Monday, April 21, 2008

From Malthus to Marx

People love making fun of Jonah Goldberg, and I think I'm beginning to understand why. In the midst of a meandering back-and-forth with John Derbyshire about, I kid you not, Darwin and Hitler, he makes the following claim:
I think the real villain is Malthus, not Darwin. As I've mentioned here before, both Marx and Darwin believed they were merely standing on Malthus' shoulders, at least when it comes to "bad" parts of either.
Follow that link and you get the following gem:
The idea that economics should be treated as a branch of Darwinian biology doesn't strike me as that new. The founding economists of American Progressivism virtually all believed they were applying Darwinian principles to human affairs, from economics to the law. Indeed, Darwinism and economics have been joined at the hip from the get-go. Darwin himself was for the most part inspired by an economist, Thomas Malthus. The “struggle for existence,” Darwin explained, was simply “the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms.” Marx, another economist of a sort who was also indebted to Malthus, wanted to dedicate Das Kapital to Darwin (Darwin refused). In fact, I've often thought that Malthus doesn't get nearly the blame he should for all sorts of problems. Virtually everything conservatives dislike about environmentalism, leftwing economics and the like can, to one extent or another, be laid at Malthus's feet.
I'm not qualified to speak to the claims about Darwin, but the notion that Marx "believed" that he was "standing on Malthus' shoulders" or was otherwise "indebted to Malthus" is just pig ignorant. I don't know of anyone who had more contempt for Malthus than Marx. (I'll track down some examples later and put them up.) In fact, one of the staple attacks on Marxism during the Cold War was that Marxism was unscientific because it led to the denial of Malthusian population theory! (I'll find a citation for that, too.)

As for the old canard about Marx wanting to dedicate Capital to Darwin: it's a complete myth.

This seems to be the thing about Goldberg: he makes authoritative statements about historical and intellectual connections about which he actually knows nothing at all. Much of his own persona is based on his historical and intellectual patina, but whenever he makes a claim about anything I know anything about, he's wildly mistaken or repeating unsubstantiated rumors as truth.

Some representative comments by Marx about Malthus:
All honour to Malthus that he lays stress on the lengthening of the hours of labour, a fact to which he elsewhere in his pamphlet draws attention, while Ricardo and others, in face of the most notorious facts, make invariability in the length of the working-day the groundwork of all their investigations. But the conservative interests, which Malthus served, prevented him from seeing that an unlimited prolongation of the working-day, combined with an extraordinary development of machinery, and the exploitation of women and children, must inevitably have made a great portion of the working-class “supernumerary,” particularly whenever the war should have ceased, and the monopoly of England in the markets of the world should have come to an end. It was, of course, far more convenient, and much more in conformity with the interests of the ruling classes, whom Malthus adored like a true priest, to explain this “over-population” by the eternal laws of Nature, rather than by the historical laws of capitalist production. (Capital, Vol. 1, Ch. 17.4.a, n7)
One cannot fail to recognise that both Malthus’s Principles and the two other works mentioned, which were intended to amplify certain aspects of the Principles, were largely inspired by envy at the success of Ricardo’s book and were an attempt by Malthus to regain the leading position which he had attained by skilful plagiarism before Ricardo’s book appeared. [...] Further, Malthus’s discovery—of which he is very proud and which he claims he was the first to make—namely, that value is equal to the quantity of labour embodied in a commodity plus a quantity of labour which represents the profit; [this discovery] seems likewise to be quite simply a combination of two sentences from Smith. (Malthus never escapes plagiarism.) (Theories of Surplus Value, Ch. 19)
Utter baseness is a distinctive trait of Malthus—a baseness which can only he indulged in by a parson who sees human suffering as the punishment for sin and who, in any ease, needs a “vale of tears on earth”, but who, at the same time, in view of the living he draws and aided by the dogma of predestination, finds it altogether advantageous to “sweeten” their sojourn in the vale of tears for the ruling classes. The “baseness” of this mind is also evident in his scientific work. Firstly in his shameless and mechanical plagiarism. Secondly in the cautious, not radical, conclusions which he draws from scientific premises. (Theories of Surplus Value, Ch. 9)
And, regarding Malthus' influence upon Darwin, Mar wrote this:
I'm amused that Darwin, at whom I've been taking another look, should say that he also applies the ‘Malthusian’ theory to plants and animals, as though in Mr Malthus’s case the whole thing didn’t lie in its not being applied to plants and animals, but only — with its geometric progression — to humans as against plants and animals. It is remarkable how Darwin rediscovers, among the beasts and plants, the society of England with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, ‘inventions’ and Malthusian ‘struggle for existence’. It is Hobbes’ bellum omnium contra omnes and is reminiscent of Hegel’s Phenomenology, in which civil society figures as an ‘intellectual animal kingdom’, whereas, in Darwin, the animal kingdom figures as civil society. (Letter to Engels, June 18, 1862)
Here's a bit from The Encyclopedia Britannica that sums things up nicely.
While both Karl Marx and Malthus accepted many of the views of the classical economists, Marx was harshly and implacably critical of Malthus and his ideas. The vehemence of the assault was remarkable. Marx reviled Malthus as a “miserable parson” guilty of spreading a “vile and infamous doctrine, this repulsive blasphemy against man and nature.”
The similarities between Malthus and Marx are precisely as extensive as the similarities between Smith and Marx, and for the same reason. Malthus was a classical political economist, who took himself to be discovering the laws of nature as they functioned in human society. Marx was a critic of political economy, who argued that the laws of nature discovered by Smith, Malthus, et al., were the laws of the capitalist mode of production, and had no historically general validity. Thus, Malthusian population theory does not, according to Marx, reveal the natural laws of population, but rather reveals the specific functioning of a particular moment of capitalist development.