Maurice Dobb

Max Elitcher

Maurice Dobb, the only child of Walter Herbert Dobb and his wife, Elsie Annie Moir, was born in London on 24th July 1900. He came from a prosperous background and was educated at Charterhouse School. (1)

Dobb was too young to fight in the First World War and in 1919 he went to Pembroke College to study history. In 1920 he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain. According to Phillip Knightley, the author of Philby: KGB Masterspy (1988) "Dobb was probably the first academic in Britain to carry a Communist Party membership card. Without Dobb, communism would never have gained the prominence in Cambridge that it did." (2) He visited the Soviet Union in 1921 and when his train crossed the frontier he said, "how thrilling to be moving across this sacred soil at last." (3)

Dobb's interest in the work of Karl Marx resulted in him switching to economics and gained a double first (1921 and 1922). He did two years of research at the London School of Economics, from which he acquired a London PhD degree. In 1924 he returned to Cambridge University as a university lecturer. 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".

Maurice Dobb & Kim Philby

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." (5) According to one of his students, Joan Robinson, not all of his students agreed with his political views. A group of "hearties" seized him and threw him "fully dressed into the River Cam" in a futile effort to teach him sense. This happened to Dobb more than once; but his persecutors became bored and eventually left him alone. (6)

Anthony Cave Brown, the author of Treason of Blood (1995) has argued that it was Maurice Dobb who converted Philby to Marxism: "His message was that of the classless, scientifically run society offered by Marx, the decline of capitalism, the high superiority of the very fashionable dialectical materialism. This, in theory, was meant to provide both a general worldview and a specific method for the investigation of scientific problems. It was the official philosophy of communism. Dialectical materialism captured many men with Kim's disposition; and it is said that when he understood it, he experienced the blinding light of reality and certainty about life, a light similar to that experienced by some religious believers when they first sense the presence of God." (7)

Before leaving Cambridge University he went to see Dobb, and asked him how best he might "devote his life to the communist cause". Philby later recalled: "On my very last day at Cambridge I decided that I would become a communist. I asked a don I admired, Maurice Dobb, how I should go about it. He gave me an introduction to a communist group in Paris, a perfectly legal and open group. They in turn passed me on to a communist underground organization in Vienna. Matters were at crisis point in Austria and this underground organization needed volunteers. I helped smuggle wanted socialists and communists out of the country." (8)

Maurice Dobb sent him to meet Louis Gibarti, an agent of Comintern based in Paris. Some historians have suggested that Dobb might have been the man who recruited 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." (9) This contact then passed him to the Comintern agent.

However, Phillip Knightley, who later interviewed Dobb, also thinks that this is a possibility: "Dobb may have decided that a recruit of Philby's calibre would be of greater service in Europe than in Britain. Philby, because of his recent experiences in Germany, may himself have expressed a wish to work outside Britain. (He was not forthcoming on this point in our talks.) Or, and this is only speculation, Dobb was a talent-spotter and steered Philby towards the man who recruited him for the Russian intelligence service." (10)

Other historians have pointed out that the NKVD archives show that Kim Philby was not recruited until May 1934. This was a result of a meeting between NKVD agent, Arnold Deutsch, and two women, Litzi Friedmann and Edith Tudor Hart. They discussed the recruitment of Soviet spies. Litzi suggested her husband, Kim Philby. "According to her report on Philby's file, through her own contacts with the Austrian underground Tudor Hart ran a swift check and, when this proved positive, Deutsch immediately recommended... that he pre-empt the standard operating procedure by authorizing a preliminary personal sounding out of Philby." (11)

Philby later recalled that in June 1934. "Lizzy came home one evening and told me that she had arranged for me to meet a 'man of decisive importance'. I questioned her about it but she would give me no details. The rendezvous took place in Regents Park. The man described himself as Otto. I discovered much later from a photograph in MI5 files that the name he went by was Arnold Deutsch. I think that he was of Czech origin; about 5ft 7in, stout, with blue eyes and light curly hair. Though a convinced Communist, he had a strong humanistic streak. He hated London, adored Paris, and spoke of it with deeply loving affection. He was a man of considerable cultural background." (12)

Deutsch asked Philby if he was willing to spy for the Soviet Union: "Otto spoke at great length, arguing that a person with my family background and possibilities could do far more for Communism than the run-of-the-mill Party member or sympathiser... I accepted. His first instructions were that both Lizzy and I should break off as quickly as possible all personal contact with our Communist friends." It is claimed by Christopher Andrew, the author of The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009) that Philby became the first of "the ablest group of British agents ever recruited by a foreign intelligence service." (13)

Cambridge University

Other students influenced by Maurice Dobb, included John Cornford, David Guest, John Bernal and Joan Robinson. (14) Victor Kiernan later recalled that Dobb's teaching had helped them to understand the development of society: "We felt, all the same, that it could lift us to a plane far above the Cambridge academic level. We were quite right, as the rapid advance of Marxist ideas and influence since then has demonstrated. Our main concerns, however, were practical ones, popularising socialism and the USSR, fraternising with hunger marchers, denouncing Fascism and the National Government, warning of the approach of war. We belonged to the era of the Third International, genuinely international at least in spirit, whey the Cause stood high above any national or parochial claims." (15)

Eric Hobsbawm argues that Dobb was "an exceptionally distinguished Marxian economist, and indeed the founder of this field of academic study in this country." Hobsbawm believes that his most important work was Political Economy and Capitalism (1937) and Studies in the Development of Capitalism (1946), "which form a landmark in the Marxist, and indeed the wider, historiography of European economic development". (16)

Hobsbawm suggests that Dobb's academic career was hampered by his outspoken praise for communism. Anthony Cave Brown has revealed that Dobb had been under investigation by the security services since 1925. During his research he discovered a document that showed that King George V wrote to Arthur Balfour, then the chancellor of Cambridge University, "asking why such a well-known Marxist as Dobb was permitted to indoctrinate undergraduates." (17)

Communist Historian Group

Maurice Dobb joined forces with E. P. Thompson, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, Victor Kiernan, A. L. Morton, John Saville, Raphael Samuel, George Rudé, Rodney Hilton, Dorothy Thompson and Edmund Dell to establish the Communist Party Historians' Group. Saville later wrote: "The Historian's Group had a considerable long-term influence upon most of its members. It was an interesting moment in time, this coming together of such a lively assembly of young intellectuals, and their influence upon the analysis of certain periods and subjects of British history was to be far-reaching." (18)

Maurice Dobb remained popular with his students. John Costello later commented: "Until the end of his life, Maurice Dobb steadfastly played communism's John the Baptist, preaching the Decline of Capitalism to successive generations of undergraduates. In 1965, when I attended his classes, he was white-haired and weary after nearly half a century in his self-appointed role. But he still mustered the persuasive enthusiasm of the true convert who is also an inspiring teacher. Unlike some of his younger colleagues in the Economics Faculty, whose ferociously statistical arguments were virtually impossible to follow, let alone take notes on, Dobb's twice-weekly classes were a breath of common sense to a confused newcomer to the Economics Tripos. His plausible rendering of the serpentine twists of Soviet economic policy were models of clarity and memorability." (19)

Maurice Dobb died in Cambridge on 17th August, 1976.

Primary Sources

(1) Phillip Knightley, Philby: KGB Masterspy (1988)

Dobb was a lecturer in economics and probably the first academic in Britain to carry a Communist Party membership card (1920). Without Dobb, communism would never have gained the prominence in Cambridge that it did. He was the man who, in June 1931 handpicked a little group of people to meet the Indian communist, Clemens Palme Dutt, sent by party headquarters in King Street, London, to start a communist cell at the university. Dobb came from a landowning family in Gloucestershire and was educated at Charterhouse and Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he got a double first in economics.

(2) Andrew Boyle, The Climate of Treason (1979)

Cambridge University during the summer of 1931 by Clemens Palme Dutt, the brother of the Party's leading ideologue and a specialist in proselytizing work among students, who had recently served as an agent of the Comintern in Paris and India. The fact that a nucleus of perhaps a dozen Communists and Marxist sympathizers already existed among the Fellows made Cambridge a natural choice. By now Maurice Dobb had established himself as a gifted economics lecturer at Trinity, combining donnish scrupulousness and charm with the zeal of a writer wholly dedicated to propagating Marxist theory and Soviet practice. Dobb, that young post-war undergraduate whom posses of anti-Bolshevik "hearties" dumped in the river, had for some time been encouraging like-minded dons and undergraduates to visit the house in Chesterton Lane which he shared with Roy Pascal, a keen extremist Fellow of Pembroke College. Dobb, along with his bright young disciple Joan Robinson, Pascal and J. D. Bernal, the physicist and crystallographer, were the principal Marxist supporters of the move to found a Communist cell in Cambridge. Although Clemens Palme Dutt nominally proposed it, there can be no doubt that the initiative came from the West European Bureau of the Comintern, acting on instructions issued by Maxim Litvinov, Karl Radek and other leading policy-makers in Moscow. Their reasoning had unquestionable merit. The political vacillating of the Labour Party through the twenties had served to isolate and expose the deficiencies of a struggling Communist Party largely bereft of intellectual respectability and "clout". Thus with a fine sense of timing, virtually on the eve of the second Labour Government's helpless collapse, Moscow uttered the word, and Palme Dutt promptly obeyed.

Two undergraduates in particular had since helped to fertilize a small cell which, but for their energy, might have remained a sterile and clandestine study group. One of them was David Haden-Guest, the son of a Labour politician and future peer, who had arrived in 1930 to read philosophy and logic under the famous Cambridge savant Ludwig Wittgenstein. (The other was John Cornford.) Haden-Guest had interrupted his course at Trinity to spend a year at the University of Gottingen where, instead of gaining fresh insights into his chosen subject, he became gravely distracted during the winter of 1930-31 by evidence of the rising Nazi threat to the survival of German democracy. Taking part in a Communist demonstration on Easter Sunday 1931, he was arrested by the police, held for two weeks in solitary confinement, and eventually released as a result of going on hunger strike. The young man had left for Germany a pacifist and a Socialist. He returned blazing with conviction that only through revolutionary Marxism could the free world be saved from the ruinous, humiliating plight which was fast overtaking the Germans.

(3) Anthony Cave Brown, Treason of Blood (1995)

Philby and Burgess came into contact with Cambridge's card-carrying communist Maurice Dobb, who lectured in economics. Dobb, who was born in 1900 and came from Gloucestershire squires, had been educated at Charterhouse and Pembroke College, Cambridge, and came to Marxism through his study of the British shipbuilding industry and his reading of Das Kapital, which he thought the most important book in history. His message was that of the classless, scientifically run society offered by Marx, the decline of capitalism, the high superiority of the very fashionable dialectical materialism. This, in theory, was meant to provide both a general world view and a specific method for the investigation of scientific problems. It was the official philosophy of communism.

Dialectical materialism captured many men with Kim's disposition; and it is said that when he understood it, he experienced the blinding light of reality and certainty about life, a light similar to that experienced by some religious believers when they first sense the presence of God. In its physical aspects, this of realization was more powerful than a youth's first sexual experience and much more lasting in its consequences. As the gleaming Star in the East had shown the way to mankind, the beacon of dialectical materialism showed mankind the way, according to its theoreticians, to Utopia, that ideal state where all is ordered for the best and where the evils of society, such as poverty and misery, have been eliminated - the sort of world the Wahhabi thought they would find when they reached Paradise....

Kim became a member of Dobb's little group, called the Red House, after Dobb's tall, narrow house in Chesterton Lane. This was a center of Marxian thought and talk, "the nucleus of the University communists," as many as forty young men who held an important part of England's future in their hands and who talked about a Soviet Union of Great Britain. Yet the security authorities were not unaware of Dobb's activities. After reading one of the 1925 Home Office reports on communist subversion, King George V wrote to Lord Balfour, then the chancellor of Cambridge, asking why such a well-known Marxist as Dobb was permitted to indoctrinate undergraduates. In making his inquiries, Balfour was misled by the high academic authorities who advised him. Dobb's influence, he was assured, was no more than academic.

All the same, Dobb came under the eye of' the Security Service, which kept an eye on Cambridge politics, known since the Middle Ages as anti-establishmentarian. Still, there seems to have been no breath of suspicion, not a single document, on Kim when, in due course, an important authority in the Philby case asked whether there was "anything recorded against" him. This despite the fact that his communism was well-known not only at Cambridge but also at Oxford. And this despite the events of early 1933, that year when history changed its time.


(4) Victor Kiernan, London Review of Books (25th June, 1987)

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... We felt, all the same, that it could lift us to a plane far above the Cambridge academic level. We were quite right, as the rapid advance of Marxist ideas and influence since then has demonstrated. Our main concerns, however, were practical ones, popularising socialism and the USSR, fraternising with hunger marchers, denouncing Fascism and the National Government, warning of the approach of war. We belonged to the era of the Third International, genuinely international at least in spirit, whey the Cause stood high above any national or parochial claims.

(5) John Costello and Oleg Tsarev, Deadly Illusions (1993) page 125-126

Once Philby had decided to dedicate his life to serving the Revolution, he sought the advice of someone he trusted to put him in contact with those who could receive him into the new faith and provide direction for his missionary zeal. That person was Maurice Dobb, one of his economics supervisors, a junior fellow of Pembroke College. He was the Cantabridgian John the Baptist of Marx, preaching the decline of capitalism and the triumph of Communism. A patient and plausible teacher, as the British co-author of this book can personally attest, Dobb had inspired generations of undergraduates with his eloquence since May 1932, when he had carried the Cambridge Union Debate that "This House has more hope in Moscow than Detroit". One of the prominent early members of the British Communist movement, Dobb had never hidden his passionate commitment to the Revolution. His tersely reasoned articles and books promoting the Soviet Union were so widely read that they infuriated King George V who, in 1925, had vainly sought to have this "Bolshevik" corrupter of his loyal young undergraduates banished from his university. But academic freedom triumphed and Dobb was later to become a full professor and a fellow of Trinity College after promising not to engage in subversive activities. He had little choice. He cut such a provocative figure that MI5 records which surfaced in the United States archives show that he was constantly under surveillance and his mail was frequently intercepted. It was only long after Dobb's death that Philby revealed that he was the Cambridge don who had been instrumental, not in recruiting him as had often been speculated, but in setting him on the road which eventually took him to Moscow.

"I have been watching you for several years. I have seen your movement in this direction and I'm very glad you have come to this decision." Philby said Dobb told him when he asked how to go about getting himself confirmed as a fully-fledged Communist. In what may be a sinister pointer to a more significant role played by Dobb than he or Philby ever admitted, 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.

(6) Phillip Knightley, Philby: KGB Masterspy (1988)

In Moscow, Philby explained. "On my very last day at Cambridge I decided that I would become a communist. I asked a don I admired, Maurice Dobb, how I should go about it. He gave me an introduction to a communist group in Paris, a perfectly legal and open group. They in turn passed me on to a communist underground organization in Vienna. Matters were at crisis point in Austria and this underground organization needed volunteers. I helped smuggle wanted socialists and communists out of the country."

This explains why Philby never became a member of the Party, which was a great advantage when he came to join the British Intelligence Service - no security check would ever turn up his name on a list of members and he could swear with a convincingly clear conscience that he was not and never had been a member of the Communist Party. But Philby's account of Dobb's role is puzzling.

Philby stressed that Dobb had done nothing illegal in introducing him to the communist organization in Paris. (The most likely organization would have been the World Committee for the Relief of Victims of German Fascism, run by the German communist Willi Muenzenberg and his aide Otto Katz.) The illegality began only when Philby began to work for the underground group in Vienna. But, again according to Philby, all he had asked Dobb was how to go about becoming a communist. Dobb could have told him that the simplest way of doing this would be to go to the Communist Party headquarters in King Street, Covent Garden, and apply for membership.

Instead Dobb sent him to Paris. Dobb may have decided that a recruit of Philby's calibre would be of greater service in Europe than in Britain. Philby, because of his recent experiences in Germany, may himself have expressed a wish to work outside Britain. (He was not forthcoming on this point in our talks.) Or, and this is only speculation, Dobb was a talent-spotter and steered Philby towards the man who recruited him for the Russian intelligence service.

For there is no doubt that the Russian service was very interested in British undergraduates at that period. In the first years after the Revolution it had concentrated on internal subversion. Stalin used it to help suppress the peasants, to purge the army, and to gather evidence for the great show trials of the period. Its overseas interest was concentrated on emigre organizations, such as the Trust, which received help from Britain and the United States. Most of these organizations were successfully penetrated by Russian intelligence, which allowed them to function as long as they proved useful. It then eliminated them by luring their most important officers onto Soviet soil and arresting them.

References

(1) Eric Hobsbawm, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(2) Phillip Knightley, Philby: KGB Masterspy (1988) page 30

(3) Quoted by Harry Pollitt in Andrew Boyle, The Climate of Treason (1979) page 77

(4) Victor Kiernan, London Review of Books (25th June, 1987)

(5) Eric Hobsbawm, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(6) Joan Robinson, interviewed for the book, Andrew Boyle, The Climate of Treason (1979) page 47

(7) Anthony Cave Brown, Treason of Blood (1995) page 140

(8) Kim Philby, quoted in Phillip Knightley, Philby: KGB Masterspy (1988) page 36

(9) John Costello and Oleg Tsarev, Deadly Illusions (1993) page 126

(10) Phillip Knightley, Philby: KGB Masterspy (1988) page 37

(11) John Costello and Oleg Tsarev, Deadly Illusions (1993) page 134

(12) Kim Philby, memorandum in Security Service Archives (1963)

(13) Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009) page 171

(14) Andrew Boyle, The Climate of Treason (1979) page 47

(15) Victor Kiernan, London Review of Books (25th June, 1987)

(16) Eric Hobsbawm, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(17) Anthony Cave Brown, Treason of Blood (1995) page 140

(18) John Saville, Memoirs from the Left ( 2003) page 88

(19) John Costello, Mask of Treachery: Spies, Lies, Buggery and Betrayal (1988) page 165