Did Capitalism Cause the Irish Famine?

August 28th, 2015
in history, uk

Article of the Week from Fixing the Economists

by Philip Pilkington

Nathan Cedric Tankus ran a piece a couple of years ago on Naked Capitalism about Karl Marx’s interpretation of the Irish famine in his Das Kapital. The theory that Tankus is referring to is laid out in Chapter 25 of the book.

Follow up:

The whole discussion is shot through with Marx’s dubious method which is basically to take a bunch of statistics, lay them out to give his analysis an air of objectivity and then immediately turn around and engage in rhetoric that borders on conspiracy theory. What Marx notices is that the economy of Ireland ticks over fairly well despite the massive depopulation. He says that, by contrast, England

“would have bled to death with such a drain of population as Ireland has suffered”.

He attributes this to the fact that Ireland is simply an “agricultural district” of England.

Marx goes on to argue that Irish agriculture in the 19th century became more concentrated and capital intensive — which is true — and that this created a “surplus population” that was then wiped out, in what appears as some sort of Malthusian conspiracy (“nothing more excellent could be wished for by orthodox economy for the support of its dogma”), by the potato blight. The idea lying behind this is that the landlords actually need the blight in order to clear the land for livestock and so, while Marx never actually goes into conspiracy territory and claims that the landlords instigated the blight, he paints it as a seemingly inevitable outcome of the capitalist transformation of Irish farming. And in order to “prove” this he uses the rhetoric of the most extreme of the property-owning class.

As Tankus says:

From this perspective, the potato blight was socially produced since small farmers were pushed into monocropping as the only crop that a family could survive farming on such small plots.

Yes, it’s a nice story. It means that the blight was not just a fact of nature but instead the fault of capitalism — which, of course, if understood correctly then makes the case for socialism. None of this is remotely true, of course. The facts are, as they so often are, much simpler. What’s more, this is a history that is not just already written but fairly widely accepted.

In actual fact, the potato was in large part responsible for allowing the population boom of the 19th century across much of the world. The potato was a very cheap source of certain nutrients that were not available from other foods and this allowed the population to grow at a previously unprecedented rate. Ireland was no exception to this, seeing a massive population boom from around 1800 up until the famine.


As we can see the level of population increase in Ireland was enormous. It went from about 4.5m in 1800 to just over 8m at its peak before the famine set it back on a trend back to around 4.5m where it stabilised by about 1900. Clearly then, Ireland accumulated a massive population on the back of the potato crop. This leads to a situation in which the failure of this crop would then lead to massive amounts of the population being wiped out — which is precisely what happened in the famine.

Am I then claiming that the famine was, in fact, a wholly “natural” event? No, absolutely not. It is well recognised that English free-trade laws prevented food produced in Ireland from being given to the starving population. This food was instead sold abroad as exports. But this was not so much the fault of capitalism, as Marx claims, as it was the cruelty with which the English clung to their free-trade laws. They could have easily imposed protectionist measures that would have channeled resources toward the domestic population during the famine. But they chose not to. This is the history taught to every Irish student in secondary school (that is, “high school”) history class.

The reasons that they chose not to do so are complicated and still in dispute. But the existence of an absentee class of landlords — who were both English and Anglo-Irish — was probably a major factor when considering the coldness of the English response. This was an issue intimately tied up, not so much with the development of English capitalism, but rather with the relationship between England and Ireland in this period. It is for this reason that the famine did not produce a major socialist movement in Ireland but instead strengthened and, in some ways radicalised, the nationalist movement who recognised that at the root of the problem was lack of self-governance.

Tankus tries to draw parallels between Ireland’s current migration problems and those during the famine. Well, there are parallels but not the ones he thinks. Because he uses the old Marxian framework he concludes this has something to do with contemporary policy producing some sort of “surplus population”. But this is not at all what the parallel is (after all, famine caused by reliance on the potato and unemployment due to lack of effective demand are two rather different creatures). No, the parallel is that Ireland today, as in the 19th century, has a crisis of governance. This has nothing to do with capitalism as such let alone something called “surplus population” which is a bizarre concept, but rather to do with who pulls the levers of power and whether they have Ireland’s interests at heart.

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