In June 1871, a month after the fall of the Paris Commune, a transport worker, revolutionary, poet and communard named Eugène Pottier found time for something special. It was something that would bear resonance more than a century later.
Before fleeing for his life, Pottier penned a six-stanza song that eventually become the global anthem of the Left. The initial plan was to sing it to the tune of La Marseillaise, the French anthem, but a few years later a new melody was added by Pierre Degeyter, a French factory worker.
The powerful song, which gained huge popularity, became known as The Internationale. It has been sung in every conceivable language by millions of people with diverse viewpoints, from anarchists, socialists and communists to social democrats and trade unionists, among others. It still a song sung by progressive people today, including here in Africa.
But after the 1920s, when the Soviet Union turned it into its national anthem, many progressives believed the song had lost its radical ethos. In a lovely American documentary released in 2000 about The Internationale, folk singer Pete Seeger describes the Soviet Union’s “hijacking” of the song as such: “They slowed it down – ‘pom pe pom, pom pe pom’ – and it very much became an establishment song.”
In 1944, Joseph Stalin replaced The Internationale with Hymn of the Soviet Union.
But in spite its momentary “official” status as an anthem for a state, The Internationale has remained a song for working people and the downtrodden throughout the ages. It was the soundtrack for unionists during the Great Depression in the United States, and for leftist radicals during the Spanish Civil War.
The Internationale made an unexpected and dramatic comeback into the global spotlight in 1989, when protesting Chinese students sang it repeatedly on Tiananmen Square, challenging the authorities. Today it can be heard on the occupations of the Landless Workers’ Movement – Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (MST) – in Brazil, or at trade union events in South Africa.
There’s a wide range of versions and translations of The Internationale. Contemporary radical British folk singer Billy Bragg adapted some lyrics to make them more current and, as he said, to get rid of some of the baggage the song had picked up along the way. He included it on a 1990 mini-album named after the song.
There is a YouTube post of The Internationale sung in 88 languages. One of my favourite renditions is sung in Afrikaans by Johannesburg-based leftwing academic and singer-songwriter, Liela Groenewald, which she included on her 2013 album, Horison.
The translation to Afrikaans is delicately done and beautifully sung in a stripped-down, jazzy style. Groenewald’s version is less a rousing anthem than a gentle, nostalgic yearning for a fairer and more equal world. I recently asked her why she decided to translate the song. “It was in 2009 that I did the translation of The Internationale – a time when I was struck by how the interests of poor people were neglected,” she said.
And why into Afrikaans? “There are many different ideologies and politics that are associated with Afrikaans. The ones on the Left are suffocated and ignored,” she replied.
Why this unusual interpretation? “This translation and recording of The Internationale was a way to pull a number of things together: my deep love for my mother tongue, Afrikaans, my affection for jazz and acoustic music, and my radical politics.”