Conference report Malthus yesterday and today
Malthus would, no doubt, have been astonished to find some 400 demographers, historians and others from 62 countries gathered in Paris to analyse the legacy of Malthusian thought 182 years after the appearance of the first edition of An essay on the principle of population. No-one was indiscreet enough to dwell upon the tendency of scholars to outgrow their means of subsistence, nor impudent enough to draw inferences about the operation of positive and preventive checks from the presence of 211 Frenchmen and only 36 from Malthus’ native Britain. The conference, organised by the Sock% de dimographie historique, held from 27 to 29 May, was conducted with a certain French panache. Such is the preoccupation with demography at all levels in French society that the Minister of Justice, Alain Peyrefitte, opened the meeting by professing his wholehearted devotion to demographic studies, on a day when the streets of Paris were swarming with judges and magistrates protesting against their Minister’s neglect of justice and its administration. The proceedings were wound up by Alfred Sauvy with characteristic fluency and aplomb, and at the end of the week, the arrival in the city of Pope John Paul II served to remind Malthusian scholars of a world outside their academies. The most impressive achievement of the conference, apart from a reception of Grande Boufi proportions at the Bibliotheque Nationale to inaugurate an exhibition de Multhus au Malthusianisme, was the collection of 160 papers on a vast variety of aspects of Malthus’ influence. The range of the papers is in itself a tribute to Malthus’ influence, sometimes in the most unlikely spheres: straightforward appreciations of his theory jostled alongside ‘Malthus and the population of Zambia’ ‘, ‘Malthus, Gandhi and India’s population’, ‘Self-regulation in populations of red grouse’ and ‘Malthusianism, feminism and socialism in the United States’. All papers submitted seem to have been accepted and very little discussion was possible on any individual paper or theme. The papers were grouped into five key sections: Malthus as demographer, as sociologist, as economist, Malthusianism after Malthus and Malthus today. Each section was divided into two parts and the main points in the papers were summarized by distinguished rapporteurs, including Keyfitz, Godelier, Laslett, Flinn, Wolff and Van de Walle. Abstracts of all papers have been made available, while a more substantial but severely pruned volume is being prepared for publication. Participants not only discussed the validity of Malthus’ ideas but considered carefully what he actually wrote: his work has been open to repeated misrepresentations, partly wilful and partly ignorant. But two excellent books published just before the conference set the record straight and remove excuses for not reading his works in the original.rlJ Attention has been diverted by sketches of the man’s character and arguments about his intentions. Petersen regards Malthus as “an honest and beneficent reformer”, and attributes the current misinformation about him directly or indirectly to Marx who “rejected him in language exceptionally vituperative even by the permissive standards of socialist polemics : ‘the contemptible Malthus’, a ‘plagiarist’, ‘a shameless sycophant of the ruling classes’ who perpetrated ‘a sin against science’, ‘this libel on the human race’.“[*l Among [l] William Petersen, Multhus (London, Heinemann 1979); Patricia James, Population Malthus: his life and times (London, Routledge 1979)  Petersen op. cit. 239, 74-5 03057488/81/010091
+ 03 $02.00/O
91 0 1981 Academic Press Inc. (London) Ltd.
the conference papers, 23 were devoted to “the misinterpretation of Malthusian thought” -variously ascribed to partial and incomplete translations, to discrepancies between different editions of the Essay and to confusions arising from neo-Malthusianpropaganda: one of the most persistent being that Malthus was a keen advocate of birth control.[ll In fact, he opposed it. Papers in this group reviewed the reception accorded to Malthus’ ideas in different European countries. Thomas Hollingsworth concluded that “the British have long since ceased to debate Malthusian questions and his name is not especially familiar today”. In a further group of 9 papers on ‘Malthus as demographer’, Keyfitz provided a general survey of the development of Malthus’ thoughts and concepts, pointing out that Malthus was not a reactionary lacking in sympathy for the poor but was dedicated to the betterment of society and the welfare of all people. A second major theme, ‘Malthus as sociologist’, included 19 papers whose main points were brought out by Maurice Godelier and Peter Laslett. The former discussed ethnographic aspects of Malthus’ thought, examining the use Malthus made of contemporary sources and the way his theory stands up to the precision of modern anthropological data. Godelier also drew attention to Malthus’ often misunderstood attitude to slavery. Laslett, on the other hand, reviewed the broader social ideas of Malthus both in relation to the social world of the eighteenth century and to a Malthusian strain of thinking in the present. Commenting on a paper by Tepperman on ‘Malthus and a contemporary dilemma: the social limits to growth’, Laslett doubted whether much that was termed “Malthusian” arose from Malthus’ original ideas. A third major theme, ‘Malthus as economist’, attracted no fewer than 45 papers, summarized-as far as such a task is possible-by Michael Flinn on ‘Malthus and his times’ and by Jacques Wolff on ‘Malthusian economic thought’. Flinn described the principal areas of the economy between 1790 and 1834 that most interested Malthus, concluding that if he “suffered from a notably inferior access to both information and technique, his understanding of the economy of his day stands up extraordinarily well to scrutiny”. In a tantalizing paper, Wrigley hinted at the results of his major work on English population history from 1541, relating trends in real wages to patterns of marriage and fertility. Wrigley suggested that “it was Malthus’ fate to frame an analysis of the relationship between population, economy and society during the last generation to which it was applicable”. The papers summarized by Wolff, on the other hand, probed deeply into the relationship between Malthus’ economic ideas and those of his predecessors and successors, re-examining the links between Malthus and Ricardo, Smith, Say and Keynes; also tracing the reception of Malthus’ ideas in Italy, Yugoslavia and the U.S.A. Under a fourth general heading, ‘Malthusianism after Malthus’, groups of papers plunged across the minefields of ‘Malthusianism and socialism’ (16 papers) and ‘Malthusianism and Christianity’ (9 papers). Malthus’ ideas on the imbalance between population and resources as the key to understanding poverty were virulently condemned by Marx but from the 1880s onwards controversy shifted from Malthus to neo-Malthusians. France, to which 8 papers were devoted, exemplifies the political and moral conflicts generated by the opposition of neo-Malthusians and pro-natalists: by 1908, the French movement was subjected to relentless persecution culminating in the 1920 law outlawing all anti-natalist propaganda. Wider reactions to neo-Malthusianism, for example, the attitude of the French communist party, of Canadian socialist movements, or the implications for feminism and socialism in the U.S.A. were noted in other papers. Another group of contributors brought us back to Malthus’ views as an Anglican clergyman. An American author showed that “fundamental components of Malthus’ concepts can be traced to the Bible” by applying “the non-parametric signs test”. Some fascinating accounts dealt with the impact of Malthus on Jewish thought, on Catholicism in Spain and [l]
Neo-Malthusianism in France is treated in a book published at the time of the conference. Francis Ronsin, La g&e des ventres: propagande neo-Malthusienne et baisse de la natalite franGuise, XIX-XX= si&les (Paris, Aubier-Montaigne 1980)
France, on the encyclical letters of John XXIII, Muter et Mugistru in 1961 and of Paul VI, Populorum progressio in 1967. Finally, somewhat bleary-eyed at the Pandora’s box that had been opened, the conference went on to consider ‘Malthus and contemporary populations’ and ‘Malthus and biological equilibria’. Etienne Van de Walle reminded us that were he to return to survey the modem world, Malthus could be surprised by at least three major inaccuracies in his forecasts : the extraordinary increase in the means of subsistence, the failure of the positive check to limit population growth and changes in what he called the passion between the sexes, with the triumph of the preventive check in its contraceptive form. No fewer than 28 contributors reviewed the contemporary importance of Malthus in regions as disparate as Java and Kazakhstan, Africa and Brazil, India and Zambia. Although tacked on at the end, discussions of biological aspects of Malthus’ ideas were highly illuminating. We were reminded that Darwin acknowledged his debt to Malthus in formulating the theory of natural selection. The diversity of issues raised at the conference indicates the extraordinary range of Malthus’ influence, although many so-called Malthusian ideas have little to do with his original writings. As Van de Walle remarked, he had the good fortune to devise “a simple but robust model of the relationship between population, economy and the institutions , . . a framework to fit the arguments, a checklist of factors to be considered, a system to be faulted and explained away . . . and because he is a forceful writer, he can always be relied on for the incisive quotation to single out and refute”. His basic ideas were, and still are, perceived as threats to other orthodoxies and continue to arouse widespread and often angry reactions. PHILIP E. OGDEN Queen Mary College, University of London
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In his essay, Theodore H. White asserts that immigration is key to the idea of America. Since its founding, the United States has welcomed more immigrants than any other nation. From 1820-1930, about 60 percent of all immigration worldwide was to the United States. Excerpt from “The Idea of America” by Nikole Hannah-Jones My dad always flew an American flag in our front yard. The blue paint on our two-story house was perennially chipping; the fence, or the rail by the stairs, or the front door, existed in a perpetual state of disrepair, but that flag always flew pristine. Our corner lot, which had been.
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