May Day–International Worker’s Day

Peter Staudenmaier reminds us of the varied meanings of May Day, and shares his experience in New York, working with Occupy Wall Street organizers, doing the work of a public intellectual.

Today is May Day, a traditional springtime holiday that is also celebrated in much of the world as International Workers’ Day. Its modern historical roots lie here in the Midwest, among immigrant labor activists in the Chicago of the 1880s, and are as much anarchist as socialist. May Day also occupies an important place in the history of the Catholic Worker movement of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. This year it will be marked by a series of demonstrations across the US coordinated through the Occupy Wall Street movement.

 During the semester break in January and once again during Marquette’s spring break in March, I had the privilege of participating in a series of week-long courses in New York City with Occupy Wall Street organizers from around the country. They asked me to come to New York to join a variety of other instructors, some academics and some independent scholars, in providing historical context and intellectual perspective on current struggles around fundamental economic and political issues. Many of those most intimately involved in last fall’s upsurge of attention to such issues, and many of those who have remained engaged in Occupy Wall Street activities since its fading from public awareness, came to these unorthodox courses and workshops eager to learn about the history of alternative movements like theirs and the challenges these movements have faced.

 From a pedagogical viewpoint, the classes were an ideal teaching situation; the students combined extensive practical experience and earnest enthusiasm with passionate commitment to expanding their knowledge and applying it in their own lives. I learned as much from them as they did from me. The courses I was asked to teach focused on the complex history of capitalism and the contradictory history of revolutionary movements, as well as the neglected heritage of direct democracy as an institutional alternative to conventional forms of politics. Through a collective examination of the lengthy history of grassroots democratic practices and participatory approaches to community affairs, we explored both the achievements and the shortcomings of previous efforts toward social change in times of widespread crisis and uncertainty.

 Although these courses were distinct from my work at Marquette and stood apart from my professional obligations in content as well as method, there was at times a remarkable degree of overlap. The conclusion to Marquette University’s mission statement reads in part: “Marquette strives to develop men and women who will dedicate their lives to the service of others, actively entering into the struggle for a more just society.” That is a fitting message for May Day.

Dr. Staudenmaier, a historian of modern Germany, is newly arrived to the Marquette history department, but he brings a wealth of experience.  A longtime member of the Institute for Social Ecology, Peter has a diverse range of intellectual interests including Nazism and Fascism, racial thought, and the political history of environmentalism.   Before coming to Marquette he taught for a short time at the University of Montana after receiving his PhD from Cornell University.  His most recent work includes the revised edition of co-authored book Ecofascism Revisited: Lessons from the German Experience. He is currently preparing a book manuscript based on his dissertation “Between Occultism and Fascism: Anthroposophy and the Politics of Race and Nation in Germany and Italy, 1900-1945.” 

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