1920s >> 1927 >> no-277-september-1927

Songs and Revolution

In the course of our work as Socialist propagandists we frequently come in contact with people who appear to imagine that the bulwarks of capitalism will collapse as the result of much lusty singing of the “Red Flag.” No “Labour” meeting is considered a success unless this or some similar ditty is borne upon the night air, with or without orchestral accompaniment. What the arguments presented at such gathering’s lack in logic is amply made up for by vociferation. This attitude of mind recalls the legend of the Walls of Jericho falling before the blasts ol the trumpets of the Children of Israel. In fact, idealism generally has its roots far back in the magic past, although it serves a very useful purpose to the capitalist class of the present day, as we shall endeavour to show.

The following is an extract from an article in the “Daily Chronicle” of July 20th entitled, “Music; the Life Force,” by Dr. Leigh Henry :

“The French Revolution was the outcome of a reaction in music.
When Rouget de Lisle wrote “La Marseillaise” he roused the people to such an inflammatory pitch that they rose in arms and overthrew their tyrants, only to create a greater and more powerful one; but it was a German, Theodore Korner, who brought about the downfall of Napoleon by going among his countrymen and singing to them old folk songs and poems of revolt which past generations had handed down.”

Dr. Leigh Henry may be an authority on musical forms, but his notions of history are laughable. He might as well ask us to believe that the War and the Allied victory in 1918 were due to the influence of “Mademoiselle from Armentiers,” or “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” ; but let us examine his illustration a little more closely.

The French Revolution resulted in the triumph of the Third Estate (or middle class) over the feudal nobility, with the monarch at their head. The convocation of the National Assembly, the imprisonment and eventual execution of the Royal Family, the war with Austria, and Europe generally, were simply events in the struggle for supremacy of the bankers, merchants, shopkeepers and manufacturers in the towns, assisted by the lawyers and by the peasantry in the country at large. As this, that, or the other section of the insurgent mass asserted itself, so group after group of leaders were pushed forward or thrust aside.

All the so-called great men of the epoch from Mirabeau to Napoleon were simply the tools, conscious or otherwise, of the rising class.

At this period, owing to the undeveloped state of French industry, the number of wage-workers in the country was comparatively small, and their political influence, such as it was, fell into the scale on the side of the capitalist revolutionaries. The peasants hankered after the land, and did in fact secure a greater degree of control than they had till then possessed; but the richest estates, including those of the clergy, were seized by the Government and auctioned off to the highest bidders. Thus the poor remained poor. Instead, however, of performing forced labour for the aristocrats, they commenced to slave to fill the pockets of the tax-gatherer and the usurers.

On this basis was erected the First Empire, and the problem of a bankrupt national exchequer was solved. No sooner had they dealt with their feudal enemies at home than the French capitalist class found themselves set upon by the remaining feudal monarchies of Middle and Eastern Europe and the capitalist government of Britain; the former feared the spread of the Revolution, the latter could hardly favour the rise of a new commercial competitor.

Conscription filled the armies of Napoleon as taxation filled his purse. Nevertheless he was idolised by the very peasantry who bled for his glory, both financially and physically.

The “Marseillaise,” which inflamed the imagination of the insurgent capitalists, became the National Anthem in the hour of their triumph, and in spite of temporary eclipses, still holds that place of “honour.”

That the German folk-songs assisted in stimulating the more simple-minded of the German peasants to enable their overlords to regain their lands and power from the hated upstart, Napoleon, may be granted; but the actual force which mobilised the German armies was the same pressure which every ruling class is in a position to bring to bear upon its slaves. In other words, the musical accompaniment of historical events plays a secondary part in determining their character.

The primary factor is the economic development of the society concerned.

The “Marseillaise” or “God save the King” would be quite unintelligible to the inhabitants of Central Africa or the South Sea Islands, owing to their totally different stage of development and mode of life, giving rise to different groups of ideas, including notions of musical taste and methods of expressing emotion.

Similarly, the barbarians celebrate birth, initiation, marriage, war, and death with rhythmic monotones which appear positively weird to the European. They may haunt him, but he would hardly describe them as melodious. The nearest approach to their effect is that of the Church chants, which are little more than modified survivals of the dirges droned out by the slaves in the catacombs of Rome. In the ancient and medieval worlds, music was practically inseparable from religion, first of the pagan, later of the Christian variety.

Even the lays of the troubadours combined profanity with mysticism; as the bloody sagas of the Norsemen would be incomplete without reference to the gods of Valhalla.

With the grand operatic masters of the 18th and 19th centuries a change is evident. From Mozart to Wagner they all exhibit the influence of the economic and political upheaval which characterised their age.

The rise of the capitalist class was reflected in the musical world by the triumph of the secular principle. The church choir gave way to the stage chorus, which provided an enhancing background for the efforts of individual vocalists.

The destruction of the old village life by modern industry spelt the death knell of the ballad and the folk-song. These mediaeval modes of expression have been supplanted by the music-hall ditty, while the negroes of America have avenged their enslaved ancestors by infecting their 100 per cent. American masters with jazz tunes and “spirituals.”

This interesting resurrection of the primitive seems to indicate that capitalism has reached the limits of originality in art, just as, on the economic plane, it condemns the masses to an ever-worsening standard of living. To avoid misunderstanding, the writer would add that, while jazz has much that can be said in its favour when compared with the stilted products of the Victorian epoch, it nevertheless represents a reaction rather than an advance. It is a symptom of the decay and break-up of the classical musical tradition, but it gives little indication of what will take its place.

The struggle of the working class for emancipation has yet to make its mark, but when it does it can hardly leave the dance-hall and the theatre as it finds them. As the workers acquire leisure, they will develop their critical faculties in other directions besides that of economics. When they enter freely into possession of the fruits of their labour, they will have something. To make a song about. Till then, perhaps, we shall have to put up with the “International” and the “Red Flag.”


(Socialist Standard, June 1927)

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