Piero Sraffa was born in Turin in 1898, the son of a law professor at the university. As he himself described in a 1924 letter to Gramsci (quoted in the article by Ferrata below), he was a ‘pacifist socialist’ as an adolescent, in the years 1915–17: the Italian Socialist Party was one of the few Second-International parties to maintain its opposition to the War after August 1914, and even after Italian entry on the Allied side in May 1915 continued a policy of ‘non-collaboration’ (but also of ‘non-sabotage’) with respect to the national war effort. As a university student, in 1918–20, Sraffa was caught up in the wave of radicalization which followed the Russian Revolution and the end of the War. It was at this time that he came into contact with the revolutionary journal l’Ordine Nuovo, edited by Gramsci, which was at once the theoretical animator and a political reflection of the factory-council movement in Turin. During these so-called Two Red Years, Turin—‘Italy’s Petrograd’, as Gramsci was to term it—was one of the most revolutionary and most proletarian cities in Europe, its advanced industrial complex centred on fiat enormously expanded by war production. The atmosphere was a heady one for a young socialist intellectual such as Sraffa. Introduced to Gramsci by a university professor—Umberto Cosmo—who had befriended the latter during his student days, Sraffa began to contribute translations and reading notes to the weekly Ordine Nuovo.

It is not clear whether Sraffa formally became a member of the Italian Communist Party, which was only founded in January 1921. Gramsci was to speak in 1924 merely of ‘the contacts he had with us in Turin’—but went on to say that ‘it will only be necessary to keep in contact once again in order to resuscitate him and make him an active element of our party’. At all events, even if a member, he was a relatively inactive one; and as the exchange recounted below by Ferrata makes clear, he had by 1924 become quite alienated from the party’s policies. At this time, the party was still in transition between the Bordiga leadership of 1921–3, whose ultra-left refusal to implement United Front policies had brought the pci into open conflict with the Comintern leadership, and the Gramsci leadership which was consolidated at a consultative conference of the party a couple of months later than the exchange with Sraffa, in May 1924. This is not the place to go into all the intricacies of that political conjuncture. But schematically it can be said that, despite Gramsci’s determination that the new leadership should heal the breach with the Comintern, he remained much less hostile to Bordiga than he was to the third current within the Party—the Right, headed by Tasca, which had formed to fight for the positions of the International leadership, but which Gramsci saw as potentially ‘liquidationist’. The Twenty-One Points, the split in the parties of the Second International and the formation of separate Communist parties and a new International—these were premised on the expectation of an extension of the socialist revolution, above all to Western Europe. When such extension failed to take place—and even more when, as in Italy, there was instead a victorious black reaction—it was not surprising if a mood of pessimism affected the base of the young Communist parties, and if there were some who asked whether the whole policy of splitting the mass working-class parties had been correct. This was the mood, and the doubt, which Gramsci saw as the principal threat to the party, and which he believed that Tasca reflected at the level of the leadership. What was probably the key article Gramsci wrote in this period immediately preceding his emergence as party leader was entitled ‘Against Pessimism’. This, then, is the context of Gramsci’s 1924 exchange with Sraffa, by now a university lecturer at Cagliari in Sardinia. It should also be pointed out, however, that there was another aspect to Sraffa’s letter to Gramsci, which was not included by the latter in the published exchange in the party press. Sraffa suggested launching a new trade-union organization modelled on the Wobblies (iww), to break the reformist hold of the General Confederation of Labour over the Italian working class. The ‘pessimistic’ and inactive academic sympathizer was thus capable of advancing a political proposal of a kind very much in tune with Gramsci’s own (at this time, somewhat ultra-left) conceptions.

In the early twenties, Turin University was the foremost centre of political, economic and juridical studies in Italy. Sraffa wrote his thesis on ‘Inflation in Wartime and Postwar Italy’, under the supervision of Luigi Einaudi, an eminent liberal economist who was subsequently to be a leader of the 1924–5 ‘Aventine’ opposition to Mussolini and, after the Second World War, Governor of the Bank of Italy and then President of the Republic (1948–55). The thesis was accepted in 1920. In 1921, Sraffa visited England for the first time and met Keynes in August. In the same period, he sent three articles from London to the now daily Ordine Nuovo: ‘Open Shop Drive’, ‘English Industrialists and Government against the Workers’, and ‘The Labour Leaders’ (the first and third were unsigned). In 1922, Sraffa published his first article in Economic Journal; it was entitled ‘The Bank Crisis in Italy’. He also contributed in the same year to The Manchester Guardian’s Commercial Supplement for Europe, which was edited on that occasion by Keynes. In 1924, he contributed again to Economic Journal—this time an obituary notice. In 1925, he translated Keynes’s ‘Monetary Reform’ into Italian. Finally, Economic Journal’s publication in 1926 of Sraffa’s now famous article on ‘The Laws of Return under Competitive Conditions’ led to his moving early in the following year to Cambridge, where he has remained as a Fellow of Trinity College to this day.

In Cambridge, Sraffa became one of the five or six members of the self-styled ‘Circus’—the inner circle of economists who met regularly to discuss with Keynes as he prepared his General Theory of Employment, Money and Interest, which appeared in 1936. The record of this intellectual collaboration (discussed below by Ranchetti) can be found in the published volumes of Keynes’s Collected Works: both in those devoted to the preparatory work for the General Theory, and in those containing Keynes’s voluminous correspondence. In addition, Keynes and Sraffa in 1938 together introduced and edited a new edition of Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature. It was also soon after his move to Cambridge that Sraffa came to know Wittgenstein, who moved to Trinity in 1929. Wittgenstein has testified, in the 1945 preface to his posthumously published Philosophical Investigations, to the crucial role played by Sraffa’s intellectual stimulus during the thirties in bringing about a fundamental shift in his own philosophical positions, away from those of the Tractatus to those of his later years. According to Von Wright, one of Wittgenstein’s disciples, ‘He [Wittgenstein] said that his discussions with Sraffa made him feel like a tree from which all the branches had been cut.’ Another disciple, Norman Malcolm, has even claimed that the crucial watershed for Wittgenstein was a ‘Neapolitan gesture’ of Sraffa’s which clearly could only have a precise meaning in specific circumstances—i.e. could not be classified within the axiomatic order of rational language. Finally, it was during this same period that Sraffa undertook—as described in Roncaglia’s article below—the monumental edition of Ricardo which he was only to complete some twenty years later.

As we have seen, Sraffa had known Gramsci in 1919–20, and had corresponded with him in 1924. At the end of 1926, shortly after his arrest, Gramsci wrote to Sraffa in Cagliari to ask his help, particularly in obtaining reading material. Sraffa, with single-minded dedication, took on what was to become a ten-year task of sustaining his imprisoned friend, both materially and spiritually. He opened an unlimited account in Gramsci’s name at a Milan bookshop. He wrote letters to the English and French press bringing Gramsci’s case to public attention. He visited Gramsci’s wife in Moscow, his sister-in-law in Rome, and eventually was allowed to see Gramsci himself during the latter’s incarceration at Turi di Bari. He established and maintained a contact with the Italian Communist leaders in exile—Togliatti and Tasca in 1927–8, Togliatti without Tasca (who was expelled in 1929 as a rightist and follower of Bukharin) thereafter. He played a vital part in organizing the preservation of the Prison Notebooks. In order to appreciate what Sraffa did on Gramsci’s behalf during these years, it is only necessary to read the latter’s Letters from Prison, Giuseppe Fiori’s Antonio Gramsci: Life of a Revolutionary or Paolo Spriano’s recent Gramsci in Carcere e il Partito.

Sraffa has always been an elusive and even mysterious presence in Britain, indeed for the Left internationally. In the early thirties, when he was still a young man, Cambridge contemporaries already regarded him with awe as a ghostly éminence grise, about whom almost nothing was known but whose intellectual powers were legendary. It was only decades later, with the publication in 1960 of Production of Commodities by means of Commodities, that he began to become a name to conjure with on a wider scale. The basis which he laid down for a devastating critique of marginalist economics was hailed by economists as diverse as Joan Robinson (nlr 31) and Ernest Mandel (The Formation of the Economic Thought of Karl Marx). But at the same time, his book sparked off the most far-ranging debate among Marxist economists since before the First World War—a debate which still rages unabated. The articles translated below aim not only to give an accessible account of Sraffa’s role in that debate, but also to illuminate other facets of his enigmatic contribution to the political and intellectual history of our age.