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A Marxian Analysis of Classical Political Economic Theories of Population


Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population is such a provocative and, for many, infuriating text, that since the nineteenth century it has been practically synonymous with the whole of classical political economy’s treatment of the population question. As a result, Marx’s engagement with classical population theory has often been interpreted as having been primarily a polemical refutation of Malthus. Indeed, Marx and Engels wrote about Malthus with such vitriol that their own works, if read selectively, can easily give this very impression. My point of departure is the position that such interpretations are far too limited.

Population was a central category across the entire history of classical political economy, from the work of the French Physiocrats and Adam Smith, to the nineteenth century figures Marx called “vulgar economists.” This very centrality suggests that Marx’s critique of political economy would be incomplete if it did not provide the basis for a thorough critique of the discipline’s population theories. I argue that Marx’s critique of classical political economy’s grounding ideology, that is its naturalistic and transhistorical conception of capitalist production, provides this basis, and I reconstruct a Marxian critique of the discipline’s population theories from this foundation. I conclude by showing that population was absolutely central to Marx’s critical theory of the capitalist mode of production.

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