Isaac Illych Rubin was a Marxist revolutionary and economist. He was radicalised, aged 19, by the 1905 revolutionary upheaval in Russia. Following the easing of Tsarist repression (with freedom of association becoming slightly easier), Rubin joined first the Jewish socialist organisation, The Bund, and then the Menshevik faction of Russia’s socialist movement.
A few years after the October Revolution in 1917, which propelled the Bolsheviks to power, Rubin dropped out of politics and devoted his time to the academic study and development of Marxist theory. In 1926, he became a research assistant at the Marx-Engels Institute in the young Soviet state. It is here, as a Marxist thinker, that he made his most important contributions to history.
Rubin is primarily known for his work on Marx’s economic theory of value, in which he explained that Marx’s mature economic theory was a culmination of his earlier interest in alienation, rather than a break from it. But Rubin did not confine himself to intra-Marxist debates. He also published a number of books in which he engaged with mainstream (or ‘bourgeois’) economic thought, including Contemporary Economists in the West, the anthology Classics of Political Economy from the Seventeenth to the Mid-Nineteenth Century, and, most importantly, the textbook A History of Economic Thought.
In his history of economic thought, Rubin provides a survey of economic thinkers, from early mercantilist writers to big names such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo, up to John Stuart Mill. In this work, he attempts to understand the thought of these thinkers in terms of their social and historical context, in order to give an explanation of where their ideas came from.
One of the stand-out chapters, and still very relevant still today, is Rubin’s explanation and take-down of the ideas of Thomas Malthus, the British cleric and scholar obsessed with population growth and ‘limits’. Malthus attempted to explain poverty as something natural, believing it to be the result of the poor of the world being too numerous due to their incessant drive to reproduce. In a similar vein to those today who fret over the population of Africa, Malthus argued that poverty was a result of overpopulation.