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C. Thomas

A Marxist Book on Maritime

(July 1943)

From Fourth International, Vol.4 No.7, July 1943, Page 218-220.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

MARITIME: A Historical Sketch and A Workers’ Program
By Frederick J. Lang
Published for the Socialist Workers Party by Pioneer Publishers, New York, 1943. 171 pages. Paper $1

In the short space of time since this book went to press, its major conclusions have received new confirmation by the revelations in the US Senate of some of the facts concerning the shipowners’ and shipbuilders’ feeding at the public trough in World War II. Although this Senatorial debate took place after the publication of this book, the superiority of the Marxist method of the author is shown by the fact that this book anticipates in all essentials the facts since revealed and, indeed, provides the background and analysis for understanding them.

Packed within the 171 pages of this book is a wealth of documented material on the class relation of the government to labor and capital in one important industry in the United States. The fusion of monopoly capitalism with the state has gone further in the maritime industry than it has in other fields, but the same development is being tremendously accelerated in all the “key” industries. The worker no longer confronts the individual employer in a dispute, nor even an association of employers in a particular industry. What he faces in addition is the “state,” that “apparatus of repression of one class by another” which guarantees the continued existence of the profit system.

This role of “government” is carefully sketched by Lang from the early days of the maritime industry until today. Long after the operators of the shipping industry had demonstrated their complete inability to develop a merchant marine worthy of the name, the government kept pouring millions of dollars of public funds into the coffers of the “shipowners” in order to keep up the pretense of “private initiative.” Following the last war, a Senate investigation of the shipping industry revealed so monstrous a plundering of the public treasury that the more “respectable” of the robber barons were “shocked.” This financial scandal completely discredited the US Shipping Board, forerunner of the present Maritime Commission, and hastened its demise.

The root of the evil was held to be the indirect, or mail subsidy. In 1936 a Merchant Marine Act was adopted, which substituted the “direct” for the “indirect” subsidy. Those who framed the law declared that they did so with an eye toward preventing a repetition of the Shipping Board scandal. The Maritime Commission was the agency created to administer the law.

The Latest Revelations

How successful they were in their avowed purpose is revealed by the recent debate in the Senate – in March – over the question of confirming the renomination by President Roosevelt of Admiral Land as chairman of the Maritime Commission. Opposition developed in the Senate led by Senator Aiken of Vermont.

Senator Aiken’s opposition expressed the fear that repetition of the Shipping Board scandals, multiplied and extended to other industries, would tend to discredit the entire capitalist ruling class. This is indicated when in the course of his speech in the Senate he says:

“Government spending to promote United States shipping, I regret to say, undoubtedly comprises some of the most unsavory pages in our history of Government expenditures. Many of the present members of the Senate are conversant with the nauseating revelations brought forth by the Black senatorial committee a few years ago. I fear that the conditions which exist at this time are even worse than those which prevailed at the time when the Senate created the Black committee.”

Senator Aiken submitted charges against the Maritime Commission which were supported by voluminous evidence supplied by the office of the Comptroller General. Substantially, the evidence proved that the Maritime Commission was emulating its predecessor. With this important difference – while Shipping Board expenditures during World War I totalled a mere three billions of dollars, appropriations for expenditure by the Maritime Commission already total over nineteen billions of dollars. Not a bad banquet in these days of rationing!

And who would be sitting in dispensing the choice cuts? We’ll let Senator Aiken tell us:

“I am informed by the Comptroller General that a number of officials of various steamship companies and of a large steel company have been or are now employed by the War Shipping Administration in rate-making and policy-making positions. Is it any wonder that the Maritime Commission and War Shipping Administration functions appear to be operating as much, it not more, for the benefit of private interests as they are in the interests of the public?”

Senator Aiken then expresses “alarm” at the probable reaction of the people when they learn the truth about the fraudulent “equality of sacrifice” hoax.

“If this policy of the Maritime Commission,” remarked Aiken, “so patently designed to relieve a single group from payment of taxes and moneys due the United States Government, were the only instance of its kind, I should not be so alarmed for the future of my country; but what I have stated applies to only a single factor of a single department of the government. Probably it could be multiplied many times.”

The Pacific Shipper (April 12, 1943) multiplied it at least once in an editorial protesting publicity given the “modest” profits of the shipowners, and saying, “future historians should note how much fuss has been raised over shipping profits in the Red Sea trade, running into millions, and how little over the wartime profits of the railroads, running into billions.”

The attitude of the majority of the Senate was best expressed by Senator Bailey, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, the committee which acts on all important matters concerning the merchant marine.

In reply to the charges brought by Aiken, he said:

“I believe there still remains in the constitution the fifth amendment which says a man’s property cannot be taken without paying him just compensation. I sometimes think we forget that that amendment is in the constitution, but when I say my prayers at night, if I am feeling very blue, I sometimes thank God for the fifth amendment, and remind myself that it is still in effect. We can take it away in a moment by action based on foolish thinking, and by appeals against profits, and by an attitude of envy of men who do well. I will have no part in it. I am in favor of just compensation because – well, because it is God’s justice to begin with, and it is provided for in the constitution, which I would support even if I were not sworn to support it.”

In the same debate, Senator Clark (Missouri) made the following comment referring to vessels subsidized by the government:

“The government put up the money to build the ships. The government put up the money to operate the ships.”

The question arises: Just who is being compensated for whose property? Shipyards are constructed at government expense. In these shipyards, ships are built with public funds. The completed ships are turned over to private operators and the government pays for their operation. The government insures the vessels with public funds. The operators are then guaranteed a fat profit for the operation of the vessels and the government further provides that a major part of this profit can be set aside in tax free reserve fund, to be divided up at a more opportune moment, or to be used to “purchase” the government-owned ships at bargain prices after the war. Such has been the attitude of “government” toward the shipowners for many years. It is not surprising that the author of Maritime uses quotation marks around the word “shipowners” when he refers to this class of parasites. And what is true of maritime can, as Senator Aiken remarks, “be multiplied many times.” The Senate voted 70 to 5 to approve the policy of the Maritime Commission and refused to sanction an investigation of Aiken’s serious charges.

The Story of Maritime Labor

In sharp contrast to the government’s paternal attitude toward the profit system, is its attitude toward maritime labor. This book traces in detail the rich experience of the seamen with government “paternalism.” Whenever the seamen were atomized, as they were after the US Shipping Board had smashed their unions in 1921, the government maintained a hands-off policy. But when the seamen had regrouped their ranks and organized into strong unions, the government became very much concerned about their “welfare.” With the termination of the 1936-37 strike it became apparent that the private operators were no longer able to “discipline” the organized seamen. Government then intensified its active intervention on behalf of the shipowners. With the outbreak of World War II, and particularly with the entry of the United States after Pearl Harbor, the seamen were confronted with the apparatus of government in every aspect of their activity. The shipowners left their “private” desks and flocked to Washington to occupy “government” desks in the offices of the Maritime Commission and the War Shipping Administration. Nineteen billion dollars makes plenty of fat and while putting it on in thick layers they found time to strip some from the bones of the seamen.

A considerable section of this book deals with the question of union leadership. Two main divergent tendencies developed in the maritime unions – the “anti-politicals” and the Stalinists. Functioning as agents of the foreign office of the Kremlin, the Stalinists adapted their policies to the exigencies of Stalin’s line. With slight variations, they followed every zig-zag along with their compatriots in other sections of the trade union movement. Lang describes this process in great detail. The “anti-politicals” abjured “politics” for pure and simple trade unionism tempered with a healthy distrust of government intervention.

With the outbreak of war, fighting the government became unpopular. Along with other sections of the labor movement the maritime leaders gave up the right to strike “for the duration.” It would be, difficult to get an adequate definition of the phrase “for the duration” from those who entered into such agreements with the government. Does it mean until the present phase of the war is terminated? Does it mean until the government officially declares the war at an end? Or does it mean as long as the “emergency” lasts? In view of the fact that the phrase is always used in the most general sense, it might be profitable to probe the matter a little more deeply.

The “anti-politicals” – leading the Seafarers International Union and its West Coast affiliate, the Sailors Union of the Pacific – hope to maintain the independence of their unions throughout the war by giving political support to the government and by maneuvering with the government apparatus. They believe that they can thereby preserve the integrity of their unions during the war so that “after the war” the struggle with the shipowners can be resumed where they left off when war began. This policy has led to a continuous series of retreats that have weakened the union, and strengthened the government apparatus of repression. The government knows what it wants and is determined to achieve its goal. That goal is the elimination of the independence of the unions, i.e., their integration into the government apparatus or the destruction of all union organization in the industry. Because of the existence of a number of factors which makes it almost impossible to achieve a central leadership of the seamen, the latter is the more likely variant. Considering its future perspective in world affairs, American imperialism cannot tolerate the existence of independent unions in the maritime industry.

American imperialism has set for itself the task of dominating the world market. Only the markets of the world can provide an outlet for the tremendous productive capacity of American industry. Of equal importance is the necessity of making every nook and cranny of the entire world available for the export of American capital. With the termination of the present phase of the war, the rivalry between the erstwhile “partners” in the United Nations bloc will develop into major conflicts. Already, with just a hint of a victorious conclusion to the present phase of the military struggle, ominous disagreements develop beneath the surface of a fictitious unanimity. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, announces that the United States is building a “seven ocean navy” and is seeking bases all over the world. Military administrators are being trained to rule in territories occupied by the armed forces. The existence of world capitalism literally rests upon the armed might of American imperialism. There will be no “peace” for the peoples of the world under a social system in the last stages of disintegration and decay. Two world wars in one generation is eloquent testimony to the permanent crisis of world capitalism.

If World War II is but the continuation of World War I, then the “post-war” world under capitalism will be an armed camp between battles. With this vista before us, giving up the right to strike “for the duration” can only mean the surrender of that right for as long as American imperialism endures. We can be sure that is the definition the ruling class applies to the phrase “for the duration.” The seamen have an historical example to go by. In World War I, the British seamen gave up their right to strike “for the duration of the war.” They never regained that right. For, after the termination of armed hostilities on the European continent, British imperialism was compelled to carry the war to a far-flung colonial empire. Armed intervention against the Soviet Union protracted the “period of emergency.” In the US the “period of emergency” terminated with the smashing of the seamen’s unions by the government. With the colossal task that confronts American imperialism of trying to keep an entire planet in subjection the “period of emergency” can only terminate with either the crushing of the working class or the elimination of the system that breeds wars.

It is sheer folly for the anti-politicals to imagine that “after the war” the weapons which they now surrender will be returned. Nor is it any the less foolish to fail to utilize other weapons that are available. What some of these are is presented in the form of a program of action in the concluding chapter of Maritime. The methods of pure and simple trade unionism are hopelessly outdated. Every struggle, even for the most elementary demands, finds the workers confronted with the government sitting as the executive committee of the ruling class. Every struggle is immediately transformed into a political struggle. To refuse to recognize this fact and draw the proper conclusions is to invite disaster.

Frederick Lang’s Maritime will serve as a model of the practical application of Marxist theory to the problems of the day. As such it is required reading for all students of the labor movement as well as for all seamen, who will find in it a veritable mine of material on the maritime industry. Pioneer Publishers is to be congratulated for having added Maritime to its list of publications.

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