1920s >> 1926 >> no-260-april-1926

Population and Poverty

A debate took place recently in South London between an alleged Communist and a champion of the New Generation League on the question, “Is Birth Control Necessary for the Abolition of Poverty?” This is not a report thereof, but an attempt to put before our readers the Socialist view of the question raised.

The speaker in the affirmative was decidedly modest in his claims. He did not assert that Birth Control would abolish poverty, or even ameliorate it, but simply that poverty could not be abolished without it. He advanced, of course, the time-worn dogma that population tends to press upon means of subsistence, no matter what the latter may be, and left his audience to conclude that poverty was a result of this pressure and, therefore, short of artificial control of births, unavoidable. He further attached great importance to the facts that Marx formed his opinions prior to the publication of Darwin’s “Origin of Species” (based upon Malthus) and was, moreover, a townsman ignorant of agriculture and its limited possibilities.

Let us examine these claims. In the first place poverty is not merely a relative term, it is a description of the condition of a particular class in society, namely, the working class, i.e., the class which produces the antithesis of poverty, which is wealth. This wealth is enjoyed by a comparatively small section of the community, namely, the capitalist, or master, class, who own the material means by which the workers produce it. In this ownership is to be found the cause of their social position and not in the size of their families. Broadly speaking, it is true that the workers have more numerous progeny than their masters, but it is equally true that no amount of abstinence from the function of procreation will make a man a millionaire. Something more is necessary, i.e., the exploitation of social labour.

This fact is ignored by the’ Malthusian. He talks imposingly about “the struggle for existence” (a term which he never accurately defines), but omits to .mention that before the struggle for wealth can commence, it has to be produced by some measure of co-operation. Every historical form of society has involved the co-operative efforts of the labourers as an element in its economic basis. The ancient empires, founded on chattel-slavery, the feudal kingdoms of the middle ages resting on serfdom, as well as the capitalist régime of to-day based upon wage-labour, could not conceivably have existed if the productivity of the workers’ labour had not exceeded their necessary consumption.

The pressure of the workers upon their means of subsistence is thus the product not of “nature” but of society under certain conditions in the course of its development. In other words, the contrast between wealth and poverty is of historical origin and came into existence only when, by dint of labour, mankind had acquired a degree of control over nature’s supply of the means of subsistence sufficient to permit of the existence of an idle class.

Under pre-historical conditions, a primitive form of Communism existed. The small, narrow social groups of those days knew no class distinctions. If nature was niggardly, all suffered ; if generous all benefited. Property rights as understood to-day did not exist. Mankind exploited nature as their state of development permitted, with none but the savage beasts to say them nay. The basis of the group was kinship, i.e., descent from a common ancestor. Under Communism men advanced from the lowest depths of savagery to the threshold of civilisation. They discovered fire, invented the b6w and arrow, and the arts of smelting and pottery-making, domesticated animals and initiated horticulture. They laid, in fact, the ground-work for all subsequent progress.

Tribal communism, however, broke up with the advance of chattel-slavery, an institution, the origin of which affords an interesting refutation of Malthusianism. In extremely primitive times, groups engaged in warfare among other objects for women to add to the numbers of their tribe ; the men they slew. With the increase of the fruits of labour, however, a use was discovered for the male captives of war as well. They became slaves of their conquerors, and the wealth of a Roman patrician was in proportion, not to the smallness of his household, indeed, but, on the contrary, to the numbers of these slaves who constituted its most important element. For their maintenance he was responsible just as the farmer is responsible for his cattle ; but the surplus-product of their labour was the source of his wealth, and the same principle has applied under various forms to this day. The wealth of the feudal lord was in proportion to the number of his tenants, while the modern financial magnate controls huge industrial armies.

On the other hand the avowed birth-controlling peasants of France “enjoy a standard of life lower than that of the wage-slaves of Britain and America; a fact which is due4 not to any niggardliness of nature in France, but to the antiquated methods of exploitation upon which its rulers depend.

The Malthusian claims that this is due to the absence of coal in France. He forgets that if this is true then the presence of coal would have led to similar results as in England, i.e., a higher degree of exploitation and unemployment !

It is clear in any case that the progress of industry and, consequently, in the long run the progress of society, depends upon the further development of social labour. The restriction of population can at best play but a negative part in this progress, while, pushed to extremes, it can only produce stagnation. Modern industrial development necessitates the existing population with its massing of the workers in highly organised productive centres. As a remedy for poverty, therefore, birth control is a policy of reaction and despair, whatever its value may be from a hygienic point of view.

To recapitulate, present poverty is due to capitalism, i.e., to the monopoly by a diminishing class of the fruits of social effort. It can be abolished so soon as the class which suffers from it realises the cause of it and removes that cause. When the workers organise as a class, seize political power, and convert the means of living into the common property of all, then and then only will class distinctions and their social and economic accompaniments disappear.

The struggle between the capitalists over the surplus wealth wrung from their slaves on the one hand and the struggle between the slaves for jobs on the other are the fruits of immature development. They will vanish when in the struggle between these two classes as a whole, the workers, are victorious. Production will then be carried on in conscious co-operation in order to secure the fullest possible development for every individual.

The limits of productive possibility no one can foresee, and it behoves the workers in their own interests to study existing conditions for the solution of existing problems. Mathematical calculations with regard to the number of elephants per square yard likely to result from unchecked multiplication may be ingenious and even exciting to an overheated imagination, but they have no bearing upon the problem of poverty. As for Marx, whatever his views on Darwin may have been, he was able to expose Malthus for the plagiarist he was (see footnote 1 to page 345, “Capital,” Sonnenschein edition).

E. B.

(Socialist Standard, April 1926)

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