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This article examines radical and socialist responses to Malthus's Essay on population, beginning with the response of William Godwin, Malthus's main object of attack, but focusing particularly upon the position adopted by his most important admirer, Robert Owen. The anti-Malthus position was promoted and sustained both by Owen and the subsequent Owenite movement. Owenites stressed both the extent of uncultivated land and the capacity of science to raise the productivity of the soil. The Owenite case, preached weekly in Owenite Halls of Science, and argued by its leading lecturer, John Watts, made a strong impact upon the young Frederick Engels working in Manchester in 1843–4. His denunciation of political economy in the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, heavily dependent upon the Owenite position, was what first encouraged Marx to engage with political economy. Marx initially reiterated the position of Engels and the Owenites in maintaining that population increase pressured means of employment rather than means of subsistence, and that competition rather than overpopulation caused economic crises. But in his later work, his main criticism of the Malthusian theory was its false conflation of history and nature.

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School of History, Queen Mary University of London, Mile End Road London, e1


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1 See Jones, Gareth Stedman, An end to poverty: a historical debate (London, 2004), pp. 116.

2 Paine, Thomas, ‘The rights of man: part two’, in Conway, Moncure, ed., The writings of Thomas Paine, ii (London, 1894), p. 456.

3 See Smith, Adam, An enquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations [1776], ed. Cannan, E. (Chicago, IL, 1976), bk 1, pp. 1920; Smith, Adam, The theory of moral sentiment (12th edn, Glasgow, 1809), pt 1, sect. 3, ch. 2, p. 86. For Smith's position on wages, and on ‘indolence’ as a problem of the higher rather than the lower classes, see Rothschild, Emma, ‘Social security and laissez faire in eighteenth-century political economy’, Population and Economic Development, 21 (1995), pp. 711–44; see also Rothschild, Emma, Economic sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment (Cambridge, MA, 2001), ch. 2.

4 Godwin, William, Enquiry concerning political justice [1798], ed. Kramnick, I. (Harmondsworth, 1976), pp. 751–2, 759, 763.

5 [Malthus, T. R.], An essay on the principle of population as it affects the future improvement of society with remarks on the speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet and other writers (London, 1798), pp. 286–7, 351, 358.

6 Ibid., pp. 353, 354, 357, 363. For an account of the theological context of Malthus's Essay, see Waterman, A. M. C., Revolution, economics and religion: Christian political economy, 1798–1833 (Cambridge, 1991), chs. 3 and 4.

7 [Malthus], Essay on population (1798), pp. 11, 353, 364, 365, 369, 395.

8 Ibid., pp. 86–7, 88, 254.

9 Under the pressure of the anti-Jacobin campaign, the circle of radicals around Godwin broke up. See Philp, Mark, Political justice (Ithaca, NY, 1986), pp. 220–2.

10 This standard radical position continued through into the Chartist period. ‘Every member of a political state is entitled to certain privileges, which are either the residue of natural rights, whose surrender is not required for the public good, or those civil liberties, which society provides and guarantees on lieu of the natural rights so given up.’ Northern Star, 14 Sept. 1839, cited in Gibson, Josh, ‘Natural right and the intellectual context of early Chartist thought’, History Workshop Journal, 84 (2017), pp. 194213.

11 Thoughts occasioned by the perusal of Dr Parr's Spital sermon’ [1801], in Philp, M., ed., Political and philosophical writings of William Godwin (7 vols., London, 1993), ii, pp. 197, 202.

12 See Stedman Jones, An end to poverty, pp. 70–1; Rothschild, Emma, ‘Adam Smith and conservative economics’, Economic History Review, 45 (1992), pp. 7496; Plassart, Anna, The Scottish Enlightenment and the French Revolution (Cambridge, 2015).

13 Burke, Edmund, ‘Thoughts and details on scarcity’, The works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke (12 vols., London, 1808–13), vii, pp. 376, 377, 386, 391, 404; and see Bourke, Richard, The political life of Edmund Burke (Princeton, NJ, 2015), part 5.

14 See Connell, Philip, Romanticism economics and the question of ‘culture’ (Oxford, 2001), p. 30; see also Winch, Donald, ‘Mr Gradgrind and Jerusalem’, in Collini, Stefan et al. , eds., Economy, polity and society: British intellectual history, 1750–1950 (Cambridge, 2000), pp. 243–66.

15 Between 1813 and 1818, Owen made ‘about fifty visits to Godwin’, Claeys, Gregory, ed., The selected works of Robert Owen (4 vols. London, 1993), i, p. xxiii; see also Marshall, P. H., William Godwin (New Haven, CT, 1984), pp. 310–12.

16 From 1831, Owenites were particularly excited by the experiments of Justus von Liebig, who had started analysing organic compounds using the Kaliapparat. This promised substantial improvements in soil fertility. See Jackson, Catherine, ‘Visible work: the role of students in the creation of Liebig's Giessen Research School’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 62/1 (2008), passim.

17 Robert Owen, ‘A new view of society; or, essays on the principle of the formation of the human character (1813–1816)’, in Claeys, ed., Selected works of Robert Owen, i, p. 96; and see also ibid., p. 165, where it was argued that there was no necessity in nature ‘for the population to press against subsistence’ and that there could be ‘no doubt that it is the artificial law of supply and demand, arising from the principle of individual gain in opposition to the general well-being of society, which has hitherto compelled population to press upon subsistence’. A similar point was made in his 1826 essay, The social system, addressed to Americans, Claeys, ed., Selected works of Robert Owen, ii, p. 68. In 1841, he argued that ‘the enormous, and, if true, alarming statements of Mr. Malthus ‘were true, only, when man knew not how to use his hand or his head, except to gather food which nature spontaneously provided for him; and before he knew how to domesticate animals, to cultivate the soil, or to take fish’. ‘A development of the principles and plans on which to establish self-supporting home colonies’, Claeys, ed., Selected works of Robert Owen, ii, p. 358.

18 Claeys, Gregory, Citizens and saints: politics and anti-politics in early British socialism (Cambridge, 1989), p. 250.

20 Engels, Friedrich, ‘Letters from London’ (Schweizerischer Republikaner, 9 June 1843), Karl Marx/Friedrich Engels collected works (50 vols., Moscow, London, and New York, NY, 1975–2005 (henceforth MECW)), iii, p. 385; see Watts, John, The facts and fictions of political economists (Manchester, 1842). This text was based upon seven lectures by Watts at the Manchester Hall of Science between September and November 1842. According to Gregory Claeys, Watts's emphasis on utility was probably derived from William Thompson and he had likely read Owen and Gray as well. Claeys, Gregory, Machinery, money and the millennium: from moral economy to socialism, 1815–1860 (Princeton, NJ, 1987), p. 219.

21 Friedrich Engels, ‘The progress of social reform on the continent’ (New Moral World, 21 Nov. 1843), MECW, iii, p. 407.

22 Friedrich Engels, Umrisse, ‘Outlines of a critique of political economy’ (written Oct.–Nov. 1843), Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, 1844, MECW, iii, pp. 418–44.

23 For the development of Marx's critique of political economy, see Jones, Gareth Stedman, Karl Marx: greatness and illusion (London, 2016), ch. 10.

24 Alison, A., Principles of population and their connection with human happiness (2 vols., Edinburgh, 1840), i, chs. 1 and 2.

25 Engels, ‘Outlines’, p. 438.

26 Ibid., p. 438.

27 Ibid., pp. 432–3, 441.

28 Ibid., p. 418.

29 Ibid., pp. 420–4.

30 Ibid., p. 427. ‘Value, the primary factor, the source of price, is made dependent on price, its own product. As is well known, this inversion is the essence of abstraction; on which see Feuerbach.’ Feuerbach's original point had been that God did not create man. Man created God.

31 Ibid., pp. 433–4.

32 Ibid., p. 436.

33 Ibid., p. 437.

34 Ibid., pp. 419–20.

35 Friedrich Engels, ‘The condition of the working class in England’ (1844–5), MECW, iv, p. 570.

36 Hess, Moses, ‘Über das Geldwesen’, in Mönke, Wolfgang, ed., Moses Hess: Philosophische und Sozialistische Schriften 1837–1850 (Vaduz, 1980), pp. 331–45; Karl Marx, ‘On the Jewish question’ (1844), MECW, iii, pp. 146–74.

37 Meek, Ronald L., Marx and Engels on Malthus (London, 1953).

38 Friedrich Engels, ‘On the history of the communist league’, MECW, xxvi, p. 318.

39 (Karl Marx), ‘Critical marginal notes on the article “The king of Prussia and social reform. By A Prussian”’ (Vorwärts!, 60), MECW, iii, pp. 194–5.

40 Owen, ‘A new view of society’, p. 70; in 1798, Malthus also treated man as a passive being shaped by nature. But it was a nature specifically designed by God. Mankind was likened to pieces of clay, moulded into unique shapes, but with no control over how they were moulded. Ultimately, the advance from savagery to civilization had not been a human achievement. This advance had been the effect of a mighty process of God … a process necessary to awaken inert, chaotic matter into spirit.’ [Malthus], Essay on population (1798), pp. 375–6. The nature described by Malthus had been designed by God to promote self-improvement.

41 Owen, ‘A new view of society’, pp. 61–2.

42 Engels, ‘Outlines’, pp. 423–4, 441–2.

43 Karl Marx, ‘Economic and philosophic manuscripts of 1844’, MECW, iii, pp. 332–3, 337.

44 Karl Marx, ‘Ad Feuerbach’ (the so-called ‘Theses on Feuerbach’), MECW, v, pp. 39–40.

45 See Wrigley, E. A., Poverty, progress and population (Cambridge, 2004), p. 230.

46 Ibid., pp. 244–6. As he points out, Smith's story about pin-making did not solve this problem.

47 Ibid., p. 233.

48 See O'Flaherty, Niall, ‘Malthus and the end of poverty’, in Mayhew, Robert. J., ed., New perspectives on Malthus (Cambridge, 2016), pp. 74104. Malthus was particularly impressed by the evidence of relative prosperity built upon the practice of the deferred marriage of the living-in unmarried ‘housemen’ in Norway, compared with the relative poverty and misery of comparable early marrying labourers in Sweden.

49 On this basis, Niall O'Flaherty has contested the supposed ‘pessimism’ of Malthus and placed him alongside Smith, Hume, and Paley as part of a ‘moderate enlightenment’ tradition.

50 As Walter Bagehot put it, ‘in its first form, the Essay on population was conclusive as an argument, but it was based on untrue facts; in its second form it was based on true facts, but it was inconclusive as an argument’. Bagehot, W., Economic studies (London, 1880), p. 137; and see Toynbee, Arnold, Lectures on the Industrial Revolution in England: popular addresses, notes and other fragments (London, 1884), pp. 105–14.

51 Karl Marx, ‘Economic manuscripts of 1857–8’, MECW, xxviii, pp. 487, 340.

52 Ibid., pp. 524, 525.

53 Ibid., p. 526.

54 Karl Marx, ‘Capital, volume one’, MECW, xxxv, p. 529.

55 Ibid., p. 611.

56 Ibid., pp. 578, 584.

57 Ibid., p. 556.

58 Parson Malthus’ was depicted as a prime character in an anti-clerical comedy, alongside – Parson Wallace, Parson Townsend, and his own pupil, the arch-Parson Thomas Chalmers – a gallery of Protestant priests treating population theory as an expression of ‘the economic fall of man’. In a mock homage, Malthus was congratulated as a fellow of a Cambridge college for taking ‘the monastic vow of celibacy’. Others among these Protestant priests, while preaching to the labourers ‘the principle of population’, had ‘shuffled off’ this command. They had taken ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ as their special biblical mission ‘in such a degree that they generally contribute to the increase of population to a really unbecoming extent’.

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