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The Missing Music of the Left

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Children singing “The Internationale” in a communist-led May Day parade, Paris, France, 1934

In 1962, my Harvard social science teacher, Michael Walzer, mentioned in passing, in the run-up to a classroom discussion about the preconditions of the Nazi ascendancy, that one reason the 1918–1919 German revolution—a short-lived sequel to the collapse of the Kaiser’s regime—was doomed was that it did not have a song. Though he recently told me that he doesn’t remember uttering these words, they have stayed with me. I take him to have been referring not to a specifically musical deficiency, but to a more sweeping cultural one—the absence of an animating spirit that crosses boundaries with panache. Such a spirit may be the Holy Grail that idealists seek.

To speak of literal music for a moment more, it has been a very long time since insurgents worldwide shared a moral equivalent of “The Internationale,” the anthem adopted by the (second) Socialist International in the late nineteenth century and subject to the contesting claims of socialists and communists ever since. International solidarity and the putative brotherhood of workers crashed and burned in 1914, when the German Social Democrats voted war credits to the Kaiser so that Germany could slaughter its ostensible class allies, and left-wing parties across Europe split over whether to support their respective nation-state or oppose an “imperialist war.”

In 1917, Lenin’s Bolshevik heresy was able to capitalize on antiwar sentiment in Russia to seize power. A few years later, the Soviet Union was promoting a version of “internationalism” that conveniently withered into a defense of the Kremlin’s foreign policy interests of the moment. As Vaclav Havel wrote in his great 1978 essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” universalist slogans like “Workers of the world, unite!” shriveled into loyalty cheers lacking any concrete meaning.

All these years later, the left is still tuneless. Missing from social democracy is a galvanizing cross-border spirit, a sense of historical destiny, and yes, a literal song. In the twenty-first century, attachment to the identity tribe is fiercer, more binding, than any attachment to a common purpose. Today’s most prominent left-wing chant, “The people united will never be defeated,” is a tautology. When it originated, in Allende-era Chile, it meant something topical. Today, it is strictly sentimental. Trump supporters could cheerfully sign on to their version of what it means to be “the people united”—designating immigrants and Muslims, not the bourgeoisie, as the excludables. 

In a recent issue of the online magazine Public Seminar, the great Polish writer and activist Adam Michnik rightly invited troubled minds to consider how, after brilliant restarts in and around 1989, Central and Eastern Europe crash-landed into the swamps of what he calls “velvet dictatorship.” In Russia, in Hungary, in Poland, velvet dictatorships succeeded velvet revolutions as sequels to communism, and similar illiberal tendencies operate very visibly elsewhere, as well.

By way of explanation, Michnik mentions two themes: globalization (“which dealt a blow to national identities and other forms of identity”) and cacophony (“a flood of information and an ordinary person cannot differentiate between truth and lies”). For me, that word cacophony is of the essence: it took his insight beyond what others, too, have noted about disinformation and today’s post-truth regime, and back to Walzer’s remark in 1962. If there were to be a global spirit to override nationalisms and tribal allegiances, what would constitute a consensus on the musical program?

As for globalization, it not only chews up national identities, it also sets national passions against national passions. Where there is no all-embracing song book, what chance does reason have to enfold people into a common project that takes rationality and solidarity seriously? The mass distribution of disinformation strikes blow after blow against the elemental reason that must undergird the formation of common purposes.

Marxism, the undergirding of the Second International, was not only a penetrating intellectual system of great ambition, scope, and blindness; it was also, in its way, a lyric attached to a background music. Once brought down to earth and embodied in party organizations, it mustered political appeal and prophetic force, not least because it cherished a universalist vision with millenarian aspirations (as discussed in my book The Twilight of Common Dreams). Severely limited by Marxism’s inability to grasp that political relations cannot be reduced to class relations, still the several varieties of the ideology shared an understanding, however airy and impractical, that the vision had to be internationalist, to work on a global scale.

Over the intervening century since World War I fractured the socialist movement, cosmopolitanism, which Marx promoted as a goal toward which world culture was inexorably tending, has been commandeered by international finance and the culture that it commands. Meanwhile, in the face of new centrifugal forces of tribalism and xenophobia, youth unemployment and Islamophobia, social democracy seems feeble and defensive—out of tune, as it were, with the times. Perhaps the best spirit of cosmopolitanism lives in European Union institutions such as the Erasmus+ program for higher education, but the disruptive effect of Europe’s financial institutions—imposing austerity measures on countries at the periphery at the behest of those at the core—are all the more potent.

Other sources of resistance remain weak and divided. The World Social Forum was founded in 2001 to be a counterweight to the business and political elites that meet every year in Davos under the aegis of the World Economic Forum. Yet its annual assembly of “groups and movements of civil society that are opposed to neoliberalism and to domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism” and “committed to building a planetary society directed towards fruitful relationships among Humankind and between it and the Earth” has always been riddled with dissension between local activists and nongovernmental organizations. Again, no harmony.

The varieties of revolutionary Marxism, for all their immense differences and faults, shared a lineage, a faith in humanity, and a comfort in believing that the future belonged to them. They had rituals—holidays, heroes, performances, slogans. They had learning and culture—newspapers, magazines, books, movies. They had, in the capitalist class, a common enemy. They had charismatic leaders and they had access to what the sociologist Philip Selznick called “the organizational weapon.” They had a song that was the sonic incarnation of the idea that “the international working class shall be the human race.” However local your struggle, however dire or parochial your circumstances, you could transcend it. You could sing “The Internationale” and—for a moment—find refuge in an imagined future. Here is the first stanza of the American translation (from the original French) by Charles Hope Kerr:

Arise, ye prisoners of starvation!
Arise, ye wretched of the earth!
For justice thunders condemnation:
A better world’s in birth!

Marxism was not the only ideology to crystallize its aims into a song; in fact, it is hard to think of one that doesn’t. There is a reason why nation-states develop national anthems. The theme is not always uniform, not always in march time, but it must be rousing. What I am calling the music of an outlook or a movement captures the overall spirit of the enterprise: that combination of mental and moral senses that arouses the blood, that generates energy and drives persistence to overcome the inevitable obstacles in the way of the realization of ideals.

In Soviet Russia and the satellite countries, communism’s moral terrors were present from the start of its conquests. In its beginning was its dead end. That view was more or less widely shared among the postwar dissidents of the East, whatever their differences on matters of ultimate value. So it was widely believed that, as communism crumbled, its overthrow was intrinsically so immense an achievement as to solve, or overpower, the problem of what would follow. Sometimes, the absence of communism was labeled “democracy,” sometimes “freedom” or “the open society.”

For some, “free markets” sufficed—entrepreneurship would automatically be convertible, on some cosmic value exchange, into every imaginable freedom. A utopia of universal shares in a universal market had its unmistakable luster. How naïve it was is surely by now apparent to all but the truest believers. Privatization of state-owned enterprises became the prologue to stupendous corruption and egregious inequality. Civil society was often usurped by tribal nationalism and by an authoritarian church, the emotional rewards they offered sufficiently adorned with the pleasures of consumerism to satisfy leftover hungers. In many quarters, diminished goals prevail.

If there are to be global goals, goals that cross boundaries to inspire the multitudes, where might they be found? The mere survival of the human species in the face of nuclear weapons and climate change would seem the best to hope for—though those are no small goals. So should idealists across borders persist in seeking the universalist grail—the moral equivalent of “The Internationale”? Some settle for anti-fascism; others strive to resurrect the lost traditions of anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism; a few scavenge among the ruins of communism. Nearly three decades after the collapse of the communist phantasm, the left has still not recovered its voice, let alone composed a melody you can’t get out of your head.