Maurice Dobb

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Maurice Dobb
Born 24 July 1900
Died 17 August 1976
Nationality British
Field Political economy
School or tradition
Marxian economics
Influences Karl Marx
Influenced Harry Gordon Johnson, Duncan K. Foley, David Laibman, Yanis Varoufakis

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.


Early years[edit]

Maurice Dobb was born on 24 July 1900 in London, the son of Walter Herbert Dobb and the former Elsie Annie Moir.[1] Dobb was educated at Charterhouse School in Surrey, an independent boarding school.[2]

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]

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]

The controversy surrounding his divorce from his first wife Phyllis, whom he had married in 1923, and his devotion to Marxism contributed to his losing his dining rights and his students. However, Dobb soon found a position at Trinity College, keeping his connection with the college for 50 years, although he was not to be offered a fellowship until 1948. He did not receive a University readership until 1959.

In 1920 Dobb joined the Communist Party and in 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 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]

Death and legacy[edit]

Maurice Dobb died on 17 August 1976.

Economic thought[edit]

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 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-ordination[edit]

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 effects[edit]

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 planning[edit]

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.


  • Capitalist Enterprise and Social Progress, 1925
  • Russian Economic Development since the Revolution. Assisted by H. C. Stevens. London: G. Routledge & Sons, 1928.
  • Wages, 1928
  • "Economic Theory and the Problems of a Socialist Economy", 1933, EJ.
  • 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
  • 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 reading[edit]

  • Timothy Shenk, Maurice Dobb: Political Economist. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

External links[edit]