Piero Sraffa Cambridge

Piero Sraffa, Cambridge

At Cambridge, Sraffa was received into King's College, then dominated by Keynes. Only in 1939, after Dennis Robertson's transfer to London, did Sraffa take up a post at Trinity, of which he has remained a fellow. Keynes also managed to delay Sraffa's lectures for a year, until Autumn 1928, to give him time to get used to his surroundings. In 1930, as Secretary of the Royal Economic Society, he arranged for Sraffa to be allocated responsibility for the critical edition of Ricardo's works. The following year he had him made librarian to the Marshall Library (a post which Sraffa only relinquished in the 1970s) and Director of Research at King's College. Consequently Sraffa no longer had to give lectures and, therefore, had more time to devote to research. Together Sraffa and Keynes -both avid bibliophiles -collaborated to have reprinted a rare pamphlet - 'An Abstract of a Treatise on Human Nature' - at the same time offering decisive proof of its attribution to David Hume.

For three years, from Autumn 1928, Sraffa gave a course of lectures at Cambridge on the history of the theory of value (in addition to less important one on the running of the German and Italian banking systems). His classes were followed by students like Joan Robinson and Richard Kahn. It was probably during the preparation of these lectures and as a result of the only partial comprehension of the fundamental message of the 1926 article by the English public that Sraffa realised the enormity of the task already undertaken in his criticism of the Marshallian theory of value and which led to the more than 30 years of research concluded in 1960 with the publication of Production of Com­modities by Means of Commodities.

In effect, Sraffa had set himself the daunting task of completely overturning views universally held by economists of the time. His conception of this objective was far more radical than that which Keynes attributed to his own research. In fact the aim was the rehabilitation of the classical economists' analysis of political economy (taken up and developed by Marx) with the critical edition of Ricardo. An additional aim was to resolve a crucial analytical problem left unanswered by these writers - the de­termination of relative prices and their relationship with the distribution of income between wages and profits. Sraffa does this in Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities (1960), simultaneously developing a decisive criticism of the foundations of the marginalist theory of value (in all its forms, not simply the Marshallian version). It was an attempt, then, to eliminate a false scheme of knowledge, which had been given a favourable hearing during its long development because of its apologetic conclusions- the rationale it appeared to give to the capitalist system - and also to reconstruct on a sound basis an analysis far more useful in understanding the real world (a necessary premise for direct action to change it).

As mentioned above, all other activities were subordinated to Sraffa's research. As soon as possible, he ceased lecturing, and gave up his post as director of research at King's. But concent­ration on research did not lead to isolation. Sraffa was a key figure in the group of economists commenting upon, criticising and encouraging Keynes on his long trek towards the General Theory. Joan Robinson, Richard Kahn and James Meade were members of this group. Even more important (for those interested in such matters) is the influence Sraffa exerted on the Austrian philosop­her Ludwig Wittgenstein, and on his transition from the logical atomism of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus to the mature ideas expressed in Philosophical Investigations (1972) — ideas which have an important influence on contemporary philosophy.

Sraffa produced very little in the field of economics during the time of preparation of his major works. In 1930 he published a short critical note (and an even shorter counter-reply) to an Economic Journal article in which Robertson tried to defend Marshall's value theory with an argument based on a series of evolutionistic analogies between economics and the natural world. Again in 1930 he published a short piece on a philological question related to Ricardo in the Quarterly Journal of Economics.

More important was an article published in 1932 in the Economic Journal- a critical review of a book by Hayek in which the liberal economist tried to develop, within the context of the Austrian School, a theory of prices and levels of production for a modern economic system in which financial activities had a role to play. Sraffa's article is important both as a critique of an alternative ('Austrian') theoretical framework to that which Keynes was in the process of developing in the same period, and as an original contribution to the development of Keynesian thought. He develops the concept of own rates of interest, the importance of which Keynes was to stress in the crucial Chapter 17 of the General Theory, the chapter on 'the essential properties of interest and money'.