Tuesday, 5 August 2008

The Class Struggle Aboard the 'Titanic'



To commemorate the 100 years of publication of the Socialist Standard the monthly periodical of the Socialist Party (SPGB). The Party published in 2004 a selection of seventy articles chosen from the ten thousand published in its organ during its hundred year history of activity and socialist propagation. The result was a beautifully put together book 'Socialism Or Your Money Back' which illuminates an unbroken proud but humble intervention that still goes on today.

When I think of Gordon Brown or Harold Wilson, I end up thinking about Ramsay MacDonald the first Labour Prime Minister, and when I think of him, I then remember the story by Hans Christian Anderson, about the Emperor who hires two tailors who promise to make him a set of remarkable new clothes that will be invisible to anyone who is either incompetent or stupid. When the emperor goes to see his new clothes, he sees nothing at all - for the tailors are nothing more than swindlers and there aren't any clothes. Afraid of being judged incompetent or stupid, the emperor pretends to be delighted with the new clothes and 'wears' them in the grand parade through the town. Everyone else also pretends to see them, until a child yells out "he hasn't got any clothes on!.

It is said that people who point out the emptiness and pretensions of powerful people and institutions are often compared to that child who says that the emperor has no clothes. The Socialist Party has for more than a century been pointing out the emptiness and pretensions of the powerful and their institutions, whilst propagating at every given opportunity the socialist alternative to the slavery enforced by capitalism onto the billions on prison planet earth. 'Socialism Or Your Money Back' is not only the reproduction of written articles that first appeared in the paper Socialist Standard, but exemplifies in all its shame the failings, deliberate and otherwise of all the reformist parties that have ever claimed to stand for change. My own personal favourite article is one that appeared in 1912 a powerful moving, condemning exposure of the class struggle aboard the 'Titanic'. For that reason and because it is very well written, I've decided to copy it on to my blog so others may not only enjoy its brilliant composition, but also see the relevance that it retains in today's world, as if its speaking to us through the years.

The Class Struggle Aboard The 'Titanic'

Once again humanity has been staggered by an appalling catastrophe, in which hundreds of human lives have been thrown away, and hundreds of homes plunged into grief and despair. Once again the wild cry of horror has vibrated through the world, and the multitude have been not only shocked, but astounded, as if the unexpected had happened. Once again the newspapers have been slobbering sentimental platitudes and unctuous hypocrisy as though this were not the best thing that has happened for them for many a long day.Once again the machinery of bogus inquirers and sanctimonious 'Charity' has been set in motion in order to hide awkward and incriminating facts. And finally, once again have the flouted working class, on whom the brunt of this stupendous sacrifice to Mammon has fallen, begun to forget all about it.
Well, there is nothing at all unusual in that. The workers have proverbially short memories. They have forgotten Featherstone; they have forgotten Whitehaven, they have forgotten Bolston, and in a few short days they will have forgotten the 'Titanic'.
Murder of workers is so common; the workers are so used to it, that they cannot even recognise it for what it is. When the murderous rifles of the soldiery shoot unarmed workers down, it is only the operation of the law, and there's an end on't. When mine-owners neglect to keep their mines ventilated, and blow hundreds of miners into eternity, or brick them up in the pit to be burnt alive, it's a lamentable occurrence but quite an accident, and again there's an end on't. And now that the vast 'unsinkable', the floating city, has carried its full living cargo to the bottom of the Atlantic, the workers arouse themselves in horror of it for a day or two, note with approval that the Royal Family have donated about one day's income to the relief fund, and then slip quietly back into their sleeping sickness.
And, of course, they are to be helped to do this by a sham enquiry which will start out with the set purpose of fixing the blame on the iceberg, or at most on the dead officers who were supposed to have control of the ship, But this enquiry is a mere blind, a cunning attempt to cloak the real position and screen from blame the real culprit.
The enquiry in America, for all its seeming fierce determination to get to the bottom of the matter, and for all the awkward evidence it has elicited, was only embarked on for the purpose of skating the surface. If they could fix the blame on the White Star people, then so much the better for the American shipping interests. But beyond this they did not go; beyond this they never intended to go; beyond this they dared not go. All their virtuous indignation is of a piece with the 'patriotism' of their grandfathers, who poisoned Washington's soldiers with villainous provisions with an unscrupulousness even modern Chicago fails to beat.
To those who understand modern conditions no enquiry is necessary in order to apportion the blame. The starting point of the enquiry will, of course, be the hour immediately preceding the collision. They will go on the worn-out assumption that the captain had the command of the ship. No one will ask why was the 'Titanic' built. No one will dare to suggest that the captain and his officers had not the command of the vessel.
Yet this way lies the truth. In the very designing of the 'Titanic' is the first word of the tragic story, in keeping with which is every jot and tittle of evidence to the end. In the luxurious furnishings - the swimming baths, the flower gardens, the racquets courts - read the secret catastrophe. The ship was built to carry rich passengers across the herring-pond.
Almost the first comment that was made by the newspapers when the fatal news cane to hand was that among the first class passengers aboard the vessel were millionaires who were collectively worth £30,000,000. This in itself is significant. The fares of those six hundred first and second class passengers must have totalled an enormous sum, compared with which the passage money of the steerage was a negligible quantity. The 'Titanic', then, was essentially built for rich passengers upon whom the White Star Company depended to enable their vessel to 'earn' a dividend.
The course is clear from this. The ship was on her maiden voyage; it was necessary to convince the wealthy, whose time is so extremely valuable, that she was a fast boat. So, as it is admitted, there was a general order to "smash all records" - which was duly done. This explains why the lookout men had glasses until they reached Queenstown, but not afterwards - record smashing on Western voyage commences at Queenstown. When records are to be smashed it is very inconvenient to have the lookout seeing too much - especially when the ship is an 'unsinkable' and well-insured. It also explains why the vessel was on a wrong course at a wrong speed, and why no notice was taken of the lookout's warning.
Much will be made of these latter facts, no doubt, and the dead officers will be blamed. It must not be forgotten, however that capitalist companies invariably choose for responsible positions those men to do what they are paid to do. It is all moonshine to talk of the captain being in command. They command who hold his livelihood in their hands. If he will not take risks and get the speed they want, then he must give place to one that will.
So at the bottom it is greed for profit and the insatiable desire for speed on the part of the rich that is responsible for the disaster, whatever conclusion the Committee of Enquiry may come to. Of course, they will not give any such verdict as that, for that would be to indict the capitalist system.
The actual details of the wreck afford a further opportunity of pressing home a lesson. The evidence of the survivors and the evidence of the official figures of the saved, show that even on the decks of the sinking liner, and to the very end, the class struggle was on. Those who had clamoured for speed were the first to monopolise the boats, and the way was kept open for them by the officers' revolvers. Even the capitalist newspapers are compelled to admit the significance of the figures. Of the first class men 34% were saved; of the steerage men only 12%. Figures like those are eloquent enough without the evidence of the officer who admitted that he kept steerage passengers from a half-filled boat with shots from his revolver.
Much has been made of the fact that the cry 'Women and children first' was raised, and it is not necessary to cast aspersions on the courage of any man who survives. The salient fact is that it was not a question of courage of but class. 'Women and children' meant women and children of the wealthy class. Of first class women and children practically all were saved, some even with their pet dog. Of the steerage women and children more than half perished. The 'chivalry' of the ruling class does not, save in very rare instances, extend itself to the class beneath them.
We are not of those who expect any great results from this ocean tragedy. Working class lives are very cheap, and the age that abolishes the Plimsoll Line at the demand of those greedy for profit is hardly likely to insist upon the provision of proper means of life-saving or the careful navigation of passenger vessels. Murder by wholesale may be committed without doing violence to 'law and order', so long as it is committed by the capitalist class in the 'legitimate' scramble for profits. The law only moves against the Crippens and the Seddons, but the murders quite commonly committed by the capitalist class are not one whit less foul, for all nobody is hanged for them.
First published in the Socialist Standard May 1912
"And the band played on"
For a copy of "Socialism Or Your Money Back" http://www.worldsocialism.org/spgb

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great piece of journalism.
The past can speak to us.

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