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Gertrude B. Kelly, “Mr. Walker’s Neo-Nonsense,” from Liberty Vol. IV. No. 4 (June 19, 1886)

This is a contribution to the debate over Malthusianism that was conducted in the pages of Benjamin Tucker’s newspaper Liberty, in which the natural-rights anarchist and individualist feminist Gertrude B. Kelly called fellow anarchist E. C. Walker, also a free-love and birth control advocate, to task over his advocacy of “Neo-Malthusianism,” an rehabilitate the work of Thomas Malthus as a component of radical, pro-labor economics. The column appears as “Mr. Walker’s Neo-Nonsense,” on the back page (p. 8) of Liberty Vol. IV., No. 4 (June 19, 1886).

Mr. Walker’s Neo-Nonsense

I am sorry to see that E. C. Walker, having taken a position on Malthusianism, probably without due consideration, seems to feel himself bound now, for the sake of consistency, to maintain that position at all hazards. Consistency is a very fine thing but truth is far finer. Mr. Walker is still determined to call himself a Malthusian, though he denies the fundamental doctrine of Malthusianism,–i.e., that the working-people would be better off, everything else remaining unchanged, if their numbers were diminished. Does Mr. Walker know that Malthus’sTheory of Population” was written in answer to Condorcet’sEsquisse des Progrès de l’Espirit Humain” and Godwin’sPolitical Justice,” the two most Anarchistic works of the last century, which demonstrated that poverty and vice and crime were due to the inequality of conditions, generated and fostered by unjust political systems. Both Godwin and Condorcet foresaw that some day the population question would come up for consideration but they saw also, as we see today, that it was not the burning question, calling for immediate solution, not the question on the solution of which depended the solution of all the others, but that it was a dependent question, secondary to that of justice. Condorcet especially has shown that with improved conditions, and the increased morality necessarily resulting from this improvement, the population question would settle itself, for no man would then desire to bring beings into existence for whose happiness he could not provide, and that recklessness in this respect today was due to the general degradation of the people. Malthus came to the rescue of the rising bourgeoisie, and was one of the most noted signs of the reaction following the French Revolution. He endeavored to show that any attempt made to improve the conditions of the people would only make things worse, as it would make room for a larger population. Mr. Malthus’s followers have since pointed with pride to India as a proof of their master’s insight. The positive checks, of war, of pestilence, etc., to overpopulation having been removed by the motherly care of the British government, the Indian people have been reduced to a condition of more hopeless poverty than that in which they were before. They take no note of the part which the fostering care of the British userers has had in the production of this poverty; it is not part of their scheme to recognize that.

A large part of Mr. Walker’s article is more suited to the columns of the Women’s Christian Temperance papers than to the columns of Liberty. It betrays about as much sense in regard to the population question as the ordinary Christian is in relation to the temperance question. Mr. Walker probably admits that the condition of the individual workingman is made worse by intemperate habits, but nevertheless he would consider it a very superficial movement which confined itself to treating the intemperance, but left the poverty which produced the intemperance untouched. Intemperance and the large families will disappear with the conditions that produce them, and therefore it is to these conditions that our attention must be directed.

In his desperate thundering endeavor to maintain the position which he has assumed, Mr. Walker has deserted the high plane of the Anarchist for that of the ordinary bourgeois or trade-unionist. He says that the workingman “is living in the present, and not in some millennial future.” In his criticisms of the ideas and actions of the trades-unionists, Mr. Walker has shown an impatience and disgust with them which a really philosophical student of society would never have displayed, and just because of this very impatience and this disgust I am not at all surprised to see him descending to the arguments of the trades-unionists. The trades-unionists always tell us:–“Your theories are very fine, but what we want now are better wages and shorter hours.” When we say that, when these become general, they will be no better off than they were before, they answer that they are dealing “with the present, and not with some millennial future. When we have higher wages and fewer hours, we will then have more intelligence to consider the labor question,” etc. etc. Mr. Walker ought to join Mr. Atkinson in his improved system of domestic economy, and also to take lessons from Miss Corson on how to make a neck of beef last a family of six persons for three weeks. All these subjects are highly important, and deal with the “here and now.”

But Mr. Walker has really begged the whole question of Malthusianism. Malthus said that, in proportion to the food-producing capacity of the world at any time, the number of people has always been too great, and hence war, famine, and pestilence are absolutely necessary, and that the only way poverty (which is due to over-population) can be removed is by lessening the population. Mr. Walker says that the individual workingman is better off when his family is small, but admits that, if small families become general, poverty would exist in as great a degree as before, but that all men, from the training they had received in lessening the size of their families, would be more fitted to combat the difficulty. Wondrous training-school! He has changed the discussion from a question of political economy to one of domestic economy, with which the question of the just distribution of wealth has nothing whatsoever to do.

As to France, France is a proof that Malthusianism–that is, a restriction of the population–is a failure as a means for the destruction of poverty. It is in the country districts of France, if I understand J. S. Mill rightly, that the small families originated, for it was to the country people and not to the city people that the Revolution guaranteed a certain means of support which could not be easily increased. In the tables of population of France from 1870 to 1880, I find that more than one-third of the increase of population is credited to the large cities. Now whether this increase in the cities be due to an increased number of births in the cities, or to increased emigration from the country, the population of the country districts must in either case be almost stationary, and, according to the theory of Malthus, the country people should be much better off than in those countries in which large families prevail. This we have already shown not to be the case. Much admiration as I have for the French people, I cannot admit that “they more quickly and effectively than any other modern people resent invasions of their rights, and have a higher ideal of industrial and social life.” In the first place, they do not resent invasions of their rights by the State nearly as much as the English people do, but are constantly clamoring for more and more State regulation, and in the next, the ideal of even the most advanced of them is not all that high in our sense of that word, as even “Le Révolté” cannot keep out of communism.

No, the Anarchists or Anti-Malthusians do not assume that the “wage-system is to be eternal,” and it is for this reason that they are not Malthusians, for the true Malthusian does assume the wage-system to be eternal. I will quote from what seems to be Mr. Walker’s Book of Common Prayer, “The Elements of Social Science,” which he recommended to Mr. Heywood in the last number of “Lucifer” as representing his views on Malthusianism: “There is one method, and one only by which they [the working class] may escape from the great evils which oppress them,–the want of food and leisure, hard work and low wages. This is, by reducing their numbers, and so lessening the supply of labor in proportion to the demand.” One method only, remember; no hint at the abolition of the wage-system. And again: “Wages cannot rise, except through there being more capital or less laborers, nor fall, except through there being less capital or more laborers.” “Poverty arises from an overcrowding of the labor-market and an undue depression of the margin of cultivation.” “The great social evils of old countries, when reduced to their simplest expression, are found to arise from the vast superiority of increase in man, over the powers of increase in the land.” “Profits are the rewards of abstinence [not of monopoly] as wages are the rewards of labor.” This book not only supports all the theories of the orthodox economists, which are true under present conditions, and all the orthodox deductions from these theories, but also all their absurdities, such as the existence of a “wages-fund,” and Mill’s absurd proposition that a “demand for commodities is not a demand for labor.” The book is so full of economic absurdities that I am not at all surprised at Mr. Walker’s temporary state of mental aberration after reading it.

A true Malthusian (I have been unable to discover what constitutes a Neo-Malthusian) sees no other cause for poverty but over-population, no other remedy for poverty but a reduction of the population, and therefore a Malthusian who is a labor-reformer is an anomaly, a contradiction, an absurdity. As to the Malthusians tending towards Anarchy, I wish Mr. Walker would point them out. Mr. Walker and Mr. James tend toward Anarchism, but Mrs. Besant tends just as strongly towards State Socialism. Which tendency is due to the Malthusianism? Are not both in opposition to it? And the people who practically carry out Malthusianism, the French, have a very much stronger leaning towards State Socialism and Communism than the English, whose families are proverbially large.

Gertrude B. Kelly.