From the September 2006 issue of the Industrial Worker, paper of the Industrial Workers of the World. The author of the piece, Len Wallace, is a IWW member and well known radical musician, as well as a long standing member of the Socialist Party of Canada, who became a supporter of the now defunct World in Common group.
The International (originally L’Internationale) is perhaps the most dangerous song in the world and just may be the most well known. Whistle or hum the tune in any country around the globe and eventually someone will recognize it.
It has become the anthem of all those seeking a fundamental change in society. Many have been jailed, even executed, for the mere singing of it. During the filming of ‘Dr. Zhivago,’ cast members sang it on the movie site in Spain. The song had been banned by the fascist Franco regime. When the police heard the song in the distance they thought a rebellion was at hand, thinking it signalled the death of the fascist Generalissimo.
Debout! les damnes de la terre! Debout! les forcat de la faim!
With those forceful first words, Eugene Pottier, an elected member of the Paris Commune of 1870-71, member of the Federation of Artists and of the International Workingmen’s Association wrote the poem that would soon become the international battle cry of the world’s working class. They are words of condemnation against every injustice and the exploitation of capitalism.
The literal translation of those first two lines: Arise, you condemned of the earth! Arise, you imprisoned in hunger!
England’s socialists translated these words as: Arise! ye starvelings from your slumbers; Arise! ye criminals of want.
In the United States the radical publishing company Charles Kerr Publishers gave us the following translation: Arise, ye prisoners of starvation! Arise, ye wretched of the earth!
For over one hundred years The International has been our song of continuing struggle, the call to the final battle, of radically remaking the world, and a song of hope. Workers have sung it at rallies, on picket lines, on the streets and barricades in times of revolution.
Interestingly, various competing factions of those considered “the Left” (anarchists, IWWs, Trotskyists, social democrats, Leninists) have endorsed their own versions, made known in the chorus.
The Charles Kerr version of the chorus read: ‘Tis the final conflict; Let each stand in his place. The International Shall be the human race.
Note that at the time of the translation in the late 19th century, it calls for each to stand in “his” place, denoting the worker as male.
The “International” in the original song refers to the International Workingmen’s Association (the so-called First International), which ended in bitter internal disputes. The Second International, dominated by the orthodox Marxism of the German Social Democratic Party was fractured by the First World War and disputed positions toward the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The Third International was dominated by the official Leninism of the USSR until it was officially dissolved. A Fourth International was proclaimed by the competing adherents of the Trotskyist movement and a current Socialist International exists as successor to the Second representing social democratic parties.
You can sometimes identify the various movements and factions competing for the allegiance of the working class by the words they sing to the last two lines of the chorus.
The Industrial Workers of the World handed down two versions. In the 1923 edition of its Little Red Songbook, “Songs of the workers to fan the flames of discontent,” the last lines read: “The International Union Shall be the human race”.
Later editions of the songbook noted a clearer reference to the concept of organising all workers in one monumental industrial union for industrial democracy: “The Industrial Union Shall be the human race.”
I came across an old version sung by workers influenced by the Communist Party of Canada circa 1934: “The International soviets Shall be the human race.”
Trotskyists often sang the following words, denoting their acceptance of the supposedly vanguard role of a Leninist political party: “The International Party Shall be the human race.”
In a version learned from the former Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (now Democratic Socialists of America), I was given this version: “The international working class Shall free the human race.”
It’s a rather good version, at least noting that a true International organization does not exist with the astute recognition that only the actions of the world’s working class can indeed free the human race.
But even here there are slight differences. Some would sing, “The international working class shall free the human race” while others sang “The international working class shall be the human race.” By merely changing “be” to “free” the entire meaning of the chorus is changed. It is one thing that workers worldwide fight for human emancipation, it is another thing to say that the working class will become the people. The latter denotes that everyone will, after the revolution, become working class – anathema to those who wish to abolish the working class and all classes.
Yet The International has remained apart of the history of the world’s working class for over 130 years. Millions of workers have rallied to it and its singing has given them courage and hope. Ruling powers fear it, prohibit it and discourage it.
Sadly, just as those who consider themselves part of anti-capitalist Left have eschewed any notion of fundamentally breaking with capitalism through the “abolition of wage labour,” they have forgotten the words to this song. Occasionally it is sung at May Day rallies (hummed by those who do not know its words, tangentially knowing that the song is somehow “revolutionary” and “important”).
Many have criticised the lyrics of the song as outdated and stilted, reflecting a language of a past century. England’s Billy Bragg rewrote a new version for that very reason. His chorus reads:
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.
For many years I remained faithful to the original (with small changes) simply because it is a part of working-class fighting history. And I say shame to those who consider themselves revolutionaries who do not know the words. Songs and poetry are action. You cannot change the world if you are afraid to sing.
So, to this end, I offer a new version of the first verse that hopefully remains faithful to the message of Pottier’s original (utilising in part the work of others). It is not there to replace the original, but to make all consider what we are fighting for:
“Arise you workers from all nations,
For history has but one demand,
The world you have built by your own labour,
Can be yours at your command.
The old ways now must be abandoned,
So let us rise to Freedom’s call,
To raise this earth on new foundations,
And fight to build a world for all.
“It’s the final battle,
Let each stand in place.
The international working class,
Shall free the human race.”