Academic journal article History of Economics Review

The Formative Stages of Piero Sraffa's Research Program

Academic journal article History of Economics Review

The Formative Stages of Piero Sraffa's Research Program

Article excerpt

1. Introduction (1)

Pier Luigi Porta (1945-2016) was one of Italy's greatest economics scholars. He first met Piero Sraffa in Cambridge in the 1970s and became an outstanding scholar, writing on Sraffa's contributions. I believe Sraffa approved of and trusted him, that he thought Pier Luigi understood deeply what he, Piero Sraffa, had done and why. Sadly, Pier Luigi died before he could finalise and publish what is his definitive essay on the formation of Sraffa's research programme, about which there has been much recent controversy amongst Sraffa scholars.

I first met Piero Sraffa in 1955, and we subsequently became colleagues and friends until his death in 1983. I wrote a number of papers on Sraffa, the most important of which were with the late Vincent Massaro. Pier Luigi and I were friends for many years, and he intended to visit Peter Kriesler and me in Sydney after his visit to Japan in 2015. Tragically, his final illness struck while he was in Japan, and he returned to Italy to die far too young. His widow, Pia Saraceno, and colleague, Luigino Bruni, sent me a copy of the paper Pier Luigi was working on, and I have lightly edited it for the History of Economics Review.

In my view, Pier Luigi has written an account that will stand the test of time. I regard the chance to publish the paper in the History of Economics Review as a major coup for the journal and a fitting tribute to a great friend and scholar.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Sraffa's famous book, Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities: Prelude to a Critique of Economic Theory (PCMC) (1960), the Cambridge Journal of Economics launched a project on New Perspectives on the Work of Piero Sraffa in a Conference held at Queens' College, Cambridge in 2010. A Special Issue of the Journal appeared under that title in November 2012. The Introduction by Blankenburg, Arena, and Wilkinson (BAW) (2012, 1268) reads:

Almost two decades after the opening of the Sraffa Archives--and 50 
years on from the publication of PCMC seemed an appropriate moment to 
reflect on ongoing debates on Sraffa's overall contribution to 
economics and, in particular, on the relevance of the opening of the 
Sraffa Archives in this regard. Does Sraffa's lasting contribution to 
economic analysis essentially remain limited to PCMC or is it taken 
beyond this by his unpublished writings? In the latter case, is it 
possible to identify a distinctive research project that Sraffa had in 
mind? (Emphasis added.)

This paper discusses these problems and proposes an answer to both questions. It is argued that the opening of the Archives offers fundamental evidence on the assessment that can be made of the intellectual legacy of Piero Sraffa. The contributions to the ongoing debate on Piero Sraffa's economics need to be discussed, although it should be acknowledged that the publication of Sraffa's literary remains is the necessary step to make the debate more productive.

2. Sraffian Economics Today

Piero Sraffa (1898-1983) is the latest hero of a series of great Cambridge economists --including Malthus, Marshall, Pigou and Keynes before him--and he must be treated on the same level in a proper history of economic analysis and economic thought. The heyday of Sraffian economics today is far-away enough in time to allow perhaps a balanced approach to its spectacular rise and fall, which is one of the most extraordinary episodes in theoretical economics of the 20th century. Piero Sraffa is a complex figure as an economist and as an intellectual. His work and his personality exerted a sort of magic attraction for many years.

Paul Samuelson--who was very far from sharing Sraffa's views on economic theory--was one among many economists of Sraffa's generation who took close notice of his achievements and paid tribute to him on many occasions. Samuelson, in his well-known article for the New Palgrave (1987), lists at least 'four claims to fame [for Sraffa] in the science of economics and the history of ideas'. …

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