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The Internationale

Director: Peter Miller
Cast: Peter Seeger, Billy Bragg

(US DVD: 21 Nov 2006)

‘Tis the final conflict,
Let each stand in his place.
The international working class
Shall be the human race
  —“The Internationale”


In a perfect world,
we’d all sing in tune.
But this is reality,
so give me some room
  — “The Great Leap Forward”, Billy Bragg


A former college classmate of mine once remarked that although he considered himself a leftist, he didn’t really know what the “the Left” (in air quotes) was. And that, while he once spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a “left-identified individual”, he had forgotten all about that particular project until he had recently found himself struggling to articulate his politics.


My classmate’s confession has stuck with me, not only because I thought it a somewhat strange thing to say but also, significantly, very understandable. This documentary, in recounting the 140-year-old story of a leftist anthem also goes a long way towards explaining how a contemporary “left-identified individual” could have trouble explaining exactly what that meant. 


Defining the Left was less of a problem in May of 1871, when the French army was picking off the last defenders of the revolutionary Paris Commune. That month, a laborer and communard named Eugène Pottier furiously scribbled a six-stanza poem while fleeing for his life.  Beginning with the famous line, “Debout, les damnés de la terre (Arise, wretched of the earth)”, Pottier’s defiant, angry lyrics predicted the destruction of the old world and the birth of a new one.


Seventeen years later, a Belgian-born textile worker, Pierre De Geyter, sat down at his harmonium and put Pottier’s words to music. The result was “L’Internationale”, sung by anarchists, socialists, trade unionists, and communists and now translated into nearly every spoken language. 


This history is related by the folk singer Peter Seeger, who serves as a kind of balladeer-storyteller within the documentary. Sitting in front of his beautiful stone house in the Hudson Valley, Seeger recounts important dates in the song’s development, opines, and tells historical anecdotes all while playing a jaunty version of its melody on his acoustic guitar.


One of the stories Seeger tells is of the song’s role in the 1912 Lawrence, Massachusetts textile strike. The IWW-led action was expected to fail because, it was thought, the different languages and national and ethnic origins of the strikers (such as German, Italian, and Polish) would make true worker solidarity impossible. Instead, they banded together and held out for ten weeks, gaining significant concessions despite brutal repression. The workers’ cross-ethnic and inter-national solidarity was reaffirmed by singing “The Internationale” together—a choir singing one melody in many languages.


Many participants in this documentary, which combines interviews with archival footage and exhaustive musicological research, have their own personal versions of the one-melody-many-languages story. A US veteran of the Spanish Civil War tells how one night in an army hospital all the patients decided to entertain themselves by signing “The Internationale”. Each would sing a few lines in their native tongue—Japanese, French, Tamil, Spanish, Hindi, Russian, English, German, and Yiddish, amongst others—before singing the chorus all together. Another US activist remembers how, when she was working to organize the canneries of Monteray and the lettuce fields of the Imperial Valley, “The Internationale” was a way to connect with the Mexican migrant workers she shared jail cells with.


After watching The Internationale, you come to appreciate how a patchwork rendition of the song can sound better, and better reflect the spirit of Pottier’s lyrics, than a version sung “straight” by one person or by a homogenous choir. The documentary opens with a striking montage of peasant marches, May Day rallies, factory workers, and Spanish Civil War battalions—images that serve as a sort of background to an even more striking audio montage of “The Internationale”, stitched together line-by-line from versions sung in different decades, different languages, different tempos, different musical styles, different places. You feel the resonance of the song and its message. The patchwork becomes much more powerful than its parts; multiplying, swelling, expanding more and more until it seems to encompass all of the world and all of history.

This uniting of diverse voices in the service of a common cause is echoed in the song’s initial appeal across the leftist spectrum—from social democrats to anarchists to communists. This broad appeal was narrowed as the song became more associated with the USSR, which adopted “The Internationale” as its national anthem in 1927 (Stalin later scraped it in favor of a more patriotic anthem). Nearly every participant in the documentary expresses regret at how the song’s reputation was trampled by Stalin’s military parades.


Pete Segger laments that the Soviet marching bands slowed down the song and made it dirge-like; an elderly kibbutznik observes, his voice profoundly melancholy, that the Soviet state was not worthy of the cause for which so many had given their lives; and a Russian musicologist talks about how, for him, “The Internationale” has come to represent the disillusionment of his father, a communist. “The Internationale”, as one interviewee points out, lost its status as a song of the Left, and became simply “a Soviet song”.


Here, Miller may slip a little too easily into a narrative of “‘The Internationale’ betrayed”—the idea that the blame for the falling-from-favor of “The Internationale”, the once idealistic and starry-eyed hymn of the underdog and oppressed, can easily be laid at Stalin’s jackboots. In fact, much of the power of the song comes not just from its cosmopolitan call for international working-class solidarity, but also from a spirit of violent millennialism and a neat, nearly biological, view of class antagonism—elements that would unsettle many contemporary progressives. The song’s chorus climaxes with the line, “The international working class (alternately sung as “The Internationale” or “the international soviet”) will be the human race.” You get the feeling that Pottier wouldn’t be satisfied with a living wage and universal health care.


The idea of the working class’ oppressors disappearing from a reborn world are spelled out in particularly vivid language in the original French lyrics, as well as in the Russian and Chinese translations. Pottier’s poem contains these lines: “The earth belongs only to humans/ The idle are going to live elsewhere/ How much they feast on our flesh/ But if the ravens and vultures/ Disappear one of these days/ The sun will shine forever.” (The Russians substitute “pack of dogs and executioners” for “ravens and vultures”; the Chinese, “poisonous snakes and savage beasts.”)


Michel Foucault, the influential 20th century philosopher, terms this emphasis on conflict and the physical elimination of enemies—as opposed to a simple call for the transformation of economic conditions—“social racism.” Foucault considers this “racism” endemic to Soviet style state-communism and much of 19th century socialist and anarchist thought. 


What may be problematic to Foucault and to many others today was in fact the main source of the song’s popularity. It’s probably the same attraction to millennialism and clearly drawn lines of conflict that inspires its infrequent contemporary performances (besides those performances driven by nostalgia, of course). For instance, much is made of “The Internationale” being sung by the students and workers protesting in Tiananmen Square. However, as one of the protest leaders says in the documentary, nobody was thinking about socialism or communism when they were singing. Instead, they were motivated by the song’s message that their protest was one tiny part of an unstoppable, universal movement towards human perfection—an idea that this interviewee ascribes to Confucianism rather than Marxism.


Enter popular folk singer Billy Bragg, who decided, with encouragement from Pete Seeger, to write an updated version of “The Internationale” after it was sung in Tiananmen Square. Besides creating lyrics that were more aurally pleasing and singable, Bragg also decided that the content needed updating. The song, Bragg says in the documentary, had become weighed down “with the baggage of state communism.” It was this baggage, and not the spirit of song itself, that needed to be gotten rid off. Bragg says that, with the failure of the Soviet Union, “it’s time for this generation to redefine what socialism and communism means, in a post-Marxist sense—I think it’s important to reevaluate the old culture [of the Left]”.


Bragg’s revised lyrics drop any mention of class conflict and, instead, condemn all forms of oppression and exploitation, mentioning racism and environmental degradation in particular. These alterations reflect a shift in Bragg’s own concerns over the past few decades. His albums from the 1980s are full of passionate songs illustrating the struggles of working-class Britons from the Diggers to the anti-Thatcherite coal miners. More recent albums tend towards pleas for social tolerance, especially towards England’s immigrant communities.


The challenges Bragg faced in brining his new lyrical concern with pluralism and diversity to the anthem of the would-be proletarian dictatorship are typified in the change made to the song’s climactic line. Instead of the original, “the international working class/ Will be the human race”, Bragg ambiguously sings, “The international ideal/ Unites the human race.” Which raises the question: what ideal?


It’s the same question that my former classmate was confronted with as he struggled to define what it meant to be a “left-identified individual”. Because there is no ready-made answer to this question in Bragg’s Internationale, his retention of elements of the original’s millennialism and calls-to-battle sound awkward and unconvincing: “When we fight, provoked by their aggression/ Let us be inspired by life and love.” It’s not clear who this “we” is or who “we’d” be fighting.


In shearing away the original’s rhetoric of millennial class war without replacing it with a new driver, Bragg’s revised “Internationale” works better as a critique of the original than as an attempt to make it relevant today. In this way, Bragg’s revision also functions as an auto-critique that extends to the question of my classmate’s confused political identity. Whether scared away from socialism (a term originally encompassing everything from anarchism to euro-style social democracy) because of the shadow of the Gulag or because they associate it with “economic determinism” or a tendency towards “meta-narratives”, many of today’s left-identified individuals share much more with the tradition of non-programmatic liberalism than with the messy history of the Left. Yet many of those same individuals seem to feel an irresistible pull towards identifying with the Left, as if the barricades of the Paris Commune were more rightly their political birthing grounds than the Enlightenment’s salons.


So where does that leave us, the left-identified individuals? Are we doomed to have many languages but never again a melody to share? This well-crafted and stimulating documentary doesn’t really offer an answer. But it does give a sense that there are a lot of people anxious to find that melody. And, while encouraging us on that search, it also offers some important lessons on the dangers of hitting sour notes. 


The Internationale, running 30 minutes, is surprisingly short for the breadth and detail in which it covers its subject. However, the DVD is rounded out by a number of special features. One of those is an interesting WWII-era TV performance of an all-allies version of Toscanini’s “Hymn of the Nations”, updated to include the Star Spangled Banner and “The Internationale” (“The Internationale” was promptly cut from the film and only restored in the 1980s). There is also a well-crafted and informative text essay, “A Brief History of the ‘The Internationale’” and a presentation of the song lyrics in a number of different languages.

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A sing-along version of Billy Bragg's version of The Internationale
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