[OPE-L:4489] Re: Sraffa: a Marxist economist?

riccardo bellofior (bellofio@cisi.unito.it)
Fri, 21 Mar 1997 23:54:39 -0800 (PST)

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At 6:05 21-03-1997, Gerald Levy wrote:

>(3) Re Riccardo's [4471-72]:
>> I think it is clear from informal conversations and unpublished
>> writings he thought to be a follower of Marx. <snip>
>> P.S.: the documentary evidence is in Cambridge, UK
>You could be correct, but I note:
>(a) In the Potier biography, which addressed in detail Sraffa's political
>activities and his relationship with Gramsci, there is nowhere the
>suggestion that Sraffa considered himself to be a Marxist.
>(b) In the autobiographical recollections of Nicholas Kaldor, Sidney
>Weintraub, Joseph Steindl, and Giovanni Demaria we nowhere read the
>suggestion that Sraffa considered himself to be a Marxist. Moreover, in no
>published reference to Sraffa that I am aware of do we read the claim that
>Sraffa claimed to be a Marxist.
>(c) Samuelson's claim that he realized that Sraffa was a Marxist after a
>short time talking to him is not credible since Samuelson displayed very
>little understanding of what Marx wrote or the nature of Marxism (as is
>evidenced by his atrocious "appendix" in the older editions of _Economics_
>from the 1970's) and since Samuelson didn't claim that Sraffa _himself_
>said he was a Marxist. Also. it would have served Samuelson's purposes
>well to paint Sraffa as a Marxist since, in the context of the
>conservative American Economics Association at the time, such a
>characterization would help to establish the "radical" and "extremist"
>perspectives of the Cambridge (UK) economists.
>(d) What would be the _reason_ why Sraffa wouldn't refer to himself as a
>Marxist? In the McCarthy period in the US, this would be understandable.
>Yet, let's recall that Sraffa lived until 1983 and the prejudice against
>(and possible retaliation against) Marxists -- especially at Cambridge --
>was much diminished.
>In solidarity, Jerry
>J.A. Kregel ed. _Recollections of Eminent Economists_, Volume 1, New York,
> New York University Press, 1989

All good arguments. In any case Potier writes that likely Sraffa took his
inspiration from the schemes of reproductions, and quotes Lorie Tarshis and
Austin Robinson who both spoke of Sraffa as "disciple of Marx". And says
that of course these phrases must be taken with caution and must be checked
with the Cambridge archives, which, when he wrote the book on Sraffa, were
closed. And he also reports a very interesting interview of Gilles Dostaler
with Sraffa, where the latter stresses the continuity of his work with

But it is likely that the difference of opinion stems from different
meanings attached to what does it mean to be a Marxist. Here I gave a very
"weak" sense: to put forward a(n economic) theory which is intended as
coherent and compatible with the core of Marx's theory and aims.

Allow me to quote, for an interesting interpretation, Claudio Napoleoni's
view from a 1988 paper, translated in Research in Political Economy 1995

"To say what Sraffa's cultural project was which he pursued with
persistence and extreme coherence through the whole of his life both in
practical behaviour or in theoretical work, I would put it this way. First
of all, Sraffa was a communist, in the 'negative' sense in which the word
is used by Marx, to imply an ongoing critique of the given historical
process. This is what he was, and always aimed to be. However, at the same
time, he was convinced that the critique should be entirely rewritten,
because the old one was no longer sufficient. He did not think that the old
critique was totally wrong: only that it was inadequate vis vis the
theoretical production of the enemy that had developed in the wake of Marx,
beginning in the second half of the nineteen century, and continuing up to
the interwar years. According to Sraffa, the weapons of the communist
critique against this theoretical production were insufficient. Therefore,
they needed to be changed. ... In Production of Commodities, Sraffa draws
the ultimate consequences of what had been his original intention: it is
his cultural project expressed in a precise analytic form. Of course, an
evaluation we need here. To speak properly about Sraffa would be to give an
accurate, historiographic judgement, and to decide whether the cultural
project he had in mind did in fact succed or not. This is the 'Sraffa
issue'. It is an issue not only of economic theory, but also of economic
policy; moreover, it belongs - if you will allow me to use this
old-fashioned expression - to the labour movement, its opportunities,
prospects and destiny.
.. The propositions that I wish to put forward are the following. First,
we must bear in mind that, when Sraffa thought and wrote, and especially
when he was producing the 1960 book, economic theory was rooted in two
traditions. One tradition we can label Classical-Marxian, the other the
Neoclassical tradition. I'm fully aware that, like all classifications,
this one has its shortcomings and I recognise that there are important
figures whom we would not know whether to classify in the former or in the
latter, or even in a third tradition. Nevertheless, I believe it is
legitimate to take the view that if we focus specifically to the theory of
value there were basically only two traditions. As he himself saw it,
Sraffa's cultural project was a return to the Classical-Marxian tradition,
and in conflict with the Neoclassical one."


Riccardo Bellofiore
Department of Economics
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e-mail: bellofio@cisi.unito.it
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