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Marx, Malthus and Food Production

Capitalism as a fetter on production

Marx described capitalism as “a fetter on production”. He made this point in two early works: THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO (1848) and in A CONTRIBUTION TO A CRITIQUE OF POLITICAL ECONOMY (1859). He wrote:

The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society (THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO AND THE LAST HUNDRED YEARS, Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1948 p. 66-67)


At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters (A CONTRIBUTION TO THE CRITIQUE OF POLITICAL ECONOMY, Preface Lawrence and Wishart p. 21)

Capitalism and the capital-labour relationship between the capitalist and working class prevents the productive forces, including human labour, from being used to directly meet human need. Production just cannot be used to produce goods and services as and where they are needed. What stand in the way are class relations where the means of production and distribution are owned by a capitalist class for the purpose of making a profit and accumulating capital.

Capitalism restricts production and distribution to effective market demand with devastating consequences for those who do not have the wherewithal to buy commodities necessary to live. No more so than in the case of the millions of people suffering from chronic malnourishment around the world. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO), for example, estimates that about 795 million people out of the 7.3 billion people in the world, (about one in nine persons), were suffering from chronic undernourishment between 2014 and 2016. Almost all those in hunger, some 780 million people, live in developing capitalist countries, representing 12.9 per cent of the population. There are also 11 million people undernourished in developed capitalist countries. (

In socialism, production would be used just to meet people’s needs for housing, health, education, transport, communication food, clean water and sanitation so that men and women could participate in the affairs of society and live worthwhile and creative lives. The establishment of the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society would remove unnecessary world hunger by allowing society to produce without the restriction imposed by the market and the profit motive on the use of technology and industry.

Scarcity will not be a problem for socialism because scarcity under capitalism is social not natural; a feature of class relations. Although a future socialist society will have to deal with many problems bequeathed by capitalism, particularly in its early years, the basis for solving hunger outside commercial farming and the market is already there. According to Eric Gimenez of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, capitalism already grows enough food for 10 billion people even though hunger still persists.

He wrote:

Hunger is caused by poverty and inequality, not scarcity. For the past two decades, the rate of global food production has increased faster than the rate of global population growth. The world already produces more than 1 ½ times enough food to feed everyone on the planet. That's enough to feed 10 billion people, the population peak we expect by 2050. But the people making less than $2 a day -- most of whom are resource-poor farmers cultivating unviably small plots of land -- can't afford to buy this food.

In reality, the bulk of industrially-produced grain crops goes to biofuels and confined animal feedlots rather than food for the 1 billion hungry. The call to double food production by 2050 only applies if we continue to prioritize the growing population of livestock and automobiles over hungry people

Poverty and hunger would not exist in socialism. Socialism would produce food in abundance within the framework of the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society. Socialism will release co-operative and social labour to produce food just to meet human need. The barrier is capitalism and the class relations found in capitalism. The barrier to producing enough food to feed the world also comes out of powerful capitalist ideas protecting the power and privilege of the employing class. These barrier are not insurmountable but do require conscious, democratic and political action of a socialist majority to realise “from each according to ability to each according to need

Marx, Malthus and the Politics of Population

One of the persistent barriers to the free dissemination of socialist ideas is the belief that poverty is a “natural” condition of the human species and derives from the rate of population growth outstripping food production. This view was first put forward by the Reverend Thomas Malthus in his ESSAY ON THE PRINCIPLE OF POPULATION AS IT AFFECTS THE FUTURE IMPROVEMENT OF SOCIETY, first published in 1798.

Malthus was a political economist publishing PRICIPLE OF POLITICAL ECONOMY in 1820. Although he took Holy Orders he spent much of him time teaching the History and Political Economy at the East India Company College at Ware in Hertfordshire.

Malthus’s theory of population is the application of supply and demand applied to the relationships between food production and population growth. He claimed to show that population growth always tended to outstrip the growth in food supply and could only be checked by famine, disease and war. He concluded that any social reform to improve the conditions of the poor would only result in more mouths to feed, causing food to become more expensive thereby creating greater poverty than before.

Malthus’s argument is that human nature leads to an unchecked birthrate and if unchecked would double itself every quarter of a century. He wrote:

…population, when unchecked, increases at a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio (Chapter 2 1798 edition)

And he concluded:

Taking the population of the world at any number, a thousand millions, for instance, the human species would increase in the ratio of--1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, &c. and subsistence as--1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 &c. In two centuries and a quarter, the population would be to the means of subsistence as 512 to 10: in three centuries as 4096 to 13, and in two thousand years the difference would be almost incalculable, though the produce in that time would have increased to an immense extent

Marx was highly critical of Malthus. In CAPITAL, for example he said that the publication of Malthus’s ESSAY had caused “a great sensation”, but this:

…was due solely to the fact that it corresponded to the interests of a particular party. The French Revolution had found passionate defenders in the United Kingdom; the “principle of population, slowly worked out in the eighteenth century, and then, in the midst of a great social crisis, proclaimed with drums and trumpets as the infallible antidote to the doctrines of Condorcet, etc., was greeted jubilantly by the English oligarchy as the great destroyer of all hankerings after a progressive development of humanity (CAPITAL VOLUME 1 Chapter 25 footnote 6 Chapter 25 pp 766. Penguin 1998)

Marx showed that there was no general theory of population applicable to all social systems.

This is a law of population peculiar to the capitalist mode of production; and in fact every particular mode of production has its own special laws of population, which are historically valid within that particular sphere. An abstract law of population exists only for plants and animals and even then only in the absence of any historical intervention by man (CAPITAL, VOLUME 1, Chapter 25 The General Law of Capital Accumulation, pp 783-784)

What was taken to being overpopulation and hunger was in effect unemployment caused by the periodic trade cycle which was a peculiar feature of capitalism. Marx showed that capitalism created an industrial reserve army of the unemployed which increased in a trade depression and fell in better economic conditions. This cyclical process had nothing to do with the birth rate but everything to do with the law the economic laws acting upon commodity production and exchange for profit (see CAPITAL VOLUME 1, Chapter 25, The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation, 762 - 870).

In the long run it was changes within capitalism itself that refuted Malthus. Greater productivity in farming through the introduction of new industrial techniques not only brought down the price of food but kept it in line with an increasing urban population. The other factor was the increasing propagation and use of available and discreet contraception from the mid to late 19th century, with the industrial manufacture of rubber condoms by Goodyear and Hancock and the first commercial vaginal suppository invented by Walter Rendell, an English pharmacist in 1885 both contributing to a reduction in the rate of childbirth. Ironically it was the eugenicists, like Marie Stopes, who, at the turn of the 20th century seized upon the advantages of the wider use of contraception as a means to stop the poor breeding.

Malthusian population theory has a class bias running through its propaganda. By focusing upon population class ownership of the means of production and distribution is ignored. There is silence on the vast wealth going to a minority class of capitalists. Nothing is said of the waste associated with capitalism like armed production, commerce, advertising and government. Instead the poor and destitute is an easy target. Blame African farmers, blame large families in the Middle East, just like Malthus blamed the working class in his own time.

Socialists, contrary to Malthusian theory, do not believe that the human population will die out because of lack of resources. Scarcity under capitalism is not a natural phenomenon but a social one. Food production is a variable based on the type of social existence in place. As Marx showed, the forces of production, including human labour, are held back by the social relations of production. The class monopoly of the means of production and distribution by a minority of society to the exclusion of the majority is the problem not the rate of population growth.

Population control and neo-Malthusianism

Although modern-day supporters of Malthus no longer use his ideas to defend their case for population control, they still persist in believing that the number of people on the planet must always increase faster than the supply of food. They draw an erroneous conclusion by concentrating on ways to reduce the rate of population growth instead of asking why food production could not be increased to meet a growing demand for food. The capitalist cause of poverty is left unquestioned. Instead the rate of population growth is seen as the problem.

One group of neo-Malthusians goes by the name of Population Matters. Population Matters is celebrating the 250th anniversary of Malthus’s birth with dire warnings of the effects of population growth and climate change on food production. It warns:

Our findings show that population growth, the depletion of natural resources and the increase in extreme weather events are increasing the risk of crop failure, and thus food insecurity.

Population Matters website displays a “world population clock” showing the number of human beings on the planet at any given time, ticking away towards some ecological apocalypse (

Population Matters is a political pressure group trying to persuade politicians to produce and enact legislation to reduce the world’s population. It argues that Governments and business leaders:

…should acknowledge that, along with consumption growth and industrial practices, population growth increases damage to the environment.

And to underscore the appeal to the profit instincts of business leaders Population Matters states:

We need to recognize that slowing population growth is one of the most cost-effective and reliable ways of easing pressure on our environment and securing a sustainable future for us all.

As with all pressure groups in capitalism, Population Matters propose a series of reforms: tax incentives for not having children, free contraception and restricting immigration. The pressure group has its star advocates like Paul Ehrlich, Jonathan Porritt and David Attenborough with direct access to the media and politicians. It appears to be well funded and supported. The Labour Government under Gordon Brown employed Jonathan Porritt as an advisor, although what advice he gave we were never told.

Reading the policy pronouncements of the membership of Population Matters on the question of population control require a strong stomach. Jonathan Porritt, in typical neo-Malthusian style, wants families in developing countries to be restricted to three children claiming “Continuing population growth in this region makes periodic famine unavoidable”. Porritt went on to say that it was a waste of money trying to save starving children today because they: “will be back again in similar feeding centres with their own children in a few years’ time.” (

David Attenborough also gives his considered view of the families reportedly starving in Ethiopia:

What are all these famines in Ethiopia, what are they about? They’re about too many people for too little land. That’s what it’s about. And we are blinding ourselves. We say, get the United Nations to send them bags of flour. That’s barmy (GUARDIAN 18th September 2013)

David Attenborough believes that if society does not impose a population limit then “nature will”. However, as the GUARDIAN noted, the last famine took place in Somalia between October 2010 and April 2012 and the deaths were attributable to the politics and civil war taking place there and the onerous conditions put on food aid reaching those who needed it. Of course, it is easy for the likes of David Attenborough to blame the poor for being poor, but much harder for him and other population theorists to understand the type of capitalist society in which we live and the problems which commodity production and exchange for profit causes.

And then there is Paul Ehrlich. In the 1970’s he wrote the best seller THE POPULATION BOMB, - over 2 million copies were sold at the time - in which he wrote:

We must have population control at home, hopefully through changes in our value system, but by compulsion if voluntary methods fail (Prologue x1 – xii)

Ehrlich advocated ending US food aid to developing capitalist countries, government-imposed population control and enforced sterilization of fathers of three or more children in India (p. 151). Ehrlich now accepts his prediction of widespread famine in the 1970s underestimated the "green revolution" where per-acre yield avoided the mass famine he predicted. But, in an interview with the journalist Juliette Jowitt: “he still dismisses hope that technology will allow mankind to stretch resources ever further” (GUARDIAN 23rd October 2013).

However the error made by population control advocates is that they persist in seeing a correlation between the rate of population growth and the rate of food production without placing both factors within the context of a capitalist social system where the means of production and distribution are owned by a minority class to the exclusion of the majority. Level of food production is a question of class and class ownership of the means of production, not nature.

Food production under capitalism is restricted by the profit motive. The profit motive curtails industrial food production despite unmet need and starvation. Only buying customers; those that can afford to pay for food, count. Food production is deliberately “fettered” – deliberately restrained - by capitalism. Capitalism has the potential to increase food supply and to feed the entire planet’s population. However the profit system will only produce food within the restrictive market mechanism of commodity production and exchange for profit even if this means mass starvation and millions of people living in poverty.

In conclusion, capitalism, not the rate of human population growth, is responsible for the starvation and death of millions of men, women and children around the world. The technology available to society could be used to avoid famine and to feed the world. Capitalism’s waste is also applicable to food. As a recent Institute of Mechanical Engineer’s report on food waste noted:

Today, we produce about four billion metric tonnes of food per annum. Yet due to poor practices in harvesting, storage and transportation, as well as market and consumer wastage, it is estimated that 30–50% (or 1.2–2 billion tonnes) of all food produced never reaches a human stomach… (T)his figure does not reflect the fact that large amounts of land, energy, fertilisers and water have also been lost in the production of foodstuffs which simply end up as waste. This level of wastage is a tragedy that cannot continue if we are to succeed in the challenge of sustainably meeting our future food demands (

The one overriding factor that prevents technology being used to feed the world’s population adequately is the private ownership of the means of production and distribution. Capitalism deliberately underproduces; it “fetters production”. Abolish capitalism and you abolish poverty and hunger. Socialism is the only social system that can provide sustainable production that minimises waste and provides directly to meet human need.

(For other socialist literature on the question of population and food supply, see THE MYTH OF POPULATION in Questions of the Day, Socialist Party of Great Britain pp 66 – 72 1976)

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