A Blaze That Did Not Need To Burn
by David Betteridge
I am nothing and I should be everything... - Karl Marx
The best part of the building was the people in it.
They made of its doomed fabric, homes:
homes that for many, at a stroke,
in an upward avalanche of fire,
became their graves.
in a blaze that did not need to burn
would be a great crime; but there were more,
choked and charred, beyond counting,
every death foreseeable and forewarned.
They were killed by neglect’s slow hand,
in contempt’s quick flame.
Social murder is that crime’s name.
Who but madmen clad a building
in a stuff that burns, and airily dismiss
their tenants’ grounded fears?
Who - unless a cold, self-serving class that,
counting others nothing, ranks itself supreme?
Grenfell: say the word quick, and we sense
“green” and “field”: but there is nothing here,
now, that speaks of any bright
and pleasant thing.
Black is the colour
of this towering monument to corporate wrong,
this pigeon-loft for people and their rich dreams,
this block of execution cells, this funeral pyre,
this place of long mourning and sharp ire.
You who designed this wreck,
look on the evidence stacked up that proves
your complicity in taking, with your profits,
lives: you stand condemned.
We, the many,
who are nothing in your unjust land,
also look; we learn from Grenfell Tower.
Its black text reads:
We should be everything, authors of our own ends
in our own names, seizing and holding,
in our own safe hands,
The motto text for my poem is taken from Karl Marx’s An Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843). Of course, when Marx wrote, “I am nothing and I should be everything”, he was waxing a bit poetical himself. The “I” that he propounded was not himself, nor any individual, and certainly not the ego that Max Stirner was soon to write about in The Ego and Its Own (1845). No, the “I” that should be everything is the mythic voice of Revolution, as is made clear when the motto is put in its proper context:
It is only in the name of the general interest that a particular class can claim general supremacy... that revolutionary daring which throws at its adversary the defiant phrase: “I am nothing and I should be everything.”
In the poem, I have changed “I” to “we”, to make its collective nature doubly clear. In the thirteenth line of the poem, I level the charge of “social murder” against those who designed, built and mis-managed those aspects of Grenfell Tower that contributed to the catastrophic spreading of a fire in one of the Tower’s constituent flats to so many others, with so many deaths. The charge is carefully chosen, being used with the meaning given to it by Friedrich Engels, in his classic work of investigation and analysis, The Condition of the Working Class in England, written during his stay in Manchester from 1842 to 1844. A lot has changed since then, but some things remain the same:
When one individual inflicts bodily injury upon another such that death results, we call the deed manslaughter; when the assailant knew in advance that the injury would be fatal, we call his deed murder. But when society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet; when it deprives thousands of the necessaries of life, places them under conditions in which they cannot live – forces them, through the strong arm of the law, to remain in such conditions until that death ensues which is the inevitable consequence – knows that these thousands of victims must perish, and yet permits these conditions to remain, its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual; disguised, malicious murder, murder against which none can defend himself, which does not seem what it is, because no man sees the murderer, because the death of the victim seems a natural one, since the offence is more one of omission than of commission. But murder it remains.
I have now to prove that society in England daily and hourly commits what the working-men's organs, with perfect correctness, characterise as social murder, that it has placed the workers under conditions in which they can neither retain health nor live long; that it undermines the vital force of these workers gradually, little by little, and so hurries them to the grave before their time. I have further to prove that society knows how injurious such conditions are to the health and the life of the workers, and yet does nothing to improve these conditions. That it knows the consequences of its deeds; that its act is, therefore, not mere manslaughter, but murder, I shall have proved, when I cite official documents, reports of Parliament and of the Government, in substantiation of my charge.
John McDonnell levelled this charge of “social murder” against the guilty parties in the Grenfell Towers case, notably on TV (16 July, 2017), and so did others, most importantly the Grenfell Action Group, who wrote in their blog that,
What happened wasn’t a ‘terrible tragedy’ or some other studio-sofa platitude: it was social murder.
Engels’s criteria, spelled out above, apply with horrible force to the killing of the Grenfell Tower residents. They also apply to the multitudes of lives diminished, hurt, exploited, and truncated over many generations, both before and after Engels’s time - victims of an economic “order” that puts its own requirements first, and beggar the rest.
David Betteridge is the author of a collection of poems celebrating Glasgow and its radical traditions, 'Granny Albyn's Complaint', published by Smokestack Books in 2008. He is also the editor of a compilation of poems, songs, prose memoirs, photographs and cartoons celebrating the 1971-2 UCS work-in on Clydeside. This book, called 'A Rose Loupt Oot', was published by Smokestack Books in 2011.