Free Trade

Chris Bailey chrisbailey at gn.apc.org
Tue Feb 21 17:52:22 MST 1995


In a recent posting Doug Henwood raised an extremely important
question that certainly needs further debate.

>But then there's the larger issue, NAFTA itself. The nationalist/populist
>position on both sides of the Rio Grande is a simple No! This is very
>different from the classically Marxist position, which, as stated by Marx
>himself in his famous 1848 Brussels speech, is that since free trade
>heightens the tension between capital and labor he cast his vote for free
>trade. Anyone want to step into *that* minefield?

Having fallen out with most of my US and Canadian friends over an
article I wrote on this very subject, I seem to be already standing in
the minefield. Since 1994 is being hailed as a major breakthrough year
for the development of free trade worldwide (GATT, WTO, EC, NAFTA,
APEC), it does seem very necessary that Marxists try to tackle this
thorny question.

Marx regarded free trade as "the normal condition of modern capitalist
production" whilst protectionism was "an artificial means...of
forcibly abbreviating the transition from the medieval to the modern
mode of production". Marx was well aware of the tremendous disruption
that free trade caused to workers' lives. He did not, however, support
free trade because it "heightens the tension between capital and
labour", but because it *internationalized* it. He regarded free trade
as ultimately inevitable.

For Marx, protectionism was a dead end for workers seeking to defend
themselves from the effects of free trade. The workers' answer to free
trade had to be the development of a *workers' international*. Free
trade meant workers could only defend themselves by allying themselves
with workers in other countries. This position is well put in the
resolution passed in favour of the First International at the first
Congress of the British TUC. Marx undoubtedly had a hand in preparing
this resolution:

"That as local organizations of labour have almost dissappeared before
organizations of a national character, so we believe the extension of
the principle of free trade, which induces between nations such a
competition that the interest of the workman is liable to be lost
sight of and sacrificed in the fierce international race between
capitalists, demands that such organizations should be still further
extended and made international."

Marx's concept of an international was firmly based on the continued
extension of free trade. He did not foresee the revival of
protectionism that took place in the late 1870's and continued until
today. This protectionism removed the material base for a viable
workers international and was ultimately responsible for the collapse
of all attempts to build one. A further development of free trade
opens up both the possibility and necessity for a new workers'
international organization.

The protectionist campaign to preserve "American jobs" waged by the
AFL-CIO against NAFTA, supported by virtually the whole of the US
left, was reactionary and leads US workers straight into the arms of
populist charlatans like Ross Perot.

Until NAFTA, the US trade union movement had done absolutely nothing
to assist the working class in Mexico. Indeed, its leadership had
worked with the US state department to subvert and destroy any real
independent development of union organization throughout South
America. Since NAFTA, important beginnings at developing cross border
co-operation and organization have been made.

Chris Bailey


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