Marx versus Malthus: overpopulation or senile system?

The Reverend Thomas Malthus gained notoriety in the 19th century as an ardent defender of poverty and inequality. He asserted that the poor were not poor because of capitalist exploitation or injustice, but because there were simply too many of them, competing over limited resources. Today, Malthus’ ideas still circulate in various different forms, and have even gained some influence on the left. In this article, Adam Booth draws on Marx and Engels’ critique of Malthus to expose the false and reactionary implications of these ideas today.

Western civilisation is crumbling as a swarm of immigrants takes our jobs and homes. Government budgets are being overwhelmed by a zombie zimmer-frame-wielding army of octogenarians, with an insatiable appetite for welfare and healthcare. The planet is burning because it is inhabited by too many people; because we are living beyond our means.

All of this, and more, is regularly declared as fact on the front pages of the bourgeois press.

These assertions, in one shape or form, are all a modern reflection of the reactionary ideas of Reverend Thomas Malthus, a late-18th/early-19th century cleric and economist, whose name is synonymous these days with the field of demography; and, in particular, with the theory that overpopulation is to blame for all of society’s ills and evils.

It is ultimately Malthusian ideology that underpins the right wing’s xenophobic attacks against migrants and refugees. Comparable arguments are perniciously spread by the liberal establishment, meanwhile, in terms of scapegoating the elderly for the crises facing public health and pension systems. It is ‘boomers’, we are similarly told, who are apparently preventing millennials and Gen-Zs from buying a home or finding a decent job – not the chaos of capitalism and the anarchy of the market.

Malthusianism today, however, is not only repeated ad nauseam by the representatives of the ruling class. Unfortunately, many so-called ‘lefts’ have also absorbed these ideas, consciously or otherwise, in the form of ‘degrowth’ theory and other similar such beliefs that are prevalent within the environmental movement.

With such claims and concepts widespread across the political spectrum, it is vital that we, as Marxists, arm ourselves with a proper understanding of Malthusianism, and with a clear socialist response to this claptrap.

Champion of reaction

Thomas Robert Malthus public domainMalthus is most famous – or infamous – for his theory on the laws of population and production / Image: public domain

Malthus is most famous – or infamous – for his theory on the laws of population and production, which he initially outlined in a text entitled An Essay on the Principle of Population. The first edition of this tract was published in 1798, not long after the outbreak of the French Revolution.

The timing was not coincidental. The revolution in France had inspired Romantic and Utopian writers across Europe, not to mention the nascent labour movement. In Britain, the ruling class was terrified of the radicalising impact that events across the Channel were having back at home, and in the colonies. In the same year as Malthus’ essay was published, for example, the Irish Rebellion against British rule broke out – led by the Society of United Irishmen, a republican group influenced by the revolutionary ideals of their French brothers and sisters.

Stirred by these events, thinkers such as William Godwin in England began to speculate about the infinite potential of a future society based on science and reason, believing that there were no bounds to human progress.

Such propaganda was considered to be extremely dangerous by the ruling class. And in Malthus, they found a champion who was more than willing to fight their corner; someone who offered a theoretical rebuttal to the Utopians, and provided a defence of capitalism’s bankrupt status quo.

The first edition of Malthus’ essay, in this respect, was explicitly written as a reply to Godwin and co. In his own words, alongside other torchbearers for the forces of conservatism and reaction, such as Edmund Burke, he aimed to provide an “argument [that] is conclusive against the perfectibility of the mass of mankind”.[1]

In summary, Malthus stated that, left to their own devices, without any material barriers or restrictions, humans would multiply at a geometric rate: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, and so on. Our ability to produce food – to grow crops and rear animals – he suggested, however, could only ever increase at an arithmetic rate: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc.

The result, according to our notorious clergyman, is that mankind’s numbers are constantly subject to ‘positive checks’, such as war and hunger, which act to limit population growth. Death, destruction, and disease, in other words, are alleged to be the consequence of humanity’s unsustainable desire to procreate.

"The germs of existence contained in this spot of earth, with ample food, and ample room to expand in, would fill millions of worlds in the course of a few thousand years. Necessity, that imperious all-pervading law of nature, restrains them within the prescribed bounds. The race of plants, and the race of animals shrink under this great restrictive law. And the race of man cannot, by any efforts of reason, escape from it. Among plants and animals its effects are waste of seed, sickness, and premature death. Among mankind, misery and vice." [2]

Blaming the poor

Reverend Malthus went further than simply suggesting that population growth could not be limitless. After all, the contention that there are material curbs on the overall size of humanity is a truism. Clearly no species can carry on proliferating without an adequate supply of nutrients, water, and so on.

Malthus’ initial treatise was primarily a polemic against the Romantics and Utopians. In later writings, however, he applied his theories to the pressing political problems of the day. And on every occasion, he drew viciously reactionary conclusions – most notably on the question of pauperism.

Accompanying the Industrial Revolution in Britain was widespread destitution, as ‘free labourers’ flocked from the countryside into the cities, and as capitalism chewed up workers and spat them out onto the streets.

At the time that Malthus was penning his essay, a parish-based system of ‘Poor Laws’ existed. This provided relief for beggars and vagabonds. But in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, depression and mass unemployment stalked the land, and the old Poor Laws were increasingly considered to be unsustainable.

By 1832, a Royal Commission was established to propose a new setup of Poor Laws. And Malthus’ arguments – presented publicly and zealously by Malthus himself – were deployed to make the case for local district-level aid to be replaced by a centralised system of workhouses: hellish state institutions that provided barebones accommodation and thin gruel in exchange for back-breaking labour.

According to Malthus and his followers, the previous Poor Laws were only making a bad situation worse. The real issue, they said, was the limited supply of food and other means of subsistence. Redistributing wealth through charity would not solve this question. Instead, it would just encourage the lower classes to breed, exacerbating the problem.

The poor, in other words, were to blame for being poor. And like every other righteous soul, they must stoically accept their lot in life – otherwise mayhem and misery would prevail.

"A man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents on whom he has a just demand, and if the society do not want his labour, has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and, in fact, has no business to be where he is. At nature’s mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him. She tells him to be gone, and will quickly execute her own orders, if he does not work upon the compassion of some of her guests. If these guests get up and make room for him, other intruders immediately appear demanding the same favour […]

"The order and harmony of the feast is disturbed, the plenty that before reigned is changed into scarcity; and the happiness of the guests is destroyed by the spectacle of misery and dependence in every part of the hall." [3] (Emphasis in original.)

Rather than providing paupers with aid, then, Malthus and his admirers called for them to be penalised and effectively imprisoned, in order to prevent them from reproducing like rodents.

“The whole problem [for the Malthusians],” remarked Engels in his studies of the Condition of the Working Class in England, “is not how to support the surplus population, but how to restrain it as far as possible.”[4]

“With this humane theory,” a young Karl Marx stated, “the English Parliament combines the view that pauperism is poverty which the workers have brought on themselves, and that it should therefore be regarded not as a misfortune to be prevented but rather as a crime to be suppressed and punished.” [5] (Emphasis in original.)

Humans vs animals

Writing in the wake of Malthus and the 1834 New Poor Laws, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels ripped these reactionary arguments to pieces.

First up, the founders of scientific socialism challenged the basic axioms upon which Malthus’ hypothesis rested.

“Malthus establishes a formula on which he bases his entire system,” Engels states. “Population is said to increase in a geometrical progression, […] the productive power of the land in an arithmetical progression. […] The difference is obvious, is terrifying; but is it correct?”[6]

Malthus claimed to have proved these relationships with empirical evidence. In particular, he ascertained his geometrical rate of increase in population from studying the expansion of new societies in North America and other British colonies.

The exact numerical ratios alleged by Malthus are a bit of a distraction from the main flaws in his theory, however. Above all, it is the parson’s assertion about the limits of production that must be disputed.

“Where has it been proved that the productivity of the land increases in arithmetical progression?” Engels continues in his Critique.

"The area of land is limited – that is perfectly true. But the labour-power to be employed on this area increases together with the population.

"And even if we assume that the increase of output associated with this increase of labour is not always proportionate to the latter, there still remains a third element – which the economists, however, never consider as important – namely, science, the progress of which is just as limitless and at least as rapid as that of population." [7]

Malthus, then, presents humans as being no better than animals. Mankind, in his view, is like bacteria in a Petri dish: destined to multiply exponentially until it has consumed all available resources within its habitat.

But unlike the rest of the animal kingdom, Marx and Engels explained, we humans are capable of conscious, active thought; of understanding the world around us through interaction with our surroundings, and of utilising this knowledge in order to transform our environment; of developing science and technology, in order to master the forces of nature.

With his theory of population (or overpopulation), Malthus believed that he had uncovered a timeless, eternal law of nature. But this was a crude outlook, a form of reductionism, which effectively sought to present the dynamics of human society as little more than a Darwinian ‘struggle for existence’ (many decades before Darwin himself).

Through labour, however, mankind is able to develop the productive forces at its disposal. In doing so, we are able to alter the conditions in which we live, and smash through any barriers that stand in the way of the extension of our species. This is what separates human beings from all other creatures.

“The most that the animal can achieve is to collect,” Engels stresses in his unfinished masterpiece, Dialectics of Nature, whereas “man produces, he prepares the means of life, in the widest sense of the words, which without him nature would not have produced. This makes impossible any unqualified transference of the laws of life in animal societies to human society.”[8] (Emphasis in original.)

The laws of society and of human populations, in other words, are qualitatively different to the laws of biology and evolution. Human society has its own laws, above and beyond those that apply to other species. The science of demography cannot be reduced to a form of social ‘Darwinism’.

Materialist view of history

With his abstract laws of population, Malthus was the mirror image of the Utopians against whom he polemicised. The latter dreamt up blueprints for the perfect society, divorced from material conditions. The former sought to defend the existing state of affairs through recourse to supposedly timeless social laws; demographic laws considered as universally applicable throughout history as Newton’s laws of motion are in physics.

factoryThe laws and limits of human populations are not determined and conditioned by nature, but by production / Image: public domain

In contrast to both these idealistic camps, Marx and Engels provided a materialist view of history. There are no eternal societal laws, applicable to all forms of civilisation, they explained. Rather, each stage in human development brings forth its own dynamics, contradictions, and social relations. Each mode of production, in turn, has its own unique laws of population, which must be studied concretely.

“[According to the Malthusians] the whole of history can be brought under a single great natural law”, writes Marx in his correspondence, admonishing certain bourgeois intellectuals for their historical idealism.

"This natural law is the phrase […] ‘the struggle for existence’, and the content of this phrase is the Malthusian law of population or, rather, overpopulation […]

"So, instead of analysing the struggle for existence as represented historically in varying and definite forms of society, all that has to be done is to translate every concrete struggle into the phrase ‘struggle for existence’, and this phrase itself into the Malthusian population fantasy." [9]

“In this way,” Marx further explains in the Grundrisse, “[Malthus] transforms the historically distinct relations [of population] into an abstract numerical relation, which he has fished purely out of thin air, and which rests neither on natural nor on historical laws.”[10]

The laws and limits of human populations, then, are not determined and conditioned by nature, but by production. Different modes of production, in turn, have different laws of population.

"And in fact 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."[11]

Relative surplus population

Having refuted Malthus’ abstract, immutable laws of population, Marx set out on the positive task of analysing and formulating the laws of population peculiar to capitalism.

Marx did not concern himself, however, with attempting to examine the demographic dynamics that affect the size of a given society. A whole host of factors – including changing moral and religious attitudes – might determine whether a particular population grows or shrinks; whether parents choose to have larger or smaller families; whether birth rates and death rates are low or high.

Marx understood, in this respect, that mankind’s total numbers are not based solely on economic determinants; that there is no mechanical relationship between population and production.

Instead, in Capital, Marx outlined how the dynamics of capitalist accumulation result in a tendency towards a relative surplus population.

Malthus had attributed poverty to the absolute numbers of people; the inevitable outcome of too many people chasing after too few goods. By contrast, Marx showed that pauperism was the result of capitalism’s contradictions.

Driven by an unquenchable thirst for ever-greater profits, competition between the capitalists forces them to constantly reinvest surplus value – created by the working class – back into new means of production, leading to expansion and growth.

In the process, the total demand for labour-power increases. At the same time, however, the capitalists invest in machinery and automation, in order to boost workers’ productivity, cheapen their commodities, and out-compete other producers.

Two contradictory tendencies therefore develop. On the one hand, workers are made obsolete by technology, and are thrown onto the scrapheap. On the other hand, as the economy grows, unemployed workers are reabsorbed back into production.

Some industries are transformed, making workers redundant; others expand, creating a demand for additional workers. And overlaying these changes between and within different sectors of the economy, there are capitalism’s perpetual cycles of boom and bust.

The result is an ebb and flow in the population that is deemed surplus to capital’s requirements; chaotic fluctuations in what Marx referred to as the “reserve army of labour”.

“Capitalistic accumulation itself”, Marx explains in his magnum opus, “constantly produces, and produces in the direct ratio of its own energy and extent, a relatively redundant population of labourers, i.e. a population of greater extent than suffices for the average needs of the self-expansion of capital, and therefore a surplus population.”[12]

Furthermore, Marx emphasised that a reserve army of labour is not only the product of capitalist accumulation, but is also a necessary condition for its perpetuation.

In order to continually expand their businesses, the capitalists must have at all times a ready-supply of idle labour-power, ready and able to be employed. The existence of this reservoir of workers, meanwhile, helps to maintain a downward pressure on wages, thus boosting the bosses’ profits.

"Capital works on both sides at the same time. If its accumulation, on the one hand, increases the demand for labour, it increases on the other the supply of labourers by the setting free of them, whilst at the same time the pressure of the unemployed compels those that are employed to furnish more labour, and therefore makes the supply of labour, to a certain extent, independent of the supply of labourers."[13]

It is not the absolute numbers of the population that drive down wages and create poverty, then, as Malthus had suggested, but the reserve army of labour resulting from the dynamics of capital; not a case of overpopulation and limited production, but one of a surplus population relative to the needs of the profit system; not a “pressure of population […] upon the means of subsistence but upon the means of employment”, as Engels emphasises.[14]

"The labouring population therefore produces, along with the accumulation of capital produced by it, the means by which itself is made relatively superfluous, is turned into a relative surplus population; and it does this to an always increasing extent. This is a law of population peculiar to the capitalist mode of production." [15]

Poverty amidst plenty

Karl MarxMarx and Engels analysed the actual contradictions of capitalism that prevent society from feeding ever-larger numbers / Image: public domain

In place of Malthus’ assertions about arithmetic progress in terms of food supplies, Marx and Engels analysed the actual contradictions of capitalism that prevent society from feeding ever-larger numbers.

Above all, they explained that far from seeing overpopulation, it is a case of overproduction. Humanity does not face permanent scarcity, but poverty amidst plenty. As Engels writes:

"Too little is produced, that is the cause of the whole thing. But why is too little produced? Not because the limits of production […] are exhausted […] but because the limits of production are determined not by the number of hungry bellies, but by the number of purses able to buy and to pay. Bourgeois society does not and cannot wish to produce any more. The moneyless bellies, the labour which cannot be utilised for profit and therefore cannot buy, is left to the death-rate."[16] (Emphasis in original.)

Hunger under capitalism, in short, does not arise because of society’s technical inability to feed itself, but because of the madness of the profit system.

“If Malthus had not considered the matter so one-sidedly,” Engels states in his Critique, “he could not have failed to see that surplus population or labour-power is invariably tied up with surplus wealth, surplus capital, and surplus landed property.”[17]

Malthus’ theories, in this respect, have been disproven in practice many times over since his death. Malthusian prophecies of doom have been consistently undermined by events; by developments in agriculture, industry, and science that have enabled society to increase the fertility of the land, raise productivity through the application of technology and technique, and produce more with less.

Even today, according to humanitarian campaigners Action Against Hunger, it is estimated that enough food is produced to feed the entire world – and yet an estimated 10 percent of the global population suffer from malnourishment and starvation.

The problem lies not with Malthusian overpopulation, but with private ownership and the nation state: the two fundamental barriers that stand in the way of the development of the productive forces; and that prevent us today from rationally utilising society’s immense resources, which are instead being plundered for profit by the capitalists.

Apologist for parasitism

By blaming starvation and deprivation on ordinary people, Malthus was actively diverting attention from the real culprit: the capitalist system. Marx, in this respect, described Malthus as “a shameless sycophant of the ruling classes”,[18] and his theories as providing a “new apology for the exploiters of labour”.[19]

Above all, Malthus defended the interests of the landed gentry. In the debates over the Corn Laws (tariffs on grain imports into Britain), for example, Malthus came down firmly on the side of protectionism and the landlords, in opposition to proponents of free trade, such as the English classical economist, David Ricardo.

Furthermore, true to his creed, the clergyman also used his economic theories to justify the existence of his own parasitic class – defending the unproductive consumption of the Church, the aristocracy, and other assorted “idle retainers”.

Such squandering of society’s resources, he assured, was not wasteful, but was in fact necessary for preventing crises and ensuring the ongoing survival of capitalism.

Marx summarises Malthus’ economic views as follows:

"What is required are buyers who are not sellers, so that the capitalist can realise his profit and sell his commodities ‘at their value’.

"Hence the necessity [according to Malthus] for landlords, pensioners, sinecurists, priests, etc., not to forget their menial servants and retainers."[20] (Emphasis in original)

Simultaneously, according to Malthus, we have both overpopulation and underconsumption; too many mouths to feed, alongside too many goods to be sold; too little produced to maintain the penniless masses, alongside a surplus that can only be mopped up through the gluttony and greed of affluent loafers and layabouts.

Walter Dendy Sadler Friday Google Art ProjectTrue to his creed, the clergyman also used his economic theories to justify the existence of his own parasitic class / Image: public domain

“And so it turns out,” Marx concludes, noting the irony and hypocrisy, “that the author of the pamphlet on population preaches continuous overconsumption and the maximum possible appropriation of the annual product by idlers, as a condition of production.”[21]

This glaring paradox in Malthus’ ideas actually expresses a real contradiction at the heart of capitalism: overproduction.

Answering laissez-faire classical economists like Adam Smith and Jean-Baptiste Say, who believed in the rationality and efficiency of the free market, Marx showed that capitalism was inherently prone to crisis – crises resulting from the nature of the profit system itself.

The capitalists’ profits are derived from the unpaid labour of the working class, Marx explained. Workers receive less in value (in the form of wages) than they produce (in the form of commodities). Consequently, capitalism’s ability to produce will always outstrip the market’s ability to absorb all that is produced.

The result, as Marx and Engels explained in the Communist Manifesto, are crises in which “there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity – the epidemic of overproduction.”

"Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation, had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilisation, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce."[22]

Marx admitted that, whilst he considered the parson to be a serial plagiarist, Malthus’ economic ideas had some merit, in that, “as against the pitiable doctrines of harmony in bourgeois political economy”, the reverend provided “pointed emphasis on the disharmonies”.

Malthus was happy to proclaim capitalism’s contradictions, insofar as this provided an apology for the aristocrats and other various leeches in society, in whose interests he served.

“Malthus is interested not in concealing the contradictions of bourgeois production, but on the contrary, in emphasising them,” Marx states. “On the one hand, in order to prove that the poverty of the working classes is necessary (as it is, indeed, for this mode of production) and, on the other hand, to demonstrate to the capitalists the necessity for a well-fed Church and State hierarchy in order to create an adequate demand for the commodities they produce.”[23]

Ageing population or senile system?

Malthus, then, chastised the poor for being poor. But he clearly had no problem with the rich being rich.

The same is true today with Malthus’ contemporary acolytes. Liberal commentators blame the most vulnerable for being a burden on society. But these same hypocrites conveniently ignore – or worse, actively defend – the real millstone that hangs around our necks: the billionaires and bankers who are nothing but a drain, and whose system condemns millions to a lifetime of agony and toil.

old and youngLiberal commentators blame the most vulnerable for being a burden on society / Image: Salar Arkan

Neo-Malthusians of all stripes, in this respect, play a dangerous role by pointing the finger at all manner of scapegoats when it comes to capitalism’s crimes and calamities. Migrants and refugees are expected to drown in the Mediterranean Sea or the English Channel, for example. The country is ‘full’, we are told. If the ‘swarm’ of foreigners are allowed on our shores, then already-creaking services will collapse. Meanwhile, the capitalists are drowning in profit.

Or take the case of the elderly. Ironically, having once worried about a “population bomb”, many Malthus-inspired authors these days are concerned about the opposite: that people aren’t having enough babies, leading to societies that are shrinking in numbers and getting older.

According to UN estimates, women across the world – for a variety of reasons – are having fewer and fewer children. Consequently, the planet’s total population is predicted to rise from over 8 billion today to a peak of about 10.4 billion in 2083. With lower birth rate forecasts, this apogee falls to 9 billion in 2050.

At the same time, thanks to improvements in healthcare and so on, life expectancy is increasing. The overall result is that society is rapidly ageing.

This has important economic ramifications. In particular, the ‘old-age dependency ratio’, measuring the numbers of elderly people relative to the working-age population (ages 15-64), is creeping up. A diminished workforce, in other words, is having to sustain a larger number of retirees.

This means relatively fewer workers to drive economic growth; less labour-power proportionally for the capitalists to exploit; and fewer taxpayers compared to the total population, alongside greater requirements for government spending on state pensions and public healthcare.

“The coming significant and prolonged changes in the size and the characteristics of the population and the labour force could undermine economic growth,” warns George Magnus, the former chief economist at UBS investment bank, in his book, The Age of Ageing. “Ageing societies will have to figure out how to get more age-related spending from the welfare state and how to pay for it.”[24]

For Malthus, the problem was too many poor people eating up society’s resources. Now, we are told, it is too many old people.

Similarly, in a recent special report, liberal journal, The Economist predicts a ‘Japanification’ of the West – that is, a process of ageing, dwindling populations leading to economic stagnation and ballooning national debts.[25]

The magazine’s authors even go so far as to suggest that the elderly could be responsible for the depressive quagmire in which the world economy is stuck, not only because increasing numbers of old people means rising dependency ratios and higher levels of public spending (on welfare and healthcare), but also because retirees are apparently contributing towards a ‘global savings glut’.

Unsurprisingly, these bourgeois writers do not think to examine the real causes behind the slowdown in the global economy: not a ‘savings glut’ in the hands of the elderly, but in the bank accounts of the billionaires.

It is capitalism – a system wracked by overproduction and anarchy – that is responsible for the ‘secular stagnation’ and ‘permanent slump’ that bourgeois economists (such as Larry Summers and Paul Krugman, respectively) were discussing prior to the pandemic; and for the instability and inflation that now haunts the ruling class and working class alike.

The fact is that if the economy were moving forward, with productivity rising, then there would be no issue with a relatively smaller number of workers having to support a larger number of folk in their twilight years. The wealth to provide greater levels of healthcare, etc. would be there. In fact, the money for this already exists, but it sits idly in the vaults of the super-rich.

Instead of blaming boomers for overloading government budgets, then, we should be blaming the bosses and their system for grinding society to a halt. The problem is not a generational divide but a class divide.

The real question to ask, in this respect, is not ‘what do we do about all these old people?’, but ‘why has productivity stalled?’.

Why are we not able to produce more with less – not only in industry and agriculture, but also in essential services? Why have technologies like artificial intelligence and automation not led to a massive reduction in the working week and in the age of retirement? Why, despite all the latest advances in science, can a relatively smaller workforce not provide for a growing proportion of dependents, whilst simultaneously increasing the provision of pensions, social care, childcare, education, and so on?

Just as scientific and technological progress has enabled more people to live longer, and given families more potential control over how many children they have, so too should further developments in the productive forces enable society to sustain older, larger populations, with higher living standards for all.

All of this – and more – is entirely possible. But not on the basis of capitalism, which is at an impasse.

Indeed, even mainstream academics are warning of ‘scientific stagnation’; reporting that research has become less ‘disruptive’ in recent decades, and that innovation has plateaued.

Of course, what these empirical pessimists – like Malthus before them – fail to see is that this standstill is not absolute, but relative. It is not science and technology that has reached a dead-end, but the current mode of production.

In short, it is not an ageing population that is to blame for society’s crises, but a senile system – the decrepit capitalist system – which has long outlived its historical role, and must henceforth be laid to rest, buried by its gravediggers, the working class.

Collapse and catastrophe

refugeesIt is ultimately Malthusian ideology that underpins the right wing’s xenophobic attacks against migrants and refugees / Image: Mstyslav Chernov, Unframe

The aforementioned figures and projections about population growth provide a further blow to the arguments of Malthus and his disciples. Not only was the reactionary reverend wrong about humanity’s ability to transform production, and thus feed ever-greater numbers; he was also wrong about mankind’s predilection for procreation.

Nothing, Malthus insisted in his infamous essay, could stop ordinary people from breeding uncontrollably like bunny rabbits. And yet we see that, as society develops, material changes rebound back upon the family, leading to a general tendency towards reducing fertility rates.

The factors behind this process are numerous: the shift from agriculture to industry, and from the countryside to the city; the entrance of larger numbers of women into the workforce; the creation of welfare states, including public education and healthcare; the greater accessibility of contraception and knowledge about family planning; changing social attitudes, most notably in terms of the declining role of religion; and, increasing today, potential parents being unable to afford to raise more children (if any), because of low wages and the high costs of childcare, rents, etc.

Regardless of the precise causes, the overall result under modern-day capitalism is clear: a development of the productive forces provides a material impetus and basis for families to have fewer children, at the same time as it enables society to support a larger total population. Yet the Malthusians, viewing everything as they do in a purely one-sided manner, are oblivious to this reality.

The same is true of prominent neo-Malthusians such as the ‘Club of Rome’ – a collection of bourgeois academics, intellectuals, and organisations who, in 1972, published their shocking report on the Limits to Growth.

Updating Malthus’ ideas for the computer age, Club of Rome scientists modelled changes in the planet’s resources and population, producing apocalyptic predictions of total ecological, economic, and social collapse within 100-120 years.

But as critic, Christofer Freeman, of Sussex University – and author of Models of Doom – stated in response: “Put Malthus in; get Malthus out.”[26] In other words, any model is only as reliable as its inputs and assumptions. And the authors of Limits to Growth were utterly infected with Malthusian prejudices, which completely biassed their demographic and environmental predictions.

Population and consumption were forecast to continue growing exponentially, whilst production – particularly of food – would struggle to keep up. Finite resources would be depleted at an ever-faster rate. And if hunger didn’t kill us all, then pollution certainly would.

Above all, like Malthus, the Club of Rome’s researchers had no perspective of progress. Their equations contained no room for qualitative technological leaps; for transformations in society and the economy; for class struggle.

All they could recommend, therefore, were policies aimed at achieving ‘zero growth’. This is the Malthusian lineage from which contemporary ‘degrowth’ ideas descend. In the context of capitalism, this amounts to a regime of permanent austerity.

And yet the Club of Rome did have a point. Carrying on with business as usual, humanity is hurtling towards a horrifying future of ecological, economic, and social crises, which may even threaten the continuation of civilisation itself.

The solution does not lie with Malthusian remedies of ‘positive checks’, population controls, or restrictions on consumption, however, but with the working class taking power and planning production rationally, in the interests of people and the planet.

Socialism or barbarism

Marxists do not take an abstract moral view on whether bigger or smaller populations are preferable; whether people should or should not want children.

What we do object to is Malthusians – of the right and left variety – asserting that ordinary people must die, suffer, or accept attacks on their living standards, because society apparently does not have the resources or productive potential to provide a decent life for the whole world’s population, and billions more.

All manner of barriers prevent the vast majority from having genuine control over their lives. On the one hand, the US Supreme Court – and reactionary governments in country after country – have stripped millions of women of their right to choose not to have a child. On the other hand, capitalism strips millions of women and men of the ability to choose to have children, due to the lack of affordable nurseries or housing.

Marxists want to remove all these hurdles, providing reproductive rights and other basic democratic freedoms to women, and democratically planning the economy in order to provide decent accommodation, fully-funded public services and pensions, and free, socialised childcare and elderly care facilities for all.

To achieve this, we need a revolution, to replace the anarchic laws of capitalist production and private property with new economic laws based on rational socialist planning, common ownership, and workers’ control. As Engels explains:

"The so-called ‘struggle for existence’ assumes the form: to protect the products and productive forces produced by bourgeois capitalist society against the destructive, ravaging effect of this capitalist social order, by taking control of social production and distribution out of the hands of the ruling capitalist class, which has become incapable of this function, and transferring it to the producing masses – and that is the socialist revolution."[27]

Only in this way can we avert the existential crisis facing humanity. The only options facing us are socialism or barbarism. 


[1] T Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, Penguin Books, 1985, pg 72

[2] ibid.

[3] T Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, Cambridge University Press, 1992, pg 249

[4] F Engels, The condition of the working class in England, Oxford University Press, 1993, pg 289

[5] R L Meek (ed.), Marx and Engels on Malthus, Laurence and Wishart, 1953, pg 67

[6] F Engels, “Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy” in Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 3, Laurence and Wishart, 1975, pg 440 

[7] ibid.

[8] F Engels, “Dialectics of Nature” in Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 25, Laurence and Wishart, 1987, pg 584

[9] R L Meek (ed.), Marx and Engels on Malthus, Laurence and Wishart, 1953, pg 174

[10] K Marx, Grundrisse, Penguin Books, 1973, pg 606

[11] K Marx, Capital, Vol 1, Bahribook, 2017, pg 876

[12] ibid.

[13] ibid.

[14] R L Meek (ed.), Marx and Engels on Malthus, Laurence and Wishart, 1953, pg 81

[15] K Marx, Capital, Vol 1, Bahribook, 2017, pg 876

[16] R L Meek (ed.), Marx and Engels on Malthus, Laurence and Wishart, 1953, pg 82

[17] F Engels, “Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy” in Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 3, Laurence and Wishart, 1975, pg 438

[18] R L Meek (ed.), Marx and Engels on Malthus, Laurence and Wishart, 1953, pg 123

[19] ibid. pg 118

[20] K Marx, Theories of Surplus Value, Vol. 3, Laurence and Wishart, 1972, pg 22

[21] ibid.

[22] K Marx, F Engels, “The Communist Manifesto” in The Classics of Marxism, Vol. 1, Wellred Books, 2013, pg 8

[23] K Marx, Theories of Surplus Value, Vol. 3, Laurence and Wishart, 1972, pg 57

[24] G Magnus, The Age of Aging, John Wiley and Sons, 2009, pg xix-xx

[25] “Elderly populations mean more government spending”, The Economist, 5 October 2022

[26] P Neurath, From Malthus to the Club of Rome and Back, M.E. Sharpe, 1994, pg 96

[27] F Engels, “Dialectics of Nature” in Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 25, Laurence and Wishart, 1987, pg 584

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