[Marxism] Red Plenty

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Mar 4 10:21:05 MST 2012

(The liberals at Crooked Timber are organizing a seminar on this book 
that Marxists Ken McLeod and Paul Cockshott admire. I browse Crooked 
Timber on a daily basis since it is an important forum for liberal and 
social democratic academics but rarely post, especially after some 
comment I wrote about Yugoslavia was removed by one of their moderators 
for no other reason that he didn't like what I wrote politically. I will 
be commenting on this book, however, since it deals with questions very 
close to my heart: computers and socialism. Check 
http://crookedtimber.org/2012/03/03/red-plenty-2/ for their opinion and 
mine under the comments.)

NY Times Sunday Book Review March 2, 2012
Comrades, Optimize!

By Francis Spufford
434 pp. Graywolf Press. Paper, $16.

While many look back on the Soviet Union and fixate on the politics, 
purges and wars, the British writer Francis Spufford, in his latest 
high-wire act, has devoted Stakhanovite study and considerable literary 
muscle to another endeavor. He tells the story of “an idea,” the dream 
that mobilized a generation, created one of history’s largest industrial 
monsters and ultimately doomed it to failure. “Red Plenty,” as its title 
suggests, is the story of the Bolshevik promise of abundance.

Spufford’s odds of success were tall, for he has not only created a 
genre-bender — part novel, part history — he’s taken as his subject what 
may be the most boring corner (central planning) of a very boring field 
(Soviet studies). From the preamble: “This is not a novel. It has too 
much to explain, to be one of those. But it is not a history, either, 
for it does its explaining in the form of a story.” Radical? Not really. 
At least, not on Russian turf. Think: “Darkness at Noon,” “Doctor 
Zhivago,” “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” “Storifying” 
history, for Solzhenitsyn, was old hat. “The Gulag Archipelago,” though 
he did not deem it literature, bears the subtitle “An Experiment in 
Literary Investigation.” Still, Spufford juggles well, and includes 53 
pages of endnotes. The result is a marvel — at once pure skazka, an 
old-style Russian fairy tale, and a deeply researched history populated 
with characters, episodes, even dialogue, snatched from history.

Spufford the fabulist conjures up the fluo­rescent dead-dull drone of 
Soviet life, the post-Stalin, pre-Brezhnev heyday, flowing with dread 
and promises, a realm where briefcases bang “hollow” on knees, clouds 
“unzipped their bellies and let down the snow,” skin in banyas 
(bathhouses) looks “like willow-pattern china” and wheat fields “smell 
like bakery dust.” We gain entrance, as well, to a realm normally roped 
off to trespassers: Soviet cybernetics — the science of control systems. 
Making Soviet theory sexy, Spufford describes flirtations at the 
“Cybernetics Kaffee-klatch” in Akademgorodok (the Siberian Mecca of 
Soviet science) and duels over “irrational pricing” at a Politburo dacha.

Spufford tells us, in the notes, how often he has “cheated.” And yet he 
has not only researched in the hinterlands but devoured shelffuls of 
abstruse tomes, everything from “Factory and Manager in the U.S.S.R.” 
(Joseph S. Berliner, Harvard University Press, 1957) to the “Russian 
Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia” (Steidl, 2004). Who else has parsed the 
“potato-­optimizing program” of the Moscow Regional Planning Agency or 
delved into “Building the Svetlogorsk Artificial Fiber Plant” 
(Sovetskaya Belorussya, Dec. 2, 1962)? Pity the double vision: the 
novelist dreaming plotlines while scouring Gosplan statistics till the 
eyeballs turned red.

But it was worth it. In one memorable scene, we meet the future Nobel 
Prize-winning economist Leonid Kantorovich in 1938, his mind set 
spinning by a request from the Plywood Trust of Leningrad to optimize 
production. What if, he daydreams, “in the face of the patched and 
mended cosmos, always crumbling of its own accord, always trying to fall 
down, it built; it gained 3 percent more of what humanity wanted, free 
and clear, just as a reward for thought”? And here is Spufford’s young 
believer, Volodya, late of Moscow State University, when a price hike on 
meat yielded the Soviet Union’s most violent postwar strike, in 
Novocherkassk in 1962. Volodya watches in horror as his bright shining 
future begins to bleed: “These bullets were not disappearing into the 
blue, they were being drilled deliberately into the flesh of the crowd — 
which shook, which fissured, which fell apart and revealed that it was 
made only of the single bodies of men and women and children. A man of 
60-­something, gray beard, drinker’s cheeks, was turning baffled on the 
spot just where Volodya was looking, everyone around him lurching into 
motion. Just where one of his neighbors with the guns was looking too, 
evidently: the near side of the old man’s head caved in, the far side 
blew out in a geyser of red and gray. A woman holding a baby got the 
spray in her face and began to scream.”

The endnotes reveal the fault line between fact and fiction. “The 
gray-bearded drinker shot in the head is imaginary,” Spufford writes, 
but “the nursing mother sprayed with blood and brains is not.” The 
greater point, though, is hit: Who remembers, if they ever knew, about 
the massacre? Who understood it not as a rare uprising, but as a 
landmark in the devolution of the dream of plenty?

Throughout, Spufford weaves a command of Soviet science, or 
pseudoscience, with an understanding of the grease within the machine. A 
chapter on the travails of an early-1960s tolkach — the Soviet fixer 
who, with flowers, perfumes and Black Sea holiday vouchers, matched 
suppliers and buyers to tally out quotas — may be his best. “I make 
what’s supposed to happen, happen,” Spufford’s ace, Chekuskin, says. 
“You can call me a purchasing agent, you can call me an expediter, you 
can be crude and call me a pusher. It’s all the same thing. I help 
things along in the direction the Plan says they should be going. I 
don’t steal. I don’t give bribes or take bribes. I persuade the wheels 
to go round. That’s all. Here, have a glass of wine, it’s not bad, it’s 

Beyond the pitch-perfect sales patter lies an unlovely truth that ruined 
the gleaming Soviet ideal. Even when it functioned — in the 1950s the 
U.S.S.R. grew faster, Spufford reminds us, than any other nation in the 
world, except Japan — the empire survived on a simple rule: “Everything 
Is Personal.” Chekuskin, who came up peddling pickled herring a century 
before Facebook, recites the gospel of the Social Network. The system, 
he says, works only “because friends look after friends; and when you’re 
with me, you aren’t just friends with the people you do business with 
direct, you’re friends with everyone I’m friends with. And that’s enough 
people, I promise you, to solve virtually any problem you may have.”

There are excesses. The dialogue at times sounds wooden, as if cranked 
through Google Translate. Fusty Sovietologists (yes, the dinosaurs stalk 
the ether) will doubtless deplore the rare slip. “Red Plenty,” too, 
risks becoming a novel in which ideas are animated and people reduced to 
abstractions, as Marx would understand. But its author knows better. 
Emil Shaidullin, a stand-in for Abel Aganbegyan, the reforming economist 
who rose under Gorbachev, tells himself: “Just you remember that the 
world is really sweat and dirt.” Spufford knows that humanity, even with 
“an average degree of duplicity and self-interest,” will trump any idea, 
no matter how beautiful.

That truth becomes most evident in the finale. Spufford gives us 
Khrushchev in retirement, alone at the dacha: “ ‘Paradise,’ he told the 
wheat field in baffled fury, ‘is a place where people want to end up, 
not a place they run from. What kind of socialism is that? . . . when 
you have to keep people in chains?’ ” The febrile imaginings of a 
fantasist? No. The words, though excised from the first editions of his 
memoirs, of Khrushchev himself. 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 

Andrew Meier is the author of “Black Earth: A Journey Through Russia 
After the Fall.”

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