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German socialists and the Malthusian population theory, 1850-1914

Gehrke Christian, University of Graz

In the second half of the 19th century Malthus’s Essay on Population was discussed rather extensively – and rather controversially – among socialists and Marxists in the German-speaking countries. The present paper reviews these debates. It briefly summarizes of the views of Wilhelm Weitling, Johann-Carl Rodbertus, Ferdinand Lassalle, Eugen Dühring, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels on Malthus’s population theory. With regard to these authors, the focus is on their differing assessments of the relationship between Malthusianism and Darwinism and on the connection between the Malthusian population theory and the “iron law of wages”. Next, the positions of “Socialist Darwinists” like Friedrich Albert Lange and Ludwig Büchner are discussed. The paper then turns to the contributions of some of Marx and Engels’s followers, most notably Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein, and their debates with the so-called “Socialists of the chair”, which included Schäffle, Roscher, Schmoller, Knies, Wagner, and Brentano. The paper then reviews various contributions from the last two decades before the Great War, by authors such as Ladislaus von Bortkiewicz, Julius Wolf, Heinrich Dietzel, Franz Oppenheimer and others, in which the Malthusian population theory was discussed in connection with the newly emerging problem of declining birth rates. Finally, Rudolf Goldscheid’s specific variant of “Left-wing Social Lamarckism” is examined and critically discussed against the background of the ideas of contemporary Social Darwinists.


Keywords: Malthus, Marx, Engels, Darwinism, population theory, iron law of wages

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