Arun Bose: An Introduction to His Life and Work

This blog post introduces you to the economist Arun Bose (1919-2003) who made important contributions to Sraffian and Marxian literature. Bose was called a ‘Sraffian Marxist’ alongside Ronald Meek and Ian Steedman by Samir Amin in a 2015 article in the Monthly Review. Despite his substantial corpus of published writings, his work seems to have been largely forgotten within India. Therefore this essay provides an introduction to his life and work and ipso facto is a modest attempt at generating interest in Indian economic thought specifically (and more generally in the history of economic thought). In the past, blog posts which fall into this theme dealt with the economics of Krishna Bharadwaj and VKRV Rao. And what follows is a condensed version of Section II of my article ‘Arun Bose on Sraffa: Value Theory and Demand‘ published in Artha Vijnana as part of a 2018 special issue dedicated to the ‘Indian Reception of Piero Sraffa’s Economic Contributions’.”

Born in Calcutta, Bose had become interested in Marxian political economy by the end of high school. He completed his undergraduate studies (Tripos) at Cambridge University between 1937 and 1940. One of Bose’s recollections of Cambridge is the following: ‘During extra-curricular sessions, both Maurice Dobb and Piero Sraffa discussed economic theory and Marxian political economy, leaving an indelible impression on my mind’. Moreover, Bose was actively involved in student movements there and also joined the Communist Party of Great Britain. In the decade following this, Bose worked as a full-time activist in the Indian communist movement.’

Around 1957, Bose decided to resume his study of economic theory. Under the Commonwealth Universities Interchange scheme, he spent a year at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1960-1. Subsequently, he was asked to join the newly founded Kirori Mal College in Delhi at the behest of the economist B. N. Ganguli and the English professor Sarup Singh. B. N. Ganguli is the author of Indian Economic Thought: Nineteenth Century Perspectives (1977), one of the handful of books dedicated to Indian economic thought. In memoriam, the Economics Department at Kirori Mal has organised public lectures under the auspices of Arun Bose Memorial Lectures.’

Between 1963 and 1965, Bose closely engaged with Sraffa’s Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities (1960). Bose published a comment in Economic Weekly (now Economic & Political Weekly) in response to Krishna Bharadwaj’s review of Sraffa’s book entitled ‘Value through Exogenous Distribution’. Bose also published responses to the reviews of Sraffa’s book by Roy Harrod and David Collard respectively in the Economic Journal, one of the main international vehicles for the dissemination of economic ideas. And in 1965, he published an article on Sraffa’s book in the Economic Journal. And during this period, they corresponded; Bose sent Sraffa five letters to which he received responses to all but one (more details about the correspondence is available at the online archives of Trinity College).’

Bose’s next publication was after six years: an essay on Marx in the 1971 volume of the History of Political Economy; it continues to be an important journal devoted to the history of economic thought. Next year, he published another essay on Marx in Science & Society. After another brief hiatus from publication, he published a book in 1975 titled Marxian and Post-Marxian Political Economy; he gave a series of lectures at the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), Calcutta with the same title. Bose acknowledges Sukhamoy Chakravarty for reading the book draft and for familiarising him with modern linear economic theory (Chakravarty had also reviewed Sraffa’s book which had appeared in 1961 in Arthaniti, the journal of the Department of Economics, University of Calcutta). I reproduce an excerpt from the book’s preface where Bose describes his reason for being impressed with Sraffa’s work:

‘Piero Sraffa impressed me with his conviction that it was perfectly possible, though difficult, to develop a theory of political economy into an exact science, based on absolute precision of concept however much we may approximate in empirical work which would be wielded as effectively as a surgeon’s or a welder’s tools, to dissect or dismantle, and then reassemble the ‘unseen’ interconnections of the economic process, whose cognition is essential for revolutionary political action’ (p. 11; also reproduced in my Artha Vijnana article on p. 29).’

He went on to publish two follow-up books: Political Paradoxes and Puzzles (1977) and Marx on Exploitation and Inequality: An Essay in Marxian Analytical Economics (1980). While a visiting fellow at the Delhi School of Economics (DSE) during 1976-7, Bose delivered lectures on capital theory. (Today, in India, to the best of my knowledge, capital theory is a full course (albeit elective/optional) only at the University of Hyderabad; Bharadwaj had played an important role in designing their MA Economics curriculum along with Amiya Bagchi, Amit Bhaduri, and K. L. Krishna.) A year before his retirement from Kirori Mal College in 1985, Bose published a letter in the Economic & Political Weekly titled ‘Piero Sraffa’; this was in response to P. R. Brahmananda’s obituary of Sraffa in 1983, also in the form of a letter. Brahmananda had himself engaged with Sraffa’s book in a set of three articles in 1963 in the Indian Economic Journal; these were later reproduced in the first volume of the 4-volume Piero Sraffa: Critical Assessments edited by J. C. Wood (1995, Routledge).’

After his retirement, Bose employed his ‘Sraffian Marxist’ approach within a wider social scientific framework to explain India’s socioeconomic condition. In this period, he published the following: an article each in Economic & Political Weekly (1986) and International Review of Sociology Series I (1987); and two books in 1989 titled Theories of Development of Material and Human Resources and Education: Requiem or Rethinking’ and India’s Social Crisis: An Essay on Capitalism, Socialism, Individualism and Indian Civilization. In his Idea of India, Sunil Khilnani identifies India’s Social Crisis as an important contribution to ‘historical sociology’ (p. 218).’

To conclude, there are enough published works by Arun Bose for someone who is interested in writing a dissertation or thesis in the area of Indian economic thought. Moreover, his notes, manuscripts, and correspondence are available for purposes of research at Nehru Memorial Museum & Library (NMML) although I personally found them to suffer from poor penmanship. It is extremely vital that we engage with the ideas of economists such as Arun Bose who provide an alternative way of understanding our economic surroundings.’

Author: Alex M Thomas

A passionate student of economics!