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History of Political Economy 35.3 (2003) 598-602
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Piero Sraffa: His Life, Thought, and Cultural Heritage. By Alessandro Roncaglia. Routledge Studies in the History of Economics. London: Routledge, 2000. 129 pp.
This slim volume puts together for an international audience three contributions conceived by the author over the past ten-odd years on one of his own preferred themes for research. The result is of considerable interest and evinces an excellent understanding of the virtues and, at the same time, the limits of the current Sraffian literature. In what follows, the state of the Sraffian heritage will be observed mainly from the perspective of the history of economic thought.
Piero Sraffa has been one of the most abused men of our age, at least as far as economists are concerned. Particularly during the later years of his life, before he became severely ill, Sraffa had fallen under the spell of a small crowd of scholars who gathered under his name and who distinguished themselves, among his followers, for their concern with establishing the Sraffian canon or the theoretical and intellectual foundation of Sraffa's classical approach. This attitude still survives today, in spite of the fact that, as soon as one opens the Pandora's box of Sraffa's unpublished writings, new vistas are revealed and the ambition of fixing the canon immediately appears as a desperate enterprise. (It is precisely that ambition that explains why the publication of Sraffa's literary remains has so far been withheld [see Garegnani 1998]. If the publication of a first set of those remains is now truly imminent, as many say it is, then we are indebted to the constant determination of Professor Heinz D. Kurz of the University of Graz. Professor Kurz himself confirmed at the February 2003 [End Page 598] conference on Sraffa at the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei in Rome that publication was indeed nigh.)
No hint of this is given explicitly in Roncaglia's book. He keeps aloof of such and similar quibbles. At the same time, this is no criticism at all, for in fact the book does not deal with unpublished materials except incidentally; moreover, on several grounds, as we shall presently see, the book under review is an extremely useful and timely production. The book contains three chapters. The first ("Piero Sraffa") sketches the biography of the man and the scholar. The does tone of the exposition indeed echo, to some extent, the hagiographic style so typical of the Sraffian literature—but only very moderately so. The exposition, though somewhat plain, is informative and useful. But the lexical dress is not entirely spotless. At times Roncaglia's narrative plunges deep into specific analytical problems, such as in the discussion of the two meanings of Sraffa's "standard commodity" (36), a discussion that should possibly have been confined to chapter 2. Two main purposes in chapter 1 seem relevant. First, Roncaglia emphasizes the cultural dimension of "one of the leading intellectual figures of the twentieth century": therefore great emphasis is given to Sraffa's friendship with the outstanding Communist leader Antonio Gramsci, with Ludwig Wittgenstein, and, of course, with Keynes. Second, the book tries to dispel the idea that Sraffa was a pure theoretician only. This is not only a politically clever move on Roncaglia's part; it is, above all, an improvement on the current image of Piero Sraffa, an image that remains all too often forgetful about his close familiarity with monetary, financial, and industrial problems. Sraffa's knowledge of such problems should come as no surprise when one considers his scientific interests, especially at an early stage, as Roncaglia aptly documents; it is even reflected (we may add), surprisingly enough, in his Cambridge teaching. One would perhaps wish that, among other things, Sraffa's lifelong intimate friendship with the famous Italian banker Raffaele Mattioli could have also received greater attention in Roncaglia's treatment; Roncaglia's failure to adequately discuss that friendship, however, raises a more general point to which we shall come back near the end of this review.