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Red Plenty by Francis Spufford

14/12/2014

Red Plenty is a well written book which tells the story of a dream for a socialist technocratic utopia.

The Bolsheviks had a vision. The vision was of a Marxist paradise where by 1980 every citizen would have a car in the garage and more than enough food to fill their bellies.

Red Plenty re imagines the story of that dream from the inside using multiple viewpoints across different time horizons and depicts the impossibility of the Socialist utopia.

Economies are very complicated, with many participants (producers and consumers), pursuing many different ends from the unique information each participant holds.

The Soviet Union was an attempt to simplify the complexity of a whole economy to a mathematical formula.

Surely a central plan devised by the greatest minds in Moscow could deliver what an unjust capitalist system could not.

Socialism could optimise, socialism could rationalise, socialism could make sense of the whole sporadic and disconnected system.

As the Soviet Union’s pre eminent economist Leonid Vitalevich points out: “Capitalism cannot calculate an optimum for a whole economy at once. We can. There is a fundamental harmony between optimal planning and the nature of socialist society”.

Why was it failing?

There is no doubt those in charge of setting the plan were clever so why did the system fail? Why had the citizens of the Soviet Union not only not caught up to the Americans but seemingly fallen behind as the 1980s began?

The Soviet Union focussed on output and production from a central, optimised location but this blinkered vision led to tragedy for many citizens of the Soviet Union.

The irony was without the feedback of a market system through prices and information, red plenty was not delivered. Instead the central planning regime delivered tragedy for its people including very low production following a terrible drought in 1963. A sad fact which is reflected by a contemporary joke concerning the Soviet leader of the time Nikita Krushchev:

“What do you call Krushchev’s hairdo?
The harvest of 1963”.

What is a question mark?

People began to lose faith in the system typified by the politburo’s playwright Sasha Galich in a moment of lucidity:

What has come over me? Thought Sasha. He remembered a joke. What is a question mark? An exclamation mark in middle age. Maybe that was all this was, just his arrival at a time of life when the muscles of certainty begin to go slack, and doubt naturally replaces vigour. Just the first delivery of the universal scepticism of old men. But the why did he find himself so much angrier than before?

Red Plenty captures the real difficulty of the Soviet Union for many people within the system who suddenly realised it failed to deliver what they had been promised.

It was not solely the economic sphere where the Soviet Union foundered but also in the arts and the academy where those who typically challenge authority now believed that they no longer needed to do so. Spufford writes: “the new technological intellectuals were willing to be told, were willing to believe, that the task of speaking truth to power was now redundant, because truth was in power”.

For me the inability for academics under the soviet system to speak truth to power represented a fundamental shortcoming of the soviet system which Spufford highlights in the book.

One of the great things about liberal democracies is the ability to dissent and disagree peacefully.

Although too often these days people express moral indignation and seek to remove from discourse views they do not agree with there is still the possibility of forthright exchange.

Red Plenty irritated me at times because of its non linear structure but it is an intelligent historical novel which illustrated an interesting era for me so I still give it a firm recommendation.

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