Sraffa’s visit to China in 1954


Heretical Sraffa is proud to have our first Guest Bloggers, Andres Lazzarini from Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Brasil, and Gabriel Brondino from Universidad de Buenos Aires, Argentina.

They go through in detail two of Sraffa’s diaries regarding his visit to China in 1954.  This is an example the possibilities that can come from unfettered access to the archival material. I think that Guest Blogging is a great idea and as we get our website in better order we will have more of this.

A word on the archival convention:  The diary images show two pages, the back of the previous page (verso = v) and the front of the subsequent page (recto = r).  Hence a single image will thus be designated according to the general convention:

E{Diary Number} ff. {previous page}v-{subsequent page}r

Sraffa’s visit to China in 1954  

by Gabriel Brondino & Andres Lazzarini

[See a picture of Sraffa from 1978 posing outside of Neville’s Court in Trinity College here: E55(5r)]

In her tribute to Domenico Demarco, Professor Franca Eugenia Assante reports that in 1954 the former professor of Economic History of the University of Naples had taken part in what had been the first official Italian visit to the newly created People’s Republic of China. The official delegation from Italy was headed by Senator Mario Palermo and the members of it were a small number of renowned Italian scientists, among whom was Piero Sraffa.[note 1]

In the recently disclosed archives of Piero Sraffa, housed at the Wren Library, Trinity College, University of Cambridge, we find two diaries (E26 and E55) in which Sraffa wrote about his activities while in China (as well as other places). E26 is the Cambridge Pocket Diary for the period 1953-1954, while E55 is a Chinese red-coloured hardcover notebook bought in mid-October 1954 during the trip, presumably to write down in a clearer way annotations that are also in E26. E55 consists of roughly 200 hand-written pages, the vast majority in Italian.

The visit to China spanned from late September to mid-November 1954. The cities which Sraffa reports included Shanghai, Canton, Changsha, Shaoshan, Wuhan, Peking (now Beijing), Tientsin (now Tianjin), Anshan, Fushun, Shenyang and Nanking.

From what we can read from the E55 diary, the programmes in each of their visit had been scheduled well in advance. Normally they included visits to monuments, museums, mausoleums, agricultural cooperatives, industrial workshops, research institutes, universities, cultural associations, infrastructure developments, and mines. Quite often during the visit, the Italian delegation would attend cultural events such as theatre plays or films. In Sraffa’s notes there is plenty of evidence that the delegation had the opportunity to get a deeper knowledge of the development of that country after the 1949 revolution by interacting (through the scheme talk-questions-replies) with Chinese officers in their capacities as official hosts.

Anyone who reads these diaries will be able to appreciate that Sraffa goes into details in his description of his daily activities in China. For most of the cities visited, we can find accurate overviews of their history, demographics, climate, health and education facilities available, major economic developments, salient historical facts, major historical wars and conflicts. The material reported speaks to Sraffa’s high standard for accuracy. This is of course no news for anyone familiar with Sraffa’s economic thought. Yet in these material we find Sraffa being interested not only in economic matters (specially, but of course not limited to, the comparative figures for a number of economic variables in each of the cities, such as production, employment, and wages) but also in a broad range of issues, including education (all levels), health policies, agrarian reform, the situation with the prison inmates, arts, gender issues, etc.

On every occasion in which the delegation had the chance to raise questions in the visit Sraffa would note in detail about the issues discussed. For example, in Nanking, in a visit to a “semi-socialist” legume cooperative (E55 ff. 17v-18r), Sraffa describes how the income is distributed among its members, its relationship with the banks, the composition and age of the means of production, the role of women, the instruction of the workers, the number of families in town, the commodity composition of the labourers’ wage, the economic relations with the city from which the cooperative bought their inputs. Such examples of interest in the specific developments which were occurring in China at that time can also be found for other cities, towns or cooperatives. These diaries, it could be argued, offer a very accurate overview of issues – we can infer – in which the delegation had a profound interest (and perhaps other western countries too).

The E55 diary also contains, to the opinion of the present writers, two streams of reflection that are salient in Sraffa’s reports. One of them is his methodical consideration, on the occasion of a visit to a wool sewing workshop in Tientsin, of the “relationships between the state and the private industry” and “between workers and capitalists” (E55 ff. 34v-35r). In particular, he devotes interest in the distribution of the “net profits” among the State, the capitalists, the “workers’ welfare and awards for the advanced ones”, and the “reserves for development”. He notes the labourer’s maximum and minimum nominal wages as well as the price of a meal at the worker’s canteen.

The second reflective stream is a long account of a meeting at the Foreign Affairs Association in Peking (E55 ff. 46v-47r, E55 ff. 47v-48r, E55 ff. 48v-49r) in which the delegation was introduced to the features, development and scopes of the Chinese agrarian reform. Sraffa there describes the amount of mountainous land in China, the rural population and other basic data. He reports the figures on production and the purchasing power of farmers for 1950-51 and 1952, and the rules of distribution of product for each of the different forms of organisation (mutual aid, production cooperative and cooperative of higher form).

Further interesting issues emerging from the diaries are sundry political reflections regarding the socialist project in China. For example, in a loose page where he describes the industry in the city of Wuhan, we can read:

Socialist re-education of trade and capitalist industry:

‘to use, limit, re-educate’ is the new politics.

What does ‘abolition of the capitalist class, not of the capitalists’ mean [?] Abolition of the private firm towards the state capitalism.


1) unified purchase of the product (production according to the plan)

2) total purchase of the product (without plan)

3) purchase order and finishing

To transform into socialist firms through state capitalism. To transform private property into socialist property. At the same time, re-education of people. When the firms will have been transformed into socialist firms, also capitalists will have become socialist citizens. This sort of transformation is the dominant feature in China.[note 2]

Sraffa ends his visit to China on 15 November (E55 ff. 52v-53r, E55 ff, 53v-54r). He then travelled to Moscow along with the delegation from 17-22 November (E55 ff. 54v-55r, E55 ff. 55v-56r, E55 ff. 56v-57r, E55 ff. 57v-58r, E55 ff. 58v-59r, E55 ff. 59v) but then he would continue alone up to Warsaw on 22-24 November (E55 ff. 59r, E55 ff. 59v-60r, E55 ff. 60v-61r, E55 ff. 61v-62r) where he meets, among others, Oskar Lange. He stopovers in Prague on the night of November 24th and writes in his diary that he would work that evening on “two pages on the agrarian reform” (E55 ff. 62r). The following day he gets to Zurich by air in the early afternoon and some hours later he rode on a train direct to Milan (E55 ff. 62v-63r). While in Milan from 25-30 November (E55 ff. 63v-64r), Sraffa meets with many people, including Raffaele Mattioli, Vando Aldrovandi and Giulio Einaudi. Again, on 27 November Sraffa “spent the day to finish the Agrarian Reform” and the same day he sent a draft of it to Francesco Flora (who lived in Bologna) who also was one of the members of the Italian delegation in China (E55 ff. 62v).

From the 1st to the 6th of December Sraffa would go to Rome (E55 ff. 63v-64r, E55 ff. 64v-65r, E55 ff. 65v), where he met with a series of personalities including Luigi Einaudi (at the time President of Italy), Palmiro Togliatti, Carlo Levi, and with some friends and colleagues (Sergio Steve, Raffaele Mattioli –again-, etc). The delegation drafted a first report for the Italian Foreign Affairs Ministry of its visit to China on 3 December at “Centro Cina” (E55 ff. 63v-64r), but Sraffa notes on 4 December that they are “waiting for the Flora report”, which arrives on the following day. On December 6th we read: “Relazione Flora pessima” [“Flora report lousy”] (E55 ff. 64v).

We do not know more from these diaries what “relazione Flora” was about. Also, we do not know what happened with Sraffa’s draft on agrarian reform (which he had sent to Francesco Flora less than a fortnight back) nor whether the “Flora report” had anything to do with the manuscript. It is possible that when more of Sraffa’s material becomes available the draft on the agrarian reform could be found for a deep examination. It will be also interesting to analyse the draft on the agrarian reform in relation to the extensive data of cooperatives, factories, labour demographics which Sraffa carefully reviews in each city or town he visited with the delegation. This perhaps may provide additional insights regarding Sraffa’s method of analysis for practical issues.

While we are looking forward to the uploading of further manuscripts of Sraffa which will certainly shed light on his views of his visit to the Asian country, it may be noted that both diaries E26 and E55 display material which goes against notions exclusively regarding Sraffa as a scholar aloof from empirical matters due to his economic thought being highly abstract. Of course a diary is just a report of a series of specific activities at some point in time, and from which we cannot derive any conclusive hypothesis about Sraffa’s thought.

But these diaries do reflect Sraffa’s analytical ability as an observer of the real world, reproduced in his very-well thought and accurate descriptions, thus showing a Sraffa taking a manifest interest in what was going on in that country under the new set of rules after the revolution in 1949. No doubt, upon release of further manuscripts, Sraffa scholars will be able to appreciate for themselves the level of accuracy and interest on the part of Sraffa on so many practical and empirical themes.


[note 1] Franca Assante (2012), “Domenico Demarco”, Società Nazionale di Scienze, Lettere e Arti in Napoli, Naples, 2012, pp. 21-22. Other members included: Orio Ciferri (a Professor of Chemistry from University of Pavia), Francesco Flora (a historian of Italian literature from Bologna); Orfeo Rotini (chemistry) and the sinologist Piero Corradini.

[note 2] Translation by the present authors. The original in Italian reads:

Rieducazzione socialista del commercio e industria capitalista

‘utilizzare, limitare, rieducare’ è n. politica

Cosa vuol dire eliminazione dalla classe capitalista, non dei capitalisti. Eliminaz. dell’impresa privata verso il capitalismo di Stato.

Forme: 1) acquisto unificato del prodotto (prod. secondo piano)

2) acquisto totale del prodotto (senza piano)

3) ordinaz. e finitura

Transformare in imprese socialiste attraverso il capitalismo di stato. Transformare la propr. cap. in propr. socialista. Parallelam., rieducazione degli uomini. Quando le imprese saran transformate in imprese socialiste, anche i capitalisti saran diventati cittadini socialisti.

Questa specie di transformaz. è il carattere dominante della Cina.

Published by Scott Carter

Associate Professor of Economics The University of Tulsa Oklahoma USA