frontline vol. 2 issue 2.

Comrades, Come Rally.

The story of ‘The Internationale’

At a time when the workers’ movement in Scotland has been split it is perhaps time to look at the story behind the writing of the Internationale, the anthem of workers’ unity. Bill Scott tells the story.

The Internationale
Words: Pottier
Music: Degeyter

Arise, ye starvelings, from your slumbers
Arise, ye criminals of want
For reason in revolt now thunders
And at last ends the age of cant
Away with all your superstitions
Servile masses, arise, arise
We’ll change forthwith the old conditions
And spurn the dust to win the prize

Then comrades, come, rally,
And the last fight let us face The Internationale
Unites the human race
Then comrades, come, rally,
And the last fight let us face
The Internationale Unites the human race

We peasants, artisans and others
Enrolled among the sons of toil
Let’s change the earth henceforth for brothers
Drive the indolent from the soil
On our flesh too long has fed the raven
We’ve too long been the vulture’s prey
But now farewell the spirit craven
The dawn brings in a brighter day

No saviour from on high delivers
No trust have we in prince or peer
Our own right hands the chains must shiver
Chains of hatred, greed and fear
E’er the thieves will out with their booty
And to all give a happier lot
Each at the forge must do their duty
And strike the iron while it’s hot

During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 the Imperial French army suffered total defeat. The Emperor Napoleon III and his government were exposed as total incompetents. When the new moderate Government capitulated to the Prussians Parisian workers, radicals and patriots rose up in revolt against the monarchy and state to mount their own defence of the city.

On Sep 4, 1870, they proclaimed the republic, and from Mar 18 to May 28, 1871, they established the “Commune”, bringing in radical reforms like legislation by workers, price controls, a People’s Militia, and compulsory education for children. The Commune adopted the red flag as its banner as the Tricolore was identified with the Empire.

The 92 members elected as delegates (subject to immediate recall and paid an average wage) to the Commune’s Council included workers and professionals. Louis Auguste Blanqui, a socialist, was elected its President in his absence (he had been arrested and imprisoned on March 17th).

Despite political differences, the Commune made a good job of maintaining services and adopted progressive policies. Although formally reformist, the Commune at district level was much more revolutionary and included anarchist Proudhonists, “Marxist” socialists, “Blanquists” and radical republicans. The Commune is still celebarated due to the high degree of workers’ control achieved by the cooperation between these different revolutionary groups.

In the Commune’s wake Nathanie Le Mel, a bookbinder, and Elisabeth Dmitrieff, a young Russian “Marxist”, created the Union des femmes pour la défense de Paris et les soins aux blessés (“Women’s Union for the Defense of Paris and Care to the Injured”). The Union believed in gender-equality, wages’ equality, the right of women to seek divorce and an education. A female battalion joined the National Guard and defended the Place Blanche during the repression. But women didn’t acquire the right to vote and there were no female members of the Commune.

Karl Marx, in his The Civil War in France (1871) praised the Commune’s achievements, and described it as the prototype for a democratic, revolutionary government of the future. Frederick Engels echoed this calling the Commune the first ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ meaning a state run by, and in the interests, of workers.

However after only a week the Commune came under attack by the regular French army with German assistance. The Germans released French POWs and provided artillery for the fight so great was their ruling class’ fear of the Commune. Skirmishing began on April 2nd. The Polish nationalist exile Jaroslaw Dabrowski soon proved the Commune’s best general.

There were rallies and solidarity messages sent by trade unions and socialist organisations around the world. But support from within France was very limited as the Versailles government had imposed an information blackout and crushed Commune supporters in Narbonne, Limoges & Marseille.

Arise, Ye Starveling

Throughout April and May, government forces besieged Paris eventually forcing their way in through a city gate on 21st May. Unfortunately instead of a united defence, each district fought seperately for their own survival. The toughest resistance came from the working-class districts of the east where there was bloody street fighting. Fighting ended on 28th May when the last barricade in Belleville was over-run.

Now came the reprisals. Government troops slaughtered captured National Guards and civilians. Having supported the Commune in any way was deemed a crime and thousands were accused. Some prisoners were shot out of hand against the “Communards Wall” in Pere Lachaise Cemetery whilst thousands of others were tried and executed by illegal court martials. The beautiful Luxembourg Gardens became a slaughter ground.

An estimated 20 - 50,000 Communards were put to death. Nearly 40,000 others, men, women and children, were marched to Versailles for trial. 10,000 were found guilty and either executed or condemned to prison or deportation for life in the French colony of New Caledonia. But thousands of Communards, including most of the leaders, escaped and lived in exile in Belgium, Britain, Italy, Spain and the United States.

Paris remained under martial law for 5 years and in 1872 strict laws were introduced which effectively banned organizing on the left. The exiles and transportees were not amnestied until 1880.

This is the British version of the lyrics written by Eugene Pottier, a woodworker from Lille, after the fall of the Paris Commune in 1871. However because of his membership of the Commune, Pottier’s poem became associated with its struggle. Originally it was intended that the song be sung to the tune of La Marseillaise but in 1888 Pierre Degeyter, a French factory worker, wrote the music we continue to use today.

The “Internationale” referred to in the title and chorus is the International Working Men’s Association, 1864-76, (later called the “First” International), which supported the Commune. The Internationale has been used across the world as a song of resistence to oppression. The lyrics though dated and difficult today were, in their original French, a rallying cry for the poor of the world to fight back against their bosses.

An international anthem

The Internationale quickly spread in popularity throughout France, Europe and the world and was translated into scores of languages. By the early 20th Cantury it was the anthem of international revolutionary socialism. This association with revolutionary struggle lead to the song’s singing being made a criminal offence in many countries.

The Russian version was translated/written by Aron Kots in 1902. It was shorter than the French version but was later expanded. Between 1917 & 1944 this version was adopted as the international anthem of the Soviet Union. At his funeral Lenin’s body was wrapped in the remains of a red flag preserved from the Commune.

The traditional British version is usually sung in just 3 verses, while the American version is sung in two. All the English language versions (and there are several) are notoriously difficult to sing, as the lyrics are, to say the least, a bit obscure and archaic.

The song also unfortunately became associated with the repression of Stalinism (though it was he who had it replaced as the Soviet anthem as it was not nationalistic enough) and in George Orwell’s book “Animal Farm” the Internationale was parodied by the song “Beasts of England”. Nevertheless the song still has the power to inspire. Despite the association with Stalin, and his ideological successors, Chinese students sang it in defiance, in 1989, as the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square. Strangely the western press never reported this.

Of course the need to unite the human race is even greater today than it was at the time the song was written. We face environmental catastrophe, the powerful forces of the state, rampant imperialism and a neo-liberal economic agenda. Now more than ever we need to stand together in unity and draw on the inspiration and experience of the Commune – democratic workers control, the worker’s wage for our representatives, women’s equality and free education. What better to signify our unity than this song of defiance and solidarity - there’s no other way to sing it than to belt it out!

A modern Internationale?

The Internationale (revised modern version) Words: Billy Bragg Music: Degeyter

Stand up, all victims of oppression,
For the tyrants fear your might!
Don’t cling so hard to your possessions,
For you have nothing if you have no rights!
Let racist ignorance be ended,
For respect makes the empires fall!
Freedom is merely privilege extended,
Unless enjoyed by one and all.

Chorus: So come brothers and sisters,
For the struggle carries on.
The Internationale,
Unites the world in song.
So comrades, come rally,
For this is the time and place!
The international ideal,
Unites the human race.

Let no one build walls to divide us,
Walls of hatred nor walls of stone.
Come greet the dawn and stand beside us,
We’ll live together or we’ll die alone.
In our world poisoned by exploitation,
Those who have taken, now they must give!
And end the vanity of nations,
We’ve but one Earth on which to live.

And so begins the final drama,
In the streets and in the fields.
We stand unbowed before their armour,
We defy their guns and shields!
When we fight, provoked by their aggression,
Let us be inspired by life and love.
For though they offer us concessions,
Change will not come from above!

Billy Bragg found the British lyrics “archaic and unsingable” and after talking to Pete Seeger decided to write a revised version of the song . I like Bragg’s respectful and stirring update but personally would still find the older “unsingable” version easier to perform (as I guess would anyone who’s been active for a few years). Billy Bragg’s lyrics are certainly more understandable than the old ones - making the song more accessible to a new generation. But if adopted by some but not all activists we’ll probably find it even harder to sing in unity than we did before. By abandoning Pottier’s lyrics we would also lose their direct connection with the Commune and its inspirational story.

Surely there’s a place for both modern and traditional versions and armed with the song’s history I believe we can make the archaic lyrics intelligible and relevant. After all Shakepeare isn’t that easy to grasp at first but there is real beauty in the imagery once you master the language. The same holds true for Pottier’s lyrics inspired as they were by direct experience

If you want to find out even more about how both versions of the song came to be written then see the brilliant documentary “The Internationale” (what else!) The film includes performances and interviews with activists from around the world, including Billy Bragg and Pete Seeger, and people from the U.S., Philippines, China, and the old Soviet Union. See it if you want to know how a song can inspire people to change the world.