Music & the Left: Attitudes & Outlooks

Updated: Jul 3

I am of the belief that music reflects an awful lot about society, and that is no truer than in political music. Whether it be 1960’s revolutionary tracks or assessments of working-class life, a lot can be understood from music and its relation to social and political issues.

Most mainstream, politically focused music leans left. That is, that it generally focusses on cultural, economic and social inequalities and strife. Like satire, music is best written when it punches upwards.

So, let’s take a look at a few of the best tracks from the left and see what message they’re putting across.

1) Billy Bragg - There is Power in a Union (1986)

There’s nowhere better to start, when talking of leftist music, than Billy Bragg. Bragg’s career has spanned four decades, and he has been banging the left-wing drum throughout.

This song is perhaps the most emotive of his whole catalogue. Its name was copied from the famous folk song by Joe Hill and is an ode to organised workers.

There are few lines in this song that aren’t packed with historical imagery, so I’m going to just outline a few that I feel are the most significant.

The chorus drives home the essential theme of unity and togetherness in this call to unionisation of workers:

“The Union forever defending our rights,

Down with the blackleg,

The workers unite,

With our brothers & our sisters,

Together we will stand,

There is power in a union”

It’s a pretty straightforward message. Band together to keep your rights from exploitation. What’s more, this song was recorded and released in 1986, a short time after the now-infamous miner’s strike in the UK, in which there was a massive breakdown in union strength in the UK after the Thatcher-led Conservative government closed almost all collieries across the UK.

The song is largely based on community solidarity in the face of overwhelming odds.

“Money speaks for money,

The Devil for his own,

Who comes to speak for the skin & the bone?

What a comfort to a widow,

A light to the child,

There is power in a union”

Not only does this verse note how the bosses and the bourgeoisie will seek to solidify their own class interests, but Bragg goes some way to outlining the community value that a union can bring – something often overlooked when considering the value of unionisation.

2) Gil Scott-Heron – The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (1970)

Whenever I think of cool lefty music, I think of this track. As soon as you hit play, you’re greeted by a fine bass-drum combination.

Now this song isn’t your typical pop song. This is a very pointed message to black people, and others sympathetic to the Civil Rights cause of the 1960s, that the revolution will not happen without you.

Moreover, this song is more like slam-poetry to a 60s backbeat than a traditional song. It is very pacey, very black power & also has a ring of anti-capitalism or at least anti-commercialism.

“The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox in four parts without commercial interruptions,

The revolution will not show you pictures of Nixon blowing a bugle,

And leading a charge by John Mitchell, General Abrams & Spiro Agnew,

To eat Hog maws confiscated from a Harlem sanctuary”

Similarly, this track mentions police brutality towards black people. Sadly, something still experienced today by the black community, especially in the United States, but at the time, it was even worse.

“There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down brothers on the instant replay,

There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down brothers on the instant replay,

There will be no pictures of Whitney Young being run out of Harlem on a rail with a brand-new process,

There will be no slow motion or still-life of Roy Wilkins strolling through Watts in a red, black & green liberation jumpsuit that he has been saving,

For just the proper occasion”

Not only does The Revolution Will Not Be Televised tell listeners that the fight for equality will come in time, it tells the listener that it is a fight against an oppressive power, hell-bent on continuing the status quo.

There is nothing, more inherently left-wing than a song that tells you that the President, the powers that be, the police and capitalism itself are all trying to stop you from fighting the good fight.

3) Rage Against the Machine – Killing in the Name (1992)

Rage Against the Machine is militantly leftist. Whereas the previous two tracks in this piece have focused on unity and overcoming oppression respectively, this one is pretty forthright in its assertion.

That is, that the police are a state-sponsored militia.

A lot has been made of this song. It was briefly a meme in the UK in 2009, when it beat the X-Factor winner’s single to #1, but that’s the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this song’s significance.

Rage Against the Machine is reliably raging against the machine here. In this case, they take aim at the police arm of the state ‘machine’.

“Some of those that work forces,

Are the same the burn crosses”

Pretty clearly, this opening gambit, which repeats four times, is asserting that the police are overpopulated with Ku Klux Klan members. Institutionalised racism is not enough here, the contention being that the police use their legitimacy as a means of furthering their racist ideology.

“Those who died are justified,

For wearing the badge,

They’re the chosen whites”

Their claim is only doubled down upon in the chorus. Simply put, they’re arguing that officers use their badge as a sort of shield to carry out an act of lawful ethnic cleansing.

Their claims carry weight to this day. In the last decade alone, we saw the #BlackLivesMatter movement move to become a household name across the globe.

Sadly, this song is still relevant today. Civil distrust between the police and the black community has by no means been improved since this song’s release.

4) John Lennon – Working Class Hero (1970)

Post-Beatles, John Lennon really moved towards politics and towards the left. To the point that the Nixon administration had the CIA and the FBI keeping tabs on him as a ‘potentially problematic alien’.

He was by no means a communist agitator, but he was spreading a kind of pseudo-socialist message in some of his music. Songs like Imagine (1971) & Give Peace a Chance (1969) show that Lennon’s message was one of anti-war and anti-violence.

Lennon’s Working Class Hero really opened my mind to the idea that one’s class has an immeasurable bearing on the direction one’s life is set to take.

“When they’ve tortured & scared you for twenty-odd years,

Then they expect you to pick a career,

When you can’t really function, you’re so full of fear”

There’s no doubt in my mind that some of this draws on Lennon’s troubled childhood in Liverpool. Though, that is a good representation of what working-class life can be for many young people – even today.

So many young people are leaving school today, with so few job prospects presented to them, with virtually no idea what they want to be. In the UK, you’re expected to have some idea of what you want to be by age 13. Unfortunately, some of what Lennon’s saying here has a bit of truth.

“There’s room at the top,

They’re telling you still,

But first you must learn how to smile as you kill,

If you want to be like all the folks on the hill”

I’ve always found this section to have a dual purpose. The first part is your typical Marxian class analysis; your billionaire bourgeoisie types telling you that if you work hard enough, someday you’ll make it, but there’s also a critique of capitalist culture in there too (something touched on [here], by the way). Learning to “smile as you kill”, I’ve always felt, is a nod to the egocentric, capitalist, ‘greed is good’ mantra; that you’ve always got to step on someone to get to the top – you can never get there with clean hands, ethically speaking.

Marxists do always love to say that there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism.

Ultimately, Lennon’s Working Class Hero is a reflection of a young, working-class person’s mind; uncertain and cynical with apparent cause.

5) Tracy Chapman – Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution (1988)

I’ve never been a Tracy Chapman fan, let me just get that out of the way. I’ve been at one-too-many open mic nights where Fast Car was played for the fifth time of the night – and I cringe.

Though, this song is a god damn jam. It’s uplifting, which given the selection here, is a good thing. What’s more, it takes a really different view to that of most other left-wing musicians.

“While they’re standing in the welfare lines,

Crying at the doorsteps of those armies of salvation,

Wasting time in the unemployment lines,

Sitting around waiting for a promotion”

Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution looks at poverty with sympathy, something exceptionally before its time. Let’s not forget, the 1980s was the era in which the eagle of neoliberalism truly spread her wings to take flight. Thatcher & Reagan occupied their respective offices on each side of the Atlantic and wealth inequality was soaring.

Chapman, in this song, makes a rather down-to-earth assessment of life for those who have been left behind by society, for whatever reason. Whether they be collecting welfare money, or working a dead-end job with few prospects, the listener is encouraged to empathise.

In spite of its title, this song is not a call to arms, but a genuine appraisal of the lives of the working-class.

Music from the left comes in many different varieties. Here, I’ve by no means made a definitive list, instead choosing to look at just a handful of songs that push a left-wing message.

What we've can draw from this is that the left's songwriters, much like thinkers and practitioners of left-wing ideologies, come in a variety of colours. That is to say that some leftists believe that armed struggle is the only way for the workers to overcome the class struggle. On the other hand, some believe that peaceful protest is the only option. Some just prefer to represent the strife of working-class life. In many ways, this piece is a celebration of culture, but in others, its a depiction of what the left was and what it still is.

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