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Red Plenty

By Francis Spufford
Faber & Faber, 2010

Adam Smith’s notion of the “invisible hand”—that pursuit of one’s own interests often promotes society’s interests more effectively than conscious efforts at societal improvement—has been accepted by most of the world. In itself it is hardly an ideology, since it requires nothing new of us as individuals. But it’s quite easy to make an ideology from it. One need only point, as neoclassicist economists did, to the Cold War foe, and argue that anything less than the freest of free markets is an attack on our right to liberty, and voila. This was an especially easy argument to make from behind the Iron Curtain. Look at those Americans with their many millions of poor people in thrall to the handful of gold-suited capitalist tyrants—what hell it must be there! How systemic the injustice! In such a world the freedom of markets becomes something more than a mere question of economics; it becomes an existential conflict.

The virtue of Francis Spufford’s new book Red Plenty is to illustrate this existential effect far more vividly than regular histories tend to. The book is a series of short stories, each following a protagonist representing one part of the Soviet world, accompanied by a handful of historical essays. As well as Khrushchev, first seen on a trip to America, we meet Kantorovich, a mathematician struggling with price determinations; Lebedev, a designer of Soviet computers; Galich, a writer of songs and comedies; and an array of major and minor characters, all either fictionalized versions of real men and women, or entirely fictional. We see them now full of ideological optimism, now disillusioned; solving economic conundrums and wading through bureaucracy to get these answers noticed; writing comedies to please the authorities and writing songs to undermine them. The total effect is a tapestry of Communist life, woven out of hard facts. This approach straddles fiction and non-fiction, but it’s much more the latter than the former, because the stories are the servants of the facts.

The characters in Red Plenty are fascinating in the way they embody different aspects of the Soviet reality. For instance, Spufford has Khrushchev talk admiringly of hamburger kiosks on his trip to America. “It’s like a production line,” says Khrushchev, “It’s an efficient, modern, healthy way of feeding people. That’s why we liked it. That’s why we set it up in some of the parks. Perhaps we should do it again. I wonder how much they are charging for a hemburger?” On hearing it’s only about fifteen cents, his foreign secretary offers a solution (“At that price it must be subsidised quite heavily”), which sets the Chairman off on an explanation of the fundamentals of the free market. Though invented, the anecdote charmingly acts as synecdoche for Soviet Russia’s ambivalence towards America. Of course Khrushchev admired the Americans, we are told:

Of all the capitalist countries, it was America that was most nearly trying to do the same thing as the Soviet Union. They shared the Soviet insight… They understood that if ordinary people were to live the way kings and merchants of old had lived, what would be required was a new kind of luxury, an ordinary luxury built up from goods turned out by the million so that everybody could have one.

America was, to Khrushchev, frighteningly good at providing just this sort of ordinary luxury to its citizens. It was a wayward brother; misguided, but a brother nonetheless.

The aims of communism and capitalism, though on paper so opposed, were in essence the same. As Spufford’s Khrushchev has it, it was “a race to see who could do the best job at supplying the ordinary fellow on the beach with his cold drink.” In the late 1950s, after Stalin’s ice had largely thawed, the possibility of a Soviet victory in this race seemed very real. By its own measures, Soviet Russia’s economy was growing at an annual rate of 10.1%, and though the CIA put this growth at 7%, this was still faster than the US, which averaged at 3.3% over the 1950s. Not only were these figures promising enough in themselves, but they were accompanied by a burgeoning mathematical school that sought to make an exact science of Soviet growth. Many of the best minds were busied with, or perhaps bogged down by, its immensely labyrinthine difficulties.

These mathematicians were undoubtedly brilliant thinkers, but it’s useful to be reminded that even the cleverest can get it terribly wrong when starting with false assumptions. So strong was the imaginative and intellectual hold of communism that Leonid Vitalevich Kantorovich, Red Plenty’s senior mathematician and the real-life originator of shadow pricing (or “objectively determined valuations”), could not acknowledge his theory’s similarity to supply and demand. In one story, Spufford has him discussing his ideas at a conference, and facing the predictable, imperiling objection: “Supply and demand, for heaven’s sake: bourgeois ideology’s most transparent disguise for exploitation!” It is not known whether the real Kantorovich ever gave himself cause to doubt the tenets of socialism, but one would think if he had any sense of self-preservation he would have opted not to publish his findings. Their resemblance to free market economics was too uncanny to be safe. Can it be, then, that he did not see the resemblance after all? In his Best Use of Economic Resources, as quoted in Red Plenty, he writes:

any increase in the requirements of some article entails a corresponding increase in costs and consequently in its o.d. valuation. A decrease in its requirements entails a reduction in its o.d. valuation.

It seems to require a particularly contorted line of thought to imagine that is a description of anything other than supply and demand. Such self-delusion regarding communism is common in the characters in Red Plenty. As long as you had to convince yourself of communism’s correctness, running in tortuous sophistical circles was a requirement.

Every aspect of communism, Spufford shows, is virtually impossible in practice. It is not just the mathematics of it, veering as they do so dangerously close to those of the market economy. It is also that damnably, reliably unpredictable thing—human nature. What business, after all, would the mathematicians have in considering the inevitability of black markets under their perfect system? Perfection guarantees that there will be no black market. Yet these markets were rife, and indeed so thoroughly matured that they may as well have been part of the design. Spufford illustrates this in the story “Favours” with Chekuskin, a fictional “pusher” whose role was formed by the deficiencies of socialism, and whose influence is so extensive that he claims to know every single influential person in the town of Sverdlovsk. His role is so widely accepted that, when a police lieutenant beats him to the ground and we think his life is in danger, we find out this was only the officer’s way of procuring himself a car.

Even if the mathematicians and economists had figured these black-marketers into their calculations, what they couldn’t possibly predict was the reluctance of the politicians to cooperate on their plans. Spufford devotes one story to an exasperated economist trying to convince Kosygin, the chairman of Gosplan (the Soviet State Planning Committee, largely responsible for issuing five-year plans), of the ineffectiveness of Soviet pricing. Kosygin does not listen, because his concerns are political and not economic. Such was the economists’ wasted genius: they had to content themselves with increasing the price of meat while lowering the wages of workers, provoking protests, causing the murders of those protesters, and never, finally, actually implementing their perfect system.

If there is a message to Red Plenty, it is that human nature gets in the way. The more you try to place it in ideological or mathematical boundaries, the more it will try to wriggle free, even despite itself, with terrible consequences. In an invented scene, an “accident” at a viscose works is orchestrated so that an old machine can be replaced with a newer, better model. We are given an insight into the motives when the three managers of the works imagine the newspaper articles that would be written about their inability to meet their quotas: “Why has Director Arkhipov failed to fulfill his socialist pledges? His attitude can hardly be termed commendable. We asked Chief Accountant Kosoy to enlighten us, but he proved tongue-tied. Chief-of-Planning Mitrenko was no more helpful…” Having failed, finally, to convince themselves that there was any legitimate means to avoid certain career death, they chanced upon their devious ploy. And it would have worked, if not for the absurdity of Soviet pricing: machines were priced by weight, not by quality, and so the replacement to be sent was not the newer model, but the same kind as that which was destroyed. This sort of incident was widespread and assumed many forms. Yet for the architects of the system, the vision of the promised land just over yonder mountain was too appealing to admit reality.

None of the stories in Red Plenty would succeed as pure fiction—there is too much economics in them. But as a means of analyzing the flaws of communism, they work exceedingly well. We leap from life to life, each time absorbing some new aspect of the Communist reality, excited to see where we might land next. Spufford’s humor is subtle, between the lines but ever-present, and it allows us to see the Soviet world from the eyes of the characters, rather than to behold the system in the abstract. We are made to appreciate how people responded to the sometimes absurd consequences of communism. From the outside, it is hard to see how these consequences would not lead you to doubt the validity of the underlying idea. Spufford shows us that it’s not that nobody saw these absurdities, but that most were simply too deeply invested in them to denounce them outright.

Francis Spufford

It is implicit in Kantorovich’s pricing theories that the protocols were an improvement on what came before them. Indeed the mathematicians were perfectly aware that much in the Soviet economy was absurd, even crazy. For instance, Emil, a fictional economist in Red Plenty, struggles to persuade the chairman of Gosplan that pricing
irregularities (like two nearly identical suits with quite different prices) led to an increase in sales but a decrease in profits—to no avail. Men and women whose livelihoods are compromised by the system, such
as the fictional biologist Zoya Vaynshteyn, also begin to see it in a new light, but such was the hold of its fundamental ideas that the notion of
its inevitability could not be easily removed. Times were bad, to be
sure, but it was in the nature of the thing that times would soon
improve. Communism was the primrose path to everlasting utopia, so
all that was required was patience.
Precious few really saw this illusion for what it was. And when they did, as is history’s cruelly ironical way, it was too late. Spufford gives us Khrushchev’s actual words spoken to a tape recorder:

“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?”

The book’s penultimate story has a brilliant scene in Akademgorodok (one of the Soviet Union’s major scientific centers) in which the bard Alexander Galich performs “The Gold-Miner’s Waltz.” The lyrics contain a barely-concealed subversion:

And now we’ve survived to see better
Everyone talks such a lot
But behind the bright sparkling speeches
The dumbness spreads out like a blot.
Someone else can weep over the bodies,
For the insults and hunger untold.
We know there’s more profit in silence.
Yes we know that silence is gold.

Though everyone in the room is stunned, one after another they applaud, and Spufford superbly conveys the ambivalence in this reaction. There is some nostalgia there, residing even with the sharpening disillusionment. The last few pages of Red Plenty are unmistakably elegiac, and even dreamlike. The slow waning of the socialist dream could hardly be more convincingly portrayed. “Can it be otherwise?” is the refrain. To those who knew nothing other than Soviet socialism, it must have seemed the answer to that question was “no; are we not on the right side of history?” How strange to find that they were not, that it was all just a dream, and not a particularly good one.

David Michael is a writer living in London. He blogs at Perplexicon and is currently at work on a book of poetry.