Editorial from the February 1936 issue of the Socialist Standard
It has been stated that the interest taken in the Quins and Quads by “poor working-class mothers is astonishing." The interest certainly does not stop there. Dr. Josiah Oldfield, speaking at the London School of Dietetics, on January 14th, attributed “the present outburst of multiple births” to birth control. It is, he says, “a throw-back towards the primitive. All primitive creatures were full of fecundity so that by good chance some of their early offspring would survive the perils and mortalities of early life.” What support there may be for his view does not, however, concern us here. What is of greater interest is that this led other commentators to link up the population question with working-class poverty in a novel way.
We have long been familiar with the argument that poverty is due to over-population, and that if the workers would only decrease the size of their families they would all be better off. Now we are introduced to the opposite argument, from a Catholic, Father Woodlock. In a statement to the Evening Standard (January 15th) he pointed out that a falling population means fewer soldiers to defend the Empire, and that in addition it means greater poverty for the workers.
Only short-sighted economists fail to notice that a fall in the birth-rate will not help the condition of the working classes, but accompanied by the noticeable increased longevity of our people, will put a much heavier burden on the workers.
They will be fewer, but in the future they will have to support a much increased number of aged and unemployable dependants. Propagandists of the spread of the birth-control movement never seem to aver this.
We can agree with Father Woodlock that those who preach birth control as a cure for poverty and unemployment are completely in the wrong, but in rejecting that fallacy Father Woodlock embraces another. It is true that a population containing a large proportion of people unable to work may be at a disadvantage compared with one containing a higher proportion of able-bodied men and women in the prime of life, but we are not living in a system of society in which the problem of wealth production is as simple as that. Under capitalism large numbers of people—the propertied class—are not engaged in wealth production and have no desire or necessity to be so engaged. Consequently the burden resting on the shoulders of the workers is not that of keeping only themselves and their own dependents, but, in addition, of keeping the propertied class in luxury and idleness or non-productive activity, and of keeping all the military and civil hangers-on of the capitalist system. The wealth producers are not engaged in producing for themselves, but of producing wealth for the capitalist class alone to own and control. What the workers get is wages, based on their cost of living. If the cost of maintaining a working-class household is reduced by smaller families or increased by larger ones, wages will sooner or later adjust themselves, leaving the workers no better and no worse off than before. As for unemployment, it is the over-production of commodities in relation to the demand of the market, and the encroachment of the machine, which the worker has to consider, not the size of the population. Experience has shown that these forces work just as powerfully in the countries with a stable or declining population as in those which are expanding.
Father Woodlock and those he criticises are alike in error through ignoring the economic laws or even the very existence of capitalism.
Before things could work out in the way Father Woodlock assumes, we have got to get rid of capitalism, lock, stock, and barrel. When that is done, and not before, we shall be able to consider the problem raised by him.
Incidentally, when we have cleared the ground by removing capitalism, we shall not have to consider the problem of population from the standpoint of the necessity of producing more cannon-fodder.