Red Plenty (Francis Spufford)


This book—a non-fiction novel—is about the failure of the Soviet economy to deliver the expectation of plenty. The genre is unusual enough, and this is a non-fiction novel not about a particular event or personage but about an idea, which is even more unusual.

The book opens with Leonid Kantorovich coming up with the idea of Linear Programming on a crowded tram in Leningrad in 1938 and ends with him optimising the production of steel pipe to carry oil from the Siberian fields, since in the interim Soviet industry has failed  and the country has been thrown back on exploiting its natural resources.

The story is illustrated by episodes in the life of various characters: Galina, an ambitious Komsomol girl, is thrown off course after visiting the American exhibition in Moscow and ends up marrying a rather coarser careerist than she had hoped for. Volodya, her former intended, is sent to Novocherkassk to redeem himself and finds that things take a decided turn for the worse. Nikita Khrushchev is drawn into something he doesn’t understand and finds it turns against him.  An economically rational price increase and finds it ends in bloodshed when accompanied by a cut in pay. A reform plan put to Aleksei Kosygin results in all the changes being adopted as long as everything stays the same.

This is all very interesting from a number of aspects. It contains a lot of interesting and useful material on linear programming and analysis/management science. As well as linear programming, we learn about the importance of working ‘from the problem’ (asking questions and finding out what is really going on ) rather than ‘from the photograph’ (believing what they tell you). The 3% increase in efficiency is perhaps allowed and achievable as a one-off, but is never going to accumulate into qualitative change. Things can change—they must undergo radical reform–as long as they remain the same and nobody is alarmed too much. And the ‘method of balances’ for planning the economy does sound rather like HM Treasury at Budget time, though as ‘a very kind man’ Mokhov would be sadly out of place there.

As a sketch of Soviet economic history I also found the book quite impressive. There are some reservations. The reason that Stalin’s shock industrialisation worked—that the whole thing came off—was that people were desperate to leave the countryside, as the Chinese are now. I think that the thing about products being valued by weight comes from one anecdote about a furniture factory, and I don’t really believe it in connection with heavy (heavy!) machinery.  I think the reason the system finally became unworkable was that in the absence of coercive measures local managers had effectively privatised their enterprises, or at least the gains from them, so you had a centrally-planned system where the centre couldn’t enforce its will.  The ‘supply agent’ Chekuskin also seems to belong to the chaos of the 1930s rather than to the 1960s and anyway bears too close a resemblance to Gogol’s Chichikov for comfort.

As well as the narrative, the book comes with a comprehensive commentary explaining and justifying the narrative and an exhaustive list of references. The narrative stands as a foetus nourished by the parent body of fact through a placenta of commentary. In the narrative itself, you wonder about the characters—are they the progenitors of the thing that, like Lebedev’s lung cancer, nobody is able to cure, or are they just there to show how the thing affects their lives? I don’t think any of them are that interesting in their own right, independently of the point they’re meant to illustrate.

But still, a very interesting, enjoyable and worthwhile book.  Science fiction where economics is the science is certainly a new one on me!

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