David Armitage offers tremendous insight into civil wars and how to understand them, but not in the usual social scientific or historical key.
In 1968, the Beatles put the song “Revolution” on the reverse side of the “Hey Jude” forty-five vinyl, and in that same year it appeared on the Beatles’ so-called “White Album.” Although “Revolution” is officially a Lennon-McCartney collaboration, it was really John Lennon’s project. The song went through several changes: at one time it was dark and chaotic, but that element of the song was excised and re-packaged as “Revolution #9” and included on the album as well. What finally emerged as “Revolution” has a pop-rock feel with a dab of doo-wop.
The composition, politically moderate in tone, offers a couple of memorable lines, though the song would never be mistaken for deep thought. Lennon writes:
But when you go talking about destruction/Don’t you know that you can count me out
Lennon is keen enough to see the contradiction of those, motivated by hate, who would make the world a more loving place:
But if you want money for people with minds that hate/All I can tell is brother you have to wait
Of particular interest to those trying to make sense of the contemporary chaos in the U.S. is Lennon’s admonition:
But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/You’re not gonna make it with anyone anyhow.
Mao Zedong’s horrific Cultural Revolution (1966-76) was instigated when the Great Helmsman saw his control of the Chinese Communist Party slipping away. His ruinous brutality was too much even for committed communists. Chairman Mao never had need of a KGB or a Stasi like the Soviets or East Germans did because he became an expert in the devious art of turning a population against itself. The people were controlled by the people in a kind of pre-internet, deadly Cancel Culture. It was nihilistic Marxist class warfare at its most severe and inventive.
In the early stages of the revolution, Mao charged students to form paramilitary brigades and attack their teachers. Education came to a standstill so much so that the Chinese are today still trying to regain elements of classical Confucian pedagogy. Teachers were pitilessly attacked, and at times beaten and tortured to death by their erstwhile pupils. Thousands upon thousands committed suicide.
Books were burned and statues demolished. And then, with a virtual snap of his fingers, Mao would announce new class enemies, rotating alliances, and further purges. He was fascinated by killing, insisting that denunciations, beatings, torture, and executions be conducted publicly. No matter how shocking or ghastly, all were expected to attend.
In today’s parlance, to be silent was to be complicit.
Lennon was stung by criticism of “Revolution” by the New Left. After all, Mao was a hero to many Westerners. So over the next several years, and with the help of Yoko Ono, Lennon began to edge away from his political moderation.
In 1971 Lennon and the Ono Plastic Band released the banal single “Power to the People” in which Lennon appears to second-guess his earlier political temperance. He advises his “brothers and comrades”:
Say we want a revolution
We better get on right away
Well you get on your feet
And into the street
In the music video (produced after his tragic death), Lennon wears drab faux-military garb reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution and sports a cap evocative of the Red Guards, the vanguard of Mao’s atrocities. For the Chinese, of course, no other attire was allowed; for Lennon, it was just fashionable. Bernie Sanders adopted “Power to the People” as a campaign song. For example, at a New Hampshire rally, he makes a hyped entrance as Lennon’s pedestrian anthem rocks on.
Later in his career, Lennon said that “in another time” he would have been called a “philosopher.”
Notwithstanding his musical genius, however, his “thought” more often skipped across shallow waters, blown by external breezes rather than original insight. He seemed to find an anchor in Yoko Ono. It’s well known that she injected discord into the Beatles, though to find her the sole cause of the group’s historic breakup gives her too much credit. Lennon always sought to encourage and promote Yoko Ono’s own musical aspirations, if they can be called that. Her primal screeching in a piece like “Cheshire Cat” makes the post-modern compositions of John Cage and Arnold Schoenberg sound downright melodic.
In the same year that “Power to the People” was released, Lennon introduced his song “Imagine” on the album of the same name. Rolling Stone magazine called “Imagine” John Lennon’s musical gift to the world.
If so, be sure to keep the receipt.
“Imagine” is trite. Some have called it “soft nihilism,” and while that may be apt, Nietzsche likely would have choked on such pablum. Lennon claimed that it was as much Ono’s song as his own. “Imagine” is sung around the world on New Years’ Eve, where shallow romantics, true believers, and useful idiots pine for a better world and more champagne.
It’s tempting to dismiss “Imagine” as a fairy tale, but that would be a grave insult to Hans Christian Anderson. It’s just dreamy nonsense, a pretty tune with insipid lyrics: warmed over Deweyan liberalism of the most banal kind. Everything around corrupts us. Make it all go away—country, religion, private property—and we’re good. Join us! The wispy “Imagine” music video was shot at Lennon’s English dream home Tittenhurst Park. Wait!—the mansion has to go.
In our present distress a handful of pampered celebrities, in a spasm of noblesse oblige, have assembled on the internet to serenade the peasants with a puerile rendition of “Imagine.” The mega-stars were gathered together by Gal Gadot of Wonder Woman fame, who introduces the video explaining that on this, her sixth day of self-quarantine, she is feeling “philosophical”—a sure sign of the adverse effects of confinement. The best that can be said is that the star-studded “Imagine” cover has not been well-received, except as a heaven-sent occasion for fresh satire.
One of the best pieces the risible mélange has provoked is a relentlessly sardonic commentary by pop music critic Jon Caramanica of the New York Times entitled “This ‘Imagine’ Cover is no Heaven.” Caramanica writes, “In this clusterclump of hyperfamous people with five seconds’ too much time on their hands . . . ‘Imagine’ may have met its match. By the end, it has been pummeled and stabbed, disaggregated, stripped for parts and left for trash collection by the side of the highway.”
Good sense and humor may just get us through these taxing times.