Decyphering The Internationale: the Eugène Pottier code

Issue: 120

Donny Gluckstein

The Internationale has long been the anthem of the workers’ movement throughout the world. Its power to move people has survived the repression of fascism, the cruel parody that was Stalinism and free market capitalism. Those who sing it need know nothing about it, and be familiar with only the first verse and the chorus, yet feel a strong sense of international unity. Why has it proved both so durable and inspirational?

The verses were written on 30 June 18711 in the immediate aftermath of the brutal crushing of the Paris Commune, when the author, Eugène Pottier, was hiding in fear of his life. His lyrics (the music came later)2 were intended to impart the historical experience of an important workers’ struggle to a worldwide audience. At the same time they inevitably reflect Pottier’s views. He was a follower of Proudhonism, an ideology popular in France until it was destroyed along with the Commune. It is a measure of Pottier’s achievement, however, that The Internationale can function simultaneously as history, political argument and a rallying statement.

Pottier was born in Paris in 1816, a year after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and the consequent restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. The city had been the cradle of the 1789 French Revolution and of the unprecedented social turbulence that followed. During Pottier’s lifetime it was the epicentre of world political life, the “capital of the 19th century”.3 Although the bourgeoisie were now in the saddle and the country was industrialising rapidly, the aspirations for liberty, equality and fraternity that had been unleashed by the storming of the Bastille could not be quelled by a foreign-imposed ruler. The genie was out of the bottle. French capitalists interpreted the motto of 1789—Liberty, equality, fraternity—as meaning freedom for market forces to operate, equality as a level playing field for those keen to exploit the workers and fraternity as all classes uniting behind the French flag. But for people such as Pottier it meant the promise of a society in which poor people, like himself, had justice.

Pottier held a number of jobs, none of them well paid. He left school at the age of 13 to work with his father making packing cases, later becoming a shop worker, usher and eventually a textile printer.4 But from early on his passion was poetry and politics. At the age of 14 he witnessed the insurrection of 1830 that cost the lives of 1,800 revolutionaries. At that time he wrote his first song—”Vive la liberté!”5 In 1848 he was on the barricades once more, participating in the establishment of the Second Republic. Pottier was outraged when a relative of Napoleon, Louis Bonaparte, made himself emperor in 1851. In response he wrote a poem entitled “Who Will Revenge This?”6

The answer came in 1870 when the Parisian masses rose up and overthrew the emperor, following this with the creation of the Commune in March 1871. Pottier already had established a reputation as the workers’ poet. It earned him a seat on the Communal Council representing the 2nd arrondissement. He came top of the poll with a 93 percent share of the vote7 and served on the Public Services Commission of the Commune. After 72 days the French government, then based at Versailles, sent in the army to massacre the communards in what became known as “Bloody Week”. Pottier sought asylum first in Britain and later in the US. He eventually returned to Paris and died there in 1887. Even in his coffin Pottier remained controversial. Ten thousand people, including many leading former communards, turned up at his funeral, but the cortege was attacked by police who attempted to seize the red flag carried by mourners.8

The power of Pottier’s Internationale lies in the fact that he was able to encapsulate his personal experience of a specific event and yet express it in universal terms. This can be seen from the first lines:

Arise ye starvelings from your slumbers
Arise ye criminals of want.

Under capitalism the working class everywhere suffers poverty while those who protest are often criminalised. In Paris this phenomenon took the sharpest of forms—mass hunger and civil war. In 1870 Louis Bonaparte launched an attack on Prussia which failed disastrously. The emperor himself was captured and food supplies to the capital city, containing the second largest concentration of people in the world, were cut off for months. While the few wealthy citizens who had not fled continued to live in luxury the rest were reduced to eating cats, dogs and rats to survive. Yet far from hunger cowing working class Parisians it radicalised them. They still rejected the humiliating peace treaty the reactionary new government signed. For this snub they would indeed be treated as criminals. When the Commune was finally defeated many thousands were massacred, but even more, some 50,000, were put on trial.9 Pottier himself was condemned to death in his absence.

The first verse continues:

For reason in revolt now slumbers
And at last ends the age of cant.
So away with all your superstitions
Servile masses arise, arise,
We’ll change forthwith the old conditions
And spurn the dust to win the prize.

These references to “reason” and “supersitition” arose from the role played by the Catholic church which had always supported reaction and authority in France. Ever since the Enlightenment in the 18th century battle had been joined between the church, which insisted that the existing order had been divinely ordained and could not be changed by human beings, and those who said that all institutions could and should be judged by reason and abolished if found wanting.

Adolphe Thiers, who as head of the French government was the architect of Bloody Week, insisted that religion was necessary because it could:

propagate that good philosophy which teaches that man is here to suffer, and not that philosophy which says the contrary—be happy… If you think that here below you are entitled to a little bit of happiness, and if you do not find it in your actual situation, you will strike at rich people fearlessly for having kept you away from your happiness.10

After 1871, in revenge for the perceived humiliation of the church at the hands of the Commune, the enormous basilica of the Sacré-Coeur was built on the hill of Montmartre. Visible from every corner of the city it was Paris’s most striking landmark until the construction of the
Eiffel Tower.

Pottier’s call to reason therefore reflected the motivation behind many of the Commune’s policies. Education was taken out of the hands of priests and nuns. Marriage became a civil affair with divorce easier to obtain. While daytime religious ceremonies continued in Parisian churches, in the evenings they became great meeting halls where the mass of the population could debate and democratically control power.

The second verse reads as follows:

No more divided by reaction
On tyrants only we will make war
The soldiers too will take strike action
They will break ranks and fight no more
And if those cannibals keep trying
To sacrifice us to their greed
They soon shall hear the bullets flying
We will shoot the generals on our own side.

This is an exact description of the outbreak of the Commune itself. On 18 March 1871, shortly after the end of the Franco-Prussian War, the French government sent its army to seize the cannons of the Parisian citizen militia. However, confronted by masses of women protesters the soldiers decided to mutiny rather than follow orders. When General Lecomte insisted that his troops fire on the people he was seized and executed by his own men. Verses three and four show the influence of Proudhonism on Pottier:

No saviour from on high delivers
No faith have we in prince or peer
Our own right hand the chains must sever
Chains of hatred, greed or fear.
E’er the chiefs will out with their booty
And give all a happier lot
Each at the forge must do their duty
And we will strike while the iron is hot.
Laws cheat and the state oppresses
Their taxes drain the people more
The rich themselves escape such stresses
So now what rights have the poor?
We’ve enough of languishing in misery
Equality’s why we fight
No more rights without any duties
And no duties without our rights

Here Proudhonist thinking on power and the state is laid out. While various rival political currents were present in Paris, the Proudhonists dominated the organised workers’ movement and controlled the French section of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWMA, or First International). In the March 1871 Communal Council elections they captured one third of the seats. Their version of anarchism owed much of its attraction to the fact that under the Ancien Régime and the Napoleonic Empires the French state had been a model of centralised bureaucracy and physical repression in the service of the ruling elite. Proudhon (1809-1865) 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.

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”.11 Pottier’s rejection of any “saviour from on high” expresses this sentiment perfectly.

However, Proudhonism had serious weaknesses. Whether or not workers choose to ignore it the capitalist state plays an active role in maintaining the system. Furthermore, the theory took no note of the unevenness in consciousness that exists in the working class. As a result Proudhonists did not recognise the need for the more advanced and conscious sections of the working class to provide leadership in the struggle against capitalism and its state. Marx disagreed with the anarchist attitude to politics and therefore supplemented his initial statement on workers’ self-emancipation with the following: “To conquer political power has, therefore, become the great duty of the working classes”.12

In the Commune arguments about the state and issue of leadership culminated in bitter disputes. Opponents of Proudhonism warned that 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. They proposed countermeasures, which involved forming a Committee of Public Safety armed with extensive powers, to take a leadership role in combatting the government forces massing at Versailles. Pottier showed that the experience of struggle had taken him beyond the strictures of Proudhonism and he voted for the new body, though with misgivings: “The situation demands energy and unity of action. So despite its title, I vote for ‘the Committee’”.13

Those mining bosses and the rail kings
It’s they, the real monsters
Throughout their lives they do just nothing
But rob the poor workers
Whilst in their bank vaults they hoard
All our labour does create
By demanding that it is restored
We now ask for a just fate.

Here Pottier reflected the current state of French industrialisation which was built on railway expansion generally and mining in the north east, the most economically developed area of France. The reference to banking is pure Proudhon, however. His approach to economics was summed up in the famous aphorism, “Property is theft.” Where Marx located the exploitation of workers at the core of the capitalist production process, for Proudhon poverty and riches were explained by the taking of bank interest, dividends and “unearned increments”.

If workers could obtain interest free loans they could organise cooperative industrial production which would link together in local communes. Proudhon believed this could successfully compete against the capitalists, whereupon the current economic system would collapse and a new society would emerge. He himself made several abortive attempts to set up a People’s Bank and get the process started. There is no space here to discuss the flaws in this vision, only to note its presence in The Internationale.

Women played an enormous role within the Commune, both in defence of the cannons on 18 March and during its short life. Examples include the actions of people such as Louise Michel, the Women’s Union, the mass assemblies and the fighting of Bloody Week. Although line two of the last verse only hints at this, in the context of prevailing nineteenth century attitudes any reference to women being part of the struggle, rather than bystanders, was noteworthy:

We peasants, artisans and others
Enrolled as daughters, sons of toil
Let’s claim the earth for workers
Drive the indolent from the soil

Pottier’s verses end by affirming that despite the terrible suffering inflicted by the Versailles army the struggle would revive:

On our flesh long has fed the raven
We’re too long vultures’ prey
But now farewell the spirit craven
The dawn brings a brighter day.

The dawn that Pottier foresaw would not appear for many years, because repression of the communards was so savage and thorough. But his hope for a brighter future was not misplaced. Paris itself experienced an insurrectionary situation in 1944, and the biggest general strike in history during May 1968. To defiantly predict such possibilities from the depths of the abyss into which the communards were thrown required deep commitment and courage.

We now turn to the chorus:

So comrades come rally
And the last fight let us face

This first section is straightforward. The battles of 1871 had indeed been the “last fight” for many tens of thousands of communards. In Bloody Week some 30,000 working class women and men were slaughtered in cold blood. Furthermore, it is the notion of a final all-out struggle with capitalism that marks out The Internationale as a revolutionary song. In taking this stance Pottier again showed that the experience of the Commune had carried him beyond Proudhon’s gradualism and disregard for the question of the state.

It is worthwhile comparing his words to the British Labour Party’s (now defunct) anthem, The Red Flag. Although one would be hard put to discover any bloodsoaked banners in the history of the Labour Party, that song has suitably dramatic references:

The people’s flag is deepest red,
It shrouded oft our martyrs dead

The position of the apostrophe in “people’s” is interesting. Had it been placed after the “s” it would have implied solidarity across borders. In fact the song was written by an Irishman in 1889, no doubt reflecting his people’s long national struggle against British imperialism. They had had many martyrs, but The Red Flag’s historical provenance means it lacks the internationalism or proletarian roots of the communard’s work. And despite the emotive language The Red Flag’s lyrics are non-committal as regards the question of reform or revolution, whereas Pottier’s call to final struggle is unequivocal.

The concluding part of The Internationale’s chorus is the most enigmatic section of all. What do the words “The Internationale unites the human race” actually mean? Things become even more mysterious if an exact rendering of the original French words is considered: “Groupons nous, et demain; l’Internationale sera le genre humain”; literally “Let us group together, and tomorrow the International will be the human race”.

The International referred to here is clearly the IWMA, and it is this body’s composition and character that holds the clue to the meaning of the lines. Although the First International had adherents from many lands its core was provided by four countries—Germany, Italy, Britain and France—with radically different movements.

In Germany support came from socialist organisations which would merge to form the Social Democratic Party (SPD). In Italy the followers of Mazzini formed the IWMA. Organised in small conspiratorial groupings they were dedicated to stoking up popular revolts. Britain’s contingent was composed of trade union affiliates whose officials mostly gave political allegiance to the Liberal Party. Their motivation in linking up with the International was economic rather than political: the IWMA could provide solidarity to workers on strike and, in particular, prevent the shipping in of foreign scab labour.

Unlike the Germans, the French section of the IWMA rejected the idea that its local branches constituted the base of a socialist party (since it eschewed political leadership). It dismissed Mazzini who was not only “an opponent of socialism”, but whose “sole aim…was to secure a united bourgeois republic”.14 As we have seen, Proudhonists ignored state issues. Equally, British trade unionism was not seen as a model to follow because the French aim was far more ambitious than limited reforms or improvements in pay and conditions. For Pottier and his comrades the First International was already the germ of a new society based on

These differences conditioned what it meant to be a member of the IWMA. In Britain and Germany the masses of working class people became part of the organisation through their leading institutional organ (party committees or union executives). In Italy only a tiny dedicated minority was involved. In France members did not join a party or a union; they 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.

It is interesting, therefore, that the immediacy of the relationship between the IWMA and its members posited in Pottier’s chorus was altered in translation. Eleanor Marx, who first put Pottier’s lyrics into English, changed his phrase “The Internationale…will be the human race” to “The Internationale…unites the human race”. This latter form was more suitable for British supporters of the IWMA. Franz Mehring’s German version departed even further from the original: “Die Internationale erkämpft das Menschenrecht”—”The International fights for human rights”.

Pottier’s words also show the exceptional emphasis the French section placed on internationalism. For Germany and Italy the decade up to 1871 was one of unification out of disparate small states. Mehring explains that in both countries “the national struggles naturally forced the idea of internationalism into the background”.15 British trade unions were, as their name implied, organised into separate bodies along craft lines and their main emphasis was on the benefits of solidarity across borders rather than abolishing borders themselves.

Pottier and his comrades hoped every worker in every country would become part of the First International. They believed that through this self-governing communes would develop and the state would disappear along with the divisions caused by the existence of different governments. So the meaning of the chorus is literal. If the masses grouped together in the International this organisation would come to embody the human race.

The Paris Commune did indeed display remarkable internationalism. Many of the key figures in the Commune had originated abroad. Alongside Louise Michel and Jean Varlin stood people like Leo Frankl, a Hungarian Jew who headed the important Labour Commission charged with advancing workers’ economic rights. Elizabeth Dmitriova, a Russian, led the Women’s Union. The most prominent generals leading the Parisian workers’ militia—the National Guard—included Cluseret (an American citizen), Dombrowski and Wroblewski (Poles). Before 1871 French workers had seen the national anthem, the Marseillaise, as their hymn. Afterwards it would be The Internationale. The experience of struggle and of the Commune had changed mass consciousness.

Understanding Proudhonism or the Commune helps to decode Pottier’s Internationale, but this does not convey its full meaning. If this song had been merely a Proudhonist tract it would suffered the fate of Proudhonism itself. That ideology along with the Commune’s other currents—Blanquism and neo-Jacobinism—reflected an early stage of development. None provided the answers needed by the workers of Paris in their confrontation with the French ruling class, its state and army. Consequently these movements faded away after 1871, curiosities relegated to the museum of ideology. Equally, though a history of 1871 in verse might be interesting it would not have an enduring impact.

The secret of the poem is that Pottier was able to use his immediate experience and ideological framework and yet transcend them to weave a universal message in which the internationalist heart and soul of the Parisian workers in their titanic fight comes through. No knowledge of the Commune’s exciting new vision of women’s liberation, education, art, justice and workers’ control is needed to sense what the struggle for socialism can mean, or that workers share a common interest the world over.

As a result of this masterful act of creation Pottier’s verse has sustained a life of its own long after his death. Its substance has been added to by the people who have sung it and the struggles they engaged in. It was sung by mutinous sailors on the Battleship Potemkin during Russia’s 1905 revolution; by workers in Madrid during 1936 who vowed ¡No pasarán!—Franco’s fascists would not pass; and by the protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Perhaps the most poignant rendering was on May Day 1943 during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising when the Nazis were about to liquidate the last remnants of resistance. One of the few survivors wrote:

The Internationale was sung. The entire world, we knew, was celebrating May Day on that day and everywhere forceful, meaningful words were being spoken. But never yet had The Internationale been sung in conditions so different, so tragic, in a place where an entire nation had been and was still perishing. The words and the song echoed from the charred ruins and were, at that particular time, an indication that Socialist youth was still fighting in the Ghetto, and that even in the face of death they were not abandoning their ideals.16

Reciting Pottier’s verse today therefore links us to a long and proud tradition. Now, at a time of imperialist wars abroad, the stoking up of racism on the domestic front and a global crisis of capitalism The Internationale continues to play a role in inspiring an alternative vision.


1: Bourgin and Henriot, 1945, p202.

2: The tune was added by Pierre Degeyter in 1888, a year after Pottier’s death.

3: Walter Benjamin, quoted in Andrew Benjamin, 1989, p1.

4: Musuex, 1896, p5.

5: Musuex, 1896, p6.

6: Musuex, 1896, p6.

7: Bourgin and Henriot, 1945, p305.

8: Museux, 1896, p152.

9: See Lissagaray, 1976, p320.

10: Quoted in Gluckstein, 2006, p37.

11: IWMA, 1864.

12: IWMA, 1864.

13: Bourgin and Henriot, 1945, p34.

14: Mehring, 1936, p408.

15: Mehring, 1936, p317.

16: 16 M Edelman, The Ghetto Fights, London 1990, p. 83


Benjamin, Andrew (ed), 1989, The Problems of Modernity (Routledge).

Bourgin, George, and Gabriel Henriot, 1945, ProcèsVerbaux de la Commune de 1871, volume 2, (Paris).

Edelman, Marek, 1990, The Ghetto Fights (Bookmarks).

Gluckstein, Donny, 2006, The Paris Commune (Bookmarks).

IWMA, 1864, “General Rules”. Available online at

Lissagaray, Prosper Olivier, 1976, History of the Paris Commune (New Park).

Mehring, Franz, 1936, Karl Marx: The Story of his Life (Allen Unwin),

Musuex, Ernest, 1896, Eugène Pottier et son Oeuvre (Paris).