TGIF: The Glorious Bourgeois Peace Movement

by | Nov 3, 2023

TGIF: The Glorious Bourgeois Peace Movement

by | Nov 3, 2023

bright cobden

Those of us whose pro-peace/antiwar principles are of the bourgeois classical-liberal variety need reminding now and again that we have a glorious tradition going back hundreds of years. We need not get lost in the dominant rhetoric that opposes war, empire, and its deadly accouterments from a flawed anti-individualist, anti-Western, and socialist position.

No, we can draw on a proud history of writers and activists who opposed war and intervention not just for the obvious reason —  harm to others — but also because peace and nonintervention are required for reaping the full benefits of private property, specialization and the division of labor, free global trade, and the unobstructed movement of people in search of better lives. It would be mistaken to regard this as a union of humanitarian and so-called “economic” justifications for peace-mongering. For those classical liberals, freedom to produce, trade, and consume was simply another humanitarian reason to oppose the disruption of war.

Two of the best exemplars of bourgeois pro-market peace activism were the Englishmen Richard Cobden and John Bright, both members of Parliament, manufacturers, orators, and activists. In the mid-19th century, they built a movement that has been in the history books ever since. They are best known for opposing England’s tariff on imported grain (“corn”), which raised the price of bread to enrich the land-owing aristocracy. Cobden and Bright successfully fought their battle through the Anti-Corn Law League.

Cobdden and Bright did not compartmentalize but rather explicitly linked free trade to peace and opposition to military spending and intervention. They had a friend and ally on the continent in the French laissez-faire liberal Frédéric Bastiat.

These classical liberals understood that if a social conflict is to be avoided and society is to develop for all, then the industrious members of the population — entrepreneurs and employees, both of whom produce valuable goods through their labor — must be free from those who use government-granted privileges to legally steal from the industrious. (Ironically, Marx credited the classical liberals with devising this class analysis, but then screwed it up by putting business creators in the exploiter class.)

Cobden and Bright were not only clear and analytical; they were also passionate. They were great orators inside of Parliament and outside. The liberals’ association of peace and free trade can be seen in this example of Cobden’s eloquence:

How shall a profession which withdraws from productive industry the ablest of the human race, and teaches them systematically the best modes of destroying mankind, which awards honours only in proportion to the number of victims offered at its sanguinary altar, which overturns cities, ravages farms and vineyards, uproots forests, burns the ripened harvest, which, in a word, exists but in the absence of law, order, and security — how can such a profession be favourable to commerce, which increases only with the increase of human life, whose parent is agriculture, and which perishes or flies at the approach of lawless rapine?

He finishes this passage with a rebuke to those who wanted the English government to compel foreign populations to do business with privileged government-granted monopoly interests:

They who propose to influence by force the traffic of the world, forget that affairs of trade, like matters of conscience, change their very nature if touched by the hand of violence; for as faith, if forced, would no longer be religion, but hypocrisy, so commerce becomes robbery if coerced by warlike armaments.

Cobden told his fellow members of the House of Commons:

It is only necessary that you should be agreed that war is a great calamity, which it is desirable we should avoid if possible…. My object is to see if we cannot devise some better method than war…; and my plan is, simply and solely, that we should resort to that mode of settling disputes in communities, which individuals resort to in private life. I only want you to go one step farther, to carry out in another instance the principle which you recognize in other cases — that the intercourse between communities is nothing more than the intercourse of individuals in the aggregate. I want to know why there may not be an agreement between this country and France, or between this country and America, by which the nations should respectively bind themselves, in case of any misunderstanding arising which could not be settled by mutual decision of arbitrators.

He also warned about the government’s unlimited spending on armaments: “I wish to know where this system is to end.”

On another occasion, he advised, “I say, if you want to benefit nations who are struggling for their freedom, establish as one of the maxims of international law the principle of non-intervention.”

These men were called “Little Englanders” for the obvious reason: they opposed the empire. Cobden also said, “I believe the progress of freedom depends more upon the maintenance of peace, the spread of commerce, and the diffusion of education, than upon the labours of Cabinets or Foreign offices.”

Bright was no less eloquent:

This is war — every crime which human nature can commit or imagine, every horror it can perpetrate or suffer; and that this is our Christian Government recklessly plunges into, and which so many of our countrymen at this moment think it patriotic to applaud! You must excuse me if I cannot go with you. I will have no part in this terrible crime [the Crimean War against Russia]. My hands shall be unstained with the blood which is being shed…. [B]ut no respect for men who form a Government, no regard I have for “going with the stream,” and no fear of being deemed wanting in patriotism, shall influence me in favor of a policy which, in my conscience, I believe to be as criminal before God as it is destructive of the true interest of my country.” (83)

This could be said about the United States today: “What are we to say of a nation, which lives under a perpetual delusion that is about to be attacked…?”

As noted, these Manchester men of business (along with their predecessors such as Adam Smith, and successors such as Herbert Spencer) embraced Western classical-liberal values with gusto. They were ready to condemn institutions that did not live up to those values. But despite its flaws, they were not embarrassed to embrace Western modernity, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution, understanding that all civilizations had flaws, such as slavery and the glorification of war, which were to be eliminated. But they knew better than to throw the baby out with the bathwater, which many people today do not.

Let’s not forget these great figures who were vital to the development of today’s high living standards and of the universally applicable philosophy of individual liberty, private property, free markets, and peace. This proper foundation for domestic and foreign policy was and today remains explicitly pro-freedom in all spheres and anti-aggression. Thus in the spirit of Cobden and Bright, true liberals are entitled to oppose war and empire while identifying with neither the “left” nor the “right.”

Sheldon Richman

Sheldon Richman

Sheldon Richman is the executive editor of The Libertarian Institute and a contributing editor at Antiwar.com. He is the former senior editor at the Cato Institute and Institute for Humane Studies; former editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education; and former vice president at the Future of Freedom Foundation. His latest books are Coming to Palestine and What Social Animals Owe to Each Other.

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