Apparently some readers have been confused about Red Plenty, thinking it is non-fiction. I had the opposite problem, or possibly it wasn’t one. I knew it was fiction but I had the wrong idea about what kind. This error persisted, uncorrected. I actively avoided all reviews or summaries. I solicited no assistance, along the way, from “the panther-footed Mr. Google,” as he is described in Spufford’s “Acknowledgement” section. As a result, I didn’t know what the hell was going on – at all – until the end. Because the one thing I thought I knew about the book – no, I don’t know where I mis-acquired this notion – was that it is a fictional alternative history of how Red Plenty, the fairytale dream, came true.
WARNING: Contains plotspoilers. (It turns out the Soviet Union lost the Cold War!)
I thought the premise of the book was: technical-political obstacles to an efficient Soviet-style planned economy somehow overcome. Some Platonically profound mathematico-industrial linear-programming la-dee-da alternative to the price mechanism is discovered that is, stipulatively, consistently superior, in practice. The first chapter, ‘The prodigy’, about Kantorovich’s bright plywood notion (read it yourself!), confirmed for me that this was indeed where we were going. Now you tell the story of how, just as Krushchev predicted, the USSR buries the West – in washing machines. How would the West have reacted if, in 1980, the income of the average Soviet worker passed that of his Western counterpart? How would the philosophical defense of capitalism and Western democracy have held up if the Soviets had managed to keep the growth rate up around 6-8%, year on year on year. I imagined, on the Soviet side, we might be treated to the fictional spectacle of some Steel-and-Concrete Glass Bead Game cybernetician Magister Ludi thrillingly shuffling all the productive pieces around, to the appreciative oohs and aahs of an audience of knowing fellow academicians.
Oh, to be an economist who can perfectly, rationally, plan a whole economy! Such sensitivity! The music of the spheres is a tin whistle to this! Ah, the delicious counterpoint that shall play out if this PNSh-180-14s continuous-action engine for viscose production is placed just so, its twin output streams of sweater yarn and tire cord marching and braiding, one over the other, joining this yet-more-harmonious overall stream, flowing on into a vast ocean of production and distribution!
The less lovely counterpoint to this would, naturally, be an inevitable degree of oppressive, Soviet-style unfreedom, or at least political/cultural alienation of the average workers from the planners, whose heads are in the Marxist clouds. But lots of washing machines! Would you prefer Western freedom and inequality to rule by genuine Soviet Philosopher Kings, if the philosophers could provide cheaper, better washing machines?
Again: why did I imagine the book was going to go this way? As I said, I don’t know where I picked up the idea, but it really fired my imagination. I was kind of jazzed to read about it.
So I was reading and reading and, like Mr. Khrushchev, started to feel a bit confused that things weren’t working out. Bad harvest in ‘63. But I figured the followers of Kantorovich were going to pull off some tremendous last-minute technical save. How not, if we were actually going to get to what the title promised? With Mr. K. sidelined, it was going to have to turn out the Brezhnev of this, fictional world, was a go-getting reformer, and the linear programming would deliver the goods, just like Mr. Scott always manages to get the engine running on Star Trek. (The basically sensible-seeming objections put forth in the woods by the pragmatist-cynic stick insect Mokhov would be stipulated to meet some fitting technical-political death.)
And then it was, like … over. And the communists lost. The final pages of the book, which I had been counting on to relate the glorious futurity of Red Plenty, stretching perhaps even to the stars, turned out to be devoted to notes and acknowledgements. Man was I one confused kid.
But I don’t mind having been an idiot. I feel I have lived the dream, to an even fuller degree than the author himself can reasonably have hoped. So I suggest you give a copy of the book to a suitably sheltered and suggestible friend, and lie about what it’s about. Let them enjoy the fairy tale, for as long as it lasts. I did. (But I never believed in Lysenkoism! Not even for a page!)