From Socialist Worker Review 82, December 1985, p. 36.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
FOR NEARLY a century one of the most stirring moments of any socialist demonstration or rally has been the singing of the Internationale. Yet how many of us know the story of the poet and militant who wrote that great song?
Eugene Pottier was born in Paris in 1816. His father was an artisan, and when he left school, at the age of 12, Eugene went to work as an apprentice for his father, making packing cases. He took other jobs, none well-paid, and by 1840 had become a socialist, a follower of the Utopian Charles Fourier. He got involved with a socialist paper called L’Atelier (The Workshop), whose editorial board consisted entirely of manual workers.
But from his earliest years, Pottier was also a poet. He wrote his first poem at the age of 14, inspired by the revolution of 1830, when King Charles X was overthrown. He would sit up till midnight writing poetry, and then be up by five the next morning making packing cases.
Before 1848 the natural outlet for a working class poet was in the goguettes of Paris. These were clubs where workers could drink, sing and listen to well-known singers. Often these singers were highly political, and the revolutionary secret societies used to work through the goguettes. One product of these clubs was the great song-writer Pierre Dupont, whose songs were an inspiration to the revolutionaries of 1848. Following in his footsteps Pottier became a writer of political songs.
After the revolution of February 1848, Pottier was actively involved in working class politics, and he narrowly escaped being shot during the Paris workers’ rising in June 1848.
By 1870 Pottier had become a prosperous artisan, but when the workers of Paris established the Commune in 1871, he did not hesitate. He played a leading role in the Commune from the beginning, and on 16 April was elected to the Council of the Commune. He was active in a broad range of practical tasks, for example organising the requisition of meat, firewood and beds for ambulances. He helped to institute a system of half-price railway travel for the poor, and his signature is found on posters announcing the closure of brothels and calling for educational reform. He helped the painter Courbet to organise an assembly of Paris artists.
At the end of May 1871 came the bloody defeat of the Commune. Pottier participated in the workers’ desperate defence and was lucky to escape with his life. One newspaper actually announced that he had been executed. It was in June 1871, hiding in a cellar in Paris and still fearing for his life, that Pottier wrote the song by which he will always be remembered, the Internationale.
Pottier was a member of the First International, and the song was a tribute to his own organisation. But beyond that it was inspired by the internationalism of the Commune itself, in which for example, the Hungarian Frankel and the Pole Dombrowski had held leading positions.
In July 1871 Pottier at last managed to escape from Paris, first to Belgium, then to Gravesend in England. His health was beginning to decline and on a visit to Scotland he caught a chill which led to partial paralysis. He clearly had no future in France. In 1873 he was condemned to death in his absence. So, that same year, he went to Boston in the USA, where he worked as a draughtsman and as a French teacher. He continued to be politically active, working with French exiles and with what was left of the First International. In 1877 he was involved in the founding of the Socialistic Labor Party, and held office in one of its local sections.
In 1880 there was an amnesty for supporters of the Commune, and Pottier returned to Paris, where, ill and poor, he spent the last years of his life. While he did not join any organisation; he remained active in politics, trying to help a regroupment of the fragmented forces of French socialism. When in 1886 the miners of Decazeville struck for 108 days, Pottier, though nearly 70, was quick to back them. Despite his poverty he contributed financially, and wrote two songs in their support.
Still a poor man, Pottier died in 1887. But even his death was a political act. Ten thousand people attended the funeral – and the police brutally attacked the procession to grab a red flag carried by one of the demonstrators. Several people were seriously injured and a protest meeting was attended by 2,000 people. Some years later there was a move to erect a monument to Pottier. The Paris Municipal Council voted to contribute a substantial sum of money – but was promptly forbidden to do so by the Minister of the Interior.
Pottier had written the words of the Internationale, but the tune that was to make it famous was composed only after his death, by a Belgian worker, Pierre Degeyter.
Degeyter was born in 1848, one of a family of eight children, and at the age of eight went to work as a piecer in a textile factory. Degeyter studied music in the evenings and became a socialist activist. One day in 1888, after a day’s work in the factory, he took some fellow-workers into the pub, and pulled from his pocket a draft of the tune of the Internationale. They were the first to hear it sung, and after their approving comments he made some minor changes.
Up until this time French workers on political demonstrations still sang the Marseillaise, the song of the bourgeois revolution of 1789 – a magnificent tune, but with bloodthirsty and nationalistic words. In the 1890s the Internationale became popular among the miners of north-eastern France and gradually it ousted the Marseillaise and began to spread around the world. It was sung by Russian sailors on the Potemkin in 1905 and by French mutineers in the Black Sea in 1919. Eventually it was universally recognised as the song of the workers’ movement.
From Pierre Dupont and Eugene Pottier to the Redskins and the Style Council there is a great tradition of socialist song. It must be mobilised to build and inspire our movement.
Most of the information in this article is taken from Maurice Dommanget, Eugene Pottier, Paris 1971.
Last updated: 19.9.2013