Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 29, 2006

The Internationale

Filed under: Film,socialism — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

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 with interviews of 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 Healey, who died recently. Healey, 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 Healey 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.

Video of Nepalese Communists singing (shown in photo above)

Film Website

Film trailer on Youtube


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