Linebaugh: Well, they celebrated in many different ways, from Scandinavia with barking dogs, or making rough music with pots and pans, or dancing around the maypole. Going out in the woods and leaping over hedges and fences, and many maids went into the woods and came back different than they went out. To quote the Puritan who was opposed to May Day, back in Queen Elizabeth's time.

Laura Flanders: So the first was the spring festival.

Peter Linebaugh: Yeah.

Laura Flanders: And then the workers holiday. Before we get there, let's talk a little bit more about resistance and the US experience, because the Puritans played a hard game. The Puritans went as hard as they could against May Day to try to wipe it out, right?

Peter Linebaugh: They did.

Laura Flanders: Who were they? Tell us about that.

Peter Linebaugh: I think the story here is the green side. There's a red side and a green side to May Day. The green side begins with Thomas Morton in 1627, erected a maypole 80 feet high in Quincy, Massachusetts, called Merry Mount. There, Indians, Ganymede ... Meaning gay people. Runaway servants, even runaway slaves, danced and drank and had festivities on the first of May, 1627.

Laura Flanders: You know because ...?

Peter Linebaugh: Well you can read about it. We know about it because so much of history is written by the rulers. They went and attacked from Boston. Cotton Mather, William Bradford, they made class war against this rainbow coalition of multiculturalism that begins American history really...

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