1900s >> 1907 >> no-38-october-1907

Marx or Malthus?

The demand for an “eight hours’ day for all workers” by the enthusiastic young man whose estimate of the relative value of broken-bottles aivd bullets as missiles appears to be in need of some revision, led us to a study of J. M. Robertson’s “The Eight Hours Question.”

The member for Tyneside shows the uselessness of this particular “palliative” by a searching analysis of its effect in case of “particular legislation” in that direction. He simply “wipes the floor” with such “Socialist” opponents as Webb, Shaw, and S.D.F. Jones. His position may be summed up by the following quotations:

“They (Messrs. Webb & Co.) have undertaken to provide a manual of fact and theory for the politicians and labour-leaders who have to deal with the question. Their only bias is the bias of sociological inclination. Yet their altruistic bias is quite as fatal in science as a mercenary one would have been inasmuch as it is even more likely to blind and mislead. Generosity and nobility of feeling will not suffice to decide the matter for those of us who feel that half the miseries of life spring from action undertaken from motives either benevolent or genial. . . Mr. Webb is sensitive about the ungenerousness of pointing out to the working-men that they are mistaken, but he seems to have no misgiving about leading thousands of them to the bitterest disappointment.”

Waiving the question as to what is meant precisely by “sociological inclination,” members of The Socialist Party of Great Britain will heartily concur in the foregoing : indeed, one might use the words as a text when combating the fluffy sentimentalities of the I.L.P’er who derives his “economies” from the New Testament (with profuse apologies to the Old), or the perfervid oratry of the average S.D.F’er on the question of “free maintenance,” who, like Dick Dauntless in “Ruddygore,” argues that it must be right so long “as your ‘eart be your compass” in so far as “this ‘ere ‘eart of mine’s a dictatin’ to me like anythink.”

But clearly as Robertson sees the futility of the legalised restriction of hours (and, incidentally, of other palliatives); although from his own historical and sociological works the fact of the “class struggle” might be deduced : while “economic causation” is the master-key by which he unlocks the mystery of the rapid spread of early Christianity ; he fails to follow his own clues, and, obsessed by one idea (Neo-Malthusianism), proposes counter palliatives, which while they might lighten the burdens of a class doomed to remain in slavery for all time, are grotesquely beside the mark to those genuine Socialists with whose principles, apparently, the learned member has yet to become acquainted, Socialists who believe with him that “the one hope lies in the good sense of the more thoughtful workers, who ought to be the means of guiding aright the rest, they themselves listening to economic reason rather than to the blind impulse which attacks tlie symptom instead of the cause.”

But here, oddly enough, our author, who elsewhere rightly insists upon the vital importance of verification of premises, takes for granted what is obviously his main contention, namely : that the cause of poverty is overpopulation. In a book of 150 pages, there is not a line directly devoted to the proof of what he regards as the “essence” of Malthusian teaching, viz : “Population tends to increase in an excessive ratio to food”—which, to say the least, in a book which is practically a plea for “Neo-Malthusianism”—is a curious slip. His ludicrously easy task of exposing the absurdities of the Fabians does not justify him in the belief that he has exposed the errors of what he is pleased to call “a crude Marxian economics,” still less does the fact that Gronlund made an error in his statement as to the debated question of the number of Malthus’ children, or that Tom Maim gravely assures the worker that the lessened hours of labour will benefit both the proletarian and capitalist, justify him in the belief that he has established the truth of the precious “law,” which “holds good no matter what be the efficiency or equality of the distribution of wealth.” In the terms of his own main contention, having regard to the implied object of the book, (chapter 13 is called the “Population crux,”) J. M. Roberston’s “The Eight Hours Question” must be regarded as a literary miscarriage, a splendid warning to Guy and Guenn in the avoidance of a non sequitur, a striking example of the truth of the ever-recurring fact that scholarship, literary ability and even genuine sympathy with the worker, are absolutely no guarantee that the real issue for the worker can be more than glimpsed. The exhibition of possibly the most brainy man the Liberals can claim placing himself upon the level of palliative-mongering “Labour-leaders” and middle-class bureaucrats, whose fallacies he deplores, and whose antics he must despise, gives one “furiously to think.” It becomes increasingly right, meet, and our bounden duty, at all times, and in all places, to strenuously oppose those who, whether by reason of mental obfuscation, or by reason of deliberate attempt to contuse the worker for their own ends—the two reasons merge only too easily in the “leader”—have inscribed “Socialism” on their banner, and are acting falsely to the grandly simple principles involved in that faith.

Lack of space forbids more than a cursory examination of the proposition that poverty is caused mainly by “overpopulation.” J. M. Robertson, ashamed, apparently, of the crudely absurd proposition iirst enunciated by Malthus, viz., that population tends to double itself in geometrical progression, whilst subsistence can only be made to increase in arithmetical progression, contents himself with saying that “Population tends to increase in an excessive ratio to food.” Now, it is evident that, put into its very simplest form, this must mean: the more food (“warmth and clothing” is somewhat illicitly smuggled in later on) available, the greater the birth-rate. Yet, on his own showing, the “upper” classes tend to reproduce less, and here the “food supply” is adequate, not to say excessive. Does Robertson maintain that this lessened rate is due to the adoption of Neo-Malthusian teachings ? Grant even that such principles have been adopted, is it not flying in the face of all logical procedure, to assume that this lessened birth-rate is due only to the operation of that circumstance. Further, in ancient Greece and Rome, is it not a fact that the “lower orders” tended to increase at a faster rate than the “upper” classes ? Were there Malthusians then ? Was abortion and infanticide practised more by the patrician than by the proletarian, by the “citizen” than by the helot?

In all seriousness, one asks: Is there not sufficient food, or is it only the purchasing power to obtain food which the English wage-slave, the Indian ryot, the Irish peasant lacks ? “When her population was at its highest Ireland was a food-exporting country. Even during the famine, grain, meat, butter, aud cheese were carted for exportation along roads lined with the starving, and past trenches into which the dead were piled.” Had that food been available, possibly, Robertson may retort, there would have been more reproduction and more want. On which very point one seeks in vain for anything approaching a proof, and is fobbed off with such gratuitious assertions as “With such general distribution of wealth as we all wish for, population would easily double in 20 years unless the lesson of prudential restraint be learned step for step with the improvement.”

It is curious that it does not occur to the minds of Neo-Malthusians that there is another alternative worth considering, viz., that poverty causes overpopulation. The development of this point would result in lengthening an already over-long article. Perhaps the Editor will allow the point to be considered on another occasion. I content myself at present with pointing out that the lowly organisms which haunt the blood of man, and try deadly conclusions with the friendly phogocyte multiply in a way that the worthy Malthus would have called “very striking,” and that, deprived of nourishment, several of the one-celled plants and animals protest by retiring into semi-privacy for a while, and then forming themselves into mere reproducing agents, one organism giving rise to innumerable ”spores.” “Neo” Malthusianism will hardly touch these degenerate beings.

Of course, the Socialist is well aware that the big fringe of unemployed tends ever more and more to aid the employer in beating down labour to a mere subsistence-wage, but he is also aware that this is because the worker, under our present system, is a mere commodity, a curious piece of mechanism differing only from the machine it minds in its power of producing surplus-value, in handing over to its owner the handsome difference between its own cost of subsistence and the value of the commodities its labours have brought into being.

It is the duty of The Socialist Party of Great Britain to tell the workers in general, and the Malthusians in particular :—

(1) Whatever temporary good may accrue to a few individual workers from the adoption of their principles, no permanent benefits can possibly be gained by the working class as a whole.
(2) This particular palliative, along with its bosom friends Total Abstinence, Thrift, Clean Boots, Brushed Hair, and the New Theology will be preached to you by all sorts and conditions of men. The S.P. of G.B. will be at the old stand, giving a hand to Economic Pressure, who will not too gently, but firmly, persuade you that Socialism is your only hope.


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