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Recovering the Left-Wing Free Trade Tradition


Marc-William Palen (@MWPalen) is a historian at the University of Exeter.

Right-wing nationalism is sweeping the West. As protectionism has replaced the Washington Consensus and global trade is fragmenting, food prices are skyrocketing. Meanwhile, children are starving from wartime blockades. Our new nationalist world order would look all too familiar to the left-wing free traders of my new book Pax Economica: Left-Wing Visions of a Free Trade World

For many, advocating for free trade from the Left might at first seem counterintuitive. After all, a growing body of scholarship highlights how free trade’s leading late-20th-century advocates, its “neoliberal” free marketeers, were adherents to a right-wing free trade tradition that cares little about social justice, economic justice, or democracy. But a longer examination of free trade’s historical relationship to left-wing politics paints a very different picture. 

If we look back to the mid-19th century, when Britain became the first industrializing imperial power to embrace free trade, we can also locate the beginnings of a left-wing tradition that viewed free trade as essential for fostering democracy, prosperity, and a peaceful interdependent world order – containing timely historical lessons for our economic nationalist moment. 

This left-wing economic cosmopolitan tradition lasted for more than a century. It encompassed a broad coalition that included liberal radicals, socialist internationalists, feminists, and Christian pacifists. This motley crew of left-wing free traders envisaged a more prosperous, peaceful, and anti-imperial order wrought from an interdependent world market. Richard Cobden, the liberal radical leader of the mid-19th-century British free trade movement and international peace movement, enunciated the left-wing vision of free trade in 1846: “I see in the Free-trade principle that which shall act on the moral world as the principle of gravitation in the universe,—drawing men together, thrusting aside the antagonism of race, and creed, and language, and uniting us in the bonds of eternal peace.” Two years later, Karl Marx gave free trade his socialist international endorsement.

For subsequent left-wing globalists, free trade meant cheap food for the working-class folks flooding into urban industrializing centers by allowing for the importation of foodstuffs from wherever they were cheapest. Free trade had the added benefit of undermining the economic power of aristocratic landed elites, who for so long had profited from the protectionism intrinsic to mercantilism. Weakening the economic power of the militaristic and atavistic aristocratic classes would, in turn, weaken their monopolistic power over foreign policymaking, limiting their ability to wage wars and to maintain expensive empires. A more peaceful, anti-imperial, and democratic world order would be the result. This Pax Economica, as it was increasingly called, would thus democratize foreign policy; eradicate monopolies, trusts, and cartels; end world hunger; and give peace-minded men and women a more prominent voice in foreign policymaking.

Left-wing free traders got more mobilized once the industrializing imperial order took a sharp economic nationalist turn from around 1870. The United States kicked off this neomercantilist trend when the Republican Party – the party of big business and economic nationalism – oversaw passage of the protectionist Morrill Tariff in 1861 and followed it up with a series of ever more extreme tariffs and imperial expansion across the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Following the onset of the Long Depression (c. 1873-1896), one rival empire after another followed the United States’s protectionist lead, including, among others, the Germans, the French, the Russians, the Japanese, and the Ottomans. Proponents of Pax Economica from across the Left started to come together to combat the new economic nationalist imperial order.

The growing left-wing international coalition was quick to associate the protectionist embrace among Britain’s rivals with the uptick in trade conflict, colonialism, and geopolitical turmoil between the 1870s and the Second World War. By the turn of the 20th century, socialist internationalists – such as Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein in Germany, Bertrand Russell in Britain, Japan’s Abe Isoo, and Crystal Eastman and Norman Thomas in the USA – numbered among the loudest in denunciating protectionist imperialism and war. 

Further left-wing reinforcements arrived once the international women’s suffrage movement shifted more of its attention to peace work during and after the First World War, often in concert with the Christian peace movement, through international organizations like the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and the Young Women’s Christian Association. After all, women and children had suffered the most from food insecurity during and after the Great War, when one nation after another sought safety behind high tariff walls while they waged trade wars with their neighbors. As Jane Addams, the inaugural president of WILPF, described it following her tour of famine-stricken eastern Europe in the early 1920s: Europe’s men, women, and children were starving because “a covert war was being carried on” through high tariffs. These high tariffs had been legitimized by the food blockades of the Great War. And the smaller European states, in search of self-sufficiency, mistakenly imitated France, Russia, Italy, Japan, and the United States “with their protectionist policies, with their colonial monopolies and preferences.”

In the interwar period, with the same economic nationalistic heads of state running the show, the League of Nations soon showed itself to be too weak to effectively govern and regulate a free trade world. Britain itself completed the global turn inward when it abandoned free trade for imperial trade preference in 1932. 

But just then, Cordell Hull entered stage Left. This Democratic representative of the left-wing globalists found himself in a position of enormous political power as FDR’s Secretary of State (1933-44), auguring the arrival of a viable Pax Economica. Hull’s nicknames included the “father of the United Nations” and the “Tennessee Cobden,” the latter owing to his belief that free trade would bring peace and prosperity to the United States and the world. Mid-century left-wing globalists formed a natural alliance with Hull to create a more interdependent order from the ashes of the Second World War through supranational institutions such as the United Nations (1945) and multilateral agreements like the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (1947).

Yet just as their left-wing Pax Economica seemed to be coming into existence, a new global conflict arose in the guise of the Cold War. US multilateralism gave way to militarism, unilateralism, and East-West fragmentation. Economic nationalism, trade wars, and military conflicts resurfaced across the globe as a result. 

Adding salt to the wounds, the left-wing successes of the 1940s also unwittingly helped pave the way for free trade’s rightward drift in the 1970s and 1980s, once conservative “neoliberals” and multinational corporations started taking control of the very supranational and multilateral institutions that the left-wing globalists had worked so hard to establish. 

The left-wing free trade coalition itself began to weaken. For one thing, it had lost its direct line to the White House following Hull’s departure from the State Department in 1944. For another, the seeming multilateral successes of the 1940s allowed the economic peace movement to be pulled in new directions such as the anti-nuclear movement. And, of course, the Manichean politics of the Cold War started pulling some to the free trade Right, particularly within the Christian wing of the economic peace movement. These cold-war Christian defectors would go on to become important allies of Ronald Reagan. 

Once more on the outside looking in, what remained of the Cold War generation of left-wing free traders reinvested in their grassroots origins, particularly through the international co-operative movement and the Fair Trade movement (founded 1968). They also showed themselves to be more sympathetic to the decolonizing world’s demand for temporary protectionism to nurture infant industries, which had been artificially stunted under decades of Western colonialism. 

Notably, the decolonizing world also drew upon the century-long left-wing free trade fight for Pax Economica when it demanded that the capitalist West practice what it preached by actually opening its markets to exports from the Global South. At the United National Conference on Trade and Development in 1964, for example, Che Guevara took special aim at the “trade discrimination practiced by the imperialist metropolitan countries against the socialist countries,” which posed “a danger to world trade and world peace.” 

Neoliberalism, which grew dramatically following the end of the Cold War, is now imperiled thanks to the global resurgence of right-wing nationalism, protectionism, trade wars, and geopolitical conflict since 2016. Meanwhile, a fractured internationalist Left has struggled to articulate a coherent alternative economic order for the 21st-century. But perhaps neoliberalism’s retreat might also open the way for left-wing globalists to rebuild their “big tent” coalition. Reunited, perhaps they might then be able to wrest back control of the multilateral institutions they helped create – and in so doing, reawaken left-wing visions of a free trade world.