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Marx, Malthus and Mr. Strachey

Mr. Strachey in his book Contemporary Capitalism (pp. 88, 89), says, "Marx in spite of his dislike for Malthus and all his theories agreed that a rapidly rising population would help to depress the standard of life of the wage worker." Natural fertility would always be increasing the number of workers competing for jobs and this would be further augmented by the displacement of workers by continuous mechanisation. Mr. Strachey asserts that not only did Marx say this but he also went on to deduce from it that a labour shortage could never arise. Moreover because or the ever-increasing deadweight of unwanted workers on the labour market, wages would not only be forced down to a bare subsistence level but even increasingly below it. Thus as the result of capital accumulation the mass of the population would come to exist on a semi-starvation diet insufficient for the replacement of their working energies.

Mr. Strachey offers nothing to support these astonishing statements. He merely tells us airily that it can all be found in "the central chapters of Vol. I. of Capital." But where we are to look for actual quotations or specific references for Mr. Strachey's claims, God alone knows and Mr. Strachey presumably shares the secret with him.

Our advice to Mr. Strachey is first catch your facts before you cook them. Perhaps a quotation from one of the central chapters in Vol. I. of Capital will show that Mr. Strachey can economise truth as well as evidence. In Vol. I. of Capital (p. 626, Swan Sonnenchein edition), Marx states: —

"The requirements of accumulating capital may exceed the increase of labour-power or of the number of labourers; the demand for labourers may exceed the supply. This must ultimately be the case if the conditions supposed above continue. For since in each year more labourers are employed than in its predecessor, sooner or later a point must be reached at which the requirements of accumulation begin to surpass the customary supply of labour and therefore a rise of wages takes place."

The challenge to Mr. Strachey is to show us where in Marx's economic analysis of Capitalism his conclusions pointed to the depressing of wages to the barest physical level, as the outcome of capital accumulation. So far from that being true, Marx in a detailed analysis in one of the central chapters in Vol. I. of Capital, viz., "Capital Accumulation," shows the tendency for wages to rise under the impact of accumulation. Nevertheless Marx also pointed out that the defensive mechanism of Capitalism is such as to prevent rising wages from absorbing the whole of profits.

In the first place capital accumulation tends to slacken off appreciably should there occur a sharp threat to profit margins—and rising wage levels can constitute such a threat.

Secondly a typical reaction to advancing wages is the substitution of mechanical power for labour power. The net effect of each concern in its efforts to reduce "labour costs," will, by freeing workers, bring into being an industrial reserve army or as Marx alternatively calls it "relative over-population " which by its active competition on the labour market, exerts a downward pressure on wage levels.

The Factors Affecting Wages

The impulse for wages to rise under the stimulus of expanding capital accumulation produces in turn a counter tendency for them to fall. It is this profit motivated expansion and contraction of capital accumulation with its expansion and contraction of the industrial reserve army which constitutes the regulating principle in determining the upper and lower limits of wage levels.

Marx's solution to the way Capitalism deals with the threat of rising wage levels can be stated in his own words, Capital, Vol. I. (p. 653, Swan Sonnenchein Ed.).

"The industrial reserve army during the period of stagnation and average prosperity weigh down the active labour army; during the periods of over-production it holds its pretensions in check. Relative surplus population is therefore the pivot upon which the law of demand and supply of labour works. It confines the field of action of this law within the limits absolutely convenient to the activity of exploitation and to the domination of capital."

Marx's concept of relative over-population does not rest then on the assumptions of any particular population theory. It is valid whether we are dealing with a rising population, a stationary population, or even a relatively declining one.

If, for instance, we examine a particular country where capital accumulation has historically got under way, we find that an increased working population is one of its necessary adjuncts. In the genesis of capital accumulation the labour force necessary for its expansion is historically recruited by means of land expropriation, the ruin of domestic industry and the elimination of the independent craftsman. Even so this may be inadequate for its needs and in that case an intensive and extensive recruitment for additional labour supplies may be resorted to both inside and outside the national area.

On the other hand in a country where economic development is retarded and capital accumulation lags as a result, although the population may be stationary or even relatively declining, there may be considerable unemployment i.e. relative over-population.

It can be seen then that the Malthusian theory of over-population affords no clue to the emergence of an industrial reserve army in Capitalism.

It might also be mentioned as a point of interest that the growth of capital accumulation in the latter half of the 19th century gave rise to labour shortages in various sections of industry. Moreover large bodies of workers were now organised in strong trade unions and were prepared to make the most of the conditions. Thus in place of flexibility certain rigidities were appearing on the labour market.

The Capitalist answer to this less easy situation in the labour market was more extensive mechanisation and the effect of this is redundancy of workers and the net result an increase in labour supply with its tendency to depress wages.

Through such economic agencies did Capitalism maintain, perpetuate and at times multiply relative over-population and this was going on when a relative decline in fertility rates was taking place, for it was round about the 1870’s that there began marked decline in population trends in the most advanced western countries. Thus the emergence and maintenance of an industrial reserve army, is a phenomenon of Capitalist society irrespective of changes in population trends and contrary to the foolish assertions of Mr. Strachey.

The Changing Composition of Capital

Now what Marx did point out was something quite different from Mr. Strachey's interpretation of what he said. What Marx actually did say was that the concentration and growth of capital accumulation had certain consequences which affected the lot of the working class and expressed itself in what he termed the changing character of the composition of capital.

If, said Marx, we examine the total outlay of capital, we shall find that the part spent on the means of production i.e. plant, tools, buildings, etc., and called by him "constant capital," tends to increase relatively to the part spent on wage payments or what he termed "variable capital." Now seeing that the demand for labour-power is determined not by the total capital outlay of investment but by the variable part of it alone, then although the demand for labour-power increases absolutely, as total capital expenditure increases, the demand falls relatively to the magnitude of the total capital outlay.

Stated as a general theoretical proposition it is this process of capital accumulation as stated above which, as the history of Capitalism shows, has produced relative over-population, or as Marx states, "a population of greater extent than suffices for the average needs of the self-expansion of capital."

Marx rejected Malthus in toto. "An abstract of law of population," he said, "exists for plants and animals only, and only in so far as man has not interfered with them." (Capital Vol. I., p. 645). He also referred to Malthus's theory as the dogma of the economist and a libel on the human race. Marx categorically denied that population factors were in any way responsible for mass unemployment and poverty.

Rejecting eternal laws of population supposedly applicable to all societies, Marx formulated the proposition that every stage of historical development had its own laws of population. It was not merely that Marx asserted it but he set out to demonstrate it by a detailed investigation of the law of motion of Capitalist society. He was thus able to formulate a law of population peculiar to Capitalism, a law which fitted the facts of the contemporary situation in a way which the eternal laws of Malthus could not do.

The "Iron Law of Wages"

When, therefore, Mr. Strachey asserts that Marx accepted Lassalle's iron law of wages (Contemporary Capitalism, p. 105), but for politically tactical reasons appeared to oppose it, one realises just how disingenuous Mr. Strachey can be.

In case anybody might be deceived by the pseudo-learned sophistry of Mr. Strachey, let us state that Lassalle took his concept of the iron law of wages from Malthus and Ricardo, not from Marx. In the Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx repudiated in all its forms, the iron law of wages. He said, "If excess of population is the cause of poverty then Socialism can not abolish poverty which has its basis in nature." For Marx poverty and mass unemployment in Capitalism cannot be explained wholly or in part as due to an increase in natural fertility rates.

Engels in a letter to Bebel (March, 1875) said categorically that Lassalle's iron law of wages was "a false statement with a false basis." He also said "Marx proved in detail in Capital that the laws regulating wages are very complicated  . . . they are in no sense iron but on the contrary very elastic." Evidently Engels was unable to find in "these central chapters of Capital," what Mr. Strachey found there.

Nothing exhibits Mr. Strachey's obfuscation of Marx more than his assertion that if Marx had only diagnosed a tendency towards ever-increasing poverty and final economic collapse instead of making it the automatic outcome of the workings of Capitalism, he would have been justified instead of being falsified. This, itself, is a falsification of Marx's views which is either due to sheer ineptitude or the bad intent of the apologetic.

The Automatic Breakdown of Capitalism

Marx's economic analysis never indicates some automatic breakdown of Capitalism. Nor even a tendency towards that end. Thus Mr. Strachey accuses Marx of something he never said, then reproaches him for not saying what Mr. Strachey thinks he ought to have said. Again not only has Mr. Strachey confused notions in seeing in the system a tendency towards greater poverty and collapse, but he reproaches Marx for not sharing his confusion.

Mr. Strachey then blandly assures us that although such a tendency inheres in Capitalism the Labour Movement has overruled this tendency. Mr. Strachey makes central to the Labour Movement the franchise, social reforms and trade unions, whereas in actual fact they are the outcome of the development of Capitalism itself. Such things are not the counter-balance of the Labour Party against some non-existent tendency but an aspect of the normal regularisation necessary to an exploitative system.

Theoretically Mr. Strachey sees the possibilities of this inherent tendency to breakdown producing on a greater scale, slumps, lowered standards of living, etc., but believes that the Labour Party will so manage and regulate Capitalism as to confer on it all the advantages of Socialism. Lord Keynes has made all this possible. Mr. Strachey is, of course, a great admirer of Keynes, whose sole claim to economic originality was to plagiarise Malthus's doctrine of effective demand.

But this is another story and here we must take leave of Mr. Strachey and Malthus—both in their different ways, shallow and false prophets.