Why Marx supported Free Trade

It is always fruitful to “go back to Marx”. While reading this speech that the old man made when he was quite young (in 1848) I could not but admire the clarity with which he grasps and articulates the essence of the matter at hand. At the end of his speech, he proclaims that he supports free trade… though from a different point of view than the “free traders”. His reference to the criticism that those opposed to free trade is as contemporary as it can be when any criticism of globalization is accused of supporting Nehruvian “socialism” and not as an exercise in identifying the contradictions inherent in the new phase of capitalism.
Do not imagine, gentlemen, that in criticizing freedom of trade we have the least intention of defending the system of protection.

One may declare oneself an enemy of the constitutional regime without declaring oneself a friend of the ancient regime.

Similar is his take on other aspects that are nowadays packaged in only slightly more sophisticated jargon of management gurus (I am reminded of phrases like “core competency”- according to which some countries are “naturally” suited for back office work and others for manufacturing)

For instance, we are told that free trade would create an international division of labor, and thereby give to each country the production which is most in harmony with its natural advantage.

Further down the speech is appropriately targeted as those who see globalization as a mere opening up to the world and not a phenomenon driven by capitalism (Amartya Sen in his book The Argumentative Indian is a case in point).

To call cosmopolitan exploitation universal brotherhood is an idea that could only be engendered in the brain of the bourgeoisie.

A longer quote from Marx’s speech on the question of free trade (1848)

To sum up, what is free trade, what is free trade under the present condition of society? It is freedom of capital. When you have overthrown the few national barriers which still restrict the progress of capital, you will merely have given it complete freedom of action. So long as you let the relation of wage labor to capital exist, it does not matter how favorable the conditions under which the exchange of commodities takes place, there will always be a class which will exploit and a class which will be exploited. It is really difficult to understand the claim of the free-traders who imagine that the more advantageous application of capital will abolish the antagonism between industrial capitalists and wage workers. On the contrary, the only result will be that the antagonism of these two classes will stand out still more clearly.

Let us assume for a moment that there are no more Corn Laws or national or local custom duties; in fact that all the accidental circumstances which today the worker may take to be the cause of his miserable condition have entirely vanished, and you will have removed so many curtains that hide from his eyes his true enemy.

He will see that capital become free will make him no less a slave than capital trammeled by customs duties.

Gentlemen! Do not allow yourselves to be deluded by the abstract word freedom. Whose freedom? It is not the freedom of one individual in relation to another, but the freedom of capital to crush the worker.

Why should you desire to go on sanctioning free competition with this idea of freedom, when this freedom is only the product of a state of things based upon free competition?

We have shown what sort of brotherhood free trade begets between the different classes of one and the same nation. The brotherhood which free trade would establish between the nations of the Earth would hardly be more fraternal. To call cosmopolitan exploitation universal brotherhood is an idea that could only be engendered in the brain of the bourgeoisie. All the destructive phenomena which unlimited competition gives rise to within one country are reproduced in more gigantic proportions on the world market. We need not dwell any longer upon free trade sophisms on this subject, which are worth just as much as the arguments of our prize-winners Messrs. Hope, Morse, and Greg.

For instance, we are told that free trade would create an international division of labor, and thereby give to each country the production which is most in harmony with its natural advantage.

You believe, perhaps, gentlemen, that the production of coffee and sugar is the natural destiny of the West Indies.

Two centuries ago, nature, which does not trouble herself about commerce, had planted neither sugar-cane nor coffee trees there.

And it may be that in less than half a century you will find there neither coffee nor sugar, for the East Indies, by means of cheaper production, have already successfully combatted his alleged natural destiny of the West Indies. And the West Indies, with their natural wealth, are already as heavy a burden for England as the weavers of Dacca, who also were destined from the beginning of time to weave by hand.

One other thing must never be forgotten, namely, that, just as everything has become a monopoly, there are also nowadays some branches of industry which dominate all others, and secure to the nations which most largely cultivate them the command of the world market. Thus in international commerce cotton alone has much greater commercial than all the other raw materials used in the manufacture of clothing put together. It is truly ridiculous to see the free-traders stress the few specialities in each branch of industry,throwing them into the balance against the products used in everyday consumption and produced most cheaply in those countries in which manufacture is most highly developed.

If the free-traders cannot understand how one nation can grow rich at the expense of another, we need not wonder, since these same gentlemen also refuse to understand how within one country one class can enrich itself at the expense of another.

Do not imagine, gentlemen, that in criticizing freedom of trade we have the least intention of defending the system of protection.

One may declare oneself an enemy of the constitutional regime without declaring oneself a friend of the ancient regime.

Moreover, the protectionist system is nothing but a means of establishing large-scale industry in any given country, that is to say, of making it dependent upon the world market, and from the moment that dependence upon the world market is established, there is already more or less dependence upon free trade. Besides this, the protective system helps to develop free trade competition within a country. Hence we see that in countries where the bourgeoisie is beginning to make itself felt as a class, in Germany for example, it makes great efforts to obtain protective duties. They serve the bourgeoisie as weapons against feudalism and absolute government, as a means for the concentration of its own powers and for the realization of free trade within the same country.

But, in general, the protective system of our day is conservative, while the free trade system is destructive. It breaks up old nationalities and pushes the antagonism of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie to the extreme point. In a word, the free trade system hastens the social revolution. It is in this revolutionary sense alone, gentlemen, that I vote in favor of free trade.

more on Marx and Engels writings on the Question of Free Trade

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6 thoughts on “Why Marx supported Free Trade

  1. readerswords Post author

    It is always very useful to ‘go back’ to him, as Lenin put it once. I am currently listening to David Harvey’s superb lectures on Capital Vol 1, and a post on the same will follow.

    Reply
  2. Jack Stephens

    Good one. I too am listening to Harvey’s lectures. I just finished the introduction, now I’m going to re-read chapters 1 and 2 in my Penguin Classics edition before I see his second lecture.

    Reply
  3. rw Post author

    It’s a good idea to read the chapter beforehand for the first three chapters- these are considered to be most ‘difficult’ though also the most enjoyable. I listened to the second one without revising (I had read the Capital about two decades back!) and found some aspects appealing though quite a lot went over my head!

    Reply
  4. Pingback: The Chamber of Commerce Is the International Cosmopolitan Elite | Bear Market Investments

  5. Pingback: The Chamber of Commerce Is the International Cosmopolitan Elite | Econbrowser

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