Dobb, Maurice, as interpreter
of the Classical economists
Maurice Dobb’s life long efforts to provide a critique of neoclassical theory from a
Marxian perspective played an important role in bringing back an interest in classical
economics. Dobb’s work was particularly influential from the 1950s with his collaboration
with Piero Sraffa on The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo to the 1970s with
his last major book Theories of Value and Distribution. Always taking a historical and
ideological perspective, Dobb believed that economic theory found itself with two primary
economic “visions”: 1) Classical economics with Ricardo and Marx representing the best
logical development of classical thought and 2) the subjective marginalist model of the
“Jevonian Revolution.” Because of his Marxian leanings, Dobb always found the classical
vision much more appealing and insightful than the marginalist model and it also provided
him with an alternative approach to combat the “vision” of neoclassical economics.
To understand Dobb’s interpretation of the classical economists its important to
appreciate his critique of neoclassical theory. In the 1870s with the work of Jevons,
Menger and Walras economic theory moved from focusing on real relations in production
to the subjective marginal theory of neoclassical economics. Economic analysis in this
tradition focuses itself on the sphere of circulation where contributors to the production
process are identical and social relations play no role in the analysis. Value means
exchange value or price and all contributors have only two primary characteristics that
define them as economic agents: 1) They derive utility and 2) individuals are rational
maximizers. Dobb believed that this shift to the neoclassical vision in economic theory was
an effort “to provide an apologetic for profits” and to make income distribution “as
something independent of property institutions and of social relations.” (Dobb,1973)
With his interpretation of classical economics and particularly by focusing on
Ricardo and Marx, Dobb was able to bring back the issues of class conflict and the
importance of social relations in determining production and distribution of goods and
services in a capitalist society. To understand his interpretation its important to understand
that for Dobb the core of classical economic theory comes from the writings of Ricardo.
There has been much discussion among scholars in economic thought on the overall
influence that Ricardo had on classical economics, and whether Ricardo’s work actually
did transform the Smithian tradition. For Dobb there was no doubt of Ricardo’s influence
( or that of Marx) in transforming classical economics. He also believed that this
interpretation of classical economics was brought back to life in 1960 with the publication
of Sraffa’s Commodities by Means of Commodities.
Dobb saw the traditions of Smith and Ricardo playing an important role in defining
future discussions in economic theory about the nature of value. The Smithian tradition
focusing on utility theory and social harmony and the Ricardian tradition on the labor
theory of value and class conflict. Dobb was aware of the many ambiguities in Smith’s
writings, but believed a vision of the invisible hand creating social harmony prevailed and
that Smith was willing to give up a coherent theory of value to keep this “vision” intact. It
was only when Smith finally abandoned his theory of labor value and replaced it with an
adding up theory of value that he was able to return to an economic system of social
harmony. Ricardo, on the other hand, looked at the economy from the side of production
and the labor theory of value and saw class conflict. This is also the position that Dobb
A central proposition in Dobb’s writings is the importance of class conflict in
understanding the nature and history of capitalism. Dobb believed that Ricardo saw this
when he claimed in the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation that the central
problem of political economy is “…determining the distribution of the produce of the
earth…among three classes of the community.” (Ricardo,1962, p.1) By accepting the
labor theory of value and developing an economic analysis that focused on production,
Ricardo was able to explain the nature of capital accumulation and distribution by the
economic conflicts of capitalists, workers and landowners. Ricardo’s interest in distribution
came about by his desire to understand what determined the rate of profits. In the
Principles he shows that the rate of profits depends on wages and that there is an inverse
relationship between profits and wages. If one simply looked at prices as Smith did then
this relationship is lost. By developing a corn model Ricardo was able to bypass the
distortion that prices gave to the relationship between profits and wages. He was able to
generalize his model even more by replacing corn with labor. Such an approach focused
economic analysis on social relations in production and distribution allowing Ricardo to see
the essential role that class conflict played in a capitalist economy. This was in contrast to
Adam Smith’s vision of exchange where there is no apparent class conflict and no need to
explain existing ownership or distribution. With his adding up theory of value Smith was
able to see a symmetric relationship between profits and wages and not the inverse
relationship found in Ricardo. In Smith’s model of exchange the returns to capital and
labor are based on their marginal contributions to the product. In the sphere of exchange
both capital and labor are factors that are paid according to the forces of the market and no
distinction is made between these different factors. Smith’s “natural price” was a summing
up of the cost of production with profits as a markup determined by the socially average
rate of profit on capital.
Ricardo recognized the logical inconsistency of Smith’s theory of value as did
Dobb. Smith’s theory was circular. He had a theory that explained prices on the basis of
other prices. If you need to know other prices in order to explain prices then you have a
theory that becomes an endless chain where the final determinant of prices can never be
determined. Another problem that Ricardo saw with Smith’s adding-up theory was that it
just explained the general level of all prices. It could not explain the relative value of
different commodities which is why Ricardo analyzed the process of price formation by
using the labor theory of value. Showing his agreement with Ricardo, Dobb said that
Smith’s Wealth of Nations: “ lacked a theory of distribution…and that what there was of a
theory of price or of value was logically incomplete. With Ricardo, however, we meet
something rather different: an integrated theory of value, of profit and rents. ( Dobb, 1973,
Though Dobb agreed with Ricardo’s approach, he also saw limitations in Ricardo’s
analysis that he believed Marx was aware of. The primary problem Dobb saw with Ricardo
was the ahistorical nature of his work. In Ricardo’s world property relationships,
distribution and class relationships were all fixed in time. Ricardo was forced into this
position in order to protect the interest of the capitalist class. Instead of advocating changes
in income distribution and the power structure between classes, Ricardo final solution for
social welfare was increasing free international trade through comparative advantage. Class
conflict meant change for Dobb and this was represented historically by the different
transitions from one mode of production to another that Marx understood. For Marx
production was a social activity that was formed by historical circumstances and the nature
of social activity in the production process. This was a major insight by Marx, according to
Dobb that allowed the classical model to have a sounder footing in understanding the
nature and process of a capitalist system that’s missed in Ricardo.
With the publication of Sraffa’s Production of Commodities by Means of
Commodities in 1960, Dobb furthered his interpretation of the classical economists by
arguing the classical model was a Sraffian model. The approach taken by Sraffa was lost in
the 1870s, according to Dobb, with the “Jevonian Revolution” where economic analysis
turned to optimum allocation decisions with distribution given at the outset. The Sraffian
system brought out the best of the classical model and provided an alternative to the
In summary, Dobb saw two traditions in classical thought. One represented the
Smithian tradition of the invisible hand and social harmony. The other of class conflict
represented by Ricardo. Marx and Sraffa extended the Ricardian tradition by making
Ricardo’s labor theory of value logically complete. Marx also enriched the classical
tradition by showing the importance of social and historical nature of the production
Richard P.F. Holt
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