History maker: Isaac Illych Rubin

This week we look back on the physical and intellectual heroism of a Marxist economist.

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.

Isaac Illych Rubin

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.

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Rubin counters that this attempt to ‘naturalise’ poverty should be seen as part of a reaction against the Enlightenment and late-eighteenth-century radicalism. Indeed, this was literally the case with Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population, which was a reply to the English writer and radical William Godwin, who argued that the cause of poverty was private property. A reform of the institutions of private property would, Godwin contended, ‘open up to humanity the possibility of an unlimited improvement and betterment of their lives’. Malthus, deeming such radicalism abhorrent, set out to prove that lofty attempts to improve humanity’s lot were doomed to fail. As the past 200 years’ worth of material improvements have shown, it was Malthus’ attempt to do down humanity which proved wildly incorrect.

Here we can see Rubin identifying two great opposing camps in human thought. On the one side, there are those who, in the tradition of the Enlightenment, believe the problems of humanity, such as poverty, be it in early industrial England or modern-day Africa, are generally social problems and thus can be addressed through political solutions. On the other side, there are those who take a pessimistic and anti-Enlightenment position, viewing such problems as naturally occurring and resistant to change.

Tragically, like so many of his generation of Russian Marxists, Rubin was to meet his eventual end at the hands of Stalin. Owing perhaps to his past as a Menshevik, his closeness to David Riazanov (whom Stalin disliked), or his interpretation of Marxism, which was out of kilter with the increasingly dogmatic and Stalinised understanding of Marxism then predominant, Rubin was accused of being a member of a fictional Menshevik conspiracy in 1930 and sentenced to five years in prison. He was eventually released in 1934, only to be rearrested three years later, after which it is now generally assumed that he was executed or perished in the harsh conditions of the Gulag.

Tom Bailey is studying for a masters in history at University College London. Follow him on Twitter: @tbaileybailey

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