From the Erie Canal to the St. Lawrence Seaway

October 21, 1980

The brutal murders that have taken the lives of six Black men in Buffalo, N.Y., are a resort to lynching in the most literal sense of the word.

Two of the Black men killed had their hearts ripped from their bodies. Such a cruel and ghastly act can only be regarded as a deliberate demonstration of the most virulent racism.

It is a brazen challenge to both the Black and white workers. Failure to meet it resolutely with united action of all workers, Black and white, can only serve to encourage more of the same contemptible racism.

Why in Buffalo?

How is it possible that one of the truly great industrial areas of the country, which has had over the years a remarkable record of progressive and militant labor action, could today be the site of such a racist horror?

How is it possible that a city which once served as a significant way-station in pre-Civil War days for the Underground Railroad to help liberate Black people, could more than a century later virtually turn in a totally opposite direction -- to lynchings and the ugly appearance of the Ku Klux Klan, a phenomenon never seen in earlier days?

How is such a transformation possible? What accounts for such a transformation?

One can only understand it if one examines the economic anatomy of the contemporary stage of U.S. capitalism, of which Buffalo is merely a microcosm. For in one way or another the recrudescence of racism and the reemergence of far-right political and racist organizations, and the Klan in particular, has become widespread in varying degrees in all the important industrial areas of the country.

The transformation of Buffalo from its pre-Civil War days symbolizes the transformation of the early, relatively progressive stage of capitalist development into its decadent, monopolist, war-oriented imperialist stage.

Let's look at the historical record of this city alone.

Evolution of city

The first great wave of industrialization in the Buffalo area opened in 1825 with the completion of the Erie Canal. The year 1825 was also the year of the first great universal capitalist crisis, which engulfed the entire bourgeois world. Nevertheless, immediately after the crisis the opening of this great waterway was to bring a great wave of industrialization which reached out throughout the country.

The principal U.S. cities on Lake Erie -- Cleveland, Toledo, Erie, and Buffalo -- received a tremendous impetus from the building of this huge waterway. The Erie Canal even contributed to the development of New York City as a great world financial center. It opened the Eastern markets of the United States to the farm products of the Midwest.

Rather than being followed by a period of inflation and unemployment, as is the situation now, the building of this huge waterway gave way to a labor shortage. This explains to no small degree the interest of the Northern capitalists in "free labor" and the encouragement in later years of the anti-slavery movement and the subsequent development of the Underground Railroad. It also explains the large waves of immigration which began at the time.

Today, the Erie Canal and the lake area around it has shrunk in economic significance. It has been superseded by a new giant, artificial waterway -- the St. Lawrence Seaway, a truly international waterway more than 2,300 miles long which consists of a vast system of canals, dams, and locks in the St. Lawrence River and the channels between the Great Lakes.

This Seaway was opened in 1959. It is one of the marvels of the new maritime technology. It provides passage for large ocean-going vessels into central North America. The Seaway has created in reality a fourth seacoast accessible to the industrial and agricultural heartland of North America and has brought ocean-going vessels to lake ports in Buffalo, Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Duluth, and Toronto.

Effect of St. Lawrence Seaway

What, however, has been the effect of this great industrial and technological venture 130 years after the Erie Canal was built? Has it been the catalyst for capitalist development that its predecessor had been in its day?

The Seaway, which the multi-national corporations were clamoring for, required a hundred times more capital investment than did the Erie Canal. Both of them provided easy transportation. Both of them were meant to serve the industrial heartland of the U.S. and part of Canada. Yet, a look at the situation of the cities, which the Seaway was supposed to prop up, shows that unlike the Erie Canal, it brought no upward significant development.

It is precisely the cities which were supposed to receive the greatest economic impetus -- Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, all cities served by the Seaway which ordinarily would quicken their pace of economic development -- which are today virtually prostrate in a state of utter deterioration.

When tremendous improvements in easy transportation do not help hasten economic development, but instead accelerate the growth of inflation and unemployment, it is a sure sign that the social system itself has undergone a most radical transformation and that it has descended from a progressive economic development to a state of deterioration and decay.

Signs of decline

Transportation is a most fundamental key in hastening economic development. But where in reality it retards it, as is seen by the growth of unemployment and spiraling inflation, it is a certain symptom that the dynamics of the system have gone into reverse. It is not only true economically, it is true socially as well.

For instance, as long ago as 1972 it was noted that untreated industrial and municipal wastes of lakeshore cities, including Buffalo, Erie, Cleveland, Toledo and Detroit, had polluted the waters and rendered large areas foul smelling and devoid of oxygen in hot summers, posing a truly significant health danger. This necessitated a Canadian-U.S. agreement on how to end the discharge of the contaminating materials into the water.

It is only one of the many symptoms of social decay which are left largely unattended. What once was an important commercial fishing location has largely lost its significance because pollution and lamprey infestation have significantly reduced the value of the catch. If this is what has befallen these industries, what then has happened to the workers in the truly basic industries of Buffalo?

Buffalo is not only an important port of entry, it is also one of the largest grain distributing ports in the United States. What has happened to that? Has it grown or shrunk in the last decade? Can even the lifting of the grain embargo against the USSR help its fate?

Buffalo was also a great railroad center. It is still a major railroad hub, but hardly a shadow of its former self. This great city had a tremendous flour milling center which is still large but now shrinking.

However, the heaviest blows to the workers have come in the enormous steel mills and auto plants. Some have closed, others are on part time, all are in a state of uncertainty as to the future direction. Even the electrochemical and electrometallurgical industries have undergone sharp cutbacks as a result of "innovative labor-saving devices." These have left the legacy of the disaster of Love Canal, which may only prove to be the tip of the iceberg.

The ushering in of the atomic age, the development of vehicles in outer space, the tremendous growth and development of the electronics industries, computerization and the like -- isn't this what was supposed to have made America "great and prosperous"? How come, then, that its great industrial heartland, from Chicago to Detroit, Cleveland to Buffalo, is in a state of deterioration?

New phase of capitalist development

The roots of the lynchings in Buffalo can be traced to the new economic anatomy of the capitalist system which has turned large sections of the working class into a surplus population. This has taken a particularly heavy toll in the Black communities in all the great cities.

The ruling class now looks at the Black population differently than it did in the days of the Underground Railroad when it saw in the anti-slavery struggle a source of cheap labor. It now dares look upon the Black workers in particular as a surplus population along with the unemployed white workers. It looks upon them with disdain, as a drain on their government budget, as a drag on their system, and as a dangerous source of social convulsions. The ruling class dreams of replacing all blue-collar workers with a minimum of white-collar technicians in white coats.

Whereas in the early days of the Erie Canal, the huge banking and financial centers, such as New York, facilitated the development of transportation and industry with loan capital, today the largest regional bank in the Buffalo area, the Marine Midland, rather than looking toward the home market in an effort to revitalize the industrial areas, has sought refuge for lush profits in combining with huge international banking conglomerates abroad, thousands of miles away in Hong Kong.

Whereas in the early days of capitalism the banks fostered the home market, brought goods from the Eastern part of the United States to the Midwest and vice versa, the orientation today is beyond -- to the Pacific, the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, and the Caribbean. It is not that the home market is saturated -- undernourishment and downright hunger is the plight of millions not only in industrial areas in the U.S. but rural areas as well. It is that the dynamic of capitalism has gone into reverse. The era of unbridled militarism has replaced the peaceful competition among the industrial giants of an earlier day.

The military-industrial complex gets not only the lion's share of government contracts, it skims off the cream of the profits of the more viable, industrial, civilian sector of the economy merely by virtue of the fact that capital gravitates (where it is not already lured by the military) to where the profit is highest -- in armaments construction, in huge sophisticated missiles and complicated weapons systems which require a vast army and navy and millions of civilian personnel to facilitate their task.

It is the parasitism of the military system which eats away at the vitals of the entire economy.

The tasks ahead

This, more than anything else, propels the ruling class to engender and deepen the polarization between the white and the Black population. Forced to grant minimum concessions a hundred years overdue to Black and other oppressed minorities, such as affirmative action programs, the ruling class has sought to make sure that these concessions are borne by the white workers rather than assuming the burden that they themselves created.

Therein lies the danger. It must be fought tooth and nail.

Sermonizing on the evils of racism and detaching it from its economic roots and failing to clearly and unequivocally point out the real enemy will result in frustration and add to the peril which faces the entire working class. The burden of unemployment and galloping inflation must be put on the shoulders of where it belongs -- the huge banks and corporations which have milked the city and the working class and most particularly the Black and other oppressed people.

Every avenue, every means must be explored to foster and develop forms of militant struggle, as well as self-defense measures, to beat back the reemergence of the racist menace, the latest and ugliest product of the decaying capitalist system.

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