In anticipation of May Day on May 1st and our new semi-seasonal theme, Practice, Bart Everson discusses the connection between spiritual and political desire.
Two May Days?
International Workers Day is celebrated on the first of May all around the world. It’s an old holiday, with a history going back more than a hundred years. It might be described as a celebration of revolutionary political desire. It is also known as May Day.
Beltane is celebrated on the first of May all around the world. It’s an even older holiday with roots going back thousands of years. It has been rediscovered and embraced in recent decades as a celebration of desire. It also is known as May Day.
There must be some relation between May Day and May Day. (There are other May Days, but these are the two I love best.) Surely they must derive from the same impulse. Surely there’s a connection between spiritual and political desire.
The Spirituality of Politics
I was involved in environmental activism and political organizing for many years without explicitly recognizing the spiritual dimension of such work, but of course it’s there. It’s our sense of meaning and purpose and values that drives all passionate political action. Our sense of connection to the Earth and to humanity fuels our outrage at the manifest injustices in the world. I knew what I felt; I knew what was in my heart, but I lacked a name for it. I lacked a vocabulary and an encompassing framework within which to extend and interpret these feelings beyond the political realm.
Nevertheless, for a good 25 years, it might fairly be said that my politics functioned as my spiritual practice. Any political ideology with sufficiently holistic aspirations starts to look a lot like religion. My political philosophy was almost there.
The best example of this was my involvement with the Greens. The Green Party is hardly well-established in Louisiana. We felt we were building something new but drawing on ancient wisdom. We felt we were on the fringe but with a message that would appeal broadly. We met in small groups on a regular basis. We often began our meetings with a moment of silence, and it was not unusual for a member to lead a short reflection on one of our key values. We shared food and dreams together. Does any of this sound familiar?
Anarchism vs. Religion
My Green perspectives were of the “blackened” variety — informed, that is, by anarchism.* This political philosophy opposes all forms of domination and oppression. Anarchism is especially opposed to social structures by which humans dominate other humans, but anarchism also opposes the domination of the Earth. In fact, anarchism as a modern political movement might be said to originate with the publication of What Is Property? by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. This 1840 screed argues that our system of parceling up the Earth into sections to be controlled by remote entities is fundamentally immoral.
Anarchists are generally critical of Capital, the State, and the Church. Arising as it did in 19th century Europe, it comes as no surprise that the anarchist critique of organized religion is mostly a critique of establishment Christianity. The negations of anarchism, combined with my personal experiences with organized religion, contributed to a sort of blind spot in my thinking. I did not consider myself religious, despite having a deeply ingrained religious sensibility. I considered myself to be in opposition to the very notion of religion, which I saw as just another way to keep people in chains and justify the subjugation of wild nature.
In a sense I still adhere to this critique. I continue to believe that some forms of religion do indeed function in a repressive fashion. However, as I’ve learned more about the diversity of religious experience, my perspective has become more nuanced.
Religion as a Liberating Force
There are, for example, forms of Christianity which emphasize political struggle against unjust social and economic conditions. The most familiar of these is probably liberation theology, which originated in Latin America. Less well-known is the Catholic Worker Movement, which was co-founded by Dorothy Day, an avowed anarchist. (Ironically, perhaps, Day is now under consideration for sainthood by Roman Catholic authorities.) Leo Tolstoy was arguably the most famous Christian anarchist, and his book, The Kingdom of God Is Within You, is considered a foundational text. Indeed, some think that Christianity started as an anarchist movement.
I also learned of traditions such as Buddhism. The Kālāma Sutta exhorts seekers to question everything, including all authorities, and the teachings of the Buddha generally emphasize liberation.
And so on. Many religions seem to begin with a sort of anarchic spirit which is quickly subverted, perverted, and institutionalized. We may wonder if the founders of the great traditions of the world would recognize their own teachings in the currently established practices of organized religion. No wonder anarchists are skeptical.
Paganism and Anarchism
Thus it was a source of great personal delight to become aware of the insurgency known as contemporary Paganism. There is much about Paganism that is highly anarchic. As a broad movement, it is decentralized and without hierarchy. There is no Pope of Paganism, no one who can speak on behalf of all, no one who can command the masses. (Try it and see what happens.) There is a pervasive skepticism of authoritarian methods throughout much of Paganism.
Some qualifications are in order. Paganism is a big umbrella for a broad movement, a tendency, a proclivity. For some, it is not a religion in itself, but a category for many religions which share some loose similarities; yet even this definition is flawed, as there are those who identify their religion as such: simply Pagan, with no further qualifications.
This confusion of nomenclature is just one of many similarities between anarchism and Paganism. Anarchists have identified with a bewildering variety of submovements such as anarcho-syndicalism, anarcho-communism, anarcha-feminism, anarcho-primitivism, and so on. While anarchists generally revel in such diversity, this diffusion of effort has led some to call for “anarchy without hyphens” or “anarchy without adjectives.” This dynamic is very similar to the discourse within contemporary Paganism today, where the meaning of the Pagan label is re-examined and questioned on a regular basis, with some calling for unity, others for solidarity, and with regular disavowals of the label by those who feel it no longer fits.
Within the broad umbrella of Paganism there may well be any number of authoritarian religious groups, but in my (admittedly limited) experience, decentralized autonomous groups seem to be the norm. In fact, quite the opposite of being dominated by an oppressive hierarchy, the majority of Pagans in North America are both solitary and eclectic. Many Pagans communicate with one another solely via the internet and do not practice in groups at all. I suspect an anarchist critique of Pagan social structures would find fault with this extreme individualism as a product of the bourgeois consumerist mentality. We are so extremely atomized that we risk communal decoherence; we risk losing sight of a common good.
And what of the gods? The conception of the divine varies enormously across Paganism, but as a rule it’s rare to find anything resembling the Final Authority of monotheism. It’s much more common to see Pagans relating to gods and goddesses in a sort of flux of mutual reciprocity. And of course there are atheistic, pantheistic, and humanistic Pagans. All in all, there’s plenty of room for the freethinking anarchist. Moreover, many Pagans revere the Earth as sacred and divine. This resonates with the aforementioned ecological dimension of anarchism. In fact, one of the most prominent anarchist publications from a hundred years ago bore the auspicious title of Mother Earth.
I’m not the first to note these parallels. No less a seminal practitioner than Starhawk identifies herself as both Pagan and anarchist. Contemporary Paganism represents a spiritual revolution; should our politics not find a correspondingly radical expression? The interior, individual, spiritual realm and the exterior, collective, sociopolitical realm are not divorced from one another but are intimately coupled. I’m especially inclined to reflect on such matters around the first of May, which serves as my annual reminder of these connections.
International Worker’s Day
Which leads me back to my initial question: Do the two versions of May Day share a common root? Surely they must! Yet few anarchists are aware of Beltane, and it seems few Pagans in America are aware of International Workers Day.
Indeed, it’s an unfortunate fact that most of my fellow Americans think International Workers Day is some sort of foreign communist holiday, if they’ve even heard of it. They don’t realize it was invented here in America and then repressed.
After the Civil War, the battle for freedom in America continued. Former slaves fought for generations to achieve true equality in the eyes of the law. Likewise, supposedly “free” laborers still felt like wage-slaves. As Ira Steward, a machinist from Massachusetts, wrote at the time: “something of slavery still remains… something of freedom is yet to come.”
This is when working people got really organized for the first time in America’s history. A major campaign was mounted to press a radical demand: the eight-hour working day. This is something many now take for granted, but in the 1800s, longer hours were the norm, and it was not unusual for people to labor from sunup to sundown. There was little time for leisure, for recreation, for education. A vast effort went into organizing Eight-Hour Leagues across the country to advocate for legislation mandating shorter hours.
Capitalists viewed this as a very real threat, a potential shift in the balance of power. The opposition to the eight-hour movement was significant and well-funded. The result was a protracted battle royale in which the very future of the nation seemed to be at stake. The conflict was long and bloody, a critical chapter in the longer story of American labor strife, and essential to understanding how we got where we are now. Anarchists played a crucial role in these struggles, and several key conflicts throughout the late 1800s centered on a significant day: the first of May.
We can look forward from that time. Through the endorsement of the Second International in Paris, May Day became a global day of resistance and celebration, a day to remember those who have been killed, imprisoned, or otherwise oppressed in the ongoing struggle for better working conditions. Eventually it was embraced by authoritarian regimes in the Soviet bloc.
Ambivalence toward the global labor movement motivated the American federal government to establish May 1 as Americanization Day. It’s now known as Loyalty Day. In any form it has failed to gain traction in the popular imagination. While much of the rest of the world continues to observe International Workers Day in May, our Labor Day is in September. The date was chosen specifically to deflate the power of May Day.
The agitation around this particular day first began in 1867. That’s when an Illinois bill for an eight-hour day was supposed to take effect. In support of this measure, working people in Chicago staged a massive but entirely peaceful May Day march through the city. It all fell apart in the days that followed, when the bosses refused to obey the new law. Nevertheless, May Day gained symbolic force as a day for further demonstrations in subsequent years, beginning in 1886.
Those later May Days were not so peaceful, but they were unquestionably intertwined with the ancient pre-Christian celebrations that European immigrants brought with them to America. From that point on, the two May Days were linked. There’s evidence of this in the political art of the era, which combines Pagan themes with proletarian concerns.
The question that intrigues me is this: How did May 1 happen to be chosen as the date? Was it selected because of its status as a popular Old World holiday? After all, European immigrants celebrated May Day with some enthusiasm throughout the 19th century. A popular holiday might seem like an obvious choice for a popular reform.
Another theory is that May 1 was chosen because that’s when contracts were begun or renewed in the building trades. Of course, this tradition itself likely stemmed from association with pre-Christian religious festivals in old Ireland and Britain, but the connection is convoluted and indirect. “The practical association of the day with the renewal of contracts was the original deciding factor,” writes historian Donna Haverty-Stacker. “Any rhetorical or iconographic associations with spring rebirth… came later in the development of the workers’ May Day, once it became an annual event where tradesmen could tap into such ancient cultural associations to voice their demands.”
Of course, even if the particular date was initially selected at random, it changes nothing that came after. We can still relish the richness of the intertwining histories of these May Day celebrations. We can still work to transform our world, inside and out.
A Common Impulse
Moreover, I’m inclined to recognize a common impulse at work here: the drive to connect, the power of attraction. It’s the impetus that draws people together to dance round the maypole or march in the streets, that draws humans together in love and fellowship, that draws animals together in frenzied coupling, that draws strands of DNA together in the double helix, that draws particles and planets on their trajectories. Call it Eros. I’m not saying it’s exactly the same force at work at every level; I’m not that wise. I just can’t help noticing and appreciating the similarities.
May Day represent High Spring, the season of desire. Urgency transforms our desires into action. Activated desire changes everything. This is a time to celebrate the flowering of desire, the flow of creativity, and the flourishing of our potential. All power to the imagination!
For discussion in the comments: Why do you think political discourse and activism do not play a more central role in Paganism?
* Note: I hasten to note that not all Greens are anarchists, nor are all anarchists Greens. Far from it. Anarchists are generally skeptical of electoral politics; many regard voting as fraud. As Howard Zinn said, “the electoral system is a great grave into which we are invited to get lost.” By contrast, Greens generally aim to run candidates for public office. Though I can’t speak for other chapters of the Green Party, in New Orleans our group is infused with a healthy dose of the anarchic spirit.
For Further Reading
Green, J. R. (2006). Death in the Haymarket: a story of Chicago, the first labor movement, and the bombing that divided gilded age America. New York: Pantheon Books.
Haverty-Stacke, D. T. (2009). America’s forgotten holiday: May Day and nationalism, 1867-1960. New York: New York University Press.
Proudhon, P.-J., Kelley, D. R., & Smith, B. G. (2008). What is property? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Taylor, B. R. (2010). Dark green religion: nature spirituality and the planetary future. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Tolstoy, L., & Garnett, C. (2012). The kingdom of God is within you. [United States?]: Emereo Pub.
In Hero of the Catholic Left, a Conservative Cardinal Sees a Saint (New York Times)
In addition to writing the A Pedagogy of Gaia column here at HumanisticPaganism, Bart Everson is a writer, a photographer, a baker of bread, a husband and a father. An award-winning videographer, he is co-creator of ROX, the first TV show on the internet. As a media artist and an advocate for faculty development in higher education, he is interested in current and emerging trends in social media, blogging, podcasting, et cetera, as well as contemplative pedagogy and integrative learning. He is a founding member of the Green Party of Louisiana, past president of Friends of Lafitte Corridor, sometime contributor to Rising Tide, and a participant in New Orleans Lamplight Circle.