The NY Times was not content to give Francis Spufford’s mixture of fact and fiction about the USSR (faction—really) “Red Plenty” one rave review. At least two were necessary. On February 14th this year, Dwight Garner wrote this valentine:
Any reader with a pencil has a dozen ways to express negative sentiment in the margins of a book — I am partial to ick, ack, awk, ugh and the occasional wha? — but a writer’s great sentences, in their bid for posterity, mostly just get underlined. At the end of the first chapter of Francis Spufford’s “Red Plenty,” however, I printed a nerdy but heartfelt word: “Bravo.” I felt like giving the author a little bow, or maybe a one-man standing O.
For what it is worth, Garner also went head over heels for Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s “When Skateboards Will Be Free”, a callow memoir about growing up an SWP red diaper baby. I guess that even if there was no longer a single Marxist alive anywhere in the world, reviewers will still be singing the praises of such books. That is to be expected when the contradictions of capitalism create the objective conditions for a renewed interest in Marxism, as is the case today.
On March 2nd, Andrew Meier was just as effusive, concluding his review thusly:
Yes, “Red Plenty” is a literary/historical seesaw, a work sure to have even the most bilious Kindle-haters tapping for hyperlinks. But it is a work, by turns learned and lyrical, that grows by degree, accreting into something lasting: a replica in miniature of a world of ideas never visible to most, and now gone.
Neither Garner nor Meier are typical hardened anti-Communists. In fact, their political outlook is not that much different from that of Spufford, a liberal I have described as preferring the “devil you know” to the socialism some unrepentant types still uphold.
One thing is made abundantly clear from the introduction to Part Five of “Red Plenty”, the USSR was rotten from the beginning:
But the Soviet experiment had run into exactly the difficulty that Plato’s admirers encountered, back in the fifth century BC, when they attempted to mould philosophical monarchies for Syracuse and Macedonia. The recipe called for rule by heavily-armed virtue—or in the Leninist case, not exactly virtue, but a sort of intentionally post-ethical counterpart to it, self-righteously brutal. Wisdom was to be set where it could be ruthless. Once such a system existed, though, the qualities required to rise in it had much more to do with ruthlessness than wisdom. Lenin’s core of Bolsheviks, and the socialists like Trotsky who joined them, were many of them highly educated people, literate in multiple European languages, learned in the scholastic traditions of Marxism; and they preserved these attributes even as they murdered and lied and tortured and terrorized. They were social scientists who thought principle required them to behave like gangsters.
In other words, Lenin led to Stalin. This is the same formula that is at the heart of all Sovietology, whether of the liberal variety like Robert Tucker or the reactionary Robert Service. Spufford grudgingly admits that the USSR was proceeding along a viable path in the 1920s under the NEP, but concludes that Stalin’s war on the peasantry was practically necessary: “the farmers’ incomes made them dangerously independent, and food prices bounced disconcertingly up and down. Collectivisation saw to all these problems at once.”
One suspects that Spufford views the NEP as an outlier. For him, the main course of Soviet history is a blend of top-down economic planning and the police state. Even more disconcertingly, this historical narrative would appear to be in consonance with Marx’s writings rather than an assault on them.
The dead giveaway is the reference to Plato in the citation above. When Heinrich Blucher (Mr. Hannah Arendt) was indoctrinating me as an undergraduate at Bard College in the early 60s, he insisted that totalitarianism was the logical outcome of a German philosophical idealism rooted in Plato’s philosophy. The Soviet dictatorship was nothing else but the embodiment of the philosopher king. This obsession with ideology ran very deep in the 50s and early 60s. To some extent, it was a reflection of the existentialism of the day (Blucher and Arendt were part of Heidegger’s circle in the 1920s) but also Anglo-American sociology typified by Daniel Bell’s “End of Ideology”. Now that I am older and wiser (go ahead and laugh), I understand that American pragmatism–the official ideology of the ruling class–never received the same kind of critical scrutiny. After all, as Marx pointed out, the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas. Why should America be any different?
Although book reviewers are beside themselves with Spufford’s literary skills, I find them just as dubious as his political analysis. The brunt of this review will be about the latter, but a few words about style are necessary.
I counted 56 characters in “Red Plenty”—some fictional like Khrushchev and others made up like Galina, a college student who is a kind of hard-core Communist. Unlike a novel, there is little attempt to connect them. They pop up in one part and only reappear a decade or so later. It is almost as if Spufford had written a thousand page novel and about half of it got lost on the way to the printer. Not just the first half or the second half, but random pages perhaps strewn by the wind. In many ways, they remind me of the “interludes” in John Dos Passos’s “USA”, his brief profiles of people like Henry Ford, etc. But “Red Plenty” is all interludes with no connective plot tissue. This is certainly “novel” in the sense of being new, but no competition to the traditional novel of ideas that such a subject (the crisis of Soviet planning) deserves.
The other major problem is the rather clumsy attempt by Spufford to achieve verisimilitude by throwing in all sorts of reminders that this is happening in a very backward Russia and nowhere else. You can turn to practically any page and read something like this:
But the smell of vodka merged with the sweaty sourness of the workers a little further forward, whose factory had plainly lodged them in a barracks without a bathroom, and the fierce rosewater scent the short woman had on, into one, hot, composite human smell, just as all the corners and pieces of sleeve and collar he could see fused into one tight kaleidoscope of darned hand-me-downs, and worn leather, and too-big khaki.
Aaah! I can hear the Song of the Volga Boatmen in the background now.
From the very top of the hierarchy to the very bottom, Spufford’s characters are marked by a Quixotic belief that their system works, even if they disagree on how to make it work better. Unlike some of the classic anti-totalitarian literature of the 20th century, there is no Winston Smith to put forward a contrary analysis even though there is an implication throughout that a Grand Illusion is at work.
At its core, “Red Plenty” is a rehashing of issues that I first ran into nearly 20 years ago when “market socialism” was all the rage among certain elements of the left. On PEN-L, the Progressive Economists Network listserv, you had both Marxists and liberals similar to Spufford arguing that planning was futile. Some were even ready to agree with the Austrian school that markets were necessary for the proper allocation of resources.
There was always an assumption that planning existed in the USSR. Even with computers, planning was doomed to fail—a central thesis of “Red Plenty”. But how warranted was that assumption? While I admit to having only a skimpy knowledge of planning in the USSR in the 50s and 60s, I have to wonder how much it differed from what went on when its rulers were up-and-coming bureaucrats.
The Soviet government announced the first five-year plan in 1928. Stalin loyalists, like Krzhizanovksy and Strumlin, who headed Gosplan, the minister of planning, worried about the excess rigidity of this plan. They noted that the success of the plan was based on 4 factors: 1) five good consecutive crops, 2) more external trade and help than in 1928, 3) a “sharp improvement” in overall economic indicators, and 4) a smaller ration than before of military expenditures in the state’s total expenditures.
How could anybody predict five consecutive good crops in the USSR? The plan assumed the most optimistic conditions and nobody had a contingency plan to allow for failure of any of the necessary conditions.
Bazarov, another Stalin loyalist in Gosplan, pointed to another area of risk: the lack of political cadres. He warned the Gosplan presidium in 1929, “If you plan simultaneously a series of undertakings on such a gigantic scale without knowing in advance the organizational forms, without having cadres and without knowing what they should be taught, then you get a chaos guaranteed in advance; difficulties will arise which will not only slow down the execution of the five-year plan, which will take seven if not ten years to achieve, but results even worse may occur; here such a blatantly squandering of means could happen which would discredit the whole idea of industrialization.”
Strumlin admitted that the planners preferred to “stand for higher tempos rather than sit in prison for lower ones.” Strumlin and Krzhizanovksy had been expressing doubts about the plan for some time and Stalin removed these acolytes from Gosplan in 1930.
In order for the planners, who were operating under terrible political pressure, to make sense of the plan, they had to play all kinds of games. They had to falsify productivity and yield goals in order to allow the input and output portions of the plan to balance. V.V. Kuibyshev, another high-level planner and one of Stalin’s protégés, confessed in a letter to his wife how he had finessed the industrial plan he had developing. “Here is what worried me yesterday and today; I am unable to tie up the balance, and as I cannot go for contracting the capital outlays–contracting the tempo–there will be no other way but to take upon myself an almost unmanageable task in the realm of lowering costs.”
Eventually Kuibyshev swallowed any doubts he may have had and began cooking the books in such a way as to make the five-year plan, risky as it was, totally unrealizable.
Real life proved how senseless the plan was. Kuibyshev had recklessly predicted that costs would go down, meanwhile they went up: although the plan allocated 22 billion rubles for industry, transportation and building, the Soviets spent 41.6 billion. The money in circulation, which planners limited to a growth of only 1.25 billion rubles, consequently grew to 5.7 billion in 1933.
As madcap and as utopian as the original plan was, Stalin tossed it into the garbage can immediately after the planners submitted it to him. He commanded new goals in 1929-30 that disregarded any economic criteria. For example, instead of a goal of producing 10 million tons of pig iron in 1933, the Soviets now targeted 17 million. All this scientific “planning” was taking place when a bloody war against the Kulaks was turning the Russian countryside into chaos. Molotov declared that to talk about a 5-year plan during this period was “nonsense.”
Stalin told Gosplan to forget about coming up with a new plan that made sense. The main driving force now was speed. The slogan “tempos decide everything” became policy. The overwhelming majority of Gosplan, hand-picked by Stalin, viewed the new policy with shock. Molotov said this was too bad, and cleaned house in the old Gosplan with “all of its old-fashioned planners” as he delicately put it.
Now the USSR was clearly a different place in 1960 than it was in 1930. But it was subject to the same distortions as it was earlier. Politics trumped science. No matter how cogent the strategies put forward by software engineers, they were likely to be superseded by the feudal-like social relations that existed under Stalinism, with a King at the top—the General Secretary of the CP—and all the fiefdoms underneath him run by factory managers. Socialism is not just about planning. It is about workers control. Without thoroughgoing democracy that is fed by initiatives by those who produce the wealth of society, it is very difficult to use scientific methods to create “plenty”. The implied message of “Red Plenty” is that since democratic socialism is impossible, you might as well live with market relations and all the shit that goes along with it, well on display in his own country and the rest of Europe today.
In the 1980s I was president of the board of Tecnica, a kind of radical Peace Corps that sent programmers and engineers to Nicaragua to volunteer their skills. While Nicaragua was not socialist, it was committed to planning on a large scale. Our organization reported to Carl Oquist who was Daniel Ortega’s chief economics adviser. But no matter how many volunteers we sent, including some very capable people from Bell Labs and other blue-chip American firms, and no matter how many Nicaraguans we trained in the use of spreadsheets and database management systems, it could never compensate for a contra war that was draining the country economically.
Missing from “Red Plenty” is any engagement with the costs of war on economic development in the USSR. Spufford has no use for Stalin but does not explain how the Soviet people ended up with him. A contra war that ensued after the Bolsheviks took power resulted in the deaths of many of the most democratically minded and politically educated worker cadres who made the revolution. A political vacuum and the country’s inherited backwardness made it all the more easy for a despot like Stalin to take power and build a “socialism” that had much more in common with the primitive accumulation stage of capitalism than the Marxist beliefs of those who were shot down by American and British rifles in 1919.
In an interview with the Browser, Spufford is asked whether he agrees with the thesis of Yuri Slezkine’s “The Jewish Century”, namely that “in the 1920s and 30s the Soviet Union was a brilliantly successful state for Jews.”
While admitting that some aspects of the book are “undeniable”, he repeats the catechism of the professional anti-Communist:
But communism is a bit embarrassing now. It is getting hard to get people to own up to the fact that once upon a time they thought it was sensible. It was part of the centre of gravity of the 20th century. What I agree with about it is that it brings an aspect of the 20th century into view. One of the hardest things for us to remember about Stalinism is that as well as being a system of horrors it also represented modernity and social mobility and opportunity for lots of people. In a horribly straightforward way the great purges opened up an incredible number of jobs, as we saw with Khrushchev, who is a fine example of Russia being a land of opportunity built on numerous graves.
In generational terms, I belong to the 60s—a time when many young people still believed that the Soviet Union was “progressive” but only in the most dialectical sense. Born in 1964 and nearly 20 years my junior, Spufford comes of age at a time when Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” and Austrian economics were becoming hegemonic.
Those born 20 years after Spufford are now in their late twenties and unlikely to be convinced that history is at an end or that markets and “plenty” go together. These are the young people with crappy jobs if they are lucky and/or with huge college debts. They are also the kinds of people in the vanguard of the Occupy movement and the democratic revolutions sweeping the Middle East.
No matter how many books get written about the evils of 20th century communism, I doubt that this will matter to them. They want a society that is based on economic justice and peace. Whatever name you call it, this is what they seek no matter how many glowing reviews that “Red Plenty” garners in the New York Times. As has been the case since Marx and Engels were the same age, capitalism creates socialism through its own contradictions. As long as there is capitalism, there will be a movement for socialism. It is our job in the 21st century to rebuild a movement that is the only hope for the future, starting now.