Recovering the Socialist Free-Trade Tradition

Figure 1: Front and back of the cover of the Jan. 1919 issue of the US Communist magazine the Liberator.

Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

[The following has been adapted from Marc-William Palen, “Marx and Manchester: The Evolution of the Socialist Internationalist Free-Trade Tradition, c1846-1946,” International History Review 43 (March 2021): 381-398.]

Free trade, or Freihandel, was a hot-button issue at the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) Congress held in Stuttgart in 1898, most notably because of the policy’s numerous advocates. SPD leader Karl Kautsky kicked things off with a resolution denouncing protectionism for counteracting ‘international solidarity.’ Luise Zietz, a German feminist and head of the SPD women’s movement, seconded Kautsky’s call: ‘We have to adopt a principled stance, and that is in favor of free trade and against protective tariffs.’ August Bebel, SPD chairman and longtime pacifist, followed up on Kautsky and Zietz’s free-trade endorsements, and the congress adopted a qualified resolution along these lines. Free trade would receive an even stronger SPD endorsement in 1900 because ‘free international exchange is . . . before all, a working-class question,’ German Marxist revisionist Eduard Bernstein explained in a subsequent letter to London’s 1908 International Free Trade Congress.[1] Their efforts were part of a rich socialist free-trade tradition that began germinating when Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx migrated to Britain in the 1840s, just as the island-nation was embracing free trade as both policy and ideology. The same British free-trade embrace was also giving rise at this time to the Manchester School (Manchester liberalism, Cobdenism), an economic ideology that tied international trade liberalization together with cheap food, democratization, anti-imperialism, and peace – a cosmopolitan concoction that socialist internationalists increasingly imbibed by the turn of the century.[2]

Recovering the free-trade dimensions of socialist internationalism, and the pacific influence of Britain’s Manchester School upon it, upends the commonly held assumption that socialists the world over have supported nationalism and protectionism amid their collectivist opposition to free-market capitalism.[3] Doing so also provides a much-needed prehistory to the growing body of literature on ‘socialist globalization’. This scholarship has focused primarily on socialist attempts to deepen regional and global interdependence through market integration and supranational governance amid the Manichean ideological divide of the Cold War.[4]  By contrast, earlier attempts have received far less attention, and the role of free trade within the socialist internationalist tradition less still. As a partial corrective, this article traces the evolution of socialist internationalist support for free trade across the century before the Cold War, wherein the cosmopolitan subscription to free trade increasingly made strange bedfellows among those capitalists and socialists seeking a more interdependent and peaceful world order. Continue reading “Recovering the Socialist Free-Trade Tradition”