Godwin & Proudhon: Against Malthusianism

William Godwin (1756-1836) was the author of perhaps the first systematic exposition of anarchist ideas, An Enquiry Concerning Poltitical Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793; excerpts are reprinted in Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One: From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE-1939), Selection 4). Published at the height of the French Revolution, Godwin’s book was at first well received and very influential. But with England declaring war on revolutionary France, Godwin was caught up in the growing tide of reaction, becoming the target of a widespread campaign of vilification and abuse. One of his critics was Thomas Malthus, who in his 1798 essay, “On the Principle of Population,” argued that Godwin’s ideas were impossibly utopian and contrary to nature, such that any attempt to implement them would simply make matters worse. Malthus asserted, without any evidence in support, that population increases geometrically, while food production can only increase arithmetically, such that it was impossible to overcome poverty and starvation among the lower classes. Malthus’ ideas became accepted truisms among those opposed to any meaningful social change, and would later inspire the Victorian era Social Darwinists, who also argued against social reform on the specious pretext that “nature” should be allowed to take its course. This ideological misuse of Darwin’s theory of natural selection was later subjected to a thoroughgoing critique by Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921), the renowned anarchist communist, in his book, Mutual Aid (1902).

Godwin responded to Malthus, pointing out that the amelioration of poverty generally reduces population growth, and that food production can be increased by a variety of means in order to meet the needs of an increasing population. The following excerpts are taken from Peter Marshall’s The Anarchist Writings of William Godwin (London: Freedom Press, 1986), pp. 136-139:

There is a principle in the nature of human society by means of which everything seems to tend to its level, and to proceed in the most auspicious way, when least interfered with by the mode of regulation. In a certain stage of the social progress, population seems rapidly to increase… In a subsequent stage, it undergoes little change, either in the way of increase or diminution; this is the case in the more civilized countries of Europe. The number of inhabitants in a country will perhaps never be found in the ordinary course of affairs greatly to increase beyond the facility of subsistence.
Nothing is more easy than to account for this circumstance. So long as there is a facility of subsistence, men will be encouraged to early marriages, and to a careful rearing of their children… In many European countries, on the other hand, a large family has become a proverbial expression for an uncommon degree of poverty and wretchedness. The price of labour in any state, so long as the spirit of accumulation shall prevail, is an infallible barometer of the state of its population. It is impossible where the price of labour is greatly reduced, and an added population threatens a still further reduction, that men should not be considerably under the influence of fear, respecting an early marriage, and a numerous family.
There are various methods by the practice of which population may be checked; by the exposing of children, as among the ancients… by the art of procuring abortion… by a promiscuous intercourse of the sexes, which is found extremely hostile to the multiplication of the species; or, lastly, by a systematical abstinence, such as must be supposed, in some degree, to prevail in monasteries of either sex. But, without any express institution of this kind, the encouragement or discouragement that arises from the general state of a community will probably be found to be all-powerful in its operation.
Supposing however that population were not thus adapted to find its own level, it is obvious to remark upon the objection of this chapter that to reason thus is to foresee difficulties at a great distance. Three fourths of the habitable globe are now uncultivated. The improvements to be made in cultivation, and the augmentations the earth is capable of receiving in the article of productiveness, cannot, as yet, be reduced to any limits of calculation. Myriads of centuries of still increasing population may pass away, and the earth be yet found sufficient for the support of its inhabitants. It were idle therefore to conceive discouragement from so distant a contingency.
Let us apply these remarks to the condition of society… in which a great degree of equality and an ardent spirit of benevolence are assumed to prevail. We have found that, in the community in which we live, one of the great operative checks upon an increasing population arises from virtue, prudence or pride. Will there be less of virtue, prudence and honourable pride in such a condition of society, than there is at present? It is true, the ill consequences of a numerous family will not come so coarsely home to each man’s individual interest, as they do at present. It is true, a man in such a state of society might say, ‘if my children cannot subsist at my expense, let them subsist at the expense of my neighbour’. But it is not in the human character to reason after this manner in such a situation. The more men are raised above poverty and a life of expedients, the more decency will prevail in their conduct, and sobriety in their sentiments. Where everyone has a character, no one will be willing to distinguish himself by headstrong imprudence. Where a man possesses every reasonable means of pleasure and happiness, he will not be in a hurry to destroy his own tranquility or that of others by thoughtless excess.
If I look to the past history of the world, I do not see that increasing population has produced such convulsions as he [Malthus] predicts from it, or that vice and misery alone have controlled and confined it; and, if I look to the future, I cannot so despair of the virtues of man to submit to the most obvious rules of prudence, or of the faculties of man to strike out remedies as yet unknown, as to convince me that we ought to sit down forever contented with all oppression, abuses and inequality, which we now find fastened on the necks, and withering the hearts, of so great a portion of our species.
I have endeavoured to show: 1) that we have no authentic documents to prove any increase in the numbers of mankind, and that, if there is any tendency to increase, exclusively of the counteracting causes that are to be traced in the annals of history, which is by no means certain, that tendency is of the most moderate description; 2) that the counteracting causes are neither constant nor regular in their operation, and have nothing in them of an occult and mysterious nature; and 3) that the means which the earth affords for the subsistence of man are subject to no assignable limits, and that the nourishment of human beings in civilized society can never, unless in the case of seasons peculiarly unfavourable, sustain any other difficulty, till the whole globe has been raised to a very high degree of cultivation, except such as arises from political institutions.

By the 1840s, Malthus’ ideas, and the related doctrine of laissez-faire capitalism, were seized upon by reactionaries of all hues to combat the spread of socialist doctrines.  During the 1848 Revolution in France, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the self-proclaimed anarchist and socialist, argued against the “Malthusians” that it was property and privilege, protected and maintained by the force of law, that were the causes of poverty and inequality, not a parsimonious, blind and merciless nature.

The following essay, “The Malthusians,” was published by Proudhon in August 1848, just weeks after the French military had savagely repressed the June 23, 1848 working class uprising protesting the workers’ impoverished circumstances. Almost alone in the National Assembly, Proudhon came to the defence of the workers, calling on the National Guard to take the side of the workers, and for immediate debt relief, with the ultimate aim of abolishing property in favour of possession of the necessary means of support and the full product of one’s labour. When Proudhon told the Assembly that the proprietors woud be responsible for the consequences of their refusal to accept such proposals, and was challenged to explain himself, he responded that “in the case of refusal we ourselves shall proceed to the liquidation without you.” When asked whom he meant by “we” and “you,” he said it was evident that he “was identifying myself with the proletariat, and you with the bourgeois class,” to shouts from the reactionaries that “It is the social war!” and “the 23rd of June at the tribune!” This translation by Benjamin Tucker was originally published in Henry Seymour’s The Anarchist, and later reprinted as a pamphlet (London: International Publishing, 1886).

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: The Malthusians

Dr. Malthus, an economist, an Englishman, once wrote the following words:
“A man who is born into a world already occupied, his family unable to support him, and society not requiring his labour, such a man, I say, has not the least right to claim any nourishment whatever; he is really one too many on the earth. At the great banquet of Nature there is no plate laid for him. Nature commands him to take himself away, and she will not be slow to put her order into execution.”
As a consequence of this great principle, Malthus recommends with the most terrible threats, every man who has neither labour nor income upon which to live to take himself away, or at any rate, to have no more children. A family —that is, love — like bread, is forbidden such a man by Malthus.
Dr. Malthus was, while living, a minister of the Holy Gospel, a mild-mannered philanthropist, a good husband, a good father, a good citizen, believing in God as firmly as any man in France. He died (heaven grant him peace) in 1834. It may be said that he was the first, without doubt, to reduce to absurdity all political economy, and state the great revolutionary question, the question between labour and capital. With us, whose faith in Providence still lives, in spite of the century’s indifference, it is proverbial—and herein consists the difference between the English and ourselves—that “everybody must live.” And our people, in saying this, think themselves as truly Christian, as conservative of good morals and the family, as the late Malthus.
Now, what the people say in France, the economists deny; the lawyers and the littérateurs deny; the Church, which pretends to be Christian, and also Gallican, denies; the Press denies; the large proprietors deny; the government, which endeavours to represent them, denies.
The Press, the government, the Church, literature, economy, wealth—everything in France has become English; everything is Malthusian. It is in the name of God and his holy providence, in the name of morality, in the name of the sacred interests of the family, that they maintain that there is not room in the country for all the children of the country, and that they warn our women to be less prolific. In France, in spite of the desire of the people, in spite of the national belief, eating and drinking are regarded as privileges, labour a privilege, family a privilege, country a privilege.
Mr. Antony Thouret said recently that property, without which there is neither country, nor family, nor labour, nor morality, would be irreproachable as soon as it should cease to be a privilege; a clear statement of the fact that, to abolish all the privileges which, so to speak, exclude a portion of the people from the law, from humanity, we must abolish, first of all, the fundamental privilege, and change the constitution of property.
Mr. A. Thouret in saying that, agreed with us and with the people. The State, the Press, political economy, do not view the matter in that light; they agree in the hope that property, without which, as Mr. Thouret says, there is no labour, no family, no Republic, may remain what it always has been—a privilege.
All that has been done, said, and printed today and for the last twenty years, has been done, said and printed in consequence of the theory of Malthus.
The theory of Malthus is the theory of political murder; of murder from motives of philanthropy and for love of God. There are too many people in the world; that is the first article of faith of all those who, at present, in the name of the people, reign and govern. It is for this reason that they use their best efforts to diminish the population. Those who best acquit themselves of this duty, who practice with piety, courage and fraternity the maxims of Malthus, are good citizens, religious men; those who protest against such conduct are anarchists, socialists, atheists.
That the Revolution of February [1848] was the result of this protest constitutes its inexpiable crime. Consequently it shall be taught its business, this Revolution which promised that all should live. The original, indelible stain on the Republic is that the people have pronounced it anti-Malthusian. That is why the Republic is so especially obnoxious to those who were and would become again the toadies and accomplices of kings— grand eaters of men, as Cato called them. They would make a monarchy of your Republic; they would devour its children.
There lies the whole secret of the sufferings, the agitations and the contradictions of our country.
The economists are the first among us, by an inconceivable blasphemy, to establish as a providentia1 dogma, the theory of Malthus. I do not reproach them; neither do I abuse them. On this point the economists act in good faith and from the best intentions in the world. They would ask nothing better than to make the human race happy; but they cannot conceive how, without some sort of an organization of homicide, a balance between population and production can exist.
Ask the Academy of Moral Sciences. One of its most honourable members, whose name I will not call—though he is proud of his opinions, as every honest man should be—being the prefect of I know not which department, saw fit one day, in a proclamation, to advise those within his province to have thenceforth fewer children by their wives. Great was the scandal among the priests and gossips, who looked upon this academic morality as the morality of swine! The savant of whom I speak was nonetheless, like all his fellows, a zealous defender of the family and of morality; but, he observed with Malthus, at the banquet of a Nature there is not room for all.
Mr. Thiers, also a member of the Academy of Moral Sciences, lately told the committee on finance [in the National Assembly] that, if he were minister, he would confine himself to courageously and stoically passing through the crisis, devoting himself to the expenses of his budget, enforcing a respect for order, and carefully guarding against every financial innovation, every socialistic idea—especially such as the right to labour— as well as every revolutionary expedient. And the whole committee applauded him.
In giving this declaration of the celebrated historian and statesman, I have no desire to accuse his intentions. In the present state of the public mind, I should succeed only in serving the ambition of Mr. Thiers, if he has any left. What I wish to call attention to is that Mr. Thiers, in expressing himself in this way, testified, perhaps unconsciously, to his faith in Malthus.
Mark this well, I pray you. There are two million, four million men who will die of misery and hunger, if some means be not found of giving them work. This is a great misfortune, surely, and we are the first to lament it, the Malthusians tell you; but what is to be done? It is better that four million men should die than that privilege should be compromised; it is not the fault of capital, if labour is idle: at the banquet of credit there is not room for all.
They are courageous, they are stoical, these statesmen of the school of Malthus, when it is a matter of sacrificing labourers by the millions. Thou hast killed the poor man, said the prophet Elias to the king of Israel, and then thou hast taken away his inheritance. Occidisti et possedisti. Today we must reverse the phrase, and say to those who possess and govern: You have the privilege of labour, the privilege of credit, the privilege of property, as Mr. Thouret says; and it is because you do not wish to be deprived of these privileges that you shed the blood of the poor like water: Possedisti et occidisti!
And the people, under the pressure of bayonets, are being eaten slowly; they die without a sigh or a murmur; the sacrifice is effected in silence. Courage, labourers! sustain each other: Providence will finally conquer fate. Courage! the condition of your fathers, the soldiers of the republic, at the sieges of Gênes and Mayence, was even worse than yours.
Mr. Léon Faucher, in contending that journals should be forced to furnish securities and in favouring the maintenance of taxes on the press, reasoned also after the manner of Malthus. The serious journal, said he, the journal that deserves consideration and esteem, is that which is established on a capital of from four to five hundred thousand francs. The journalist who has only his pen is like the workman who has only his arms. If he can find no market for his services or get no credit with which to carry on his enterprise, it is a sign that public opinion is against him; he has not the least right to address the country: at the banquet of public life there is not room for all.
Listen to Lacordaire, that light of the Church, that chosen vessel of Catholicism. He will tell you that socialism is antichrist. And why is socialism antichrist? Because socialism is the enemy of Malthus, whereas Catholicism, by a final transformation, has become Malthusian.
The gospel tells us, cries the priest, that there will always be poor people, Pauperes semper habebitis vobiseum; and that property, consequently, insofar as it is a privilege and makes poor people, is sacred. Poverty is necessary to the exercise of evangelical piety: at the banquet of this world below there cannot be room for all.
He feigns ignorance, the infidel, of the fact that poverty in Biblical language signified every sort of affliction and pain, not hard times and the condition of the proletarian. And how could he who went up and down Judaea crying, Woe to the rich! be understood differently? In the thought of Jesus Christ, woe to the rich meant woe to the Malthusians.
If Christ were living today, he would say to Lacordaire and his companions: “You are of the race of those who, in all ages, have shed the blood of the just, from Abel unto Zacharias. Your law is not my law; your God is not my God!” And the Lacordaires would crucify Christ as a seditious person and an atheist.
Almost the whole of journalism is infected with the same ideas. Let Le National, for example, tell us whether it has not always believed, whether it does not still believe, that pauperism is a permanent element of civilization; that the enslavement of one portion of humanity is necessary to the glory of another; that those who maintain the contrary are dangerous dreamers who deserve to be shot; that such is the basis of the State. For, if this is not the secret thought of Le National, if Le National sincerely and resolutely desires the emancipation of labourers, why these anathemas against, why this anger with, the genuine socialists—those who, for ten and twenty years, have demanded this emancipation?
Further, let the Bohemians of literature, today the myrmidons of journalism, paid slanderers, courtiers of the privileged classes, eulogists of all the vices, parasites living upon other parasites, who prate so much of God only to dissemble their materialism, of the family only to conceal their adulteries, and whom we shall see, out of disgust for marriage, caressing monkeys when Malthusian women fail—let these, I say, publish their economic creed, in order that the people may know them.
Faites des filles, nous les aimons—beget girls, we love them—sing these wretches, parodying the poet. But abstain from begetting boys: at the banquet of sensualism there is not room for all.
The government was inspired by Malthus when, having a hundred thousand labourers at its disposal, to whom it gave gratuitous support [in the national workshops], it refused to employ them at useful labour, and when, after the civil war [the June 1848 working class uprising], it asked that a law be passed for their transportation [to French penal colonies]. With the expenses of the pretended national workshops, with the costs of war, lawsuits, imprisonment, and transportation, it might have given the insurgents six months’ labour, and thus changed our whole economic system. But labour is a monopoly; the government does not wish revolutionary industry to compete with privileged industry: at the workbench of the nation there is not room for all.
Large industrial establishments ruin small ones; that is the law of capital, that is Malthus.
Wholesale trade gradually swallows the retail; again Malthus.
Large estates encroach upon and consolidate the smallest possessions; still Malthus.
Soon one half of the people will say to the other:
The earth and its products are my property.
Industry and its products are my property.
Commerce and transportation are my property.
The State is my property.
You who possess neither reserves nor property, who hold no public offices and whose labour is useless to us, TAKE YOURSELVES AWAY! You have really no business on the earth: beneath the sunshine of the Republic there is not room for all.
Who will tell me that the right to labour and to live is not the whole of the Revolution?
Who will tell me that the principle of Malthus is not the whole of the Counter-Revolution?
And it is for having published such things as these—for having exposed the evil boldly and sought the remedy in good faith, that speech has been forbidden me by the government, the government that represents the Revolution!
That is why I have been deluged with the slanders, treacheries, cowardice, hypocrisy, outrages, desertions, and failings of all those who hate or love the people! That is why I have been given over, for a whole month, to the mercy of the jackals of the press and the screech-owls of the platform! Never was a man, either in the past or in the present, the object of so much execration as I have become, for the simple reason that I wage war upon cannibals.
To slander one who could not reply was to shoot a prisoner. Malthusian carnivora, I discover you there! Go on, then; we have more than one account to settle yet. And, if calumny is not sufficient for you, use iron and lead. You may kill me; no one can avoid his fate, and I am at your discretion. But you shall not conquer me; you shall never persuade the people, while I live and hold a pen, that, with the exception of yourselves, there is one too many on the earth. I swear it before the people and in the name of the Republic!

August 11, 1848

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hopefully the next issue of Black Flag will be reprinting Proudhon’s “The Malthusians” along with the first part of an evaluation of Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid, an edited version of this essay: Mutal Aid: An Introduction and Evaluation.

  2. Hello!
    Very Interesting post! Thank you for such interesting resource!
    PS: Sorry for my bad english, I’v just started to learn this language ;)
    See you!
    Your, Raiul Baztepo

  3. Hello !! ;)
    My name is Piter Kokoniz. oOnly want to tell, that I like your blog very much!
    And want to ask you: is this blog your hobby?
    Sorry for my bad english:)
    Thank you!
    Your Piter

    • If by “hobby” you mean I don’t get paid for doing this blog and support myself by other means, then yes, I guess you could say this blog is my hobby. I prefer to think of it as a resource providing internet support for my anthology of anarchist writings, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. By the way, Volume 2, subtitled The Emergence of the New Anarchism is now out. Hope you enjoy it.

      Robert Graham


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