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December 29, 2013
David Warsh, Proprietor


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An Encounter with the Chronophage

In Cambridge, England, for a meeting a couple of years ago, I bought a volume of Maurice Dobb from one of the many second-hand bookstores there. I knew only a little about him. He had been the teacher of the great Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, mentor to Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, co-editor to Piero Sraffa in preparing ten volumes of the papers of David Ricardo. And he had been a lifelong member of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

I had never so much as looked at Dobb’s most admired book, Studies in the Development of Capitalism (1947). The book I bought, Political Economy and Capitalism (1937), showed him wrestling with the problem of what had happened to English economics in the nineteenth century, a task I knew he had  completed in 1973 with Theories of Value and Distribution Since Adam Smith. It shed only a little light on the more interesting problem of English economics in the twentieth century, namely the descent into near irrelevance in economics after 1936 of Cambridge University, where Dobb taught for fifty years (applied economist Richard Stone notwithstanding).

I learned a great deal last week, however, from a graceful and thoughtful 224-page biography that arrived in the mail. Maurice Dobb: Political Economist  (Palgrave, 2013), by Timothy Shenk, grabbed my interest and held it to the very end, not because Dodd led such an interesting life – he didn’t – but because of the light his story sheds on one of the great belief-systems of the twentieth century, Marxism, now fading into the limbo of half-remembered dreams, along with creationism and, in all likelihood, anti-government fundamentalism.

Born in 1900, Dobb embraced as a teenager an expectation of capitalism’s breakdown, of socialist revolution, of a better world to come, from which he never wavered, though he was forced to adjust it from time to time in light of changing circumstances.  Shenk says he aims to show how Dobb made his economics and politics fit together.  I hope the publisher decides to produce an inexpensive paperback edition of this remarkably interesting but grossly overpriced ($120!) little book. It is an exemplar of a form that would have many other applications in economics and related fields – brief biographies designed to illuminate counter-trends.

After a first chapter in which Shenk employs Dobb’s youthful fiction to illustrate his transition from a traditional Christian vision of the end of history to the more  secular one associated with revolution, the story becomes the familiar saga of communism, anti-communism and anti-anti-communism in the West,  Much of this is of interest only to those holding old grudges: the Soviet famines and the purges, the turnabout after the Nazi-Soviet Non-aggression Pact of 1939, the East German strikes of 1953, the Hungarian Invasion of 1956.  (Dobb was much affected by having been caught in Poznan, Poland, during the riots of 1956.) But all of it will be interesting to those seeking to understand the fundamental global political schism of the twentieth century.

There are plenty of twists and turns in Dobb’s career. In the ’20s, he publishes a paean to Lenin’s New Economic Policy just as Stalin takes over. In the ’30s he prefers the Polish economic theorist Michal Kalecki to Keynes. Shenk says that Dobb did no more than write a letter introducing Kim Philby to Party officials after the undergraduate inquired, on his last day in school, what he might do to help; Philby went on to become a ranking Soviet double agent in the British intelligence services and fled to Moscow in 1963. In the ’50s, Dobb inclined towards the theorist Sraffa, to the chagrin of their colleague Joan Robinson.  Despite having written Welfare Economics in 1968,  a description of decentralized reform socialism in Eastern Europe,  he described the founding of the Soviet Union as “the greatest event (or set of events) for centuries, if not in history” just months before Soviet tanks rolled into Prague. Even the Communist Party of Great Britain condemned the aggression; Dobb sheltered in place. He died in 1976. Since then, Shenk notes, he has been all but forgotten.

Hobsbawm, a more substantial figure, who died in 2012, figured Marxism was at its most influential in the 1970s, and I suppose it was, at least among Marxists. I did my college in the ’70s, and serious people were still trying to teach an version of it in those days. (The school of  Analytic Marxism was yet to come.)  Then in the course of a few years in the ’80s, it all but dissolved, at least as an effective faith.  By the time I bought my volume of Dobb, Marx himself seemed to many to be a figure, like Herbert Spencer or Henry George or Joseph Smith or Mary Baker Eddy, of interest mainly to historians.

Shenk notes that Dobb, like his father,

took solace in Christian Science, which taught him that any illness, even the death that had stolen his mother, was an illusion. Sickness was merely the distortion of a reality that, correctly understood, manifested God’s thought and obeyed absolute, eternal laws.  From an early age, Dobb accustomed himself to living in accord with the dictates of a marginalized religion that demanded absolute loyalty and promised eventual salvation, all justified with claims to scientific precision.

Indeed, the thing I saw that day in Cambridge which caught my attention and has held it ever since was the Corpus Clock and Chronophage, installed outside the library of Corpus Christi College, just around the corner from the bookshop. This haunting timepiece, nearly five feet across, with concentric rings and blue LEDs to tell hours, minutes, and seconds instead of hands or numbers, depicts time as a grasshopper or a locust, a chronophage, relentlessly devouring opportunities, possibilities, hopes.  (It was the so-called grasshopper escapement, invented by eighteenth-century clockmaker John Harrison, that substituted rotary motion for pendulum motion and solved the problem of measuring longitude.) The Corpus Clock displays various symbolic irregularities, too, but marks the hour with the sound of a chain clanking into a small wooden coffin. Its designer, John C. Taylor explains its complicated logic and its inner workings here, in a YouTube video well worth the five minutes it takes to watch.

Shenk has rescued Dobb from the chronophage, and made the appeal of socialist dogma, at least to a nineteen-year-old English student coming to grips with the aftermath of World War I, a good deal more accessible than it might otherwise have been. The only comparable glimpse I’ve been afforded recently came from Robert Scanlan’s fleeting production at Harvard’s Loeb Theater of one of Bertolt Brecht’s first plays, Drums in the Night. It is not easy to put yourself in the shoes those who made the German Revolution of 1918-19, or, for that matter, the Russian, or the Chinese, but it is worth having done.  The stage play version of Les Misérables does it not.

Shenk concludes,

Rather than explaining how capitalism and socialism became coherent totalities – something that had never happened and never will – it is better to ask how people came to believe there were coherent totalities that should be labeled capitalism and socialism. To do this it helps to start small and work outward. Great questions still require answers, but what constitutes greatness needs to be redefined. An investigation that might seem trivial – say, the study of one economist’s life – can reveal enormous shifts in the workings of political power, or the ways basic units of collective life are conceptualized. It could even provide an appropriate tribute for a scholar and activist who never relinquished hope that he could interpret the world, or change it.

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