Maurice Dobb

Maurice Herbert Dobb (24 July 1900 – 17 August 1976) was a British economist at Cambridge University and a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. He is remembered as one of the pre-eminent Marxist economists of the 20th century.

Maurice Dobb
Born24 July 1900
Died17 August 1976 (aged 76)
FieldPolitical economy
School or
Marxian economics
InfluencesKarl Marx


Maurice Dobb was born on 24 July 1900 in London, the son of Walter Herbert Dobb and the former Elsie Annie Moir.[1] Dobb and his family lived in Willesden, a suburb of London. Dobb was educated at Charterhouse School in Surrey, an independent boarding school.[2] He began writing after the death of his mother, during his early teenage years, and his covert, introverted personality prevented him from building a network of friends. His earliest novels were fictional fantasies. Much like his father, Dobb initiated practice in Christian Science after his mother's death; the family had previously belonged to the Presbyterian church.

Saved from military conscription by the Armistice of November 1918, Dobb was admitted to Pembroke College, Cambridge, in 1919 as an exhibitioner to study economics.[3] Dobb gained firsts in both parts of the economics tripos in 1921 and 1922 and was admitted to the London School of Economics for graduate studies.[3] Following his achievement of a PhD in 1924, Dobb returned to Cambridge to take up a post as University lecturer.[3]

In 1920, after Dobb’s first year at Pembroke College, John Maynard Keynes invited Dobb to join the Political Economy Club, and after graduation Keynes helped him secure a position at Cambridge. Dobb was open with his students about his communist beliefs. One of his students, Victor Kiernan, later reported: "We had no time then to assimilate Marxist theory more than very roughly; it was only beginning to take root in England, although it had one remarkable expounder at Cambridge in Maurice Dobb." [4] Dobb's house, "St Andrews" in Chesterton Lane, was a frequent meeting place for Cambridge communists that it was known locally as "The Red House".[5]

Dobb joined the Communist Party in 1920 and during the 1930s was central to the burgeoning Communist movement at the university. One of his recruits was Kim Philby, who later became a high-placed mole within British intelligence. It has been suggested that Dobb was a "talent-spotter" for the Comintern.[6] Dobb was one of the great communist revolutionaries in Britain at the time. He was very politically active and spent a considerable amount of time organizing rallies and presenting lectures on a consistent basis. The economist commonly focused on vulnerability to economic crisis, and pointed to the United States when referring to capitalist money assisting military agendas instead of public works.


Dobb's position at Trinity helped him stay connected to the college for more than 50 years. Dobb was elected as a fellow of Trinity College at Cambridge in 1948, at which time he began joint work with Piero Sraffa assembling the selected works and letters of David Ricardo.[7] The result of this effort was eventually published in eleven volumes.[8] He did not receive a University readership until 1959.

Over the span of his career he published twelve academic books, more than twenty-four pamphlets, and numerous articles meant for general audiences. He often wrote on political economy, drawing a connection between the social context and problems in society and how that influences market exchange. "Economic relations of men determine social associations of men" he said in his Marxian economics class. Dobb believed the capitalist system created classes, and with class comes class warfare. After his 1925 trip to Russia with Keynes, Dobb refrained slightly from his interests of political conflict; he was notorious for long and dull lectures with fewer attendees each class.

Other positions held by Dobb around 1928 include teaching in a summer school, acting as the Chairman of the Faculty of Economics of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and even helping to launch the party's own film company. He encountered differing opinions with people in the party, pushing that intellect and political activity are not mutually exclusive.

In 1931, Dobb married Barbara Marian Nixon, and unlike his first marriage stayed with Nixon for the rest of his life. She never claimed herself a communist, but was an active member of the Labour Party and held a seat on the London County Council while pursuing a career in acting. Dobb's personal life was of particular interest to his colleagues, and due to the controversy Pembroke College dropped Dobb as a Director of Studies[9] and withdrew his dining rights. In the same year he had given a lecture describing a recent trip to Russia, which prompted some to call him a "paid official of the Russian government", and in turn caused a small scandal at Cambridge. Dobb responded by writing an article in The Times claiming he had no connection to the Soviet Union.

The Hogarth PressEdit

The Hogarth Press, founded by Virginia and Leonard Woolf, was a printing press intent on publishing items that encouraged free exchange of ideas. Leonard Woolf himself was an anti-imperialist. He also believed intellectual exchange was the same as economical exchange in material form; Dobb’s publications were both intellectual exchange through introduction and defense of Marxism, as well as a pieces of work that could be sold. Publications possibly reflected the opinions of Leonard and Virginia Woolf. Leonard Woolf later commissioned The Political and Social Doctrine of Communism, and originally asked Maurice Dobb and another author, who both refused. Between “1924 and the late 1930s, the Hogarth Press published eight pamphlets on Russia, communism, and Marxism… the motives, supported by Leonard Woolf, were political and educational."

Dobb published two pamphlets with the Hogarth Press. The first, Russia To-day and Tomorrow (1930), was written after his return from Russia with Keynes. Dobb comments on the Soviet Union’s economy, politics, industry, and culture. Russia To-Day and Tomorrow was a bestseller during the 1930s. His second publication, On Marxism To-Day (1932) was another pamphlet meant to be a rudimentary introduction to communism directed to the general public.

Death and legacyEdit

Maurice Dobb died on 17 August 1976. Before his death in 1976 and the downfall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Dobb started to question his earlier devotion to Russia’s economics.

His communist ideals, however, did not die with him. Dobb had two notable students, Amartya Sen and Eric Hobsbawm. Sen won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1998 and Bharat Ratna in 1999 for his work in welfare economics, as well as the inaugural Charleston-EFG John Maynard Keynes Prize in recognition of his work on welfare economics. Sen is also a fellow at Trinity College, much like Dobb was. Hobsbawm attended the University of Cambridge, like Dobb, and was a Marxist historiographer who published numerous works on Marxism and was also active in the Communist Party Historians Group and the British Communist Party.

Economic thoughtEdit

Dobb was an economist who was primarily involved in the interpretation of neoclassical economic theory from a Marxist point of view. His involvement in the original economic calculation problem debate consisted of critiques of capitalist, centrally planned socialist, or market socialist models that were based upon the neoclassical framework of static equilibrium. Dobb was quite critical of the marginalist thought within neoclassical economics as well. Since Marx passed away by the time this economic thought became popular within the field, Dobb would argue in favor of Marx. Marginal utility, the main foundation of marginalism, states that there is a way to quantify levels of satisfaction as a person consumes each additional unit of a good. The level of satisfaction also depends on the person’s individual behavior. These ideas indicated that the prices set for goods are more, if not completely, influenced by the individual’s willingness to spend. The perceived value an individual gives to a good is the opposite of Marx’s labor theory of value described in Value, Price, Profit which states that the price for that good is determined by the amount of socially acceptable labor that goes into production. In Dobb’s book, Theories of Value and Distribution Since Adam Smith: Ideology and Economic Theory, Dobb argued that marginal utility and individual satisfaction cannot determine prices like marginalism suggests. In fact, Dobb stated that a person’s preferences and levels of satisfaction is heavily dependent on their individual wealth. In other words, their marginal utility is determined by their spending power. This spending power, according to Dobb, was the distribution of wealth and that alone could change prices since the price would depend on how much someone would spend on it. Therefore, he argued that individual behavior cannot influence prices since there are many other factors such as labor and spending power that can affect them. [10] Dobb charged the market socialist model of Oskar Lange and the contributions of "neo-classical" socialists of an illegitimate "narrowing of the focus of study to problems of exchange-relations." (Economists and the Economics of Socialism, 1939.)

Many of his works have been published into different languages. His short publication Introduction to Economics was translated to Spanish by the Mexican intellectual Antonio Castro Leal for the leading Mexican publishing house Fondo de Cultura Economica, which has gone through more than ten editions since 1938.

For Dobb, the central economic challenges for socialism are related to production and investment in their dynamic aspects. He identified three major advantages of planned economies: antecedent co-ordination, external effects and variables in planning.

Antecedent co-ordinationEdit

Planned economies employ antecedent co-ordination of the economy. In contrast a market economy atomises its agents by definition, the expectations which form the basis of their decisions are always based on uncertainty. There is a poverty of information which often leads to disequilibrium that can only be corrected in a market ex post (after the event), and thus resources are wasted. An advantage of antecedent planning is removal of significant degrees of uncertainty in a context of coordinated and unified information gathering and decision-making prior to the commitment of resources.

External effectsEdit

Dobb was an early theorist to recognise the relevance of external effects to market exchanges. In a market economy, each economic agent in an exchange makes decisions on the basis of a narrow range of information in ignorance of any wider social effects of production and consumption. When external effects are significant, it invalidates the information transmitting qualities of market prices so that prices will not reflect true social opportunity costs. He claimed that contrary to the convenient assumptions of mainstream economists, significant external effects are in fact pervasive in modern market economies. Planning that coordinates interrelated decisions before their implementation can take into account a wider range of social effects. This has important applications for efficient industrial planning, including decisions about the external effects of uneven development between sectors, and in terms of the external effects of public works, and for development of infant industries; this is in addition to widely publicised negative external effects on the environment.

Variables in planningEdit

By taking the whole complex of factors into consideration, only coordinated antecedent planning allows for fluid allocation where things that appear as "data" in static frameworks can be used as variables in a planning process. By way of example one can enumerate the following categories of "data" that under coordinated antecedent plan would assume the form of variables that can be adjusted in the plan according to circumstances: rate of investment, distribution of investment between capital and consumption, choices of production techniques, geographical distribution of investment and relatives rates of growth of transport, fuel and power, and of agriculture in relation to industry, the rate of introduction of new products, and their character, and the degree of standardisation or variety in production that the economy at its stage of development feels it can afford.


  1. ^ Ronald L. Meek, "Portrait: Maurice Dobb," Challenge, vol. 22, no. 5 (Nov./Dec. 1979), p. 60.
  2. ^ Meek, "Portrait: Maurice Dobb," pp. 60–61.
  3. ^ a b c Meek, "Portrait: Maurice Dobb," pg. 61.
  4. ^ Victor Kiernan, London Review of Books (25 June 1987)
  5. ^ Biography of Maurice Dobb
  6. ^ Phillip Knightley, Philby: The Life and Views of the KGB Masterspy, Andre Deutsch, London, 1988, pp 30–31, 36–37, 45.
  7. ^ Antonio Callari, "Maurice Herbert Dobb (1900–1976)," in Robert A. Gorman (ed.), Biographical Dictionary of Marxism. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986; pp. 95–97.
  8. ^ Piero Sraffa and M.H. Dobb (eds.), The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo. Eleven volumes. Cambridge University Press, 1951–1973. Available online.
  9. ^ A don responsible for supervising the academic progress of students in a given subject in a given college, even if he does not personally teach the student in question. Every student reports both to a Tutor, responsible for his personal welfare, and to a Director of Studies.
  10. ^ Bharadwaj, K. (1978) Maurice Dobb's critique of theories of value and distribution. Cambridge Journal of Economics. Vol. 2, 153-174. Cambridge University Press.


  • Capitalist Enterprise and Social Progress, 1925
  • Russian Economic Development since the Revolution. Assisted by H. C. Stevens. London: G. Routledge & Sons, 1928.
  • Wages, 1928
  • "A skeptical view of the theory of wages", 1929, Economic Journal.
  • Russia To-Day and Tomorrow, 1930, The Hogarth Press
  • On Marxism To-Day, 1932, The Hogarth Press
  • "Economic Theory and the Problems of a Socialist Economy", 1933, Economic Journal.
  • Political Economy and Capitalism: Some essays in economic tradition, 1937.
  • Soviet Planning and Labour in Peace and War: Four Studies. London: George Routledge & Sons, 1942.
  • "How Soviet Trade Unions Work." San Francisco: International Bookshop, n.d. [1942]. —Leaflet.
  • Marx as an Economist: An Essay. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1943.
  • Soviet Economy and the War. New York: International Publishers, 1943.
  • Studies in the Development of Capitalism, 1946
  • Soviet Economic Development Since 1917, 1948
  • Reply (to Paul Sweezy's article on the transition from feudalism to capitalism), 1950, Science and Society.
  • Some Aspects of Economic Development, 1951
  • On Economic Theory and Socialism: Collected Papers. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1955.
  • An Essay on Economic Growth and Planning, 1960
  • Economic Growth and Underdeveloped Countries. New York: International Publishers, 1963.
  • Papers on Capitalism, Development and Planning, 1967
  • Welfare Economics and the Economics of Socialism, 1969
  • "The Sraffa System and Critique of the Neoclassical Theory of Distribution", 1970, De Economist
  • Socialist Planning: Some Problems. 1970
  • Theories of Value and Distribution Since Adam Smith: Ideology and Economic Theory. London: Cambridge University Press, 1973.
  • "Some Historical Reflections on Planning and the Market," in Chimen Abramsky (ed.), Essays in Honour of E. H. Carr, London, Macmillan Press, 1974.
  • An Essay on Economic Growth and Planning. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976.
  • The Development of Socialist Economic Thought: Selected Essays. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2008.

Further readingEdit

  • Dubino, J. (2010). Virginia Woolf and the Literary Marketplace. New York, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Eatwell, J., Murray Milgate, & Peter Newman, (eds.) (1990) The New Palgrave. Marxian Economics. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company.
  • Feinstein, C. (ed.) (1967). Socialism, Capitalism and Economic Growth: Essays Presented to Maurice Dobb. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Hobsbawm, E.J. (1967). "Maurice Dobb." In Feinstein (1967).
  • Hollander, Samuel. (2008). The Economics of Karl Marx: Analysis and Application. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Howard, M.C. & King, J.E. (1992). A History of Marxian Economics, Volume II: 1929-1990 Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Maurice Dobb Memorial Issue. (1978). Cambridge Journal of Economics, 2(2), June.
  • Meeks, Ronald. (1978). Obituary of Maurice Herbert Dobb. Proceedings of the British Academy 1977, 53, 333-44.
  • Pollitt, B.H. (1985). Clearing the path for ‘Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities’: Notes on the Collaboration of Maurice Dobb in Piero Sraffa’s edition of ‘The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo’. Mimeographed.
  • Sen, Amartya. (1990). "Maurice Herbert Dobb." In Eatwell, Milgate, & Newman, (1990).
  • Shenk, Timothy. (2013). Maurice Dobb: Political Economist. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Shenk, Timothy. (2013). "A Marxist in Keynes’ Court". Jacobin Magazine. October 9 issue.
  • Sraffa, P. (1960). Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities: Prelude to a Critique of Economic Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Sraffa, P., with the collaboration of M.H. Dobb. (1951–73). Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo. 11 vols, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

External linksEdit