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Socialist Economics - Learning the lesson

statue of marx and engels, BerlinPhoto: Marx and Engels statue in Berlin, A. Black

The Development of Socialist Economic Thought

Selected essays by Maurice Dobb

Edited and introduced by Brian Pollitt

At a time of almost unprecedented crisis in the world capitalist system, the publication of these essays could not be more timely. The system has proved itself to be completely bankrupt in every conceivable sense of that word; the need to develop a socialist alternative never more pressing. For socialists of this generation this might appear new but the publication of these essays shows that this is a debate that has been going on for decades.

Maurice Dobb was one of the most influential marxist economists of the 20th century. Born in 1900 he joined the Communist Party in the 1922 and was to remain an influential member until his death in 1976. Educated at Charterhouse School and at Pembroke College, Cambridge he completed his PHD at the London School of Economics. In 1925 he went to work and live in the Soviet Union before returning to Cambridge where he lecturered in economics. For 50 years he was a prolific writer on socialist economics and in this work, Brian Pollitt has selected some of his most influential essays.

The book begins with an overview of his writings. His first major work, Economic Developments since the Revolution (1928) drew on his first hand experience of the soviet economic model and gave him an international reputation. An Introduction to Economics was to follow in 1932 and Political Economy and Capitalism in 1937. In the 1940’s his interest in the history of economics from a Marxist perspective culminated in the publication of Studies in the Development of Capitalism while in 1948 he published Soviet Economic Development since 1917. The 1950’s saw him delivering influential lectures at the Delhi School of Economics (later published as Papers on Capitalism, Development & Planning) and play a key role in the publication of Piero Sraffa’s momumental edition of The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo. In 1960 he published Economic Growth and Planning and in 1969, two years after retiring he published Welfare Economics and the Economics of Socialism. Theories of Value and Distribution since Adam Smith was published in 1973. The picture that emerges is of an internationally renowned Marxist economist with an impressive range of work of which the above is only an indication.

The first essay featured in the collection is ‘Socialist Thought’ published in 1968. This deals with the development of socialist doctrine beginning with pre-marxist contributions, gives a concise explanation of Marx’s materialist conception of history and looks at the development of socialist thought in the years following the Russian Revolution. This is followed by the lecture, ‘The Centenary of Capital and its Relevance Today’ delivered in 1967 to mark the centenary of the publication of Capital. Then ‘The Discussions of the 1920’s about Building Socialism’ published in 1967 which looked at the debates among soviet economists at that time as they grappled with the uncharted territory of building socialism in the world’s first socialist state. ‘Planning’, published in 1972 looked at the role of planning in both capitalist and socialist economies while ‘Commodity-Production Under Socialism’ published posthumously in 1976 looked particularly at the possible role of the market within a socialist economy.

Maurice Dobb died in 1976 and what he could never have predicted was the collapse of the Soviet Union and the coming to an end of that particular model of socialism. Yet in the ongoing debate on the Left around the ‘soviet experience’ this collection of essays represents an important contribution. The Soviet Union collapsed in part because of the failings in its economic system. Understanding what went wrong with that system helps us develop a better model for socialism. In particular, what happens when a socialist system moves from a state of underdevelopment to a much higher level which was the case with the Soviet Union after about 1950. Here the issue of commodity production, the role of the market and the need to raise material living standards becomes of central importance. At the same time when ‘Keynesianism’ appears to be back in vogue as the major capitalist economies implode this collection gives a useful insight, from a Marxist perspective of the role of state intervention and planning in a capitalist economy. Above all, Maurice Dobb himself emerges as an outstanding Marxist intellectual brought to life in this collection by someone who knew and respected him and who has done an excellent job in bringing this work to a new generation of socialists.

Bill Bonnar