Song and struggle: “The Internationale”

This is the first installment of what is intended to be a series on the rich left-wing musical tradition. Besides conveying the spirit of generations past in their struggles against capital, the songs hopefully also retain aesthetic value. YouTube links are given at the end of the article so the reader can appreciate them as they were meant to be – with the ears.

There’s no other place to start in a left-wing culture-music series than The Internationale. It is the original left-wing anthem, honored by socialists, anarchists, and especially communists. There are versions of the song in hundreds of languages and music styles.

Russia’s socialist leader Lenin wrote in 1913: “In whatever country a class-conscious worker finds himself, wherever fate may cast him, however much he may feel himself a stranger, without language, without friends, far from his native country – he can find himself comrades and friends by the familiar refrain of the Internationale.”

One author pondered: “Those who sing it need know nothing about it, and be familiar with only the first verse and the chorus, yet feel a strong sense of international unity. Why has it proved both so durable and inspirational?”

The words were written in 1871 by the Frenchman Eugène Pottier. The year is no accident – only months before, the workers of Paris had taken power and formed the Paris commune. For a few months the working people of Paris had developed an egalitarian economic and political system, before they were brutally put down by the army, in collusion with the foreign powers with which France had been at war. It was the world’s first experience with working class power, and it proved the naysayers wrong – workers’ power and socialism were not utopian fantasy; such a society could exist.

Out of the commune came Eugène Pottier, a working person with a reputation as a poet who had risen to a few minor leadership positions. He escaped the bloody retribution but was forced into hiding. On the run and in fear for his life, he penned L’Internationale. This is what gives the song its force – it represents the real experience of working people in struggle.

Over a decade later, in 1888, a French socialist named Pierre Degeyter ground out a melody for the popular poem. These are the chords now associated with the song.

After Russia’s 1917 October revolution, the Russian version of L’Internationale became the de facto anthem of the USSR. In 1944 it was replaced by the Hymn of the Soviet Union.


Debout, les damnés de la terre / Arise, damned of the earth
Debout, les forçats de la faim / Arise, prisoners of hunger
La raison tonne en son cratère, / Reason thunders in its volcano
C’est l’éruption de la fin / This is the eruption of the end
Du passé faisons table rase, / Lets make a clean slate of the past
Foule esclave, debout, debout, / Enslaved masses, arise, arise
Le monde va changer de base / The world is is going to change its foundation
Nous ne sommes rien, soyons tout / We are nothing, we will be all

C’est la lutte finale / This is the final struggle
Groupons-nous, et demain, / Group together, and tomorrow
L’Internationale, / The Internationale
Sera le genre humain. / Will be the human race

Il n’est pas de sauveurs suprêmes, / There are no supreme saviors
Ni Dieu, ni César, ni tribun, / Neither God, nor Caesar, nor tribune
Producteurs sauvons-nous nous-mêmes / Producers, let us save ourselves
Décrétons le salut commun / Decree the common salvation
Pour que le voleur rende gorge, / So that the thief expires
Pour tirer l’esprit du cachot, / To free the spirit from its cell
Soufflons nous-mêmes notre forge, / Let us fan the forge ourselves
Battons le fer tant qu’il est chaud / Strike while the iron’s hot


L’État comprime et la loi triche, / The State oppresses and the law cheats
L’impôt saigne le malheureux; / Tax bleeds the unfortunate
Nul devoir ne s’impose au riche, / No duty is imposed on the rich
Le droit du pauvre est un mot creux. / The right of the poor is an empty phrase
C’est assez languir en tutelle, / Enough languishing in custody
L’égalité veut d’autres lois: / Equality wants other laws
«Pas de droits sans devoirs, dit-elle, / No rights without duties she says
Égaux, pas de devoirs sans droits!» / Equally, no duties without rights


Hideux dans leur apothéose, / Hideous in their apotheosis
Les rois de la mine et du rail, / The kings of the mine and the rail
Ont-ils jamais fait autre chose, / Have they ever done anything
Que dévaliser le travail? / Than steal work?
Dans les coffres-forts de la bande, / Inside the strong-boxes of the gangs
Ce qu’il a créé s’est fondu. / What work has created is melted
En décrétant qu’on le lui rende, / By ordering that they give it back
Le peuple ne veut que son dû. / The people only want their due


Les Rois nous saoulaient de fumées, / The kings made us drunk with fumes
Paix entre nous, guerre aux tyrans / Peace among us, war to the tyrants
Appliquons la grève aux armées, / Let the armies go on strike
Crosse en l’air et rompons les rangs / Stocks in the air, and break ranks
S’ils s’obstinent, ces cannibales, / If these cannibals insist
A faire de nous des héros, / On making heroes of us
Ils sauront bientôt que nos balles / They will know soon enough that our bullets
Sont pour nos propres généraux. / Are for our own generals


Ouvriers, Paysans, nous sommes / Workers, peasants, we are
Le grand parti des travailleurs; / The great party of laborers
La terre n’appartient qu’aux hommes, / The earth belongs only to men
L’oisif ira loger ailleurs. / The idle will go reside elsewhere
Combien de nos chairs se repaissent / How much of our flesh have they consumed
Mais si les corbeaux, les vautours, / But if these ravens, these vultures
Un de ces matins disparaissent, / Disappear one of these days
Le soleil brillera toujours / The sun will shine forever


Modern versions

The question of modernizing the song, so that the language is less archaic and more reflective of current left-wing politics, has provoked strong emotions. To some, this can only mean sabotaging its ideology. To others, it means keeping the powerful song relevant.


A typical French rendition
At a meeting of Nepali communists
From the Cultural Revolution play, “The East is Red”
A modern version, by Billy Bragg

Oh, how the song continues to torment the capitalist consciousness! From the movie Air Force One, the prisoners sing when the evil, ex-communist, terrorist General Radek is released from prison.

Image: Eugene Pottier writing The Internationale, as depicted in a Chinese poster.