Review: Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty

The Book

Red Plenty is a fictionalised history, or possibly a work of hard historical science fiction, which covers what it describes as the “fifties’ Soviet dream” but which might be better termed the Soviet sixties – the period from Khrushchev’s consolidation of power to the first crackdown on the dissidents and the intervention in Czechoslovakia. This is a big book in a Russian way – it’s always been a science-fiction prerogative to work with the vastness of space, the depth of history, and the wonder and terror of science and technology, but it’s also been fairly common that science-fiction has had a bit of a problem with people. The characters who re-fire the S-IVB main engine for translunar injection, with nothing but a survival pack of big ideas for use on arrival, tend to vanish in the cosmos. At its best, this has given the genre a disturbingly calm new perspective – chuck out your literary chintz, the rocket equation will not be fooled. At worst, well, OH NO JOHN RINGO.

Red Plenty covers a lot of big ideas, some serious hardware and even more serious software, and great swaths of the Soviet Union. But you will also need to be prepared to meet quite a lot of difficult but rewarding people, rather like the geneticist character Zoya Vaynshtayn does at the party Leonid Kantorovich’s students throw in Akademgorodok. In that sense, it has a genuinely Russian scale to it. The characters are a mixture of historical figures (as well as Kantorovich, you will spend some time in Nikita Khrushchev’s interior monologue), pure fictions, and shadow characters for some historical ones. (Emil Shaidullin roughly represents Gorbachev’s adviser Abel Aganbegyan; Vaynshtayn the historical geneticist Raissa Berg.)

So what are they up to?

Rebooting Science

Kantorovich, a central figure of the book, is remembered as the only Soviet citizen to win a Nobel Prize in economics, and the inventor of the mathematical technique of linear programming. As a character, he’s a sort of Soviet Richard Feynman – an egghead and expert dancer and ladies’ man, a collaborator on the nuclear bomb, and a lecturer so cantankerous his students make a myth of him. Politically, it’s never clear if he’s being deliberately provocative or completely naive, or perhaps whether the naivety is protective camouflage.

A major theme of the book is the re-creation of real science in the Soviet Union after the Stalinist era; biology has to start up afresh, economics has to do much the same, and everyone is working in a large degree of ignorance about the history of their fields. Some things simply can’t be restarted – as Spufford points out, despite all the compulsory Marxism-Leninism, even genetics hadn’t been erased as thoroughly as independent Marxist thought, and nobody in charge was willing to even think of opening that particular can of worms. On the other hand, the re-opening of economics as a field of study led to what the biologists would have called an adaptive radiation. Pioneers from engineering, maths, biology and physics began to lay spores in the new territory.

Comrades, let’s optimise!

The new ecosystem was known as cybernetics, which was given a wider meaning than the same word was in the West. Kantorovich’s significance in this is that his work provided both a theoretical framework and a critical technology – if the problem was to allocate the Soviet Union’s economic resources optimally, could it be possible to solve this by considering the economy as a huge system of linear production functions, and then optimising the lot? The idea had been tried before, in the socialist calculation debate of the 1920s, although without the same mathematical tools.

This is one of those events whose significance has changed a great deal over time. The question was whether it was possible for a planned economy to achieve an optimal allocation of resources. The socialists thought so; their critics held that it was impossible, and elaborated a set of criteria for optimal allocation very similar to the ones that are familiar as the standard assumptions in the economic theory of the firm in perfect competition. These days, it’s often presented as if this was a knockout argument. From the firm in perfect competition, we hop to Hayek’s idea that a market economy is better at making use of dispersed, implicit knowledge. Basta. We won.

The socialists weren’t without intellectual originality. In fact, they did actually formulate a mathematical rebuttal to the firm in perfect competition – the Lange model, which demonstrated that optimal allocation was a possibility in theory. The Hayekian critique wasn’t considered that great at the time – it was thought a much better point that the barrier to effective planning was a practical one, not a fundamental one. And even then, it was well known that the standard assumptions don’t, actually, describe any known economy. It would simply be impossible to process all the data with the technology available. Even with the new tools of linear optimisation, who was going to do all those sums, especially as the process is an iterative rather than a formal one? Stalin and Hitler had their own way of solving these arguments – no man, no problem – and the whole thing ended up moot for some time.

Computers: a technical fix

But if it had been impossible to run the numbers with pen and paper in 1920, or with Hollerith machines and input-output tables in 1940, what about computers in 1960? Computers could blast through millions of iterations for hundreds of thousands of production processes in tens of thousands of supply chains; computers were only likely to get better at it, too. Red Plenty is about the moment when it seemed that the new territory of cybernetics was going to give rise to a synthesis between mathematics, market-socialist thinking, and computing that would replace GOSPLAN and deliver Economics II: True Communism.

After all, by the mid-60s it was known that the enormous system of equations could be broken down into its components, providing that the constraints in each sub-system were consistent with the others. If each production unit had its own computer, and the computers in each region or functional organisation were networked, and then the networks were….were internetworked? In fact, the military was already using big computer networks for its command-and-control systems, borrowing a lot of ideas from the US Air Force’s SAGE; by 1964, there were plans for a huge national timesharing computer network, for both military and civilian use, as a horizontal system cutting across all the ministries and organisations. Every town would get a data centre.

The Economics Fairy Strikes Again

But, of course, it didn’t happen. There’s a good paper on the fate of the Soviet internetworkers here; Spufford has a fascinating document on the end of indigenous general-purpose computer development in the USSR here. Eventually, during the 1970s, it became increasingly obvious that the Soviet economy was not going to catch up with and outstrip anyone, let alone the United States, and the Austrian economists were retroactively crowned as having obviously been right all along, and given their own chance to fail. Spufford frames the story as a Russian fairytale; perhaps we can say that in fact, economics is the fairytale, or rather the fairy. Successive groups of intellectuals have fought their way through the stacks of books, past the ideological monsters, and eventually reached the fairy’s grotto, to be granted their greatest wish. And it’s always the same one – a chance to fail.

Why did the Soviet economists fail? Red Plenty gives a spectacular sweep through the Soviet economy as it actually was; from the workings of GOSPLAN, to the management of a viscose factory, to the world of semi-criminal side payments that actually handled the problems of day-to-day survival. In the 1990s, the descendants of one half of the socialist calculation debate swept into Russia as advisers paid by the Thatcher Foundation. Arriving on the fairy’s magic cloud, they knew little of how the Soviet economy worked in practice, and duly got their opportunity to fail. The GOSPLAN officials of the 60s were reliant on data that was both completely unreliable, being the product of political bargaining more than anything else, and typically slightly less than a year out of date. And the market socialists were just as reliant on the management of Soviet industry for the production cost data they needed to make sure all those budget constraints really were consistent.

That’s a technical explanation. But there are others available. Once communism was achieved the state was meant to wither away, and not many of the people in charge of it were at all keen on this as a pension plan. Without the power to intervene in the economy, what was the point of the Party, again? Also, what was that stuff about letting people connect computers to the telephone network and pass messages from factory to factory? Where will it end? The central government, the Politburo, GOSPLAN, STAVKA – they would never accept it.

Another, more radical, is that the eventual promise of Red Plenty was to render not so much the top of the pyramid, but the middle management, redundant. The rapid industrialisation had created a new management class who had every intention of getting rich and staying that way. (This was the Yugoslavs’ take on the Soviet Union – the new class had simply taken over from the capitalists.) What would happen to their bonuses, and their prerogative to control the planners by telling them what they wanted to hear?

And yet another is that the whole project was flawed. Even if it was possible to discern the economy’s underlying cost-structure, write the software, and optimise the whole thing, how would this system deal with dynamic economics? How would it allocate investment? How would it cope with technological change? It’s no help to point out that, in fact, a lot of the questions are nowhere near being solved in any economics.

Soviet History

One view of the USSR’s history is a succession of escape attempts. The NEP of the mid-20s, Nikolai Voznezhensky’s term at GOSPLAN in the 1940s, the Soviet 60s. Each saw a real effort to get away from a political economy which was in many ways a wild caricature of the Industrial Revolution, screwing down the labour share of income in order to boost capital investment and hence industrial output, answering any protest against this with the pistol of the state. As well as trying new economic ideas, they also saw surges of creativity in other fields. They were all crushed.

Arguably, you could say the same thing about perestroika. The people who signed the Alma-Ata protocol to arrange the end of the Soviet Union and the dismissal of Gorbachev were not, in fact, heroic dissidents, but rather career communist bureaucrats, some of whom went on to become their own little Stalins. Spufford says in the endnotes to Red Plenty that part of the book’s aim is a prehistory of perestroika – one view of the characters is that many of them are developing into the people who will eventually transform the country in the 1980s. Green politics was an important strand in the great dissident wave, right across the USSR and Central Europe; Zoya Vaynshteyn’s genetic research, which turns up some very unpleasant facts, is a case in point. Valentin, the programmer and cadre, is going to retain his self-image as a bohemian hacker into the future. Another Party figure in the book is the man who refuses to get used to violence, which will also turn out to be important in 1989.

Anyway, go read the damn book.


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