This May, see red

Be radical, plan a visit to a bastion of Communism on May Day. You can always do the sunbathing afterwards. By Sue Wheat

Sue Wheat
Tuesday 30 April 1996 23:02

It's May Day. Once a time for dancing round maypoles or voting for the May Day Queen (alias the girl every 15-year-old boy in town fancied most). It's also International Workers Day, or Labour Day, when workers around the globe march in solidarity for better conditions; and, during the Cold War, when Communist countries showed off their military might.

In the UK, the closest we get to a show of solidarity seems to be the mass of bodies in back gardens gradually turning the colour of the Communist flag. But if you want to be true to the spirit of May Day, you can raise some political fervour and plan some tours to some of the remaining bastions of Communism. Whether you are a socialist pilgrim or a free-market, told- you-so advocate, holidays to destinations like Vietnam, Cuba, Moscow, Kerala or South Africa are now comfortably un-radical while also providing plenty of fodder for post-holiday, Bohemian dinner-table conversation.

Vietnam and Cuba must be top of the list for any left-wing political pilgrim, although the politically unaware could easily walk the streets of Saigon (sorry, Ho Chi Minh City) and think it was the model of capitalism. Stroll through Huynh Thuc Khang street market, which sells all the latest electronic goods, and you will see a busier scene than the London Stock Exchange on Black Wednesday. But a visit to the horrific War Crimes Museum should make you see red again: there, among other things, photographs of GIs with boots placed triumphantly on the severed heads of Vietcong soldiers show the full horror of the war.

To show solidarity with the working class while also having a great holiday, go to the Caribbean - specifically Cuba, of course. Here, you can't help but be impressed by the people's ability to live from day to day, let alone stay hospitable, in the face of the US trade embargo. To find out how they do it, go with Progressive Tours on a study tour of Cuba and visit schools, hospitals, state farms and local grassroots Committees for the Defence of the Revolution. Then luxuriate on a sun-kissed beach.

Like Cuba, Kerala, in south-west India, is tropical, idyllic and Communist, and has seen successes in education and health through state support that Gillian Shephard and Steven Dorrell might consider defecting for. Kerala is also a matriarchal society (a revolutionary state of affairs, where working women have united).

But according to Landon Temple of Progressive Tours, "the finest example of the survival and development of the ideas of the left wing is South Africa". Visit Robben Island, where ANC leaders were imprisoned and the lime quarries where they worked, and Roosboom in northern Natal, whose 10,000 black inhabitants were removed in 1970 and the town destroyed, but which is now being rebuilt by the community.

A political pilgrimage would not be complete without Moscow. Dodge skateboarders with their caps on back-to-front in Gorky Park, then applaud or mourn the death of Communism at the "Graveyard for Fallen Monuments", where stone relics lie corpse-like in the dust. And join the workers in Red Square, where this year's May Day demonstrations will be attempting, vainly, to oust Boris Yeltsin.

At home you could set out on the Rebels, Radicals and the Red Flag walking tour (starting from Barbican tube in London, 2pm every Sunday), which opens up the seditious historical background to Farringdon, Smithfield and Clerkenwell. My guide last Sunday turned out to be a London cabbie when not regaling people gory details of rebels being hung, drawn and quartered. He shows a side of London that makes you glad to be in the 20th century.

Although the streets around Clerkenwell Green now house publishing companies and glossy PR agencies, you learn this modest open space was the site of the first May Day march to campaign for the eight-hour working day. Lenin's workplace was nearby, as was the place where the lyrics of The Red Flag were composed.

Being red and dead seems to help a great deal with popularity, as the stream of camera-laden visitors to Karl Marx's grave at Highgate Cemetery in north London attests. Tourists, Trotskyites and even Tories can't help but be awestruck by this massive sculpture of the theoretician's head, surrounded by the gravestones of comrades from around the world. Delegations from Eastern bloc countries used to visit regularly in full uniform. Today the visits are less frequent, although there was some trouble recently with Chinese visitors who were caught scaling the cemetery's wall before opening time.

After paying your respects, stroll to Lauderdale House - a chic place to discuss the conditions of the working class while being revoltingly (sic) bourgeois and tucking into a cappuccino and salmon pancakes. There is no red flag flying, but as the house was donated to the people of London, was once owned by the GLC, and now houses a community arts centre, Karl Marx would be proud of it.


Progressive Tours, 12 Porchester Place, London W2 2BS; 0171-262 1676.

Rebels, Radicals and the Red Flag tour; meet at Barbican tube at 2pm; adults pounds 4, concs pounds 3; 0171-281 5373.

Highgate Cemetery, Swain's Lane, London N6 6PJ; 0181-340 1834.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments