East Palestine: A Case for Expropriation
Drone footage shows the freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, US, Feb 6, 2023. China Daily
Socialists and communists have always called for the nationalization of major industries and infrastructure, with an early example of this being Friedrich Engels calling for the nationalization of roads in his Principles of Communism, the forerunner of the Communist Manifesto, published in 1847. Nearly two centuries later, the environmental and humanitarian crisis brought about by the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, has renewed calls for the nationalization of this key industry. There have been countless articles, videos, reports, and more about the disastrous Feb 3rd Norfolk Southern train derailment. What we want to investigate is: What could nationalized rail look like in the US, how is/was this topic handled in socialist countries, and what the benefits are — why is nationalization the right call for working people?
As reported by NPR, there were more than 1,000 train derailments in 2022 — averaging around three per day. Finding exact numbers for China was difficult, but, as reported by CNN, “No major incidents have been reported on the network since 2011 [as of 2022], when 40 people were killed and nearly 200 others injured after a high-speed train was struck from behind by another train near Wenzhou, Zhejiang province.” Why is there such a vast difference? Three PER DAY in the US compared to virtually zero in 11 years in China. While it may seem like an unbelievable difference, we can also look at COVID and see another chasm between Chinese and American — socialist and capitalist — political priorities.
Such a gap is not unprecedented between socialist and capitalist countries — that is the key point. The US operates with the profit motive as the ultimate goal of policy decisions, while China operates with achieving communism and supporting the people as ultimate goals. These two motives are contradictory to the point that, given enough time, as we are seeing become more and more clear in the world today, they cannot coexist. The profit motive sacrifices the wellbeing of the people to generate more money, whereas putting people first sacrifices profit. The socialist position is simple: no profit is worth someone's life, nor is any profit worth poisoning an entire town in Ohio.
Let’s look at a few articles from the Railway Law of the People’s Republic of China to better understand what putting people over profits looks like under socialism today.
Article 3 The competent railway department of the State Council is in charge of national railway work, implements a highly centralized and unified command transport management system for national railways, and guides, coordinates, supervises and assists local railways, special railways and special railway lines.
National railway transport enterprises exercise the administrative management functions conferred by laws and administrative regulations.
Article 4 The state shall focus on the development of national railways and vigorously support the development of local railways.
Article 5 Railway transport enterprises must adhere to the direction of socialist management and the purpose of serving the people, improve business management, earnestly improve road conditions, and improve the quality of transport services.
Article 42 Railway transportation enterprises must strengthen the management and protection of railways, regularly inspect and maintain railway transportation facilities, ensure that railway transportation facilities are in good condition, and ensure the safety of passenger and cargo transportation
There are over 70 articles in the Law and we will not be going into each of them here, but the above four are especially important. Article 3 makes it clear that there is a centralized management system for handling national railway work — but also does not abandon local rail. Article 4 adds that the nationalized rail must be developed, as well as local rail. Development can be subjective to an extent — for example, longer rails, in terms of length, are a form of development, as well as safer rails, more efficient rails, better train cars, and more. All of the above are happening in China. Article 5 specifically says that the rails serve the people as their purpose. Finally, Article 42 puts into law the strength, inspection, maintenance, and condition of rail — one of the many items that the rail unions in the US were asking for more of.
Emergency responders are at the scene after an Amtrak passenger train collided with a freight train and derailed in Cayce, South Carolina, U.S., February 4, 2018. REUTERS/Randall Hill
We can compare the China rail law to that in the United States — although a bit difficult because of how dense and spread these laws are. An overview of the Railway Labor Act by the Department of Transportation has an entire section titled Strikes Prohibited that quite literally says “Strikes over minor disputes are prohibited and can be enjoined.” Essentially refusing American rail workers the right to strike for any reason the government doesn’t approve of. As highlighted by the Biden administration’s refusal to allow rail workers to strike shortly before the Ohio disaster, we can see that realistically, this is a piece of anti-worker legislation designed to ensure, above all else, the continued profitability of multi-billion dollar rail corporations.
Further, the Railroad Safety Act (RSA) of 2008 lists in Sec. 101 (c) “SAFETY AS HIGHEST PRIORITY” and Sec. 102 (a) (1) lists a safety goal of “Reducing the number and rates of accidents…” There is also an entire section in the Act focused on railroad safety enhancements — TITLE IV: RAILROAD SAFETY ENHANCEMENTS. These enhancements included training requirements, certifications, track inspection, studies, and more. As we have seen, without strong enforcement mechanisms from the central government, these “priorities” amount to little more than words on paper.
Technically, the rate of rail disasters has been reduced. In 2003, there were 2,133 derailments, more than five per day, compared to 1,013 in 2020 — “only” around three per day. But does that mean it is working? How many more decades will it take until the conditions creating these disasters are completely alleviated? According to CNN, the RSA gave companies a deadline of 2015 to implement the relevant safety technology. However, that deadline was extended until 2018 and allowed further extensions until 2020. And as of 2019, only four of 41 rail systems actually met the deadline. Corporations do not care about our lives — not rail companies, not gun manufacturers, not construction, not retail, none of them. They seek more and more profits without any care for who is harmed by their decisions, negligence, and reckless pursuit of higher margins.
Due to the missed deadline, railroad engineer John Hiatt said, of Congress, that “[t]he blood is on their hands” for rail disasters.
What Does Nationalization Mean?
In general, nationalization means to seize a vital industry that is being mismanaged by private ownership — such as the rail industry in the US that is dominated by 5 different companies that generated about $90 billion in revenue in 2022 — and hand it over to the control of the public. The primary purpose is for the industry to no longer be privately controlled, but instead be used for public benefit. Sort of like public libraries in the US, but on a broader, industrial scale. For socialists, the nationalization of key industries likewise represents a facet of building people’s democracy, or the dictatorship of the working class. Regarding this necessity, Friedrich Engels writes:
“Gradual expropriation of landowners, industrialists, railroad magnates and shipowners, partly through competition by state industry, partly directly through compensation in the form of bonds.”
(Principles of Communism)
“In any case, with trusts or without, the official representative of capitalist society — the state — will ultimately have to undertake the direction of production. This necessity for conversion into State property is felt first in the great institutions for intercourse and communication — the post office, the telegraphs, the railways.”
(Socialism: Utopian and Scientific)
Engels here is talking more so about state control of industry after a socialist revolution, while we are currently talking about nationalized industry under capitalism. The best case scenario would involve the industry being run for public benefit, hopefully removing the profit incentive — because it is no longer organized like a company and with the goals of one. Naturally, the bourgeois government of the United States is fundamentally incapable of properly managing anything in the interests of the working and oppressed people, as highlighted by the crises facing the school system, postal system, infrastructure, and all other areas of US state “management” (with the sole exception being the massive arms industry) — this in turn sharpens the contradiction between proletarian and bourgeois power, shifting the balance of forces, and raising the conditions necessary for revolution. With this in mind, we can further explore the rail industry, specifically its two components: freight and passenger rail.
Safety — For either component of the rail industry to be used for public benefit, they need to be safe. There cannot be over a thousand crashes per year, there should not even be a dozen. There are accidents sometimes that are mostly out of our control — weather related issues, for example — but in general we should have as close to zero as possible, and 1,000 is not as close as possible. Safety standards need to be vastly improved from where they currently are.
Corporate power — Changing the motive of the industry from profit to public service removes the tendency of money to dictate policy decisions. Related to the above safety point, when the goal of the rail is no longer to be profitable, it becomes acceptable, and necessary, to invest in improved quality, safety, efficiency, and other improvements that may not be profitable. For example, the drive for profit has led to longer and longer trains being ran — with more cars than ever being attached to each one, which also makes them harder to stop if something goes wrong ahead of them. The length of the train that derailed in East Palestine was 141 cars. Compare such a train to, again, ones from China — one with 36 cars and a more standard length seeming to be in the range of 50-55 cars.
One further consideration in regard to corporate power is the response after something does go wrong — whether due to negligence or an accident. For example, in 2011 there was a deadly train collision in China — one of the few rail accidents the country has had in years. In the aftermath of the disaster, three people were fired — head of Shanghai Railway Bureau Long Jia, head of Shanghai Railway Bureau’s Committee of the CPC Li Jia, and deputy chief of the bureau He Shangli. They were also subject to criminal investigation. On the other hand, while the full aftermath of the Norfolk Southern disaster in Ohio is yet to be seen, it does not look promising. The Norfolk Southern CEO was speaking to members of the Senate on March 9th, 2023 and refused to commit to 7 days of paid sick leave. It is possible that stronger repercussions are implemented, but that is only a small possibility.
Passenger Rail — The US is incredibly lacking in passenger rail — both for short and long-distance travel. The vast majority of transportation infrastructure is built for cars — ever expanding highways, swathes of parking lots cut into cities, and a nationwide reliance on oil to function. Nationalized rail should have a focus, as seen in China’s law, on expanding rail access for everyone — high-speed rail used for public benefit that lets people travel to visit other cities and get to work without having to use a car — with cheap costs. According to data from the World Bank, as of 2021 China had constructed nearly 110-thousand kilometers of rail throughout the country; the same year, the US was reported to have nearly 150-thousand kilometers — despite this apparent advantage in mileage of track, data on passenger usage of rail lines could not be more divergent, with the US having such low passenger rail transportation that data was not even collected in 2021.
With the world turning increasingly toward renewable energy and seeking solutions to stave off climate apocalypse, we instantly look at the massive car infrastructure which is heavily hurting the environment. A shift to electric train infrastructure would vastly lower the need for cars in the long term and improve the quality of life of millions across the country. The US is already one of the worst countries for the climate in the world, if not the worst. Any struggle for socialism, against capitalism, and against imperialism is also directly intertwined with the climate struggle.
These policy positions are not merely a wishlist, but a blueprint for the continuation of human industry and prosperity under socialism. Of course, socialism is not simply following a checklist — nationalization of industries and socialism will happen and develop differently in every industry, struggle, and country. As a blueprint, the true full potential of human ingenuity and progress will only come into full view once implemented, both in terms of industrial reorganization and all other aspects of advanced socialist development. Once socialism is achieved, the profit motive will fully be removed from the equation — until then, the task of socialists is to struggle towards nationalization, unionization, improved safety measures, free public transit, a reduction in reliance on “car culture,” and so on. By continuing to press these points as part of the “higher” revolutionary program, the balance of forces may continue to shift in favor of revolution, and the establishing of workers power.