Karl Kautsky


2. 19th Century Decline

The new century brought a great economic upsurge in England. But during the first half of the century there was a further increase in the misery of the people of Ireland, though it scarcely seems possible that they could bear any more.

The capitalist mode of production strives in every branch of industry to replace human labour by other forces as much as possible. This tendency is halted where industrial production grows quicker than workers are released by technical advance. Here we find a relative decrease of workers in relation to capital employed, but an absolute increase in their number.

On the other hand, farming is not capable of rapid expansion in a country with an ancient culture. Here capitalist development usually leads to an absolute decrease of the agricultural population. This also happened in Ireland to a particularly marked extent. Her wretched small tenants would not have been capable of intensive, technically advanced cultivation. However, Ireland’s soil and climate were exceptionally well suited to pasturing. The more England’s cities grew, and with them meat-consumption, the more pasturing thrived. The developing railways simplified the transport of cattle.

Thus the big landowners found it profitable to drive out their wretched small tenants in order to replace them with cattle and sheep. In Ireland today two-thirds of the cultivated land is made up of meadows and pastures.

Professor Bonn, in his valuable book, which everyone wishing to study Ireland is recommended to read, says about this:

“Ireland is a land of permanent pasture. Two-thirds of the land is never touched by plough or spade. Here there is no one to be seen, for there are no cow-herds pasturing the cattle in the fields, which are enclosed. The only sign of human activity is a solitary pillar or stone in the middle of a field for the animals to rub themselves on. Between them lie scattered hundreds of thousands of ruined huts in which people used to live. On many slopes, rings and elevations show that here then once were broad beds surrounded by furrows where the Irish cottager did his wretched digging. It is these broad pasture-farms that have made Ireland into a land of great silence.” (Irland and die irische Frage, 1918, p.38, 39)

No wonder the rural population decreased rapidly: In other countries rural population declines (if more gradually) but this only results in an increase in the industrial population. Thus, in practically all countries the total population keeps growing.

In Ireland there was no industry to absorb the people released from the land. Massive emigration, mostly to England and America, was the only course for them. This has gone on up to the present: between May 1st, 1851 and December 31st 1913, 4,380,000 people emigrated from Ireland to places outside Europe. The millions who emigrated to England are not included here.

In the decade before that, 1841 to 1851, 780,000 Irish emigrated to the United States alone.

No wonder the country’s population decreased rapidly. In 1841 the population reached its highest total of 8,200,000. In the pre-war year of 1913, it only amounted to 4,380,000.

The reason for the decline of population cannot be attributed to a custom of having two-child families. On the contrary, the fruitfulness of Irish marriages made Ireland the favourite example of the earlier Malthusians for proving that all misery results from over-population

Indeed, the excessive fertility of the Irish has probably always been a figment of the imagination. The birth-rate in Ireland since the registration of births first started has always been lower than that of England. Births per 10,000 of the population:






in England



in Ireland



These figures alone refute the assertions of the Malthusians. However it is not worth squabbling with them these days, as they have joined the extinct species.


Last updated on 17.12.2003