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June 1, 2012

Shabby Soviet Reality

Marshall Poe on Red Plenty by Francis Spufford

Francis Spufford. Red Plenty. Graywolf Press. 448 pages. $16.00.

Francis spufford’s Red Plenty is a strange and wondrous thing. It’s a novel, but it’s also a history. It tells a made-up story, but it has many nonfiction passages. Its characters are invented, but they are based on real people. It’s about the ussr, but its author is not a Soviet expert, nor does he know Russian. Most remarkably, it focuses on one minor episode in Soviet history, but it explains the nature and demise of the ussr better than any book — fiction or nonfiction — I have ever read.

Whether you are interested in the history of the Soviet Union or not, I am certain you will enjoy this marvelous book. It reminded me of Orwell at his best. But if you are interested in Soviet history, as I am, the book will have special significance. For many decades now, professors, pundits, and politicians have debated a single important question about the ussr: Could the Soviet project to build communism have succeeded, or was it doomed to failure from the start? In Red Plenty, Spufford offers a brilliant answer. In order to understand that answer, however, you must also understand the long and often heated intellectual struggle in which it is situated. Red Plenty has a backstory and, since I was there to witness it, allow me to tell you about it.

I first went to the Soviet Union, ironically enough, in 1984. I had studied Russian, and I had taken a few classes and read a few books about the ussr. Being a disaffected youth, I was intrigued by the idea of socialism. It seemed to have great promise, and it gave me something to say about my surroundings other than, “Man, this sucks.” I paid especially close attention to what those in the New Left said about the ussr, about the way the American and Soviet systems were “converging.” Thus I flew to Moscow believing that the ussr, though regrettably not politically free, was culturally sophisticated, economically prosperous, and thoroughly progressive. I half expected to find a country a bit like the United States, though without Republicans.

I found no such place. Housing in the ussr was a problem. We lived three to a room in a dilapidated, cockroach-infested “panel” building. Though it had a large custodial staff, it was always filthy. We had water, but most of it was cold. We had heat, but the only way to regulate it was by opening and closing the window. We had light, but if a bulb went out it was not likely to be replaced anytime soon. Food in the ussr was a problem. There were no grocery stores as such, but rather dirty, poorly stocked, and unimaginatively named shops — “Bread,” “Meat,” “Produce.” There were almost no restaurants, and fast-food joints were nothing at all like McDonalds. There were what we would call farmer’s markets. They had a lot of food, but almost no one in Moscow could afford it. Finished goods in the ussr were a problem. There were, as far as I knew, only two department stores in Moscow. Neither even remotely approached J.C. Penney in quality or quantity of items on sale. There were sundry stores, but they seemed to sell nothing but pencils, pens, and paper, all of an inferior grade. Transportation in the ussr was a problem. The Moscow Metro was wonderful, but if it didn’t go where you wanted you faced a series of bad options: Slog through the icky mud (sidewalks were rare), take a smelly bus (often late and uncomfortably packed), or hire a junky cab (Soviet cars have a well-deserved reputation). Believe it or not, I had an excellent time during my stay, largely thanks to my many warm Russian friends.

That’s the general picture I recall. But what I remember even more vividly are anecdotes, telling episodes in which the true nature of Soviet life revealed itself. The time I asked for a menu at a famous Georgian restaurant and was told there was no point. The time I witnessed a grown man cry because his Soviet jeans had fallen apart. The time I went to a state motor pool to illicitly buy gas. The time I saw drivers stop their cars during a shower to put their precious windshield wiper on. The time I saw a friend bribe a traffic cop. The time I found large bone fragments in my soup. The time I exchanged money at a large multiple of the official rate with a black-marketer. The time I went to a foreign currency store to buy food for a sick kid. The time I had my glasses fixed by a moonlighting toy-maker. The time I saw old women sweeping the streets with homemade brooms. The time I bought beer by the bucket out of a tanker truck. The time I watched a dog’s carcass decompose over the course of months right on the street. The time I took the train from St. Petersburg to Helsinki and had the feeling someone had turned on the lights.

Upon my return to the U.S., I entered graduate school at Berkeley to study Russian history. The professor who guided my studies of the Soviet Union was a famously good scholar and advisor. I really liked him, as did everyone. As it happened, he was very sympathetic to the New Left and its understanding of Soviet history. According to this view, capitalism was bad and dying and socialism was good and inevitable. The Bolsheviks were brought to power by a popular revolution led by the working class with the kind assistance of the retrograde peasantry. Once in power, Lenin and company began to build something like socialism, though it wasn’t “true” socialism. After Lenin’s death, however, Stalin seized power and betrayed the lofty goals of the revolution. What he built was definitely not “true” socialism. When Stalin expired, Khrushchev returned the party to the Leninist course and resumed socialist construction. He was ousted, demonstrating that the ussr was still “politically immature,” but nonetheless socialist construction continued under new leadership. The contemporary Bolsheviks weren’t there yet, but the numbers looked good. According to Soviet statistics, the average standard of living in the ussr was approaching that of many Western countries, and without alienated labor. Thus was E.P. Thompson, intellectual star of the New Left and author of the then-ubiquitous Making of the English Working Class, able to write: “Soviet society, which is in important respects more classless although it is certainly less free, is more advanced [than Western societies].” Those Western societies, Thompson said unkindly, were dominated by “that old bitch gone in the teeth, consumer capitalism.” My advisor in matters Soviet agreed with much of this, as did many on the Berkeley faculty.

As my studies progressed, I discovered that there were scholars, though not many of them, who didn’t believe any of this. Robert Conquest and Richard Pipes, for example, offered a very different interpretation of Soviet history. They began from the premise that, on the evidence itself, capitalism was good and communism was bad. The former, they noted, had made people prosperous and free, while the latter — whatever its supposed liberating potential — made them poor and bound. As for the Bolsheviks, they had mounted a successful coup and claimed popular support in order to win popular support. Once in power they did indeed begin to build communism. But there was no “good Lenin, bad Stalin” divide. Stalin finished what Lenin had started. So when Stalin’s successors proclaimed that the period of socialist construction was over and the period of “real existing socialism” had begun, we should believe them. The Bolsheviks were not building communism, as the New Left claimed; they were living in it. The Soviet Union was communism in the flesh. The Soviet statistics, of course, were a sham: The ussr was shabby, poor, and corrupt, as anyone who had been there could tell you. But Conquest and Pipes went further. They said that the writing was on the wall for the Bolsheviks, and it had been for a long time. The Communist Party might have had the trust of the people once, but it was losing that trust because it could not deliver on its promises. Oppression and lies might delay the end, but eventually the citizens of the Soviet Union would say “enough.” It was inevitable.

So here were two answers to the “Soviet question” circa 1987: The New Left said the party could and would build socialism, while those we might call the “realists” said it already had built socialism and the results doomed it. I confess I didn’t know what to think, but my experiences in the Soviet Union — rather than anything I read — made me tend toward the realist position. The Soviet Union I had seen was, in fact, shabby, poor, and corrupt. Moreover, I saw no sign of anything resembling faith in the system. Most of the people I knew had passed from bitter cynicism to hopeless acceptance. In any event, the “Soviet question” received a decisive answer in 1991 when the ussr collapsed practically overnight. By luck, I was there to watch the Soviet flag come down from the Kremlin for the last time.

Which brings me back to Red Plenty. There was a time when English writers were all socialists of one stripe or another, with some obvious and notable exceptions. No more. Spufford has no sympathy whatsoever for the New Left’s now defunct understanding of the Soviet Union. In Red Plenty, Spufford essentially explores how Soviet communism undermined itself by raising expectations, systematically subverting the programs designed to meet them, and then raising them again. He does so by focusing on a peculiar and little-known episode: the cybernetics initiative of the 1950s and early 1960s. It was one in a long string of Soviet attempts to make communism deliver prosperity. These included, in chronological order: nationalizing everything (didn’t work), eliminating money (didn’t work), stealing from the peasantry (didn’t work), enslaving “class enemies” in work camps (didn’t work), collectivizing the peasantry (sort of worked, but of course not for the peasantry), five-year planning (worked, but only for heavy industry), and hauling German factories back to Russia (didn’t work). After World War II, the party had run out of fresh ideas to bring the wealth to the masses. So it simply told people that they were prosperous (didn’t work).

Spufford picks up the story with Khrushchev. He had had enough of the lying: Stalin was a bastard, the people were poor, and something new was needed to get things moving. But what? The imaginative general secretary had many (too many, it turned out) answers, but the one most germane for Red Plenty is “science.” Truth be told, he was not exactly the first to claim that science would fill the socialist horn of plenty. Stalin put great stock in science as well, or rather a pseudoscience called Marxism. He was, however, very suspicious of all the real sciences because they were “bourgeois.” To be of any use in the ussr, Stalin said, the real sciences had to be made Marxist. Stalin actually wrote quite a bit about how to make a real science into a Marxist science. He was, after all, a universal genius. Naturally it was all nonsense, as the infamous Lysenko affair and his Lamarckian plants demonstrated. But Khrushchev took a different view. In 1957 he had seen with his own eyes how Soviet scientists used purloined “bourgeois” know-how (German, as it happened) to “overtake and surpass” the West by launching Sputnik. What a coup! This was just the sort of magic Nikita Sergeyevich was looking for, he wanted more of it, and he cared not one whit what class interest it reflected.

The particular brand of scientific magic then on offer, at least in the realm of socialist planning, was called “cybernetics.” During the Second World War, the generals gave German, American, and British scientists the task of designing machines that could accomplish computationally intensive tasks, such as targeting and firing weapons faster and more accurately than their human operators could. The machines they built were, essentially, the first really practical robots: They gathered information, interpreted it, and adjusted to the result. In other words, they regulated themselves, and to great effect. Norbert Weiner, a mathematician, was one of the scientists who designed these self-regulating systems. He also had a philosophy degree, so he quickly saw their broader significance. He correctly noted that they were found everywhere in nature. Every atom, every molecule, every cell, every organ, every living thing, every environment, the Earth, the solar system, the galaxy, and even the universe itself was a self-regulating system. This being so, he concluded, the study of self-regulating systems constituted a kind of super-science, a discipline that ordered all the ordinary sciences. He called this discipline cybernetics.

For a generation of scientists, cybernetics represented the most promising avenue to the theory of everything. For Khrushchev and his scientific advisors, it represented the most efficient road to having everything. Cybernetics would, finally, bring prosperity to the Soviet Union. It would do what Gosplan could not: make the Soviet economy into a vast, efficient, self-regulating machine that brought supply into perfect harmony with demand for everyone. The party poured resources into cybernetics. It also spent a lot of money on propaganda about cybernetics, just so the people would know that their leaders were on the case with a fresh and promising idea.

Red Plenty is a fictionalized account of the cybernetics program. Spufford tells the story through a series of interwoven vignettes, each inhabited by sharply drawn characters roughly based on real people. We meet starry-eyed mathematicians who are sure equations are the key to making socialism work. We meet academic careerists who care more about the way the political wind is blowing than the way knowledge is progressing. We meet members of the intelligentsia who are carefully testing the waters of thaw-era freedom. We meet party hacks who know nothing will change and are glad of it. We meet collective farmers who don’t have a proverbial pot to piss in. We meet journalists who struggle to come to grips with the reality of Soviet oppression. We meet corrupt institute directors who want only to feather their nests. We meet factory managers who are desperate to fulfill the plan, or at least to appear to do so. We meet black-marketers who help them get what they need to fulfill said plan. We meet the gangsters who “protect” the black-marketers. And we even get to meet Khrushchev himself, both as he vows to “overtake and surpass” the West on his way to America and as he muses on why it all went wrong in forced retirement. There are certain scenes in the book that are both remarkably telling and memorable: the city boy’s discovery of squalid poverty in a village right outside Moscow; the apparatchik explaining to the naïve scientist that money means nothing in the Soviet economy; the black-marketer being shaken down by both the gangsters and police. I could go on and on, but I don’t want to spoil it for you.

Of course the cybernetics initiative came to nothing, as Spufford explains in vivid colors. And here we come to the underlying message of Red Plenty: The Soviet system — “real existing socialism” — ensured that prosperity, let alone freedom, would never come to the ussr. The minute the Bolsheviks decided central planning would completely supplant markets, the die was cast. Very quickly — certainly by the end of the nep in the 1920s period — the Soviet Union reached a profoundly “sub-optimal equilibrium,” as the economists might say. Naturally the party saw that things weren’t going to plan. As Khrushchev said, communism was supposed to make people rich, not keep them in poverty. The party thus launched repeated reform efforts aimed precisely at bringing wealth to the masses. All of them, however, were in vain because they were aimed at perfecting a fundamentally flawed instrument — the centrally planned economy. The cybernetics initiative is a perfect (if minor) example. Khrushchev thought it would allow planners to rationally allot resources across the entire economy so as to maximize efficiency and, thereby, raise standards of living. But, as Spufford’s characters learn, it could never work. Neither cybernetics nor any other science could determine what everyone wanted and give it to them — there was just too much to know and no way to know it. Besides, a host of interests in the system didn’t want to see this nut cracked and were deathly afraid of attempts to crack it. Millions of good Soviet citizens lived on the system’s inefficiency and corruption. What would they do without it? It’s not fair to say that the party mounted this and other reform efforts just to look busy. It is, however, fair to say that the party recognized that they went a good way to convince the masses that prosperity was coming even though everyone in the Party knew that it wasn’t.

We shouldn’t think, however, that starry-eyed programs like the cybernetics initiative did nothing to alter the Soviet system. As the cyberneticians themselves would tell us, no self-correcting, self-sustaining system is completely “closed.” The human body, an excellent example of such a system, relies on many “inputs” that it cannot produce: water, food, air, etc. When these resources are unavailable, the human body breaks down (Lenin’s body being the only known exception). The Soviet system depended on many such “inputs,” but the most important of them was legitimacy. As we’ve noted, the Bolsheviks promised that if everyone would do as they were told, prosperity would follow. They very publicly mounted reform efforts to make good on this promise. Again and again they failed. They managed to remain in power by means of coercion, deception, and more promises. But all the while they were depleting their stock of legitimacy.

Soviet citizens knew what socialism was supposed to be and they knew what it actually was. Every time they had no hot water for a month, were unable to find sausage, stood in long lines for shoddy shoes, and waited in vain for a wretched city bus, they witnessed the yawning gap between the party’s aspirations and its accomplishments. This, they ironically said, was “Soviet reality.” Confidence eroded. People grew cynical. Since the party was neither willing to scale back expectations nor to adopt the market reforms that might lead to their partial fulfillment, it had no way to regain the trust of the people it supposedly served. By the 1980s, when I first went to the ussr, the Communist Party had nothing left. No one believed that the promise of 1917 could be made good, not even party members themselves. An essential “input” was gone and the system collapsed as it had been destined to do from the very beginning.

Marshall Poe teaches history at the University of Iowa and is the host of “New Books in History” (