John Lennon’s Imagine – 50 Years On | Edward Howard
Fifty years seems like a long time ago, not only because cultural norms were so different then, but because standards of living and our lifestyles have changed so much that the two eras could have been two separate countries, not helped by the left-wing cultural revolution that began in the 1960s, and still haunts us to this day.
And while all of this is true, much of the cultural touchstones of that era still hold up in a way that many of our current ones will not do in less than a decade’s time. This couldn’t be truer for much of the music of the 1970s for example, of whose excellence not only arguably makes it the best decade of pop music in history, but the sort of stuff that will hold up when many of its contemporaries for the last decade or so – rightly dismissed by the late, great Sir Roger Scruton as ‘a carpet of sound, designed to bring thought and feeling down to its own level’ – become irrelevant, with its artists only long-term reward being future guest stars on several vacuous reality singing or dancing shows for their troubles.
In steps John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, a song of which is 50 years old this month, as it was released as a single in the United States of America at this time (it wouldn’t see a British release until 1975). It recently entered my recollection not only because of the recent retrospections of its eponymous album or an admittedly moving use of the song to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, but because of a recent car trip with a friend, who politely requested it be put on, allowing myself to listen to it with fresh ears, having not heard it in full for many years prior.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re undoubtedly familiar with the song; its iconic piano opening, simple lyrics and sentimental feel, all of which combine to make a pop classic in the eyes of many of those who listen to it, especially the thought-leaders of Western Culture. Its success is also well-known. Commercially, the song has topped many charts globally, is in the Top 20 best-selling singles in the UK as of 2013 and has sold 21 million copies worldwide.
Meanwhile, it was a critical success too, having often charted well among various best-ever song polls since its initial release – most notably coming third in Rolling Stone magazine’s 2004 edition of its ‘The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time’, where it commented that in a post 9/11 world that it was ‘an enduring hymn of solace and promise’ and that ‘It is now impossible to imagine a world without ‘Imagine’, and we need it more than he ever dreamed’. It’s inarguably Lennon’s most widely recognised work, possibly being bigger than anything he did with The Beatles as well, and whose stature has only grown since his tragic 1980 murder. That’s not even going into its endless covers, including the infamous celebrity one of 2020, of which one of its own participants called ‘creative diarrhoea’.
Beyond that though, it’s also significant for another reason; its overtly political slant. With its utopian left-wing slant cranked up to 11, it’s a song known for its politics and message as well as its melody and iconic singer. It’s no surprise then when one of the all-time pre-eminent music critics Robert Christgau reviewed the album it came from, he discussed that the song was ‘both a hymn for the Movement and a love song for his wife, celebrating a Yokoism and a Marcusianism simultaneously’ – referring to both the left-wing opposition to the Vietnam War that Lennon was a huge part of, and German scholar Herbert Marcuse, who is often dubbed the ‘Father of the New Left’, both of which have undoubtedly had a huge influence on both left-wing politics and the subsequent culture wars on both sides of the Atlantic ever since. Lennon would later make reference to this, noting that artists had to ‘Put your political message across with a little honey’ to make their songs acceptable, later telling fellow former Beatle Paul McCartney that ‘Imagine’ was his other hit ‘‘Working Class Hero’ with sugar on it for conservatives like yourself’.
In terms of New Left politics, nothing comes close to the reach and influence that ‘Imagine’ has had in terms of the movement’s cultural touchstones – not in the plethora of Noam Chomsky books, Oliver Stone movies or prominent speeches by left-wing figures and politicians since the 1960s has anything come close to the iconic status that ‘Imagine’ has, especially in the universal praise it occupies in the pop culture zeitgeist and beyond. It is also because of this that any attempts by the Right before or since to match its status have failed miserably, no matter how well the various Dirty Harry or Clint Eastwood movies, seasons of 24 or Tom Clancy related material have done since.
But as a song itself, how does it hold up?
In many respects, quite well. Now unlike many of my conservative peers, I’m not simply going to rubbish the song outright, as I feel it’s unfair to do so, especially since in all honesty, its reputation as a classic is mostly well-deserved.
Musically, the song is a delight to listen to, with its simple melody being very appealing, and its use of minor chords and of violins make it feel utterly moving as well. Lennon’s voice is strong and passionate, allowing the song to further emotionally connect with the listener too, as well as making it a sincere tract, placing alongside other hits such as The Cranberries’ ‘Zombie’ and Soul Asylum’s ‘Runaway Train’ as rare examples of political or socially aware songs by popular artists that mean it and come from a sincere place – which makes all of them much better than the laughable virtue signalling efforts by the likes of Katy Perry or Eminem nowadays who offer similar political music for the sake of validation by their politically correct peers, not for sincerity. Finally, it has a very perfect production, making all of its various musical elements mesh well to create a perfect pop tune for the ages. It is also much better and far more listenable than much of the political music that has come before or after it, such as Barry McGuire’s woeful ‘Eve Of Destruction’, much of Roger Waters’ frankly unlistenable solo work and… whatever this is.
It is for those reasons and more that the song has its well-earned reputation, and that can’t be taken away from it. And it’s hard for the idealist in all of us not to be somewhat sympathetic to the lyrics, no matter how hard you try (and to be fair, that’s how another former Beatle Ringo Starr recommended listening to it in the first place) – after all, who wouldn’t want world peace, or an end to hunger, as Lennon pines for?
However, it’s those much-analysed lyrics are very problematic and questionable when judged against reality, especially since much of what Lennon wanted has come to fruition, and much of its results have been very bad to say the least.
Starting with its blatantly anti-religious tract that would make Philip Pullman proud:
‘Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky’
Now, Lennon’s open hatred and scorn for religion comes as no surprise to those who knew him, or his other work – most notably his 1970 song ‘God’ expressed that the idea of a deity is ‘a Concept by which we measure our pain’, and that he only believed in ‘me, Yoko and me, and that’s reality’, underlying the nihilistic hedonistic individualism of his philosophy. However, since the 1960s, religious belief in much of the Western world has collapsed, due to much change in the postwar era, not least of which the many churches pandering to the liberal reformers within them which made many turn away from them, such as what happened to the Church of England post Honest To God and Parliamentary reforms in the early 1970s. This has been seen most starkly in two ways; the steep decline of Christian belief in Britain according to Census Data – being at 72% of the population in 2001 to 60% in 2011 – and Pope Benedict XVI calling the continent of Europe a ‘desert of Godlessness’ in a 2009 address.
As an agnostic atheist myself, I don’t dispute Lennon’s claims that religion has done a lot of bad in this world, but it has undoubtedly done a lot of good as well, not least of which creating values that made the West perhaps the best civilisation in world history. Throwing the baby out of the bathwater since the 1960s has been interesting to say the least. As G. K. Chesterton noted, ‘There may have been a time when people found it easy to believe in anything. But we are finding it vastly easier to disbelieve anything.’ Abandoning religion has been good in some ways – old prejudices have collapsed, and it has allowed more advances in the sciences than ever before – but it has been bad in many others. It has given people no sense of purpose in life, left many in despair and more afraid of death than ever before – which goes some way of explaining how in the wake of terrorist acts, shootings and pandemics that governments in the West have met less and less resistance in taking civil liberties away than ever before.
Instead because of this, and the decline of the community spirit thanks to globalisation, people have instead placed that zeal once occupied for religion and their local communities into other activities. Sometimes this can be somewhat healthy and communitarian in terms of network-building provided it isn’t taken to extremes – the likes of nationalism, football fandom and video gaming communities are good examples of this. However, there are also uglier examples of this too – people worshipping at the cult of celebrity, the state, the latest consumerist trend, the worst parts of geek culture or the utter abyss of reality TV. It also happens to explain the rise of ‘woke’ politics among the young, as it similarly fits this zeal. But as Douglas Murray has rightly noted, while ‘It fills life with meaning, of a kind’, it is one of the ‘unhappiest’ ways to do so, as its ‘ambitions it strives after nearly always go unachieved’, and to use ‘ourselves up on identity politics… is a waste of a life.’ To quote Chesterton once more, ‘You hard-shelled materialists were all balanced on the very edge of belief — of belief in almost anything.’
What Lennon suggests we replace religion with – a hedonistic lifestyle whereby ‘all the people’ would be ‘Living for today’ – is at the core of New Left politics, of which is what they ultimately strive for. Whereas the Old Left fought for economic equality against worker exploitation in the Industrial Revolution, the New Left fights for something else entirely. As one YouTuber put it, the New Left fights for ‘short-lived hedonic experiences’ and little else. Beyond this philosophy being an utterly selfish one, it is also perverse to replace religious ways of life with what could best be described as Project X philosophy, named after the awful 2012 movie of the same name – here, do whatever you desire, there are no rules and anyone who tries to stop you is badly motivated and should be punished accordingly. Is it the central guide to the New Left and New Right ways of thinking – and it is no wonder that ever since the elites have adopted such inherently selfish ideas that our societies themselves have become more selfish and morally corrosive over time.
Meanwhile, it has no moral restraint, given its core principle is that individual self-expression without regulation or self-control is the best way to live. In short, how far is too far? The Insulate Britain crowd who have recently blocked several motorways in the name of climate change would claim that their behaviour was justified because they were sacrificing all to save the planet. The various drag kids we see on TV and elsewhere would defend themselves because they are expressing their supposed true nature, and you are bigoted for questioning them, something their parents and various activists would back them up on. Even the German cannibal Armin Meiwes could defend himself in a similar manner – it was his desire to eat someone from childhood, and his victim had given consent to be a part of his fantasy, so by these ideas, he hadn’t done much wrong. In all cases, the lack of moral restraint to the New Left would deem all of these examples at the very least the logical conclusions of their ideas taken to extremes. This is because it lacks such ideas of Natural Rights as convinced by classical liberals like John Locke, let alone the moral code of the Bible and similar religious texts.
Next is the anti-nationalist stuff too:
‘Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace’
Very notably, governments from around the West have taken Lennon’s advice and have attempted to undermine the nation-state in favour of globalist institutions such as the United Nations and the European Union. It is also very telling that as such institutions have gained more power that opposition to them has grown substantially over the years. People have rightly concluded that as globalisation without restraint has made their lives worse, that such blocs have been at the heart and centre of the change that they don’t like, from issues like the undermining of their own sovereign governments, deindustrialisation and mass immigration they never wanted or asked for.
Indeed, in the case of the European Union, such issues are seeing the bloc’s nations in mass revolt – Britain voting to leave it, populist parties and figures of the right and left getting into power on Eurosceptic platforms and many of its strongest supporters being cast out into electoral oblivion by angry voters. That’s not even counting future problems for the bloc – the AfD in Germany remains an electoral threat despite Orwellian attempts by the German state to undermine them, and there is a very strong chance that Marine Le Pen could become President of France next year. Whether one likes these changes or not is irrelevant – what they represent are the rejection of the globalist politics that Lennon espouses.
Funnily enough, we are starting to move away from such a utopian notion, and to something more familiar. 25 years on from the release of ‘Imagine’, American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington released his magnum opus of The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, of which predicted that the world would return to an era whereby conflicts between different cultures would return to the forefront of politics after the Cold War. He also noted that globalism and ideas like it were naïve, something hard for the West to accept, given that it has spurred the charge for such changes, especially in the development of the former institutions. From the rise of nationalist politicians like Nigel Farage in the UK and Donald Trump in the USA, and the militaristic rise and defensive behaviour of what he labelled ‘challenger civilizations’ of Sinic China and the Islamic world, Huntington’s vision is coming more to fruition, not Lennon’s.
Finally, there’s the anti-private property part of which some have taken as Lennon’s sympathies towards communism, with some merit:
‘Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world’
While most of the New Left have since thankfully dumped communism as a workable philosophy, their hatred towards private property is similar to Lennon’s, and has only been exposed in the years since, especially when they defend riots and violent mob attacks of far-left organisations that they sympathise with, such as with Black Lives Matter and Antifa.
Some sadly have gone further than that; others have at best defended rioting against private property in the name of expressing ‘anger in the community’, while others have openly called for the abolition of private housing, noting that ‘There was no satisfactory retort’ to Pilgrims buying property off of Native American tribes. This is despite how private property is a core pillar for freedom in any major society, given that it creates the notion of privacy and therefore individual liberty, not to mention how property ownership is vital to the creation and development of any society’s middle class – it’s no coincidence that much-touted documents of human liberty, such as the Magna Carta and the United States Constitution, openly cite private property as a human right in the common good of a free state.
Maybe Lennon would be proud of the modern world his song helped to bring into being. After all, he was proud that his ‘Anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic’ message was accepted by the masses as it was ‘sugarcoated’. As with so many other hypotheticals, we will simply never know.
So, all in all, John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ is far from a bad song, and its strong reputation is well-earned. That being said, its lyrics are immensely concerning in this day in age, not only because of the New Left philosophy that they espouse, but because the results have led to our societies being in the socio-cultural crises they’re in now. Very tellingly, governments in the Western world have begun to move away from such a utopian vision, and are more increasingly returning to a more communitarian view of politics, albeit often reluctantly caving into pressure from their people unhappy that their elites are dogmatic to such views while their lives are not improving. Maybe Starr’s earlier advice was for the best after all. So, for its 50th anniversary, enjoy the song – just don’t pay too much attention to the lyrics.