Rodbertus, Johann Karl

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Rodbertus, Johann Karl



Johann Karl Rodbertus (1805–1875), also known as Rodbertus-Jagetzow, was born in Greifs-wald, Pomerania, then under Swedish jurisdiction, where his father was a professor of Roman law and a member of the Swedish judiciary. His mother was the daughter of Johann August Schlettwein, a physiocrat and professor of statistics and political economy. After Napoleon’s troops occupied Greifswald, the elder Rodbertus resigned his post, in 1808, and withdrew with his family to one of the Schlettwein estates. Rodbertus then attended the Gymnasium in Friedland, Mecklenburg, an institution permeated with the liberalism of that period. His subsequent study of law in Gottingen and Berlin, from 1823 to 1826, led to his service as a barrister to the Prussian state. In 1832 he left government service and turned to the study of political economy, first in Dresden and then in Heidelberg, supplementing his academic studies with travel in Switzerland, France, and Holland. There he became aware of the grave social tensions related to industrialization, and these remained his concern to the end of his life.

Rodbertus was a German state socialist, as were Ferdinand Lassalle and Adolf Wagner. He was in constant correspondence with these two men, and their mutual influence is unmistakable, particularly that between Rodbertus and Lassalle. These two agreed that given the existing political and legal order and the institution of private property in capital and land that was based on it, there was no hope of solving the “social problem” (i.e., the social disorganization attendant on the industrial revolution). Yet Rodbertus and Lassalle differed in their approaches to the modification of the existing order: Lassalle sought to achieve his aims by forming a political party—a social democratic party—while Rodbertus insisted that the socialist movement concern itself only with economic matters and abstain from all political aims.

Rodbertus’ diagnosis of the ills of society begins with an analysis of the economic and social effects of private property. In an economic system based on private property, labor becomes a commodity and land becomes capital. If the private ownership of land and the means of production were eliminated, all goods might, from the economic point of view, be considered products of labor. Their value, then, would depend exclusively on the amount of labor required for their production. The existence in the economic system of capital rent (interest) and land rent was attributed by Rodbertus to two causes, one economic and one legal. The economic cause is the fact that the division of labor and advancing production technology enable the worker to produce more than he requires for his own support. The legal cause lies in the protection by law of private ownership of land and of the means of production. Both the peasants and the workers may therefore be charged by the owners for the use of their property, and the charge that is exacted takes the form of part of the product of labor. Rodbertus called this “rental profit,” which in turn can be divided into land rent and capital rent.

According to Rodbertus’ theory of labor value, capital rent is independent of the total capital, deriving only from that part of capital which is expended on labor. Since rent represents the ratio of the surplus value levied to the capital invested by the entrepreneur, it is lower in industry than in agricultural production, where the soil, as a gratuitous means of production, contributes its own fertility to output. Hence, what Rodbertus called an “absolute land rent” is derived from the soil, and the soil should be considered as a rent fund rather than as capital. The implication of this theory of rent for agrarian policy is, according to Rodbertus, that land should not be encumbered with capital debt but only with the obligation of paying rent. He believed that mortgage indebtedness should be replaced by payment of permanently fixed rent. This proposal was effected in part, and only temporarily, by the establishment of so-called rent estates.

As Rodbertus saw it, the moral development of man is impeded by a social system that, by virtue of private ownership of land and of the means of production, turns labor into a commodity and land into capital. For the sake of the community as a whole, over and above that of the individual, it was necessary to change the system. Unlike Marx, Rodbertus did not believe that change had to be revolutionary; his conception of change was influenced by Fichte and Schelling and was evolutionary in nature. To be sure, Rodbertus did not believe that mankind would simply evolve toward an ideal type; rather, he thought that ever-increasing economic entanglements would impel men to effect remedial political action. Only in the remote future would the process of historical evolution result in a society organized on a moral basis, with the total elimination of private ownership of the means of production and of land. Such a social-historical conception—it has also been termed metaphysical collectivism—was hardly practical, and it is not surprising that Rodbertus’ doctrines had little or no influence on the German labor movement.

The basic principles of Rodbertus’ social philosophy (later supplemented by his political economy) were first presented in an article entitled “Die Forderungen der arbeitenden Klassen” (submitted to the Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung in 1837 or 1839, but not accepted by that newspaper). Rodbertus believed that a social order must be based on one of two systems: either that of discipline and subordination, or that of education (which in turn is based on upbringing and instruction). In antiquity, the social order was of necessity based on discipline and subordination: Rodbertus believed slavery and exploitation to be justified as long as the productivity of the economy was so low as to support adequately only the cultured stratum of society. But with the growth of productivity, the poorer strata should be granted a share in the social product over and above the subsistence level. If this does not occur and only the few continue to benefit from the increased flow of goods, it is because obsolete juridical and economic institutions are vitiating proper distribution, and it means that the social order requires modification.

What makes for this “wrong” distribution is the iron law of wages, by virtue of which the social product is so distributed among landowners, capitalists, and workers that the last receive a constant amount, and hence a constantly diminishing share, despite rising productivity. In an age when discipline and slavery no longer serve as the underlying principles of social organization but have been replaced by education, nothing can save society from collapse so long as the workers’ misery and poverty “destroy what the school is trying to accomplish” (1839, p. 16). There is then a fundamental defect in those legal and economic institutions that permit the iron law of wages to drive the classes of society increasingly apart and thus to imperil the progress of civilization and the very existence of culture.

Only government intervention, Rodbertus believed, can counteract what he called the law of the decreasing wage share. The rent received by capitalists and landowners should be abolished, thus eliminating “rent-receiving private property,” at the same time that the workers’ ownership of the product of labor is guaranteed. Rodbertus proposed that the average labor time spent on production determine the distribution of the social product. (For Rodbertus’ related concept of the “normal working day,” see his 1871 article.) Each worker should receive a confirmed claim to products collected in a storehouse, corresponding to his contribution in terms of labor time. A new currency of constant value can be introduced in this manner. (It is worth noting the failure of Robert Owen’s attempt, in 1833, to establish a labor exchange.)

Rodbertus’ researches in economic history served to support various aspects of his theoretical system—for example, his assertion that originally there was only a single rent, which became differentiated into land rent and interest on capital with the introduction of the division of labor. His conception of the historical relativity of economic conditions led him to reject revolutionary demands, on theoretical as well as political grounds. Politically, he considered every revolution a detour, since it involved the destruction of law and order; as a theorist, he advocated a guided “system of social foresight” in lieu of laissez-faire. He was not in favor of tampering with the current distribution of property; only its “fruits” (interest on capital and land) should be redistributed by governmental measures.

Bruno Fritsch

[Śee alsoRent; and the biographies ofThÜnen; Wagner.]


(1839) 1946 Die Forderungen der arbeitenden Klassen. Sozialökonomische Texte, Vol. 5. Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann.

1842 Zur Erkenntnis unserer staatswirtschaftlichen Zustäande. Neubrandenburg: Lingnau.

(1850) 1898 Overproduction and Crises. New York: Scribner. → First published in German as the second of the “Sociale Briefe an von Kirchmann.”

1864–1867 Untersuchungen auf dem Gebiete der Nationalökonomie des klassischen Alterthums. Parts 1–2. Jahrbücher für Nationalökonomie und Statistik 2:206–268; 4:341–427; 5:135–171, 241–315; 8:81–126, 385–475. → Part 1: Zur Geschichte der agrari-schen Entwickelung Roms unter den Kaisern, oder die Adscriptitier, Inquilinen und Colonen. Part 2: Zur Geschichte der romischen Tributsteuern seit Augustus.

(1868–1869) 1893 Zur Erklarung und Abhiilfe der heut-igen Creditnoih des Grundbesitzes. 2d ed. Berlin: Bahr.

1870 Zur Frage des Sachwerths des Geldes im Alterthum. Jahrbücher für Nationalökonomie und Statistik 14: 341–420; 15:182–234.

(1871) 1899 Der Normal-Arbeitstag. Pages 337–359 in Johann Karl Rodbertus, Schriften. Volume 4: Gesam-melte kleine Schriften. Berlin: Puttkammer & Miihl-brecht.

1884 Ein Versuch, die Höhe des antiken Zinsfusses zuerklären. Jahrbücher für Nationalökonomie und Statistik 42:513–535. → Published posthumously.

1891 Erinnerungen an Rodbertus. Part 1: Eine autobio-graphische Skizze. Jahrbuch für Gesetzgebung, Ver-waltung und Volkswirtschaft im Deutschen Reich 15: 585–591. → Published posthumously.

Aus dem literarischen Nachlass von Carl Rodbertus-Jaget-zow. Volume 1: Briefe von Ferdinand Lassalle an Carl Rodbertus-Jagetzow. Berlin: Puttkammer & Mühlbrecht, 1878.

Briefe und socialpolitische Aufsätze. 2 vols. Edited by Rudolph Meyer. Berlin: Klein, 1882.

Deutscher Staat und Sozialismus. Selected and with a foreword by Horst Wagenführ. Potsdam: Protte, 1935.

Neue Briefe über Grundrente, Rentenprinzip und soziale Frage an Schumacher. Edited by Robert Michels and Ernst Ackermann. Bibliothek der Soziologie und Politik, Vol. 1. Karlsruhe: Braun, 1926.

Schriften von Johann Carl Rodbertus Jagetzow. 4 vols. Edited by Adolph Wagner, Theophil Kozak, and Moritz Wirth. Berlin: Puttkammer & Muhlbrecht, 1899. → Volume 1: Das Kapital (1884). Volumes 2–3: Zur Beleuchtung der socialen Frage. 2 vols. (1850–1885). Volume 4: Gesammelte kleine Schriften (1845–1871).


Adler, Georg 1884 Rodbertus: Der Begriinder des wis-senschaftlichen Sozialismus. Leipzig: Duncker & Hum-blot.

Bahr, Hermann 1884 Rodbertus’ Theorie der Absatzkrisen. Vienna: Konegen.

Bradke, Elisabeth von 1923 Die Gesellschaftslehre von Karl Rodbertus-Jagetzow. Archiv ü Sozialwissen-schaft und Sozialpolitik 50:34–86.

Conrad, J. 1870 Das Rentenprincip nach Rodbertus’Vor-schlag und seine Bedeutung für die Landwirthschaft. Jahrbücher für Nationalökonomie und Statistik 14: 149–182.

CornÉlissen, Christian (1903) 1926 Théeorie de la valeur, avec une réfutation des theéries de Rodbertus & Karl Marx, Walras, Stanley Jevons & Boehm-Bawerk. 2d ed. Paris: Giard.

Dietzel, Heinrich 1886 Das “Problem” des literarischen Nachlasses von Rodbertus-Jagetzow. Jahrbücher für Nationalökonomie und Statistik 47:243–257.

Dietzel, Heinrich 1886–1888 Karl Rodbertus: Darstel-lung seines Lebens und seiner Lehre. 2 vols. Jena: Fischer.

Graziani, Augusto 1927 Le lettere inedite di Rodbertus. Giornale degli economisti e rivista di statistica Fourth Series 67:195–198.

Herberg, KÄthe 1929 Die Einkommenslehr bei Thünen und bei Rodbertus. Hagen: Ose.

Kolischer, Heinrich 1876 Rodbertus’ Ansichten über den landwirthschaftlichen Hypothekenkredit: Erstes Hauptstück einer Arbeit über Verschuldung und Ueber-schuldung des ländlichen Grundbesitzes. Vienna: Seidl-Mayer.

Kozak, Theophil 1879 Verzeichniss der hauptsächlich-sten Publikationen von Rodbertus. Jahrbücher für Nationalökonomie und Statistik 33:311–324.

Kozak, Theophil 1882 Rodbertus-Jagetzow’s social-ökonomische Ansichten. Jena: Fischer.

Lexis, W. 1884 Zur Kritik der Rodbertus’schen Theorien. Jahrbücher für Nationalökonomie und Statistik 43:462–476.

Michels, Robert 1926 Rodbertus und sein Kreis. Pages 1–82 in Karl Rodbertus, Neue Briefe über Grundrente, Rentenprinzip und soziale Frage an Schumacher. Karlsruhe: Braun.

Muziol, Roman 1927 Karl Rodbertus als Begründer der sozialrechtlichen Anschauungsweise. Beiträge zur Geschichte der Nationalökonomie, Vol. 4. Jena: Fischer.

Nacht, Oskar 1907 Rodbertus’ Stellung zur sozialen Frage. Berlin: Puttkammer & Muhlbrecht.

Oppenheimer, Franz 1908 Rodbertus’ Angriff auf Ri-cardos Renten-Theorie und der Lexis-Diehl’sche Rettungsversuch. Berlin: Reimer.

Ruhkopf, Karl 1892 Rodbertus Theorie von den Handelskrisen; Darstellung und Kritik: Eine Studie. Leipzig: Gräfe.

Schultz, Wilhelm 1882 Die Arbeit als Quelle und Maass des Werthes. Leipzig: Findel.

Storch, Ludwig 1930 Karl Rodbertus und Adolph Wagner als Staatssozialisten. Giessen: Engel.

Thier, Erich 1930 Rodbertus, Lassalle, Adolph Wagner: Ein Beitrag zur Theorie und Geschichte des deutschen Staatssozialismus. Jena: Fischer.

Wanstrat, Renate 1950 Johann Karl Rodbertus: Zur 75. Wiederkehr seines Todestages. Schmollers Jahrbuch für Gesetzgebung, Verwaltung und Volkswirt-schaft 70:385–408.

Wahninghoff, Albert 1938 Die Bestrebungen um die Neugestaltung des landwirtschaftlichen Kredits seit Rodbertus. Hamburg: Preilipper.

Zuns, Julius 1883 Einiges über Rodbertus. Berlin: Puttkammer & Mühlbrecht.