The book is on Antonio Gramsci and Piero Sraffa, but the author’s interest centres on the latter who entertained famous friendships with the former and also with Wittgenstein and Keynes. While we know something about the discussions between Wittgenstein and Sraffa and between Keynes and Sraffa, the friendship with Gramsci is more elusive. Both were young—Sraffa very young—when they came to know each other through the intermediary of a common schoolteacher and during their university studies. There are not many traces of their apparently frequent meetings. Later, Gramsci was imprisoned by the Fascist government of Italy and maintained relationships with the Communist International and the emigrated leaders of the Italian Communist Party through Sraffa, but much of that interchange was kept secret. Sraffa was reluctant to share what he knew with the Party and with others, except for messages which Gramsci had asked him to convey. The book, which seems to have had a long time of creation, is divided into two chapters. The first is an attempt to recount the history of Gramsci’s politics and Sraffa’s involvement in them, prior to and after the imprisonment. The second chapter tries to reconstruct the intellectual interchange between the economist and the politician, dealing in particular with their conceptions of historical materialism. Both chapters have various Appendices to illustrate and document the mutual influences by means of writings found in the Sraffa Archive and in other sources. An Appendix to the book as a whole contains articles by Sraffa on labour questions written at the time of his collaboration with Gramsci for the journal of the Party, L’Ordine Nuovo. Of particular interest are notes that Sraffa had composed on Italian fascism for a presentation in Keynes’s Political Economy Club. These notes, also taken from the Sraffa Archive, are here published in an Italian translation for the first time. Short books usually do not exhibit such a complicated structure. It is the result of a compromise between the ambition of the author to present both personalities biographically, with their main ideas, and his self-discipline which does not allow him to base his narrative on guesswork. Hence, he must present his arguments in a roundabout manner, often inferring Sraffa’s thought—this is what he is interested in primarily—from its effect on the writings of others, who were more prolific like Maurice Dobb. Gramsci and Sraffa saw each other frequently in the years 1919–1921 and 1924–1926. Encounters became very rare, when Gramsci was exiled and then imprisoned, and their correspondence had to be channelled via one of Gramsci’s relatives, Tatiana Schucht. That Sraffa helped Gramsci materially, intellectually and by providing juridical support, has become known only since the 1960s. De Vivo asserts that Gramsci had full confidence in Sraffa and used him to address an appeal to the Party that it should collaborate with the bourgeois forces in opposition to fascism. Others suspected at the time of Gramsci’s imprisonment and later, when its history was written, that Sraffa was used by Togliatti and indirectly by Stalin to watch over Gramsci, whom some suspected of Trotskyism. The book attempts to disentangle the history of these intrigues, and it is therefore difficult to read in places, especially for people unacquainted with the history of Italian left wing politics. An additional complication derives from the fact that Sraffa began to lose his memory in the late 1960s, at a time when he began to collaborate towards the writing of a history of Gramsci’s role in the Party. Earlier, prior to and during the Second World War, he had to be careful not to get expelled from Britain as an undesirable alien on account of his political leaning. The centre of the intrigues concerns a letter by the later Secretary (1934–1938) of the Party, Ruggero Grieco, who had written in such a way that the judge gave a hint to Gramsci, saying that he seemed to have friends who wanted him to stay on in prison. Gramsci felt that this letter torpedoed one of his attempts to get liberated. (There were several such attempts, and at least one of them was supported by Sraffa’s father, Angelo Sraffa, the famous Rector of Bocconi University.) Gramsci was at first only disturbed by Grieco’s letter, but in 1932 he called it ‘criminal’. Sraffa thought it less important. He wrote to Tatiana Schucht in 1937, after Gramsci’s death, that it had neither been malicious nor a devilish plan. In the end, De Vivo admits that a fully satisfactory explanation of the plot is still missing.1 The second chapter on the intellectual relationship between Sraffa and Gramsci and on historical materialism seems more promising. De Vivo has found nice quotes in the Sraffa Archive. For instance, when he discusses Sraffa’s friendship with Wittgenstein by way of introduction to this chapter, he inserts a quote on utilitarianism by Sraffa, which shows that Sraffa interpreted utilitarianism as a form of hedonism and did, at least in this instance, not recognise that the modern form of utility theory is not necessarily about hedonism, but about the possibility to order one’s preferences. The story then is of how Sraffa became progressively more interested in Marx. Gramsci was an admirer of Benedetto Croce, Sraffa was not. Sraffa was interested in modern physics, Gramsci was not. De Vivo wants to explain Sraffa’s disdain for Croce with Croce’s temporary leaning towards fascism. This may be part of the explanation; another could be that Sraffa simply was not much interested in Croce’s revival of European humanism and even less in his early revisionist critique of Marxism.2 Sraffa’s historical materialism was similar to that professed by Engels, De Vivo asserts. The material conditions determine history only in the last instance, and ideas may play a role, if they appear as facts in history. De Vivo uses a text by Dobb, trying to show that Dobb here was influenced by Sraffa and came under critique from his own Party cell in Cambridge because of this idealist deviation. But, it seems to me, the deviation did not go far. What about a Weberian interpretation of history? What about the writings of what Müller-Armack would call the post-Marxist researches into capitalism by Sombart, the brothers Weber, Simmel, Troeltsch, and others? This vast literature, which develops historical materialism, adding idealist elements, where they need to come in, seems to have been ignored entirely by our protagonists. Not even Schumpeter is mentioned here.3 De Vivo takes up Sraffa’s brave and unwavering fight against fascism. The evidence for it is in Sraffa’s articles in L’Ordine Nuovo about the suppression of workers’ movements, in his article in the Manchester Guardian on the dubious financial dealings of the emerging fascist state and it can also been recognised in Sraffa’s early advice to the Party to seek a collaboration with the bourgeois forces opposed to fascism. This, at first, was harshly rejected by Gramsci; he famously accused Sraffa of normative and Kantian thought, which supposedly was neither Marxist nor dialectical. As we saw, Gramsci would later change his mind insofar as he would opt for such a collaboration himself. De Vivo adds an Appendix to this chapter on his ideas as to how Sraffa came to appreciate Marx more and more, as he worked on the foundations of what, after three decades, became Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities. He sees the key element in Sraffa’s reading of Theories of Surplus Value in the French edition (they had first been edited in German by Kautsky). Sraffa actually wrote a letter to Kautsky, asking for permission to have Theories of Surplus Value translated into English. Sraffa himself would use the French edition, and he would see to it that an Italian translation would appear after the Second World War. The key element is the circular flow, as rendered visible and intuitive by Quesnay, together with the idea of a surplus, and this vision is opposed to that of the one-way avenue from factors of production to consumption goods. According to De Vivo, the schemes of reproduction of the second volume of Das Kapital played an equally important role for Sraffa’s turn. One might add that the schemes of reproduction had been debated among German Marxists like Rosa Luxemburg and Henryk Grossmann. De Vivo thus expresses here his vision as to how Sraffa moved from the critique of Marshall towards Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities. He might have explained how he sees the relationship between Sraffa and predecessors like Mühlpfordt, Dmitriev, Charasov, Remak, Potron, and others and what role Sraffa’s studies of Marshall played in this transition, which has interested a number of historians of economic thought. De Vivo is more concerned with the political context, and he adds the Appendices already mentioned, among whom the paper on the corporatist state seems to me most notable. Characteristically, Sraffa here reduces the corporatist state without any reference to the mythology surrounding it to the logic of its brute economic core. It is, he reminds the reader, not a novel observation: With the national product rises what can be distributed as wages or profits. The problem is that each side can increase its share only by threatening to reduce its contribution and to disrupt production, which would harm society. Hence, a system is needed that is able to prevent the frictions resulting from the struggle over distribution, and this the corporative state achieves by means of mandatory organisations of workers and employers. These then become the basis for sham elections; the originality of fascism is in the replacement of electoral districts by the organisations of workers and employers, where the candidates are chosen by the fascist organisations. Sraffa in 1927 interprets this as an old kind of dictatorship, dressed in modern disguise, and he asks himself whether this structure is an anomalous result of Italian conditions after the First World War or whether it represents what the future of modern industry requires and what thus would spread across Europe. This coldblooded analysis is fascinating to read, but we do not get any substantive information as to what Gramsci or Sraffa thought about the corresponding ‘structures’ in the Soviet Union that they seem sometimes to have admired, sometimes to have looked at with scepticism as a model for Italian politics. How would they have interpreted the implosion of that empire? In the end, the reader must recognise that it will probably remain impossible to paint a full and coherent picture of the friendship between these strikingly different men, one a son of poor peasants and a charismatic leader, the other in appearance a bourgeois intellectual of great charm in personal encounters, but secretive and of, if necessary, intimidating intelligence. The sources regarding their encounters are simply too scarce, however rich the texts may be which they wrote in the Italian prison or in Trinity College. Instead of with a picture, De Vivo has presented us with a collage, which is aptly made and which induces the reader to think a great deal about the personalities, their works, their times, and also about some mysteries and myths. The entire narrative is very Italian; many explanatory comments would have to be added to an English version. Footnotes 1 Paolo Spriano, in a note to his edition of Gramsci’s prison letters (Gramsci, 1971, p. 252), thought that Grieco’s letter could do damage to Gramsci’s defence because it elevated the imprisoned members of the Party to high ranks. 2 According to the Catalogue (De Vivo, 2014), Sraffa had many works by Croce in his library at Trinity College. However, I never noticed literary works and works of art there, nor do I recall conversations on problems of the humanities, when I talked to Sraffa in the late 60s and in the 70s. His focus was on other matters. 3 The problem of materialism in Croce is posed shortly by Gramsci in a little note on him (my transl. BS): ‘What does the accusation of ‘materialism’ mean, which Croce raises often against specific political tendencies? Is it about a judgement of theoretical, scientific character or about a manifestation of an actual political polemic? Materialism, in these polemics, seems to signify ‘natural force’, ‘coercion’, ‘economic fact’, etc. But, perhaps [he means] that the ‘material force’, the ‘coercion’, the ‘economic fact’ are ‘materialist’. What would ‘materialism’ mean in this case?’ (Gramsci, 1972, p. 255). References de Vivo , G. ( 2014 ) Catalogue of the Library of Piero Sraffa . Milano and Torino : Fondazione L. Einaudi and Fondazione R. Mattioli. Gramsci , A. ( 1971 ) Lettere dal carcere. Una scelta a cura di Paolo Spriano . Torino : Einaudi . Gramsci , A. ( 1972 ) Il materialismo storico e la filosofia di Benedetto Croce . Torino : Einaudi . © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Cambridge Political Economy Society. All rights reserved This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Contributions to Political Economy – Oxford University Press
Published: May 10, 2018
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