Money  /  Argument

Recovering the Left-Wing Free Trade Tradition

Free trade has been defended primarily by neoliberals who cared little about social justice or democracy. An examination of its history paints a different picture.

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.