Maurice Dobb

Maurice Dobb

Maurice Herbert Dobb (July 24, 1900 - August 17, 1976), was a British Marxist economist, and a lecturer 1924-1959 and Reader 1959-1976 at Cambridge University and a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge 1948-1976.



Dobb was born in London and admitted to Pembroke College, Cambridge in 1919 as an exhibitioner to study history. However after his first year he changed the subject of his studies to economics and gained firsts in both parts of the tripos in 1921 and 1922. After two years at the London School of Economics in a research post and producing his PhD he returned to Cambridge to take up a post as University lecturer in 1924, also teaching at his old college.

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 Comintern.[1]


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 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 coordination, external effects and variables in planning.

Antecedent coordination

Planned economies employ antecedent coordination of the economy. In contrast a market economy atomizes 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

Dobb was an early theorist to recognize 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. 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 publicized negative external effects on the environment.

Variables in planning

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 standardization or variety in production that the economy at its stage of development feels it can afford.


  • Capitalist Enterprise and Social Progress, 1925
  • Russian Economic Development since the Revolution, 1928
  • Wages, 1928
  • "Economic Theory and the Problems of a Socialist Economy", 1933, EJ.
  • Political Economy and Capitalism: Some essays in economic tradition, 1937
  • Marx as an Economist, 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, 1955
  • An Essay on Economic Growth and Planning, 1960
  • 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, 1973
  • "Some Historical Reflections on Planning and the Market", 1974, in Abramsky, editor, Essays in Honour of E.H.Carr, London, Macmillan Press


  1. ^ Phillip Knightley, Philby: The Life and Views of the KGB Masterspy, Andre Deutsch, London, 1988, pp 30-31, 36-37, 45.

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