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A Working Class Hero?

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Issue 1685

In my View

A Working Class Hero?

By Martin Smith

WAS JOHN Lennon an IRA-supporting Trotskyist? That’s the question that kept the FBI and MI5 busy in the early 1970s and sent the press pack into a frenzy last weekend. One thing this entire hullabaloo shows is just how paranoid and useless the secret services are. Lennon never hid his political beliefs. Songs like “Working Class Hero”, “Power to the People” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday” kind of gave the game away. Lennon was a mass of contradictions. He was a rock star, multi-millionaire, musical genius and rebel all rolled into one. During the last few years of the Beatles, Lennon was very much influenced by the ideas of the hippy movement.

Lennon’s song “Revolution” was a cynical response to the events of 1968. Lennon sung, “You say you want a revolution”, but ended the verse with “count me out”. But by 1970 Lennon and Yoko Ono had thrown their hats into the political arena. Like millions of people they were radicalised by the protests against the Vietnam War.

Three years after “Revolution”, Lennon wrote “Power to the People”. The song starts with the line, “Say we want a revolution, we better get on right away.” Yoko Ono-the woman the press love to hate-played a key role in changing Lennon’s view of the world. She saved him from a descent into “rock star hell” and introduced him to feminism. Lennon brought out three albums between 1970 and 1972-Plastic Ono Band, Imagine and Some Time in New York City. They perfectly captured Lennon’s ability to mix art and politics. Lennon’s biggest commercial hit, “Imagine”, is a cry for a better world.

He summed up the meaning of the song when he said, “‘Imagine’ is a big hit almost everywhere. Anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic, but because it is sugar-coated it is accepted. “Now I understand what you have to do. Put your political message across with a little honey.” Lennon was horrified at the brutality of the British state in Northern Ireland. British troops killed 14 unarmed demonstrators in Derry on 30 January 1972. The massacre was known as Bloody Sunday. Lennon said afterwards, “If it’s a choice between the IRA and the British army, I’m with the IRA.” Even your gran’s favourite Beatle, Paul McCartney, sang, “Give Ireland back to the Irish.”

Lennon marched against British troops in Northern Ireland, and for a few brief years he was influenced by socialist ideas. Tariq Ali, the socialist activist and writer, says Lennon told him, “You should get these left wing students out to talk with the workers.” Lennon moved to New York in 1972. He drifted away from political struggle and reduced politics to a number of individual stunts and lifestyle choices. But despite being a millionaire, Lennon tried to see the world through the eyes of ordinary people. He was always impatient with workers for not seeing through the system quick enough.

Yet while he was organising “love-ins” in New York hotels, workers in Britain were bringing down the Heath government. However, at his best Lennon could write a powerful protest song: “They hate you if you’re clever and despise a fool. Till you’re so fucking crazy you can’t follow their rules. A working class hero is something to be.”

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