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The Titanic Disaster 100 Years On

This April will witness the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic. Many words will be written in the capitalist media about the disaster, but what of the class aspects of the tragedy and has anything really changed in the last century?

The Titanic came into being purely for the speedy conveyance of the rich and wealthy classes between Britain and the US. Opulence and luxury were the watchwords of her design and construction, rather than safety. Designed around class division and reflecting the extremes of wealth and poverty in Edwardian Britain, the vessel featured Turkish baths, gymnasiums, electric lifts, ballrooms, dining rooms, a swimming pool and a library for the first class passengers – all designed to attract the wealthiest clients and secure the biggest returns for the investors in White Star Lines.

The now famous story of the Titanic's maiden voyage and her striking an iceberg off Newfoundland is too familiar to need repeating.  Also familiar is the often quoted lack of adequate lifeboat provision, although according to the maritime laws at the time, Titanic surprisingly carried more than she was legally required to. What is more interesting from a socialist's perspective is how the class divide, evident in the design of the vessel, continued to make itself felt throughout its operation and right on to the end of the disaster.

The ship carried a total of 2,224 people including crew, and 1,554 of these died on that fateful night, mostly from drowning and hypothermia in the near freezing waters. For the survivors, it is more than apparent that class was a survival factor. At the time, the standard procedure was for women and children to go first into the lifeboats, but significantly, aboard the Titanic, this meant first and second class women and children and not those in steerage. No second-class children and only one from first class died, but 52 children from steerage perished. Of the first-class female passengers, 97% survived, some with their lap-dogs, as did 86% of second-class women. By comparison, only 46% of third-class women made it off the ship. Men of all classes bore the brunt of the death toll, but again, significantly, 84% of third-class men died against 33% in first class. Overall, the third-class passengers and crew amounted to 80% of the total lives lost that night.

Various enquiries into the disaster inevitably focused the blame on members of the dead crew and the poor safety provisions. Whilst the latter criticism may be valid, no enquiry ever took into account the significance of a vessel such as Titanic in the first place, nor touched on the inherent class divisions on board which resulted in such tragedy for the 'lower orders'. To do so would have been to call into question capitalism itself. Titanic, for example,had sufficient lifeboats for first-class passengers only, not for third. Further, hardly any mention was made of the US immigration laws which required complete physical isolation of the third-class passengers from the rest of the ship. This alone meant that many steerage passengers never even knew of the existence of lifeboats, let alone where they might be found. Many were physically prevented from escaping from the vessel until it was too late.

The Socialist Standard of the time drew more incisive conclusions and made the comparison with other disasters to befall the working classes.  The May 1912 edition reported:

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 who will.

So at the bottom it is the 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.

“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 per cent were saved: of the steerage men only 12 per cent. 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 but of 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 dogs. 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.

The awful loss of life has not prevented the Titanic from becoming a commodity along with everything else in capitalism. Apart from the massive profits made from two major films (A Night To Remember, 1958; and Titanic, 1997, which grossed $1.8 billion) and dozens of minor ones, the discovery of the wreck by Dr Robert Ballard in 1985 has spawned even more interest and bickering over the profits to be made from the disaster.

In 1994, RMS Titanic Inc., a subsidiary of Premier Exhibitions Inc., was awarded ownership and salvaging rights by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. On 24 March, 2009, it was revealed that the fate of 5,900 artefacts retrieved from the wreck would rest with a U.S. District Judge's decision. On 12 August, 2010, Judge Rebecca Beach Smith granted RMS Titanic Inc. fair market value for the artefacts but deferred ruling on their ownership, and the conditions for their preservation, possible disposition and exhibition until a further decision could be reached. On 15 August, 2011, under a French court decision, Judge Smith granted RMS Titanic Inc. title to thousands of artefacts from the Titanic that it did not already own. The grant of title was subject to a lengthy list of conditions relating to the preservation and disposition of the items. The artefacts can be sold only to a company that will abide by the conditions and restrictions as set out. RMS Titanic Inc. can profit from the artefacts through exhibiting them.

In addition, the current anniversary will see the re-release of the 1997 movie Titanic in 3D, at least two new mini-TV series and a £77million exhibition at the former Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast. One can expect a rake off from other merchandise.  But more macabre (and indicative of the profiteering nature of capitalism), is the offer by a UK travel company of a full transatlantic cruise which will follow the exact route of the Titanic.   The cruise will keep the exact timings and pause over the spot of the sinking. This dubious event also offers its patrons the opportunity to dress up in period costume and 'enjoy' themed entertainment and food from the era.

The sinking of the Titanic and the interest in it will continue for some time yet, but it is sad that the same conditions which brought about her very existence 100 years ago are still prevalent today. The widening wealth gap; the vastly different treatment of people based purely on their income; and the poor treatment of workers in the rush for speed and profit are all hallmarks of the system that was in place in 1912 and is still with us today. Disasters on the same scale as the Titanic are still happening and for the same basic reasons.  Despite the massive loss of lives throughout the past century, the working classes are still not learning from the lessons once experienced by their forefathers. The class divide apparent in Edwardian Britain and reflected in the Titanic disaster, still exists in modern-day Britain and the answers offered by socialists then apply just as clearly today. As the Socialist Standard concluded at the time:

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.