Crooked Timber is hosting a seminar on Francis Spufford’s novel about the socialist calculation debate, Red Plenty, with posts by Carl Caldwell, Antoaneta Dimitrova, Felix Gilman, Kim Stanley Robinson, George Scialabba, Cosma Shalizi, and Rich Yeselson. (Cosma's Yakov Smirnoff-titled entry, “In Soviet Union, Optimization Problem Solves You,” made me laugh out loud.) Antoaneta Dimitrova:
Red Plenty is a book for social scientists in more ways than one. First because it draws on history and uses a great amount of documentary material, economic and social history of the Soviet Union to tell the story of the communist dream of abundance for all. And second, and perhaps more important, because its evidence driven narrative aims to answer several typical social science questions, especially for a social scientists interested in communism’s rise and fall. How could the Soviet planning economy be so successful in producing serious economic growth in the 1950s and 1960s, how could the Soviet system produce the science and innovation that led to space exploration and many other scientific achievements? And why did it then fail to continue doing so, to keep the pace of economic growth and scientific discovery?
Among Spufford’s many achievements in this book is that he provides some direct and some indirect answers to these questions. Even though he leads us to the answers by telling the stories of characters that are convincing and fully capable of engaging the reader’s interest in their destiny, he manages somehow to explore mechanisms that are structural and not personal. Despite the attention for Khrushchev and other historical figures from the Soviet Union, the personal vignettes are embedded in a narrative in which science, even more so than the idea of plenty – is the hero. This is perhaps best represented in by the prominent and fairly convincing character and the fate of the mathematician and economist Kantorovich. Other Red Plenty characters remain, as the planner Maksim Mokhov, ‘a confabulated embodiment of (the) institution’ (p. 395).
In contrast to many other books written about the Soviet period and especially about Stalinism, Spufford’s account is not emotional, grim and dramatic, does not aim to show the suffering of ordinary people or their disillusionment with the system as has already been done with unrivalled mastery by the classical works of Solzhenitsyn, Pasternak or Bulgakov, to name but a few. Instead, he shows the various characters influenced not so much by the cruel decisions, but by the dreams of the communist leaders. The leaders who, in accordance with Marxist dogma, pretended (Stalin) or hoped (Khrushchev) that they were social scientists and in Spufford’s interpretation harbored dreams of achieving abundance for all – Red Plenty.