Monday, April 21, 2008

The struggle carries on

Никто не даст нам избавленья:
Ни бог, ни царь и ни герой.
Добьёмся мы освобожденья
Своею собственной рукой.

Well, I can't deny it, I still get stirred and moved when I listen to this song, what can I do about it? It's one of those reflex reactions that become hard wired in our brains at a very early age. The Internationale, the hymn that Anarchists, Socialists, and Communists shared since the late 19th century was translated and adapted to most languages of the world. The Russian translation is, naturally, among the most famous. It is fairly close to the original French text, more so than the versions in several other languages at least, but there are some remarkable differences with respect to the original.

There are a few lines in particular, in the Russian version of the song, that I am especially fond of. They are the ones I reported here above, the beginning of the second stanza. In the original French text the same passage reads "Il n'est pas de sauveurs suprêmes/ni Dieu, ni César, ni tribun./Producteurs, sauvons-nous nous-mêmes/Décrétons le salut commun."

First notice how the Russian text, after a similar first line, replaces the triad "God, king, tribune" with the very telling "God, king, nor hero". Was it an early warning against the pitfalls of "hero worship" that undermined Soviet communism from within? No "little-fathers-of-the-nation", it says, no big brothers, no heroes to delegate one's life to. The "no god, no king" is the easy part, one can see where that comes from: it is the good old anarchist "no gods, no masters", but where does the "no heroes" come from? That's the part that touches a chord: the temptation to live a surrogate life is an extremely dangerous one. How easy it would be to just delegate responsibility to someone else, a hero, a savior. Deliver us from evil, we just wait till you're done with the job. The remaining two lines are also different from the French text, and they reiterate the same concept: "with our own hands" we need to achieve our liberation.

It is no wonder that Stalin had the Internationale dropped as national anthem of the Soviet Union, lest it gave people ideas.

And it does, in fact. Humans are by nature social animals, they group together, form large aggregates we like to call civilization, create large structures of knowledge that transcend individual minds. With gregariousness, however, comes the monkey tribe instinct, the submission to leaders, the social structure of dominance and submission. These are animal traits which had survival value in the long evolutionary process that brought about the existence of the homo sapiens primates, but they could easily be dispensed of in the world of today. Or at least this was the dream: the "final struggle" that will eliminate oppression and create a society of equals. As we all know, something went wrong with that plan.

There is a voice in the human mind that cries out "deliver us from evil": it is the voice of the child in us, who expects the parents or adult guardians to intervene as a "deus ex machina", with knowledge of the world the child does not yet possess, to resolve the trouble, whatever that happens to be. Grownups are not immune to the lure of this inner voice. They project it onto imaginary higher beings, they invest state and police with the role of establishing and maintaining order, they demand rules to follow and laws to obey.

Yet, there is more: often what we really want to be saved from is ourselves. Hero worship is born of a desire to be delivered of oneself, to exchange the challenging task of living one's life, with all the uncertainty and the anguish that this involves, for a vicarious existence through someone else's life. Heroes do all the living for us, instead of us. "Neither god, nor king, nor hero!" It is the pressure to conform that makes cowards of us all, the pressure to move to the spectator seat and leave the fighting to someone else: cheering is easier than sweating. Comfortably sitting into the solid armor of a preestablished identity, what an easy cure against anxiety and the uncertainties of a real life! People who make this choice, who slip into the gregarious existence, do not usually look with sympathy at those who try to invent their own lives and keep on with the idea of giving it meaning without recurring to the strategy of blind submission.

Science is a great antidote to the notion of authority, and yet, how even there hero worship, passive acceptance of other people's choices, and gregariousness have found their way! Science, if we free it from the interference of social structures, can provide us with a unique way to achieve the kind of collective liberation advocated by the socialists ideals. What projects us into the future is our capacity to struggle, to rebel against accepted truths, to question assumptions, prejudices, and inherited worldviews. There is no future workers paradise to build, only the continuing struggle to push further the edge of the unknown, the struggle that is life itself, when lived in full.

We must achieve our own liberation, with our very own hands, even, or especially, when it comes to delivering us from the evil that is ourselves, from the dark recesses of our own mind, from its fears and lurking monsters.

I will reveal you a secret: you might have heard it sung triumphantly in Red Square parades, but the Internationale is actually a very sad song. I like to think of it sung in slow motion, a solo saxophone waiving slowly the harmony in the background. It is a song about life as endless struggle, the "final struggle" perhaps, but not one that we are going to win any time soon. The "wretched of the earth" are not portrayed in the act of conquering paradise, but are engaged in the struggle for the right to live a life with dignity, a life that is real and meaningful and not relegated to the role of passive spectator. A life that has no easy answers, no simple rules to follow, no higher examples to imitate acritically. My interpretation of the Internationale is perhaps more in the anarchist than in the communist tradition, but so be it. Even the final image, the radiant sun that will still be shining with its bright light, makes me think more of the brightness of desolation, the immutability of cosmic events that paints a sad celestial canvas as a background to human struggle.

Для нас всё так же солнце станет
Сиять огнём своих лучей.

The Soviet science fiction images in this post are from this collection

A collection of lyrics of the "Internationale" in 82 languages (Klingon included)

The Soviet Internationale on You Tube