Marguerite Yourcenar famously wrote that ‘One of the best ways to reconstruct a man’s thinking is to rebuild his library’. Yet, the case of the reconstruction of Sraffa’s library is I believe different, and more complex than Yourcenar’s sentence implies. While starting to think about what I would say today, I asked myself what I thought I would be doing by putting together the catalogue of Sraffa’s library, when back in 1992 in conversation with John Eatwell he suggested I take on this job. This was at the end of a year in Cambridge during which I had been a Visiting Fellow at Trinity College. The year was a happy one, but for the fact that my efforts to have access to Sraffa’s archive had been consistently frustrated. Work on the catalogue I certainly saw as a way of insinuating myself into the archive. The books were not banned territory, and with them came a big box of unsorted papers which also had escaped the Interdict, and which were made available to me by Trinity. A perusal of this box revealed some little treasures. For unfathomable reasons many interesting, variously assorted documents had gone into it: not only, as expected, papers extracted from Sraffa’s books, but quite a few other things, from notes on conversations with Wittgenstein, to the mss of an unpublished letter of Ricardo (contents uninteresting, however), to notes by Sraffa about dreams he had been making, not surprisingly often indirectly touching books (through rather intriguing images involving Foxwell’s eldest daughter). In my introduction to the catalogue, I have written that from Sraffa’s books, one learns more about him as a person than from the archive of his scientific and personal papers. The point I should like to make today is slightly different, and is near to what Luigi Pasinetti wrote in the catalogue’s introductory essay: In conversing with him, with his books all around, one felt to be … immersed into a sort of un-written, but quite clearly perceivable and fascinating history of economic thought according to Piero Sraffa. Indeed, I think Piero Sraffa had a special approach to the history of economic thought. Even the best scholars in this field tend to treat the subject as a matter of scholarship, where the essential thing would be to reconstruct it ‘horizontally’ so to speak, going sometimes (for instance, Jacob Viner’s magnificent study of the bullionist debates of the Ricardian period) to great lengths to take into account all the contemporary debates, all shades of opinion and their grounds, to ascertain precursors and blind alleys, but finally, even though unwittingly or unaware, treating the authors and the matter as dead stuff. With Sraffa, the position was I believe reversed. I think that already in the 1920s, he had come to regard what was named ‘Economics’ (a ‘science of illusions’, he called it) as basically dead. On the other hand, of course, ran Sraffa’s ever growing appreciation for the classics, and for Marx in particular. To unearthing them, bringing them to life again, he devoted unbelievable energies for many a decade, as is of course well known. In various senses, I think it could be said his life was spent in conversation with them, as it were. First and foremost of these interlocutors was of course Karl Marx. Sraffa’s work was made of a combination and strict interaction between deep analytical insight and extremely thorough scholarly work, both historical and bibliographical. It is for me impossible to think of these different aspects of his work separately. I believe that in this, he was unique. I think it was this which prompted Viner to dedicate to him a copy of one of his works, on Adam Smith, writing: ‘To Piero Sraffa, whom I try to emulate in these matters’. In fact, I am tempted to say that Sraffa was himself a sort of living history of economic thought. His work obliterated the distinction between the ‘science’ and its history. This distinction is of course something which is very peculiar to our subject, to which a scientific status has—not unreasonably—often been denied, as when in 1877, (Sir) Francis Galton asked that the Economic Section of the British Association be scrapped, on the grounds that economics did not provide ‘definite laws, which lead by such exact processes of reasoning to their results, that all minds are obliged to accept the latter as true’. Indeed, it would be difficult today even for mainstream economists to deny that our subject does not move in a linear fashion, from error to truth—in which case to study the ‘ancients’ would simply be useful ‘to learn from their mistakes’, as F. Knight rather arrogantly wrote. Sraffa’s own work has of course done much to establish the non-harmonic view. I think he regarded much of what from the 1870s onwards had been ‘added’ to ‘Economics’ to be politically motivated, and amounting to basically nothing—or worse. In an apparently paradoxical reversal of the common attitude, he—who could spend a lot of time on immensely painstaking researches into the minutiae of works of unknown authors of the XVII or XVIII Century—would take to task his publisher Giulio Einaudi in 1949 for considering for publication a recent book by Mises, simply dismissing it as ‘antedeluvian’—the book, Human Action, is however still in print; it is praised on the website of the ‘Mises Institute’ today as ‘the best defense of capitalism ever written’. Sraffa’s attitude to ‘Economics’ I think was probably one of the reasons why he found teaching so difficult, even painful. Of this, I find an interesting confirmation in the reminiscences of one of his undergraduate students of the mid-1940s. He writes: I read out to him my weekly essay (he never read them) which he would listen to in silence, often for what seemed a long time, and then pounce, saying ‘What does that mean?’ or ‘What do you mean?’ There would then follow discussion in which he could become quite worked up. I would leave feeling that I had been taken apart and yet had been offered no better answer than I had given. After a few weeks, I read an essay over which I had taken much trouble. As usual, he ripped into it. When he had finished I told him that I understood the criticisms he had made and thought that in the essay I had guarded myself against them, but what I wanted to know was a better answer to the question. His reply was remarkable. I remember it as: ‘My dear boy, that is a very good answer; it would get very good marks in the exams. But you must realise it is Rubbish’. In this connection, I also find two dedications of books to Sraffa, made in the 1930s, rather significant. One is Joan Robinson’s first economic work: Economics is a serious subject (1932)—a title which would not endear it to Sraffa, I believe. It was dedicated (in print) to ‘the fundamental pessimist’, and we know that this was in fact Sraffa. The second is an article of 1936 entitled ‘An econometric model of production and distribution’—again not the best title to please Sraffa—by Victor Edelberg, a promising young graduate at the London School of Economics who was on good terms with Sraffa. Edelberg inscribed it on the front page: ‘To the Charming Nihilist, from a rational optimist’. The ‘rational optimist’ sadly went on to have a mental breakdown three years later, from which he never completely recovered, Sraffa went on to strengthen his ‘nihilism’. I have mentioned before that Sraffa seems to have spent a lot of time in conversation as it were with his heroes—not only Marx, but other giants, like Turgot. With the latter he had, I believe, a sort of special personal relationship, which I believe can be traced in both the contents of Sraffa’s own work and in several other signs, of many different kinds. There are some rather striking similarities between Sraffa and Turgot on a personal plane: they were both very shy, not only when they were young boys; both had a very strong relationship with their mothers; both were regarded as misogynous, and were accused by their enemies of haughtiness and detachment—indeed, of estrangement from mankind itself. One aspect of their similarities, which is more relevant to us here, was perfectionism: as the Abbé Morellet, Turgot’s schoolmate and good friend, wrote in his Mémoires (and Sraffa duly noticed in his own copy of the book) Turgot was afflicted by a ‘rage de perfection’, which in some cases damaged him—it even played a role in his fall from the Comptrollership General in 1776, making him delay the proclamation of his edicts on freedom of trade, until their ‘préambules’ satisfied him. This ‘rage de perfection’ afflicted Turgot in everything he did, no matter how (un)important. And it was a cause of the fact that Turgot wrote much, but published little—many of his works being published by Condorcet after his death. Another aspect which I believe also linked the two men was that of conferring upon books they owned the task of giving hints about their own ideas. People who have difficult relations with mankind often find communicating through objects more congenial. Turgot, when installed as Intendant at Limoges, caused the door to his secret office to be concealed by a bookcase containing a set of fake books, made only of their bindings, on whose spines one could read their imaginary titles, which were a series of ironical attacks on intolerance (especially religious intolerance), injustice, and despotism. Turgot famously said: ‘Je ne suis pas économiste parce que je voudrais qu'il n'y eût point de roi’. Similarly, I believe the catalogue of Sraffa’s library communicates much about Sraffa’s ideas and inclinations. I would suggest that Sraffa also wanted to send a message by similarities between Production of Commodities and Turgot’s Réflexions sur la formation et la distribution des richesses—some formal, some substantial—which I believe he purposely introduced. These similarities are as striking to me as is the fact that (to the best of my knowledge) they seem to have gone completely unnoticed. The structure of the two books is very similar: a set of short paragraphs, sometimes just a few lines, containing sharp and concise numbered propositions. In both books, each paragraph is given a title which summarises its contents. Réflexions contains paragraphs numbered from 1 to 100. The text of Production of Commodities is also arranged in similar paragraphs, numbered from 1 to 96, and one appendix divided in paragraphs, numbered from 1 to 4. More seriously than this, there is a similarity—or rather a complementarity—between (parts of) the two works that I also find impossible to regard as casual. It is very clear from Sraffa’s papers that he progressively stripped the text of the book he was writing of (almost) all explanations of the broader meaning and implications of its results. Raffaele Mattioli who helped him especially in the later period of its composition, used to say that by pruning it, the text would in the end be reduced to a few sheets of paper which could simply be folded and kept in one’s pocket. Every proposition was pared down to its bare bones. Some allusions—but mere allusions—would be left to problems for which the proposition was relevant: for instance to the case of the ‘oak tree’ and the ‘wine’, evoking the difficulties of the labour theory of value which had afflicted Ricardo. Sraffa left no space to ideological or political implications. Turgot’s Réflexions is different from this point of view, and he sometimes spells out the implications of the propositions thereby made for the ‘vision’ of the working of the economic system. Indeed, in a letter which Sraffa certainly knew, Turgot wrote that his Réflexions contained the ‘metaphysics of the Tableau économique’, and I surmise (though I am sure this would be seen by many as wild speculation) they could be read in conjunction with the ‘parallel’ propositions of Production of Commodities to see what Sraffa had hidden. What I am saying is that Réflexions also partly contained the ‘metaphysics’ of Production of Commodities—if we take the term ‘metaphysics’ to mean, in Sraffa’s words, ‘the emotions that are associated with our terminology and frames [schemi mentali], that is what is absolutely necessary to make the theory living (lebendig), capable of assimilation and at all intelligible’. I will give one example. In paragraph 6 of Production of Commodities, the ‘effect’ of the ‘emergence of a surplus’ is discussed, and the distinction between ‘basics’ and ‘non-basics’ introduced. Sraffa (as is well known) writes: One effect of the emergence of a surplus must be noticed. Previously, all commodities ranked equally, each of them being found both among the products and among the means of production; as a result each, directly or indirectly, entered the production of all the others, and each played a part in the determination of prices. But now there is room for a new class of ‘luxury’ products which are not used, whether as instruments of production or as articles of subsistence, in the production of others. These products have no part in the determination of the system. Their role is purely passive. This is apparently neutral, innocuous stuff. But let us go to paragraphs 7 and 8 of Turgot’s Réflexions. We read: As soon as the labour of the husbandman produces more than sufficient for his necessities, he can, with the excess … purchase the labour of other members of society. … Here, then is the whole society divided, by a necessity founded on the nature of things, into two classes, both industrious, one of which, by its labour, produces, or rather draws from the earth, riches continually renewing, which supply the whole society with subsistence, and with materials for all its wants; while the other is employed in giving to the said materials such preparations and forms as render them proper for the use of man, sells its labour to the first, and receives in return a subsistence. The first may be called the productive, the latter the stipendiary class. Turgot goes on in paragraph 11 to say that the existence of the ‘superfluity’ allows also the existence of another class, that to which the Proprietor belongs, who ‘is enabled with this superfluity, to pay other men [‘who live by wages’] to cultivate his land’; the Proprietors are instead ‘eased of the labour of culture’; from this derives ‘inequality’ (para. 12). The whole society is divided in three ‘branches’: ‘husbandmen’, or ‘cultivators’—the ‘productive class’, who ‘supply the whole society with its subsistence and with the materials’ (i.e. basics), ‘artificers [artizans] or stipendiary class’, who do not produce either of these two kinds of commodities, but produce non-basics, employing basics. Both classes are ‘laborious’, both ‘subsist on wages’, produced by the productive class (para. 16). Then comes ‘the class of proprietors’, who consume those non-basics, and do not work, but run the show (‘may be employed … in the general service of society, as for war, and the administration of justice’). This class, adds Turgot, ‘enjoys nothing but by the labour of the cultivator’, it ‘has need of the cultivator by the necessity arising from the physical order of things… but the cultivator has no need of the proprietor but by virtue of human conventions … and civil laws’. The class of Proprietors is, in Turgot’s words, a ‘classe disponible’ (for the ‘general needs of Society’)—which is rendered as ‘disposable class’ in the 1791–92 English translation of Réflexions (made by Benjamin Vaughan, an Anglo-American Physiocrat, and admirer of the French Revolution). This—betraying the letter but perhaps not the true spirit of Turgot—could be read as ‘class which we can be disposed of’. The connection of this with Production of Commodities many might find slight to say the least, but from Sraffa’s papers we can see that he regarded production of basics and production of non-basics as corresponding to the division into productive and unproductive activities. Indeed, I may add, production of basics is self-sufficient: it reproduces, can go on forever, and expand. Production of non-basics can satisfy a human want, but once it has done this it is finished. It can only go on producing if part of the production of basics is transferred to it (therefore it is ‘stipendiée’ by the Cultivators). In contrast to the production of basics, the production of non-basics could be disposed of—however, only to the extent that the class which consumes them could be disposed of. © 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 9, 2018
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