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Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford - Elf M. Sternberg
Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford
Red Plenty is probably one of the finest, and saddest, books I have ever read. It's hard to tell what it is. The best description I've heard is that it's science fiction-- only the science is economics, and the fiction is entirely based on real history. Red Plenty is about the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, told in a series of stories-- anecdotes, in many cases-- of the lives of ordinary citizens, apparatchiks, and intelligenzia of the time.

Some of the vignettes feature an ordinary citizen we only see once-- to show us what Spuffords wants us to see, life in the Soviet Union under Stalin, then Kruschev, and finally Brezhnev. The central theme of the book is how close, how desperately close, the Soviet Union was to fulfilling its dream of red plenty, of turning Lenin's massive industrial push into a cornucopia machine that would crank out everything humanity ever needed, and how every opportunity the soviets had was squandered, in the end, by short sightedness, by ideology, by political maneuvering, by sheer human perversity, by bad luck.

Spufford is a talented writer at setting up scenes, at drawing word paintings of places we've never been to and showing us the beauty and decay, the joy and terror. He's good at showing just how human Kruschev was, and how desperately Kruschev wanted to be a good man, and how badly he fared at it. If you want to read a book that makes you cringe, and sigh, and cheer, then Red Plenty is that book.

It starts in 1938, with the invention of Linear Algebra, and how this became the start of what we now call "big data." The soviets started a crash course in it, and in 1959 began cybernizing their command economy, trying desperately to organize networks of networks of industries to produce everything every citizen would ever want or need. It ends in 1970, with Kruschev, retired and desperately depressed, looking back at all the potential wasted.

Every vingette ends with notes about what details are real, what quotes are authentic, and which Spufford crafted for dramatic effect. He's brutally honest with you, and himself, about how he's telescoped or compressed various events to make the drama more real. The EPUB version of the book is better than the print-- the notes are at the end of each chapters, and the truth of each note, dozens per story, are eye-opening. The print edition has the notes at the end of the book.

Every time you read how the SU screwed up-- how the cyberneticists simplified planning in 1960 by valuing every piece of factory equipment, no matter how simple or complex, no matter how hard or how barely used, by its weight-- how the "shadow pricing" system meant to simulate a demand economy without being a market economy was repeatedly overriden by politicians trying to keep the marketplace "familiar" to ordinary Russians-- how the soviets banned "bureaucracy" as they understood Americans did it, and thereby created a system of favors and graft-- how the soviets invented the Lamaze birth technique, then neglected to teach it to expectant mothers but forbade physicians from otherwise helping those women give birth-- how in the 1970s the Soviet Union stagnated because there was no program for tearing down factories, no notion of upgrading from a manfacturing base-- you die a little inside. So much suffering, and yet Spufford convinces you that they meant well. They really thought they were going to create paradise on Earth. They were no more evil than Americans, or Europeans, or anyone else on Earth. They really tried.

The most remarkable thing about Perestroika, at the end of the book, is that Gorbachev was a true believer. He wanted to believe that red plenty could happen; it was Brezhnev and his "managed socialism" that had led to stagnation. The great program of cybernizing the economy, Soviet Union, of making the great chain from farm and mine to consumer and back, could actually really work. But twenty years of slow decay had led the young people to give up. When he started to institute his reforms, popular sentiment revolted. The wall fell. The Soviet Union was over.

These little glimpses into many lives, 18 in all, obviously don't tell the whole story. But they do give concrete examples of why the system failed, and more importantly, why it couldn't recover: there were no alternatives. Exceptional experiments were not allowed. Scientific investigation was "administered" rather than "supported." You can't command what you don't know you want: and nobody knew what they really wanted from computers, or the economy, or industry. And without that freedom to fail, they never had a chance to succeed. No matter how close they were.

If you ever want to know what the Soviets were thinking, Red Plenty will give you a heavy dose of understanding. Worth every second of your time.

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7 comments or Leave a comment
mejeep From: mejeep Date: February 1st, 2013 06:18 am (UTC) (Link)
Thanks for the great review and insights into a system that rarely gets such sympathy or examination from such perspectives.
nojay From: nojay Date: February 1st, 2013 11:18 am (UTC) (Link)
It didn't help that the Soviets spent a lot of time either fighting invaders (Britain, America, France, Japan, Germany, China) or preparing to fight invaders (the Cold War) between the Revolution and the Fall. War and the preparations for war are a command-economy driver and this distorts the consumer marketplace hugely (guns or butter, comrade?)
lovingboth From: lovingboth Date: February 1st, 2013 06:07 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thanks. Ordered.
From: (Anonymous) Date: February 1st, 2013 08:31 pm (UTC) (Link)


And without that freedom to fail, they never had a chance to succeed. No matter how close they were.

This - this is the single hardest thing to explain to my students. I want to tell you how badly you need to risk failure in order to succeed. And how even that failure will not be too much.

Thank you. I will have to read this.
From: oldhans117 Date: February 2nd, 2013 04:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
I just finished Victor Sebestyen's 1989 which covered the end of it all. Really quite fascinating just how off kilter the whole communist economy was.
dr_memory From: dr_memory Date: February 4th, 2013 06:07 pm (UTC) (Link)
As a coda to the book itself, I highly recommend the Crooked Timber seminar on it, in which Spufford himself participates. The high point of which is clearly Cosma Shalizi's In Soviet Union, Optimization Problem Solves YOU, which mercilessly demonstrates just how intractable the problem was that the Soviets had set out to "solve", and how inadequate the tools they had on hand were.
wild_irises From: wild_irises Date: February 7th, 2013 05:57 am (UTC) (Link)
Thanks for this, which davidlevine pointed me to. I just said some things about the book in my own journal, if you're curious.
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