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:

It is not enough to undertake a theoretical critique of the neo-Malthusian position, or to blame its proponents for underestimating one or other level of analysis. To be convincing and decisive, the critique must attack the very kernel of Malthusian interpretation in order to separate with absolute precision the valid from the invalid elements. The whole strength of this model derives from the fact that it is amply confirmed by detailed research: the importance of the demographic factor, the succession of long-term trends, the existence of ceilings of growth, and so on. By what strange perversion of Marxism is it possible to refuse to take such firm data into account on the absurd pretext that another theoretical construction rests upon it? . . . Postan or Le Roy Ladurie should not be criticized for giving too much importance to the demographic factor. They should on the contrary be criticized for stopping their process in midstream and for not integrating the demographic factor into the all embracing whole that is the socio-economic system.footnote3

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.