The Internationale: Libertarian Anthem

It often seems that libertarian influenced events and organisations have become irreversibly linked with Marxism. Thus the International Workingmen's Association (IWMA, or the First International) and the Paris Commune are associated these days more with Marx than Proudhon (or anarchism) even though it was the followers of the French anarchist who helped create the former and gave the latter its distinctive characteristics. Much the same can be said of the socialist anthem The Internationale, written by Communard, and follower of Proudhon, Eugène Pottier in June 1871.

While the song is (rightly) considered as patrimony of the wider socialist movement and sung by socialists of all kinds (anarchists, social democrats, Communists, Trotskyists), it can also be considered as part of Proudhon's legacy. This is often obscured by the fact that, from 1922 to 1944, The Internationale was the de facto national anthem of the Soviet Union. It is safe to say that its author would have been disgusted by such a development given his libertarian socialism.

The song's lyrics were written immediately in the wake of the bloody crushing of the Commune and, as Leninist Donny Gluckstein notes in his analysis of them, "they inevitably reflect Pottier's views" as "a follower of Proudhonism." ["Decyphering The Internationale: the Eugène Pottier code", International Socialism, no. 120] Verses three and four, he suggests, "show the influence of Proudhonism on Pottier" as "Proudhonist thinking on power and the state is laid out." Proudhon "concluded that freedom was impossible while a state structure existed. He therefore called on workers to ignore politics and the state, and focus their efforts on grassroots self-activity." This, Gluckstein argues, was reflected in the First International's founding document:

"When, in 1864, the IWMA was founded and Marx was tasked with formulating its platform he acknowledged the positive part of the Proudhonist argument. The ‘General Rules' begin with these words: 'That the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.' Pottier's rejection of any 'saviour from on high' expresses this sentiment perfectly."

In this, it should be noted, Marx and Pottier were repeating Proudhon's 1848 statement that "the proletariat must emancipate itself without the help of the government." [quoted by George Woodcock, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: A Biography, p. 125] This was because the state "finds itself inevitably enchained to capital and directed against the proletariat". [Proudhon, System of Economical Contradictions, p. 399] As such, it seems strange to see Gluckstein proclaim that "Proudhonists ignored state issues" when, in fact, Proudhon was well aware that the state was an instrument of class rule by the few and, consequently, could not be utilised as an instrument for working class emancipation (unlike, say, Marx and Engels). Thus Proudhon was well aware, to quote Gluckstein, that "the capitalist state plays an active role in maintaining the system" and it is incredulous to suggest otherwise.

For Proudhon, working class people had to organise themselves for their own liberation for "it is of no use to change the holders of power or introduce some variation into its workings: an agricultural and industrial combination must be found by means of which power, today the ruler of society, shall become its slave." [Op. Cit., p. 398] This can be seen in The Internationale, with the pre-figurative nature of the IWMA being reflected in Pottier's lyrics. In France, Gluckstein notes, members "joined the IWMA directly and in so doing believed they were engaging in self-emancipation and self-activity from below. In their terms they had begun the process of superseding capitalism." This meant that the IWMA would be the embryo of the free society and so by joining "self-governing communes would develop and the state would disappear" and so the "chorus is literal. If the masses grouped together in the International this organisation would come to embody the human race." Bakunin, it should be noted, also argued along these lines and was, like other libertarians in the First International who shared this view, mocked by Marx and Engels.

As with his book on the Commune, Gluckstein gets basic aspects of Proudhon's ideas wrong here (see Iain Mckay's review-critique "The Paris Commune, Marxism and Anarchism" for more discussion [Anarcho-Syndicalist Review, no. 50, Summer 2008]). For example, Gluckstein asserts that the "reference to banking" in The Internationale "is pure Proudhon" for, unlike Marx who "located the exploitation of workers at the core of the capitalist production process", Proudhon saw "poverty and riches" in terms of "the taking of bank interest, dividends and 'unearned increments'". This is not true, as Proudhon presented an analysis of exploitation rooted in the workplace, in wage-labour.

Thus we find Proudhon arguing that property "is the right to enjoy and dispose at will of another's goods - the fruit of another's industry and labour." [What is Property?, p. 171] He was well aware that workers' produced a value greater than what they received in wages and so exploitation occurred in production. This can be seen, for example, from Proudhon's concept of "collective force", where in "the capitalist has paid as many times one day's wages" rather than the workers collectively and, as such, "he has paid nothing for that immense power which results from the union and harmony of labourers, and the convergence and simultaneousness of their efforts. Two hundred grenadiers stood the obelisk of Luxor upon its base in a few hours; do you suppose that one man could have accomplished the same task in two hundred days? Nevertheless, on the books of the capitalist, the amount of wages would have been the same." Therefore, the capitalist has "paid all the individual forces" but "the collective force still remains to be paid. Consequently, there remains a right of collective property" which the capitalists "enjoy unjustly." [Op. Cit., p. 127 and p. 130]

This can be seen by Gluckstein's comment that Proudhon thought that "[i]f workers could obtain interest free loans they could organise cooperative industrial production which would link together in local communes." If Proudhon believed that exploitation occurred in the market, in exchange, then why would he so consistently have supported workers' associations? And why would he explicitly link that to solving the problem of "the collective force"? Simply put, Gluckstein is wrong -- as a familiarity with Proudhon's critique of capitalism would show. Hence the French anarchist's consistent support for workers' associations to replace wage-labour.

It should be noted that Marx repeated Proudhon’s analysis of the role of "collective force" in essentially the same fashion but, of course, without acknowledgement. Marx discussed how a capitalist buys the labour-power of 100 men and "can set the 100 men to work. He pays them the value of 100 independent labour-powers, but does not pay them for the combined labour power of the 100." [Capital, Vol. 1, p. 451] Sadly, Marx failed to repeat his earlier comment in The Holy Family that "Proudhon was the first to draw attention to the fact that the sum of the wages of the individual workers, even if each individual labour be paid for completely, does not pay for the collective power objectified in its product, that therefore the worker is not paid as a part of the collective labour power" [Collected Works, vol. 4, p. 52]

Gluckstein is on firmer ground with his comments on Proudhon's reformism. He notes that "Proudhon believed this could successfully compete against the capitalists, whereupon the current economic system would collapse and a new society would emerge." Subsequent anarchists, like Bakunin and Kropotkin, rejected this vision in favour of revolution. These anarchists were well-aware that, to quote Gluckstein, "it was not enough to establish a model of democracy and liberation for others to emulate. The French state was, after all, preparing to attack Paris and drown the Commune in blood." Consequently, they advocated a revolutionary militia associated with the federation of communes to defend a revolution, a position which Bakunin had come to before the Commune.

Gluckstein asserts that "[i]f this song had been merely a Proudhonist tract it would suffered the fate of Proudhonism itself" and would have "faded away after 1871, curiosities relegated to the museum of ideology." Yet, "Proudhonism" did not die after 1871. Just as it had done after Proudhon's death, it changed. From "Proudhonism", libertarian ideas evolved and changed into the collectivist-anarchism (most famously associated with Bakunin) and then communist-anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism. As Bakunin put it in his analysis of the Paris Commune, his ideas were "Proudhonism widely developed and pushed to these, its final consequences." [Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, p. 198] It would be a mistake, however, to think that this evolution was the product of Bakunin for French Proudhonists had already taken similar steps (thus we find that Eugène Varlin "seems to have moved independently towards his collectivist position." [George Woodcock, Anarchism, p. 239]). While "Proudhonism" in its pure form may have disappeared, most of its key ideas continued in the form of revolutionary anarchism and syndicalism (not that there is much difference between the two). This can be seen from the subsequent political activitism of such participants in the Commune as Louise Michel, Élisée Reclus and others.

To conclude, it is not hard to agree with Gluckstein that "[u]nderstanding Proudhonism or the Commune helps to decode Pottier's Internationale." Nor is it hard to disagree that "[r]eciting Pottier’s verse today therefore links us to a long and proud tradition. . . . The Internationale continues to play a role in inspiring an alternative vision." the key difference is that this tradition and vision is that of libertarian socialism, not Leninist state capitalism. Sadly, as with the Commune itself, the obvious Proudhonian themes have been hidden by its use by other schools of socialism, many of which are distinctly at odds with its vision of a decentralised socialism based on free association and federation of communes and workers' co-operatives.

Proudhon's influence on the Paris Commune and revolutionary anarchism, his analysis of how exploitation occurs in production, his views on abolishing wage-labour by means of workers' associations and his relations with Marx is discussed more fully in the introduction to Property is Theft!, a new anthology of Proudhon's writings published by AK Press.

The Internationale

Arise, wretched of the earth
Arise, convicts of hunger
Reason thunders in its crater
This is the eruption of the end
Of the past let us wipe the slate clean
Masses, slaves, arise, arise
The world is about to change its foundation
We are nothing, let us be all

This is the final struggle
Let us group together, and tomorrow
The Internationale
Will be the human race

There are no supreme saviours
Neither God, nor Caesar, nor tribune.
Producers, let us save ourselves
Decree the common welfare
So that the thief expires,
So that the spirit be pulled from its prison,
Let us fan the forge ourselves
Strike the iron while it is hot


The state represses and the law cheats
The tax bleeds the unfortunate
No duty is imposed on the rich
'Rights of the poor' is a hollow phrase
Enough languishing in custody
Equality wants other laws:
No rights without obligations, it says,
And as well, no obligations without rights


Hideous in their self-glorification
Kings of the mine and rail
Have they ever done anything other
Than steal work?
Into the coffers of that lot,
What work creates has melted
In demanding that they give it back
The people wants only its due.


The kings make us drunk with their fumes,
Peace among ourselves, war to the tyrants!
Let the armies go on strike,
Stocks in the air, and break ranks
If these cannibals insist
On making heroes of us,
Soon they will know our bullets
Are for our own generals


Labourers, peasants, we are
The great party of workers
The earth belongs only to men
The idle will go reside elsewhere
How much of our flesh they feed on,
But if the ravens and vultures
Disappear one of these days
The sun will always shine


A folk version of the song, in English with slightly different lyrics to those above, can be found here:

A French version can be found here:

The current tune was added by Pierre Degeyter in 1888, a year after Pottier’s death. According to the Wikipedia entry on the Internationale, it was originally intended to be sung to the tune of La Marseillaise. While it is now, and has been for some time, the French National anthem, it was written by a worker going to fight against reaction during the revolutionary wars. Unsurprisingly, it was used by socialist revolutionaries in the nineteenth century (and beyond) as one of their songs. As such, Pottier's wish to use of the tune is unsurprising.

Of course, probably the most famous use of La Marseillaise is in Casablanca when Czech resistance leader Viktor Laszlo leads French resistance sympathisers in Rick's Cafe Americain to drown out the German soldiers singing "Die Wacht am Rhein":

Lastly, here is the funeral scene from Ken Loach excellent Land and Freedom, which uses The Internationale very effectively:

So, while a socialist anthem, The Internationale was inspired by a specific form of socialism, libertarian socialism. It is sad that it has been appropriated by forms of socialism so much at odds with the ideas and ideals which inspired its creation.


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