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.’

The Character and Role of Economic Theory

Over the years, much has been written about the methods employed in economic theory. The recent financial crisis and the ongoing economic crisis in Europe have resulted in a marked increase in criticisms directed at mainstream economic theory ‘ neoclassical economics (more precisely, marginalist economics). Internal critics of neoclassical economics have been modifying certain assumptions of marginalist economics and have ‘developed’ new forms of economic knowledge such as law and economics, welfare economics, neuroeconomics, new institutional economics and so on. Critics external to marginalist economics, often known as heterodox economics (examples include Classical/Sraffian economics, Post-Keynesian economics and Marxian economics), have provided compelling logical critiques of the theory. Additionally, they also supplement their analysis with empirical and historical details (which is not uncommon in neoclassical economic either). This post is reflective in nature and tries to comprehend the character of economic theory along with a commentary on its contemporary function in the form of questions, thereby reinforcing the reflective nature of this blog post.

First, the definition adopted has a critical influence on the aims and scope of economic theory. For instance, the definition of economics as a study of reproduction and accumulation of wealth/income (characteristic of the heterodox economic theories mentioned above) is qualitatively different from a definition which views economics as a study of allocating scarce resources among competing ends (characteristic of neoclassical economics). The former definition is more modest in scope and seeks to provide answers to a limited number of questions vis-‘-vis the latter one which encompasses any and every issue where human decisions are involved. Examining the causes of accumulation and growth warrant the following theories: a theory of value and distribution; a theory of activity-levels (at times, this is absent); and a theory of economic growth. While examining the causal connections within these theories, some features of human behaviour are taken as given. The most important, perhaps, is the human propensity for self-betterment in material terms. Such a limited domain enables these economic theories to be more specific and definite thereby improving their explanatory power in the analysis of economic growth, unemployment, technical progress, wage dynamics and so on. An extremely wide scope is entailed by the definition of economics present in neoclassical economics; consequently, we see the emergence of sub-fields such as: cognitive economics, neuroeconomics, economics of philosophy, experimental economics, evolutionary economics, cliometrics, etc. The questions addressed in many of these sub-fields often have nothing to do with the generation of income or its distribution. The questions being asked are different, and quite relevant in understanding various aspects of human behaviour and institutions. However, if the aim of economic policy and economists is to improve material well-being, neoclassical economics and its sub-fields are not entirely satisfactory, primarily for logical reasons. The two most dangerous tenets of marginalist economics are the marginal productivity theory and the tendency to full employment.

Second, economic theory, I think, has two broad functions. One is to explain the logically necessary connections which exist between various economic variables, and the direction of causation. Usage of terms such as exogenous, endogenous, dependent and independent variables convey the direction of causation. For example, classical/Keynesian theory argues that activity levels and economic growth is demand-led whereas marginalist economics posits that activity levels and economic growth is supply-driven. This is a theoretical debate, which cannot be resolved by recourse to empirical data given the high degree of correlation present among (macro)economic variables such as income, investment, saving, etc. Another reason for the debate being unresolved is the incommensurability of the two kinds of economic theory involved ‘ classical/Keynesian vs. marginalism. The other broad function of an economic theory is to provide an explanation for the manner in which these (marco)economic variables grow over time; strictly speaking, the dominant economics influences the way in which data is collected and presented and the explanation for the data is also provided by the dominant economics. (A chief, although not very reliable, exception to this is the econometric technique known as VAR which attempts to undertake ‘measurement without theory’.) Much of these numbers will need to be supplemented with contextual and historical details. Also, in economics, one needs to be careful about assigning too much ‘reliability’ to data so much so that they are considered ‘adequate’ to overturn a particular economic theory. This is not to say that data does not matter, but that it should be treated with significant caution.

Third and finally, it is of great practical importance to know what economic policies can be advanced based on economic theory, supplemented by data or not. In other words, what conditions must a particular theory fulfil in order for it to be reliable’ Is an empirical assessment necessary or is it sufficient’ How sound must the logic be’ To what extent must the assumptions be scrutinised’ Can econometric analysis provide conclusive evidence’

Pierangelo Garegnani (1930 – 2011)

On October 14, 2011, heterodox economics (in particular, classical economics) lost one of its warriors. This post attempts to summarise some of his key contributions towards economic theory. First and foremost, he was an economic theorist par excellence. He contributed to the famous (now, almost forgotten) capital theory debates in 1960s along with Piero Sraffa and Joan Robinson on his side and Paul Samuelson and Robert Solow on the other. Alongside others, he pointed out logical flaws in the marginalist conception of capital and its devastating effects on equilibrium. Basically, marginalist theory of value and distribution (in modern parlance, microeconomic theory) was shown to be logically inconsistent. Today, these debates hardly ever appear in economics textbooks because marginalist or neoclassical economics invented inter-temporal equilibrium to take care of capital-theoretic issues. Moreover, history of economic thought has been sidelined ‘ through famous graduate economic programs and by preaching that history of economic thought is of no use to a ‘practical’ economist, both in academia and in business.

Garegnani made significant contributions to the revival of classical economics on the foundations laid down by Piero Sraffa. In particular, Garegnani, through various journal articles (in Italian and English) resurrected the works of old classical economists ‘ mainly Smith, Ricardo and Marx. More than Sraffa, perhaps, it is Garegnani who has aided the revival and resurrection of classical economics. His command over the history of economic thought with a special focus on old classical economists and ‘old’ and ‘new’ neoclassical economists (Walras, Wicksell, Hicks, etc) is evident from his clear exposition of their analytical structure.

Like ‘old’ classical economists, Garegnani’s interest has been to explain growth dynamics of an economy. This, he believed and also demonstrated that it is possible by drawing insights from Keynes and working on a classical (Sraffian) foundation. In this regard, Garegnani and his friends-colleagues-students have been quite successful in their analysis of capacity utilization, supermultiplier, role of wages, profits being a monetary phenomenon and so on.

Given the massive contributions made by Garegnani, it has been an honour for me to have been introduced to his work during my Masters in Economics at University of Hyderabad. It is one of the few Universities, in India and possibly, in the world, which still teaches classical economics as a distinct approach to understanding contemporary economies. I hope that more Universities begin to recognise the benefits of a pluralist education and start teaching classical economics as a distinct subject.


Robert VienneauSusan PashkoffFrancesco SaracenoTyler CowenDavid RuccioMatias Vernengo

Krishna Bharadwaj: The Ideal Economist

Krishna Bharadwaj is an economist who made lasting contributions to economic theory. She is especially known for her understanding of the classical theories of value and distribution. In particular, she has successfully traced out the history of classical as well as neoclassical economics. This kind of conceptual history writing is important, especially for the economist who wants to apply these theories in understanding the socio-economic reality. And because of her firm grasp of various theoretical approaches in economics, she was able to judiciously analyse problems of the Indian economy. She was, in fact, the first economist to point out the exploitative nature of inter-linked markets which are prevalent in Indian agriculture. She also placed emphasis on the power relations which dominated the production structure of agriculture in India.

Apart from struggling to show the distinct and superior nature of classical economics over neoclassical economics, Bharadwaj also relentlessly worked on Indian economic issues. In particular, Bharadwaj analysed the structural linkages between agriculture and industry in India and also examined the production conditions which characterise Indian agriculture. In her latter study, she pointed out the inadequacies of neoclassical economics in understanding Indian agriculture. She particularly criticised the application of production functions. In addition, Bharadwaj explained the origin of neoclassical economics and how it suffers from various logical as well as other methodological issues.

For Bharadwaj, theory was only a tool to understand the questions and problems which arose from the social reality. This is why, she promoted the teaching of different economic approaches in Centre for Economic Studies and Planning (CESP) at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), such as classical, Marxian, Keynesian as well as Walrasian. As Prabhat Patnaik writes in a foreword of The Krishna Bharadwaj Memorial Lecture, ‘according to her [Bharadwaj]…we had to evolve a research-cum-teaching agenda of our own. No centre in India could flourish, by international standrads, merely by mimicking what was happening abroad, merely by showing proficiency in solving problems which were posed abroad. The problems has to be rooted in the social reality of our own country, and the effort to grapple with them had to be, very consciously, located within the intellectual endeavour of our country…[However] Her emphasis on taking up problems rooted in the Indian social reality was not a plea for turning one’s back upon theory or theoretical struggles. On the contrary, her plea for investigating our real problems, was simultaneously a plea for a richer theory, a theory with a body to it, one which is all the more powerful because it has been used for investigating real problems facing economies like ours.’

From her work on economic theory and its applications to the Indian economy, what becomes clear is her philosophy that economic theory should be based on concepts which can be observed and be amenable to measurement in reality. This is one of the reasons why she criticised the demand and supply theories; for, values were determined by subjective utilities. Another quality worth mentioning is her firm belief that economic theories are not mere intellectual constructs; rather, they arise out of a particular socio-historical situation, often to promote a certain ideology. In her R C Dutt Lecture, which was later published as a book in 1986, she makes it clear that the emergence of demand and supply theories were primarily a reaction against Ricardo and Marx. For, in both Ricardo and Marx, a conflict of interest is visible between social classes. In order to promote the ‘idea’ of a just and harmonius system, the theories (especially the labour theory of value) of Ricardo and Marx were criticised as being limited, and an alternative was proposed. This new theory completely did away with social classes. Individuals were chosen as the primary unit of analysis. Social classes, actually was modified into ‘factors of production’. A very interesting and important methodological shift, with powerful political implications! All the factors of production were assigned equal importance, and it was also shown how both labour and capital recieved incomes according to their contribution to the production process. That is, a capitalist system, with free mobility of labour and capital and with clear property rights (contracts), is essentially a just and stable system.

To conclude, the following are the reasons why Krishna Bharadwaj is an ideal economist. (1) She had an in-depth understanding of the various theoretical approaches in economics, be it, Marxian, Classical, Neoclassical, Austrian or Keynesian. (2) She did not blindly apply these theories (mainly Classical and Marxian) to understand the Indian economy; instead, her inquiry was based on extensive empirical observations, which made the theory richer. (3) She considered it very necessary to understand the history of economic theory, especially because of the historical specificity of all theories. Also because, most theories are responses to certain socio-political events or interests. (4) Lastly, she applied all her experience in setting up a new centre, which paid close attention to both economic theory and its application to the Indian economy, in close connection with other disciplines.


Bhaduri, Amit (1992), Krishna Bharadwaj, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 27, No. 10/11 (Mar. 7-14, 1992), p. 490.

Bharadwaj, Krishna (1963), ‘Value Through Exogenous Distribution’, The Economic Weekly, August 1964.

Bharadwaj, Krishna (1986), Classical Political Economy and the Rise to Dominance of Supply and Demand Theories, Calcutta: Universities Press.

Harcourt, G C (1993-94), ‘Krishna Bharadwaj, August 21, 1935 – March 8, 1992: A Memoir’, Journal of Post Keynesian Economics, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Winter, 1993-1994), pp. 299-311.

Patnaik, Utsa (1991), ‘Krishna Bharadwaj: 21 August 1935 – 8 March 1992,’ Social Scientist, Vol. 19, No. 12. (Dec., 1991), pp. 63-67.

Patnaik, Prabhat (1996), Foreword, in Time as a Metaphor of History: Early India, by Romila Thapar, The Krishna Bharadwaj Memorial Lecture, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Roncaglia, Alessandro (1993), ‘Krishna Bharadwaj, 1935-1992. In Memoriam’, Metroeconomica, Vol. 44, No. 3, pp. 187-194.