Book Review: N. A. Rubakin, Among Books, Vol. II. Nauka Publishers, Moscow, 1913
|Written||4 April 1914|
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1972, Moscow, Volume 20, pages 259-261.
N. A. Rubakin, Among Books, Vol. II. Nauka Publishers, Moscow, 1913. Price 4 rubles. Second Edition[edit source]
This bulky tome of 930 large pages of very small type, printed partly in double columns, is an “attempt to review Russian book treasures in connection with the history of scientific-philosophical and literary-social ideas”. Thus runs the subtitle of the book.
The second volume, which we are here reviewing, covers the various fields of the social sciences. This includes, among others, socialism in Western Europe as well as in Russia. A publication of this type is obviously of great interest, and the author’s plan is on the whole a correct one. It is really impossible to give a sensible “review of Russian book treasures” and a “work of reference” for self-education and libraries otherwise than in connection with the history of ideas. What is needed here is “preliminary remarks” to every section (these the author provides) with a general survey of the subject and an accurate summary of each ideological trend, as well as a list of books for the particular section and for each ideological trend.
The author and his numerous collaborators, as mentioned in the preface, have expended an enormous amount of labour and started an extremely valuable undertaking, which deserves from us the cordial wish that it may grow and develop in scope and depth. Very valuable, among other things, is the fact that the author excludes neither foreign publications nor publications that have been prosecuted. No decent library can dispense with Mr. Rubakin’s work.
The faults of this book are its author’s eclecticism and the fact that he does not sufficiently enlist, or rather, that he has barely begun to enlist, the co-operation of specialists on definite subjects.
The first fault is perhaps due to the author’s peculiar aversion for “polemics”. In his preface, Mr. Rubakin says: “Never in my life have I taken part in any polemics, for I believe that in the overwhelming majority of cases polemics are one of the best means of obscuring the truth with all sorts of human emotions.” The author does not realise, for one thing, that there has never been, nor can there be, any human search for truth without “human emotions”. The author forgets, secondly, that he has set out to review “the history of ideas”, and the history of ideas is that of the succession, and consequently of the conflict of ideas.
One of the two—either we ignore the conflict of ideas, in which case it is rather difficult to undertake a review of its history (let alone participate in this conflict), or else we abandon the claim “never to take part in any polemics”. For example: I turn to Mr. Rubakin’s “preliminary remarks” on the theory of political economy and at once see that the author escapes from this dilemma firstly by means of veiled polemics (a form that has all the demerits of polemics and none of its great merits), and, secondly, by defending eclecticism.
In his outline of Bogdanov’s Short Course, Mr. Rubakin “ventures”, to note the “interesting” similarity between one of the deductions made by the “Marxist” author and “N. K. Mikhailovsky’s well-known formula of progress” (p. 815).
0, Mr. Rubakin, who says, “Never in my life have I taken part in any polemics”....
On the preceding page he eulogises the “strictly scientific method, profound analysis and critical attitude towards extremely important theories” of—who would you think?—that exemplary eclecticist Mr. Tugan-Baranovsky! Mr. Rubakin himself is compelled to admit that this professor is somewhat of an adherent of Marxism, somewhat of an adherent of Narodism and somewhat of an adherent of the “theory of marginal utility”, and yet calls him a “socialist”! Does not writing a monstrous thing like this amount to indulging in polemics of the worst kind against socialism?
Had Mr. Rubakin divided the 14,000 odd words (i.e., a whole pamphlet) which he wrote as an introduction to the literature on political economy, into four parts, and had he arranged to have them written by, say, a Black-Hundred-man, a liberal, a Narodnik, and a Marxist, we would have had a more public polemic, and 999 readers out of a thousand would have discovered the truth a thousand times more easily and quickly.
Mr. Rubakin has resorted to this kind of device—that of enlisting the co-operation of representatives of “polemics”—in the question of Bolshevism and Menshevism, and devoted half a page to me and another half to L. Martov. As far as I am concerned, I am quite satisfied with L. Martov’s exposition, for example, with his admission that liquidationism amounts to attempts “at creating a legal workers’ party”, and to “a negative attitude to surviving underground organisations” (pp. 771–72), or with his admission that “Menshevism saw no other way in which the proletariat could take a useful part in the crisis” (i.e., that of 1905) “except by helping the bourgeois liberal democrats in their attempts to eject the reactionary section of the propertied classes from political power—but while rendering this assistance, the proletariat was to maintain its complete political independence” (772).
As soon as Mr. Rubakin continues this outline of Menshevism on his own, he falls into error—for example, his assertion that Axelrod “withdrew” from liquidationism together with Plekhanov (772). While we do not blame Mr. Rubakin very much for such errors, which are inevitable in the initial stages of a work of this varied and compilatory nature, yet we cannot help wishing that the author would more often employ the method of enlisting the co-operation of representatives of the different trends in all fields of knowledge. This would make for greater accuracy and completeness of the work, as well as for its impartiality; only eclecticism and veiled polemics stand to lose by this.
- The theory of “marginal utility” was advanced by the Austrian school at the end of the nineteenth century in opposition to the Marxian theory of labour value. This school was a species of vulgar political economy, but unlike some of the latter’s exponents, it determined the value of a commodity, not simply by its utility, but by the utility of the final (marginal) unit of stock of the given commodity which satisfies the least urgent needs of a person. In substance, the theory of “marginal utility”, like the sum total of the economic and philosophical tenets of the Austrian school, was merely an attempt to gloss over the essential nature of exploitation under capitalism.
- See present edition, Vol. 18, pp. 485–86.—Ed.