October 2, 2013

Four facts about Solidarity Forever you might not know

Special Feature
Rebel Youth Magazine

It is billed as the greatest English-language labour anthem ever, perhaps second only to the Internationale. It has been translated into multiple languages and sung around the world. If you have been on strike, you've probably heard it, or sung it. Few rallies, large or small, in English-speaking Canada take place without it; and it is also common in Qu├ębec. Labour union meetings in Canada, the US and Australia sometimes end with it. The best and the worst labour and progressive choirs, folk singers, and raging grannies can all belt it out by heart.

The name of the song is Solidarity Forever -- but what do you really know about it?

Poster from the People's
Republic of China
1. The song is about more than solidarity but overthrowing capitalism!

If you are an activist worth their salt, you know the chorus and probably can say the first few lines at least. But even experienced labour activists haven't always heard some of the verses, which are usually cut from today's renditions of Solidarity Forever. Why? Well, "it's just too long" folks say. But could the reason be more political? You be the judge. Here are some of the forgotten verses of the song:

Is there aught we hold in common with the greedy parasite, / Who would lash us into serfdom and would crush us with his might? /  Is there anything left to us but to organize and fight? / For the union makes us strong...

In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold / Greater than the might of armies, magnified a thousand-fold. / We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old / For the union makes us strong. (Our emphasis.)

2. The tune comes from a song about an anti-slavery insurgent

The John Brown mural by famous
progressive artist John S. Curry 
Solidarity Forever might seem light a tired old chant, but its rich in the tradition of people's struggle and liberation. The tune actually ripped-off its beat from a song basically about a man who gave his life in the fight against slavery. Sometimes described as the Battle Hymn of the Republic, a US Civil War tune, Solidarity Forever is actually taken from the song John Brown's Body. And who was John Brown? A mid-century American campaigner against slavery just before the US Civil War. Convinced by his experience that a political solution to the problem of the apartheid-style racist southern US was not possible, Brown argued that armed insurrection was the only effective way to overthrow slavery. He lead several military actions against the militias and police of the slave-owning ruling class, some of which helped defend communities from their plunder, rape and pillage. After an ill-planned raid on a government barracks to seize weapons and launch a slave rebellion failed, Brown was captured -- and hung for ''treason'' 1859. The writer of the song, Ralph Chapman, did not pick the tune just because it was catchy and easy to sing.

Ralph Chaplin drew this sticker in 1918
when he and other IWW activists were
behind bars in the Cook County Jail.
The image is a self-portrait.
3. The author was a revolutionary jailed for labour organizing

Ralph Chapman didn`t just write songs; he was a very political and revolutionary person. An anarchist with the International Worker's of the World, Chapman grew up on the front-lines of labour struggle and was thrown in jail for labour organizing just two years after writing the Solidarity Forever. In the IWW served as secretary, and was known as the right-hand man of Big Bill Haywood. The IWW based its strategy and tactics to overthrow capitalism on one route alone: a massive general strike action by workers, taking down the government and creating conditions to build a new society. After the October Revolution in Russia more and more leftists would question the IWW`s narrow approach, leading to the formation of a new political group: the Communist Party. In both the US and Canada, political groups debating Marxist ideas would draw into their ranks countless hard-working labour activists from the IWW who had come to reject its anarchism and decide to build a Communist Party. While Chapman would stay an anarchist years after his movement fell into obscurity and ultimately end his life as an anti-communist, his close friend Big Bill Haywood would go onto to be a founding member of the US Communist Party or CPUSA, as would other IWW leaders like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and, in Canada, Sam Scarlett. Champman's comrade died in exile in the USSR. Big Bill Haywood is one of a handful of US citizens buried in the Kremlin.

4. It is inspired by Marxism

While Chapman and the IWW were anarchist, they co-opted many ideas openly from Marxism, even copying directly into its Constitution one of Marx's famous sentences (from his pamphlet Value, Price and Profit). The IWW made just a tiny change: "Instead of the conservative motto: “A fair day's wage for a fair day's work!” they ought to we must inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword: “Abolition of the wages system!" Consider Solidarity Forever and its line: "All the world that's owned by idle drones is ours and ours alone. / We have laid the wide foundations; built it skyward stone by stone. / It is ours, not to slave in, but to master and to own. / While the union makes us strong." Where the IWW differed with Marxism was how to achieve that society -- rejecting the political dimension of class struggle in favour of just the economic and ideological -- and also what it would look like. But perhaps the brilliance of the song is its non-sectarian approach that all those who believe in a line of struggle, not concessions, can agree with.

Of course, right-wing social democratic union leaders who do believe in concessions to capital or 'business unionism' can and do still sing the anthem, after dropping a few lines -- but just for length, of course!

Download the sheet music here.
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