8 - The Beatles and Communism
8 - The Beatles and Communism
There is no question that The Beatles supported capitalism over communism: McCartney said: “Us, communists? Why, we can’t be communists. We’re the world’s number one capitalists. Imagine us, communists!... We’d be idiots to say that it isn’t a constant inspiration to be making a lot of money.”
Lennon: “My favorite political party is the one that would allow us to keep the most money.”
George’s song Taxman is where he stood on the issue.
The Beatles were firmly in the capitalist camp and Cambridge University historian Professor David Fowler couldn’t agree more. He says the young capitalists were much more interested in selling records than serving as mouthpieces for the younger generation:
“The Beatles were not at all interested in socialism/Marxism but were capitalists who merely exploited youth culture for commercial gain.”
The Beatles were the epitome of the capitalist ethos. To capitalist ideologues – The Beatles were poster boys for their ideology. Between August 1960 and early 1963, they performed more than 800 hours on stage in Hamburg, Germany alone. This hard work, more than anything, accounts for their early success.
Of those days, Harrison remembers:
“In Germany we learned to work for hours on end, and keep on working at full peak even though we reckoned our legs and arms were ready to drop off.”
Simply put, they worked very hard – like any good capitalist – to achieve success. They were poor, but did not ask for handouts and were completely and totally motivated by self-interest. They had an entrepreneurial spirit and were extremely efficient in producing a good product. They knew that the more they created, the more money they would make. In one sense, they proved that capitalism works – if you have a better product than anyone else, you will succeed in the marketplace.
How Marx would view their situation
However, the relevant issue is to what extent did they succeed in an environment that was not open and free to entrepreneurs – regardless of whether they enjoyed some success? A Marxist could still claim that even in their unique set of circumstances, capitalists still got the better deal than they – the laborers.
In his essay You Say You Want a Revolution, Steven Baur of Delhousie University in Canada, reports that The Beatles’ careers provide numerous examples that illustrate ideas central to Marx’s thinking.
On the one hand, they were the leading earner of revenue for their record company. As a result they were allowed to exert more control over the end product than any other artist – ever. They were also unique in that they were songwriters and performed their own songs – which meant the record company and producers had less control over them and what they wanted to record. Their record company EMI went along because the band was making them a lot of money. Corporate interests just happened to be aligned with artistic priorities.
Yet they were systematically exploited. Baur says that they are a good example of how, even in the best of circumstances, and especially where someone rises from the bottom with no capital or power and succeeds – in the end, they wind up with the short end of the stick.
He writes: “This was certainly the case when it came to the paltry commission they were earning on record sales for the first three years of their recording career. Having worked at their craft from the position of the top-earning act in the world – they found themselves in the late 60s with much less money than they and the public believed they had.”
The Canadian researcher points out that although they came from the bottom of the socio-economic ladder and were very successful – ultimately – they were not able to compete with the capitalist class with which they constantly found themselves confronted.
Epstein – who had his own capital – bought a piece of The Beatles for a ridiculously low price – taking 25% of their gross revenues. Their music publisher – Dick James and his partner Charles Silver – received 50% of the shares of Northern Songs for no investment or risk. Not only did Epstein enjoy a 25% cut of their recording royalties and performances for the next five years, but he would also receive 10% of the shares of Northern Songs. This amounted to 10% of all the publishing royalties the songs would earn in the future. What did he do to deserve this wildly profitable “piece of the person’s future earning?”
Yet in the same way Lennon and McCartney got ripped off by Epstein and Dick James/Charles Silver, George and Ringo go ripped off by Lennon-McCartney. Despite George and Ringo having contributed equally to the recording of the songs that earned publishing and songwriting royalties for McCartney and Lennon for decades, the two of them only received a meager 0.8% of the shares of Northern Songs when it went public in 1965. McCartney and Lennon could have shared their publishing and songwriting royalties equally with their two band mates. They decided not to.
Marx was right
All four of The Beatles were entrenched on the labor side of the labor-capital divide. If it weren’t for their musical talents – they would have had a life very similar to their parents in working-class northern England. Trying to beat the system, McCartney said, “We didn’t all get into music for a job! We got into it to avoid a job.”
While the music industry may be unique in that somebody can rise up and become a star and make lots of money – they are still reliant and beholden to the owners of capital.
Baur points out that unlike any other industry, the music business at that time (and for the most part, it remains that way today) was characterized by the exploitative labor-capital dichotomy that Marx exposed and critiqued:
“Like many other aspiring pop stars, The Beatles started out as cheap labor dependent upon and subject to the demands of the capitalists who owned the industrial means of production: record labels, nightclubs and concert venues, radio stations and sheet music press. Because there was so much ‘cheap labor’ due to the dreams of so many aspiring musicians – it was easy for these capitalist entities to exploit market conditions.”
The Beatles experienced this well into the mid-point of their recording careers – and beyond. Although there is absolutely no published account of how much money they did or did not make in the three years they toured the globe, it would be difficult to believe that they fared any better in that venue than they did in earnings from record sales or merchandising rights. This is particularly so after having to pay 25% off the top to Epstein.
Because of his privileged position as the owner of his own capital, Epstein was able to buy a share of the future revenue stream of The Beatles, for a pittance. Having created a very highly-valued asset, he used this position to put them through a grueling touring schedule for three years and worked them to the bone.
Physically and mentally exhausted – and probably not making nearly as much money as they thought they had – they told him “Enough – we won’t do it anymore.”
It wasn’t the screaming teenagers that put an end to their touring days as much as it was the grueling schedule to which Epstein subjected them. Marx would be smiling in his grave upon hearing that the workers had told the factory owner “if we aren’t being adequately compensated for our efforts – we won’t continue.”
What success did bring The Beatles were options. They were able to tell Epstein “no more touring.” Average wage laborers don’t have that option and are forced to continue to endure.
Clearly, they were different.