If I asked you to think of a radical European song, there are any number of songs that might spring to mind. One of the top three would almost certainly be ‘The Internationale’. It is perhaps the most obvious place to start – translated into most European languages (with varying degrees of poetic success!) the song is an anthem for change and socialist possibility.
‘Arise ye workers from your slumbers, Arise ye prisoners of want… So comrades, come rally, And the last fight let us face, The Internationale unites the human race.’
The ‘Internationale’ lyrics were written in the 1870s by Eugène Pottier, an anarchist who had been a member of the Paris Commune earlier that decade. They were originally intended to be sung to the French national anthem, ‘La Marseillaise’, but the song didn’t take off until the now famous tune was written in the 1880s by Pierre De Geyter.
This separated the ideology of the song from being connected to just one country, and removed any nationalist implications. Get any group of left-wingers together and they’ll undoubtedly argue over which version is the ‘right’ version of the Internationale! But to be a truly international anthem, it has to be flexible. The language sometimes needs to be updated to translate the aspirational ideology for a new generation.
Younger generations in the UK may be more familiar with Billy Bragg’s rewrite – bringing the language up to date whilst maintaining the ideological core of the song.
‘Rise up, all victims of oppression, For the tyrants fear your might…. 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.’
Perhaps the most famous radical song beginning life in Italy, ‘Bella Ciao’ (‘Goodbye beautiful’) has spread throughout the activist world, maybe even as widely as the ‘Internationale’.
Beginning life as an Italian rice-weeder’s song, ‘Bella Ciao’ became widely popularised in its partisan version in the 1940s, celebrating and lamenting the people resisting fascism in Italy and beyond.
‘Una mattina mi son svegliato, O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao, Una mattina mi son svegliato, Eo ho trovato l’invasor.’ (‘One morning I woke up, and I found the invader.’)
The tune is so catchy that you can find the song in numerous incarnations, languages and musical styles.
While remaining attached to anti-fascist action, the song has also been used in diverse radical campaigns, and spread particularly widely through international women’s movements in the latter half of the twentieth century.
‘We are women and we are singing, bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao, we are singing for liberation, and we will not be denied.’
When Nelson Mandela ‘danced in the square’ in Glasgow in 1993, Hamish Henderson sang his song ‘Rivonia’, penned 29 years earlier, long before black South African citizens won their freedom. The Rivonia trial in 1963–1964 led to life sentences for eight leading anti-apartheid activists (including Nelson Mandela) for allegedly preparing for violent (communist) revolution and foreign invasion.
Even if you didn’t know Hamish’s version of the song, you’d likely recognise the tune because it was taken from the famous Spanish Civil War song, ‘Viva la Quince Brigada’ (‘Long live the Fifteenth Brigade’).
‘Solo es nuestro deseo, rumba la rumba la rumba la, acabar con el fascismo, ¡Ay Carmela! ¡Ay Carmela!’
‘Our only desire, Rumba la rumba la rumba la, Is to end fascism, Ay Carmela! Ay Carmela!’
Hamish’s version sings out about the injustice in South Africa, and the use of the Spanish Civil War tune connects this movement for change to the ‘Free South Africa’ movement.
As a result of this seemingly simple choice, this song, without making long speeches or introductions, manages to reach across time and place to connect people and ideology.
It also brings hope with it, showing the South African activists that other long, hard times of resistance have been endured, and oppressors have eventually been overcome.
‘Set free the men of Rivonia, Rumbala, rumbala, rumbala, Tear down the walls of their prison, Rumbala, rumbala, rumbala, Freedom and Justice, Uhuru!, Free Mandela, Free Mandela’
Whether it’s peace work, environmental activism or building effective anti-fascist or anti-capitalist movements, when we work together, we are stronger and more effective. The songs that we share connect us beyond the languages that we speak, and help to support this community building. However slowly, eventually ‘We Shall Overcome’.