Swift takes on as his pseudo-dilemma the unmarketability, or inherent lack of "value," in poor children below the age of 12:

I am assured by our merchants, that a boy or a girl before twelve years old, is no saleable commodity, and even when they come to this age, they will not yield above three pounds, or three pounds and half a crown at most, on the exchange; which cannot turn to account either to the parents or kingdom, the charge of nutriments and rags having been at least four times that value.

When talking about children, Swift adopts the language of finance and exchange ("saleable commodity," "yield," "exchange," "charge," "value"). A proposal such as this, whereby children become "commodities," mothers become "breeders," and serving a baby on a plate is considered a mere "collateral advantage" is certainly evocative of Marxist theory. In his manifesto Marx writes, "The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation."


1. To what extent does Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," (written nearly a century before the Communist Manifesto), anticipate Marx's basic critiques of capitalist society?

2. What was Marx's relationship to Swift. Had he read much of him?

3. Marx writes, "The more modern industry becomes developed, the more is the labour of men superseded by that of women." Is there a gender bias within Swift's essay? How is the process of economic valuation different for each sex?

Last modified 7 September 2003