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Left Socialist Blog

Red Plenty, Francis Spufford. Review

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Red Plenty. Francis Spufford. Faber & Faber 2010.

Red Plenty is a unique book. Francis Spufford locates it in once-upon-a-time, in the former Soviet Union. Neither history, nor novel it is a “Russian fairytale” that “really happened, or something like it”. A collage of real events, multiple characters, invented and genuine, centre-stage is its hero: the idea of the Soviet planned economy. This would provide the “horn of plenty” the Communist Party foretold. A wishful dream that began during High Stalinism, it lasted, in theory, until the Fall. By then socialist Geniis and Swan Maidens had long vanished.

As Spufford imagines, many loyal Soviet citizens like the (real) songster Sash Galich, had by the 1960s understood what their world was built on. That even a happy childhood under Stalin brushed close to terror. That this lurked “just around the corner, just behind the scenes, just out of his sight, as if he had been a child in a fairytale wood who sees only green leaves and songbirds ahead, because all the monsters are standing behind him.” There was to be no age of plenty, but “an empire of inertia.” The state supplied “a pacifying minimum of consumer goods to the inhabitants of the vast shoddy apartment building ringing every Soviet city.” Above all, then, the Plan did not work.

Primitive Accumulation.

Red Plenty’s political narrative is plain. It begins with the Bolsheviks, a “tiny freakish cult under the thumb of a charismatic minor aristocrat” – not a description that will please everyone one suspects (Here). In the disordered aftermath of the Great War iron discipline enabled them to seize power. Once ensconced, and after some experiments in market socialism, they mimicked the “industrial revolution”. Paying little attention to democracy, or hard economics, they created a “brutish, pragmatic simulacrum of what Marx and Engels had seen in the boom towns of the mid-nineteenth century…” That is, one recalls, the primitive accumulation in which Marx wrote, “conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder in short, force, play the greatest part”.

Crash industrialisation was introduced. The population was marshalled by ideological campaigns and compliance was enforced by police methods. Collectivisation of agriculture and the Gulag were exploited to finance primary good production. These violent means swept across society crushing opposition, and crept into the party itself. Society become totally hierarchical, intellectual life was dragooned into heavily policed utilitarian education, and Stalinist paranoia was given free rein. As the mathematical prodigy Leonid Vitalvitch (a future Nobel winner) discovers, there are great opportunities for young scientists to be promoted, “the older ones having taken to disappearing by night..”.

Yet, despite unimaginable sacrifices and the devastation of the Second World War, by the 1950s the economy grew. In the late 1950s and early 1960s it growth rates at 5% were faster than any country in the world except Japan. The USSR began to civilise living conditions, wages went up, there was an 8-hour day, the collective farmers were better off, housing improved enormously. Life seemed good. They had entered a world of modernity and science, whose echoes were still around in the pages of Sputnik and Soviet Weekly in the early1970s. But then it all began to slow down. Extra inputs were needed, more raw materials, extra investment, and extra labour. Primarily, the “capital productivity of the USSR was a disgrace.”

Boffins.

In The Backroom Boys (2003) Francis Spufford showed a flair for portraying “mechanics”. The story of the British Boffins who have kept the Island’s tradition for inventing useful things (rockets to mobile phone) at least half-alive is less tragic than Red Plenty’s. Here the would-be heroes of “revolutionary romanticism” (as Zhandov would have put it) are pioneers in computing and cybernetics. They came into their own in the 1960s. Placed in special scientific townships (The Siberian Science City, Akademogorodok), these privileged, but incredibly dedicated specialists lived for their vocation. They are often bogged down by the burdens of everyday Soviet life, like their mundane administrative counterparts, kitchens “where only cold tap worked”, they still dream. Some were able to puzzle about the nature of a socialist economy and communism, an idyll Red Plenty observes, that Marx and Engels only sketched in the haziest terms.

The early Marx and the German Ideology’s (1845-6) vision of bucolic paradise (cited by Spufford) never seems to have held much attraction for the Bolsheviks – no doubt partly because they were not widely known, or known at all for most on the left, until the 1960s. The Soviets famously enjoyed a tradition of socialist science fiction, in say, Bogdanov’s writings (Red Planet­ 1908, which, however, predicted problems with using up nature carelessly), that paralleled H.G.Wells and Edward Bellamy’s vein of futurism. That truly was a world of “beautiful machinery” put to rational use. Bellamy, who was not a socialist, predicted the “substitution of scientific methods of an organised and unified industrial system for the wasteful struggle of the present competitive plan.” (Looking Backwards. 1888). The idea of a common property held by an “association of free men” producing in full self-awareness as “one single social labour force” seems an ideal social structure for this futuristic endeavour, science and reason in charge of social development. But there are problems in roping Marx and Engels too closely to this picture. The deeply rooted social conflicts and economic contradictions in the first volume of Capital (1867) look unlikely to disappear at the command of a few sentences about co-ordinated production. If one considers the comment that the “application of machinery” would be “entirely different” in communism, there is scope for plenty of discussion about how it could be achieved and what it would be like. (1)

These issues bubbled up after Stalin’s death. But a more pressing demand was that the development of the ‘productive forces’ should lead, here and now, to benefits for the Soviet people. Khrushchev was serious about creating a world of plenty. ““If communism couldn’t; give people a better life than capitalism, he personally couldn’t see the point. Better life, in a straightforward, practical way: better good, better clothes, better houses, better cars, better planes (like this one) better football games to watch and cards to play and beaches to sit on, in the summertime, with the children splashing about in the surf and a nice bottle of something cold to sip.” With these ambitions, the Soviets were caught up in rivalry to outstrip the United States. Modernity, the gleaming future, had a distinctly Yankee can-do flavour – which no doubt accounts for Spufford’s use of otherwise unaccountable Americanisms, such as ‘sidewalk’.

By 1963 Academician Nemchinov’s scheme to reform the Soviet economy mathematically had got serious state attention. The country was full of plans for change. Some wanted cybernetic control, eliminating the need for money, others called for rational pricing or shadow profits. Practical improvement seemed possible. But the backroom boys would, like their British counterparts, never fully listened to, or trusted. It’s interesting to observe that on the English speaking left, however critical of Soviet structures, that few discussed then, and few now, the serious debates around these attempts to make a planned economy work. (1)

All these schemes ran adrift. Khrushchev’s ‘scientific’ efforts to reform agriculture shrivelled rapidly. Measures to raise consumer prices, had met open revolt in 1962. While ordinary people in Novocherkassk were massacred for protesting against price increases for meat, and the repression covered up, anything that would further upset workers was ruled out. Having alienated and worried even his closet supporters. The planning mechanisms, apparently rational in the Gosplan offices, were irrational at the level of enterprises. Bright reformers, as Spufford shows, had to accept that fulfilled targets and the real economy were not the same thing. Perhaps it in the character of Chekuskin, a ‘tolach’ or buying agent, who negotiates the world between Companies, the King of Thieves, and corrupt Police, that demonstrates the Plan’s ultimate failure. Blat, the memorable short film devoted to Soviet wheeler-dealers, illustrated how the real economy worked.

Khrushchev was pushed aside – having alienated even his closest allies. In 1965 Kosygin’s reforms merely tinkered with the Soviet structure. Cybernetics specialists and mathematicians were honoured and ignored. The economy? It still tried to compete with 1930s Western capitalism, spewing out heavy industrial goods. “Every year it produced goods that less and less corresponded to human needs, and whenever it once started producing, it tended to go on producing ad infinitum, since it possessed not effective stop signals except ruthless commands form above, and the people at the top no longer did ruthless, in the economic sphere, the control system in industry grew more and more erratic, the information flowing back to the planners grew ever more corrupt.” In short, it was incapable of manufacturing products that had either a real “use value” – could be useful – or were wanted by consumers.

Years of Stagnation.

The story of the decades that followed, the years of stagnation, has no happy ending. Sergi Lebedev, Hero of Socialist Labour, a pioneering computer designer, faces terminal cancer realising his life work has been wasted. The bureaucratic shambles of the plan disintegrated when the first serious attempts to reform it, under Gorbachev, began. Communism collapsed. The “dance of commodities” resumed.

If there is a criticism of Red Plenty’s own plan it is that Francis Spufford has the gift of making us care about the detailed fate of his characters. There are too many, described in too brief a time, to sate the curiosity he has aroused. Perhaps one gives some satisfaction. Khrushchev is imagined in 1968 in banished retirement. He is haunted by memories. He recalls “the starveling child vomiting grass during collectivisation”. As the Warsaw Pact tanks roll into Prague he wonders about communism, the “garden at history’s end scooting ahead, forever out of reach, as much of a justification as it had ever been, and as little of one.” He stares outside. “Paradise, he told the wheatfield in baffled fury, “is a place where people want to end up, not a place they run from. “What kind of socialism is that? What kind of shit is that, when you have to keep people in chains? What kind of social order? What kind of paradise?”

(1) Socialist Economics. Edited by Alec Nove and D.M Nuti. (1974) gives many extracts of the key texts on the topic. Including the calculation debate. Outside of specialist debate Robin Blackburn brought these writings to wider attention in his Socialism After the Crash. New Left Review 1991. More fundamentally the work of Hillel Ticktin, such as Origins of the Crisis in the USSR: Essays on the Political Economy of a Disintegrating System (1992) offers a brilliant analysis of the Soviets’ inability to produce real ‘use value’ and co-ordinate the economy in socialist lines, amongst many other failings.

 

More reviews here, and here. Its relation to Rational Choice Theory – here.

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Written by Andrew Coates

November 19, 2010 at 12:20 pm

2 Responses

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  1. I enjoyed the book immensely. I’m not certain it quoting Spufford on,” a tiny freakish cult under the thumb of a charismatic minor aristocrat” quite gives the essence of his basic thoughts and feelings. There is a great tone of almost lyrical regret at the failure the ‘socialist dream’ (as he would see it) and a deep understanding of its attraction in the first place.

    I think it is the nearest thing any of us are ever likely to see to a novelisation of the socialist calculation debate.

    CharlieMcMenamin

    November 19, 2010 at 3:01 pm

  2. Yes it is an amazing book. There is sympathy there and a lot of understanding.

    But he does say that. about Lenin – whether rightly or wrongly.

    I found as well, as I say, wishing to know more about what happened to all his characters.

    Andrew Coates

    November 19, 2010 at 4:19 pm


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