Classes and Parties in Their Attitude to Religion and the Church

Published: Sotsial-Demokrat, No. 6, June (4) 17, 1909. Taken from Marxists Internet Archive.

The debates in the Duma on the Synod estimates, then on the restoration of rights to persons who have left holy orders and, finally, on the Old-Believer communities, have provided very instructive material characterising the attitude of the Russian political parties towards religion and the Church. Let us make a general survey of this material, dwelling mainly on the debates on the Synod estimates (we have not yet received the verbatim reports of the debates on the other questions mentioned above).

The first and most obvious conclusion that emerges from the Duma debates is that militant clericalism in Russia not only exists, but is clearly gaining ground and becoming more organised. On April 16, Bishop Metrophanes stated: “The first steps in our Duma activities pursued the explicit end that we who have been honoured by the votes of the people, should here in the Duma stand above party divisions, and form a single group of the clergy, which should throw light on all sides from its ethical point of view…. What is the reason why we have failed to achieve this ideal situation? … The fault for this lies with those who are sharing these benches with you [i. e., with the Cadets and the "Left"], namely, those clerical deputies who belong to the opposition. They were the first to lift their voice and say that this was neither more nor less than the emergence of a clerical party, and that this was extremely undesirable. Of course, there is no such thing as clericalism among the Russian Orthodox clergy–we never had a tendency of that kind, and in seeking to form a separate group we were pursuing purely ethical and moral ends. But now, gentlemen, when, as a result of this discord introduced in our brotherly midst by the Left deputies, there followed disunity and division, now you [i. e., the Cadets] blame it on us.”

Bishop Metrophanes in his illiterate speech let the cat out of the bag: the Left, don’t you see, are guilty of having dissuaded some of the Duma priests from forming a special “moral” (this term is obviously more suitable for hoodwinking the people than the word “clerical”) group!

Almost a month later, on May 13, Bishop Eulogius read in the Duma “the resolution of the Duma clergy”: “The overwhelming majority of the Duma Orthodox clergy considers”… that in the interests of the “leading and dominant position of the Orthodox Church” neither freedom of preaching for the Old-Believers, nor the unauthorised functioning of Old- Believer communities, nor the using of the title of priest by Old-Believer clergymen, are permissible. “The purely moral point of view” of the Russian priests stands fully revealed as clericalism pure and simple. “The overwhelming majority” of the Duma clergy, in whose name Bishop Eulogius spoke, probably consisted of 29 Right and moderately Right priests in the Third Duma, and possibly also included 8 priests belonging to the Octobrists. The opposition had probably been joined by 4 priests belonging to the Progressist and Peaceful Renovation groups and one belonging to the Polish-Lithuanian group.

What is then the “purely moral and ethical point of view of the overwhelming majority of the clergy in the Duma” (the June-the-Third Duma, one should add)? Here are a few excerpts from the speeches: “All I say is that the initiative for these [i.e., Church] reforms must come from within the Church, not from without, not from the state and, of course, not from the Budget Commission. After all, the Church is a divine and eternal institution, its laws are immutable, whereas the ideals of state life, as we know, are subject to constant modifications” (Bishop Eulogius, April 14). The orator recalled “a disturbing historical parallel”: the secularisation of Church property under Catherine II. “Who can vouch that the Budget Commission, which this year expressed the desire to put them [the Church funds] under state control, will not express next year the desire to deposit them in the State Treasury, and then fully to transfer their management from the Church authorities to the civil or state authorities?… The Church statutes say that since a bishop is entrusted with Christian souls, then all the more should Church property be entrusted to him…. Today before you [deputies of the Duma] stands your spiritual mother, the holy Orthodox Church, not merely as before representatives of the people, but also as before its spiritual children” (ibid.).

This is pure clericalism. The Church is above the state as the eternal and divine is above the temporal and earthly. The Church cannot forgive the state for secularising Church property. The Church demands a leading and dominant position. In its eyes the Duma deputies are not only–or rather not so much–representatives of the people as “spiritual children”.

These are not officials in cassocks, as the Social-Democrat Surkov called them, but feudalists in cassocks. Defence of the Church’s feudal privileges, outspoken support of medievalism–that is the essence of the policy pursued by the majority of the Third Duma clergy. Bishop Eulogius is by no means an exception. Gepetsky also vociferates against “secularisation” which he calls an intolerable “wrong” (April 14). The priest Mashkevich fulminates against the Octobrist report for seeking “to undermine the historic and canonical foundations on which our Church life has rested and must rest … to push the life and activities of the Russian Orthodox Church off the canonical path on to the path where … the true princes of the Church–the bishops–will be obliged to give up almost all their rights, inherited from the apostles, to secular princes…. This is nothing but … an encroachment on somebody else’s property and on the rights and possessions of the Church…. The speaker is leading us towards the destruction of the canonical order of Church life; he seeks to subordinate the Orthodox Church and all its economic functions to the Duma, an institution composed of the most diverse elements in our country, of religious creeds both tolerated and not tolerated” (April 14).

The Russian Narodniks and liberals have long been comforting themselves, or rather deceiving themselves, with the “theory” that in Russia there is no basis for militant clericalism, for a struggle of “the princes of the Church” with the temporal power, and so forth. Our revolution has dispelled this illusion, as it did a number of other Narodnik and liberal illusions. Clericalism existed in a hidden form, so long as autocracy existed intact and inviolate. The all- powerful police and bureaucracy concealed from the gaze of “society” and the people the class struggle in general, and the struggle waged by the “feudalists in cassocks” against the “base rabble” in particular. But the first breach which the revolutionary proletariat and peasantry made in the feudalist autocratic regime laid bare what had been hidden. As soon as the proletariat and the advanced elements of the democratic bourgeoisie began to make use of the political liberty, the freedom to organise the masses, which they had won at the end of 1905, the reactionary classes, too, reached out for independent and open organisations. Under absolute autocracy they did not organise, and did not come out too much in the open, not because they were weak, but be cause they were strong; not because they were incapable of organisation and political struggle, but because at that time they did not yet feel any real need for independent class organisation. They did not believe in the possibility of a mass movement against the autocracy and the feudalists in Russia. They fully relied on the knout being sufficient to keep the rabble down. But the first wounds inflicted on autocracy compelled the social elements which supported it and needed it to come out into the open. It was no longer possible to use only the old knout in fighting masses that had been capable of causing the events of January 9, the strike movement in 1905, and the October-December revolution. It became necessary to build up independent political organisations; it became necessary for the Council of the United Nobility to organise Black Hundreds and engage in the most irresponsible demagogy; it became necessary for “the princes of the Church–the bishops”–to organise the reactionary clergy into an independent force.

A typical feature of the Third Duma, and of the Third Duma period of the Russian counter-revolution is, indeed, that this organisation of the reactionary forces has come out into the open, has begun to develop on a nation-wide scale, and has demanded a special Black-Hundred bourgeois “parliament”. Militant clericalism has shown its true colours; and from now on Russian Social-Democracy will have to act again and again as an observer of, and participant in, the clashes between the clerical and the anti-clerical bourgeoisie. If our general task is to assist the proletariat to unite into a special class, capable of separating from bourgeois democracy, one component of this task is the use of every means of propaganda and agitation, including the rostrum of the Duma, to explain to the masses the distinctions between socialist and bourgeois anti-clericalism.

The Octobrists and Cadets who have come out in the Third Duma against the extreme Right, the clericals, and the government, have eased this task for us immensely by providing an object-lesson of the attitude of the bourgeoisie to wards the Church and religion. The legal press of the Cadets and the so-called Progressists is at present devoting special attention to the question of the Old-Believers, to the fact that the Octobrists as well as the Cadets have taken a stand against the government, and to the fact that they have, albeit in a small way, “adopted the course of reform” promised on October 17. What interests us most is the principle involved in this question, i.e., the attitude of the bourgeoisie in general, including the elements who claim the title of Democratic Cadets, towards religion and the Church. We must not allow a relatively minor question–the Old-Believers’ conflict with the dominant Church, and the conduct of the Octobrists who are tied up with the Old-Believers, and are partly even dependent on them financially (Golos Moskvy [2] is said to be financed by the Old-Believers)–make us lose sight of the root question, that of the interests and policy of the bourgeoisie as a class.

Take a look at the speech delivered by Count Uvarov, an Octobrist in his general views, but who has left the Octobrist group. Speaking after the Social-Democrat Surkov, he started by refusing to deal with this question from the standpoint of principle, as the workers’ deputy had done. Uvarov merely attacks the Synod and the Procurator-General for their unwillingness to give the Duma any information on certain Church revenues and on the expenditure of parish funds. Kamensky, the official spokesman of the Octobrists, approaches the question” from the same stand point (April 16), and demands that parishes should be revived “for the purpose of strengthening the Orthodox faith”. Kapustin, the so-called “Left-wing Octobrist”, elaborates on this idea. “If we turn to the life of the people,” he ex claims, “to the life of the rural population, we observe today, here and now, a sad fact: religious life is tottering, the greatest and sole foundation of the people’s moral principles is tottering…. What can replace the concept of sin, what can replace the dictates of conscience? Surely, they cannot be replaced by the concept of class struggle and the rights of this or that class. That is a tragic concept which has taken root in our everyday life. Therefore, if religion is to survive as a foundation of morality, if it is to be within reach of the whole population, it is necessary that the bearers of this religion should enjoy the proper authority….”

The spokesman of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie wishes to strengthen religion, he wishes to enhance the influence of religion on the masses, realising that it is inadequate and out of date, realising even the harm caused to the ruling classes by “officials in cassocks”, who are lowering the authority of the Church. The Octobrist is fighting against the excesses of clericalism and of police tutelage in order to strengthen the influence of the Church on the masses, in order to replace at least some means of addling the wits of the people, which are too crude, too out of date, too threadbare to achieve their object, by more refined and improved means. Police religion is no longer adequate for be fuddling the masses: give us a more cultured, more up-to- date, more skilful religion, one that will be effective in a self-governing parish–that is what capital is demanding of the autocracy.

And the Cadet Karaulov fully subscribes to this same point of view. This “liberal” renegade (who gradually “evolved” from the Narodnaya Volya [1] to the Right-wing Cadets) screams his protest against the “denationalisation of the Church, understanding this to mean the exclusion of the masses of the people, of the laity, from the building of the Church”. He finds it “shocking” (literally so!) that the masses are “losing faith”. He raises an outcry, quite in the style of Menshikov [3], because the “immense intrinsic value of the Church is being depreciated … to the great detriment not only of the cause of the Church, but of that of the state as well”. He qualifies as “words of gold” the loathsome hypocrisy of the zealot Eulogius on the theme that “the task of the Church is eternal, immutable, hence, it is not possible to link up the Church with politics”. He protests against the alliance of the Church with the Black Hundreds for the sole reason that the Church may, “with greater might and glory than today, fulfil its grand and holy mission in a Christian spirit of love and freedom”.

Comrade Belousov did well to have a good laugh at these “lyrical words” of Karaulov’s from the Duma rostrum. How ever, such ridicule is very far from being adequate. It had to be made clear–and at the first convenient opportunity this should be done from the Duma rostrum–that the stand point of the Cadets is absolutely identical with that of the Octobrists, and merely expresses the efforts of “cultured” capital to bamboozle the people with religious narcotics by more refined methods of Church deception than the ones now practised by the rank-and-file Russian priests who are still living in the past.

To keep the people in spiritual bondage, there must be the closest possible alliance of the Church and the Black Hundreds, said the “wild landlord” and the old Derzhimorda [4] through their spokesman Purishkevich. You are wrong, gentlemen, retorts the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie through their spokesman Karaulov: with such methods you will only make the people turn away from religion for good. Now let us go about it in a more clever, more artful, more ingenious way: let us remove the too stupid and crude agent of the Black Hundreds, declare war on “denationalisation of the Church”, and inscribe on our banner Bishop Eulogius’s “words of gold” to the effect that the Church is above politics. Only in this way shall we be able to fool at least some of the backward workers, and especially of the petty bourgeoisie and the peasantry, and be able to help the renovated Church to fulfil its “grand and holy mission” of retaining the masses of the people in spiritual bondage.

Our liberal press, not excluding the newspaper Rech, has concentrated of late on censuring Struve and Co. for their authorship of the symposium Vekhi. But Karaulov, the official spokesman of the Cadets in the Duma, has done a superlative job of exposing all the vile hypocrisy of these remonstrances, and these repudiations of Struve and Co. What Karaulov and Milyukov conceal, Struve reveals. The liberals blame Struve only for having imprudently blurted out the truth, for showing his hand too openly. The liberals, who censureVekhi and go on supporting the Cadet Party, are most shamelessly deceiving the people–condemning imprudently outspoken words, and going on doing the very things that go with those words.

There is little to say about the conduct of the Trudoviks in the Duma during the debate on the questions under re view. As always, a noticeable difference was revealed between the peasant Trudoviks and the intellectual Trudoviks to the disadvantage of the latter, because of their excessive readiness to follow the Cadets. True, Rozhkov, a peasant, revealed in his speech his complete lack of political consciousness; he, too, repeated the Cadet platitudes about the Union of the Russian People helping not to reinforce but to destroy faith. He was unable to suggest any programme. On the other hand, when he began in his artless manner to tell the naked, unvarnished truth about the levies collected by the clergy, about the extortions of the priests, about how, in addition to charging money for conducting a marriage ceremony, they demand “a bottle of vodka, snacks, and a pound of tea, and sometimes things that I am even afraid to talk about from this rostrum” (April 16, verbatim report, p. 2259)–this was more than the Black-Hundred Duma could stand. A wild howl arose from the benches of the right. “This is scandalous, this is outrageous!” shouted the Black Hundreds, realising that this simple peasant’s speech about extortions, listing the scale of “fees” charged for religious rites, was more likely to revolutionise the masses than any amount of theoretical or tactical anti-religious and anti-Church declarations. Thereupon the band of diehard defenders of autocracy in the Third Duma intimidated their flunkey–the Duma Chairman Meyendorff–and compelled him to rule that Rozhkov must sit down (the Social-Democrats, joined by some Trudoviks, Cadets and others, handed in a protest against this action of the Chairman).

Although the speech delivered by the peasant Trudovik Rozhkov was extremely unsophisticated, it provided an excellent demonstration of the abyss dividing the hypocritical, deliberately reactionary defence of religion by the Cadets, and the primitive, unconscious, matter-of-fact religiousness of the peasant, whose living conditions give rise–against his will and unconsciously–to a truly revolutionary resentment against extortions, and to readiness for a resolute fight against medievalism. The Cadets are the representatives of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie, which is intent on renovating and strengthening religion against the people. The Rozhkovs are the representatives of revolutionary bourgeois democracy, a democracy that is undeveloped, lacking political consciousness, downtrodden, lacking independence, disunited–yet frought with an all but inexhaustible reservoir of revolutionary energy in the fight against the landlords, the priests, and the autocracy.

Rozanov, a Trudovik intellectual, came close to the Cadets far less unconsciously than Rozhkov. Rozanov could mention disestablishment of the Church as a demand of the “Left”, but could not refrain from reactionary, petty-bourgeois phrases about “amending the electoral law in the sense that the clergy should be excluded from participation in the political struggle”. The revolutionary spirit, which finds a spontaneous outlet in a typical, average peasant when he begins to tell the truth about how he lives, vanishes in the case of a Trudovik intellectual, to be replaced by hazy and sometimes actually vile phrases. For the hundredth and thousandth time we see the truth confirmed that only if they follow the proletariat’s lead will the Russian peasant masses be able to overthrow the oppressive and killing yoke of the feudal-minded landlords, the feudalists in cassocks, the feudal-minded supporters of the autocracy.

The Social-Democrat Surkov, representing the workers’ party and the working class, was the only person in the Duma to raise the debates to the truly high level of principle, and said without beating about the bush what the attitude of the proletariat is towards the Church and religion, and what should be the attitude in this matter of all consistent and vigorous democrats. “Religion is the opium of the people…. Not a farthing of the people’s money to these murderous enemies of the people who are drugging the people’s minds”–this straightforward, bold and outspoken battle-cry of a socialist resounded like a challenge to the Black- Hundred Duma, and met with the response of millions of proletarians, who will spread it among the masses and who will know how to translate it into revolutionary action when the time comes.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin


[1] See Note 99.–Ed.

[2] Golos Moskvy (Voice of Moscow)–a daily newspaper, organ of the Octobrists– a counter-revolutionary party of the big industrial bourgeoisie and big landlords. Published in Moscow from 1905 to 1915.

[3] Menshikov, M. 0. (1859-1919)–a reactionary journalist, one of the editors of the Black-Hundred newspaper Novoye Vremya (New Times).–Ed.

[4] Derzhimorda–the name of a policeman in Gogol’s comedy The Inspector-General typifying an insolent, brutal bully and oppressor.

Socialism and Religion

Published: Novaya Zhizn, No. 28, December 3, 1905. Taken from Marxists Internet Archive

Present-day society is wholly based on the exploitation of the vast masses of the working class by a tiny minority of the population, the class of the landowners and that of the capitalists. It is a slave society, since the “free” workers, who all their life work for the capitalists, are “entitled” only to such means of subsistence as are essential for the maintenance of slaves who produce profit, for the safeguarding and perpetuation of capitalist slavery.

The economic oppression of the workers inevitably calls forth and engenders every kind of political oppression and social humiliation, the coarsening and darkening of the spiritual and moral life of the masses. The workers may secure a greater or lesser degree of political liberty to fight for their economic emancipation, but no amount of liberty will rid them of poverty, unemployment, and oppression until the power of capital is overthrown. Religion is one of the forms of spiritual oppression which everywhere weighs down heavily upon the masses of the people, over burdened by their perpetual work for others, by want and isolation. Impotence of the exploited classes in their struggle against the exploiters just as inevitably gives rise to the belief in a better life after death as impotence of the savage in his battle with nature gives rise to belief in gods, devils, miracles, and the like. Those who toil and live in want all their lives are taught by religion to be submissive and patient while here on earth, and to take comfort in the hope of a heavenly reward. But those who live by the labour of others are taught by religion to practise charity while on earth, thus offering them a very cheap way of justifying their entire existence as exploiters and selling them at a moderate price tickets to well-being in heaven. Religion is opium for the people. Religion is a sort of spiritual booze, in which the slaves of capital drown their human image, their demand for a life more or less worthy of man.

But a slave who has become conscious of his slavery and has risen to struggle for his emancipation has already half ceased to be a slave. The modern class-conscious worker, reared by large-scale factory industry and enlightened by urban life, contemptuously casts aside religious prejudices, leaves heaven to the priests and bourgeois bigots, and tries to win a better life for himself here on earth. The proletariat of today takes the side of socialism, which enlists science in the battle against the fog of religion, and frees the workers from their belief in life after death by welding them together to fight in the present for a better life on earth.

Religion must be declared a private affair. In these words socialists usually express their attitude towards religion. But the meaning of these words should be accurately defined to prevent any misunderstanding. We demand that religion be held a private affair so far as the state is concerned. But by no means can we consider religion a private affair so far as our Party is concerned. Religion must be of no concern to the state, and religious societies must have no connection with governmental authority. Everyone must be absolutely free to profess any religion he pleases, or no religion whatever, i.e., to be an atheist, which every socialist is, as a rule. Discrimination among citizens on account of their religious convictions is wholly intolerable. Even the bare mention of a citizen’s religion in official documents should unquestionably be eliminated. No subsidies should be granted to the established church nor state allowances made to ecclesiastical and religious societies. These should become absolutely free associations of like-minded citizens, associations independent of the state. Only the complete fulfilment of these demands can put an end to the shameful and accursed past when the church lived in feudal dependence on the state, and Russian citizens lived in feudal dependence on the established church, when medieval, inquisitorial laws (to this day remaining in our criminal codes and on our statute-books) were in existence and were applied, persecuting men for their belief or disbelief, violating men’s consciences, and linking cosy government jobs and government-derived incomes with the dispensation of this or that dope by the established church. Complete separation of Church and State is what the socialist proletariat demands of the modern state and the modern church.

The Russian revolution must put this demand into effect as a necessary component of political freedom. In this respect, the Russian revolution is in a particularly favourable position, since the revolting officialism of the police-ridden feudal autocracy has called forth discontent, unrest and indignation even among the clergy. However abject, however ignorant Russian Orthodox clergymen may have been, even they have now been awakened by the thunder of the downfall of the old, medieval order in Russia. Even they are joining in the demand for freedom, are protesting against bureaucratic practices and officialism, against the spying for the police imposed on the “servants of God”. We socialists must lend this movement our support, carrying the demands of honest and sincere members of the clergy to their conclusion, making them stick to their words about freedom, demanding that they should resolutely break all ties between religion and the police. Either you are sincere, in which case you must stand for the complete separation of Church and State and of School and Church, for religion to be declared wholly and absolutely a private affair. Or you do not accept these consistent demands for freedom, in which case you evidently are still held captive by the traditions of the inquisition, in which case you evidently still cling to your cosy government jobs and government-derived incomes, in which case you evidently do not believe in the spiritual power of your weapon and continue to take bribes from the state. And in that case the class-conscious workers of all Russia declare merciless war on you.

So far as the party of the socialist proletariat is concerned, religion is not a private affair. Our Party is an association of class-conscious, advanced fighters for the emancipation of the working class. Such an association cannot and must not be indifferent to lack of class-consciousness, ignorance or obscurantism in the shape of religious beliefs. We demand complete disestablishment of the Church so as to be able to combat the religious fog with purely ideo logical and solely ideological weapons, by means of our press and by word of mouth. But we founded our association, the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, precisely for such a struggle against every religious bamboozling of the workers. And to us the ideological struggle is not a private affair, but the affair of the whole Party, of the whole proletariat.

If that is so, why do we not declare in our Programme that we are atheists? Why do we not forbid Christians and other believers in God to join our Party?

The answer to this question will serve to explain the very important difference in the way the question of religion is presented by the bourgeois democrats and the Social-Democrats.

Our Programme is based entirely on the scientific, and moreover the materialist, world-outlook. An explanation of our Programme, therefore, necessarily includes an explanation of the true historical and economic roots of the religious fog. Our propaganda necessarily includes the propaganda of atheism; the publication of the appropriate scientific literature, which the autocratic feudal government has hitherto strictly forbidden and persecuted, must now form one of the fields of our Party work. We shall now probably have to follow the advice Engels once gave to the German Socialists: to translate and widely disseminate the literature of the eighteenth-century French Enlighteners and atheists.[1]

But under no circumstances ought we to fall into the error of posing the religious question in an abstract, idealistic fashion, as an “intellectual” question unconnected with the class struggle, as is not infrequently done by the radical-democrats from among the bourgeoisie. It would be stupid to think that, in a society based on the endless oppression and coarsening of the worker masses, religious prejudices could be dispelled by purely propaganda methods. It would be bourgeois narrow-mindedness to forget that the yoke of religion that weighs upon mankind is merely a product and reflection of the economic yoke within society. No number of pamphlets and no amount of preaching can enlighten the proletariat, if it is not enlightened by its own struggle against the dark forces of capitalism. Unity in this really revolutionary struggle of the oppressed class for the creation of a paradise on earth is more important to us than unity of proletarian opinion on paradise in heaven.

That is the reason why we do not and should not set forth our atheism in our Programme; that is why we do not and should not prohibit proletarians who still retain vestiges of their old prejudices from associating themselves with our Party. We shall always preach the scientific world-outlook, and it is essential for us to combat the inconsistency of various “Christians”. But that does not mean in the least that the religious question ought to be advanced to first place, where it does not belong at all; nor does it mean that we should allow the forces of the really revolutionary economic and political struggle to be split up on account of third-rate opinions or senseless ideas, rapidly losing all political importance, rapidly being swept out as rubbish by the very course of economic development.

Everywhere the reactionary bourgeoisie has concerned itself, and is now beginning to concern itself in Russia, with the fomenting of religious strife–in order thereby to divert the attention of the masses from the really important and fundamental economic and political problems, now being solved in practice by the all-Russian proletariat uniting in revolutionary struggle. This reactionary policy of splitting up the proletarian forces, which today manifests itself mainly in Black-Hundred pogroms, may tomorrow conceive some more subtle forms. We, at any rate, shall oppose it by calmly, consistently and patiently preaching proletarian solidarity and the scientific world-outlook–a preaching alien to any stirring up of secondary differences.

The revolutionary proletariat will succeed in making religion a really private affair, so far as the state is concerned. And in this political system, cleansed of medieval mildew, the proletariat will wage a broad and open struggle for the elimination of economic slavery, the true source of the religious humbugging of mankind.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin


[1] See Frederick Engels, “Flüchtlings-Literatur”, Volksstaat, Nr, 73 vom 22.6.1874.

The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion

Published: Proletary, No. 45, May 13 (26), 1909. Taken from Marxists Internet Archive.

Deputy Surkov’s speech in the Duma during the debate on the Synod estimates, and the discussion that arose within our Duma group when it considered the draft of this speech (both printed in this issue) have raised a question which is of extreme importance and urgency at this particular moment. An interest in everything connected with religion is undoubtedly being shown today by wide circles of “society”, and has penetrated into the ranks of intellectuals standing close to the working-class movement, as well as into certain circles of the workers. It is the absolute duty of Social-Democrats to make a public statement of their attitude towards religion.

Social-Democracy bases its whole world-outlook on scientific socialism, i. e., Marxism. The philosophical basis of Marxism, as Marx and Engels repeatedly declared, is dialectical materialism, which has fully taken over the historical traditions of eighteenth-century materialism in France and of Feuerbach (first half of the nineteenth century) in Germany–a materialism which is absolutely atheistic and positively hostile to all religion. Let us recall that the whole of Engels’s Anti-Dühring, which Marx read in manuscript, is an indictment of the materialist and atheist Dühring for not being a consistent materialist and for leaving loopholes for religion and religious philosophy. Let us recall that in his essay on Ludwig Feuerbach, Engels reproaches Feuerbach for combating religion not in order to destroy it, but in order to renovate it, to invent a new, “exalted” religion, and so forth. Religion is the opium of the people–this dictum by Marx is the corner-stone of the whole Marxist outlook on religion [1]. Marxism has always regarded all modern religions and churches, and each and every religious organisation, as instruments of bourgeois reaction that serve to defend exploitation and to befuddle the working class.

At the same time Engels frequently condemned the efforts of people who desired to be “more left” or “more revolutionary” than the Social-Democrats, to introduce into the programme of the workers’ party an explicit proclamation of atheism, in the sense of declaring war on religion. Commenting in 1874 on the famous manifesto of the Blanquist fugitive Communards who were living in exile in London, Engels called their vociferous proclamation of war on religion a piece of stupidity, and stated that such a declaration of war was the best way to revive interest in religion and to prevent it from really dying out. Engels blamed the Blanquists for being unable to understand that only the class struggle of the working masses could, by comprehensively drawing the widest strata of the proletariat into conscious and revolutionary social practice, really free the oppressed masses from the yoke of religion, whereas to proclaim that war on religion was a political task of the workers’ party was just anarchistic phrase-mongering [2]. And in 1877, too, in his Anti-Dühring, while ruthlessly attacking the slightest concessions made by Dühring the philosopher to idealism and religion, Engels no less resolutely condemns Dühring’s pseudo-revolutionary idea that religion should be prohibited in socialist society. To declare such a war on religion, Engels says, is to “out-Bismarck Bismarck”, i. e., to repeat the folly of Bismarck’s struggle against the clericals (the notorious “Struggle for Culture”, Kulturkampf, i.e., the struggle Bismarck waged in the 1870s against the German Catholic party, the “Centre” party, by means of a police persecution of Catholicism). By this struggle Bismarck only stimulated the militant clericalism of the Catholics, and only injured the work of real culture, because he gave prominence to religious divisions rather than political divisions, and diverted the attention of some sections of the working class and of the other democratic elements away from the urgent tasks of the class and revolutionary struggle to the most superficial and false bourgeois anti-clericalism. Accusing the would-be ultra-revolutionary Dühring of wanting to repeat Bismarck’s folly in another form, Engels insisted that the workers’ party should have the ability to work patiently at the task of organising and educating the proletariat, which would lead to the dying out of religion, and not throw itself into the gamble of a political war on religion [3]. This view has become part of the very essence of German Social-Democracy, which, for example, advocated freedom for the Jesuits, their admission into Germany, and the complete abandonment of police methods of combating any particular religion. “Religion is a private matter”: this celebrated point in the Erfurt Programme (1891) summed up these political tactics of Social-Democracy.

These tactics have by now become a matter of routine; they have managed to give rise to a new distortion of Marxism in the opposite direction, in the direction of opportunism. This point in the Erfurt Programme has come to be interpreted as meaning that we Social-Democrats, our Party, consider religion to be a private matter, that religion is a private matter for us as Social-Democrats, for us as a party. Without entering into a direct controversy with this opportunist view, Engels in the nineties deemed it necessary to oppose it resolutely in a positive, and not a polemical form. To wit: Engels did this in the form of a statement, which he deliberately underlined, that Social-Democrats regard religion as a private matter in relation to the state, but not in relation to themselves, not in relation to Marxism, and not in relation to the workers’ party [4].

Such is the external history of the utterances of Marx and Engels on the question of religion. To people with a slapdash attitude towards Marxism, to people who cannot or will not think, this history is a skein of meaningless Marxist contradictions and waverings, a hodge-podge of “consistent” atheism and “sops” to religion, “unprincipled” wavering between a r-r-revolutionary war on God and a cowardly desire to “play up to” religious workers, a fear of scaring them away, etc., etc. The literature of the anarchist phrase-mongers contains plenty of attacks on Marxism in this vein.

But anybody who is able to treat Marxism at all seriously, to ponder over its philosophical principles and the experience of international Social-Democracy, will readily see that the Marxist tactics in regard to religion are thoroughly consistent, and were carefully thought out by Marx and Engels; and that what dilettantes or ignoramuses regard as wavering is but a direct and inevitable deduction from dialectical materialism. It would be a profound mistake to think that the seeming “moderation” of Marxism in regard to religion is due to supposed “tactical” considerations, the desire “not to scare away” anybody, and so forth. On the contrary, in this question, too, the political line of Marxism is inseparably bound up with its philosophical principles.

Marxism is materialism. As such, it is as relentlessly hostile to religion as was the materialism of the eighteenth-century Encyclopaedists or the materialism of Feuerbach. This is beyond doubt. But the dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels goes further than the Encyclopaedists and Feuerbach, for it applies the materialist philosophy to the domain of history, to the domain of the social sciences. We must combat religion–that is the ABC of all materialism, and consequently of Marxism. But Marxism is not a materialism which has stopped at the ABC. Marxism goes further. It says: We must know how to combat religion, and in order to do so we must explain the source of faith and religion among the masses in a materialist way. The combating of religion cannot be confined to abstract ideological preaching, and it must not be reduced to such preaching. It must be linked up with the concrete practice of the class movement, which aims at eliminating the social roots of religion. Why does religion retain its hold on the backward sections of the town proletariat, on broad sections of the semi-proletariat, and on the mass of the peasantry? Because of the ignorance of the people, replies the bourgeois progressist, the radical or the bourgeois materialist. And so: “Down with religion and long live atheism; the dissemination of atheist views is our chief task!” The Marxist says that this is not true, that it is a superficial view, the view of narrow bourgeois uplifters. It does not explain the roots of religion profoundly enough; it explains them, not in a materialist but in an idealist way. In modern capitalist countries these roots are mainly social. The deepest root of religion today is the socially downtrodden condition of the working masses and their apparently complete helplessness in face of the blind forces of capitalism, which every day and every hour inflicts upon ordinary working people the most horrible suffering and the most savage torment, a thousand times more severe than those inflicted by extra-ordinary events, such as wars, earthquakes, etc. “Fear made the gods.” Fear of the blind force of capital–blind because it cannot be foreseen by the masses of the people–a force which at every step in the life of the proletarian and small proprietor threatens to inflict, and does inflict “sudden”, “unexpected”, “accidental” ruin, destruction, pauperism, prostitution, death from starvation–such is the root of modern religion which the materialist must bear in mind first and foremost, if he does not want to remain an infant-school materialist. No educational book can eradicate religion from the minds of masses who are crushed by capitalist hard labour, and who are at the mercy of the blind destructive forces of capitalism, until those masses themselves learn to fight this root of religion, fight the rule of capital in all its forms, in a united, organised, planned and conscious way.

Does this mean that educational books against religion are harmful or unnecessary? No, nothing of the kind. It means that Social-Democracy’s atheist propaganda must be subordinated to its basic task–the development of the class struggle of the exploited masses against the exploiters.

This proposition may not be understood (or at least not immediately understood) by one who has not pondered over the principles of dialectical materialism, i. e., the philosophy of Marx and Engels. How is that?–he will say. Is ideological propaganda, the preaching of definite ideas, the struggle against that enemy of culture and progress which has persisted for thousands of years (i. e., religion) to be subordinated to the class struggle, i. e., the struggle for definite practical aims in the economic and political field?

This is one of those current objections to Marxism which testify to a complete misunderstanding of Marxian dialectics. The contradiction which perplexes these objectors is a real contradiction in real life, i. e., a dialectical contradiction, and not a verbal or invented one. To draw a hard-and-fast line between the theoretical propaganda of atheism, i. e., the destruction of religious beliefs among certain sections of the proletariat, and the success, the progress and the conditions of the class struggle of these sections, is to reason undialectically, to transform a shifting and relative boundary into an absolute boundary; it is forcibly to disconnect what is indissolubly connected in real life. Let us take an example. The proletariat in a particular region and in a particular industry is divided, let us assume, into an advanced section of fairly class-conscious Social-Democrats, who are of course atheists, and rather backward workers who are still connected with the countryside and with the peasantry, and who believe in God, go to church, or are even under the direct influence of the local priest–who, let us suppose, is organising a Christian labour union. Let us assume furthermore that the economic struggle in this locality has resulted in a strike. It is the duty of a Marxist to place the success of the strike movement above everything else, vigorously to counteract the division of the workers in this struggle into atheists and Christians, vigorously to oppose any such division. Atheist propaganda in such circumstances may be both unnecessary and harmful–not from the philistine fear of scaring away the backward sections, of losing a seat in the elections, and so on, but out of consideration for the real progress of the class struggle, which in the conditions of modern capitalist society will convert Christian workers to Social-Democracy and to atheism a hundred times better than bald atheist propaganda. To preach atheism at such a moment and in such circumstances would only be playing into the hands of the priest and the priests, who desire nothing better than that the division of the workers according to their participation in the strike movement should be replaced by their division according to their belief in God. An anarchist who preached war against God at all costs would in effect be helping the priests and the bourgeoisie (as the anarchists always do help the bourgeoisie in practice). A Marxist must be a materialist, i. e., an enemy of religion, but a dialectical materialist, i. e., one who treats the struggle against religion not in an abstract way, not on the basis of remote, purely theoretical, never varying preaching, but in a concrete way, on the basis of the class struggle which is going on in practice and is educating the masses more and better than anything else could. A Marxist must be able to view the concrete situation as a whole, he must always be able to find the boundary between anarchism and opportunism (this boundary is relative, shifting and changeable, but it exists). And he must not succumb either to the abstract, verbal, but in reality empty “revolutionism” of the anarchist, or to the philistinism and opportunism of the petty bourgeois or liberal intellectual, who boggles at the struggle against religion, forgets that this is his duty, reconciles himself to belief in God, and is guided not by the interests of the class struggle but by the petty and mean consideration of offending nobody, repelling nobody and scaring nobody–by the sage rule: “live and let live”, etc., etc.

It is from this angle that all side issues bearing on the attitude of Social-Democrats to religion should be dealt with. For example, the question is often brought up whether a priest can be a member of the Social-Democratic Party or not, and this question is usually answered in an unqualified affirmative, the experience of the European Social-Democratic parties being cited as evidence. But this experience was the result, not only of the application of the Marxist doctrine to the workers’ movement, but also of the special historical conditions in Western Europe which are absent in Russia (we will say more about these conditions later), so that an unqualified affirmative answer in this case is incorrect. It cannot be asserted once and for all that priests cannot be members of the Social-Democratic Party; but neither can the reverse rule be laid down. If a priest comes to us to take part in our common political work and conscientiously performs Party duties, without opposing the programme of the Party, he may be allowed to join the ranks of the Social-Democrats; for the contradiction between the spirit and principles of our programme and the religious convictions of the priest would in such circumstances be something that concerned him alone, his own private contradiction; and a political organisation cannot put its members through an examination to see if there is no contradiction between their views and the Party programme. But, of course, such a case might be a rare exception even in Western Europe, while in Russia it is altogether improbable. And if, for example, a priest joined the Social-Democratic Party and made it his chief and almost sole work actively to propagate religious views in the Party, it would unquestionably have to expel him from its ranks. We must not only admit workers who preserve their belief in God into the Social-Democratic Party, but must deliberately set out to recruit them; we are absolutely opposed to giving the slightest offence to their religious convictions, but we recruit them in order to educate them in the spirit of our programme, and not in order to permit an active struggle against it. We allow freedom of opinion within the Party, but to certain limits, determined by freedom of grouping; we are not obliged to go hand in hand with active preachers of views that are repudiated by the majority of the Party.

Another example. Should members of the Social-Democratic Party be censured all alike under all circumstances for declaring “socialism is my religion”, and for advocating views in keeping with this declaration? No! The deviation from Marxism (and consequently from socialism) is here indisputable; but the significance of the deviation, its relative importance, so to speak, may vary with circumstances. It is one thing when an agitator or a person addressing the workers speaks in this way in order to make himself better understood, as an introduction to his subject, in order to present his views more vividly in terms to which the backward masses are most accustomed. It is another thing when a writer begins to preach “god-building”, or god-building socialism (in the spirit, for example, of our Lunacharsky and Co.). While in the first case censure would be mere carping, or even inappropriate restriction of the freedom of the agitator, of his freedom in choosing “pedagogical” methods, in the second case party censure is necessary and essential. For some the statement “socialism is a religion” is a form of transition from religion to socialism; for others, it is a form of transition from socialism to religion.

Let us now pass to the conditions which in the West gave rise to the opportunist interpretation of the thesis: “religion is a private matter”. Of course, a contributing influence are those general factors which give rise to opportunism as a whole, like sacrificing the fundamental interests of the working-class movement for the sake of momentary advantages. The party of the proletariat demands that the state should declare religion a private matter, but does not regard the fight against the opium of the people, the fight against religious superstitions, etc., as a “private matter”. The opportunists distort the question to mean that the Social-Democratic Party regards religion as a private matter!

But in addition to the usual opportunist distortion (which was not made clear at all in the discussion within our Duma group when it was considering the speech on religion), there are special historical conditions which have given rise to the present-day, and, if one may so express it, excessive, indifference on the part of the European Social-Democrats to the question of religion. These conditions are of a twofold nature. First, the task of combating religion is historically the task of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, and in the West this task was to a large extent performed (or tackled) by bourgeois democracy, in the epoch of its revolutions or its assaults upon feudalism and medievalism. Both in France and in Germany there is a tradition of bourgeois war on religion, and it began long before socialism (the Encyclopaedists, Feuerbach). In Russia, because of the conditions of our bourgeois-democratic revolution, this task too falls almost entirely on the shoulders of the working class. Petty-bourgeois (Narodnik) democracy in our country has not done too much in this respect (as the new-fledged Black-Hundred Cadets, or Cadet Black Hundreds, of  Vekhi[5] think), but rather too little, in comparison with what has been done in Europe.

On the other hand, the tradition of bourgeois war on religion has given rise in Europe to a specifically bourgeois distortion of this war by anarchism–which, as the Marxists have long explained time and again, takes its stand on the bourgeois world-outlook, in spite of all the “fury” of its attacks on the bourgeoisie. The anarchists and Blanquists in the Latin countries, Most (who, incidentally, was a pupil of Dühring) and his ilk in Germany, the anarchists in Austria in the eighties, all carried revolutionary phrase-mongering in the struggle against religion to a nec plus ultra. It is not surprising that, compared with the anarchists, the European Social-Democrats now go to the other extreme. This is quite understandable and to a certain extent legitimate, but it would be wrong for us Russian Social-Democrats to forget the special historical conditions of the West.

Secondly, in the West, after the national bourgeois revolutions were over, after more or less complete religious liberty had been introduced, the problem of the democratic struggle against religion had been pushed, historically, so far into the background by the struggle of bourgeois democracy against socialism that the bourgeois governments deliberately tried to draw the attention of the masses away from socialism by organising a quasi-liberal “offensive” against clericalism. Such was the character of the Kulturkampf in Germany and of the struggle of the bourgeois republicans against clericalism in France. Bourgeois anti-clericalism, as a means of drawing the attention of the working-class masses away from socialism–this is what preceded the spread of the modern spirit of “indifference” to the struggle against religion among the Social-Democrats in the West. And this again is quite understandable and legitimate, because Social-Democrats had to counteract bourgeois and Bismarckian anti-clericalism by subordinating the struggle against religion to the struggle for socialism.

In Russia conditions are quite different. The proletariat is the leader of our bourgeois-democratic revolution. Its party must be the ideological leader in the struggle against all attributes of medievalism, including the old official religion and every attempt to refurbish it or make out a new or different case for it, etc. Therefore, while Engels was comparatively mild in correcting the opportunism of the German Social-Democrats who were substituting, for the demand of the workers’ party that the state should declare religion a private matter, the declaration that religion is a private matter for the Social-Democrats themselves, and for the Social-Democratic Party, it is clear that the importation of this German distortion by the Russian opportunists would have merited a rebuke a hundred times more severe by Engels.

By declaring from the Duma rostrum that religion is the opium of the people, our Duma group acted quite correctly, and thus created a precedent which should serve as a basis for all utterances by Russian Social-Democrats on the question of religion. Should they have gone further and developed the atheist argument in greater detail? We think not. This might have brought the risk of the political party of the proletariat exaggerating the struggle against religion; it might have resulted in obliterating the distinction between the bourgeois and the socialist struggle against religion. The first duty of the Social-Democratic group in the Black-Hundred Duma has been discharged with honour.

The second duty–and perhaps the most important for Social-Democrats–namely, to explain the class role of the church and the clergy in supporting the Black-Hundred government and the bourgeoisie in its fight against the working class, has also been discharged with honour. Of course, very much more might be said on this subject, and the Social-Democrats in their future utterances will know how to amplify Comrade Surkov’s speech; but still his speech was excellent, and its circulation by all Party organisations is the direct duty of our Party.

The third duty was to explain in full detail the correct meaning of the proposition, so often distorted by the German opportunists, that “religion is a private matter”. This, unfortunately, Comrade Surkov did not do. It is all the more regrettable because in the earlier activity of the Duma group a mistake had been committed on this question by Comrade Belousov, and was pointed out at the time by Proletary. The discussion in the Duma group shows that the dispute about atheism has screened from it the question of the proper interpretation of the celebrated demand that religion should be proclaimed a private matter. We shall not blame Comrade Surkov alone for this error of the entire Duma group. More, we shall frankly admit that the whole Party is at fault here, for not having sufficiently elucidated this question and not having sufficiently prepared the minds of Social-Democrats to understand Engels’s remark levelled against the German opportunists. The discussion in the Duma group proves that there was in fact a confused understanding of the question, and not at all any desire to ignore the teachings of Marx; and we are sure that the error will be corrected in future utterances of the group.

We repeat that on the whole Comrade Surkov’s speech was excellent, and should be circulated by all the organisations. In its discussion of this speech the Duma group demonstrated that it is fulfilling its Social-Democratic duty conscientiously. It remains to express the wish that reports on discussions within the Duma group should appear more often in the Party press so as to bring the group and the Party closer together, to acquaint the Party with the difficult work being done within the group, and to establish ideological unity in the work of the Party and the Duma group.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin


[1] See K. Marx, Contribution to the Critique of the Hegelian Philosophy of Right. Introduction. (K. Marx and F. Engels, On Religion, Moscow, 1957, p. 42.)

[2] See F. Engels, “Flüchtlings-Literatur. II. Das Programme der Blanquisten”.

[3] See F. Engels, Anti-Dühring, Moscow, 1959, pp. 434-37.

[4] This refers to F. Engels’s preface to K. Marx’s pamphlet The Civil War in France (see K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 1, Moscow, 1958, p. 479).

[5] Vekhi (Landmarks)–a Cadet collection of articles by N. Berdayev, S. Bulgakov, P. Struve, M. Herschensohn and other representatives of the counter-revolutionary liberal bourgeoisie, published in Moscow in 1909. In their articles on the Russian intelligentsia these writers tried to discredit the revolutionary-democratic traditions of the best representatives of the Russian people, including Belinsky and Chernyshevsky; they vilified the revolutionary movement of 1905 and thanked the tsarist government for having, “with its bayonets and jails”, saved the bourgeoisie from “the popular wrath”. The writers called upon the intelligentsia to serve the autocracy. Lenin compared the programme of the Vekhi symposium in point of both philosophy and journalism with that of the Black-Hundred newspaper Moskovskiye Vedomosti, calling the symposium “an encyclopaedia of liberal renegacy”, “nothing but a flood of reactionary mud poured on democracy”.

Too Many Of Whom And Too Much Of What?

What the new population hysteria tells us about the global economic and environmental crisis, and its causes.

A No One Is Illegal discussion paper

There is a conventional view in Britain that racism has been driven onto the defensive or even banished completely from most areas of daily life. The political Right, indeed, constantly portrays itself as the victim of “liberal oppression” and “political correctness gone mad”. Yet somehow, racism has won some huge victories in recent years, in all the liberal democracies, with very little opposition, to such an extent that the terms “fortress Britain”, “fortress Europe” and “fortress USA” are now quite normal usage — and, without even needing to be told, everybody understands what these fortifications are for: to stop the poorer, darker-skinned peoples of the world “flooding” into its richer, paler parts.

This transformation has been achieved by a combination of threats of violence from the “shadowy far right”, and “measured”, responsible-sounding rhetoric focusing, relentlessly, on the apparently colour-blind, objective issue of “sheer numbers”. It is “these people’s” numbers, apparently, that demand urgent attention; their numbers are their only human attribute that matters, and this underlies the incessant chant from anti-immigrant pressure groups, like Migration Watch UK, that Britain (for example) is a “tiny, overcrowded island” and from the resurgent far right (BNP, UKIP) that their anti-immigrant politics are “about space, not race”; and the extraordinary, apocalyptic visions of right-wing illuminati like Gunnar Heinsohn and Christopher Caldwell (see below) of a world overrun by rapidly-breeding Muslims.

Being “too many” is a hard, indeed a terrifying, charge for a lone human being to face. It can be applied to anyone. And it will be, increasingly, in all manner of insidious, destructive and even deadly ways, if the current trend to target “sheer human numbers” invades the political mainstream and we have a return to full-blown population politics: an old, prurient politics driven by an itch to control not just the movement of (certain kinds of) people, but also their sex-lives, and their very existence.

Babies of Mass Destruction, resurrected

As recently as the early 1990s, this form of politics had been banished to the moral wilderness and looked unlikely ever to return. It had inflicted unspeakable, and completely futile, injuries on millions upon millions of lives all over the world. And its justification — in so far as it ever had one — was melting away: the global population-explosion of the mid 20th-century was drawing to an end; a trend now so thoroughly established that nobody now disputes it (see “How frightening are these “frightening numbers’?”, below). The resurgence of population politics instead speaks volumes about the crisis in the global capitalist system. And it puts the issue of human autonomy firmly and urgently in the spotlight.

The core belief of this kind of politics is that there are certain people whose normal, non-criminal activities (like travelling around, or having or not having babies, and other normal activities that people undertake to sustain their own and their families’ continued existence) must be restrained for the common good. These activities may in themselves do no harm but when done en masse, they supposedly become major, even apocalyptic threats.

The No One Is Illegal group insists that these activities can only ever be a matter of personal choice. They are properly termed “reproductive rights”: affecting as they do “the process by which human beings meet their basic needs and survive from one day to the next.”[1]. All efforts to deny that fact and meddle with these choices lead inevitably to needless and useless suffering, and in the end will damage any society that tolerates that impulse to scapegoat and control.

We will argue that identifying yet more scapegoats and subjecting them to yet more controls will absolutely not help us through our economic and ecological crisis. On the contrary, it is these very attitudes to, and abuse of, human beings and their rights, which immigration controls exemplify so perfectly, that brought this crisis about.

Already, many of those now urging population control say that “we” must be prepared to sacrifice some human rights in the face of the greater danger[2]. The prophet of climate change himself, James Lovelock, has even proposed that “We need another Churchill now to lead us from the clinging, flabby, consensual thinking of the late 20th century” and “an effective defence force will be as important as our own immune systems”[3].

We argue that, far from being peripheral “luxuries”, human rights are the key to our global future, the only sure guarantors of social and environmental sustainability.

The crash of October 2008: population-control to the rescue!

Throughout 2008-9, as banks collapsed, credit bubbles imploded, and the reality of climate change penetrated even the innermost comfort-zones of neoliberalism, mainstream media sprouted headlines, leader articles and commissioned features declaring that the real, urgent problem facing the planet is not its economic system, but its human population. Moreover, oppressive “liberals” had turned population into a “taboo subject”, which must be challenged.[4] It is no longer just a matter of controlling people’s movement; it is a matter of controlling their existence.

In October 2008, the UK got a new Immigration Minister, Phil Woolas, who swept the bank bailouts from the front pages, telling the Times: “This government isn’t going to allow the [UK] population to go up to 70 million.” Sir Andrew Green, chair of Migration Watch, applauded: “It is the first time that a government minister has actually linked immigration and population.”[5]

“Population” seems to touch the nerves immigration alone cannot reach — even those of otherwise-humane Greens and anti-capitalists like Paul Kingsnorth, who shocked fellow-campaigners by saying that Woolas “has a point”, and challenged them “to explain how we can meet our climate change targets with an extra 15 million people here”.[6]

In early 2009, the Optimum Population Trust’s annual conference got headline media billing. Its patron Jonathon Porritt (also an adviser on green issues to UK premier Gordon Brown) announced that “the UK population must fall to 30m”[7] and the world as a whole must somehow lose over 3 billion people[8]. In April 2009, Britain’s best-loved TV naturalist, David Attenborough, joined the Optimum Population Trust himself, and declared population growth “frightening”.

At the same time, and sometimes even in the very same press-releases, came intensified verbal attacks not only on immigrants but also on the long-term sick and the unemployed. In the Sun (December 8th 2008), Woolas’s pronouncement that “Immigrants will have to EARN the right to UK benefits and council housing … [and] wait TEN YEARS before they get a penny” sat right next to Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell’s pronouncement that from now on “nearly all benefit claimants will be forced to work in exchange for state handouts”.

Migrant, criminal, claimant… Nobody’s safe in the population game

“Population” is an us-and-them game where anybody can be “it”. You don’t have to be black. If you become unemployed, or a bit too ill, you may cease to be an individual with rights, and become part of a “population” instead, and a suitable case for “management”. In this way, population politics implies the “legalisation” of humanity: the right to be treated as a human being must be earned; it is granted by legal authorities; it cannot be acquired lightly, for example by being born, or conceived, or just turning up on one’s own unauthorised, autonomous initiative.

It is part of the universal language of raw power. In the UK, the idea of “earned citizenship” already begins to sound quite normal; but it was expressed only a little more strongly by Sudan’s ex-premier Sadiq al-Mahdi in the early stages of the Darfur crisis: “The honour of living must be earned”[9].

When people become mere “population”, they can be subjected to what would be called criminal violence in any other context: forced labour; separation from children; arbitrary checks and searches; intrusive interrogation; verbal abuse; even imprisonment and serious assault (especially when the controls become target-driven, as they almost inevitably do).

“Population” separates a worthy, privileged “us” from a despised and indefensible “them”, onto whom all unpleasantness can be projected; who can be, and then are, exploited mercilessly, or abandoned, or got rid of in almost any way human ingenuity can devise.

“We” ostensibly embraces all true-born, good-hearted native folk, rich and poor, in thrilling yet cosy opposition to the alien menace. Even the humblest citizen may join this noble project. Or face the consequences. Such is the magic of populist politics, and the road to fascism.

Population politics preserves privilege, but it won’t save the planet

Like immigration controls, population control only creates misery for those least able to bear it, and jobs for those who inflict that misery. It pushes the real, genuinely urgent issues off the agenda.

In the past, education, roads, sanitation and proper health-care were denied to people all over the world on the grounds that they distracted from the more urgent “problem” of population. Today, population threatens to become the smokescreen that prevents or delays the concerted, wholehearted global response that’s needed to deal with the causes and effects of climate change. Which would mean facing uncomfortable truths. As population historian Matthew Connelly put it during a BBC Radio 3 discussion of neo-Malthusianism in “today’s crowded world”:

When people say the US or the UK for that matter is overpopulated I want to ask them which people in particular they have in mind, who are in and of themselves a problem?

If the problem is consumption, then of course it’s the wealthiest people we need fewer of. I mean, Britain would do much better if it had 100 million subsistence farmers, say, than 50 million people who are doctors and lawyers and bankers and so on. It could have much less of a carbon footprint if it imported subsistence farmers from the Sahel, and exported bankers and lawyers to Africa. But nobody is proposing that![10]

A war on the poor of all countries, by the rich of all countries: Eugenics, Malthusians and Populists Vs mothers, babies and migrants

Since it first became a political force in the 19th century, the professed aims of population control have changed constantly: to protect scarce food supplies; to promote “racial hygiene” and improve the species; to preserve “our culture and values”; to protect wildlife and the environment; to assist the “development” of ex-colonial countries; and now to save the planet itself. It has never achieved had any significant effect on human numbers – but it has been consistently and superbly effective at preventing action on other fronts, especially redistribution from the rich to the poor. Its agenda is not merely racist, but also (and even more) “classist”. Immigrant-control may be dressed up, for popular consumption, in nationalist colours; but when it comes to controlling parents and babies, the real nature of the game becomes very clear: class trumps mere nationality. Population-control targets “our own” poor as well as those in “poor countries” (and with enthusiastic support from those “poor countries’” own rich elites).

Some very unattractive obsessions lie at its heart, especially a preoccupation with other people’s sex lives – especially of “the poor”. It is all about who “belongs to” whom. In the USA for example, fears about the fertility of black, brown and Asian people go hand in hand with fear of declining fertility among “our own” (i.e. white) women, and moral crusades against abortion (but also moral panics about teenage sex, “welfare moms”, and assisted and surrogate pregnancy).

Hard-line Republican Tom DeLay made the connection clear in 2007: “If we had those 40 million children that were killed over the last 30 years [by abortion], we wouldn’t need the illegal immigrants to fill the jobs that they are doing today.”[11] Similar rhetoric emerges in Berlusconi’s Italy, and in the UK — where anti-abortion (and anti-assisted pregnancy) MP Frank Field has joined forces with Migration Watch and its co-founder, long-serving pillar of the Eugenics Society, Professor David Coleman, who consistently argues that immigration must be resisted in favour of utilising “domestic demographic reserves” (increasing “labour force participation” by raising the retirement age, less-generous pension provision, and other measures) and encouraging motherhood: “fertility offers a much more efficient lever on the age structure than does immigration”.[13]

The pressure works its way right down the global pecking order. In the poorest parts of China and India (where one- and two-child policies are still being enforced) the brutal logic of poverty makes sons vital to a family’s survival. In India in 1960, a working-class woman needed to have 6.3 babies to be sure of having one son who survived to adulthood. Thanks to relatively cheap, handheld doppler-scanners girl-foetuses can now be detected, and the mother comes under pressure to abort. This has led to skewed gender-ratios: in India 927 girls per 1,000 boys overall and as few as 716 per 1,000 in Delhi — and utter devastation for untold thousands of women. By way of a final twist to the knife, the surfeit of young men is blamed by fashionable Western analysts for civil unrest and terrorism (letting poverty, socially destructive neoliberal reforms and Western intervention off the hook).[14] The influential German sociologist and columnist Gunnar Heinsohn even blames the ongoing crises in Palestine on the Palestinians’ failure to control their own birth-rates.[15] They should be denied aid, he says, till they have taken this problem in hand.

But why do otherwise sane, decent people buy this politics? Of course, there is the fear that “they might, just have a point” (global warming, at least, is a real threat, and humanity – or at least, some of it — is definitely implicated). But why (even if sheer human numbers actually were the problem) do otherwise-decent people support policies that inflict cruelty that they would never in a million years dream of perpetrating themselves? Dubious “lifeboat” metaphors are sometimes invoked to justify cruelty. Yet in actual life-or-death situations, people very often put their shared humanity above personal survival, even if that means there will be no survivors[16].

A 200-year war against welfare

Population-control made its political debut in early 19th century Britain, when Thomas Malthus’s theory of population growth[17] gave exactly the moral insulation Britain’s rising middle class needed against the terrible poverty that tore through the country during the economic slump and restructuring that followed the Napoleonic Wars. Malthus’s arguments were used to drive through the New Poor Law of 1834, which attempted to imprison in the workhouse anyone improvident enough to claim welfare. The workhouse system, which took decades to dismantle, presaged in some detail today’s anti-immigrant system: notably its distinction between “deserving and undeserving”, and its parallel, unaccountable, cut-price policing and judicial system.

The Malthusian argument goes: not only is there no point in relieving the starving poor (if fed, they will only breed more, negating our good efforts); it would also be wrong and unkind to feed them: by encouraging them to breed, we will end up overwhelming the very resources on which they depend for help. So, conveniently, the kindest thing is to let them starve. This “cruel to be kind” rationale permeates all kinds of population and anti-welfare politics and, in its more general form, “the perversity thesis’, plays a key role in reactionary politics in general[18].

Modern population politics (in the full, broad sense: targeting immigrants as well as babies) took shape fairly rapidly during the el-Niño famine years of the 1870s. For the first time, people all over the world suddenly had to contend not only with a run of bad harvests, but also with imperialism. The result was spectacular famines right across the global South — and instead of compassion, it was the nightmare vision of “starving multitudes” that seized Western imaginations. Starving people somehow acquired supernatural powers, to cross vast distances en masse and invade suburbia. The hysteria was fuelled and rationalised by a deadly brew of Malthusian theory plus Francis Galton’s theories of inheritance[19] (which he named “eugenics” in 1882), evoking the spectre of a world overrun by greedy, oversexed morons.

Malthus personally helped shape the deadly British response to the crisis in India: he’d trained many colonial administrators at the East India Company’s Haileybury staff college. As in Ireland thirty years previously, large amounts of high-quality food were exported while people starved, and forced-labour masqueraded as “relief”[20].

Matthew Connelly describes a “surge of creativity in elaborating and theorizing the threat”. An 1877 US House/Senate committee “asserted that although the Chinese lacked sufficient “brain capacity’ to sustain self-government, they could survive in conditions that would starve other men … the American must come down to their level or below them.” First, the Page Law of 1875 banned women from China seeking to join their husbands in the U.S. Then, in 1882, came the US Chinese Exclusion Act: the first of a global epidemic of exclusionary laws and populist politics, one of whose hallmarks was an indulgent attitude toward racist violence. Riots in the US against Chinese and Italian immigrants in the 1880s were excused by politicians as “the working people’s way of demonstrating their citizenship”(35). Riots against Jews in Germany in 1886 were excused as “but the public method of voicing the sentiment “no rights without duties’” [21] — which is echoed today in discourse about “earned citizenship”.

Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser argue that this “populist turn” in US politics (identifying excluded, disadvantaged groups as the enemy) explains the USA’s otherwise puzzling failure to develop a social security system for its citizens[22]. Now, in the hands of Christopher Caldwell, David Goodhart and their ilk, a cart-before-horse version of this argument is used to promote fear of foreigners (that large out-groups destroy the social cohesion that underpins welfare states).

Population reduction: separating the good Americans from the nasty Nazis

In the 20th century, the worldwide population control movement entered enthusiastically into eugenic nationalism; but after World War II distanced itself from “Nazi excesses”, and successfully portrayed as something quite different the postwar campaigns inflicted in the name of “development” on people in Asia, Africa and the Americas.

Nazi genocide was certainly different in many ways from subsequent population-control campaigns, although its legal and administrative foundations, the 1933 sterilization laws and tribunal system, were taken from the USA: the Model Eugenical Sterilization Law drafted in 1922 and adopted in many individual states. What is more the genocide should have taught “respectable” population-controllers an important lesson: the systematic, industrialised, outright murder of millions of Jews, Russians and others had surprisingly little long-term effect on their numbers. Russia’s population for example certainly fell between 1941 and 1945 (from 197 million to 171 million) but had recovered by 1960, whereafter growth steadied through the 1960s and 1970s, reflecting the rapid improvements in health and education[23].

The 20th century’s main population-control action was the work of a strange alliance of totally unaccountable NGOs, composed of birth-control pioneers (often with eugenicist agendas) and independently-wealthy, male population-control enthusiasts like John D. Rockefeller, the disposable paper-cup millionaire Hugh Moore, and the unspeakable Clarence Gamble (heir to the Procter and Gamble soap empire) whose attitude to Indian villagers was described by one local civil servant as “they are all natives and sex to him”[24].

After World War II, the movement gained increasingly generous funding and influence (especially from the US government and the World Bank). Even the UN was enlisted, after intense lobbying that led to the setting-up of the uniquely-unaccountable UN Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), which then served as a conduit for largely US funds. Blatant, amateur experimentation was inflicted on millions upon millions of poor people in India, China, Indonesia, Korea and throughout Africa involving millions of – in effect – forcible sterilizations, abortions, untested and even unsterile intra-uterine devices (IUDs), implants, injections and pills. Poor populations in rich countries were also targeted: Appalachia, and black areas of US cities — where the experimental hormone implant Norplant was promoted as “a tool in the fight against black poverty”, and even made a precondition for welfare[25]. Population-control dominated the development-aid agenda. During Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, and Robert McNamara’s tenure of the presidency of the World Bank, it became orthodoxy that $5 “invested” in birth control was worth $100 invested in economic growth[26]. Aid was routinely made conditional on the introduction of dramatic population-control programmes, which took priority over even the most basic health provision.

It was a global war – described as such – almost entirely waged by rich, white men on poor black and Asian women; often by actual generals such as the USA’s General William Draper and China’s Xinzhong Qian; macho, military language was the norm: “attacking the problem at the post-partum stage” (persuading mothers to accept sterilization immediately after delivery) and “deploying crack troops” to raise acceptance rates. Population-control propagandists such as Paul Ehrlich entered into the spirit of it all; he urged “logistic support in the form of helicopters, vehicles and surgical instruments” and condemned the US government for not insisting on compulsory sterilization for all Indian men with 3 or more children.[27]

This war was of course fought with “military precision” – with all the ghastly errors and cavalier attitude to them we associate with that phrase, and the same perverse “reverse-precautionary principle” we find in immigration-control regimes: if in doubt, do harm. The literature is littered with statements like “Whether you like it or not, there will be a few dead people”[28]. Anything went: Connelly found that identical reports had somehow been sold by the Population Council’s jet-setting consultants to Kenya in 1965 and then to Iran in 1966, with only a single paragraph changed in the covering letter[29].

And there were plenty of casualties. During Indira Gandhi’s ambitious, target-driven campaigns in India, homes were bulldozed for non-compliance and in the last 6 months of 1976 6.5 million people were sterilized, many of them forcibly, and “hundreds if not thousands died from infections”[30].

In 1977, to her great surprise, Gandhi was ejected from office by an outraged electorate: the beginning of mass-resistance to the policy, which would culminate in partial victory at the 1994 UN Cairo “population summit” — after which population-control became a tar-baby no respectable politician would touch. Organisations that had backed coercion transformed themselves into champions of autonomy overnight. Others changed their names. The American Eugenics Society became the Society for the Study of Social Biology; Eugenics Quarterly became Social Biology. In the UK, in 1988, the Eugenics Society renamed itself The Galton Institute.

Unreal numbers with all-too-real consequences

Population politics loves to present itself as scientifically objective (as if this somehow makes wrecking other people’s lives less objectionable). It becomes fixated on targets, which become conditionalities for foreign aid (and a myriad other things including jobs, housing and performance bonuses) which inexorably ends up with coercion “in the field”. Conditionality ends up starving other public services of resources. In South Africa, family-planning became the only free, health-related service available to non-whites (and a compulsory precondition for jobs and homes).

It was a similar picture all over Africa and south-east Asia. In Bangladesh, terrible levels of peri-natal mortality went unaddressed in the 1980s, while aid agencies objected even to the provision of rehydration salts for diarrhea because they considered it diverted attention away from family planning[31].

Infantile reverence for “hard figures” blinded the population-controllers to reality. In 1989, Nigeria was forced by the World Bank into a “structural adjustment’ programme contingent on a massive birth-control programme that then consumed far more resources than the entire Health Ministry – only to discover in the 1992 census that the population had been overestimated by between 20 and 30 million[32].

And throughout the history of population politics tentative projections have been treated as “scientific predictions”. In 1965 the UK government projected that by 2000 the British population would be 75 million: 5 million more than the “alarming’ 70 million now projected for 2050 (Aaronovitch, 9/9/08[33]). Projections for world population have varied even more wildly — yet have been treated as firm predictions, and used to ramp up a fever of anxiety in which almost any coercion begins to seem acceptable. In his 1968 best-seller, The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich predicted that there would be global famine in the 1970s and hundreds of millions of deaths. Twenty years earlier, UNESCO’s first director, Julian Huxley had been urging the use of atomic weapons “to keep down the colored peoples”[34].

As Connelly says:

Too often, alas, population projections are psychological projections … not that there are too many people but that there are certain kinds of people, with whom we feel uncomfortable, who there are too many of.

How frightening are these “frightening numbers”?

So far, so ghastly. But does that mean that the population-controllers were wrong to be concerned about population growth? Population did, indeed, rise at an astonishing rate in the years after World War II — largely due to falling death rates. But birth rates were also starting to decline — even in countries that hadn’t been subjected to the campaigns. UN Population Division (UNPD) data show almost identical rates of decline between 1950 and 2000 both in countries that had been subjected to “strong birth-control”, and in ones that hadn’t. “It turns out that about 90 percent of the difference in fertility rates worldwide derived from something very simple and very stubborn: whether women themselves wanted more or fewer children.”[35]

The “Population Crisis” seems to be one of those persuasive illusions that somehow seem to become all the more convincing the more they fail to come true. No famine has ever, it seems, been caused by overpopulation. The evidence for environmental damage is similarly weak (see below). But maybe, like the one roulette number that’s failed to come up all night, the hour really is nigh, at last, when these fears will be justified. We are in new times after all: the oil really is running out, and climate-change is a stark and quite unprecedented reality.

World population was approximately 6.8 billion in 2008[36] and expected to plateau in mid-century at around 8.9 billion, staying at around that level till 2300 or beyond[37]. This is a projection, not a prediction, but even the Optimum Population Trust accepts that it is probably about right: birth rates are falling and have been doing so for a long time, in more and more countries.

The trend to lower birth rates began as long ago as the early 19th century, in France after the Napoleonic Wars (incidentally, without modern contraceptives). By 1918 it was a Europe-wide phenomenon and governments were panicking that there would not be enough soldiers for future wars – hence the ‘natalist’ policies of Hitler, Mussolini and others, to encourage large families, while outlawing birth-control. These campaigns failed just as miserably as more recent population-reduction campaigns; in Italy’s case, birth-rates fell despite the intimate and persistent attentions of a fascist state and the Roman Catholic Church. Today, 70 countries’ fertility is below replacement level (2.1 children per couple). As early as 2025, global fertility will probably have fallen to replacement level[38].

Certainly, 8.9 billion is a lot of people. It may seem an “alarming figure” – but by what criterion? Billions of people do not take up as much space as the alarmist picture suggests: at present, the world’s entire human population would all fit into former Yugoslavia at the same population density as Manhattan – which is not a bad place to live, and has quite a bit of open space; too little for self-sufficiency but excellent for providing services and limiting energy-use.

And self-sufficiency should not present a problem. Most or even all Chinese cities were “completely self-sufficient in food production” until the market reforms of the 1980s (and even into the early 1990s[39]). Till the mid-1990s, Shanghai, which had a population of over 13 million at the time, was largely self-sufficient in vegetables and grain[40]. So, at the same population-density as Shanghai (2,588 people per square kilometre), the current world population should be able to feed itself perfectly well within a land area a little smaller than the Democratic Republic of Congo. For comparison, DRC’s total land-area, 2.35 million km2, is less than a fifth of the earth’s currently-cultivated area — 13.6 million km2 — which is itself capable of considerable expansion[41]).

So where do these predictions of disaster come from. How do they gain such credibility? And why does the world seem so overcrowded to so many people?

Part of the answer is that there are, as Connelly suggests, too many rich people. The “tiny overcrowded island” of Britain would indeed be rather small if its wealthy landowners upped sticks and went, taking their private estates with them. It’s hard to say exactly how small – “Who owns Britain” is one of the world’s great mysteries — but half of it has been held in private hands since long before records began. And if Britain’s entire population had to live within the same constraints (an area 200 x 200 metres) as the young, low-income men interviewed in a 2008 Rowntree Foundation report we would all fit into the Isle of Man. For similar reasons, even Brazil is a “tiny overcrowded island”, as far as a great many of its citizens are concerned.

Some facts about famine

Some people have always been quick to blame famines on overpopulation but whenever the facts of any particular famine are examined it always turns out that starvation was not caused by any actual shortage of food.

The Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has shown that in every single famine for which records exist, there has always in fact been a surplus of food. Meat and grain continued to be exported right through the Irish famine of the 1840s, in India, China and Peru in the 1870s; and there were surpluses in East Bengal in the 1940s. The problem has always been one of distribution: the food was there, but it wasn’t getting to the poor; they’d been priced out of the market, so they died[42].

Overpopulation has even been blamed for the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s – yet Ethiopia is sparsely-populated, has an abundance of arable land, much of it still unused, and produces surpluses even in times of drought[43].

It is said that, even though people may not have run up against the earth’s “carrying capacity” in the past, they are bound to do so soon, as global warming causes sea-levels to rise. But it is hard to see how even worst-case scenarios could cause such a thing. At present, vast (and growing) areas of arable land are still being diverted to raising cattle for the unhealthy, high-meat/junk food diets of the developed world. 50% of the world’s wheat and barley, 80% of its maize and 90% of its soya are fed to livestock. “By 2050, when the human population numbers 9 billion” says ecologist Colin Tudge[44] “our livestock will be consuming enough good grain and pulses to feed another 4 billion.” Meanwhile, we already throw away enough food to feed most of the current world population: up to half of all food sold in the UK and USA goes to landfill. Huge amounts of good-quality arable land are still being given over to speculative housing, covered with roads, with golf-courses (which now use enough water every day to meet the needs of 4.7 billion people[45]) or simply fenced off by landowners to protect privacy, or to stop other people using it.

Even if the world population reaches 9 billion and sea levels rise as predicted, there should still be no excuse for anyone to live any other way than well – if we plan things properly (i.e., treat each other as if we were equally human). Tudge concludes that feeding the world “should be eminently do-able, even in the face of global warming and diminishing oil”.

But what about the environment?

It is said that “too many people” inevitably cause environmental degradation. This has been a major theme of the population-control movement since environmentalism itself. The USA’s leading environmental organisation, the Sierra Club, played an important part in ramping up the hysteria when it published Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, in 1968. Major birth-control campaigns have been launched specifically to protect the environment. The showcase for this effort should be Puerto Rico, testbed for US birth-control agencies and contraceptive pill and implant manufacturers for decades. One third of all Puerto Rican women had been sterilized by 1968. But today Puerto Rico has one of the most polluted environments in South America – thanks not to its population but to the activities of US oil companies[46].

Population is blamed for the the destruction of tropical rain-forests, and this has been used to justify brutal population control campaigns thoughout Indonesia and the Philippines. Meanwhile, the forests in each case were sold for export over the people’s heads by (respectively) the Suharto and Marcos dictatorships. And these weren’t one-off, freak events.

In 1997-98 forest fires claimed 8 million hectares in South-East Asia, mainly in Indonesia, whose government immediately blamed indigenous people and peasant farmers; satellite evidence however showed that the overwhelming majority of the fires had started on large-scale plantations, often belonging to multinationals, using burn-off to clear land cheaply.[47].

In the Philippines, the environmental destruction has accelerated since Marcos. Describing the havoc wrought by western mining companies, ex-UK aid minister Clare Short says: “I have never seen anything so systematically destructive. The environmental effects are catastrophic, as are the effects on people’s livelihoods. They take the tops off mountains, which are holy, they destroy the water sources and make it impossible to farm.”[48]

Today in West Papua (illegally occupied and exploited by the Indonesian army, which largely finances itself by this kind of entrepreneurship) vast areas of pristine forest are being cleared, along with the people who live there and care for it, to make way for bio-fuel crops. Amnesty International estimates that one-sixth of the population has been killed to facilitate the destruction.

Brazil’s rainforest is being destroyed by a deadly combination of large-scale, export-oriented agribusiness, grotesquely unequal land-distribution, aid-backed roadbuilding schemes (e.g. the Pan-American Highway) and a policy of resettling the poor in the forests as an alternative to land reform[49]. What’s more, the destruction began in earnest well after Brazil’s birth-rates had started to fall (which they did without population-control campaigns).

In Kenya, deforestation is the result of decades of structural adjustment programmes that sacrificed self-sufficient peasant agriculture for large-scale tea-plantations and game-parks, “with the family woodlots grubbed up to plant tea and the hills all around denuded for firewood”.[50]

In addition, it’s estimated that a fifth of all environmental degradation globally is due to military and related activities[51].

The problem is neither human numbers nor human nature, but human inequality.

“The great irony,” says Betsy Hartmann, “is that in most cases population growth comes down faster the less you focus on it as a policy priority, and the more you focus on women’s rights and basic human needs.”[52]

If even a fraction of the energy that’s been put into population-control rhetoric were to be spent examining the detailed record and achievements of the population-control movement, it would collapse like a house of cards; indeed, it has almost done that on a number of occasions already. It is a highly dangerous distraction from the world’s real problems, which are now becoming globally life-threatening.

When a population “explodes” (or collapses) it indicates that the people’s lives have been made precarious. The British population explosion of the 18th-19th century happened among a traumatised people, made suddenly dependent on their, and their children’s wage-labour. This “development model” was subsequently inflicted on the rest of the world, and still hasn’t finished playing out.

Population can, of course, also collapse if people are pushed hard enough. To some extent, the decline is due to an insecure, high working-hours, high-cost existence: experienced both by slum-dwellers in Rio and by young professionals in London and Paris.

But when people’s security is restored, normality is soon restored. In recent decades, it has become possible to observe the process almost in real time: in Costa Rica, population-growth had levelled off after the creation of a welfare state, but took off again after 1975, when its welfare state was scrapped[53], as it also did in Sri Lanka (under pressure from the World Bank) after 1977, and for the same reason. In China (whose one-child policy was lauded by Western population-controllers) birth-rates were falling well before the policy was instituted. But then in the 1980s came the market reforms and sudden loss of security for millions.

However, where equality prevails, humans and their environments thrive. Examples include present-day Cuba: the only country in the world that meets its UN Human Development targets within a sustainable ecological footprint and where health outcomes are better in most respects than in the USA, but without the USA’s massive environmental cost.[54].

Of course, we think it would be very difficult to run capitalism without “volunteering” significant numbers (a majority, in fact) of humanity to untermensch status. But that is a problem for the capitalists to solve, not ours. If they can find a way of doing capitalism in which “we” really does mean “all of us” and “equality” means just that, we will welcome it with open arms: they will have achieved socialism.

Till then we must resist all their attempts to distract attention from their foul-ups by pitting “us” against “them”.

The problems that the population-controllers blame on the poor are much more readily attributable to the rich. It is the rich, overwhelmingly, whose overconsumption drives environmental degradation and global warming. It is not just the impact of all those cars, houses and plane journeys, but also of the work that the world’s poor are increasingly obliged to do, supplying their needs and whims; and the natural resources that are required to satisfy those needs and whims; and the devastation that’s needed and the wars that have to be fought to secure those resources. And so on. So “it can be said with confidence that the world’s richest people cause emissions thousands of times that of the world’s poorest”[55].

According to Danny Dorling:

it is almost certainly an underestimate to claim that the richest tenth of the world’s population have a greater negative environmental impact than all the rest put together. [...] And, of the richest 10th of the world’s population, the richest 10th consume more, even than the other half a billion or so affluent.[56]

1 percent of the world’s population is a very tiny, irresponsible minority. It would take very little oppression to resolve the problems they create, and of a very much milder nature than the sheer cruelty visited on poor people, in vain attempts to stop them migrating and having babies.

The whole population-control bandwagon looks very much like a cheap and cowardly getout to avoid confronting that inconsiderate, but unfortunately rather powerful, few.

No One Is Illegal, 10 January 2010

Major sources:

> Reproductive Rights and Wrongs; Betsy Hartmann; South End Press, Boston 1995;

> Fatal Misconception: the struggle to control world population; Matthew Connelly; Belknap Press, Harvard 2008;

> The website of the Population and Development Institute (Popdev) at Hampshire College, Amherst, Mass.

[1] This is the definition of “reproduction” used by DAWN (Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era) in 1984 — quoted by Matthew Connelly in “Fatal Misconception” p.360 (see endnotes)

[2] E.g., “When the world is at stake, personal rights and sovereignty aren’t perfectly clear”; Joseph Chamie; Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 18th 2008.

[3] Sunday Times, 8/2/09

[4] e.g. John Feeney: “Population: The elephant in the room”

[5] “Immigration to be cut as unemployment soars”; The Times, 18/10/2008:

[6] Paul Kingsnorth; “Immigration: truisms vs cliches”; October 2008:

[7] The Times, 22/3/09

[8] OPT website: to achieve a “modest’ world footprint the world population needs to be reduced to between 3.4 and 2.7 billion, depending on the provision allowed for biodiversity:

[9] Attributed to ex-Prime Minister Sadiq al Mahdi by Harry Verhoeven: “War, famine and displacement in Sudan” (Talk given at Exeter College, Oxford, 19/5/2009)

[10] BBC Radio 3 Nightwaves, Wednesday 19 March 2008

[11] Quoted by Priscilla Huang; “10 Reasons to Rethink the Immigration-Overpopulation Connection”; DifferenTakes 59, Spring 2009; popdev.

[12] See his chapter “The Demography of Social Class” in Nicholas Mascie-Taylor’s “Biosocial Aspects of Social Class”; OUP 1990

[13] David Coleman; “”Replacement Migration’, or why everyone’s going to have to live in Korea”; Galton Institute Newsletter, March 2001. David Coleman and Robert Rowthorn; “The Economic Effects of Immigration into the United Kingdom”; Population and Development Review 30/4, Dec 2004).

[14] e.g. by Valerie M. Hudson and Andrea M. den Boer in “Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia’s Surplus Male Population” — critiqued by Betsy Hartmann in “The Testosterone Threat: Sociobiology, National Security and Population Control”; DifferenTakes 41, Fall 2006; popdev.

[15] Gunnar Heinsohn; “Why Gaza is fertile ground for angry young men”; Financial Times: June 14 2007

[16] For more on human altruism, see Robert Axelrod, “The Evolution of Co-operation”; Basic Books 1984.

[17] Malthus first published An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, revised and expanded it in 1803, and several further editions till his death in 1834. He asserts that: “Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will show the immensity of the first power in comparison with the second.”

[18] The “perversity thesis”, described by Albert O. Hirschman in The Rhetoric of Reaction (Harvard 1991), states that if you try to improve things you will inevitably make things worse.

[19] Hereditary Genius, 1869

[20] see Connelly; also Mike Davis, “Late Victorian Holocausts”.

[21] Connelly, pp 34-36

[22] Fighting poverty in the US and Europe: a world of difference, by Alberto Alesina and Edward L. Glaeser, 2004

[23] R.W. Davies; “Soviet Economic Development from Lenin to Khrushchev”; Cambridge University Press, 1998.

[24] Connelly, pp 173-4

[25] Hartmann, pp 211-212

[26] Hartmann p 104

[27] Hartmann, p 252

[28] A director of family planning in Maharashtra, quoted in Connelly p321

[29] Connelly pp 233-4

[30] Hartmann, p 252

[31] Hartmann p 236

[32] Hartmann p 127

[33] “Like house prices, immigration could fall too”, David Aaronovitch, The Times, 9/9/2008.

[34] Connelly p 121

[35] Connelly p 373

[36] World Population Prospects, The 2008 Revision; UNPD 2009.

[37] UNPD (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division); “World Population to 2300″, 2004.

[38] UNPD, p 32

[39] Jennifer Pepall; “New Challenges for China’s Urban Farmers” IDRC Reports, Vol 21, No 3, Oct 1993

“Mixing farming and urban activity is typical of Chinese cities, each of which is completely self-sufficient in food production.” … “A 1953 study shows that by the early 1930s, Shanghai was able to feed its three million people with food produced within a 100-km radius. The Chinese government has built on this concept of self-sufficiency to keep pace with a growing urban population.”

(Area = 31,425km2/3million = 3000000/31425 = 95.4653937947/km2)

[40] Peter Newman and Isabella Jennings; “Cities as Sustainable Ecosystems”; Island Press 2008

[41] World Bank data from See also Joel Cohen; “How many people can the earth support?”, Norton, 1995, p177 and 186.

[42] Sen, A. K. (1999). Development as freedom. Oxford ; New York, Oxford University Press.

[43] Girma Kebbede – Cycles of famine in a country of plenty: The case of Ethiopia (GeoJournal, July, 1988)

[44] Tudge, C. (2007). Feeding people is easy. Pari.

[45] David Molden; Solution for the World’s Water Woes; BBC “Green Room” article, retrieved March 2009

[46] Hartmann p 248

[47] Friends of the Earth: Briefing on Indonesian Forest Fires, 1997 (updated 2002)

[48] Quoted by John Vidal; “We are fighting for our lives and our dignity”; The Guardian, 13/6/2009

[49] Hartmann, Reproductive Rights and Wrongs, p. 27

[50] Wangari Maathai interviewed by John Vidal, Guardian, Saturday 30 May 2009.

[51] Hartmann, p 26

[52] Hartmann, p 303

[53] Hartmann, p 293

[54] WWF Living Planet Report, 2006

[55] J. Timmons Roberts; “Global Inequality and Climate Change”; Society and Natural Resources, 14:501 — 509, 2001

[56] Danny Dorling, personal communication 28/9/2007, citing and WWF Living Planet Report data. See also Dorling; “Injustice: why inequality persists” (Policy Press, April 2010).

Notes on May Day

The brilliant basic idea of May Day is the autonomous, immediate stepping forward of the proletarian masses, the political mass action of the millions of workers who otherwise are atomized by the barriers of the state in the day-to-day parliamentary affairs, who mostly can give expression to their own will only through the ballot, through the election of their representatives. The excellent proposal of the Frenchman Lavigne at the Paris Congress of the International added to this parliamentary, indirect manifestation of the will of the proletariat a direct, international mass manifestation: the strike as a demonstration and means of struggle for the eight-hour day, world peace, and socialism.

And in effect what an upswing this idea, this new form of struggle has taken on in the last decade! The mass strike has become an internationally recognized, indispensable weapon of the political struggle. As a demonstration, as a weapon in the struggle, it returns again in innumerable forms and gradations in all countries for nearly fifteen years. As a sign of the revolutionary reanimation of the proletariat in Russia, as a tenacious means of struggle in the hands of the Belgian proletariat, it has just now proved its living power. And the next, most burning question in Germany — the Prussian voting rights — obviously, because of its previous slipshod treatment, points to a rising mass action of the Prussian proletariat up to the mass strike as the only possible solution.

No wonder! The whole development, the whole tendency of imperialism in the last decade leads the international working class to see more clearly and more tangibly that only the personal stepping forward of the broadest masses, their personal political action, mass demonstrations, and mass strikes which must sooner or later open into a period of revolutionary struggles for the power in the state, can give the correct answer of the proletariat to the immense oppression of imperialistic policy. In this moment of armament lunacy and war orgies, only the resolute will to struggle of the working masses, their capacity and readiness for powerful mass actions, can maintain world peace and push away the menacing world conflagration. And the more the idea of May Day, the idea of resolute mass actions as a manifestation of international unity, and as a means of struggle for peace and for socialism, takes root in the strongest troops of the International, the German working class, the greater is our guarantee that out of the world war which, sooner or later, is unavoidable, will come forth a definite and victorious struggle between the world of labor and that of capital.

Rosa Luxemburg, 1913

COMRADES, THE MAY DAY holiday was Instituted by the Second International 35 years ago. It was established by the direct pupils of Marx and Engels, amongst who was old Wilhelm Liebknecht, one of the founders of German social-democracy. On my way here I was flipping through the latest telegraph reports, which have not yet reached you owing to the absence of newspapers during this holiday period, and in these reports from the telegraph agencies I found a number of communiqués about how democratic Europe is preparing to celebrate May Day. Allow me to share them with you. The Bavarian government has issued an order forbidding the organization of a May Day demonstration. In Halle the social-democratic representatives in the government have prohibited the proposed May Day demonstration organized by the trade unions. The government of Saxony, in which the social-democrats have the majority, have banned the organization of May Day street demonstrations and finally in Berlin the social-democrat chief of police has banned the May Day street marches.

Just imagine to yourself for one moment that old Wilhelm Liebknecht, the founder of German social-democracy and institutor of the May Day holiday, were to turn up on the streets of Berlin and see and hear his pupils, or those who call themselves such, like the president of the German republic, the Berlin chief of police, the Saxon social-democratic government, in a word, how the “revolutionary, Marxist’, social-democratic party created by Wilhelm Liebknecht, is preparing to celebrate May Day! Just think of this: the Saxon social-democratic government has openly stated that all attempts to hold street marches will be crushed by armed force. There, comrades, is a little page of history for you: 35 years in all from the foundation of the holiday up till the present day and yet what a staggering history of world decay. In all the first line there is European social-democracy, with a history of the corruption of its leaders, a history of the fettering of the working masses by the trade union bureaucracies, a history of the treacherous deliverance of the toiling masses into the hands of degenerating capital in its bloody state of imperialism!

Leon Trotsky, 1924