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Songs of Struggle

Songs are very important to the socialist movement. As part of an oral tradition they are a way in which the working class can pass down their largely unwritten history from one generation to the next. They are thus a memory of struggle which would otherwise be forgotten. Songs have been sung by members of our class going into battle, in commiserating defeat or when celebrating victories. They’ve also been used to poke fun at the pretensions of our rulers. In an ongoing series Bill Scott looks at the background to the writing of some of the movement’s most cherished songs - how they came to be written; their context and subsequent history.

A Man’s A Man by Robert Burns

Is there for honest poverty
That hings his heid an a‚ that?
The coward slave we pass him by,
We daur be puir for a‚ that
For a‚ that, an a‚ that
Our toils obscure an a‚ that
The rank is but the guinea-stamp
The man’s the gowd for a‚ that

Whit though on hamely fare we dine
Wear hodden gray an a‚ that?
Gie fules their silks an knaves their wine
A man’s a man for a‚ that
For a‚ that, an a‚ that
Their tinsel show an a‚ that
The honest man though e’er sae puir
Is king o men for a‚ that

Ye see yon birkie ca‚d a laird
Wha struts an stares an a‚ that
Though hunders worship at his word
He’s but a cuif for a‚ that
For aa that, an a‚ that
His riband star an a‚ that
The man o independent mind
He looks an laughs at a‚ that

A prince can mak a beltit knight
A marquis, duke an a‚ that
But an honest man’s abune his might
Guid faith, he maunna fa‚ that
For a‚ that, an a‚ that
Their dignities an a‚ that
The pith o sense an pride o worth
Are higher rank than a‚ that

Then lat us pray that come it may
As come it will for a‚ that
That sense an worth ower a‚ the earth
Sall bear the gree an a‚ that
For a‚ that, an a‚ that
It’s comin yet for a‚ that
That man tae man the warld ower
Shall brithers be for a‚ that

“A Man’s, A Man” was the song sung by Sheena Wellington at the ceremony to commemorate the re-opening of the Scottish parliament in 1999.  Did the organisers have an irony bypass? What are we to make of it being sung in the presence of a monarch when it pours derision on the whole idea of title and wealth being used to measure a person’s worth?   The song was rather more appropriately used in 2003 when Colin Fox sang it whilst taking the oath after his election to Parliament.  So appropriately that Colin was then ordered out of the Chamber for defying Parliamentary convention.

French Revolution Burns’ hymn to international brotherhood was written in 1794. Its words echoed the French Revolutionary Song “Ca Ira” (literally, “It Will Come, It’s Coming Yet For A‚ That”). Revolutionary France had by then already banned aristocratic titles and executed their king. Showing sympathy for such deeds at this time could get a man arrested and transported to Australia. Burns had already seen this happen to Thomas Muir, (1) the Edinburgh lawyer who founded the Friends of the People movement.  To produce this optimistic, revolutionary call to arms took the kind of courage shown later by those resisting fascism in the shadow of the concentration camps.Although the poem appeared in various publications from 1795 onwards, Burns’ editor, George Thomson, was too frightened to issue the song in book form until 1805, ten years after the poet’s death. But the song’s story does not end there.

 Burns’ songs were extremely popular in Germany during the 19th century. Quite a few were translated and some were set to new music by the composer Schubert.  Ferdinand Freiligrath, a German poet, composed a version of “Is There For Honest Poverty” in 1843.  A very faithful translation, “Trotz Alledem” (For All That), it was immediately banned by the authorities.  When Freilgrath appealed the ban he was told, “the basic thought of the poem is absolutely true”, but nevertheless the censors upheld the decision to ban the poem due to its “wrong ideas of freedom”. 


In 1848 there were revolutions in Germany and other parts of Europe. Many fine songs were written in the period (and a couple of decent books like The Communist Manifesto!).  One of the most popular was Freiligrath’s new version of “Trotz Alledem”. Freiligrath used the same tune as in his 1843 Burns translation (the one that we also use), and the same structure, but the lyrics were completely new, telling the story of the failed revolution. This song became even more popular than the 1843 translation and, as you might have guessed, was immediately banned.  Despite the ban the song remained popular amongst the German left and does so to this day.

In the aftermath of the slaughter of World War I new support flowed to those in the socialist movement who had opposed the war, and in 1919 the Spartacist uprising took place in Berlin in an attempt to emulate the revolution in Russia. The revolt was premature and failed, and two of its leaders, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, were arrested by the reformist authorities and then handed over to the right-wing Friekorp. They were tortured, beaten and then executed without trial.  When Karl Liebnecht was about to die he was asked if he had any last words.  He chose to sing “Trotz Alledem”.  In the face of certain death his last words were an expression of defiant hope : We are the people, mankind are we, everlasting are, for all that For all that and all that, draw near to us, for all that,you hamper, but not finish us, the world is ours, for all that. ( translated from the original German)

 Millions of people have, like Liebknecht, been inspired by “A Man’s A Man’s” uplifting conclusion. The question for socialists today is whether we can find the courage in life that Liebknecht displayed in death and genuinely work together in brother (and sister) - hood to build a movement that can finally bring freedom to all of humanity. If comrades want to hear the song at its best you’ll find good versions of it on the LPs “I Am the Common Man” by the Laggan and  “For A’ That” by Five Hand Reel (feat. Dick Gaughan).  Unfortunately both are quite rare nowadays so the CD “Hamely Fare” by Sheena Wellington might be your best bet.