Secret anarchists: #1 Charlie Chaplin

(darkernet) Charlie Chaplin gained great wealth during his Hollywood years, was knighted and may well be the last person many would think of as being an anarchist. He neither wrote about anarchism, nor took part in organised strikes or demonstrations. But he did annoy one of the greatest dictators that ever lived. And the American government feared him and his politics so much they banished him from US shores. So, perhaps he really was a ‘secret anarchist’….

1. Childhood

Charlie Chaplin was born on 16 April 1889 in an inner London borough and lived for most of his childhood in abject poverty. Before he was age nine he was twice sent to a workhouse as his mother (his father was absent) was not able to look after him. He also attended a pauper’s school. Eventually Charlie’s mother was committed to a mental asylum having developed a psychosis brought on by syphilis (common in those days amongst the poor) and malnutrition. The authorities then arranged for Charlie to live with his father, who was an alcoholic and who would beat Charlie violently. After his father’s early death (age 38) Charlie, then age 14, slept rough on the streets, scavenging food from bins.

At a very young age Chaplin learnt how to survive by performing in music halls (both his parents had worked similarly) and, later, working as a stage actor and comedian. At 19 he was signed to the Fred Karno company, which took him to America. Chaplin was then scouted by the film industry, and he made his first appearances in 1914 with Keystone Studios. He soon developed the Tramp persona and formed a large fan base. By 1918, not yet thirty years old, he had become one of the most famous men in the world.

2. Early politics

Chaplin was not just an actor, film director and screenwriter, but throughout his life concerned himself with the social and economic problems of the times. In 1931 and 1932 he went to tour Europe, but was deeply disturbed to see the rise of nationalism as well as the widespread poverty resulting from the Depression. He was particularly shocked by the high levels of unemployment, but also the kind of automaton work that people were expected to do. He devised his Economic Solution, an exercise in mutual aid, based on an equitable distribution not just of wealth but of work. In the film, ‘Modern Times’, Chaplin was determined to transform his observations about life and poverty and the drudgery of the working class through the vehicle of comedy.

Chaplin hated fascism and all it stood for. He also knew he had to do something to help the fight against fascism – but what? He then had an idea. And that idea grew into another film. The ‘Great Dictator’ was begun in 1938. Chaplin not only starred in the film, but scripted it, directed it and financed it. Once news of the film leaked out, German and British diplomats in the United States were enraged (at that point, appeasement was the name of the game). It was not long after Chaplin began making the ‘Great Dictator’ before the then fledgling House of Un-American Activities began to query Chaplin himself.

3. Exile

In 1940 the ‘Great Dictator’ was finally released. By then, of course, Britain was at war with Germany, though America was yet to join the conflict. Historians believe that the release of the film was one of several influences that would eventually encourage the USA to join in the fight against the Nazis. It is also understood that Hitler ordered a copy of the film and on seeing it was so incensed he immediately put Chaplin on his death list. The ‘Great Dictator’ was nominated for five Academy Awards.

In 1952, the American Legion, a right-wing organisation linked to the McCarthyites, organised pickets of Chaplin’s latest film, ‘Limelight’, even though it had no noticeable political content. The FBI, meanwhile, had begun an investigation into Chaplin. Chaplin then made another trip to Europe, where ‘Limelight’ would be premiered in London. This time, however, his departure from the USA was used as an excuse for the House of Un-American Activities, then at its height, to issue a notice disallowing Chaplin from re-entering the USA. In essence he was exiled, banned, deported. In contrast, in Europe, Chaplin was greeted like a returning hero, feted and dined wherever he went. He eventually decided to live in Switzerland.

4. Latter years

In 1972, when the political climate in the USA was much different, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences offered Chaplin an Honorary Award, “to make amends”. Chaplin was initially hesitant about accepting, but decided to return to the US for the first time in 20 years. At the Academy Awards gala, Chaplin was given a twelve-minute standing ovation, the longest in the Academy’s history. Chaplin was also knighted.

Chaplin never forgot his impoverished roots and this was reflected in every one of his films. In later years, when he was asked about his politics, Chaplin stated unequivocally that he was an anarchist.

Chaplin died on Christmas Day, 1977. Decades later, the incredibly moving final six minutes of the ‘Great Dictator’ – when Chaplin, pretending to be Hitler, addresses the massed troops at the Nuremberg Rally not with an exhortation to war but to peace – has been turned (see below) by those in the Occupy movement into another rallying call – for equality throughout the world and an end to all conflicts and tyranny.

If Chaplin were alive today be would undoubtedly be part of Occupy, or of Anonymous, or publishing a dissident blog, admonishing the USA for its present day adoption of totalitarian technologies and its protection of the 1% while millions still suffer in poverty. For Chaplin may well have been a secret anarchist.


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