Billy Bragg’s Internationale

Like "Solidarity Forever," that fiery anthem of industrial warfare that today's trade unions have betrayed but won't give up (and which has been co-opted by bourgeois political parties looking to embellish their credentials), the revolutionary message of "the Internationale" was separated by a huge chasm from the practice and ideology of most of those who laid claim to it. That is, until Billy Bragg transformed it into a song that Social Democrats and reformed Stalinists could finally really relate to.

A comparison of Billy Bragg's 1990 version with a 1910 English translation of a German version:

Billy Brag's 1990 version of the Internationale

Stand up, all victims of oppression
For the tyrants fear your might
Don't cling so hard to your possessions
For you have nothing, if you have no rights
Let racist ignorance be ended
For respect makes the empires fall
Freedom is merely privilege extended
Unless enjoyed by one and all

Chorus:
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

Let no one build walls to divide us
Walls of hatred nor walls of stone
Come greet the dawn and stand beside us
We'll live together or we'll die alone
In our world poisoned by exploitation
Those who have taken, now they must give
And end the vanity of nations
We've but one Earth on which to live

And so begins the final drama
In the streets and in the fields
We stand unbowed before their armour
We defy their guns and shields
When we fight, provoked by their aggression
Let us be inspired by like and love
For though they offer us concessions
Change will not come from above

Emil Luckhardt's 1910 German Version, translated into English

Arise you damned of the earth,
you prisoners of starvation!
the right like a volcanic glow
is about to erupt with force.
Clean out the oppressor!
Arise, you army of slaves!
Bear your nullity no longer
Become everything--unite!

Chorus:
Peoples, hear the signal!
Arise, for the last battle
The International
Fights for the Rights of Man!

No higher being can save us,
No God, no Kaiser, nor tribune
Saving us from misery
we ourselves alone must do!
Empty phrase: "Rights of the poor!"
Empty phrase: "noblesse oblige!"
Dependent, servile they call us,
Bear that shame no longer now!

Chorus

In town and country, you workers,
We are the strongest of parties.
Push the loafers aside!

This world must be ours;
Our blood shall no more feed
the crows and mighty vultures!
Only when we've driven them out
will the sun forever shine!

Comparison

Most of you will immediately recognize just how much of the original spirit of the song Bragg discarded in inventing his new version: all of it. For those of you who don't understand that, here's some comparisons.

First verse

By the end of the first verse, it's already clear that Bragg's version is more indebted to the ideology of Amnesty International and the likes of Naomi Klein than it is to the struggle of the working class. Thus, for Bragg it's the "oppressed" who rise up rather than Luckhardt's "army of slaves." This difference might seem insignificant, but it's essential to understanding Bragg's version. Fundamentally, he's not talking about a revolution that would overturn the real foundation of oppression -- the relation of labor to capital -- but rather some kind of sing-along that leads to a greater appreciation of "freedom" in the abstract. This "respect" and "freedom enjoyed by one and all" somehow "makes the empires fall." In reality, of course, it doesn't. And in reality, freedom is just the ideological cloak of bourgeois exploitation, the ideological underpinning of bourgeois society. Freedom in this sense is the freedom of atomized citizens to exploit and be exploited as they please. It is, in Lenin's phrase, "freedom for the slave owners."

In contrast, Luckhardt's first verse doesn't flow quite as nicely, but it's infinitely clearer. He rightly identifies the seizure of power as the way forward for the proletariat. The damned of the earth, the "prisoners of starvation," are called upon to "arise." The proletariat is identified not only as an exploited class, but a class that must and will fight against exploitation. Bragg, by contrast, echoes the Maoist slander that the Western proletariat has been "bought off" -- and in fact no longer exists as a class -- by asking all of us, collectively, not to "cling so hard to your possessions." Luckhardt calls for the workers to "clean out the oppressors" -- Bragg calls for his middle-class audience to demand rights and respect, not for themselves, but presumably for their maids and the like.

Chorus

Luckhardt's chorus invokes the imagery of an epoch-making showdown between the proletariat, united in The International, and the bourgeoisie. Bragg's? Well, there's some cozy language about brothers and sisters struggling (why bother with that "last battle" when you can have the activists' joy of a life spent lashing out against chimeras?), singing, and the human race being united by a fuzzy kind of idealistic internationalism. Class distinctions are lost in Bragg -- we're left with "the human race" while in Luckhardt it's clearly the working class that's envisioned drawing together for its final, glorious assault on the citadels of capital.

Second verse

Luckhardt's first lines in the second verse brilliantly recapitulates one of the central ideas of the working class, which led to the formation of the First International and guided its activities: the idea that, in Marx's words, the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself. This verse throws back in the face of reformism the "empty phrases" by which reformism attempts to pacify and derail the working class.

Bragg, unsurprisingly, latches on to just such empty phrases. "Let no one build walls to divide us" -- after all, we have to be united in song. The rest of Bragg's second verse is full of pablum about togetherness and unity -- but it's never clear to what end.

Final verses

Luckhardt concludes by painting the picture of the working class, united internationally, "pushing the loafers aside," taking control of the world, and once and forever putting and end to capitalist war and exploitation. The sun shines forevermore.

Bragg, on the other hand, as a middle class activist, can't imagine anything more hallowed than playing the hero, perpetually reenacting the feat of the Tiananmen man -- "we stand unbowed before their armour." There's a fight -- for what, we know not -- but it's only "provoked by their oppression." This is a far cry from the embrace by Luckhardt, and the proletarian movement as a whole, of bold, strong action against the oppressors.