Italian Communists are joined to Sraffa by an ineradicable political and human debt of gratitude. It is hard for us even to grasp his full significance for Gramsci: the role he played during Gramsci’s long years in fascist jails is a priceless and crucial element in our own history. It is above all for this reason that we are devoting several pages of Rinascita to a tribute on the occasion of Sraffa’s eightieth birthday. We hope that he will value the feelings of affection and respect which inspired this tribute, and that he will recognize the sincerity of our greetings as he turns these pages in the sober and unassuming atmosphere of his Trinity College study. In vain we have tried these last years to draw him away from that study and bring him back to Italy as a friend and teacher.

In a short, yet exhaustive and definitive account published last year, Paolo Spriano has reconstructed the tormented history of Gramsci’s relations with the Party during his incarceration.footnote1 Considerable light is thrown on Sraffa’s important role as an able and conscientious link in the chain passing from Gramsci through Tatiana to the Party’s external centre, and most notably to Togliatti.footnote2 Basing himself on the letters which Sraffa entrusted some time ago to the Gramsci Institute, Spriano brings out in particular Sraffa’s key role in the various practical steps taken to secure Gramsci’s release. He also elucidates a number of long-controversial incidents which were a source of anguish to Sraffa himself: from the ‘odd’ letter sent by Grieco to Gramsci during the judicial enquiry of February 1928 to the Party centre’s initiatives which cut across, and objectively hindered, the steps being taken to secure Gramsci’s release.footnote3 From all this emerges more clearly than ever the remarkable extent to which Sraffa was involved in Gramsci’s political and personal vicissitudes.

The Prison Letters and Prison Notebooks had already revealed the material and moral comfort which this ‘old subscriber and friend of l’Ordine Nuovo’ gave to Gramsci, both directly and through Tatiana.footnote4 Thus, we know about the ‘unlimited credit’ which he opened for Gramsci with the Sperling and Kupfer bookshop, and his constant readiness to trouble himself and give assistance of the most varied kinds. As Eric Hobsbawm has written, Sraffa ‘enabled him [Gramsci] to read and think in prison . . . maintaining an intellectual contact the significance of which cannot yet be fully assessed’.footnote5 And Gramsci’s letter of March 1924 to Togliatti, Scoccimaro and Leonetti expresses the liking and esteem which he had had for Sraffa ever since the time of l’Ordine Nuovo.footnote6 In fact, our understanding of their relationship has only gradually developed and is still limited by Sraffa’s unrelenting and supremely modest sense of discretion. Perhaps above all else, not enough stress has been laid on Sraffa’s contribution in helping to pass on the Letters and to rescue the Notebooks—in acquiring, that is to say, the intellectual heritage which has been so crucial for the last ten years of the pci’s historical development, and which is now such a living part of cultural and political debate in Italy and the broader world.

The last question concerns the character of the relationship between Gramsci’s and Sraffa’s research. Rightly considered to be very superficial is the view that, despite the ties of personal friendship, ‘there is a complete lack of intellectual contact’ between ‘the greatest Marxist political thinker of the West’ and the ‘most original’ economic scholar and theorist among his contemporaries.footnote7 Growing attention is now paid to Gramsci’s letters and notes of 1932–3 on David Ricardo, in which he explicitly addresses himself to Sraffa through Tatiana.footnote8 But it is hard to say whether more can ever be asserted without lapsing into forced interpretations and ungrounded hypotheses. What is certain is that in their very different circumstances—one being at the heart of the richest and most open circuit of ideas, the other being shut up in prison—both Sraffa and Gramsci were great protagonists in the intellectual life of our times, and that they could not fail to have had a profound influence on each other.

Piero Sraffa was in contact with people like Keynes and Wittgenstein who, apart from their various specialisms, were among the most cultured figures of our epoch. For numerous friends and students, he was a crucial interlocutor and a fertile source of stimulation and critical testing. As an example of the many public testimonies to his maieutic powers, it is enough to quote Wittgenstein’s preface to the Philosophical Investigations: ‘I am indebted to [the criticism] which a teacher of this university, Mr P. Sraffa, for many years unceasingly practised on my thoughts. I am indebted to this stimulus for the most consequential ideas of this book.’footnote9

Let us then pay homage to this great figure and gather fresh strength from his theoretical contribution, forged as it was in the course of reflection in the extraordinary crucible of the inter-war period. Both in Italy and beyond, the most lively discussion will continue around Sraffa’s overall contribution, culminating in Production of Commodities by means of Commodities: around the key analyses of this compressed and penetrating work, its intricate layers of meaning, and its relationship to the classical economists and Marx. It is not our task here to endorse one interpretation rather than another. We simply wish to honour the man who has called upon us—and encouraged us through his work—not to avoid confrontation with the most sophisticated opposing culture, and not to miss the dimension of supreme scientific abstraction. (Nor should we be surprised that Sraffa, with his taste for the concrete and his characteristic irony, has at the same time put us on our guard against a certain loose manner of conducting politics and tackling economic questions.) This too points the way to a further development of Marxism and the workers’ movement in the West.