In order to find a work of economic theory as ‘abstract’ as Piero Sraffa’s Production of Commodities by means of Commodities, we have to go back to the very foundation of the science: to François Quesnay’s Tableau économique (1758). However, this abstraction is the result of a protracted conceptual labour, guided by a clear political purpose and concerned with understanding the present, historically determinate state of reality. It is thus necessary to consider Sraffa’s theoretical and political development during his essential formative period.

From 1919 to 1930; from the end of the First World War to the rise and consolidation of fascism; from Turin and Milan to London, Cambridge and Moscow; in his friendship with Gramsci and during the years of the latter’s imprisonment; in his meeting and intellectual collaboration with Keynes—this is where Sraffa’s theoretical programme took shape. The crisis of Italian society was inevitably at the heart of his analysis. But he immediately went on to examine capitalism as the ‘general’ form of organization of society; the function of the bourgeois class and of the demands raised by the workers’ movement through its political and trade-union expressions; the Soviet experience and the revolutionary perspectives which it opened in other countries. ‘Sraffa’s liberal-democratic intellectual formation’ (Gramsci) as a student of Einaudi encountered, on the one hand, Gramsci’s Marxism and critique of liberalism and, on the other, Keynes ‘New Liberalism’ and critique of communism. And Sraffa’s own thought fed on his lively relations with these thinkers. Thus, among the Gramscian themes to be found in Sraffa are an understanding of the ‘organic character’ of the crisis—in other words, its reality at once total and rooted in ‘the economic bases of the situation’; the need to distinguish between its permanent and fortuitous elements; and the related necessity of not reducing politics to economics. In a report from London, which appeared in l’Ordine Nuovo on 4 August 1921, Sraffa wrote: ‘The best will in the world cannot make up for the theoretical and practical absurdity of separating economic struggle from political struggle. Whenever the working-class bloc confronts the capitalist bloc, be it in connection with a quite ordinary wage dispute, the State cannot help intervening on the side of the latter. The struggle therefore becomes overtly political—a struggle for state power.’ Adopting for his research the standpoint of the workers’ movement, Sraffa investigates the development and mutation of capitalism in production and credit; recognizes the changed nature and function of the State; and studies fascism as a mode of politics whose purpose is to find new forms of social equilibrium and stability. He focuses all his attention on the links between the crisis of free market economy, the ‘opposing class interests’, and the social and political effects first of inflation and then of deflation.

During these same years, Keynes, who ‘had been brought up to respect liberalism not only as an economic doctrine that no rational and educated person could call into question, but also as an article of the moral law’, sought to ‘escape those old ideas with ramifications in every corner of the mind’. His faith in capitalism was shaken: ‘It is not a success. It is not intelligent, it is not beautiful, it is not just, it is not virtuous, and it does not keep its promises. In short, we do not like it, and we are beginning to feel contempt for it.’ Keynes set out in search of a new economics, a new politics, and a new morality. ‘The transition from economic anarchy to a régime which deliberately aims at controlling and directing economic forces in the interests of social justice and social stability, will present enormous difficulties both technical and political. I suggest, nevertheless, that the true destiny of New Liberalism is to seek their solution.’footnote16 Among these ‘technical’ difficulties is the elaboration of a new political economy, which requires a critique of the now inadequate economic theories of liberalism or marginalism.

This then is the theoretical task common to Sraffa and Keynes; and the economic work of both writers descends from it. There is an intimate relationship between the labour of economic theory, political activity and the ‘disintegration’ of liberal society. It is a question of ‘imposing the methods of formal thought on the data offered by events, in such a way as to understand those events through a mixture of formal principle and intuitive selection, and thereby to interpret the problem and suggest a remedy’. The economist is thus also a ‘political philosopher’, as Keynes said, or a ‘philosopher-economist’, as Quesnay once put it. An original vision and a political goal should be the economist’s guiding thread on the necessary path of abstraction.

However, while Keynes and Sraffa have a common theoretical objective and a common understanding of the ‘political character’ of economic science, the political ‘side’ itself is not the same for the two of them. ‘The republic of my imagination,’ wrote Keynes in 1926, ‘lies on the extreme left of celestial space. Yet—all the same—I feel that my true home . . . is still with the Liberals.’footnote17 This is certainly not true of Sraffa. He may draw from Keynes a conviction that ‘organized’ or ‘regulated’ capitalism has a considerable capacity for survival and resistance. But like Gramsci, he cannot conceive that the liberal ruling class should alone be able, even with new blood in its veins, to direct the entire necessary process of social transformation. There is, as he puts it, a ‘hegemony vacuum’ in the Italian bourgeoisie. Keynes’s critique of the liberal world and marginalist theory represents the highest point of self-awareness attained by the bourgeoisie and bourgeois society: it is a higher point of view, but one that is still ‘internal’ in the sense of belonging to the development of the liberal idea. Sraffa’s critique, by contrast, is both internal and external: internal, because it settles into the very logical order of marginalist theory while demonstrating its inadequacy; external, because it refers to an idea which was by then a ‘commonplace’, and which perhaps for that reason is left as understood. This is the idea ‘that a given human society presupposes a given society of things, and that human society is possible only insofar as there exists a determinate society of things.’(Gramsci)

Profound cultural and political experiences therefore stand behind, and underpin, that ‘abstraction’ of which we spoke at the beginning. Furthermore, abstraction is the necessary form taken by scientific analysis of capitalism, of a reality in which man becomes ‘abstracted’ from the things he produces. In studying the society of things, ‘the production of commodities by means of commodities’, it has to be understood that this is only one of the two sides of that complex bourgeois society which is also a society of men. But such study is a necessary condition for grasping both bourgeois society and the significance of Sraffa’s work.