U.S. Intellectual History Blog

On Timothy Shenk’s “Maurice Dobb: Political Economist” (Guest Post by Kurt Newman)

(Editor’s Note: This is the last in a series of guest posts by Kurt Newman.  I know I’m not alone in being extremely grateful for his contributions to the blog. And I hope that this is not the last of his appearances here! — Ben Alpers)

There is no more gratifying a way to conclude this series of essays than with a review of Timothy Shenk’s Maurice Dobb: Political Economist (London: Palgrave, 2013). Shenk’s monograph is an extraordinary accomplishment by a maddeningly gifted young historian. (Still a graduate student at Columbia University, Shenk is working with Eric Foner, Timothy Miller Mitchell, and Samuel Moyn, and is also finishing up a dissertation on the development of the American economic profession in the twentieth century).

Maurice Dobb (1900-1976)—a Cambridge economist, historian, and key figure in debates within postwar Marxism––interests us for a variety of reasons.

First, Dobb is the intellectual godfather of a key “anti-theory” development in American Marxism in recent decades—the rise of what is often called “political Marxism.” Under the influence of UCLA Professor Robert Brenner, a generation of historical materialists has drawn on Dobb, via Brenner, to resist the encroaching tides of deconstruction, post-Marxism, “cultural Marxism,” feminism, post-colonial thought, and neo-Frankfurt School negative dialectics.

There is an irony here—Dobb was among the only Cambridge Marxists who would agree to supervise Althusserian students in the 1970s, as Shenk reveals––and no doubt many “political Marxists” would dispute my presentation of the tensions between the Dobb-Brenner tradition and the rest of the world of theory. Moreover, they might insist, quite properly, that in its Weberian rigor and passion for abstract modeling, the Dobb-Brenner tradition is just as “theoretical,” if not more so, than any jargon-spouting mutant offspring of Tel Quel and Social Text.  If nothing else, adherents of the Dobb-Brenner tradition would surely object that the work of Dobb and Brenner demands disambiguation; that the latter substantially improved upon the former’s model.

I have no objection to any of these objections. I would merely point out that it is difficult to conceive of Brenner’s famous interventions into debates surrounding the transition from feudalism to capitalism without the earlier writings of Dobb, and that today the most forceful opponents of “theory” draw on some combination of Dobb and Brenner to slay the dragons of relativism, idealism, and continuing flirtations with epistemologies of “difference.” Consider, for example, Vivek Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (London: Verso, 2013), a text that draws rigorously and carefully (and, to my mind, pointlessly) on the Dobb-Brenner literature in order to debunk the Subaltern Studies tradition, and postcolonial theory more generally.

In the spirit of the kind of reception theory we have been pursuing here (and tying some knots between earlier essays and this final installment), it seems useful to highlight the fact that in a recent talk on the legacies of Edward Said, Antonio Gramsci’s The Southern Question, and the fate of postcolonial studies, Robin D.G. Kelley pauses to highlight his disagreements with Chibber and the larger project of a “political Marxist” “refutation” of theoretical “excess.”

We can conclude, I think, that antagonisms between a certain kind of “political Marxist” hatred of theory, and a certain defense of at least some part of the turn to theory by Marxist intellectuals with commitments to intersectional analysis, will continue to serve as driving forces of Left intellectual culture over the next few years.

On the other hand, Shenk’s work of drawing our attention to the life and thought of Dobb seems like a timely gesture because of the surge of neo-communist thought visible in every corner of the academic and activist Left. The key question here is whether the “c” in “communist” ought to be capitalized. Is the new enthusiasm for “communism” a reflection of post-2008 investments in what Alain Badiou calls “communist invariants” (those principles of equality and living “in common” that need not be linked, historically or sentimentally, to the histories of those parties that called themselves “Communist”), or is it, in fact, a call for a return to the good old days of the Communist Party, when things (in some way or another) were better?

I have my own thoughts about this crisis of capitalization. Here, what matters most is that this ambiguity provides a uniquely hospitable ambience in which to consider the career of an intellectual giant whose fidelity to a certain Communist Party—that of Great Britain––seemed never to waver.


This, despite scenes such as the one with which Shenk opens Chapter Four: “As he vomited into a toilet after a CPGB meeting, Maurice Dobb probably realized he had made a mistake.” Failing to internalize the ideological imperatives of the Third Period, in 1932 Dobb wrote and published a popular introduction to Marxism for the English public, entitled On Marxism Today. Censure from Party hacks like R. Palme Dutt was swift. Dobb quickly released a public apology.

Readers will no doubt find events such as these among the most mysterious and fascinating of Shenk’s book. We still live in the shadow of The God That Failed. How could the intellectuals of the twentieth century (this applies as much to liberals like Lionel Trilling or conservatives like Milton Friedman as it does to CP loyalists) tolerate so much ideological bullying and remain so willfully blind to the awfulness being committed under the aegis of a favored ideological coalition?

The mystery of such compromises is all the more pronounced in the case of Maurice Dobb. Born in 1900 in what is now suburban London, and a Cambridge economist for most of his life until his death in 1976, Dobb seemed to lack the usual Communist Party “rosebud.” Unlike Eric Hobsbawm, his CP affiliation was not rooted in a doubly-diasporic Jewish identity and an intense reaction to the traumatic rise of European fascism. Unlike Raymond Williams and E.P. Thompson, Dobb’s loyalty to the Party did not derive from some personal connection to proletarian everyday life and revulsion at the ordinary classism of the intelligentsia (Dobb’s father was a petty-bourgeois drapery merchant). Unlike the African American communists of the US, Dobb had no Scottsboro Boys or Angelo Herndon case to forge a lifelong commitment, no John Reed Club that provided access to the writer’s life, no shortage of intellectual companions (as provided so powerful a lure to Paul Robeson, Lloyd Brown, and Richard Wright [for a time]).

Dobb was a brilliant child of the English middle class, a student of economics who never shook the influence of Alfred Marshall, a conventionally heterosexual late-Victorian (he did divorce and remarry, which might have but did not imperil his professorship). While Shenk is wise to avoid speculating about what exactly it was that kept Dobb in the Party as others fled its stultifying orthodoxy and ideological policing, (and finally the nausea that accompanied the revelation of Stalin’s crimes), the answer that Shenk seems to favor is that Dobb was a lifelong Communist because he truly believed that the data pointed towards an imminent socialist transformation of the mode of production. To be a Communist was to be on the side of history.

That this is the answer to the central mystery of Dobb’s political and intellectual life becomes more plausible as Shenk explores the most famous contribution made by Dobb to the literature of Marxian economics: the revision of the account of the transition from feudalism to capitalism. What might seem a purely academic question must be appreciated in the context of post-1917 Left debates. For all sides, the nature of the transition between historical modes of production assumed new urgency as the Soviet experiment appeared to have cancelled out several sides of the Hegelian equation of dialectical movement from lower to higher stages of civilization.

Dobb’s contribution, as Shenk demonstrates beautifully, was to reject both the German historical school and the influential arguments of Henri Pirenne, as well as common sense associations of “capitalism” with trade and money. Capitalism, Dobb argued, could only come about when human labor-power had become a commodity like any other; when extra-economic coercion was no longer required to impel workers to show up for work. In this model, even the hypothetical discovery of a thriving factory system aimed at producing luxury goods in, say, 9th century Hungary, would not be evidence of medieval Hungarian capitalism. So long as most of the population of 9th century Hungary was composed of peasants or servants or slaves, working the land under threat of violence, such an economy would have to be called “pre-capitalist.”

With this model in mind, Dobb directed economists’ attention to late-Tudor England. As a result of a complex set of factors—including the enclosure movement, a weak central state, and massive numbers of propertyless nomads––capitalism took root first in the English countryside at around the time that Shakespeare wrote his first plays.

Shenk’s reconstruction of this presentation, and of the debates that subsequently played out with the American Marxist economist Paul Sweezy, is masterful. As in the work of Howard Brick and Daniel Geary, Shenk draws attention to the overlap of Left and mainstream economic thought. Dobb was not some rabid nutcase, working on Marxist revisions to the bewilderment of his Cambridge colleagues. He was a well-respected economist who drew many of his arguments from sources that would be familiar to even his most conservative reader; his tone was always modest and non-dogmatic; and his references to Marx were almost always bookended by appeals to more conventional authorities. Dobb’s negotiation of simultaneous identities as professional economist and Marxist was the source of Sweezy’s critique—for Sweezy, at war with the economics profession and the Cold War state (the McCarthyite persecution by which in the late 1940s foreclosed, as Shenk points out, the full development of the Dobb-Sweezy debate, driving Sweezy into several years of isolation), Dobb’s application of conventional economic tools to Marxist questions conceded far too much to an enemy discourse.

If there is a flaw in Shenk’s reconstruction of Dobb’s transition argument, it is a certain inattention to questions of law and legal history. While certainly reflective of an inconsistent theorization of law in Dobb’s own work, Shenk might have emphasized just how often Dobb’s vision of class struggle as a motor of historical change comes down to some change in a given legal or juridical norm. The hesitancy around questions of law speaks to a larger issue: if law (which is a textual form of political power, largely composed of speech-acts) mediates class struggle, to what degree can Marxism be affirmed as a strict “materialism”? (Perhaps, as Cedric Robinson insists, the “materialism”/“idealism” split is one of the cruder inheritances of Western philosophy, a hindrance rather than a help to the development of Marxist theory). These are questions with which Dobb wrestled. Often enough, it seems, he found comfort in Party nostrums that ought have been rejected as wholly inadequate.

This leads us to a final critique. While addressed in a provocative footnote, Shenk never adequately confronts Dobb’s Euro-centrism. The point is not to wag a finger at a dead economist, but rather to acknowledge that a major theme of any contemporary historiography of Left economics must be the question of why darker-skinned people and women were simply left out of most accounts for most of the twentieth century. The accounts of economic development that Dobb sought to critique—such as that of Pirenne––were also, in certain ways, more contemporary: attentive as they were to the international and racially stratified character of post-feudal lineages. Dobb’s lacunae are not reflections of ignorance. His classic Studies in the Development of Capitalism (1946) cites John Kells Ingram’s A History of Slavery and Serfdom (1895) in order to make a minor point about Slavic history, but fails to grapple with Ingram’s thesis that slavery, in its various forms, played a crucial role in the development of modern political economy.

We emphasize this problem for a focused reason: to the degree that “political Marxism” continues to not know what to do with slavery (to say nothing of the historical role played by the politics of gender in economic history), Dobb’s brilliant refutation of teleological and ahistorical narratives of the rise of capitalism will remain only partially redeemed. If agrarian English capitalism is seen as anticipating and then finding reflection in the Lockean ethos of “improvement”–considered strictly as the ideology that attended the growth of intensive agricultural development in the new enclosed capitalist farms––without any attention paid to Locke’s plantation investments and encouragement of a vision of the entire southern hemisphere as terra nullius, then we will have failed to escape the constrictions of orthodoxy against which scholars like Dobb (however partially) valiantly fought.


Nothing in the preceding discussion should be taken as a tempering of my enthusiasm for Shenk’s achievement. Maurice Dobb: Political Economist is among the most important books on the history of capitalism published this year, and it should be assigned to every seminar dedicated to the exploration of that growing sub-field. Like the best non-academic writers on the history of economic thought (The New Yorker’s John Cassidy comes to mind), Shenk possesses the rare gift of effortlessly translating difficult theorizations of the market into clear English. His lucid distillation of complex arguments, elegant transitions, and skillful work of balancing the biographical and the world-historical are worthy of careful reflection and emulation by all of us who write on related topics. Our excitement about Shenk’s first book is matched only by eager anticipation of what comes next.

2 Thoughts on this Post

    • For sure. Urging your library to order one is probably the best bet right now. Palgrave: please issue this book in softcover or ebook!

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