The ghost in the machine?

Imagining Gramsci's Keynes
Christopher Sheil

'Nothing is more significant than the case of an economic analyst as penetrating as John Maynard Keynes', wrote the great French social historian, Marc Bloch: 'There is hardly one of his books in which he does not, from the beginning, expropriate terms, usually pretty well established, in order to decree entirely new meanings for them, meanings which sometimes vary from work to work, but, in any case, depart from current usage.'

Bloch did the same and was drawing on Keynes to illustrate the distorting effects of worshipping the false idol of precision in fields such as economics and history, which he called 'time-sciences' that preserved 'something of the stubborn individualism of art!' Even if the day came when understandings clarified nomenclature, and thereby enabled progressive sub-definition, argued Bloch, 'the individuality of the scholar will, as always, be reflected in his choice of words.' 'I must invent my own system', wrote William Blake, more succinctly, 'or be enslaved by another man's'.

Antonio ('Nino') Gramsci was another great thinker whose stubborn individuality is marked in almost every sentence he wrote. In this reflection on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the publication of Keynes' The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, I'll imagine a much closer relationship between Maynard and Nino than has been supposed. For the joy in intellectual speculation, I'll imagine relations for which there is no direct positive evidence; but nor is there any evidence that they didn't so exist. What follows is thus possibly true if however unlikely; for I'm going to imagine that Gramsci was the ghost in Keynes' genius.

Piero Sraffa

To begin with the landmark text, when The General Theory was published in 1936, Gramsci was in one of Mussolini's prisons, dying in agony from the illnesses he had accumulated over ten years of incarceration. Yet in the immediately prior years, when The General Theory was being figured out, Keynes and Gramsci had been in frequent contact through their mutual friend, Piero Sraffa. To appreciate how the dying Nino may have influenced the way Maynard 'fired at the moon', you need to know about Piero.

Born the son of a distinguished liberal family in Pisa in 1898, Piero Sraffa was a brilliant student in law and economics (finance). At the age of 21, he became a friend of the then 28 year-old Nino. The following year, Piero was introduced through a family friend to the then 37 year-old Maynard, who was already internationally famous because of The Economic Consequences of the Peace, and with whom he would also grow ever closer. By 1920, then, the nexus between Keynes and Gramsci had been forged, and it was Sraffa.

Sraffa beat Robert Michels into an economics lectureship in 1926, and was a professor by the time he turned 28. There is much we could dawdle over at this stage, as, on the one side, Piero dazzled the Cambridge economist with his brilliant critique of marginalism; and, on the other, he challenged Nino with his political analysis. But to cut to the chase, Gramsci, who had been elected to parliament in April 1924 and had then become (virtually by default) the secretary of the Italian Communist Party the following August, was arrested by the fascist police in November 1926 and subsequently imprisoned for 20 years ('we must stop this brain from functioning' went the famous words of the fascist prosecutor).

Although he never joined the Communist Party, Piero was fearful he would suffer Nino's fate, when Maynard wrote to offer him a Cambridge lectureship. Piero went to England, moved into Maynard's Cambridge flat, enjoyed high-dining rights at Kings College, and soon became close friends with Robert Kahn, Joan Robinson, Maurice Dobb, Frank Ramsey, Nicholas Kaldor - and Ludwig Wittgenstein, with whom he would spend every Thursday afternoon and evening during term. Wittgenstein was reported to have said that 'his discussions with Sraffa made him feel like a tree from which all branches had been cut'. This echoed Keynes' description of him as a man 'from whom nothing is hid.'

Universally respected for his intelligence and learning, and much loved for his warmth and modesty, Piero was nevertheless unsuited to lecturing because of his embarrassment over his Italian accent, his sensitive temperament and the radical complexity of his research. Maynard therefore arranged for him to become the librarian in the Marshall Library, from where he continued his work critiquing marginalism, meanwhile midwifing an astonishing crop of students. Sraffa was permanently dissatisfied with the way the marginalists (and also Marx, for that matter) had supposed to resolve the contradictions between Adam Smith and David Ricardo, and this problem became the centre of his intellectual life work. In 1930 he also commenced his 25-year dedication to editing Ricardo's complete works, gifting the world with what is widely regarded as the finest work in the literature of economics, and for which he was elevated to the British academy and awarded the forerunner of what would become the Nobel prize.

Sraffa, Keynes & Gramsci

How close were Piero and Maynard? Very. Both diehard bibliophiles, they would potter around antiquarian bookshops together on Sunday afternoons and were in close contact up until Keynes died. It was Sraffa who in 1930 organised the celebrated Cambridge 'Circus' that developed some of the key ideas in The General Theory; it was Sraffa who took up the task of demolishing Friedrich Hayek's explanation for the Great Depression on Keynes' behalf in 1932; and it was Sraffa who Keynes described as 'one of my closest friends' in 1940. What of Sraffa and The General Theory? The key years in the making of the landmark are 1932 to 1935, and it is settled ground that Piero not only contributed through the Circus, he read drafts, made extensive criticisms, and participated actively in the discussions, as he had previously with Maynard's Treatise on Money. Where this story becomes intriguing is that during these exact years Piero had another preoccupation in his life.

From the moment Gramsci was imprisoned in Turin in 1926, Sraffa dedicated himself to securing his release - co-ordinating an international campaign, corresponding, sending reading material, opening unlimited accounts for the prisoner at Milan bookshops, buying presents for his children, and generally acting as a go-between with his family and the Italian Communist Party. Sraffa is given the credit for Gramsci being transferred to a clinic (converted into a cell) in Formia in 1933, for which Piero paid all the bills and where, tantalisingly, he gained permission to visit Nino regularly between 1933 and 1935. In other words, we know for certain that while Piero was collaborating with Maynard on the development of The General Theory during its key formative years he was also visiting Nino four or five times each year, staying with him for up to a week at a time. We can thus safely conclude that it is an entirely practical possibility that Sraffa could have been an interlocutor between Keynes and Gramsci. Could Sraffa have been a transmission belt? Perhaps even the medium through which the brilliant Italian communist guided the great English economist? Could Gramsci have been the ghost in The General Theory's machine?

Keynes & Gramsci

As I have said, there is no direct evidence for the interlocution of ideas as far as I'm aware. Gramsci never wrote Keynes' name once as far as I know. Nor as far as I know did Keynes refer to Gramsci in his writing. Piero himself never revealed anything that was said during the time he spent in his friend's cell. But given how much of Sraffa's life was dedicated to saving Gramsci and how close Sraffa was to Keynes, it's impossible to believe that the Englishman wasn't aware of the imprisoned Italian. Likewise, we know that Gramsci consumed (guided?) Sraffa's work and was deeply interested in Ricardo; and we know that Sraffa sent him Keynes' work. That is, we positively know Gramsci knew of Keynes. I therefore think that we can safely assume, at the very least, that the development of The General Theory was discussed in the Formia cell between 1933 and 1935.

If we can feel sure that Keynes and Gramsci knew of each other but cannot positively prove an intellectual relationship, can we nevertheless bolster the case by finding common if however unacknowledged currents in their work? As it happens, we can, although not of the kind you might expect. A close reading of Gramsci reveals his brilliant comprehension of the theoretical debates over economics, but he wrote little directly on the topic. This was because his original work was starkly different in its direction, being concerned with society generally and the balance of political forces. Nino would have been more interested in whether Maynard's work was bound up with an emergent manner of thinking in the world than whether or not Alfred Marshall should be discarded. It is in this way of thinking that we can find in Gramsci's work an analysis that fits Keynes.

Looking through the thread

As Nicholas Gruen recently observed, 'Keynes was also a rather deeper seeker after a "third way" than the stuff that circulates under that label today'. So was Gramsci; perhaps even to some unknown extent causally. For 'Third Wayism', Gramsci used the term 'Caesarism', by which he meant to mock the analogy frequently drawn in fascist Italy between Julius Caesar and Mussolini. Gramsci poured scorn on comparisons between the fascist dictator and the great soldier-emperor of antiquity, who really did transform Rome from a city-state into the capital of an empire. Yet Gramsci also took the term 'Caesarism' seriously, expropriating it for his theory of fascism and recognising that Caesar rose to power because of the specific circumstances destroying Rome at the time.

Gramsci observed how Caesarism (or Third Wayism) recurred in a catalogue of historical events as an expression of 'a particular solution in which a great personality is entrusted with the task of "arbitration" over a historico-political situation characterised by an equilibrium of forces headed for catastrophe.' He concluded that the phenomenon appeared whenever it seemed that forces A and B were so balanced that they could not defeat each other and risked bleeding themselves to mutual death. In these circumstances, wrote Gramsci, 'a third force C intervenes from outside, subjugating what is left of both A and B.' Gramsci defined his concept of the Third Way in detail and with examples, identifying progressive and reactionary versions, insisting that it was a 'polemical-ideological formula', not a coherent political philosophy or canon of historical interpretation, and, characteristically, suggesting that the significance of each manifestation can only be established from a close study of the actual circumstances in which it appeared. He noted the effects on Caesarism of changes that followed the advent of the modern political systems; along with drawing distinctions between qualitative and quantitative Third Ways, intermediate and episodic forms, and politico-historic movements where Third Ways emerge in gradations until the genuine 'Way' finally fully emerges, and he made other qualifications and added cautions.

Looking through this thread of Gramsci's thought; it's difficult not to recognise in Keynes the 20th century's most outstanding progressive example of qualitative Third Wayism. Keynes obviously lived during a moment where there was an equilibrium of fascist and stalinist, of conservative and labour, of individualist and collectivist forces, with no apparent clear winner and catastrophe both at his back and on the rapidly looming horizon; his work was a progressive intervention tempered by compromises; his Third Way policies were deliberately closely shaped by the realities of his times; his non-economic justifications were 'polemical-ideological', rather than philosophical or historical in the formal sense of these disciplines; and, of course, there were the ever shifting coalitions between Keynes and the different political parties: all characteristics defined by Gramsci. Two of Gramsci's criteria particularly stick out. Firstly, we can see the beginning of Keynes' Third Wayism in gradations from at least 1924 (a few short years after he first met Sraffa and, implicitly, Gramsci), when he wrote his famous essay 'The End of Laissez-faire', through until he finally developed The General Theory itself, which ushered in a qualitatively new form of state. Secondly, we can obviously see in Keynes the 'great personality' par excellence. Nino would not have been surprised to know that Robert Skidelski sub-titled the second volume of his Keynes' biography 'The Economist as Saviour'.

Overcoming epochs

We'll probably never know if Keynes was influenced by Gramsci, but it's a nice thought for fans of the two revolutionary thinkers to entertain on the 70th anniversary of the landmark text. Fourteen months after the publication of The General Theory, Gramsci was dead. In August 1935 he had been moved to Rome, where Piero visited the little, quietly spoken, Sardinian colossus for the last time on 25 March 1937. Four weeks later, Nino passed away, crushed under the weight of tuberculosis of the spine and lungs and numerous other diseases and disabilities at 4.10 am on 27 April aged 46, too ill to be moved from his cell, even though his prison sentence (less remissions) had expired on 20 April. Cremated the following afternoon, his ashes are buried in Rome.

A month later, Maynard collapsed from his first heart attack, but he still had much to do, including rescuing Piero from internment on the Isle of Man, where he was taken in 1940 after being arrested for holding an Italian passport. Sraffa, as was now customary, responded on his return to Cambridge by setting up a secret 'War Circus' with Kahn and Kaldor to workshop Keynes' new world-changing policy responsibilities.

The following year, disillusioned and fatigued as the darkness enclosed around him, Marc Bloch began reading into the roots of fascism, and it was around this time that he also read Keynes. Like countless other readers world over since 1936, the experience immediately revived Bloch's fascination with economic history. Three years later, and by then a Resistance leader, the towering social historian was felled in a French meadow by a Gestapo firing squad, around 9 pm on 16 June 1944, aged 58.

Two years later, also at the age of 58, Keynes' great heart gave up for good on the morning of 21 April 1946, the day being, suitably, Easter Sunday. 'I will not cease from Mental Fight', rang out William Blake's pledge at the close of Maynard's memorial service in Westminster Abbey on 2 May: 'Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand'. The poem was composed nearly 150 years earlier at a time of insurrection and repression and it affirmed Blake's aspiration toward a new age of undivided and unbounded humanity. When Blake looked into the future, he looked toward the city of holy art, a place where our imagination would be recognised 'as the essential divine quality by which God manifested himself in Man', as Maynard's brother, Geoffrey Keynes, encapsulated the vision of the English Druid. Filing out among the Abbey's mourners was Ben Chifley, who had flown to London with Nugget Coombs, his prime minister's close ally in fighting for the Keynesian revolution in Australia.

Piero lived to the ripe old age of 85. In 1960, the year before he won the pre-Nobel prize, he sparked tremendous arguments that remain unfinished when he published his final, slim, masterwork, The Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities. The work was hailed by Maurice Dobb as Capital Volume IV because it solved the transformation problem that had so bedeviled Marx's legacy, even though Piero characteristically refused the title and only scantly (if tantalisingly) referred to the connection. Sraffa never mentioned the transformation problem in his book, and never published on Marxism, despite being recognised as the resident Cambridge Marxian expert. He stayed at Cambridge until he retired in 1973, and lived out his final years in his rooms at Trinity College, enjoying handsome wealth from his rare investments. Never married and never even known to have had a love affair, he had, perhaps, the profile of the perfect secret intellectual agent to go between his two extraordinary friends. The full collection of Gramsci's Prison Notebooks, which Sraffa was the guiding hand in saving, was finally published for the ongoing amazement of the world in 1975. Soon after, Sraffa donated his copy of Capital Volume l, signed by the author, to the Istituto Gramsci. The post-Keynesian stream of contemporary economic thought grew in Sraffa's shadow.

The man 'from whom nothing is hid' died on 3 September 1983, hiding all his own secrets to the end. John Eatwell read from Antonio at Piero's memorial service in Trinity Chapel on Saturday 19 November:

… the scientific works and great philosophical treatises that are the cornerstones of an historical epoch and a given society… must be overcome, either negatively, by demonstrating that they are without foundation, or positively, by opposing to them philosophical syntheses of greater importance and significance.

Did anyone do more to decree entirely new meanings, as Bloch might have put it, with more penetration in both these directions during the last century than Maynard, Nino and the faithful Piero? Who really influenced who more? 'Every thing possible to be believ'd is an image of truth', wrote Blake. When we think of The General Theory on the occasion of its 70th birthday, I like to imagine it to have descended from all three of these 'stubborn individuals'.


Christopher Sheil is a visiting fellow in the School of History at UNSW and an executive member of the Evatt Foundation. The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money by John Maynard Keynes was originally published on 5 February 1936. An earlier version of this essay was published at Larvatus Prodeo.


Also on the Evatt site by Christopher Sheil:

Suggested citation
Sheil, Christopher, 'The ghost in the machine?', Evatt Journal, Vol. 6, No. 1, March 2006.<http://evatt.org.au/papers/ghost-machine.html>