We shall be all

January 9, 2014

Jason Netek explains the history of the socialist movement's best-known anthem.

SOCIALISTS TODAY operate in a context where the links to past struggles are few and far between.

Young people coming to revolutionary conclusions about the world today often don't interact with radicals from previous generations, and therefore don't have the pleasure of hearing their heroic stories. It's quite difficult for a lot of new radicals to comprehend what it feels like to belong to something greater than yourself--to be a part of a global movement with a rich tradition.

One of the strengths of the left historically was its pageantry. It organized cultural events, socials and festivals. It had songs to sing at gatherings and demonstrations.

Sometimes singing a powerful song of protest while on the march is even more valuable than chanting slogans. Slogans transmit the message of the group to the wider world. Songs help show newcomers that the group has a vibrant internal life--that its members feel a sense of belonging and worth that doesn't exist in the everyday life of the isolated individual.

Cover to sheet music of "The Internationale"
Cover to sheet music of "The Internationale"

Joe Hill, one of the most revered songwriter-activists in American history, famously said, "A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once, but a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over."

ONE OF the most important of our movement's songs is "The Internationale."

The lyrics come from a poem written by a French socialist and transportation worker Eugène Pottier in 1871 during the short-lived Paris Commune. Pottier was a delegate to this first attempt at workers government, which was drowned in blood by the forces of reaction.

In 1888, Pottier's words were finally married to an original tune by another socialist workingman, Pierre De Geyter of Belgium. "The Internationale" has been sung by socialists, communists and anarchists ever since.

The Second International alliance of socialist organizations around the world--which created International Women's Day, for one thing--adopted the song as an official anthem. The Third International, formed after the Russian Revolution of 1917, carried on the tradition. "The Internationale" was the anthem of the USSR after the revolution, until it was dropped in favor of a more explicitly nationalist anthem during the Stalin era.

During the later years of the Second World War, Arturo Toscanini conducted a medley of Giuseppe Verdi's "Hymn of the Nations"--itself based on the national anthems of several European countries--"The Star Spangled Banner" and "The Internationale," as a tribute to the Allied countries fighting against Nazi Germany. The music was performed by the NBC Symphony Orchestra, with the Westminster Choir, but U.S. censors cut out the socialist anthem.

While seen as subversive in the West, "The Internationale" became almost sterile by its association with the bureaucratic societies of Russia and its Eastern European satellites. The song still has the same official status in the cynically named "People's Republics" of China and North Korea.

But despite the attempts to give the song official status, Pottier and De Geyter's anthem of resistance endured. Its rousing call to action could be heard at the barricades of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and other movements that shook the foundations of Stalinism.

In 1989, the Tiananmen Square demonstrators--long misappropriated in the West as a symbol of anti-Communism--recognized the song for its revolutionary appeal that it really is. They could easily have identified the tune with the so-called socialist regime they were rising up against, but instead, they took it back for themselves.

"The Internationale" is, above all, a song of protest. It was sung by Russian workers during the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, by volunteers who left their home countries to fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, and by countless others at scenes of determined struggle against oppression.

"The Internationale" has been making something of a comeback in recent years, though for radicals, it never really went away. A quick search on the Internet will reveal techno remixes, alongside reggae and heavy-metal renditions. Folk artists such as Alistair Hulett Gregory and Jimmy Gregory have recorded their own versions for years. British singer Billy Bragg's rendition includes his own lyrics and a slight alteration of the tune. A jazz version by Tony Babino kicks off the final credits at the end of Michael Moore's film Capitalism: A Love Story.

"THE INTERNATIONALE" has been sung around the world by people who share no common language or cultural norms, but do share a common identity as workers in a global system, which relies on them to function, but treats them like dirt.

The lyrics are quite simple, yet they have a meaning that transcends time and place. Different versions and translations are sung in different countries by different people, but they all sound the same call. The first verse and refrain of the American version goes like this:

Arise ye prisoners of starvation
Arise ye wretched of the earth
For justice thunders condemnation
A better world's in birth!

No more tradition's chains shall bind us
Arise, ye slaves, no more in thrall
The earth shall rise on new foundations
We have been naught we shall be all.

'Tis the final conflict
Let each stand in their place
The international working class
Shall free the human race.

What a concept! The downtrodden and mistreated of the world can stand up for themselves. The masses who work, while others live in luxury, are going to upset the balance of things. If they can overcome superstitions and prejudices, they can remake the entire world into whatever they want it to be. They can end wars and conflicts, and they can liberate the entire human race from the terrible existences so many have known. That is the enduring message of "The Internationale."

And what a song! In every scene of resistance to the bosses' agenda around the world, it is likely that this song is in the air--even if it is only being hummed by a few people. When you sing it at home, you're singing along in a worldwide chorus with people you may never meet, but who are the best friends you'll ever have.

"The Internationale," as they say, unites the human race.

Watch participants at the Socialism 2013 conference singing "The Internationale."

Further Reading

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