In the 1950s Russia’s economy was expanding fast. Economists seriously forecast that by 1980 Russia would outstrip the US militarily and in consumer goods.
Red Plenty is not quite a history and not quite a novel. Rather it is a collage of dramatic snapshots—mostly of actual people—which follows the rise and fall of a real plan to control production and distribution using new computers.
Much of the book is a joy to read as people grapple with big ideas believing it is possible to achieve what Karl Marx called a “consciously arranged society”.
Unfortunately they were starting from Joseph Stalin’s bureaucratic nightmare, not the dynamic socialist democracy the Bolsheviks had set out to create in 1917.
The book’s central weakness is in not seeing any kind of break between the them.
Spufford points out that by the 1960s in Soviet universities, “nothing was dumbed down except the Marxism”.
Unfortunately, the viewpoint in this book is precisely such a dumbed down view of Marxism. Marx’s economic work is dismissed as only being capable of relating to early capitalism, not what Spufford calls the “elegant mathematical version” of the 20th century.
He asserts that, “It wasn’t in the essence of a market economy that it should always do a little more this year than it had last year.”
Marx’s view of capitalism was more dynamic and profound: “Accumulate! Accumulate! That is Moses and the Prophets!”
The Stalinist regime could only survive by matching Western economic accumulation so it could compete militarily.
Without understanding that, Russian history becomes an incomprehensible series of cruelties.
Since this is how Soviet society would appear to many of those who experienced it, the weak economics doesn’t undermine the narrative.
However, there is some excellent material here and far too few books have anything like Red Plenty’s scope.
Faber & Faber £16.99