Free trade and Socialism part 4 – Karl Marx on Free Trade ii

Much of the previous post setting out the circuit of capital accumulation is basic to the understanding of Marxists, although many would now not appreciate Marx’s view that socialists should not seek to destroy capitalism by simply trying to prevent it from working – by putting up barriers to trade and thus frustrate the conversion of money into commodities and commodities into money: M – C and C’ – M’.

The righting of the wrongs of capitalism can only be achieved by replacing the system of production and thus the way the reproduction of society takes place.  Since the precondition for this is the full development of capitalism, including creation of the working class as the immense majority of society, this cannot be done by seeking to make capitalism either not work, or seek to make it work differently from how it actually does and must work.

None of this prevents socialists fighting for reforms within capitalism, in order that workers’ lives are made better, but this objective cannot rely on the good intentions of the state and cannot even rely on the effects of trade union struggle.  As Marx puts it:

“the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles [over wages]. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady.”

“They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto: “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!” they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword: “Abolition of the wages system!”

“ . . . Trades Unions work well as centers of resistance against the encroachments of capital. They fail partially from an injudicious use of their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organized forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class that is to say the ultimate abolition of the wages system.”

So, restrictions on trade, as far as Marx was concerned, were not progressive and did not alter the basic relations of capitalist society.   And, of course, Marx was under no illusions as to what these relations were and what they entailed:

“To sum up, what is free trade under the present condition of society? Freedom of Capital. When you have torn down the few national barriers which still restrict the free development 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, no matter how favorable the conditions under which you accomplish the exchange of commodities, there will always be a class which exploits and a class which is exploited.”

“It is really difficult to understand the presumption 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 more clearly.”

“Do not be deluded by the abstract word Freedom! Whose freedom? Not the freedom of one individual in relation to another, but freedom of Capital to crush the worker.”

This did not mean Marx sought to shackle capital, as those who seek to reform capitalism think can be achieved, or that its reactionary consequences can be fought by isolating their country from its international development – like leaving the ‘neoliberal’ EU and frustrating the globalisation of capital.

In concluding his speech on free trade Marx said this:

“Do not imagine, gentlemen, that in criticising freedom of commerce we have the least intention of defending protection. One may be opposed to constitutionalism without being in favor of absolutism.”

“Moreover, the protective system is nothing but a means of establishing manufacture upon a large scale in any given country, that is to say, of making it dependent upon the market of the world; and from the moment that dependence upon the market of the world is established, there is more or less dependence upon free trade too. Besides this, the protective system helps to develop free competition within a nation. 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 monarchy, as a means for the concentration of its own powers for the realization of free trade within the country.”

“But, generally speaking, the protective system in these days is conservative, while the free trade system works destructively. It breaks up old nationalities and carries antagonism of proletariat and bourgeoisie to the uttermost point. In a word, the free trade system hastens the Social Revolution. In this revolutionary sense alone, gentlemen, I am in favor of free trade.”

Unfortunately, today this approach is rejected by many calling themselves Marxist, who seek not only to protect “old nationalities” but actually to promote them, through for example support for Scottish separation. For them, the combined and uneven development of capitalism must be addressed through national separation on a more perfect basis, which unfortunately for those fooled by this scenario does not exist.

These Marxists might seek a way to demure from Marx’s words by stating that his views were particular to its time, when free trade represented the free development of a capitalism that was in some sense progressive as against reactionary feudal restrictions on free markets and development of the forces of production.

While this was certainly the situation that Marx quotes in the passage above, the current pursuit of national solutions against the development of international capitalist economic and political arrangements such as the EU, is equally reactionary since it also seeks to turn the clock back.

The defeats to the working class and socialism experienced in the twentieth century have been internalised into a predilection to state what you are against, with nothing beyond eschatological declarations of the need for revolution as something to say about what you are for.

So, in this view, socialism is to be built not on the foundation of capitalism and its achievements but on its collapse.  Capitalism must go back to national forms because the working class has failed to build itself an international unity, while this left fails to understand how impossible it would be for the working class to develop an international movement while capitalism is restricted within national economic and political forms.

The left that rails against free trade does not pause to think that the development of free trade within countries, such as Marx referred to above in relation to Germany, created exactly the same sort of circumstances for many workers as the freedom afforded to international trade does today. Yet these socialists are so limited by nationalism that they would find it incomprehensible to advocate restrictions on trade within countries.  As internationalists however, they should seek the minimisation of differences between the working classes of the different nations through the processes Marx stated above.

For many socialists internationalism has taken on a purely moralistic character because they reject the material foundations upon which it can become an immediate material need for workers.  This material need, an interest in fighting international capitalism can only be created through international capital accumulation creating an international working class more and more exposed to the reality that the system that exploits them and which they must resist is international and therefore the alternative to it must also international; there is no question of the alternative being a backward step in the socialisation of production.  As Marx says, this international development of capitalism “pushes the antagonism of the proletariat to the extreme point.  In a word, the free trade system hastens the social revolution.”

Back to part 3