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May Day and The Right to Happiness

Written by one of the central figures of the Romanian social-democracy, for the last May Day before WW2, this is not an “analytical” text, nor does it have any extensive theoretical pretensions. As so many others, it is small chunk of the everyday textual production of interwar socialism and, as such, it is part and parcel of a much more important conceptual effort: that of opening an intellectual space in which complex Marxist analyses could converse, on an equal footing, with the everyday social interpretations of Romanian workers. Recognized as one of the most gifted Marxist theoreticians of the period, Lothar Rădăceanu preferred to organize his intellectual production in short articles of this kind.

Parisian suburb. June 1936. National strike for the 40 hour week, paid holidays, and collective agreements. During a sit in at their factory, workers entertain each other. (David Seymour/Magnum)

While a more exigent reader might see the text as leading to some laid-back social-democratic complacency, we decided to post it on this particular day for a very precise reason. Rădăceanu’s inquiry into the question of happiness, and its faked naiveté, points out to one of the most import aspects of the 1st of May: its festive refusal of work, its joy, its function as an “antechamber of the great transformation” (G. Ginex), its barbecues and its music. It hints at the fact that a social movement is much more than an expression of social tensions, an accumulation of collective interests, or even the exacting struggle of day to day activism. A social movement is also a space of joy, happiness and self-transformation, the boundless expression of a possible self which, otherwise, could hardly survive a life entrapped between wage labour and unpaid domestic work. And May Day stands for this possible self just as much as for the struggle we are all engaged in.

The Right to Happiness

by Lothar Rădăceanu (Lumea noua, 30 April 1939)

Do workers have the right to be happy? There you have it: a question which is somehow still lingering on some minds, keeping them busy, although – in my humble opinion – this question should hardly be asked.

After all: why, among all people, should workers be denied this basic human right or why should this right be questioned or doubted? Our workers: aren’t they human beings as well? The spring, doesn’t it blossom for them too? The beauties of the world and the pleasures of life, don’t they have the same price and value for a worker as for any other human being?

It’s true, however: the real life of the working class doesn’t resemble at all the lot of our more fortunate fellows, those people whose wealth and prosperity opens every door. If you toil ten hours a day or even more and all you get in exchange is some puny salary on your payslip; if you don’t have a proper roof above your head and you eat solely what God might be kind enough to provide. Well, then there is little room for happiness. But this is not the problem we want to tackle. We are interested in something else, in whether workers are entitled to pursue their own happiness, to enjoy the beautiful and pleasant sides of life.

Parisian suburbs, national strike. Workers receive visits from their families during the factory sit-in. June 1936. (David Seymour/Magnum)

Amongst us there are some who deny workers this right. A worker’s life does not contain any stocks of joy, any stores of beauty, but it shouldn’t include them either. For these comrades, workers should be fighters and nothing more. Happiness and the small pleasures of life are not for them. They are only distracting the working class from the supreme ideal of the social struggle, they are pushing it towards its embourgeoisement, squandering its time and efforts for the wrong purpose. The struggle for bread and justice — this should be the substance of working class existence. And those comrades who think in these terms are making a wry face every time they hear about a workers’ get-together, every time they see workers partying and celebrating, every time workers are thinking about something else besides their troubles and their struggles. Or, in the best-case scenario, our comrades are willing to look upon this with some ironic empathy, as an unfortunate concession made to “human frailty”. But in principle, they reserve the right to happiness to future generations, just like those priests who see happiness only as an after-life reward for present-day virtue. But this is a mentality which can easily lead to the most narrow-minded sectarianism.

The workers’ movement should be a movement in which the working masses are welcome as they are, with all their qualities and human flaws, with all the material and spiritual needs that characterises human nature. The penchant for happiness and joy is not just some “human frailty”, but a natural propensity, as so many others: as hunger and thirst, as the craving for justice, as the yearning for well-being. The socialist struggle was never waged just for wresting from the ruling classes those material goods which are our rightful due, but also in order to secure the fulfilment of all spiritual and intellectual needs. And just as it does not promise a better lot in the centuries to come, but is striving to achieve this here and now, so it tries to create a beautiful, joyful life today. And not just for the sake of the grand-children and grand-grand-children who aren’t born yet.

Higher wages and better labour regulations are not just for the pleasures of the body, but also for the progress and the delight of the mind. A night out at the cinema, a glass of wine shared with a friend, a book that brings a smile on your face, a walk through the park covered in flowers, a band playing some dance music, some love songs— all these are as necessary to human beings as the bread you put on the table, as a scientific book, a classical concert or other high-brow cultural values. One should not forget that human beings are human. This is such a simple truth! Maybe this is why it is so often overlooked.

But the working class should take heed of this truth. The strength of the workers’ movement depends on its capacity to comprise and express all the needs, interests, and aspirations of the working class. Within the workers’ movement, workers should find everything they need: the possibility of material satisfaction and better standards of living, but also the opportunity for fun, for culture. The working class movement is not a movement made out of sectarian ideologues or hermits. It is a movement made out of human beings, of men and women. This is not just its beauty, but also its strength.

Translation and presentation: Mihai-Dan Cirjan