Marx and Malthus 1of3

Mark Jones markjones011 at
Sun Jan 12 16:49:39 MST 2003

David Schanoes wrote:

> As I expected your argument really does converge with Malthus.

Michael Perelman wrote an interesting article which does bear on the
relationship between the analysis of natural resource scarcity and the
falling rate of profit in Marx. Here it is in three parts.

[nb there are some minor problems with unusual characters in the

Marx on Natural resources

Michael Perelman


Marx is widely believed to have failed to understand the importance
of natural resources. For example, in a widely circulated article, Paul
Samuelson charged Marx with ignoring "the patent fact that natural
resources, too, are productive" (Samuelson 1957, p. 894). Many
marxists have also failed to recognize the importance of Marx's theory
of natural resources. I intend to show the relevance of Karl Marx's
analysis of natural resource scarcity as well as the reason why later
readers of Marx have been prone to overlook it. Finally, I shall
distinguish between social and natural scarcity in Marx's work.
"Marx and Natural Scarcityo
Nature was a central concept for Marx. He unambiguously defined
the labor process as the transformation of nature into objects of utility
for human beings (Marx 1977, Ch. 7). He denounced the German
socialist movement for ignoring the role of nature. He insisted:
"Labour is not the source of all wealth", arguing that "[n]ature is just
as much the source of use values" (Marx 1875, p. 13). Even in his
"Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844o, he had observed:
##The worker can create nothing without "natureo, without the
"sensuous external worldo. It is the material on which his labor is
realized. [Marx 1844, p. 109]
Marx did differ with conventional theories of resource utilization by
virtue of his insistance that scarcity could only be understood in
relation to the mode of production, i.e., to the historically specific set
of relations and forces of production, distribution, consumption, and
so forth (see Marx 1967; 3, pp. 651-52). In the most primitive
societies, people lived almost entirely at the mercy of their
environment. For example, Engels explained the absence of private
property in the Orient by:
##the climate, together with the nature of the soil, especially across
Arabia, Persia, India and Tartary up to the highest Asiatic plateau.
[Engels to Marx, 6 June 1853; in Marx and Engels 1942, p. 67]
Marx repeated this idea almost verbatum in his famous dispatch,
"The British Rule in India," published two months later (Marx 1853,
p. 489). Again, in the "Grundrisseo, written during the same decade,
we read about tribal life being conditioned by "climate, physical
make-up of the land and soil" (Marx 1974, p. 486).
Over time, nature, in effect, diminished in importance relative to the
built environment. As Marx observed:
##Everyone knows that there are no true forests in England. The
deer in the parks are demure domestic capital, as fat as London
aldermen. [Marx 1977, p. 892]
Marx never claimed that resources were unimportant. Rather, he
stressed that their importance is conditioned by the social milieu in
which they are used. Any attempt to analyze natural resources outside
the context of social relations, such as was the case with classical
political economy, will prove to be vacuous.
"Marx's Initial Anti-Malthusiansimo
In his early works, Marx's discussion of scarcity often did disregard
the complexity of scarcity which developed in his more mature works.
During that period, he claimed that scarcity could be easily overcome,
as capitalism matured and shed its vestiges of feudalism. He attributed
agriculture's problems to a precapitalist heritage. He convinced
himself that agriculture would eventually progress much like industry:
##The soil is to be a marketable commodity, and the exploitation of
the soil is to be carried on according to the common commercial laws.
There are to be manufactures of food as well as manufactures of twist
and cottons, but no longer any lords of the land. [Marx 1852, p. 262]
In this spirit of optimism Marx included in the "Communist
Manifestoo the "application of chemistry to industry and agriculture"
among the great technical accomplishments of the bourgeoisie (Marx
and Engels 1848, p. 113). His notes from an article in "The
Economisto of 31 August 1850 read:
##Cotton manufacture has grown 1248% in a half century,
"accompanied by a steady fall in the price of raw materialso in the last
years [to] not more than 1/5 to 1/4 of the price at the beginning of the
Century. [Marx 1849-1851, p. 229]
Given this perspective, he predicted an future in which society could
easily master natural resource production. For example, in the first
part of "Theories of Surplus Valueo, he wrote:
##"As the constant capital grows, so also does the proportionate
quantity of the total labour which is engaged in its reproductiono.
Nevertheless, the part [of the population] directly producing means of
subsistence, although its number declines, produces more products
than before. Its labour is more productive. "While for individual
capital the fall in the variable part of capital as compared with the
constant parto takes the direct form of a reduction in the part of the
capital expended in wages, for the total capital -- in its "reproductiono
-- this necessarily takes the form that a relatively greater part of total
labour employed is engaged in the reproduction of means of
production than is engaged in the production of products themselves --
that is, in the reproduction of the machinery. [Marx 1963-1971; 1, p.
In this frame of mind in late 1850, he copied an extract from
William Jacob into his notebooks:
##In valuing land, one third of the net produce was formerly
considered as the fair proportion to appropriate as rent to the landlord;
it is now scarcely a fourth, and in many instances not a fifth. [Jacob
1814, p. 84; cited in Marx 1849-1851, p. 308]
A couple of months later, Marx told Engels that he expected that a
study of agricultural progress "would put an end to Malthus' theory of
the deterioration not only of the 'hands' but also of the land" (Marx to
Engels, 7 January 1851; in Marx and Engels 1975, p. 48). Sometime
between January 1862 and 1863, he speculated that the rate of
productivity in agriculture would rise even faster than in industry:
##This requires: 1. The replacement of the easy-going farmer by the
businessman, the farming capitalist; transformation of the
husbandman into a pure wage labourer; large-scale agriculture.... 2. In
particular, however: Mechanics, the really scientific basis of large-
scale industry, had reached a certain degree of perfection during the
eighteenth century. The development of chemistry, geology and
physiology, the sciences that "directlyo form the specific basis of
agriculture rather than industry, does not take place till the nineteenth
##On the one hand, with the advance of industry, machinery
becomes more effective and cheaper; hence, if only "the same
quantityo of machinery were employed as in the past, this part of
constant capital in agriculture would diminish; but the quantity of the
machinery grows faster than the reduction in its price, since this
element is as little developed in agriculture. On the other hand, with
the greater productivity of agriculture, the price of raw material -- see
cotton -- falls so that raw material does not increase as a component
part of creating value to the same degree as it increases as a
component part of the labor process. [Marx 1963-1971; Pt. 2, pp.
109-112; see also 1976; 3, p. 760; and Marx to Engels, 2 August
1862; in Marx and Engels 1975, p. 123]
Had Marx progressed no further, his critics might have had some
justification for maligning him for insufficient attention to the
complexities of scarcity. Fortunately, Marx went on to develop a
sophisticated theory of natural resources which is worthy of our
attention. Moreover, even in his early work, Marx did demonstrate an
occasional awareness of the relationship between environmental
problems and the capitalist mode of production, but his analysis was
not as profound as it would later become.
"Marx and Natural Resource Scarcityo
In "The German Ideologyo, Marx and Engels recognized
environmental abuse and pollution as reflections of contradictions in
capitalist society (Marx and Engels 1845-46: pp. 46-47).
Later, he wrote to Cluss:
##The "fertility of the soilo, as I have likewise already said in the
"Anti-Proudhono, is something purely relative. Changes in the soil's
fertility and its "degreeo in relation to society, and that is the only
aspect of fertility with which we are concerned, depend on changes in
the science of chemistry and its application to agronomy. [Marx to
Cluss, 5 October 1853; in Marx and Engels 1982, p. 383]
Marx continued this train of thought two weeks later:
##In the "Misereo I cite an example of how in England, land which,
at a certain stage of science, was regarded as barren, is at a more
advanced stage, considered fertile. I can adduce as a general fact that,
throughout the middle ages, esp. in Germany, "heavy clay soilo was
cultivated by preference as being "naturallyo more fertile. In the past
4-5 decades, however, owing to the introduction of potatoes, sheep-
farming and the resulting manuring, etc., "light sandy soilo has taken
the pride of place, esp. since it involves no "expenses of drainageo,
etc., and on the other hand its deficiencies can easily be made good by
means of chemical fertilizers.... Fertility is not, after all, absolute but
relation of the land to human beings. [Marx to Cluss, 18 October
1853; in Marx and Engels 1982, p. 392]
Marx's analysis of natural resource scarcity was reinforced by his
intensive study of agriculture. This research convinced him that
English agriculture was considerably less successful than it appeared
to be. Outlining the its history, he noted:
##The old English industry -- the main branch of which was the
woolen industry ... was wholly "subordinatedo to agriculture. Its chief
raw material was the product of English agriculture. As a matter of
course, therefore, this industry promoted agriculture. Later, when the
factory system properly developed, already in a short space of time the
necessity for custom duties on corn began to be felt. But they
remained nominal. The rapid growth of the population, the abundance
of fertile land which had yet to be made cultivable, the inventions, at
first, of course raised also the level of agriculture. It especially
from the war against Napoleon, which established a regular system of
prohibition for it. But 1815 revealed how little the "productive force"
of agriculture had really increased. [Marx 1845, p. 289]
Five years later, in his notes on Archibald Alison's "Freetrade and a
Fettered Currencyo (1847), Marx wrote:
##The experience of every age has demonstrated that so great is the
effect of capital and civilisation applied to manufactures, and so
inconsiderable, comparatively speaking, their influence upon
agriculture, that the old state can always undersell the new one in the
industry of towns and the new one undersell the old one in the
industry of the country. [Marx 1849-1851, p. 112]
More than a half-century before the rural-based Russian Revolution
of 1917, he wrote to Engels:
##The more I get into this crap, the more I am convinced that
agricultural reform ... will be the alpha and omega of the coming
revolution. Otherwise Parson Malthus would be correct. [Marx to
Engels, 14 August 1851; in Marx and Engels 1973: 27, p. 314]
"On the Limits of Capitalist Agricultureo
Sometime between 1861 and 1863, Marx developed his analysis of
the social nature of scarcity. At that time, he suddenly became
extremely pessimistic about the long-run prospects for capitalist
agriculture. At the time, he was writing "Theories of Surplus Valueo,
the same work in which he set down the above-cited idea about
agriculture progressing faster than industry. In retracting that idea,
Marx asserted:
##It is in the nature of capitalist production that it develops industry
more rapidly than agriculture. This is not due to the nature of the land,
but to the fact that, in order to be exploited really in accordance with
its nature, land requires different social relations. [Marx 1963-1971,
pp. 300-301]
Later, he added:
##Capitalist production has not yet succeeded and never will
succeed in mastering these (organic) processes in the same way as it
has mastered purely mechanical or inorganic chemical processes. Raw
materials such as skins, etc., and other animal products become dearer
partly because the insipid law of rent increases the value of these
products as civilizations advance. As far as coal and metal (wood) are
concerned, they become more difficult as mines are exhausted. [Marx
1963-1971; Pt. 3, p. 368]
Marx made the sweeping observation that:
##The moral history ... concerning agriculture ... is that the capitalist
system works against a rational agriculture, or that a rational
agriculture is incompatible with the capitalist system (although the
latter promotes technical improvements in agriculture), and needs
either the hand of the small farmer living by his own labour or the
control of associated producers. [Marx 1967: iii, p. 121]
Marx did not come by this conclusion casually. He became
extremely well-read in organic chemistry. He had taken copious notes
on Liebig, Johnston and other agronomists who gave detailed
accounts of the problems of soil exhaustion (see Marx 1974, p. 754n).
In his opinion, "the new agricultural chemistry in Germany, especially
Liebig and Schonbein ... are more important than all the economists
put together" (Marx to Engels, 13 February 1866; in Marx and Engels
1942, pp. 204-205). In a fascinating letter to Danielson, written late in
his life, Marx continued to display a keen interest in the analysis of
soil fertility:
##The soil being exhausted and getting not the elements -- by
artificial and vegetable and animal manure, etc. -- to supply its wants,
will with the changing favour of the seasons, of circumstances
independent of human influence -- still continue to yield harvests of
very different amounts, though, summing up a period of years, as for
instance, from 1870-1880, the stagnant character of production
presents itself in the most striking character. Under such
circumstances the favourable climatic conditions pave the way to a
"famine yearo by quickly consuming and setting free the mineral
fertilisers still potent in the soil, while "vice-versao, a "famine yearo,
and still more a series of bad years ... allow the soil-inherent minerals
to accumulate anew, and to work efficiently with returning favour of
the climatic conditions. Such a process goes, of course everywhere on,
but "elsewhereo [than Russia] it is checked by the modifying
intervention of the agriculturalist himself. It becomes the "only
regulating factoro where man has ceased to be a "power" -- for want
of means. [Marx to Danielson, 19 February 1881; in Marx and Engels
1942, p. 384]
Marx's agricultural research eventually led him to the verdict that
capitalist agriculture "leaves deserts behind it" (Marx to Engels, 25
March 1868; in Marx and Engels 1942, p. 237). His section on
"Modern Industry and Agriculture" in the first volume of "Capitalo
reads like some of the most insightful literature from the modern
environmental movement:
##Capitalist production collects the population together in great
centres, and causes the urban population to achieve an ever-growing
preponderance. This has two results. On the one hand it concentrates
the historical motive power of society; on the other hand, it disturbs
the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e. it prevents
the return to the soil of its constituent elements by man in the form of
food and clothing; hence it hinders the operation of the eternal
conditions for the lasting fertility of the soil. Thus it destroys at the
same time the physical health of the urban worker, and the intellectual
life of the rural worker. But by destroying the circumstances
surrounding that metabolism, which originated in a merely natural and
spontaneous fashion, it compels its systematic restoration as a
regulative law of social production, and in a form adequate to the full
development of the human race.... In modern agriculture, as in urban
industry, the increase in the productivity and mobility of labour is
purchased at the cost of laying waste and debilitating labour power
itself. Moreover, all progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in
the art of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the
soil for a given time is a progress towards ruining the more long-
lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country proceeds from
large-scale industry as the background of its development, as in the
case of the United States, the more rapid is this process of destruction.
Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the techniques and the
degree of combining of the social process of production by
simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth -- the
soil and the worker. [Marx 1977, pp. 636-38]
Marx took up this theme again in the third volume of "Capitalo:
##Capitalist production turns toward the land only after its influence
has exhausted it and after it has devastated its natural qualities. [Marx
1967; 3, p. 301]
Marx even went so far as to speculate that the destruction of the land
by the mindless profit-seeking bourgeoisie represented "another
hidden socialist tendency" (Marx to Engels, 25 March 1868; in Marx
and Engels 1942, p. 237). Sooner or later, he predicted, capital will
discover that nationalization of the land would be the only course
capable of assuring an adequate supply of agricultural produce (see
Marx 1872, pp. 288-90). Quite a performance for a Nineteenth
Century writer, who is supposed to have dogmatically insisted on the
unimportance of nature!
Marx distinguished between what he referred to as "social" and
"natural" productivity (Marx 1967; 3, p. 766). He understood that
technical change would allow agricultural output to expand, but he
was convinced that this increase might not be rapid enough to
compensate for long-run natural resource exhaustion (Ibid., p. 766;
see also Perelman 1975). Until capitalism comes to be replaced by
socialism, he believed, it would continue to be plagued more and more
by rising raw materials costs.
The social importance of primary materials, however, is conditioned
by the development of the mode of production. Marx had always
recognized that in the early stages of society, primary products cost
little effort because "nature ... assists as a machine" (Marx 1963-1971;
Pt. 2, p. 109; see also 1977, pp. 284 and 744 and; 1967: iii, pp. 360-
61, 643, 745, and 847-48; as well as Marx 1974, p. 588). By contrast,
in industry "nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways,
electric telegraphs, self-acting mules etc." (Marx 1974, p. 706; see
also p. 715). Later, he began to stress that, eventually, both more labor
and more capital goods must be applied to the production of primary
products. As he observed:
##[When] in the course of development, a larger output is demanded
than that which can be supplied with the help of natural powers, i.e. ...
this additional output must be created without the help of this natural
power, then a new additional element enters into capital. A relatively
larger investment in capital is thus required in order to secure the same
outputs. [Marx 1967: iii, p. 745; see also 1977, p. 751]
That is, an increasing proportion of social labor must be applied to
the production of primary materials, despite the enormous advances in
capitalist agricultural technology. This rising labor requirement is
caused, in part, by improved technology that diminishes the portion of
social labor used in the production of machinery (Marx 1967: iii, p.
109) and, in part, by the expanding labor requirements of the raw
materials sector itself.
This secular tendency is paralleled by cyclical difficulties in raw
materials production. As the economy expands, the rapid growth in
demand for raw materials, generated by capitalist growth, will not be
matched by a proportionate increase in the production of raw
materials (see Marx 1963-1971, Pt. 2, p. 533; and Marx 1977, p.
In one passage, Marx captured the ambiguous capitalist agricultural
legacy, noting:
##One of the major results of the capitalist mode of production is
that, on the one hand, it transforms agriculture from a mere empirical
and mechanical self-perpetuating process employed by the least
developed part of society into the conscious scientific application of
agronomy, "in so far as this it at all feasible under conditions of
private propertyo. [Marx 1967: iii, p. 617]
Marx added a footnote:
##Very conservative agricultural chemists, such as Johnston, admit
that a really rational agriculture is confronted everywhere with
insurmountable barriers stemming from private property.... [T]he
dependence of the cultivation of particular agricultural products upon
the fluctuations of market prices, and the continual changes in this
cultivation with these price fluctuations -- the whole spirit of capitalist
production, which is directed toward the immediate gain of money --
are in contradiction to agriculture, which has to minister to the entire
range of permanent necessities of life required by the chain of
successive generations. [Ibid.]
The cotton industry, which loomed so large in Marx's analysis, bore
out Marx's conviction that raw materials production would have
difficulty keeping pace with demand. For example, in the brief period
between 1830 and 1837, as industry had outstripped agricultural
production, cotton prices doubled, only to fall again (Temin 1969, p.
92). Later, during the Civil War in the United States, when "Capitalo
was being written, cotton again became scarce. This pattern moved
Marx to observe:
##It is in the nature of things that vegetable and animal substances
whose growth and production are subject to certain organic laws and
bound up with definite natural time periods, cannot be augmented in
the same degree as ... other fixed capital... , whose reproduction can,
provided the natural conditions do not change, be rapidly
accomplished in an industrialised country. It is therefore quite
possible, and under a developed system of capitalist production even
inevitable, that the production and increase of the portion of constant
capital consisting of fixed capital, machinery, etc. [measured in
physical terms, M.P.], should considerably outstrip the portion
consisting of organic raw materials so that demand for the latter rises
more rapidly than supply....
##The greater the development of capitalist production ... , so much
more frequent the relative underproduction of vegetable and animal
raw materials, and so much more pronounced the previously described
rise of their prices and the attendant reaction. And so much more
frequent are the convulsions caused as they are by the violent price
fluctuations of one of the main elements in the process of
reproduction. [Marx 1967; 3, pp. 118-19]
On the one hand, cheap raw-materials present themselves as a
natural fertility of capital (Marx 1967: iii, p. 106; see also p. 651). On
the other hand, high raw-materials prices threaten to hinder
accumulation, because the resulting increase in raw materials prices
severely cuts into profit margins. After all, Marx was certain that raw
materials were the most important component of constant capital, at
least on a flow basis (Marx 1967: iii, p. 106). This assessment of the
quantitative importance of raw materials undoubtedly referred to a
flow, rather than a stock basis.
Even though the value of raw-materials might be less than the value
of the stock of fixed capital, a rise in raw material prices can make
itself felt as a decline in the profit rate, with serious consequences for
##If the price of raw materials rises, it may be impossible to make it
good fully out of the price of commodities after wages are deducted.
Violent price fluctuations, therefore, cause interruptions, great
collisions, even catastrophes, in the process of reproduction. It is
especially agricultural produce proper, i.e., raw materials taken from
organic nature, which -- leaving aside the credit system for the present
-- is subject to such fluctuations in values in consequence of changing
yield, etc. [Marx 1967: iii, p. 117]
By this stage in his development, Marx had abandoned the notion
that capitalism could master nature. Instead, environmental limits
presented a barrier which capitalism seemed unlikely to overcome.
Marx went further. He rejected the notion that these barriers were
natural. To a large extent, they were the product of the capitalist mode
of production.
"Scarcity and Social Relationso
Increasing natural resource costs are frequently cited as proof of the
operation of the law of diminishing returns, but Marx interpreted the
same phenomenon rather differently; he saw it as evidence of a
barrier, posed by capitalist social relations, which prevents society
from taking full advantage of its natural-resource base. For example,
Marx insisted that the booms and busts, which are endemic to
capitalism, are incompatible with a rational agricultural system:
##An actual improvement of raw materials satisfying not only the
desired quantity, but also the quality desired, such as cotton from
India of American quality, would require a prolonged, regularly
growing and steady demand (regardless of the economic conditions
under which the Indian producer labours in his country). As it is, the
sphere of production is, by fits, first suddenly enlarged, and then
violently curtailed. All this, and this spirit of capitalist production in
general, may be very well studied in the cotton shortage of 1861-65,
further characterised as it was by the fact that a raw material, one of
the principal elements of reproduction was for a time unavailable ...
##The closer we approach our own time in the history of production,
the more regularly do we find, especially in the essential lines of
industry, the ever-recurring alternation between relative appreciation
and the subsequent resulting depreciation of raw materials obtained
from organic nature. [Marx 1967; 3, p. 121]
More importantly, capitalist social relations impede the creation of a
rational economic system in general. Although great strides have been
taken in agricultural science, Marx's interpretation still seems to be the
correct one, especially when we recall his special use of the term
"mastering" (see Perelman 1977).
Marx's general position was that, although land can be improved
and, more generally, human potential is unlimited (Marx 1963-1971;
Pt. 2, pp. 144-45 and 595), the social relations of capital stood in the
way of agricultural progress. He gave a specific example of the
relationship between the social relations of production and agricultural
progress, citing Frederick L. Olmsted's observations of cotton
production in the Southern United States:

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