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Sraffa, Pierolocked

  • G. C. Harcourt

Piero Sraffa (1898–1983)

by Renato Guttuso, 1961

The Master and Fellows, Trinity College, Cambridge

Sraffa, Piero (1898–1983), economist, was born in Turin on 5 August 1898, the only child of Angelo Sraffa, from Pisa, a professor of commercial law at several Italian universities, and his wife, Irma Tivoli, from Piedmont. Both parents came from well-known Jewish families. He was educated in Parma, Milan, and Turin, and at the University of Turin, where he graduated as doctor of law in 1920. He became associate professor of political economy at the University of Perugia in 1924 and then professor at the University of Cagliari (Sardinia) in 1926.

After offending Mussolini, Sraffa migrated to England in 1927 and, through the initiative of J. M. Keynes, was appointed to a university lectureship in the Cambridge faculty of economics. In 1930 he resigned his lectureship (he was agonizingly shy about lecturing) and was appointed Marshall librarian, and, soon after, assistant director of research to act as mentor to research students. In 1939 he was elected to a fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge. He was made FBA in 1954 and a reader in economics at Cambridge in 1963. In 1961 he was awarded the prize of the Stockholm Academy of Science, which was equivalent to receiving the Nobel prize.

Sraffa had a major influence on the intellectual development of the twentieth century. He was an intimate friend of Antonio Gramsci, Keynes, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, and, indeed, played an important part in persuading Wittgenstein to change his philosophical views between the Tractatus (1922) and the Philosophical Investigations (1953). Sraffa was the most important critic of the orthodox theory of value and distribution in the twentieth century. Yet, although he was to make outstanding contributions to pure theory, about the rigour and coherence of which he had well-defined ideas, the object of his theorizing always had a political and social aspect to it.

From his school days Sraffa had taken a keen interest in political issues and early on became a socialist. He fought in the Italian army during the First World War and, as a result of his experiences, became a pacifist. He opposed Mussolini's fascist regime; his friendship with Gramsci came about because of this. Even in his earliest economic work—his dissertation, 'L'inflazione monetaria in Italia durante e dopo la guerra' (1920)—important political, institutional, and sociological ingredients were already present. And although the analytical structure was the then dominant form of the quantity theory of money, Sraffa's own particular contribution was to integrate the sociological and institutional determinants of wages and employment into this framework. He incurred the wrath of Mussolini by exposing the corrupt practices of the pre-fascist and fascist state with regard to the private banking system in his Economic Journal and Manchester Guardian articles on the bank crisis in Italy (1922). It was his interest in monetary matters that first attracted Keynes's attention, and, while they were later to follow different lines of research in economics, their friendship remained as close as ever, not least because they were both passionate bibliophiles. He translated Keynes's A Tract on Monetary Reform into Italian in 1925.

In the mid-1920s Sraffa commenced his critique of the orthodox theory of value and distribution. First he attacked the partial equilibrium analysis of Alfred Marshall, and then the general equilibrium framework, both different examples of the dominant supply and demand theories. As a challenge to these theories, Sraffa spawned the imperfect competition revolution which others developed, in a manner probably not to his liking. Then, changing tack, he developed a coherent account of the surplus approach of the classical political economists—the contention that the surplus of commodities over those necessary for their reproduction is the core concept of economic theory around which theories of value, distribution, production, employment, and growth may, and should, be set. In his view this approach reached its highest form in Marx's work, only to be superseded in mainstream economics by the rise to dominance of the supply and demand theories. By stressing the production interdependencies of the economy as a whole (commodities produced by means of commodities), Sraffa set out a system which gave coherence to the surplus concept, allowed the analysis of the effect of different values of a distributive variable on prices to be examined, and, at the same time, provided a critique of the marginal theories in so far as they were directed to answering classical questions about the origin and size of the rate of profits. The development of these ideas occupied him for many years. They were published in 1960 as Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities.

From 1930 Sraffa also worked on his magnificent eleven-volume edition (1951–73) of the works and correspondence of David Ricardo, in later years collaborating with Maurice Dobb, who did not share Sraffa's extreme inhibitions against writing for publication. It is one of the finest examples of sustained and meticulous scholarship in the discipline. The arguments of the introduction to volume 1, published in 1951, are important complements to those of the 1960 book. In attempting this sustained research programme of both criticism and revival, Sraffa may have had in mind Gramsci's injunction to attack at its logical core the very best expression of a rival philosophical system.

Sraffa was a remarkable personality. He had the capacity to evoke great affection and to inspire people to perform to their full potential. He had a subtle original wit and made wholly unexpected responses to points raised in discussion. He was fluent in four languages. Although he lived in England from 1927 onwards, he always regarded himself as Italian, reading the Italian papers daily and never changing his nationality (indeed, he was interned on the Isle of Man in 1940, until Keynes succeeded in having him returned to Cambridge). Sraffa died in Cambridge on 3 September 1983. He was unmarried.


  • Annual Report of the Council [King's College, Cambridge] (1984)
  • N. Kaldor, ‘Piero Sraffa, 1898–1983’, PBA, 71 (1985), 615–40
  • B. Schefold, ‘Piero Sraffa, 1898–1983’, Economic Journal, 106 (1996), 1314–25
  • J. Eatwell and C. Panico, ‘Sraffa, Piero, 1898–1983’, The new Palgrave: a dictionary of economics, ed. J. Eatwell, M. Milgate, and P. Newman (1987)
  • P. Samuelson, ‘Sraffian economics’, The new Palgrave: a dictionary of economics, ed. J. Eatwell, M. Milgate, and P. Newman (1987)
  • personal knowledge (2004)


  • Trinity Cam., corresp. and papers
  • BLPES, corresp. with Royal Economic Society
  • King's AC Cam., corresp. with J. M. Keynes
  • King's AC Cam., letters to Joan Violet Robinson


Wealth at Death

£1,592,188: administration with will, 16 March 1984, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Proceedings of the British Academy