‘Imagine’ – Sugar-coated anti-capitalism?

John Lennon’s 1971 song Imagine is often hailed as the encapsulation of a true socialist society. It depicts unswervingly and melodically a world where the resources of the earth are shared between its populace with everyone having enough to eat, living cooperative lives and no longer being plagued by war, religion or national divisions. Yet there’s no shortage of criticism of it from those who have a different view of the best way for humans to live or from those who just don’t like John Lennon.

A recent example of this is in an article – ’10 revered classic rock songs that are actually awful’ – which recently appeared in Far Out Magazine. It places ‘Imagine’ among those ‘actually awful’ songs (tinyurl.com/4wpuam45). It describes its words as ‘cliched’ and says that Lennon ‘treated the populace as idiots’. The article then goes on to describe the song as ‘so insipidly idealist that even school kids can see through the lack of sincerity and humanised realism’. It also alludes to Lennon’s well-known ‘sugar-coated’ comment, that is to his having himself said of the song: ‘Anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic, but because it is sugar-coated it is accepted. Now I understand what you have to do. Put your political message across with a little honey’ (quoted in Geoffrey Giuliani’s 2000 biography Lennon in America).

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky

Imagine all the people
Living for today

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too

Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man

Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one

It’s easy to see why someone might see the words of Lennon’s song as ‘idealistic’. After all, the future world he describes and advocates is, in just about all its features, the direct opposite of what exists today. ‘No countries to live or die for’, ‘no religion’ (‘above us only sky’), ‘no need for greed or hunger’, ‘all the people sharing all the world’. How far away can you get from the nationalistic, religion-besmirched world that is modern capitalism, a system in which greed is lauded and personal wealth is looked up to while around 286 million people wake up every day not knowing where their next meal will come from? But is Lennon’s ‘idealistic’ vision here something to be scorned as lacking ‘realism’ simply because it yearns for something different and better?

As for the idea that it is something that school kids will ‘see through’, will they in fact not be more likely to see the sense in it? After all school kids have spent less time than others living in the system that dominates and enslaves the world and so may be less conditioned by its rules and norms, and therefore more able to imagine a world organised differently. Conversely, for adults, having been subjected to the conditioning process for longer, a greater effort of the imagination may be necessary for them to contemplate a world with ‘no heaven’ and ‘no hell’, where people are ‘living life in peace’ and where there are ’no possessions’ (ie, surely artistic shorthand for no monopoly of wealth). But imagination is what socialists have always insisted is needed by those who own nothing but their ability to work and need to sell their energies to survive (ie, the vast majority).

Meanwhile those who have difficulty in exercising their imagination will always tend to say of the existing social order that ‘there is no alternative’. And this, contrary to what Lennon’s critic says about ‘Imagine’ being clichéd, is the real cliché and summed up so well by the science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin who wrote: ‘We live in capitalism – its power seems inescapable. But so did the divine right of kings.’ As history has shown, change does come, and, if that change means looking to a radically different way of living, perhaps we should say with Lennon ‘it’s easy if you try’.

Finally, another part of the criticism seems to be that Lennon doesn’t attempt to give any prescription as to how his imagined world is to be brought about. But how could he in three minutes or so? The fact is that he has outlined some of the key features of a socialist world, one without buying and selling, without markets, without rich and poor, without leaders and led, without wars or religion. And, as pop song popularity polls have constantly shown, he has done it in a way that people find appealing and listenable to. And if that’s what ‘sugar-coated’ means, then so be it. Of course, Lennon’s Imagine doesn’t seem to have made a large impact in shifting people towards socialist ideas, but it’s not hard to imagine that, as socialist ideas spread, it will be an anthem that people identify with as they take action to plan and bring into being the system of society it depicts.


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