Isaak Illich Rubin was born on 12th June, 1886. A member of the Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) he joined the Menshevik faction in 1903. Rubin took part in the 1905 Russian Revolution but eventually concentrated on his career as a lawyer.
After the Russian Revolution in 1917 he concentrated on his career as an academic. However, he continued to be involved in politics and in 1920 was elected to the Menshevik Central Committee. In 1923 he was arrested by the secret police (OGPU). On his release he dropped his political work to concentrate on his academic studies and teaching.
In 1926 he joined the Marx-Engels Institute where he worked under David Riazanov. According to Victor Serge: "I was on very close terms with several of the scientific staff at the Marx-Engels Institute, headed by David Borisovich Riazanov, who had created there a scientific establishment of noteworthy quality." Over the next few years Rubin emerged as one of the most influential interpreters of the work of Karl Marx. Rubin published several books and articles on Marxism, including Abstract Labour and Value in Marx’s System (1927), Marx's Theory of Value (1928) and A History of Economic Thought (1929).
On 23rd December 1930, Rubin was arrested by the secret police and charged with participation in a plot to establish an underground organization called the "Union Bureau of Mensheviks." Rubin's sister later reported: "They put Rubin for days in the kartser, the punishment cell. My brother at forty-five was a man with a diseased heart and diseased joints. The kartser was a stone hole the size of a man; you couldn't move in it, you could only stand or sit on the stone floor. But my brother endured this torture too, and left the kartser with a feeling of inner confidence in himself, in his moral strength."
The OGPU now decided to change their tactics. On 28th January, 1931, he was taken to the cell of a prisoner named Vasil'evskii. The interrogator told the prisoner: "We are going to shoot you now, if Rubin does not confess." Vasil'evskii went on his knees and begged Rubin: "Isaac Il'ich, what does it cost you to confess?" According to his sister, "my brother remained firm and calm, even when they shot Vasil'evskii right there". The next night they took him to the cell of a prisoner called Dorodnov: "This time a young man who looked like a student was there. My brother didn't know him. When they turned to the student with the words, 'You will be shot because Rubin will not confess,' the student tore open his shirt at the breast and said, 'Fascists, gendarmes, shoot!' They shot him right there."
The killing of Dorodnov persuaded Rubin to confess to being a member of "Union Bureau of Mensheviks" and to implicate his friend and mentor, David Riazanov. Rubin's sister continued the story: "Rubin's position was tragic. He had to confess to what had never existed, and nothing had: neither his former views; nor his connections with the other defendants, most of whom he didn't even know, while others he knew only by chance; nor any documents that had supposedly been entrusted to his safekeeping; nor that sealed package of documents which he was supposed to have handed over to Riazanov. In the course of the interrogation and negotiations with the investigator, it became clear to Rubin that the name of Riazanov would figure in the whole affair, if not in Rubin's testimony, then in the testimony of someone else. And Rubin agreed to tell the whole story about the mythical package. My brother told me that speaking against Riazanov was just like speaking against his own father. That was the hardest part for him."
V. V. Sher was another witness who gave evidence against Riazanov. One of his friends, Victor Serge, argued in his book, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1951): "Of course his heretical colleagues were often arrested, and he defended them, with all due discretion. He had access to all quarters and the leaders were a little afraid of his frank way of talking. His reputation had just been officially recognized in a celebration of his sixtieth birthday and his life's work when the arrest of the Menshevik sympathizer Sher, a neurotic intellectual who promptly made all the confessions that anyone pleased to dictate to him, put Riazanov beside himself with rage. Having learnt that a trial of old Socialists was being set in hand, with monstrously ridiculous confessions foisted on them, Riazanov flared up and told member after member of the Politburo that it was a dishonor to the regime, that all this organized frenzy simply did not stand up and that Sher was half-mad anyway."
Roy A. Medvedev, who has carried out a detailed investigation of the case, argued in Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism (1971) that the Union Bureau of Mensheviks did not exist. "The political trials of the late twenties and early thirties produced a chain reaction of repression, directed primarily against the old technical intelligentsia, against Cadets who had not emigrated when they could have, and against former members of the Social Revolutionary, Menshevik, and nationalist parties."
Rubin was sentenced to a 5-year term of imprisonment. This testimony of Rubin was used in building a case against Riazanov, Nikolai Sukhanov and other colleagues at the Marx-Engels Institute. Riazanov was dismissed as director of the institute in February 1931, and expelled from the Communist Party. Riazanov was arrested by the OGPU but as he refused to confess he did not appear in court and instead was sent into exile to the the city of Saratov.
Rubin was released in 1934 and sent to Aktyubinsk, Kazakhstan. According to his sister: "He got work in a consumer cooperative, as a plan economist. In addition he continued to do his own scholarly work.... My brother told me that he did not want to return to Moscow, he did not want to meet his former circle of acquaintances. That showed how deeply he was spiritually shaken by all that he had been through. Only his great optimism that was characteristic of him and his deep scholarly interests gave him the strength to live."
The Marxian theory of value builds on the concepts: abstract labour, value, exchange value and money. If we take money, the most complex and most concrete aspect of these concepts, and by examining the concept of money make the transition to exchange value, as the more general concept underlying money; if we then move from exchange value to value, and from value to abstract labour, we are moving from the more concrete to the more abstract concept, i.e. we are following the analytical method.
But, Marx says, however necessary the use of the analytical method is in the first stage of scientific enquiry, it cannot satisfy us in itself, and it must be complemented by another method. Once we have traced the complex phenomenon back to its basic elements by means of analysis, we have to take the opposite direction and, starting from the most abstract concepts, show how these develop to lead us on to more concrete forms, more concrete concepts. In our case, this progression from the simpler concepts to richer and more complex ones would be the movement from abstract labour to value, from value to exchange value and from exchange value to money.
Marx calls this method ‘genetic’, at one point, because it enables us to follow the genesis and development of complex forms. Elsewhere he terms it the dialectical. I hope we can also agree to describe the first method as the analytical, and the second (which includes both the analytical and the synthetic method) as dialectical.
Marx indicates that he considers the dialectical method to be the only one which solves scientific questions satisfactorily. Accordingly, we have to subject the problem which interests us, the question of the relationship between labour and value, to investigation not only by the analytical method, but by the dialectical as well.
Marx gives many examples to show in what respect the analytic method is inadequate. I should like to quote three examples here.
Concerning the theory of value, Marx says “Political economy has indeed analysed, however incompletely, value and its magnitude, and has discovered what lies beneath these forms. But it has never once asked the question why labour is represented by the value of its product and labour time by the magnitude of that value.” (Capital I p.80).
In another passage, devoted to the theory of money, Marx says: “In the last decades of the 17th century it had already been shown that money is a commodity, but this step marks only the infancy of the analysis. The difficulty lies, not in comprehending that money is a commodity, but in discovering how, why and by what means a commodity becomes money.” (Capital I p.92) Here, as we see, the dialectical method differs once again from the analytical.
Finally, at a further point while discussing religion, Marx repeats the idea which he has stated before, that it is obviously much easier to discover by analysis the core of the curious religious conceptions, than conversely, it is to develop from the actual relations of real life the corresponding forms of those relations. The latter method is the only materialistic and consequently the only scientific one (Capital I p.372 note 3).
During the trial of the so-called "Menshevik Center," the defendant Rubin, one of Riazanov's protégé, suddenly brought his name into the case, accusing him of having hidden in the Institute documents of the Socialist International concerned with war against the Soviet Union! Everything that was told to the audience was engineered in advance, so this sensational revelation was inserted to order. Summoned on that very night before the Politburo, Riazanov had a violent exchange with Stalin. "Where are the documents?" shouted the General Secretary. Riazanov replied vehemently, "You won't find them anywhere unless you've put them there yourself!" He was arrested, jailed, and deported to a group of little towns on the Volga, doomed to penury and physical collapse; librarians received the order to purge his writings and his editions of Marx from their stocks. To anybody who knew the policy of the Socialist International and the character of its leaders, Fritz Adler, Vandervelde, Abramovich, Otto Bauer, and Bracke, the fabricated charge was utterly and grotesquely implausible. If it had to be admitted as true, Riazanov deserved to die as a traitor, but they merely exiled him....
Was there then no basis of truth at all in the trial of the "Menshevik Center"? Nikolai Nikolavevich Sukhanov (Himmer), a Menshevik won over to the Party, a member of the Petrograd Soviet from its inception in 1917, who had written ten volumes of valuable notes on the beginnings of the Revolution and worked in the Planning Commissions with his fellow defendants Groman, Ginsberg, and Rubin, did have a kind of salon, in which talk between intimates was very free and the situation in the country as of 1930 was judged to be utterly catastrophic, as it undeniably was. In this circle, escape from the crisis was envisaged in terms of a new Soviet Government, combining the best brains of the Party's Right (Rykov, Tomsky, and Bukharin, perhaps), certain veterans of the Russian revolutionary movement, and the legendary army chief Blucher. It must be emphasized that for practically three years between 1930 and 1934, the new totalitarian regime maintained itself by sheer terror, against all rational expectations and with every appearance, all the time, of imminent collapse.
This is what I learned from my brother. When he was arrested on December 23, 1930, he was charged with being a member of the "Union Bureau of Mensheviks." This accusation seemed so ridiculous that he immediately submitted a written exposition of his views, which he thought would prove the impossibility of such an accusation. When the investigator read this statement, he tore it up right there. A confrontation was arranged between my brother and Lakubovich, who had been arrested earlier and had confessed to being a member of the "Union Bureau." My brother did not even know Lakubovich. At the confrontation, when Lakubovich said to my brother, "Isaac ll'ich, we were together at a session of the Union Bureau," my brother immediately asked, "And where was this meeting held?" This question caused such a disruption in the examination that the investigator interrupted the examination right there, saying, "What are you, a lawyer, Isaac Il'ich?"
My brother in fact was a lawyer, had worked in that field for many years. After that confrontation, the charge that Rubin was a member of the "Union Bureau" was dropped. Soon after, my brother was transferred to Suzdal. The circumstances of that transfer were so unusual that they were bound to inspire alarm and fear. On the station platform there was not a single person; in an empty railroad car he was met by an important GPU official, Gai. To all of Gai's attempts at persuasion, my brother replied with what was really true: that he had no connections with the Mensheviks. Then Gai declared that he would give him forty-eight hours to think it over. Rubin replied that he didn't need forty-eight minutes....
The examination at Suzdal also failed to give the investigators the results they wanted. Then they put Rubin for days in the kartser, the punishment cell. My brother at forty-five was a man with a diseased heart and diseased joints. The kartser was a stone hole the size of a man; you couldn't move in it, you could only stand or sit on the stone floor. But my brother endured this torture too, and left the kartser with a feeling of inner confidence in himself, in his moral strength.... Then he was put in the kartser for a second time, which also produced no results. At that time Rubin was sharing a cell with lakubovich and Slier. When he came back from the kartser his cellmates received him with great concern and attention; right there they made tea for him, gave him sugar and other things, and tried in every way to show him their sympathy. Telling about this, Rubin said that lie was so amazed: these same people told lies about him, and at the same time treated him so warmly.
Soon Rubin was put into solitary confinement; in those circumstances he was subjected to every kind of tormenting humiliation. He was deprived of all the personal things he had brought with him, even handkerchiefs. At that time he had the flu, and walked about with a swollen nose, with ulcers, filthy. The prison authorities often inspected his cell, and as soon as they found any violation of the rule for maintaining the cell they sent him to clean the latrines. Everything was done to break his will.... They told him his wife was very sick, to which he replied: "I can't help her in any way, I can't even help myself." At times the investigators would turn friendly, and say: "Isaac ll'ich, this is necessary for the Party." At the same time they gave him nighttime interrogations, at which a man is not allowed to fall asleep for a minute. They would wake him up, wear him out with all sorts of interrogations, jeer at his spiritual strength, call him the "Menshevik Jesus."
This went on until January 28, 1931. On the night of January 28-29, they took him down to a cellar, where there were various prison officials and a prisoner, someone named Vasil'evskii.... to whom they said, in the presence of my brother: "We are going to shoot you now, if Rubin does not confess." Vasil'evskii on his knees begged my brother: "Isaac Il'ich, what does it cost you to confess?" But my brother remained firm and calm, even when they shot Vasil'evskii right there. His feeling of inner rightness was so strong that it helped him to endure that frightful ordeal. The next night, January 29-30, they took my brother to the cellar again. This time a young man who looked like a student was there. My brother didn't know him. When they turned to the student with the words, "You will be shot because Rubin will not confess," the student tore open his shirt at the breast and said, "Fascists, gendarmes, shoot!" They shot him right there; the name of this student was Dorodnov.
The shooting of Dorodnov made a shattering impression on my brother. Returning to his cell, he began to think. What's to be done? My brother decided to start negotiations with the investigator; these negotiations lasted from February 2 to 21, 1931. The charge that Rubin belonged to the "Union Bureau" had already been dropped in Moscow, after the confrontation with Lakubovich. Now they agreed that my brother would consent to confess himself a member of a program commission connected with the "Union Bureau," and that he, Rubin, had kept documents of the Menshevik Center in his office at the Institute, and when he was fired from the Institute, he had handed them over in a sealed envelope to Riazanov, as materials on the history of the Social Democratic movement. Rubin had supposedly asked Riazanov to keep these documents for a short time. In these negotiations every word, every formulation was fought over. Repeatedly the "confession" written by Rubin was crossed out and corrected by the investigator. When Rubin went to trial on March 1, 1931, in the side pocket of his jacket was his "confession," corrected with the investigator's red ink.
Rubin's position was tragic. He had to confess to what had never existed, and nothing had: neither his former views; nor his connections with the other defendants, most of whom he didn't even know, while others he knew only by chance; nor any documents that had supposedly been entrusted to his safekeeping; nor that sealed package of documents which he was supposed to have handed over to Riazanov.
In the course of the interrogation and negotiations with the investigator, it became clear to Rubin that the name of Riazanov would figure in the whole affair, if not in Rubin's testimony, then in the testimony of someone else. And Rubin agreed to tell the whole story about the mythical package. My brother told me that speaking against Riazanov was just like speaking against his own father. That was the hardest part for him, and he decided to make it look as if he had fooled Riazanov, who had trusted him implicitly. My brother stubbornly kept to this position in all his depositions: Riazanov had trusted him personally and he, Rubin, had fooled trustful Riazanov. No one and nothing could shake him from this position. His deposition of February 21 concerning this matter was printed in the indictment and signed by Krylenko on February 23, 1931. The deposition said that Rubin handed Riazanov the documents in a sealed envelope, and asked him to keep them for a while at the Institute. My brother stressed this position in all his statements before and during the trial. At the trial he gave a number of examples which were supposed to explain why Riazanov trusted him so much...
Putting the problem in such a way ruined the prosecutor's plan. He asked Rubin point-blank: "Didn't you establish any organizational connection?" Rubin replied, "No, there was no organizational connection, there was only his great personal trust in me." Then Krylenko asked for a recess. When he and the other defendants got to another room, Krylenko said to Rubin: "You did not say what you should have said. After the recess I will call you back to the stand, and you will correct your reply." Rubin answered sharply: "Do not call me any more. I will again repeat what I said." The result of this conflict was that, instead of the agreed three years in prison, Rubin was given five, and in his concluding speech Krylenko gave a devastating characterization of Rubin like that of no one else. Everyone interested in the case could not understand why there was so much spite and venom in this characterization.
Rubin set himself the goal of doing everything in his power to "shield" Riazanov.... At the trial the possibility of defining in this way his position with respect to Riazanov gave Rubin a certain moral satisfaction. But these legal subtleties made little sense to anyone else. Politically Riazanov was compromised, and Rubin was stricken from the list of people who have the right to a life worthy of man. Rubin himself, in his own consciousness, struck himself from the list of such people as soon as he began to give his "testimony." It is interesting what my brother felt when they took him back to Moscow from Suzdal. When, sick and tortured, he was put into the sleigh, he remembered, in his words, how self-assured and internally strong he had been when he came to Suzdal, and how he was leaving morally broken, destroyed, degraded to a state of complete hopelessness. Rubin understood perfectly well that by his "confession" he had put an end to his life as an honorable, uncorrupted worker and achiever in his chosen field of scholarship.
But that was not the main thing; the main thing was that he was destroyed as a man. Rubin understood perfectly well what repercussions his confession would have. Why had Rubin borne false witness against himself? Why had he also named Riazanov? Why had he violated the most elementary, most primitive concepts of human behavior? Everyone knew with what mutual respect these two men were connected, Rubin and Riazanov. Riazanov who was considerably older than Rubin, saw in him a talented Marxist scholar who had devoted his life to the study and popularization of Marxism. Riazanov had trusted him unreservedly; he himself was bewildered by what had happened. Here I want to recount an episode, a very painful one, the confrontation between Rubin and Riazanov. The confrontation took place in the presence of an investigator. Rubin, pale and tormented, turned to Riazanov, saying, "David Borisovich, you remember I handed you a package." Whether Riazanov said anything, and precisely what, I don't remember for sure. My brother right then was taken to his cell; in his cell he began to beat his head against the wall. Anyone who knew how calm and self-controlled Rubin was can understand what a state he had been brought to. According to rumors, Riazanov used to say that he could not understand what had happened to Isaac Il'ich.
The defendants in the case of the "Union Bureau" were sentenced to various terms of imprisonment, and all fourteen men were transferred to the political prison in the town of Verkhneural'sk. Rubin, sentenced to five years, was subjected to solitary confinement. The others, who received terms of ten, eight, and five years, were placed several men to a cell. Rubin remained in solitary confinement throughout his imprisonment. During his confinement he continued his scholarly work. Rubin became sick in prison, and lip cancer was suspected. In connection with this sickness, in January, 1933, he was taken to Moscow, to the hospital in Butyrskaia Prison. While in the hospital Rubin was visited twice by GPU officials who offered to make his situation easier, to free him, to enable him to do research. But both times Rubin refused, understanding the price that is paid for such favors. After spending six to eight weeks in the prison hospital, he was taken back to the political prison in Verkhneural'sk. . . . A year later, in 1934, Rubin was released on a commuted sentence, and exiled to the town of Turgai, then an almost unpopulated settlement in the desert. Aside from Rubin there were no other exiles there.
After several months at Turgai, Rubin was permitted to settle in the town of Aktiubinsk.... He got work in a consumer cooperative, as a plan economist. In addition he continued to do his own scholarly work. In the summer of 1935, his wife became seriously sick. My brother sent a telegram asking me to come. I went right away to Aktiubinsk; my brother's wife lay in the hospital, and he himself was in a very bad condition. A month later, when his wife had recovered, I went home to Moscow.... My brother told me that he did not want to return to Moscow, he did not want to meet his former circle of acquaintances. That showed how deeply he was spiritually shaken by all that he had been through. Only his great optimism that was characteristic of him and his deep scholarly interests gave him the strength to live.
In the fall of 1937, during the mass arrests of that time, my brother was again arrested. The prison in Aktiubinsk was overcrowded, the living conditions of the prisoners were terrifying. After a short stay in the prison, he was transferred somewhere outside of Aktiubinsk. We could find out nothing more about him.