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Red Plenty ()


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; only the story is the story of an idea, first of all, and only afterwards, glimpsed through the chinks of the idea’s fate, the story of the people involved. The idea is the hero. It is the idea that sets forth, into a world of hazards and illusions, monsters and transformations, helped by some of those it meets along the way and hindered by others. Best to call this a fairytale, then –though it really happened, or something like it. And not just any fairytale, but specifically a Russian fairy tale, to go alongside the stories of Baba Yaga and the Glass Mountain that Afanaseyev the folklorist collected when he rode over the black earth of Russia, under its wide sky, in thee nineteenth century. [...]

In the twentieth century, Russians stopped telling skazki. And at the same time, they were told that the skazki were coming true. The stories’ name for a magic carpet, samolet, ‘self-flyer’, had already become the ordinary Russian word for an aeroplane. Now voices from the radio and the movies screen and television began to promise that the magic tablecloth amobranka, ‘self-victualler’, would soon follow after. ‘In our day,’ Nikita Krushchev told a crowd in the Lenin Stadium of Moscow on 29 September 1959, ‘the dreams mankind cherished for ages, dreams expressed in fairytales which seemed sheer fantasy, are being translated into reality by man’s own hands.’ He meant, above all, the skazki’s dreams of abundance. Humanity’s ancient condition of scarcity was going to end, imminently. Everyone was going to climb the cabbage stalk, scramble through the hole in the sky, and arrive in the land where millstones revolved all by themselves. “Whenever they gave a turn, a cake and a slice of bread with butter and sour cream appeared, and on the top of them, a pot of gruel.’ Now, instead of being imagined compensation for an empty belly, the sour cream and the butter were truly going to flow.

And of course, Krushchev was right. This is exactly what did happened in thhe twentieth century, for hundreds of millions of people. There is indeed more food, and more kinds of food, in one ordinary supermarket of the present day, than in any of the old hungry dreams, dreamed in Russia or elsewhere. But Krushchev believed that the plenty of the stories was coming in Soviet Russia, and coming because of something that the Soviet Union possessed and the hungry lands of capitalism lacked: the planned economy. Because the whole system of production and distribution in the USSR was owned by the state, because all Russia was (in Lenin’s words) ‘one office, one factory’, it could be directed, as capitalism could not, to the fastest, the most lavish fulfillment of human needs. Therefore it would easily out-produce the wasteful chaos of the marketplace. Planning would be the USSR’s own self-turning millstone, its own self-victualling tablecloth.

This Russian fairytale began to be told in the decade of the famine before the Second World War, and it lasted officially until Communism fell. Hardly anyone believed it, by the end. In practice, from the late 1960s on all that the Soviet regime aspired to do was to provide a pacifying minimum of consumer goods to the inhabitants of the vast shoddy apartment buildings ringing every Soviet City. But once upon a time the story of red plenty had been serious: an attempt to beat capitalism on its own terms, and to make Soviet citizens the richest people in the world. For a short time, it even looked – and not just to Nikita Krushchev- as if the story might be coming true, Intelligence was invested in it, as well as foolishness: a generation’s hopes, and a generation’s intellectual gifts, and a tyranny’s guilty wish for a happy ending. This book is about that moment. It is about the cleverish version of that idea, the most subtle of the Soviet attempts to pull a working samobranka out of the dream country. It is about the adventures of the idea red plenty as it came hopefully along the high road.

But it is not a history. It is not a novel. It is itself a fairytale; and like a fairytale it is wishful, irresponsible, not to be relied on. The notes at the back indicate where to story it tells depends on invention, where the explanation depends on lies. Remember, as you read, that this story does not take place in the literal, historical Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, but only in some nearby kingdom; as near to it as wishes are to reality, and also as faraway.

    -ETEXT: Red Plenty by Francis Spufford


When the kids or friends ask what they should read about the Soviet Union to try and understand it and why it failed so spectacularly, there have always been a few books I recommend: The Russian Revolution by Richard Pipes; Harvest of Sorrow by Robert Conquest; Blind Man's Bluff; Red Star in Orbit; much of Solzhenitsyn, but particularly, Gulag Archipelago; The Black Book of Communism; and David Remnick's Lenin's Tomb. To this list I must add one more: Red Plenty.

The title of the book is, of course, ironic. But it blends fiction and non-fiction in the form of a novel to tell the story of the moment in Soviet history when Nikita Krushchev believed he could exploit certain insights and methods of capitalism to save communism from itself. Specifically, he redeemed cybernetics from the previous anti-American bias it had labored under and sought to use it to match supply to demand via the information garnered within this science. As portrayed by Mr. Spufford, Krushchev was sincere in these reforms and believed that a uniquely Soviet cybernetics could even improve on the American-style market system to balance supply and demand. He even has Krushchev wax lyrical about the hot dog vendors he saw on a trip to New York and lament that the USSR doesn't have a similar way to feed its people such a cheap and wonderful meal.
The Americans got it. They understood that if ordinary people were to live the way the kings and merchants of old had lived, what would be required was a new kind of luxury, an ordinary luxury built up from goods turned out by the million so that everybody could have one.
Such was the dream.

The inevitable problems arose when the top down Soviet system tried using data about supply without being able, or willing, to get demand data. A half a market is no market. Simply because location A has two potatoes for every consumer and location B has one for every two people does not mean that you should transfer potatoes from A to B. The data you have on hand tells you nothing about the why of those numbers. Without knowing demand you have no idea what supply should be and in removing supply from another location where the item is currently consumed, you have to have a way to replace it with an alternative, which you have no idea whether the locals will choose to consume. And, of course, the data you start with tells you nothing about what prices the different locales will be willing to pay for these items, so you are setting them arbitrarily. You've created for yourself the illusion of market wisdom, gussied it up to look like advanced science, and then lost all the advantages of actual markets by trying to administer them from above. The failure of cybernetics could hardly have been more predictable.

The novel interweaves Krushchev and other historical Soviet figures along with numerous fictional characters to detail this experiment in relatively sympathetic style, but is ultimately darkly humorous. I was surprised in reading criticism to find a fair bit of hysteria over the fact the author does not adhere to strict historical truth, that he novelized it instead. But I wonder if the reason for this reaction is not simply that it touches a nerve on the Left. This is as stark a portrayal of the futility of the Soviet economic experiment as you're going to find and the fictional treatment yields a narrative more readable and enjoyable than any non-fiction account your likely to encounter. The objection seems to be to the effectiveness of Mr. Spufford's indictment, which is exactly why you should read it.


(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A+)


Websites:

See also:

Historical Fiction
Francis Spufford Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Francis Spufford
    -AUTHOR PAGE: Francis Spufford (Faber)
    -WIKIPEDIA: Golden Hill
    -ETEXT: Red Plenty (PDF)
    -BOOK SITE: red Plenty (Graywolf Press)
    -GOOGLE BOOK: Red Plenty
    -VIDEO: Francis Spufford introduces Red Plenty (Faber and Faber)
    -ESSAY: The trouble with atheists: a defence of faith: Francis Spufford has heard all the arguments against Christianity. He understands the objections of Dawkins and Hitchens and he realises it's a guess as to whether there's a God or not. But here he offers a defence of his faith (Francis Spufford, 31 Aug 2012, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: ‘I read Walter Scott to myself – in my pathetic imitation of a Border-Scots accent’: The author on his campaign to read all Ali Smith, repeated failed attempts to tackle Proust and his shame about Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Francis Spufford, 10 Nov 2017, The Guardian)
    -EXCERPT: Winter Nights from True Stories (Francis Spufford)
    -ESSAY: How do novelists write about faith in a culture that's moving past it?: Oddly, the less people know about something the harder it is to tell them about it. (Francis Spufford, October 2, 2017, Christian Century)
    -PODCAST: Books of the year, with Sarah Perry and Francis Spufford (Guardian Books Podcast, 12/30/16)
    -VIDEO INTERVIEW: Book Discussion with Francis Spufford: Book TV’s Peter Slen interviewed Francis Spufford in London about his works and about being a practicing Christian in a largely secular country. (Peter Slen, 3/12/13, CSPAN: Book TV) -INTERVIEW: Francis Spufford: 'I’m still angry about what has been done to this country': The Golden Hill author talks about the family tragedy that fed his love of reading, being a middle-class socialist and why he’s trying to ‘scuff off’ the period glow of historical fiction (Lisa Allardice, 2/06/21, The Guardian)
    -INTERVIEW: An Interview with Francis Spufford: A Death Sentence, Then a Wedding (Anthony Domestico, June 28, 2017, Commonweal)
    -PODCAST: Francis Spufford (Little Atoms, 14th January 2011)
    -PODCAST: FRANCIS SPUFFORD Red Plenty: Industry! Progress! Abundance! Inside the Fifties Soviet Dream (March 30, 2012, New Books Network)
    -INTERVIEW: Francis Spufford: ‘It’s taken me this long to be on reasonable terms with my own psyche’ (Interview by Anita Sethi, 29 May 2016, The Guardian)
    -INTERVIEW: The books of revelations: why are novelists turning back to religion?: There is a sense that, in recent years, novelists have formed part of a rearguard action in response to Richard Dawkins’s New Atheist consensus. Philip Maughan talks to Marilynne Robinson, Francis Spufford and Rowan Williams about God in literature. (Philip Maughan, 27 NOVEMBER 2014, New Statesman)
    -INTERVIEW: Q&A: Francis Spufford, author of Golden Hill (Jordan E. Taylor, 6/06/18, The Junto)
    -Red Plenty Seminar (Crooked Timber)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty Pushes Historical Boundaries: In his compelling new book about the Soviet Union, Francis Spufford blends fiction and history. Max McGuinness questions why historians have overlooked the historical imagination. (Max McGuinness, Jul. 13, 2017, Daily Beast)
    -ARTICLE: Francis Spufford pens unauthorised Narnia novel: The Stone Table hailed as a ‘seamless recreation’ of CS Lewis’s style, but this addition to the acclaimed series of children’s books may never be published (Richard Lea, 10 May 2019, The Guardian)
    -BOOK LIST: Beyond Mantel: the historical novels everyone must read: Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill (John Mullan, 29 Feb 2020, The Guardian)
    -BOOK LIST: The Best Books on the Politics of Information recommended by Henry Farrell: #1 Red Plenty (Interview by Sophie Roell, 5 Books)
    -ARTICLE: Francis Spufford wins the Ondaatje prize with Golden Hill: ‘Astonishingly rich’ portrait of 18th-century New York scoops award for book with finest sense of place (Danuta Kean, 8 May 2017, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: The Remarkable Blessings of the Price System (Donald J. Boudreaux, May 18, 2020, AIER)
    -ARCHIVES: Francis Spufford (New Statesman)
    -ARCHIVES: Francis Spufford (Christian Century)
    -ARCHIVES: Francis Spufford (Granta)
    -ARCHIVES: Francis Spufford (The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Red Plenty by Francis Spufford (David Henderson, Regulation)
    -REVIEW: of Red Plenty (James Meek, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Red Plenty (Steven Rose, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Red Plenty (Dwight Garner, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Red Plenty (Charlotte Hobson, The Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Red Plenty (Mary Dejevsky, Independent)
    -REVIEW: of Red Plenty (Kim Hedges, Minneapolis Star tribune)
    -REVIEW: of Red Plenty (Jo Walton, Tor)
    -REVIEW: of Red Plenty (Adam Roberts, Strange Horizons)
    -REVIEW: of Red Plenty (Rachel Polonsky, Times uk)
    -REVIEW: of Red Plenty (Dallas Morning News)
    -REVIEW: of Red Plenty (J. Hoberman, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Red Plenty (Marshall Poe, New Books in History)
    -REVIEW: of Red Plenty (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of Red Plenty (Philip Cunliffe, Marx & Philosophy Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Red Plenty (Waldemar Ingdahl, The Freeman)
    -REVIEW: of Red Plenty (Publishers weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Red Plenty (David Foster, Chicago Boyz)
    -REVIEW: of Red Plenty (Marxism-Leninism Today)
    -REVIEW: of Red Plenty (Cherie Ann Parker, Shelf Awareness)
    -REVIEW: of Red Plenty (Chris Beckett's Fiction)
    -REVIEW: of Red Plenty (Brad DeLong)
    -REVIEW: of Red Plenty (Dimiter Toshkov, Research Design Matters)
    -REVIEW: of Red Plenty (Neil Cooper, The List)
    -REVIEW: of Red Plenty (Lee Polevoi, Foreword)
    -REVIEW: of Red Plenty (Frederic Jameson, New Left Review)
    -REVIEW: of Red Plenty (Justin Wadland, Rain Taxi)
    -REVIEW: of Red Plenty (Adam Kotsko, New Inquiry)
    -REVIEW: of Red Plenty (Danny Yee)
    -REVIEW: of Red Plenty (Richard Elwes, Simple City)
    -REVIEW: of Red Plenty (Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist)
    -REVIEW: of Red Plenty (Three-toed Sloth)
    -REVIEW: of Red Plenty (Research Excellence Framework)
    -REVIEW: of Red Plenty (Mark Bernstein)
    -REVIEW: of Red Plenty (The War on Loneliness)
    -REVIEW: of Red Plenty (The Story and the Truth)
    -REVIEW: of Golden Hill by Francis Spufford (Steven Poole, The guardian0
    -REVIEW: of Golden Hill (Allan Massie, WSJ)
    -REVIEW: of Golden Hill (Maureen Corrigan, NPR)
    -REVIEW: of Golden Hill (Leo Robson, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW: of Golden Hill (Ed Simon, The Millions)
    -REVIEW: of Golden Hill (Steve Donoghue, CS Monitor)
    -REVIEW: of Golden Hill (Kim Van Alkmeade, Off the Shelf)
    -REVIEW: of Golden Hill (Dwight Garner, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Golden Hill (Laura Miller, The New Yorker)
    -REVIEW: of Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin by Francis Spufford (Jo Walton, Tor)
    -REVIEW: of Unapologetic by Francis Spufford (Christopher Howse, The Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Unapologetic (Nick Spencer, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW: of True Stories by Francis Spufford (Caroline Crompton, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW: of The Child that Books Built by Francis Spufford (Nicholas Fearn, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW: of Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford (Alexandra Harris, The guardian))
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Book-related and General Links:

   
-WIKIPEDIA: Cybernetics in the Soviet Union
    -ESSAY: The Remarkable Blessings of the Price System (Donald J. Boudreaux, May 18, 2020, AIER)
    -ESSAY: What Capitalism Can Do, but Communism Never Will (Jeffrey Snider, July 17, 2020, RealClearMarkets)
    -ESSAY: Khrushchev: Hero or Villain? (NINA KHRUSHCHEVA, 5/12/14, Newsweek)