Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Romantic anti-capitalism of Iron Maiden

In keeping with the new 'cultural turn' on Histomat, I have decided to attempt to explore from a Marxist perspective a band closer to my heart than Oasis - Iron Maiden. To the best of my knowledge, Marxist commentary on Iron Maiden has been slim, yet again this is a band that has been going, in one form or another for thirty years now, and deserves some sort of critical appreciation. Iron Maiden always stood apart from the mainstream of metal bands which came to prominence in the 1980s - being distinctive both musically and lyrically. This is not the place to go through all the diverse influences and interests of the band - in particular the main songwriter Steve Harris - which range from GK Chesterton and a concern with English nationalism, to a kind of religious millenarianism, obsessed with the Book of Revelations, prophesy, and witchcraft. In the 1980s, as a band they were clearly influenced by the peace movement and the dangers of nuclear holocaust, and an anti-war message runs though many of their songs as a constant (see The Trooper, Two Minutes to Midnight, Paschendale).

In this post, I want to highlight the strand of 'Romantic anti-capitalism' that runs though Iron Maiden, as I feel this has often been overlooked by socialists, who tend to just see the mythicalism and mysogynism of the band and turn away. To be fair, songs with titles like 'Charlotte the Harlot' and 'Bring your daughter... to the slaughter' hardly bring to mind Marx's sublimation of the Hegelian dialectic, still less say Rosa Luxemburg on women's liberation.

The phrase 'Romantic anticapitalism' was used by Hungarian Marxist philosopher Georgy Lukacs to describe his 'pre-Marx' period before the First World War.

'Originally, say in the young [Thomas] Carlyle or in [William] Cobbett, this was a genuine critique of the horrors and barbarities of early capitalism — sometimes even, as in Carlyle’s Past and Present, a preliminary form of a socialist critique. In Germany this attitude gradually transformed itself into a form of apology for the political and social backwardness of the Hohenzollern empire.'

The period that Romantic anti-capitalism emerged was therefore the period of the first half of the nineteenth century, during what Eric Hobsbawm has called the 'dual revolution'. In the aftermath of the political French Revolution that erupted in 1789, and in the context of the economic 'industrial revolution', many people across Europe experienced huge changes in their lives. Capitalist relations of production spread, peasants were kicked off their land and moved to the industrial centres to look for work, and new urban centres emerged. A new historical consciousness emerged among many intellectuals as the old religious concepts and explanations of society in terms of the actions of just Kings and Queens no longer were able to explain the popular revolutions that were taking place. But while class conflict was recognised by some for the first time as being central to explaining historical change, a new interest in 'people's history' was also sparked by the rise of nationalism.

There was therefore always a tension in 'Romantic anti-capitalism' - it hated the new system of wage slavery but had no idea about what to replace it with and so just idealised pre-capitalist relations of production, harking back to a mythical 'golden age' where everyone supposedly lived together in harmony and peace.

The romantic anti-capitalism of Iron Maiden can be seen in one of their best known songs - Run to the Hills, about the destruction of the native American Indians by the invading European colonial settlers.

Run to the Hills (Harris)

'White man came across the sea
Brought us pain and misery
Killed our tribes killed our creed
Took our game for his own need

We fought him hard we fought him well
Out on the plains we gave him hell
But many came too much for Cree
Oh will we ever be set free?

Riding through dustclouds and barren wastes
Galloping hard on the plains
Chasing the redskins back to their holes
Fighting them at their own game
Murder for freedom a stab in the back
Women and children and cowards attack

Run to the hills run for your lives
Run to the hills run for your lives

Soldier blue on the barren wastes
Hunting and killing their game
Raping the women and wasting the men
The only good Indians are tame
Selling them whisky and taking their gold
Enslaving the young and destroying the old

Run to the hills run for your lives'.

Maiden's sympathy is overwhelmingly with the 'redskins', the victims of 'modernisation', but their desire for 'historical realism' forces them to try to understand what motivated the new settlers to commit genocide (hence the switch in narrative in verse three). A clearer example, The Clansman, which tells the story of the barbaric Highland Clearances in the 18th century, places full sympathy with the Scottish clans.

The Clansman (Harris)

'Wake alone in the hills
With the wind in your face
It feels good to be proud
And be free and be a race
That is part of a clan
And to live on highlands
And the air that you breathe
So pure and so clean
When alone on the hills
With the wind in your hair
With a longing to feel
Just to be free
It is the right to believe
In the need to be free
It's a time when you die
And without asking why
Can't you see what they do
They are grinding us down
They are taking our land
That belongs to the clans
Not alone with a dream
Just a want to be free
With a need to belong
I am a clansman...Freedom

It's a time wrought with fear
It's a land wrought with change
Ancestors could hear
What is happening now
They would turn in their graves
They would all be ashamed
That the land of the free
Has been written in chains
And I know what I want
When the timing is right
And I'll take what is mine
I am the clansman
And I swear to defend
And we'll fight to the end
And I swear that I'll never
Be taken alive
And I know that we'll stand
And we'll fight for our land
And I swear that my bairns
Will be born free
And I know what I want
When the timing is right
And I'll take what is mine
I am the clansman'

Once again Iron Maiden are on the side of the victims of capitalist 'modernisation' and 'progress', even if what they are celebrating instead is a Clan system of feudal hierachy which was also exploitative and oppressive for the peasants. Yet this song in particular is firmly in the tradition of 'romantic anti-capitalism', undoubtedly inspired by Sir Walter Scott's novels (or perhaps the Mel Gibson film BraveHeart).

Yet while Iron Maiden can rage against the world system, they have absolutely no idea about how to change things. This is not something to be surprised at, or to criticise them for - they are ordinary people like anyone else and do not pretend to be politicians. However, their songs also do give a very good insight into what Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci called the 'contradictory consciousness' of working class people under capitalism, which is the norm outside of periods of high class struggle or for those who are not members of collective class conscious organisations. One song off their latest album epitomises where not just Maiden, but also millions of working people in Britain today are at now, politically speaking.

Age of Innocence (Harris/Smith)

I can't be compromising in my thoughts no more
I can't prevent the times my anger fills my heart
I can't be sympathizing with a new lost cause
I feel I've lost my patience with the world and all

And all the politicians and their hollow promises
And all the lies, deceit and shame that goes with it
The working man pays everything for their mistakes
And with his life too if there was to be a war

So we can only get one chance can we take it
And we only got one life can't exchange it
Can we hold on to what we have don't replace it
The age of innocence is fading.......like an old dream

A life of petty crime gets punished with a holiday
The victims' mind are scarred for life most everyday
Assailants know just how much further that can go
They know the laws are soft conviction chances low

You can't protect yourselves even in your own home
For fear of vigilante cries the victims wipe their eyes
So now the criminal they launch right in our face
Judical system lets them do it, a disgrace

Despondent public worries where it will all end
We can't protect ourselces our kids from the crime trend
We cannot even warn each other of evil in our midst
They have more rights than us, you cannot call that just

So we can only get one chance can we take it
And we only got one life can't exchange it
Can we hold on to what we have don't replace it
The age of innocence is fading.......like an old dream
The age of innocence is fading like an old dream'

This song reflects both the 'common sense' of the British working class today (a fear of violent crime out of control, essentially hysteria whipped up by the right wing tabloid press) but also what Gramsci called the 'good sense' of the working class. 'I can't be compromising in my thoughts no more', 'I can't prevent the times my anger fills my heart', 'I feel I've lost my patience with the world and all' - all this reflects the feelings of millions of people in Britain today - tired of a failing neo-liberal economic agenda which always puts big business first and ignores the needs of ordinary people around the world.

'And all the politicians and their hollow promises
And all the lies, deceit and shame that goes with it
The working man pays everything for their mistakes
And with his life too if there was to be a war.'

This shows the 'romantic anti-capitalism' of Maiden at its best - articulating the feelings of millions of working class people in Britain after Blair's criminal and disasterous war on Iraq. George Lukacs before the First World War, as Alex Callinicos notes, 'saw the position of humankind as a tragic one, caught up in a fragmented and meaningless modern world from which any sense of understanding things as a whole had been lost. His astonishing rapid conversion to revolutionary Marxism in 1918 led Lukacs to see the proletariat as the source of this missing totality. Initially this led him into what Michael Löwy calls a kind of revolutionary 'messianism', in which the proletariat functions as a kind of seventh cavalry.' One suspects that, should the Iraq war continue to descend on its current bloody spiral, then global capitalism might have a legion of very angry Iron Maiden fans to deal with. The Age of Innocence is over.

For Maiden lyrics to analyse to your hearts content, see here

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At 4:26 pm, Blogger HV said...

I'll never hear 'Run to the hills' the same way again...

While we're on the topic of the mixed consciousness of musicians, in 1994 Duran Duran covered Public Enemy's '911 is a joke'. This, 7 years after they dressed a black man up as a horse and had a white model ride him in the video 'Girls on film'. It's good to see solidarity with black liberation reach the top levels of the pop world :-)

At 10:32 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Duran Duran are a joke (though I liked 'Ordinary world' when I was little - and didn't really know anything about music - and I still don't know much now).

What is it with 80s acts trying to make a 'comeback' at the moment - and you can include Iron Maiden in this if you like - I saw an advert for Chris fucking Rea's greatest hits. It is not right.

At 8:45 am, Blogger Martin Wisse said...

So I'm not completely naff in still liking Maiden then? Good to hear...

Heavy metal in general is often derided as a rightwing, even fascistoid music genre, but it seems to me there are quite a few bands within it which are generally leftwing, if not socialist: Anthrax comes to mind, as does System of A Down, who got Michael Moore to produce their anti-Iraq war video.

At 4:46 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Just saw Maiden live for the first time last night at Leeds festival - they played stuff from what they sometimes call their 'jurassic period' - but it was a damn impressive set nonetheless. Other highlights for me were Iggy and the Stoges, MIA, Sons and Daughters, VHS or Beta. NOFX were funny.

Cheers for your comment Martin -
your blog is cool - I'll add your blog to my links if thats ok.

At Leeds festival, someone pointed out to me that it is the sound of manufacturing industry and the production line that comes through in heavy metal - this is more clear in say Metallica than Maiden - most metal bands are working class blokes and this is what they know. This is why in part I agree that it is wrong to say that Metal is 'reactionary' or 'fascistic' per se. And that is before we talk about bands like System Of a Down and Rage Against the Machine et al.

At 10:19 am, Blogger Cie Cheesemeister said...

Hey, I like it! Nice to see someone thinking for a change.
I tried thinking once, but it hurt my brain!
Eddie tried to think once...and we know what happened to him!
Keep it up!
The Cheesemeister

At 12:20 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Cheers Cheesemeister for your kind comments. I am glad you liked it.

I missed out Maiden's opposition to Thatcherism in my original post, which ought to be registered somewhere on here too.

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At 9:55 pm, Anonymous sexy sheer lingerie said...

Iron Maiden is the inspiration of many current bands due to the passage of this band by the World Rock a before and an after metal .. I love the band is really great!

At 11:16 pm, Anonymous Viagra said...

Iron Maiden have proven time after time what heavy metal is all about, the songs you put hear are hymns within the metal fans. I've had the honor of watching them live twice in less than a year and it is incredible. Up the Irons!


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