Maurice Dobb

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Person.png Maurice Dobb   SpartacusRdf-entity.pngRdf-icon.png
Born24 July 1900
Died17 August 1976 (Age 76)
Alma materCharterhouse School, Pembroke College (Cambridge), London School of Economics
Communist economist at Cambridge

Maurice Herbert Dobb was an English 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.


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

Dobb began writing after the death of his mother in his early teens. His introversion hindered 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 read economics.[3] He 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] After gaining a PhD in 1924, Dobb returned to Cambridge as university lecturer.[3]

In 1920, after Dobb's first year at Pembroke College, John Maynard Keynes invited him to join the Political Economy Club, and after graduation Keynes helped him secure his Cambridge position. Dobb was open with students about his communist beliefs. One of them, 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, known locally as "The Red House".[5]

Dobb joined the Communist Party in 1920 and in the 1930s was central to the burgeoning Communist movement at the university. One recruit 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.[6] Dobb was a highly placed communist revolutionary in Britain at the time.

Maurice Dobb was a great influence on people such as Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, Donald Maclean and James Klugmann. His friend, Eric Hobsbawm, has argued: "He joined the small band of Cambridge socialists as soon as he went up and... the Communist Party. Neither body was then used to such notably well-dressed recruits of such impeccably bourgeois comportment. He remained quietly loyal to his cause and party for the remainder of his life, pursuing a course, at times rather lonely, as a communist academic."[7]

Some historians have suggested that Dobb might have been the man who recruited Kim Philby as a spy. John Costello and Oleg Tsarev, the authors of Deadly Illusions (1993) point out that when Philby asked him "devote his life to the communist cause" Dobb did not then direct his former pupil to the "CPGB headquarters in London. Instead he gave Philby a letter of introduction to an executive of the International Workers Relief Organization known as MOPR." This contact then passed him to the Comintern agent.[8]

He was politically very active and spent much time organizing rallies and presenting lectures on a consistent basis. As an economist commonly focused on vulnerability to economic crisis and pointed to the United States as a case of capitalist money assisting military agendas instead of public works.


Dobb's position at Trinity connected him to it for more than 50 years. He was elected a fellow in 1948, at which time he began joint work with Piero Sraffa assembling the selected works and letters of David Ricardo.[9] The results were eventually published in eleven volumes.[10] He did not receive a university readership until 1959.

Over his career he published twelve academic books, more than 24 pamphlets and numerous articles 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 came class warfare. After a 1925 trip to Russia with Keynes, Dobb refrained slightly from his interests in political conflict; he was notorious for long and dull lectures with few students present.

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

In 1931, Dobb married Barbara Marian Nixon as a second wife for the rest of his life. She never claimed to be a communist, but was an active in the Labour Party and held a seat on 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[11] and withdrew his dining rights. In the same year he gave a lecture on his recent trip to Russia, which prompted some to call him a "paid official of the Russian government", again causing a small scandal at Cambridge. Dobb responded with an article in The Times claiming no connection with the Soviet Union.

Death and legacy

Maurice Dobb died on 17 August 1976. By then he had started to question his earlier devotion to Russia's economics.

His communist ideals, however, did not die with him. He 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, and the inaugural Charleston-EFG John Maynard Keynes Prize for his work on welfare economics. Sen is also a fellow at Trinity College, as Dobb was. Hobsbawm attended the University of Cambridge, like Dobb, and was a Marxist historiographer producing numerous works on Marxism and being active in the Communist Party Historians Group and the Communist Party of Great Britain.


  1. Ronald L. Meek, "Portrait: Maurice Dobb," Challenge, vol. 22, no. 5 (November/December 1979), p. 60.
  2. Meek, "Portrait: Maurice Dobb," pp. 60–61.
  3. a b c Meek, "Portrait: Maurice Dobb," p. 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 and 45.
  7. John Costello and Oleg Tsarev, Deadly Illusions (1993) page 125-126
  9. Antonio Callari, "Maurice Herbert Dobb (1900–1976)," in Robert A. Gorman (ed.), Biographical Dictionary of Marxism. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986; pp. 95–97.
  10. Piero Sraffa and M. H. Dobb, eds., The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo, Cambridge University Press, 1951–1973 Available online.
  11. 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.