The primary form of Marxism’s traditional address to demography, dating back to Marx himself, has been through a virulent denunciation of its Malthusian versions. These polemics, however programmatically justified in countering largely reactionary Malthusian population policies, nevertheless have had an anaesthetic effect upon historical materialism—placing the demographic realm itself beyond the pale of legitimate scrutiny and investigation. In the process of dismissing Malthus and his successors, Marxists have abandoned the terrain to our enemies. And with the notable exception of some analysts of the Third World like Meillassoux,footnote1 this abdication has been perpetuated within contemporary Marxism. Indeed there has been an unfortunate counterposition of the socio-economic to the demographic, as if these two dimensions of social relations were materially separable under capitalism or elsewhere, and as if the lines of causality ran, undialectically, only one way from the socio-economic and political to the demographic.

Even the best of recent Marxist historiography continues this traditional dismissal. The work of Robert Brenner, for instance, which has attracted much attention for its rigorous and original approach to the transition between the feudal and capitalist modes of production, fails to recognize the specificity of demographic causes. Brenner launched an attack in Past and Present on the reigning neo-Malthusian orthodoxy of Postan, Ladurie, Habukkuk and others, concerning their interpretation of the growth and stagnation of late feudal formations in Western Europe. While the critique itself has many merits, Brenner displays a tendency to deny the explanatory power of demographic phenomena in asserting the primacy of class struggle dynamics. The core of his argument is the thesis that ‘it is the structure of class relations, of class power, which will determine the manner and degree to which particular demographic changes will affect long-run trends in the distribution of income and economic growth, and not vice-versa’.footnote2

A very subtle dislocation is revealed in this statement and persists throughout the article. Brenner turns a conflict over where to place the emphasis into an either/or counterposition. If he were merely insisting upon the primacy of class relations and the (diverse) outcomes of class struggles over demographic cyclical pressures in an overall model of feudal development, then that would be perfectly correct, particularly as it pertains to the transition to capitalism. But there is the final phrase, ‘and not vice-versa’, that effectively dismisses any incorporation or active feedback of demographic forces into his model of class relations and class struggle tendencies. In counterposing class relations to demographic pressures as the prime-mover of feudal economic growth and stagnation, Brenner ‘over-corrects’ his opponents to the extent of suppressing the autonomy of demography altogether. In this regard, it is worth quoting from Guy Bois’s comment on Brenner’s article in a subsequent issue of Past and Present:

Bois’s criticism here is, in my view, very much to the point. It could be extended far beyond Brenner’s work to the entire legacy of classical Marxism.

The feminist challenge to Marxism—with which my own work is concerned—also demands that this great evasion be squarely faced.footnote4 A central demand of the women’s liberation movement is for women themselves to gain full control over their reproductive capacities, and intense political struggles continue to rage over this issue. As the slogan ‘control of our bodies, control of our lives’ suggests, women can never control their lives in a full sense until they gain control of their own biological capacities. We can state this proposition obversely: the social control of women is centered upon the control of their reproductive capacities in a vast range of societies. If this generalization is valid, then the conclusion seems to me inescapable: there are compelling feminist reasons for paying close attention to the demographic regulators of women’s fertility and to their change over time. And yet, there has been surprisingly little attention paid by feminists to the field of demography. Conversely (though much less surprising) demographers have largely ignored the burgeoning feminist scholarship of the past decade. Even a brief perusal of the principal English-language journals in the field (Demography, Population Studies, and Population and Development Review) will demonstrate that feminist perspectives and debates are rarely acknowledged, much less taken seriously, in their pages. One would never guess, reading these journals, that childbearing was a sex-specific and gender differentiated process.