Piero Sraffa Political Economy Theory

Piero Sraffa's Contribution to Political Economy

In 1960, when Piero Sraffa's main work Production of Com­modities by Means of Commodities appeared, one reviewer commented that the book might perhaps have had something new to say at the end of the twenties when Sraffa drew up the outline of his approach, but by the time of its publication it had been superseded by contemporary economic analysis.1 Since then the debate over Capital Theory has proved this opinion profoundly inaccurate. Sraffa's analysis has been used to criticise some of the central elements of dominant economic thought. In addition a more constructive function has also been attributed to the analysis - that of the scientific rehabilitation of the classical (Ricardian) and Marxian framework.

A lively and ever-widening debate began with differing evalu­ations of the meaning and importance of Sraffa's contribution.2 On other occasions I have attempted to give my own inter­pretation; here I shall adopt a different method - tracing develop­ments during the period of Sraffa's theoretical research.

Pierro Sraffa Early Influences

Piero Sraffa was born in Turin on 5 August 1898; his father, Angelo, was a well-known professor of Commercial Law. Moving around with his father, Piero Sraffa studied at Parma and Milan, where he went to the ginnasio superiore. One of his teachers was Domenico Re, a socialist, who had a decisive influence on his political development. Later the family moved to Turin, where the young Sraffa attended the liceo and came into contact with young socialists. After this he registered at the University, in the Faculty of Jurisprudence, but was conscripted and took the exams without attending classes.

In 1919 Sraffa met Antonio Gramsci through the agency of the literary figure Umberto Cosmo, who had taught Sraffa in the first year at the liceo and was Gramsci's professor at the Faculty of Letters. Despite a seven-year age difference between the two, they soon became friends. In this way - without ever joining the Socialist Party nor, after its foundation at Livorno in 1921, the Communist Party - Sraffa followed his friend's political activity very closely. He contributed to L'Ordine Nuovo (founded and directed by Gramsci), producing translations from German and English and some short articles on economics.

In the summer of 1921, during a brief stay in London, Sraffa held press credentials for L'Ordine Nuovo. In London he came into contact with a group of English Marxists who would later edit the influential periodical Labour Monthly. On a short visit to Cambridge he also met Keynes, already an important person in the field of economics.

Sraffa gave Gramsci the greatest possible assistance after the latter's arrest in 1926. He organised direct help through Gramsci's sister-in-law Tatiana Schucht, obtained books and journals for his friend and provided an important intellectual stimulus for the production of the Prison Notebooks. He acted as a link between Gramsci and the leading Communists who were still at large, and he made consistent attempts to obtain Gramsci's freedom.

These factors should be recorded in order to indicate Sraffa's political allegiance. In some ways it is this very allegiance which guided Sraffa in his theoretical research. This is not to say that his communist friend exercised specific influence on this research, nor that it was Gramsci's influence which led to Sraffa's gradual movement from interest in the problems of applied economics to interest in those of a theoretical nature in the first half of the twenties. However his friendship with Gramsci does help us to understand that the stimulus for, and sustenance of, years of solitary research undoubtedly sprang from an ideal, a strong political involvement.