[Marxism] The Internationale

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Nov 29 12:51:08 MST 2006


On November 18th I attended a memorial meeting for Caroline Lund, a 
socialist activist who I knew from the Socialist Workers Party in the 1960s 
and 70s. She had died a few weeks earlier of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) at 
the age of 62 and the speakers and audience were honoring her accomplishments.

In keeping with the traditions of our movement, the meeting concluded with 
a singing of the Internationale. It was the first time I had sung it in 
public since the last SWP convention I had attended in the 1970s. For 
people like us, this was like a national anthem but even more central to 
our being. It always made my hair stand on end like a great operatic aria. 
No matter how amateurish the singers, they always sounded stirring.

For anybody who has ever sung this song or who still has hopes that, as the 
lyrics say, “The earth shall rise on new foundations” will want to see 
Peter Miller’s 60 minute documentary “The Internationale”, now available in 
DVD/video. Miller also directed the definitive documentary on the Sacco and 
Vanzetti case and is one of our finest radical film-makers.

Miller blends together archival footage of people singing the 
Internationale from all around the world and interviews with various 
well-known socialists–and some not so well-known–about what the song means 
to them. We hear from Pete Seeger and from Dorothy Healy, who died 
recently. Healy, who is worth the price of admission just for her own 
fantastic insights, talks about being jailed during a farm workers 
organizing drive in the early 1930s. In jail, she sang the Internationale 
with the workers, who were mostly Mexican and who had vivid memories of the 
revolution led by Zapata and Pancho Villa.

Seeger and Healy get to the heart of a contradiction that is contained in 
the song’s lyric: “No more shall tradition’s chains bind us
” Since the 
song is the quintessential expression of iconoclasm, it becomes turned 
against this very goal when it is adopted as the national anthem of the 
USSR. Seeger says that performances in the USSR, especially at military 
parades, etc., slow down and become ponderous. The song was now meant to 
convey an awesome state power and Stalin’s authority. He illustrates this 
by singing a few bars in his altogether unique style.

Miller’s documentary is also filled with fascinating historical detail, 
especially the circumstances of its origin. Although I consider myself 
fairly knowledgeable about socialist history, I had no idea that the song 
was composed by Eugène Pottier, a partisan of the Paris Commune who was 
fleeing repression. Later on, it was set to music by Pierre Degeyter, a 
Belgian worker.

Although the song might be regarded in some circles as kitschy, it will 
certainly continue to be embraced by anybody fighting to change the world. 
One of the more striking examples, which can be found on the MRZine 
website, is a video of militants of the Nepalese Communist Party singing 
the song accompanied by indigenous instruments. It, like Miller’s film, is 
truly inspiring.



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