Reference Writers: Karl Rodbertus


Johann Karl Rodbertus



Karl Rodbertus was born in Greifswald in Pomerania (now part of Germany) and trained as a lawyer. In 1835 he settled on his estate in Jagetzow in Prussia (now part of Germany). He briefly flirted with direct involvement in politics following the 1848 revolution but soon retired and began to write on topics of political economy. His analyses of rent, of the share of labour in national income and of crises enabled him to develop a socialist position which reconciled monarchy, nationalism and capitalism, allowing him to advocate and defend the system of Prussian 'state socialism' (nationalization) of the 1870s which was vigorously criticised by Marx and Engels.


He is most familiar to Marxists as source of criticisms of plagiarism, an allegation vigorously refuted by Engels in the Preface to the first German edition of Marx’s The Poverty of Philosophy and in the Preface to the Second Edition of Capital 2

Perhaps more importantly, Rodbertus theory of crises was based upon the naive idea that overproduction results from workers being unable to buy back what they have produced because their wages are too low. Despite explicit warnings from Engels, direct criticism of underconsumption theories in Anti-Duhring (here and here) and Capital 2, and implicit refutation by the analysis of reproduction in Part III of Capital 2, this simple, 'obvious' and wrong theory continues to rear its head. As Schumpeter remarks of Rodbertus theory of crisis, it is 'a type of underconsumptin theory that should be, but unfortunately is not, beneath discussion.' (History of Economic Analysis, p507).

Finally, Marx critically assessed Rodbertus theory of rent in Theories of Surplus Value.

Overall, Marx thought that 'There’s really much in it that is good' and 'in spite of its erroneous theory of rent, it sees through the nature of capitalist production'. This was similar to his appraisals of the various 'Ricardian Socialists' (Thompson, Gray, Hodgskin, Bray), who, while they erroneously used Ricardo's theory of value to claim the right of Labour to the whole of production, nevertheless exposed the exploitative nature of capitalism.


Overproduction and Crises. 1850