The “hymn of labour” that still survives

Posted on March 17, 2018


Appropriating ideas and policies has long been the practice of politicians desperate to curry favour with voters. As the French polymath Paul Valery noted, this is part of “the art of preventing people from taking part in affairs that properly concern them”.

By claiming ownership of policies and ideas, even colours, emblems and songs, politicians and their parties lay claim to being the only rightful guardians of these and the hopes and sentiments they embody. But such appropriation can sometimes get rather messy: take the present expropriation of land without compensation furore in South Africa. It was initiated by those ethnic nationalists in red guise, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and is a facile slogan now adopted by the governing ANC.

Many trade unionists are clearly aware that the SA Constitution already allows, sensibly, for expropriation of any property and that this may or may not involve compensation. The only requirement is that any takeover is in the public interest, aids equal access to resources, and is just and equitable.

This position has already been made clear by the South African Federation of Trade unions. Saftu seems to understand that the letter and spirit of Clause 25 of the Bill of Rights makes clear that the arguments raging on all sides are almost as irrelevant as the former row about whether the concept of willing buyer, willing seller was legitimate.

But any expropriation has to take account of every factor involved. All and any compensation for expropriated property should be “just and equitable”.

This could, depending on the circumstances, amount to no compensation. It is an analysis that has been repeated several times in recent weeks, but sloganising persists.

In response to the ANC having largely adopted the populist “no compensation” catchphrase of the EFF, the opposition Democratic Alliance leapt onto an equally emotive bandwagon. The party declares that the homes of citizens, however humble, are in danger of being “seized by the state”.

At the same time, both sides claim the democratic high ground of promoting true equality; of ensuring equal rights for all citizens. What they are, in essence, saying is: “Leave it to us, give us your votes and we will do the right thing for all of you.”

That these arguments have raged this past week has a special irony. For Sunday is an anniversary that few heed and that every democratic trade unionist, worker and socialist should celebrate: the founding of the Paris Commune on Saturday, March 18, 1871. It was also the event that gave the worldwide labour movement its most famous anthem, The Internationale.

And that anthem provides an excellent example of how politicians and parties can appropriate symbols and songs in a manner that taints them by association. Sung by trade unionists and the entire spectrum of the broad political Left, The Internationale managed to survive its association with that grotesque parody of socialism that existed in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union that appropriated it, until 1944, as a national anthem.

Perhaps ironically, it is still sung at conferences of members of the Socialist International a global grouping of 153 nominally socialist parties. The group includes the ANC and the British Labour Party who tend not to sing it.

However, what is often forgotten is that this hymn of protest was sung by many Polish and Czech workers who rose up against Soviet tyranny. And it was also adopted by the students who were slaughtered in Tiananmen Square in 1989 when they called for democratic reforms.

The words of protest about injustice and inequality and a call to action were written by a transport worker and poet hiding from the massacre of an estimated 20 000 men and women in Paris in 1871. Like him, they had fought to defend the first example of working people trying to take democratic control of their lives.

Not that this experiment was by any means without fault. Although women played major roles in the creation, support and the defence of the Paris commune that was so bloodily crushed, they were not given the vote. Many also died horrifically in the week of May 21-28 when the French army smashed through the barricades of the communards, allowing upper class women and men to return to the city, many to wreak revenge in an often ghastly way.

Among those who survived the bloodshed was Louise Michel who commanded a 30-strong women’s group on the Place Blanc barricade. Another survivor was the worker-poet Eugene Poitier who wrote his ballad of resistance while hiding out in a cellar. The first lines of the English translation of The Internationale are: Arise you starvelings from your slumber/Arise you prisoners of want. But it was 17 years before a radical Belgian composer, Pierre de Geyter, put the words to music.

It has now been translated into more than 40 languages, from Albanian to Zulu, and is still sung at many labour, trade union and socialist gatherings. Given the current level of local political opportunism, it would not be surprising to find the EFF appropriating The Internationale. After all, for all its confusing statements about ethnicity and nationalism, the party has appropriated not only the socialist label, but also claims to be “Marxist-Leninist”.