Richard Cobden, an advocate of Free Trade, hurrying Prime Minister Robert Peel along the Free Trade Path

When the Left thought free trade meant peace

Socialists, communists and liberals were united by a conviction that free trade could, and would, promote democracy and justice


This article is taken from the May 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

“Free Trade is Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ is Free Trade.” Amongst the litany of arresting claims made about free exchange in the 250-odd years since Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, this pronouncement by the British utilitarian and colonial official John Bowring in 1841 still stands out. That is not least because he was later responsible for dragging Britain into the Second Opium War, aiming to milk commercial concessions from China. Unfortunately, if not unexpectedly, thousands of deaths ensued.

The case crystallises some of the several paradoxes of nineteenth-century free trade. Born out of Scottish moral philosophy, infused with the certainty and fervour of Christian conviction and backed by the ever more fearsome armouries of global imperialism, the pursuit of open markets was amongst the most powerful driving forces behind the making of the modern world. Ushered back towards the centre of Western politics under the banner of “neoliberalism”, some of the more recent results of arguments about free commercial exchange have been no less transformative.

In other words, “free trade” has been one of the most persuasive, most tenacious and most protean ideas in all of modern history. But you know this. Historians certainly know it, having produced enough books on the subject to ballast one of Bowring’s larger gunboats. What does Marc-William Palen’s study of “left-wing visions of a free trade world” change?

Pax Economica: Left-Wing Visions of a Free Trade World, Marc-William Palen (Princeton University Press, £30)

Epigraphically speaking, the book starts precisely where you might have guessed it would on reading the title: Theresa May stands forth, scolding the “citizens of the world” for failing to fathom their own identities; Donald Trump lights a fire under the “globalists”. The consequences of 2016 on both sides of the Atlantic — Brexit here, Trump there — are summoned up to make the point that debates about trade deals and economic nationalism are in no sense “distant or alien”. So this is history with a contemporary purpose.

The received wisdom, Palen suggests, is that the late-twentieth-century triumph of free-market thinking was a right-wing achievement, with its origins in the interwar decades. This consensus has cracked in the face of challenges from other, newer, equally formidable strands of right-wing anti-globalism. Put simply, the dominant economic cosmologies of our time have been defined by battles within conservatism.

Palen proposes to explode these myths. He says that things look very different if we go back to the 1840s, to Manchester Liberalism and to the political ideologies associated with Richard Cobden. With its overlapping commitments to free trade, peace and anti-imperialism, Cobdenism heralded a century and more of free-trade globalism being led — intellectually — by left-of-centre thinkers.

Socialists, communists and liberals were united by a conviction that free trade could, and would, promote democracy and justice. They also believed that it might produce, on the one hand, the end of war and, on the other, the collapse of the more pernicious imperial projects.

What the book basically wants to communicate is that the international peace movements active between the mid-nineteenth and the mid-twentieth centuries were deeply invested in the policy and philosophy of free trade. So what are the consequences?

There is no quibbling with the book’s range. It notes in its introduction that it identifies free-trade anti-imperialists active in the British, US, Spanish, German, Dutch, Belgian, Italian, Russian, French and Japanese empires. In fact, this does not even exhaust the list of polities given consideration. These places all feature in the book, even if some of them appear only in single (if chunky) paragraphs designed to hint at the worldwide diffusion of particular patterns of ideas.

Looking beyond its announced global and trans-imperial aspirations, Palen’s book is perhaps better understood as a study of the US in the world (and especially the parts of the world that were Germany and Britain). America is where virtually all the author’s archival research took place, where most of the detailed discussion therefore focuses, where most of the handsome pictures stem from, and where several of the later chapters direct their attention almost exclusively.

Seen in that light, it is a very fine piece of work. There are very sharp readings of economists, politicians, theorists and cultural titans, across an extraordinary spectrum: from Karl Marx, to W.E.B. Du Bois, to Norman Angell, to George Gershwin, to a galaxy of lesser-known names. An almost impossible number of organisations and institutions appear, so readers can look forward to puzzling out the meanings of unfamiliar and ambitious acronyms: AAUW, CAIP, ICPUFT, NCCCW, WILPF.

Palen’s implicit suggestion seems to be that the Left should stick together

It is fascinating to learn about the 100-page open letter the American political economist and land reformer Henry George wrote to Pope Leo XIII in 1891; about the Japanese feminist Tano Jodai warning in 1926 that her country was tacking too closely to European economic imperialism; and, especially, about the origins of duty-free areas, which we owe to the Irish anti-imperialist and airport caterer Brendan O’Regan, who saw the enterprise as leading towards international peace. Perhaps understanding this will help make your next irritatingly circuitous tour through those parts of London airports that bit more bearable — even edifying.

Palen tells a new story about American left-wing economic thought, in its international contexts, which makes it look not unlike the story we imagined we already knew about British progressive economic thought. The consequences of that rediscovered resemblance for our conception of Atlantic history between roughly 1850 and 1950 are tantalising.

Were England and America closer — politically, intellectually, economically — than we have imagined? If so, is that because of particular patterns of international connection? Or is it because left-wing politics has a previously overlooked internal economic logic?

Any book with contemporary concerns front and centre needs a ringing note to end on. Palen concludes with the idea that his history of these overlapping left-wing battles for free exchange, peace and anti-imperialism challenges a “growing economic nationalist partnership between the far Left and the far Right”.

In reconstructing a “radical economic cosmopolitan tradition” that cemented a sense of shared purpose between “peace-minded liberal reformers and leftist revolutionaries’, Palen’s implicit suggestion seems to be that the Left should stick together.

His book, he suggests, is pitched practically into the public sphere precisely at a moment when left-wing internationalists require a new approach distinct from both neoliberalism and twenty-first-century neo-protectionism. The possible disintegration of the neoliberal order might just “open the door once again to left-wing globalist dreams of Pax Economica”. Readers will make up their own minds about a possibility that is, at the very least, provocative.

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