From the June 1975 issue of the Socialist Standard
If Malthus could look in at present-day discussions about population and food supply he would no doubt be flattered that he and his ideas are still remembered and that the discussions have gone beyond this country, to occupy a prominent place on the world stage. He would be particularly interested to note that the question now takes in the allegations that world resources are approaching exhaustion and that continued growth of total production is becoming more and more difficult.
Malthus has a special interest for us, both because of Marx’s attack on his theories and because of the purpose for which he published his essay in 1798. Its full title was: Essay on the Principle of Population as it affects the future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Godwin, M. Condorcet, and other Writers. At that time the British ruling class were alarmed by the spread of revolutionary ideas following the French revolution in 1789. Among those who caused them alarm was the philosophical anarchist William Godwin who propagated the idea that people could live happily together, free from poverty and crime in a system of society based on voluntary co-operation, with no coercive state or other institutions of a class society.
Malthus wrote his Essay to show that Godwin and others who shared his views were wrong because they ignored what Malthus called the Natural Law of Population. This law, as stated by Malthus, was that population, if not checked, would always increase faster than food supplies, and that it always is held in check by the limited food supply operating through poverty, war and pestilence, which necessarily bring misery and vice; therefore the Godwin utopia of universal happiness was impossible.
Having to admit that population in theory might be restricted by what he called “moral restraint’’ he fell back on the argument that such restraint could not be exercised in a society that lacked private property to act as incentive. (Much like the argument now used by Sir Keith Joseph for his “Social Market Economy” capitalism.)
Malthus’s Essay was welcomed by some of the ruling class at the time because it could be used not only against revolutionary ideas but against almost any social change. Malthus made no serious attempt to prove the arithmetic of his law, and the nineteenth century in Britain showed the rate of increase of the population falling drastically while powers of production were increasing fast. Interest in Malthus continued though very erratically, declining when trade was good and unemployment low and reviving during every recession, particularly in the Great Depression of the last quarter of the century.
This was the key to Marx’s attack on Malthus. Marx pointed out that capitalism has its own population law, the symptoms of which are that in a boom the population appears to be too small and in a depression too large. Because capitalism does not produce to meet the needs of people but only to meet the effective demand in the market, capitalism never had produced enough to meet the needs of the whole population.
Capitalism has not changed in that respect, and UN officials now estimate that about a third of the world’s population are poverty-stricken as measured by accepted standards of nutrition. This figure is quoted in a recent article by a regular columnist of the Financial Times, C. Gordon Tether (1 May 1975). He used it to show the uselessness of leaving the problem to the interplay of supply and demand and defines it as a double one, that of raising the standards of the “poor” and of providing for the expected big increase of world population.
Mr. Tether has at least come some way from Malthus, for whom there was a second “natural law”, that the poor should go on being poor. Mr. Tether is so fearful of “ultimate global disasters” that he demands “a far-reaching re-structuring of the planet’s economic system during the next few years”. He does not spell out what he has in mind, and it would be most improbable that he envisages the social revolution at which Socialists aim. Yet it is the only one that, by eliminating the waste, the limitations on production and the sheer destruction of capitalism would give the big increase of useful production that he knows is necessary.
One last word about Marx and his collaborator Frederick Engels. They were fully aware of the arguments of the Malthusians and Engels wrote in 1844:
Even if Malthus were altogether right, it would still be necessary to carry out this [Socialist] reorganization immediately, since only this reorganization, only the enlightenment of the masses which it can bring with it, can make possible that moral restraint which Malthus himself puts forward as the easiest and most effective counter measure against overpopulation.(See Marx and Engels on Malthus by Ronald L. Meek, p.109.)
Engels recalled this in a letter dated 1 February 1881 sent by him to Kautsky, in which he wrote:
There is of course the abstract possibility that the number of people will become so great that limits will have to be set to their increase. But if at some stage communist society finds itself obliged to regulate the production of human beings, just as it has already come to regulate the production of things, it will be precisely this society, and this society alone, which can carry this out without difficulty.