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Piero Sraffa - Unorthodox Economist, 1898-1983: A Biographical Essay.

This short book is an attempt at a personal biography of Piero Sraffa, the Italian economist, born on 5 August 1898. A revised version of the French original, the English text is not the most complete one. Indeed, students of Sraffa should note that the forthcoming Spanish edition includes additions. However, the latter do not disrupt either the plan or the main argument of this highly instructive essay.

The book under review consists of four chapters which, although each one cohesive in itself, present variable interest for economists. Thus chapters 1 and 2 deal respectively with Sraffa's formative years in Italy and the long-lasting friendship with Gramsci, while the two following chapters focused respectively on the years spent in Cambridge and the work of Sraffa, both as an editor and scholar. In a sense, this biographical essay depicts the double life of Piero Sraffa, his being equally committed to Italy and Britain, to political causes and economic issues. Nonetheless, it is not Potier's intention to suggest that Sraffa had a dual personality or that he errs on the side of irresolution. Nor is it his contention that Sraffa's unorthodoxy amounts to eclecticism.

Although many economists may know Sraffa by repute, few probably have had the opportunity to study his works. He seems to belong to this group of scholars who, though they take place in the front rank of economists, stand there as enigmatic figures. Furthermore, when they know about the works of Sraffa, economists still tend to consider his intellectual achievements with skepticism (Keynes, by contrast, was quick to notice the qualities of the young Sraffa. He even asked him to write for the Manchester Guardian Commercial; and, once the article completed, realized he would better have it published in the Economic Journal [p. 9]).

This skepticism comes as no surprise: it goes back several years or, to be more precise, to the time when Sraffa applied for a chair at the University of Cagliari, in Sardinia. In this respect, the comments of the competition commission which examined his application is worth recalling: "It [the above commission] also noted the obvious concern of the author [Sraffa] to appear succint and concise, which has at times led him to complex constructions and to a sobriety verging on obscurity" [p. 18]. This was the first time one underscored Sraffa's legendary conciseness. Moreover, the allusion to obscurity did not disappear from subsequent appraisals of Sraffa's works. Mark Blaug, for example, has noted the "puzzling" character of Sraffa's masterpiece, Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities: Prelude to a Critique of Economic Theory (1960), which "contains neither an introduction nor a conclusion." Blaug even suggests that "Sraffa's book would have been better understood if its title had been longer ..." [p. 1].

The above remarks show that Sraffa's writings have often been viewed as intricate, in any case, uneasy to handle. More generally, the fact that commentators have had difficulty in pigeonholing Sraffa's works may account for their being little known. The question may be raised, moreover, as to whether Sraffa's reserve explains the somewhat marginal place of his works in the history of economics. The question is all the more relevant since Sraffa was a friend of Keynes, the public figure par excellence.

Besides Keynes, Sraffa had many other connections in Cambridge, such as Maurice Dobb, Richard Kahn, Frank Ramsey, Joan Robinson, and Ludwig Wittgenstein [pp. 45-48], with whom he had frequent discussions. One even uncovers that Sraffa's influence on the young Cambridge economists was real. Kahn and Robinson, to mention but two, benefited directly from Sraffa's advice and criticisms. However, Sraffa's influence does not seem to have much extended beyond the Cambridge circles (with the exception of Italy); moreover, it rested on personal relationships. It is to be remembered that Sraffa refused invitations to participate in international symposiums, "on the pretext that his theses could only be discussed between two persons in a face to face situation" [p. 74]. In contrast, Keynes's reputation was more widespread and did not rely on the "Cambridge Circus," although the latter's raison d'etre seems to have been "to study and criticize the Treatise on Money" [p. 50]. These differences are relevant to the appraisal of the respective influence of Sraffa's and Keynes's works. Whereas the former benefited from "inside" opinion, the latter relied heavily on "outside" opinion.

Reading Potier's essay, one wonders whether Sraffa's relationships with Keynes do not exemplify the saying to the effect that "There are none so distant that fate cannot bring them together". Not that Sraffa was unsociable. He was simply more solitary, less inclined to social gathering (Potier recalls that Sraffa "felt ill at ease when he had to speak in public - especially to give lectures" [p. 44]). No doubt, it would have been interesting to have much information about the relationships of the two economists. Yet what we learn is already of interest. We know, indeed, that Keynes spared no effort to help his Italian friend. To begin with, he invited Sraffa to pursue his career in Cambridge in 1927 [pp. 20, 44]; then, in 1930, Keynes convinced the President of the Royal Economic Society to hand over to Sraffa the publication of Ricardo's collected works [p. 61]; finally, in 1931, when Sraffa was sick of teaching, Keynes obtained for him the post of Librarian at the Marshall Library of Economics [p. 46]). Sraffa never failed to reciprocate for Keynes's aid, as when he accepted to write a critical review of Hayek's Prices and Production in 1932 [pp. 51-52]. Furthermore, we are aware of the mutual respect these two scholars had for each other's works, although the Cambridge archives might well provide additional information on this matter.

In sum, Potier stresses Sraffa's open-mindedness, the wide range of his interests, and the variety of his friends. In so doing he has written a wise biography of the Italian economist and showed that both his tact and his self-effacement have set back the appraisal of his actual contribution to economics. This certainly is one of the teachings that economists should learn from this essay. To the extent that we often know about authors before we read their writings and that authors often play an active role in the way their works are approached, biography, by shedding light on personality, may reveal much about the way texts are "constructed". Consequently, one dares to hope that the tenth anniversary of Sraffa's death, on 3 September 1993, will provide the opportunity for much deeper research on the life and works of this unorthodox economist.
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Author:Fontaine, Philippe
Publication:Southern Economic Journal
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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