by Caleb T. Maupin
I was 17 years old when I first heard “Street Fighting Man.” I was sitting in a movie theatre with my younger brother and my father. We viewed the film “V for Vendetta”, and as the film reached it poignant, bitter sweet ending, and fireworks exploded, the credit scratched across the screen with a sound that I connected with me so perfectly. My brother informed me, to my shock, that the song playing was by the “Rolling Stones” as we left the theatre.
I had always associated the Rolling Stones with sexist, drug, uber-masculine biker “hard rock.” Though I was surprised at the composer, I still could not get over the power of the song.
Later on, probably two years later, I was taking a film course in college. I was already an active Communist, and I was actively consuming Mao Zedong's “Little Red Book.” Just for the hell of it, I put together a film piece. I strung together footage of uprisings from around the world, such as anti-WTO uprisings in Seattle and Seoul, and the L.A. Rebellion of 1992. As background music, I selected no other than the piece I had learned to love in a movie theatre two years prior.
It seemed, to my confusion, that from everyone I showed the film clip I had constructed, I got a similar reaction. “What the hell is this music you picked? It just doesn't fit!”
The message was the same.
“Riots are scary and violent, this song is happy and joyous, it doesn't fit.”
But in my mind it did. A revolution to me, as to Lenin is a “festival of the oppressed.” I was happy to see people who for so longer cowered as powerless before global capitalist entities, corporations, and bullying racist cops, standing up for themselves. I felt that no other piece of music adequately captured the “joy of chaos” I felt at a huge demonstration.
Even the reactionary Nietzsche understood that “One must be filled with chaos to give birth to a dancing star.”
But others around me, who at this time had little if any involvement in the class struggle, didn't get it. They just couldn't. Its something you have to feel to truly know.
* * * *
“Sympathy For The Devil” has always held another spot very close to my heart. It expressed an odd form of contrarianism and rebellion.
Regardless of what the lyricists may or may not have meant, this opening track of a classic rolling stones album spoke to me much like the text of Anarchist Bakunin's book “God and the State.”
To Bakunin, and to me as I listened to the recording, the phrase “pleased to meet you, hope you guessed my name” was almost speaking for me. In this world, the wealthy and powerful have proclaimed themselves to be “God”, and so likewise, Mick Jagger and I were proud to hold “Sympathy for the Devil.” It wasn't even a necessarily anti-religious message. It was simply a message of loathing toward those in power, despite the religious symbolism, at least to me, that is.
The line “just as every cop is a criminal and all the sinners saints” spoke even higher volumes about a society where George Washington has a monument, Ronald Reagan has an airport, and Mumia Abu Jamal is locked away in a prison cell.
If Hitler is God, is it not moral to become a fallen angel? This seemed to be the thrusting message of this 1960s Rock hymn. Of course, I could only sympathize.
The groundbreaking film-maker Jean-Luc Godard, who made the excellent “New Wave” film based on the song was even subject to a brutal attack in the New York Times when it was rumored that he may be honored for his life's work in developing cinematography. Godard, who has held revolutionary politics hasn't sinned enough to become a saint, so “no oscar for you” the New York Times seems to scream. He is not enough of a criminal, to become a cop.
* * * *
“Salt of the Earth” is another beautiful piece. It lays out the entire nature of capitalism, and the way the workers are treated.
It talks of how the working class is reduced to “common foot soldiers” and “a faceless crowd.”
Its words about “stay-at-home voters”, who don't see an answer in the bourgeois dog and pony show called “elections” is much more true today than in 1969. The "stay-at-home voters" probably handed congress over to the Republicans after the Democrats "promised everything and gave nothing."
Am I championing “The Rolling Stones” as Marxist-Leninists or Revolutionaries? No. I'm not stupid.
Much of their career puts “Beggar's Banquet” to shame. Sexist and blatant misogynist anthems about “under my thumb” and “black and blue” show an entirely different political edge.
But this 1968 LP seems to reflect more of me as a revolutionary, especially on an emotional and artistic level, than much of the art of previous and present times. I think if some one really wanted to understand the mindset of the Weather Underground, the Revolutionary Youth Movement, or the 1960s Marxist movement, “Beggar's Banquet" is a great place to start.
I wasn't there, of course, so I could be wrong.
However, it certainly reflects the feelings that I have as a Marxist-Leninist in the modern U.S., involved in the struggle for workers liberation.
Art is like everything else in the capitalist world. It does not exist in a vacuum. When revolution is spreading throughout the globe, no part remains untouched. Only in the early 1970s could racist pig Elvis Presley release “In the Ghetto.” I am confident that this southern cracker who ripped off R&B to form his career would have felt more comfortable singing the country hit “Cadillac Welfare Mother”, but the “Free Market” most likely dictated otherwise.
Music, Art, Religion, and Politics are all connected. “Beggar's Banquet” shows this so well.
Perhaps also, the British influence may have helped increase the value of the album's politics. The entire album, the final track especially, does not demean the working class. It contains no slur of the proletariat as being “Labor Aristocrats” or “Bourgeosified.” Instead, it has a strong confidence in them, that was missing on the U.S. Left at the time.
It was this confidence in the working class that enabled the cutbacks of the 1980s to be met with the Miner's Strike of 1984, the Militant Tendency in Liverpool, and the Brixton uprising by British Workers. The reaction to Reagan in the US was limited to PATCO and Solidarity Day, not bad things at all, but far smaller by comparison, impact, and militancy.
When I listen to the album now, I think about being on picket lines, protest rallies, etc. with my working class brothers and sisters. We know that when we take over, our battlefields will sing with the happiness found in the joyous sounds of “Street Fighting Man.” When we seize the banks, factories, and commanding heights of the economy, and break open the food warehouses we will show that revolution is not “scary” and “threatening”, but it is a festival of the oppressed, truly a “Beggar's Banquet” like none have seen before.