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.