Piero Sraffa The Years Of Preparation

The Years Of Preparation

During the years 1927 and 1960, however, the greatest attention was dedicated to research on the structure of classical political economy and price theory. In 1928, as Sraffa himself later informed us, 'a draft of the opening propositions of this paper (i.e. Production of Commodities) was available. The draft was dis­cussed with Keynes, who was correct in foreseeing the difficulties Sraffa would encounter in directing his readers' attention to the absence of any hypothesis about returns to scale in his analysis of price. In the following years the research proceeded quietly with none of the analytical discussion which, for example, preceded Keynes's General Theory. Only a few Cambridge mathematicians (Ramsey, Watson, Besicovitch) were consulted on the mathema­tical aspects of the problems encountered. The results arrived at in the course of the research were subjected to meticulous verification and refinement before Sraffa considered it appropriate to make them public:


Whilst the central propositions had taken shape in the late 1920s, particular points . . . were worked out in the thirties and early forties. In the period since 1955, while these pages were being put together out of a mass of old notes, little was added apart from filling gaps which had become apparent in the process.

Sraffa's caution was justified by the size of the task he had set himself and therefore by the necessity of refraining from making initial errors. Otherwise, minor mistakes or failure to present a complete analysis could compromise the reaffirmation of the classical school and the defeat of the marginalists.
The same care was lavished upon the critical edition of Ricardo's works. With Keynes's help, Sraffa set up a meticulous 'manuscript hunt' which led to the discovery in 1930 of a chest containing letters addressed to Ricardo from his correspondents. Many searches yielded nothing, but an enormous amount of secondary information was amassed, allowing Sraffa to form a very full and detailed picture of the cultural and human con­ditions of Ricardo's time. Then, in July 1943, after 13 years of work and with six volumes already drafted, letters of great significance from Ricardo to James Mill were retrieved from an Irish castle. Amongst the letters was a fundamental essay on which Ricardo had worked in the last fortnight of his life. With Maurice Dobb's help in the final stages, the undertaking was concluded between 1951 and 1955 with the publication in ten volumes of the Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo, followed in 1973 by an extremely accurate volume of indices. In the meantime, 30 years after that first draft, a thin volume-almost a pamphlet - came out in 1960 his Production of Com­modities by Means of Commodities - Prelude to a Critique of Economic Theory.