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Lenin on babies

Poverty is often blamed on 'overpopulation', yet much of Africa, where some of the world's poorest people live, is very sparsely populated.

Poverty is often blamed on 'overpopulation', yet much of Africa, where some of the world's poorest people live, is very sparsely populated.

The following piece was written by a CPGB-ML member in order to promote discussion on the issue of population and the environment.

Marx dismissed Malthusianism as a lampoon on the human race,[1] but while Thomas Malthus’s cockeyed musings on surplus value and rent have disappeared from memory and no longer need to be knocked down, Malthus’s ‘Law of Population’[2] has taken a fresh hold on the western mind and needs to be fought again, like some new, more ferocious outbreak of mental ebola.

In Malthus’s 1798 best-selling (and, depressingly, never out of print) essay on population, ‘The Dismal Parson’ (as he was nicknamed by his opponents) asserted that the food supply always increases arithmetically, while, if ‘unchecked’ by war, famine or disease, population always increases geometrically.

From that idiotic assertion, made at the tail end of the great 18th-century agricultural revolution and just before the enormous development in agricultural machinery, which would open up the previously uncultivated prairies of the USA, Malthus concluded that working-class poverty was, is and ever will be inevitable unless the working classes stopped flooding the ‘labour market’ with their own progeny. Malthus suggested working-class celibacy or very late marriage as the cure for this ‘problem’.

Seven decades on, and enter the neo-Malthusians. Whether liberals, like John Stuart Mill and Lord Amberley, or radicals, like Richard Carlisle, Charles Bradlaugh and Bradlaugh’s sidekick the execrable Mrs Annie Besant, these followers of Malthus all agreed that working-class poverty in the midst of capitalist plenty was entirely due to the constant arrival of little baby proletarians. Instead of recommending celibacy and late marriage, however, the neo-Malthusians suggested contraception – an idea that horrified mainstream Malthusians, who thought it would weaken the moral fibre of the nation.

It is interesting to note that contraception and abortion rights are now so completely seen as women’s rights issues that their Malthusian parentage is forgotten, while ‘overpopulation’ has been reinvented by changing the rhetoric away from Malthus’s original ‘flooding the labour market’ (which sounds very BNP) to ‘using up the earth’s non-renewable resources’, which sounds all green and has become the new accepted wisdom.

Green-thinking and Malthus-thinking are one and the same. Both preach that the problem is the existence of people, not capitalism, and both are equally opposed to the socialist revolution. This is not to say that some resources we use today won’t run out, or that some are not better than others, or that it’s not a bad thing to stop pollution and plastic bags are good.

It is saying that all the problems that humans encounter can be solved by humans working together – not for individual profit, but for the collective good. As for the planet being overpopulated, most of it is empty, and the vast tracts that are currently given over to such things as tobacco farming or cash-crop flowers for Valentine’s Day could be used for growing food.

Having said that the planet is not overpopulated does not mean of course that we should all give up on birth control and have a baby every year. In agricultural societies with high infant mortality, babies coming very year was a necessity (and in the world as it is, it is still a necessity in agricultural societies). But generally, in a socialist world, we might possibly aim for a smallish population rise so that we always have more people under, say, 50 than over. Younger people are extremely important for society: they have energy, strength, new ideas and enthusiasm. Older people, on the other hand, tend to have accumulated lots of experience, which means they know stuff and are wiser.

So where does this take us? Straight to the capitalist world we live in, which has absorbed so much Malthusianism in green clothing that it blames poor people’s poverty and the capitalist system’s abuse of resources on the existence of children. So much so that today many relatively prosperous people in the richer countries have come to see the very continuation of life as being somehow ‘anti-social’.

This isn’t a new phenomenon, however. In 1913 Lenin attacked the resurgence of the pessimistic ideology of neo-Malthusianism, which portrayed having children as a negative because the conditions they were being born into in pre-revolutionary Russia were so harsh.

His article is excellent, so we have reproduced it below for the benefit of our readers.


The working class and neo-Malthusianism
by V I Lenin, 16 June 1913

At the Pirogov[3] Doctors’ Congress[4] much interest was aroused and a long debate was held on the question of abortions. The report was made by Lichkus,[5] who quoted figures on the exceedingly widespread practice of destroying the foetus in present-day so-called civilised states.

In New York, 80,000 abortions were performed in one year and there are 36,000 every month in France. In St Petersburg the percentage of abortions has more than doubled in five years.

The Pirogov Doctors’ Congress adopted a resolution saying that there should never be any criminal prosecution of a mother for performing an artificial abortion and that doctors should only be prosecuted if the operation is performed for ‘purposes of gain’.

In the discussion the majority agreed that abortions should not be punishable, and the question of the so-called neo-Malthusianism (the use of contraceptives) was naturally touched upon, as was also the social side of the matter. Mr Vigdorchik,[6] for instance, said, according to the report in Russkoye Slovo, that ‘contraceptive measures should be welcomed’ and Mr Astrakhan exclaimed, amidst thunderous applause:

“We have to convince mothers to bear children so that they can be maimed in educational establishments, so that lots can be drawn for them,[7] so that they can be driven to suicide!’[8]

If the report is true that this exclamation of Mr Astrakhan’s was greeted with thunderous applause, it is a fact that does not surprise me. The audience was made up of bourgeois, middle and petty bourgeois, who have the psychology of the philistine. What can you expect from them but the most banal liberalism?

From the point of view of the working class, however, it would hardly be possible to find a more apposite expression of the completely reactionary nature and the ugliness of ‘social neo-Malthusianism’ than Mr Astrakhan’s phrase cited above.

… “Bear children so that they can be maimed” … For that alone? Why not that they should fight better, more unitedly, consciously and resolutely than we are fighting against the present-day conditions of life that are maiming and ruining our generation?

This is the radical difference that distinguishes the psychology of the peasant, handicraftsman, intellectual, the petty bourgeois in general, from that of the proletarian. The petty bourgeois sees and feels that he is heading for ruin, that life is becoming more difficult, that the struggle for existence is ever more ruthless, and that his position and that of his family are becoming more and more hopeless. It is an indisputable fact, and the petty bourgeois protests against it.

But how does he protest?

He protests as the representative of a class that is hopelessly perishing, that despairs of its future, that is depressed and cowardly. There is nothing to be done … if only there were fewer children to suffer our torments and hard toil, our poverty and our humiliation – such is the cry of the petty bourgeois.

The class-conscious worker is far from holding this point of view. He will not allow his consciousness to be dulled by such cries no matter how sincere and heartfelt they may be. Yes, we workers and the mass of small proprietors lead a life that is filled with unbearable oppression and suffering. Things are harder for our generation than they were for our fathers. But in one respect we are luckier than our fathers. We have begun to learn and are rapidly learning to fight – and to fight not as individuals, as the best of our fathers fought, not for the slogans of bourgeois speechifiers that are alien to us in spirit, but for our slogans, the slogans of our class. We are fighting better than our fathers did. Our children will fight better than we do, and they will be victorious.

The working class is not perishing; it is growing, becoming stronger, gaining courage, consolidating itself, educating itself and becoming steeled in battle. We are pessimists as far as serfdom, capitalism and petty production are concerned, but we are ardent optimists in what concerns the working-class movement and its aims. We are already laying the foundation of a new edifice and our children will complete its construction.

That is the reason – the only reason – why we are unconditionally the enemies of neo-Malthusianism, suited only to unfeeling and egotistic petty-bourgeois couples, who whisper in scared voices: “God grant we manage somehow by ourselves. So much the better if we have no children.”

It goes without saying that this does not by any means prevent us from demanding the unconditional annulment of all laws against abortions or against the distribution of medical literature on contraceptive measures, etc. Such laws are nothing but the hypocrisy of the ruling classes. These laws do not heal the ulcers of capitalism; they merely turn them into malignant ulcers that are especially painful for the oppressed masses. Freedom for medical propaganda and the protection of the elementary democratic rights of citizens, men and women, are one thing. The social theory of neo-Malthusianism is quite another. Class-conscious workers will always conduct the most ruthless struggle against attempts to impose that reactionary and cowardly theory on the most progressive and strongest class in modern society, the class that is the best prepared for great changes.[9]


The italics in the final paragraph are not Lenin’s, but it is well to emphasise that Lenin was not opposed to reproductive rights, he was opposed to the neo-Malthusian negativity, which under capitalism makes potential parents see children as only more unaffordable mouths to feed, while a socialist sees them as hands to work, brains to think and strength to fight.

[1] Letter from K Marx to J B Schweizer, 24 January 1865, K Marx and F Engels, Selected Works, Volume 2.

[2] T R Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, 1798.

[3] Nicholay Piragov (1810-1881) was a field surgeon in the Crimea. Said to be the first to use anaesthetics on the battlefield, he recruited army nurses, set up field hospitals and was a generally progressive bourgeois-liberal doctor.

[4] The Piragov Doctors Congress was a prestigious meeting of liberal Russian doctors working in public health and sanitation held about every two years from 1885. Lenin is referring to the twelfth congress, held in 1913, where there was a well-publicised debate on abortion. By a small majority the congress voted for decriminalisation.

[5] Dr Lizar Lichkus, obstetrician St Petersburg maternity hospital.

[6] Dr Natan Vigdorchik, ‘public health’ physician in St Petersburg.

[7] In tsarist Russia, lots were drawn for compulsory military service. Conditions were terrible and these were dreaded.

[8] There were many reported cases of conscripts committing suicide.

[9] ‘The working class and neo-Malthusianism’ by V I Lenin, Pravda, No 137, 16 June 1913.