If You Tolerate This
A look at the classic anti-fascist anthem by Manic Street Preachers, and its continued relevance
If you tolerate this, then your children will be next.
Aside from holding the record as the longest song title without brackets, these are as foreboding a collection of words as you can imagine.
So at first glance it doesn’t seem destined to be a song that would help the band achieve their first UK number one and grow their cult following around the world. But then who really pays attention to song lyrics? Songs like ‘Every Breath You Take’ by The Police and ‘Hotel California’ by The Eagles are favourites often chosen for the first dance at weddings, and though bride and groom may know all the words you have to wonder if they’ve ever really paid attention to them (and maybe worry, if they have and still find them relevant).
So if you didn’t pay attention (or weren’t aware) the first time around, it’s perhaps more important that ever to remind ourselves of the anti-fascist sentiment behind the song.
A friend once declared it to be one of his favourites, so I excitedly began discussing everything I knew about its history —we’re both from the same area as the band. His response of ‘why have you got to spoil everything?’ wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. Nonetheless I continue to ‘spoil’ it for as many people as I can, because it’s important.
The song is about the fight against fascism during the Spanish Civil War. The title is taken from a harrowing poster distributed during the war, which I have no intention of reproducing here due to its nature. It features a child said to have been killed by Franco’s fascist forces, and serves as the most emotive propaganda possible.
With the band being from the valleys of south Wales it unsurprisingly touches on the strong links between their home and the fight against fascism: roughly 200 Welshmen went to join the fight, with 33 losing their lives.
The song featured on the album This is My Truth Tell Me Yours, a reference to a quote by Aneurin Bevan; the father of the NHS and a Welsh miner, who responded to the threat posed by fascism by forming an anti-fascist militia in 1933. The history between Wales and anti-fascism runs deep; ‘The Manics’ have also written a song about the great actor, musician and political activist Paul Robeson, who cut his political teeth with Welsh miners.
The future teaches you to be alone, the present to be afraid and cold
It opens with these hauntingly melancholy lines, mirroring a mood familiar to both the oppressed in Spain and those who felt it necessary to join them in solidarity. This was a time when the average man and woman made more of an effort to be politically aware, and the rise of fascism across Europe troubled an already disenfranchised working class on the continent.
So if I can shoot rabbits, then I can shoot fascists
This is a direct quote by Tom Thomas from Bedlinog, which for me conveys both the despondency that must have motivated his decision to volunteer, and the naivety of his simplistic surmising of the horrors that awaited him. Could he have really imagined both acts to be comparable?
To remind ourselves why this history is increasingly relevant it’s helpful to juxtapose the line ‘I’ve walked Las Ramblas, but not with real intent’ with ‘on the streets tonight an old man prays, with newspaper cuttings of his glory days’.
In the first the memory of fascism is there, but it isn’t fresh and lacks intensity — a visit to a popular tourist destination today is no substitute for the experiences of life under Franco.
In the second line, the dangers have been all but forgotten; a hero ignored, consigned to history along with the lessons of his past.
Ignoring song lyrics is hardly a crime. But ignoring what they mean, in a wider context, can be as good as one. Nick Griffin of the far right UK party the BNP may not have used this song at his wedding, but he paid as much attention to the lyrics (or at least he hoped the public would when it was used in a video to promote the party). The same can be said for the EDL.
Over eight decades on from the start of the Spanish Civil War and the threat of fascism continues to be ignored. We live in a world where growing numbers of right wing populist leaders are coming to power, dismissive of comparisons with fascism yet increasingly fitting its definitions.
We cannot afford to ignore history. Because this song title isn’t hyperbole.