Malthus' 'Essay on Population' at Age 200: A Marxian View

By Foster, John Bellamy | Monthly Review, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Malthus' 'Essay on Population' at Age 200: A Marxian View


Foster, John Bellamy, Monthly Review


Since it was first published 200 years ago in 1798, no other single work has constituted such a bastion of bourgeois thought as Thomas Malthus' Essay on the Principle of Population. No other work was more hated by the English working class, nor so strongly criticized by Marx and Engels. Although the Malthusian principle of population in its classical form was largely vanquished intellectually by the mid-nineteenth century, it continued to reemerge in new forms. In the late nineteenth century it took on new life as a result of the Darwinian revolution and the rise of social Darwinism. And in the late twentieth century Malthusianism reemerged once again in the form of neo-Malthusian ecology.

Today Malthus is commonly presented as an ecological thinker - counterposed to a classical Marxist tradition which (in large part because of its opposition to Malthus himself) is branded as anti-ecological. Hence, even some ecological socialism, such as Ted Benton, have gone so far as to argue that Marx and Engels were guilty of "a Utopian overreaction to Malthusian epistemic conservatism" which led them to downplay (or deny) "any ultimate natural limits to population" and indeed natural limits in general. Faced with Malthusian natural limits, we are told, Marx and Engels responded with "Prometheanism" - a blind faith in the capacity of technology to overcome all ecological barriers.(1)

It therefore seems appropriate, on the bicentennial of Malthus' Essay on Population, to reconsider what Malthus stood for, the nature of Marx's and Engels' response, and the relation of this to contemporary debates about ecology and society. Contrary to most interpretations, Malthus' theory was not about the threat of "overpopulation" which may come about at some future date. Instead, it was his contention that there is a constant pressure of population against food supply which has always applied and will always apply. This means that there is effectively no such thing as "overpopulation" in the conventional sense. Engels was perfectly correct when he wrote in 1844 that according to the logic of Malthus' theory "the earth was already over-populated when only one man existed." Far from being an ecological contribution Malthus' argument was profoundly non-ecological (even anti-ecological) in nature, taking its fundamental import from an attempt to prove that future improvements in the condition of society, and more fundamentally in the condition of the poor, were impossible.

Malthus' Essay on Population went through six editions in his lifetime (1798, 1803, 1806, 1807, 1817, and 1826). The 1803 edition was almost four times as long as the first edition while excluding large sections of the former. It also had a new title and represented a shift in argument. It was therefore in reality a new book. In the subsequent editions, after 1803, the changes in the text were relatively minor. Hence, the 1798 edition of his essay is commonly known as the First Essay on population, and the 1803 edition (together with the editions of 1806, 1807, 1817, and 1826) is known as the Second Essay. In order to understand Malthus' overall argument it is necessary to see how his position changed from the First Essay to the Second Essay.

The First Essay

The full title of the First Essay was An Essay on the Principle of Population as it Effects the Future Improvement of Society; with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet and Other Writers. As the title indicates it was an attempt to intervene in a debate on the question of the future improvement of society. The specific controversy in question can be traced back to the publication in 1761 of a work entitled Various Prospects for Mankind, Nature, and Providence by Robert Wallace, an Edinburgh minister. Wallace, who in his earlier writings had demonstrated that human population if unchecked tended to increase exponentially, doubling every few decades, made a case in Various Prospects that while the creation of a "perfect government," organized on an egalitarian basis was conceivable, it would be at best temporary, since under these circumstances "mankind, would increase so prodigiously that the earth would be left overstocked and become unable to support its inhabitants. …

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