Piero Sraffa was a giant of economic inquiry that very few people have even heard of much less studied. In the remarks below, adapted from the 2017 "Introduction" to the Symposium: New Directions in Sraffa Scholarship, co-edited by Riccardo Bellofiore & Scott Carter for Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology, Sraffa's inquires are given context in order to shine a bright light on the path forward for scholarship that is to come out of the Sraffa archive now. Sraffa may have been a 20th century economist, but his true impact and importance has yet to be fully felt, which makes his theory 21st century in its development and future impact. And Sraffa himself seems to have known this with a short note he wrote in January 1957 just as he as about to embark on the final push to get his book written: "Just enough to hand it over before going down" (D3/12/59:2).
The depth of analysis of Piero Sraffa’s inquiries has been recognized since he first made his way on the scene in the 1920s with a devastating critique of the Marshallian partial equilibrium framework. John Maynard Keynes, among others, recognised the brilliance of this young Italian economist and it was because of this that he offered Sraffa an opportunity to come to Cambridge, partially as a way to add to the critical mass of scholars buzzing about the Cam River at that time who came to be known as the Circus . The other four members of the five member Circus were John Maynard Keynes’s (18831946), Joan Robinson (19031983), Richard F. Kahn (19051989), E. Austin G. Robinson (18971993), and James E. Meade (19071995). Sraffa's arrival in the UK was also partially as a way for this friend of Antonio Gramsci to avoid persecution both overtly and subtly from Mussolini and the forces of fascism that swept Italy in the 1920s and 1930s.
Sraffa’s intellectual depth exhibited influences outside of economics too: his well-known interactions with Ludwig Wittgenstein exerted tremendous influence on the philosopher’s thinking. Upon moving to Cambridge in 1927, Sraffa postponed by a year lectures he was supposed to give in fall allowing him to formally commence lecturing duties at Trinity College in the Michaelmas Term 1928.
These lectures lasted through 1931 and their fruit is preserved as Lecture Notes on the Advanced Theory of Value, archived according to the Wren Trinity (WT) convention as D2/4, the color images of which are now available for consultation on the Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge, Janus Portal website. This manuscript consists of over 240 mostly handwritten pages and contains important insights into the development of Sraffa’s thinking after publication of his 1925 (in Italian) and 1926 (in English) articles critiquing the Marshallian theory. The D2/4 manuscript is brilliant indeed and we are now fortunate to have complete online access to digital images of its entirety. The content in Sraffa’s lectures was what he had made public albeit to a small audience of students, including, as Marcuzzo (2005) writes, the ‘two special pupils’ Joan Robinson and Richard Kahn.
We now know the thoughts and developments that Sraffa was making at the time away from anyone else’s prying eyes. Such developments are contained in notes on his constructive activity, kept private throughout his lifetime, but now available for open study. Indeed, far from being idle in 1927, Sraffa began the first of three phases of constructive activity and made the most of the postponement of his lecturing duties with the writing of hundreds of pages of notes that expressed a different approach than what he would write in his lectures and present to his students. These notes are contained in five file folders, archived according to Wren Trinity convention as D3/12/3, D3/12/5, D3/12/6, D3/12/10 and D3/12/11.
Also, when engaged in lecturing from 1928 to 1931 Sraffa found time to continue with his this first phase of constructive activity as evidenced from three files which were penned at the time; these folders are archived according to Wren Trinity as D3/12/7, D3/12/8 and D3/12/9. Often written during the inter-session; these notes also comprise hundreds of handwritten pages.
The notes that Sraffa was writing in the late 1920s and early 1930s were the first efforts at grappling with economic theory on a different plane altogether. By the end of this time period Sraffa had been selected by the Royal Economics Society as Editor of the Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo (see Gehrke & Kurz (2002)). This allowed him to cease his lecturing duties which, given his reticence and disdain generally for lecturing, was quite a relief.
Work on the Ricardo edition did, however, postpone Sraffa’s constructive activities for a decade until 1942 where for four years, until 1946, Sraffa engaged in the second of three periods of an intense level of inquiry by penning thousands of handwritten pages in 32 file folders.
From 1946 through December 1954 Sraffa again put his constructive activity aside and spent those years finally finishing the Ricardo edition. Then from January 1955 to 1960 Sraffa would engage in his third and final stage of constructive activity, the fruits of which are contained in 58 file folders and thousands of handwritten pages; a significant file that begins this period is the Majorca draft of March 1955, archived according to WT as D3/12/52 of which more is spoken of in Carter’s essay below.7 In April of 1960 Sraffa finally published Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities: Prelude to a Critique of Economic Theory (PCMC).
The earthshattering impact of this book was immediate and long-lived and indeed lasts to this day. Perhaps the most famous controversy that arose from its publication concerned the so-called Cambridge Capital Controversies. Other positive dimensions and implications of Sraffa’s inquiries can be developed from grappling with the analysis in PCMC in light of archival evidence.
All of the above concerns the depth of Sraffa’s inquiries; that Sraffa was a deep thinker has always been acknowledged by proverbial friend-and-foe alike despite the paucity of his then-available written word. But deepness of thought notwithstanding, the relative dearth of publications over the years became a major criticism.
Take for example the thoughts of one of Sraffa’s proverbial albeit respectful foes, namely Paul Anthony Samuelson, who in 2000 wrote an interesting essay that included a section entitled ‘Writer’s block’, referring to the notion that Sraffa remained relatively unproductive despite that what little he did write always had significant impact. On Sraffa’s supposed writer’s block, Professor Samuelson writes:
These sentiments of relative unproductivity are also echoed in the words of Gailbraith (1981, p. 74) where Sraffa is referred to as ‘one of the most leisured men who ever lived’.
We now know the above attributions of Sraffa not being productive over the years to be untrue. And here we can turn to the breadth of content to match the depth of analysis as now, for the first time ever, interested readers can peruse the original content of much of Sraffa’s archival material.
With the permission and courage of Sraffa’s current literary executor Lord Eatwell, under the direction of Giancarlo de Vivo and Murray Milgate and with the assistance of Jonathan Smith, Hilary Moreton and James Kirwin of the Wren Library, as of September 2016 the process of uploading high-resolution digital images of the Sraffa Papers on the Wren’s website starting with the most important files, namely material related to notes, lectures and publications, finally began.
This is a welcome and much-needed development indeed. Interested readers from all theoretical persuasions will now be able to explore for themselves the wonders that those of us who over the years trekked to the Wren have been able to glimpse. And ‘glimpse’ is a good way to put it, as up until 2016 any and all imaging of Sraffa’s archive was strictly forbidden.
And it is this development that makes the future of Sraffa scholarship so bright, as the light now shines radiantly for all interested readers on the raw un-interpreted content of the archival material of this mighty thinker. Never before have Sraffa’s notes been made available for those who cannot make the trip to Cambridge, and never before was the material allowed to be imaged.
This stands to be the fuel for a much-needed resurgence in interest in all things related to Sraffa. With the digital images and their release we expect scholarship to blossom in neverbefore conceived directions and avenues.