For the past half century, the Right has been the self-appointed guardian of the free market. In one of her first acts as Conservative leader in 1975, Margaret Thatcher strode into a meeting and banged a copy of Friedrich Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty on the table. “This,” she declared, “is what we believe.” In 1991, Republican President George H.W. Bush, amid his push for the North American Free Trade Agreement, awarded the 92-year-old Hayek a Presidential Medal of Freedom. “How magnificent it must be,” he said, “[for Hayek] to witness his ideas validated before the eyes of the world.”

More recently, however, Hayek’s economic ideals have lost their glow in Right-wing circles. Even former Prime Minister Liz Truss, the “free-market fairy godmother”, appears to be faltering, as populist politicians from Donald Trump to Giorgia Meloni retreat to the comforts of economic nationalism.

At a time like this, it’s worth remembering that the free market wasn’t always betrothed to the Right. In the early days, its advocates could instead be found on the internationalist Left, particularly among the leaders of the transatlantic anti-imperial and peace movements. In 1846, Britain’s Left-wing free traders set a precedent by overturning the protectionist Corn Laws. Overnight, Britain became the first modern free-trade nation.

For Left-leaning intellectuals in the 19th century, global free trade was a moral necessity that augured millenarian visions of a world without want or war. It meant cheap food and a world at peace. Richard Cobden, Britain’s foremost free-trade prophet, believed that free trade would work by “drawing men together, thrusting aside the antagonism of race, and creed, and language, and uniting us in the bonds of eternal peace”. He predicted that: “The desire and the motive for large and mighty empires; for gigantic armies and great navies… will die away… when man becomes one family and freely exchanges the fruits of his labour with his brother man.”

“The free market wasn’t always betrothed to the Right.”

His vision even convinced Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who, residing in Britain in the 1840s, gave it their cautious approval. They believed that free trade would unite the world’s workers and that it represented the next progressive capitalist step on the path towards socialist revolution. Protectionism, by contrast, was regressive.

Cobden and his fellows assumed that Britain’s inspirational Corn Law reforms would set the world ablaze, initiating a peaceful and prosperous free-trade era. He was sure that industrialising imperial powers would soon follow Britain’s liberal lead. And yet, despite his best efforts, economic nationalism persisted for some time beyond the enlightened borders of Britain. The onset of a global economic depression in 1873 sent Britain’s imperial rivals — most notably the United States, Germany, France, Russia, and Japan — cowering behind ever-higher tariff walls.

As protectionist monopolies and trusts grew in Europe, so did the frenzy for colonisation. Conservative protectionist politicians in the late-19th century were on the lookout for new markets in the hope of exporting surplus capital and exploiting raw materials. The result was the European Scramble for Africa and the carving up of Chinese markets.

Left-wing free traders — a motley international crew of liberal radicals, feminists, Christians and socialists — redoubled their efforts. And in 1879, the liberal radical US political philosopher Henry George published Progress and Poverty, which quickly became an international bestseller. George called for a “single tax” on the estimated value of land that would provide all the revenue that a government required and thereby eliminate all other forms of taxation, including tariffs. As a bonus, the single tax also promised to break up land monopolies the world over. Absolute free trade, prosperity and peace would surely follow.

The single tax movement spread from the US to Britain to the Asia Pacific and Latin America. “The Land Song” became a rip-roaring tune for Edwardian Liberals. Leo Tolstoy believed George’s single tax on land would “usher in an epoch” and dismantle Russian serfdom. Meanwhile, single tax “colonies” were formed across the globe. Lizzie Magie, a turn-of-the-century feminist radical residing in a single tax colony in Arden, Delaware, even invented a board game to teach about the evils of land monopoly: Monopoly.

With the dawn of the 20th century, socialist internationalists increasingly worked alongside their liberal radical capitalist comrades to overturn the protectionist imperial order. Political parties including the Labour Party in Britain, the Socialist Party of America and Germany’s Social Democratic Party explicitly endorsed free trade. And influential German Marxist theorists such as Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky found themselves in agreement with socialist internationalists such as Japan’s Toyohiko Kagawa, Britain’s Bertrand Russell and Crystal Eastman in the USA.

Yet it was still an uphill battle. In his bestselling book, The Great Illusion (1910), British journalist Norman Angell sought in vain to warn nationalistic politicians and businessmen that, because the world had become so interdependent, nobody could win from war, not even the so-called victors. When the First World War inevitably broke out, Left-wing free traders blamed it on the rise of economic nationalism and colonial expansion since the 1870s.

The horrors of war galvanised support for free trade, partly through the international women’s peace movement. As these “mothers of the world” saw it, women and children suffered most during trade wars and military conflicts. Their aim was therefore to democratise foreign policymaking further to curb men’s tendency towards economic nationalism and war. And they supported free trade because it meant that women and children would no longer go hungry. For them, free trade meant food security.

Take Jane Addams, the Chicago social reformer and figurehead of the interwar women’s peace movement, who had witnessed horrific scenes of starvation during her tour of south-eastern Europe in 1921, three years after the Great War had ended.  She noted how “food resources which were produced in Europe itself and should have been available” weren’t because “a covert war was being carried on” through “import duties and protective tariffs”, as these small European states erroneously “imitated the great Allies with their protectionist policies, with their colonial monopolies and preferences”.

The winds of change finally began to blow once a free trader, Tennessee’s Cordell Hull — “Richard Cobden reincarnated” — became Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Secretary of State and went about liberalising US and world trade during the Thirties and Forties. He believed that a free-trade world could only be effectively maintained by subordinating national sovereignty, thereby keeping nations from falling into the same economic nationalist trap that had led to two world wars and a worsening global depression. With the support of his Left-wing globalist allies, he laid the groundwork for the United Nations and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT, 1947), which became the World Trade Organisation in 1995.

After Hull left the US state department, the Left-wing free traders became outsiders once again. They quickly lost their influence over the GATT, which during the Cold War became more beholden to the profit-seeking demands of multinational corporations than to the workers and consumers of the world. And their envisaged Pax Economica, seemingly within their grasp in the late Forties, looked ridiculous against the Manichean backdrop of the Cold War.

Over time, conservative Western governments grew more receptive to freeing global markets. But rather than enlisting the help of Left-wing free traders, they turned instead to anti-communist economic thinkers such as Milton Friedman and Hayek. With paranoid cold warriors seeing “red” everywhere, democracy from the Left came to be seen as an impediment to free trade, rather than its accompaniment. This led to a series of Western-backed coups d’état and military interventions in the name of defending free-market capitalism.

Bertrand Russell, British socialist free trader, philosopher, and peace worker, perhaps portended the fate of the Left-wing free-trade movement a century ago when he wrote: “It seems to be the fate of idealists to obtain what they have struggled for in a form which destroys their ideals.” Yet perhaps, with Right-wing populists trampling over free-trade ideals, the time is ripe for a comeback.

Fragments of the movement remain hidden in plain sight. They can still be found within regional integration projects including the EU and the African Continental Free Trade Area, and in Fair Trade’s moralistic global vision that prioritises economic justice over corporate profits. But today’s Left-wing internationalists cannot hope to forge a new Pax Economica without first reclaiming their history from the ideological citadels of the Right.

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