The book is available here.
The most important aspect of this book is Rubin's reintegration of the fetishism of the commodity as underpinning Marx's entire critique of capitalism. In this way, political economy becomes
not a science of the relations of things to things, as was thought by vulgar economists, nor of the relations of people to things, as was asserted by the theory of marginal utility, but of the relations of people to people in the process of production. (Introduction)This is not necessarily easy to understand, nor does it seem initially particularly convincing (or perhaps it appears to be uselessly obvious?) but it enabled Marx to look behind the veil of money, employment, interest and rent, work-time and industrial production; to expose these interactions as ideological constructions that we have created between each other. Our day-to-day lives are lives where we act out our roles in a capitalist society as though these relationships between commodities and people are really existing categories rather than socially constructed phantoms of our consciousness.
One can only wonder why Marx's critics did not notice this inseparable connection between his labor theory of value and his theory of the reification or fetishization of the production relations among people. They understood Marx's theory of value in a mechanical-naturalistic, not in a sociological, sense. (Chapter 8)Since Rubin's time - he wrote these essays in the 1920s - it hasn't just been Marx's critics that didn't notice the inseparable connection, but the bulk of his biggest fans: Marxists.
Since the things come forth with a determined, fixed social form, they, in turn, begin to influence people, shaping their motivation, and inducing them to establish concrete production relations with each other. Possessing the social form of "capital," things make their owner a "capitalist" and in advance determine the concrete production relations which will be established between him and other members of society. It seems as if the social character of things determines the social character of their owners. Thus the "personification of things" is brought about. (Chapter 3)Economists
Rubin's ability to summarise economists is superb. He does so in one paragraph:
Vulgar economists commit two kinds of errors: 1) either they assign the "economic definiteness of form" to an "objective property" of things (C., II, p. 164), i.e., they derive social phenomena directly from technical phenomena; for example, the ability of capital to yield profit, which presupposes the existence of particular social classes and production relations among them, is explained in terms of the technical functions of capital in the role of means of production; 2) or they assign "certain properties materially inherent in instruments of labor" to the social form of the instruments of labor (Ibid.), i.e., they derive technical phenomena directly from social phenomena; for example, they assign the power to increase the productivity of labor which is inherent in means of production and represents their technical function, to capital, i.e., a specific social form of production (the theory of the productivity of capital). (Chapter 3)According to Rubin, Marx's approach is the inverse to how economists analyse the world:
Starting with the social forms as given, the Classical Economists tried to reduce complex forms to simpler forms by means of analysis in order finally to discover their material-technical basis or content. However, Marx, starting from a given condition of the material process of production, from a given level of productive forces, tried to explain the origin and character of social forms which are assumed by the material process of production. (Chapter 4)Value
Rubin links value with prices, in a way that all the Klimans, Bortkiewiczs, Cockshotts, and Sraffas persistently fail to do:
The basic error of the majority of Marx's critics consists of: 1) their complete failure to grasp the qualitative, sociological side of Marx's theory of value, and 2) their confining the quantitative side to the examination of exchange ratios, i.e., quantitative relations of value among things; they ignored the quantitative interrelations among the quantities of social labor distributed among the different branches of production and different enterprises, interrelations which lie at the basis of the quantitative determination of value. (Chapter 8)
The deviation of market prices from values is the mechanism by means of which the overproduction and underproduction is removed and the tendency toward the reestablishment of equilibrium among the given branches of production of the national economy is set up. (Chapter 8)
The average prices do not correspond to the actual movements of concrete market prices, but explain them. This theoretical, abstract formula of the movement of prices is, in fact, the "law of value." From this it can be seen that every objection to the theory of value which is based on the fact that concrete market prices do not coincide with theoretical "values," is nothing more than a misunderstanding. Total agreement between market price and value would mean the elimination of the unique regulator which prevents different branches of the social economy from moving in opposite directions. (Chapter 9)This "moving in opposites directions" is the result of the uncontrolled overproduction and underproduction in the anarchic commodity economy.
In a commodity economy, no one controls the distribution of labor among the individual branches of production and the individual enterprises. No clothmaker knows how much cloth is needed by society at a given time nor how much cloth is produced at a given time in all cloth-making enterprises. The production of cloth thus either outruns the demand (overproduction) or lags behind it (underproduction). (Chapter 8)Prices
Chapters 17 and 18 were the most challenging for me. Chapter 17 explains how supply and demand relate to value. Chapter 18 concerns the relationship between production prices and average profits, on one side, and value, on the other. This is more famously described as the transformation problem (the linked Wikipedia page needs a complete re-write, by the way.) Rubin provides no mechanistic transformation of value to production prices, but links them as layers in a general scientific theory.
The increase of productivity of labor, expressed in the labor-value of products, cannot influence the distribution of labor any other way than through its influence on the distribution of capital. Such influence on the distribution of capital is in turn possible only if changes in the productivity of labor and labor-value cause changes in costs of production or in the average rate of profit, i.e., influence the production price. (Chapter 18)
The labor theory of value is a theory of simple commodity economy, not in the sense that it explains the type of economy that preceded the capitalist economy, but in the sense that it describes only one aspect of the capitalist economy, namely production relations among commodity producers which are characteristic for every commodity economy. (Chapter 18)This layering works in much the same way as the theory of the cell gives way to organs, systems and organisms in biology. Perhaps a better analogy is the distinction between the matter of the brain and the formation of human consciousness. We know that human consciousness stems from chemical and electrical impulses in the brain, but we'll probably always be clueless as to how that manifests as what we experience as consciousness. In a similar sort of way, there is no mechanical transformation of value into price. However, we know the sociological truth that workers have nothing to sell but their labour-power. Workers are employed in a system that is so productive that they can easily out-produce what they need to survive, as workers, from day-to-day. This excess produce is captured and shared (between those that own everything) via an intellectually sophisticated and enforced social relationship, money. The only thing different between this - capitalism - and slavery or serfdom is that the excess produce isn't completely consumed by those that own everything, but used to expand this way of life.
NB This is not to suggest that the value-price relationship suffers from the same issue as the brain-mind relationship, an explanatory gap. The relationship between value and price is fully explained. It's merely that the relationship cannot be fully explained solely in economic or mathematical terms.
Rubin's life in soviet Russia appears to have been especially traumatic. From his Wikipedia page:
Rubin was arrested on December 23, 1930, and accused of being a member of the All-Union Bureau of Mensheviks, a fictitious secret organisation. [...] On January 28, 1931, Rubin was brought to another cell, where he was shown another prisoner and told that if he did not confess, the prisoner would be shot. Rubin refused and the prisoner was executed before him. The process was repeated the next night. After the second shooting, Rubin negotiated a "confession" with his interrogators, who insisted that he implicate his mentor David Riazanov as a member of a secret Menshevik conspiracy.
Rubin served most of his prison term in solitary confinement, during which he continued his research as best he could. When he fell ill with a suspected cancer, he was removed to a hospital and encouraged to make further confessions in return for favourable treatment, but declined the offer. He was released on a commuted sentence in 1934 and allowed to work in Aktyubinsk, Kazakhstan, as an economic planner. Rubin was arrested once more during the Great Purge in 1937. After this arrest he was never seen alive again.