From the archives: Power to the people – John Lennon and Yoko Ono interview

Lenin or Lennon? Red Pepper reprints John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s interview with Robin Blackburn and Tariq Ali (published in issue 21, February 1996)

October 30, 2014 · 13 min read

Bed-In_for_Peace,_Amsterdam_1969_-_John_Lennon_&_Yoko_Ono_01Tariq Ali: Your latest record and your recent public statements, especially your interviews in Rolling Stone magazine, suggest that your views are becoming increasingly radical and political. When did this start to happen?

John Lennon: I’ve always been politically minded, you know, and against the status quo, but in the hurricane Beatle world it got left out. It’s pretty basic when you’re brought up, like I was, to hate and fear the police as a natural enemy and to despise the army as something that takes everybody away and leaves them dead somewhere. I mean, it’s just a basic working-class thing, though it begins to wear off when you get older, get a family and get swallowed up in the system.

TA: What was the reason for the success of your music?

JL: It’s the same phoney deal they gave the blacks, it was just like they allowed blacks to be runners or boxers or entertainers. That’s the choice they allow you – now the outlet is being a pop star, which is really what I’m saying in ‘Working Class Hero’.

TA: When did you start breaking out of the role imposed on you as a Beatle?

JL: Even during the Beatle heyday I tried to go against it – so did George. We went to America a few times and [The Beatles manager Brian] Epstein always tried to waffle on at us about saying nothing about Vietnam. So there came a time when George and I said: ‘Listen, when they ask next time, we’re going to say we don’t like that war and we think they should get right out.’ That’s what we did. At that time this was a pretty radical thing to do, especially for the ‘Fab Four’. It was the first opportunity I personally took to wave the flag a bit. But we were all so pressurised that there was hardly any chance of expressing ourselves, especially working at that rate, touring continually and always kept in a cocoon of myths and dreams. It’s pretty hard when you are Caesar and everyone is saying how wonderful you are and they are giving you all the goodies and the girls, it’s pretty hard to break out of that, to say: ‘Well, I don’t want to be king, I want to be real.’ So in its way the second political thing I did was to say: ‘The Beatles are bigger than Jesus.’ That really broke the scene, I nearly got shot in America for that. Now, what I’m trying to do on my albums and in these interviews is to influence all the people I can influence. The acid dream is over, that is what I’m telling them.

Robin Blackburn: Even in the past, people would use Beatles’ songs and give them new words. ‘Yellow Submarine’ for instance had a number of versions. One that strikers used to sing began: ‘We all live on bread and margarine’, at LSE we had a version that began: ‘We all live in a Red LSE.’

JL: I like that. And I enjoyed it when football crowds in the early days would sing ‘All Together Now’ – that was another one. I was also pleased when the movement in America took up ‘Give Peace a Chance’, because I had written it with that in mind, really. I hoped that instead of singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ from 1800 or something, they would have something contemporary. I felt an obligation even then to write a song that people would sing in a pub or on a demonstration. That is why I would like to compose songs for the revolution now…

RB: We only have a few revolutionary songs and they were composed in the 19th century. Do you find anything in our musical traditions which could be used for revolutionary songs?

JL: When I started, rock ‘n’ roll itself was the basic revolution to people of my age and situation. We needed something loud and clear to break through all the unfeeling and repression that had been coming down on us kids.

Yoko Ono: With my music, I want to incite people to loosen their oppression by giving them something to work with, to build on. They shouldn’t be frightened of creating themselves.

RB: I suppose workers’ control is about that…

JL: Haven’t they tried out something like that in Yugoslavia?

TA: But instead of allowing uninhibited workers’ control, they added a strong dose of political bureaucracy.

JL: It seems that all revolutions end up with a personality cult – even the Chinese seem to need a father figure. I expect this happens in Cuba too with Che and Fidel… In Western-style Communism, we would have to create an almost imaginary workers’ image of themselves as the father figure.

RB: As long as it was not a comforting illusion, as long as there was a real workers’ power. If a capitalist or bureaucrat is running your life then you need to compensate with illusions…

YO: The people have got to trust in themselves.

TA: That’s the vital point. This can’t be done just by propaganda – the workers must move, take over their own factories and tell the capitalists to bugger off.

JL: But there’s a problem about that. All the revolutions have happened when a Fidel or Marx or Lenin or whatever, who were intellectuals, were able to get through to the workers. They got a good pocket of people together and the workers seemed to understand that they were in a repressed state. They haven’t woken up yet here, they still believe that cars and tellies are the answer.

TA: This new Industrial Relations Bill [anti-union laws drafted by the Conservatives] that the government is trying to introduce is making more and more workers realise what is happening…

JL: I don’t think the Bill can work, I don’t think the workers will co-operate with it. I thought the Wilson [Labour] government was a big let-down but this [Edward] Heath [Conservative] lot are worse. The underground is being harassed, the black militants can’t even live in their own homes now, and they’re selling more arms to the South Africans. Like Richard Neville said, there may be only an inch of difference between Wilson and Heath, but it’s in that inch that we live…

RB: Now you’re trying to swim against the stream of bourgeois society, which is much more difficult…

JL: The problem for me is that as I have become less real, I’ve grown away from most working-class people. It’s the students who are buying us now, and that’s the problem. Now The Beatles are four separate people, we don’t have the impact we had when we were together. EMI killed our album Two Virgins because they didn’t like it. With the last record they’ve censored the words of the song printed on the record sleeve. Fucking ridiculous and hypocritical – they have to let me sing it but they don’t dare let you read it. Insanity.

RB: Though you reach fewer people now, perhaps the effect can be more concentrated.

JL: The only thing is to talk to the workers directly, especially the younger workers. We’ve got to start with them because they know they’re up against it. That’s why I talk about school on the album, I’d like to incite people to break the framework, to be disobedient, to stick their tongues out, to keep insulting authority.

YO: We are very lucky, really, because we can create our own reality, John and me, but we know the most important thing is to communicate with other people. But we mustn’t be traditional in the way we communicate – especially with the Establishment. We should surprise people by saying things in an entirely new way. Communication of that sort can have a fantastic power so long as you don’t do only what they expect you to do.

RB: Communication is vital for building a movement, but in the end it’s powerless unless you also develop popular force.

TA: No ruling class in the whole of history has given up power voluntarily and I don’t see that changing.

YO: But in a way the new music showed things could be transformed by new channels of communication.

JL: But when it comes to the nitty gritty they won’t let the people have the power, they’ll give all the rights to perform and to dance for them, but no real power…

YO: The thing is, even after the revolution if people don’t have any trust in themselves, they’ll get new problems.

JL: After the revolution you have the problem of keeping things going, of sorting out all the different views. It’s quite natural that revolutionaries should have different solutions, that they should split into different groups and then reform, that’s the dialectic, isn’t it – but at the same time they need to be united against the enemy, to solidify a new order. I don’t know what the answer is.

RB: The danger is that once a revolutionary state has been created, a new conservative bureaucracy tends to form around it. This danger tends to increase if the revolution is isolated by imperialism and there is material scarcity.

JL: Once the new power has taken over they have to establish a new status quo just to keep the factories and trains running.

RB: Yes, but a repressive bureaucracy doesn’t necessarily run the factories or trains any better than the workers could under a system of revolutionary democracy.

JL: Yes, but we all have bourgeois instincts within us, we all get tired and feel the need to relax a bit. How do you keep everything going and keep up revolutionary fervour after you’ve achieved what you set out to achieve? Of course Mao has kept them up to it in China, but what happens after Mao goes? Also, he uses a personality cult. Perhaps, that’s necessary, like I said, everybody seems to need a father figure. But I’ve been reading Krushchev Remembers – I know he’s a bit of a lad himself – but he seemed to think that making a religion out of an individual was bad: that doesn’t seem to be a part of the basic Communist idea. Still people are people, that’s the difficulty. If we took over Britain, then we’d have the job of cleaning up the bourgeoisie and keeping people in a revolutionary state of mind.

TA: A personality cult is totally alien to Marxism, which is about ideas…

RB: The decisive thing is to build popular power right into the heart of the new revolutionary state.

JL: I think it wouldn’t take much to get the youth here really going. You’d have to give them free rein to attack the local councils or to destroy the school authorities, like the students who break up the repression of the universities. It’s already happening, though people have got to get it together more. And the women are very important too, we can’t have a revolution that doesn’t involve and liberate women. It’s so subtle the way you’re taught male superiority. It took me quite a long time to realise that my maleness was cutting off certain areas for Yoko. She’s a red-hot liberationist and was quick to show me where I was going wrong, even though it seemed to me that I was just acting naturally. That’s why I’m always interested to know how people who claim to be radical treat women.

YO: You can’t love someone unless you are in an equal position with them. A lot of women have to cling to men out of fear or insecurity, and that’s not love. The problem for women is that if we try to be free, then we naturally become lonely, because so many women are willing to become slaves, and men usually prefer it.

JL: What’s your position on the Common Market [now the European Union]? The Morning Star is against it but I’m not sure at all. The feeling I have is that it would be a conglomeration of capitalist Europe but that the movement of workers would bring them together so that it could consolidate communism as well as capitalism I think.

TA: We should work for a united workers’ Europe, a socialist United States of Europe, a Red Europe…

JL: It is fantastic to think of the power workers could have with the Italians and Germans together and all that gear.

TA: How do you think we can destroy the capitalist system here John?

JL: I think only by making the workers aware of the really unhappy position they are in, breaking the dream they are surrounded by. They think they are in a wonderful free-speaking country, they’ve got cars and tellies and they don’t want to think there’s anything more to life, they are prepared to let the bosses run them, to see their children fucked up in school. They’re dreaming someone else’s dream, it’s not even their own. They should realise that the blacks and the Irish are being repressed and that they will be next. As soon as they start being aware of all that, we can really begin to do something. The workers can start to take over. The idea is not to comfort people, not to make them feel better but to make them feel worse, to constantly put before them the degradations and humiliations they go through to get what they call a living wage.

First published in The Red Mole, March 1971. Read the full interview here.

Photograph:  Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, Rijksfotoarchief: Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Fotopersbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989 – via Wikimedia Commons

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