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The new proletariat


FIVE years ago no serious observer of world politics would have suggested that May 1 would become a hollow celebration of worldwide communism.

But the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the movement of Eastern European countries toward independent and often capitalist economies and the flirtation of China with private enterprise suggest that May Day has lost its meaning.

More than a century ago, European labor unions began celebrating their collective strength on May 1. The holiday soon became synonymous with class struggle, even violence. As the Second International at Zurich in 1893 proclaimed, May Day "must serve as a demonstration of the determined will of the working class to destroy class distinctions through social change and thus enter on the road, the only road, leading to peace for all peoples, to international peace."

Before the Russian Revolution of 1917, as many as a million workers often engaged in strikes on May Day. After 1917, the holiday in the Soviet Union became a day of commitment to the goals of the international working class, the proletariat.

The irony of the passing of May Day -- without, as communist dogma had predicted, the coming together of the working classes -- is that the the new "international" is a gathering of white collars -- corporate managers, business people, self-employed consultants, university researchers, professional people in general or what Marxists call the "bourgeoisie") in places around the world on any day of the year.

These are the middle managers who travel from their home base in the United States or elsewhere to Berlin to observe a branch operation, to Zurich for banking business, to New York for a conference on DNA research. These are white-collar employees and professionals who have expertise and want to share it with like-minded counterparts. (They also want to have fun while they're away from home.) Or they're the individuals who present papers at international conventions.

These people don't consider themselves workers. They consider themselves professionals. They have similar educations. They dress pretty much the same. They meet informally in airport lounges, at gates waiting to board a plane or even in airplane seats. They exchange business cards and sometimes follow up with a letter or phone call.

Their conversation is polite, rarely heated, and often punctuated by humor. Their reading materials are technical periodicals, their flags or ornaments of identification are briefcases and, more frequently in recent years, laptop computers. These working people in and of the world never unite -- as the Marxist proletariat was supposed to. They're strongly individualistic, hoping to get ahead of colleagues. But their folkways don't hint of class struggle.

To be sure, these people appear to be getting ready for battle. At hotels -- from Portland, Ore., to Hong Kong -- they work out in fitness rooms or by swimming laps and jogging. Increasingly, they shun alcohol, even in first-class airplane seats where it is xTC free. And they recognize as well that smoking can be an impediment to their professional mobility.

If the proletariat looked to a heavenly city of classlessness, the new international has a much more limited vision. It is focused on time and efficiency. Its members trust that airline schedules will be kept, meetings will be attended or negotiations begun or effected as scheduled.

The new workers of the world hope for a clean and quiet hotel room, a good night's sleep, pleasant receptionists, waiters and waitresses and cab drivers who knows their cities.

And every night -- if they are thankful for the day's events -- they don't criticize the technology that was the bane of the proletariat. They praise it, especially the telephone and the fax machine.

And if they have one fervent hope for the next day, it is that they'll be lucky enough to have an empty seat next to them on the flight home.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at American University in Washington.

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