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The criticism of Marshall’s theory of value in the Cambridge Lectures by Sraffa: advancements and incompleteness

Trezzini Attilio, Università di Roma Tre

In the Lectures delivered in Cambridge between 1928 and 1931, Sraffa developed a radical criticism of Marshall’s theory of cost and value. Sraffa criticized the thesis that Marshall’s theory could be conceived as a synthesis of the theories of Classical economists and the theories of value based on marginal utility, that became dominant since the 1870s. At that time, this thesis was dominant in Cambridge and all over the academic world. Sraffa’s criticism was based on a reconstruction of the evolution of the notion of cost, which was at the basis of the change that, according to the dominant interpretation of the unpublished manuscripts, occurred in Sraffa’s position between the summer of 1927 and the spring of 1928. A comparison between the criticism of Marshall’s theory proposed in the lectures and that proposed in the 1925 and 1926 articles is meaningful. In the articles Sraffa developed a criticism of the Marshallian theory of value but there he fundamentally accepted the framework and the method of Marshallian analysis of demand and supply. The criticism proposed in the Lectures is however remarkable also for its incompleteness. It is based on Sraffa’s interpretation of the debate on the ultimate standard of value originated by Marshall’s Principles. If regarded in the light of his more mature contributions, and of the work of reconstruction of the history of thought based on his whole contribution, Sraffa’s interpretation at that time was still partial because he did not clearly understand the necessary connection between the theory of value and the theory of income distribution. This connection is crucial both for Classical and Marginalist theories of value, but was obscured in the debate on the ultimate standard by the method of partial equilibria developed by Marshall. The incompleteness of Sraffa’s criticism of Marshall is thus a further evidence of his former, albeit critical, adhesion to the general framework of Marshallian analysis.


Keywords: Sraffa's Cambridge Lecture, Marshall, Classical political economy and marginalism.

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