From the March 1916 issue of the Socialist Standard
A Neo-Malthusian Fable.
It seems strange at a time when proletarians are being butchered by millions, to find Neo-malthusians still advocating the reduction of the population as the cure for all social ills; yet such is the case. In a booklet ['How to Prevent Pregnancy.' G. Hardy, Paris, 19l6.] recently published in English it is roundly asserted that the limitation of births “means simply the suppression of misery, the solution of the social question.” Simply that!
Socialists are in no way opposed to the diffusion of complete scientific knowledge in sexual matters; they fully recognise the right of men and women to limit the number of their offspring on grounds of personal health and comfort. Neo-malthusians, in fact, have a wide field for useful activity, but their ambitions outstrip their means. They offer a check pessary for the earthquake!
The matter will repay a moment’s thought; but let us first take our medicine like men by quoting the passages bearing on this point.
The initial cause of pauperism and the evils which follow it (prostitution, alcoholism, premature death, degeneration, war, etc.) is not the result of the unequal division of wealth but of the insufficiency of produce, the constant absence of an equilibrium between the population and the means of subsistence, the constant contradiction between human fecundity even when attenuated by the wisdom of a few, and the production of the soil even when amplified by scientific culture, and the opposition between hunger and love.
In short, it is not true to-day that there is enough bread for all. However paradoxical it may appear it is because there never has been enough of primordial products to satisfy everybody with an equal share that some have too much. That is what the Malthusian doctrine says and demonstrates. . .
There will no longer be a proletariat or any misery when procreative prudence will have penetrated every home, and the want of sexual forethought of some will not annul the happy effects brought about by others, when all couples will know how to avoid conception and, when those children really wanted and desired will be born in numbers wisely limited to the family and social resources under the best conditions of heredity, education and environment.
There are no other means whatever to bring about the amelioration of material conditions and therefrom intellectual and moral perfection. (Pages 17-19) ibid.)
Even if it were true that there be not sufficient bread for all it would hardly follow that the remedy is to decrease the number of producers, since each average producer is variously estimated to produce up to eight times the equivalent of his keep. Such a “remedy” would be an intensification of the supposed inadequacy of the food supply. But the assertion is a ludicrous perversion of the truth. The average modern worker produces many times more wealth than did his predecessor of a century ago. In fact, the power to produce increases much faster than the population. This is incontestihle. It is admitted by every competent economist and statistician. And if a tithe of the labour now spent in producing senseless luxuries for the idle rich were devoted to the production of the prime necessaries of life, there would be a superabundance for a much larger population than is likely to exist for many years to come. Consequently Neo-malthusianism goes to pieces on the bed-rock fact of labour’s productivity.
The present war has demonstrated the truth of this; it has shown how very few workers are required to produce the necessaries of the whole population, and what an immense proportion of the available labour can yet be thrown away in the making and working of an overwhelming mass of instruments of slaughter.
It therefore follows inevitably that if workers lack the means of comfort the actual cause cannot possibly be that there are too many producers. Obviously the cause must be sought in the social conditions which waste and divert to a few the results of man’s super-productivity.
The essential facts are very simple. The land and productive instruments are owned and exploited by a comparatively small number of persons. The workers, therefore, can only obtain a livelihood as the beasts of burden, the hirelings, of these capitalists. It further follows that the more of the good things of life the workers can make the fewer labourers need the exploiters hire. It is therefore not lack of necessaries, but the worker’s ability to produce more than is in demand, that enables the capitalists to create that powerful means of keeping the workers poor, the unemployed.
The poverty that afflicts the working class is thus obviously not due to any impossibility of producing sufficient, since it is consequent upon the very opposite! And the seeming excess population that is the Malthusian stalking horse is by the same fact shown to be an artificial product. It is an effect of class ownership in the means of life. Yet Neo-malthusians, with pitiful short-sightedness, take this effect for the cause!
How entirely an effect of a baneful social system is this artificial redundancy of population that is raved about is readily seen in the matter of machinery. “Labour-saving” devices and automatic machinery enable an ever-greater proportion of goods of all kinds to be produced with less labour. Under capitalist ownership the machines progressively displace wage-workers, making more and more of them superfluous. No probable reduction in population could keep pace with this increasing displacement. Now, is the remedy to smash the machines ? Obviously not. Yet such a thing is more logical and reasonable than the Malthusian cure for poverty. It is, in fact, the true application of their form of argument. The Socialist is saved from such absurdity. He knows they are not the prime cause of working-class poverty and redundancy. The cause is the manner in which they are owned and used. The question is a politico-economic one, and no Neo-malthusian appliance will touch it.
The war is again a case in point. Throughout Europe millions of workers are being annihilated, and if there were any truth in the Malthusian argument, this reduction of the population should solve the social problem; but does anyone outside of Colney Hatch believe that it will ? Is not organisation and machinery making wage-workers redundant at an even faster rate? Clearly! And after this war the workers will be face to face with the social problem in its most acute form.
France has long been the happy hunting ground of Neo-malthusians. Economic conditions have facilitated their propaganda in that country. It has long been the classic land of fewer births. Yet did the working population of France increase in prosperity compared with the teeming and increasing millions beyond the Rhine? Not at all! The exact contrary is what occurred. The extravagant claims of the Neo-malthusians cause them to leap from folly to folly. In one breath they state that population always tends to exceed the food supply, and in the next they say the exact opposite. Thus Mr. Hardy shows that those sections of society who are most comfortably off and have the most food, have the smallest families, while the poorest, who have least food, have the largest number of children. In other words, the more food the fewer children! It is amusing to find them unable to see their inconsistency.
The so-called Malthusian Law of Population is, indeed, a misstatement. Among civilised humans, though the sparsity of offspring among the well-to-do, and the plethora of children among the poor, is partly due to conscious effort, yet it is a physiological fact that it is not due to this cause to the extent popularly believed. It is not merely a matter of the atrophy due to luxury and in-breeding, for there is traceable a tendency for the procreative effort to increase with the keener struggle for existence, not vice versa. Even in the garden it is well known that plants put into rich soil run to leaf and set but little seed. In man, indeed, over-fatigue is known to be highly stimulating to the sexual impulse.. On the basis of the struggle for existence itself, such a tendency is to be expected. In the life history of each species those varieties would stand the beat chance of survival which met periods of intense struggle and threatened extinction with the greatest procreative effort. Those varieties which propagated least under such conditions would become extinct. Thus there would become hereditary in most species a tendency to propagate most under conditions of stress, a tendency due to the natural selection of ancestral varieties with that tendency, which successfully emerged from the innumerable periods of threatened extinction through which each must have passed.
Such an inherited tendency, which explains many facts in natural history, must profoundly modify the so-called law of population.
But even so far as conscious preventives of birth among human beings are concerned, the Neo-malthusians fail to touch the spot. As they tell us, the successful use of preventive checks requires knowledge, self-discipline, and persevering cleanliness of no mean order. Now this is precisely what is unattainable among the very poorest, which, as Malthusians say, it is really necessary to reach! Economic conditions bar the way. Consequently upon its own ground Neo-malthusianism fails. It tends to decrease that portion of the population that can well afford to rear children, much more than it does the more wretched and more prolific. The latter it scarcely touches. As always, the economic laws are at the back of population. In fact, as Marx has said:
every special historic mode of production has its own special laws of population, historically valid within its limits alone. An abstract law of population exists for plants and animals only, and only in so far as man has not interfered with them.
Concerning the rest of Mr. Hardy’s book (which deals with the functions of the sexual organs and explains the various preventive checks that are usable) there is little to say. The economic idiocies of the book do not inspire confidence in the practical sections, with which the author is conceivably more qualified to deal. Nevertheless, having been compelled in the interests of truth to jump with both feet upon the theoretic portion, one reels inclined to be generous with regard to the rest. As far as a mere amateur can judge it appears to contain useful information. It may prove a boon to those about to marry — unless, of course, they go one better and adopt Punchs’ advice.
F. C. Watts