Response: Part I

by Francis Spufford on June 11, 2012

For a novel about utopias, there’s something almost disconcertingly utopian about being read this way.  All this generous attention; all this ideal intelligence.  Thank you, everybody.  There’s even a Soviet rationalisation available to me to ease the moral strain of being in receipt of this pocket-sized, individual portion of critical happiness.  Like the inhabitants of Akademgorodok, the privileged science city in Siberia which plays such a large part in Red Plenty, I can choose to tell myself that being Crooked Timberized is only an early and individual manifestation of a good fortune that is shortly to become universal.  One day, every book will be read like this.  In the radiant future, every author will be ringed by symposiasts asking demanding yet perceptive questions.  Every topic will have its conceptual underpinnings set into casually dazzling order by a Cosma Shalizi essay.  And all the springs of co-operative wealth will flow abundantly.

Pragmatically, though, I’m going to have to group my responses a bit in order to talk about the main themes that have come up here.  As separate critiques are aggregated for planning purposes and then disaggregated again, you may experience a slight loss of information.  We aim to compensate for this, comrades, in sheer volume.

1. Unicorn husbandry

As Cosma S points out in his ‘attention conservation’ notice, Red Plenty is wilfully devoted to the deadest of dead issues: the planning problems of a no-longer existent system which has no prospect of ever becoming existent again.  Unicorn husbandry, biplane manufacture, sermon publishing – take your pick of impractical comparisons.  This seems like a good place to start.  Because though the imp of the perverse played a major part in my decision to write the book; and I was positively attracted to the whole business of being the first person in thirteen years to consult Cambridge University Library’s volumes of  The Current Digest of the Soviet Press; and in general to the challenge of taking on the most outrageously boring subject-matter I could find, and wrestling it to the floor, and forcing it to disgorge its hidden jewel of interestingness; despite all this, I did also have some sensible motives for going where I did, and they have a lot to do with the kind of generational trajectories that Maria and John Quiggin have sketched out in their pieces.

Maria, I think I’m about ten years older than you.  John, I think I’m about ten years younger than you.   So I fall neatly between the two perceptions of the USSR you describe.  I was 27 when the Soviet Union fell, ceased to be, shuffled off this mortal coil.   I was too young to have experienced John’s sense of it way back in the 1970s as a place which, barbarous and dictatorial though it was, nevertheless was essentially on the reasonable side of the economic argument; somewhere that, by opting for planning, had chosen the better economic model.  On the other hand, I was too old to have Maria’s experience of it as a will-o’-the-wisp, vanishing as I studied it, and leaving nothing behind but tedium and stale air.  For me, as a teenager in the early 80s, having the traditional nuclear annihilation dream at regular intervals – my friends would usually drive past me in a bus while the asphalt melted just behind my fleeing heels – the USSR was not a possible object of admiration, but it was an object of solidity.  Its defining feature was its permanence.  It was an inevitable part of the planet’s architecture: obsolete but immovable.  And then it did move, and when it went its going suddenly disclosed a set of hidden linkages that pulled various aspects of my familiar, home experience away after it.  It seemed that my Western socialism – the unbarbarous kind – had had an unsuspected dependence on the existence of the Soviet model.  And not just because the USSR was definitionally useful to social democrats, letting us point and say “Not that!”  It had also served, it turned out when it was gone, as a sort of massive concrete tentpeg, keeping the Overton Window (not that it was called that, yet) tethered at its lefthand edge in a way that maintained the legitimacy, in western discussion, of all kinds of non-market thinking.  When the USSR vanished, so with amazing speed in the 1990s did the entire discourse in which there were any alternatives to capitalism that had to be taken seriously.  This was the biggest intellectual change of my lifetime – the replacement of one order of things, which I had just had time to learn and to regard as permanent, with a wholly different one, in radical discontinuity with it.  The before/after photographs of my time might as well be pictures of different people, it seemed to me.  And once we were in After, Before receded faster in the culture than it did in actual chronology, until the previous edition of the world came to seem not just remote but improbable, an unlikely past for the present to have had.

This seemed a subject worth my while to take as seriously as I could.  From this point of view Red Plenty is not a perverse project.  It was supposed to be a way of registering the scale of the change narratively, imaginatively, by restoring at least some of the weight of what had vanished.  By immersing people in Before, I wanted to remind us of the strangeness of After; to point out that our present looks at least as odd from the vantage point of the past as vice versa.

Okay, perversity immediately re-entered with the decision to take the voyage to the heart of dullness.  Maria is absolutely right that I am playing on purpose in the book with a kind of deliberate inversion of the familiar stereotype of Russian novels.  I have relocated the intense drama, the anguishes, the thwarted hopes, from the private lives of the characters to the fate of the system itself – though I hope I’ve left space for the characters to be plausibly happy and unhappy too.  It has meant, in a curious way, reading Soviet life with a sort of deliberate naivety: taking the system at its official valuation in order then to keep crashing it into the obstructions of the actual.

It’s had one other consequence too, which I want to mention up front here.  Henry was kind enough, when trailing the seminar a few weeks ago, to promise that Red Plenty passes the Bechdel test.  I’m not so sure.  I have certainly done my best to take my female characters seriously, and to make them something other than the orbital appurtenancies of the men: but the book’s commitment to following out the public business and the public claims of Khrushchev’s Soviet Union has also meant that I’m echoing, albeit satirically, the priorities of an intensely patriarchal society.  This was a place that required the economic participation of women, but removed none of the traditional family burdens from them; didn’t promote them, didn’t give them positions of power, didn’t bother to save their labour with domestic technology, and celebrated International Women’s Day as an occasion for the gallant presentation, by men, of little bouquets.  Any profession women dominated, like medicine, was by definition a low-status profession, and even the rare woman with a senior and prestigious job was expected to function as her colleagues’ skivvy too.  For example: I thought about bringing in as a character the pioneer Akademgorodok sociologist Tatiana Zaslavskaya, who was an early and significant adviser to Gorbachev.  I didn’t in the end – it would have been too diffusing to bring in another discipline, on top of economics and computer science and so on – but I got a nice email recently from a retired American academic who had dined at her flat in Akademgorodok in the mid-80s.  She was the only woman present, as well as the grandest person in the room: and after the meal, the men chatted while she went to the kitchen and washed up.  That’s the world Red Plenty reproduces.

2. Mirrorball

One of things I have been entertained by over the last couple of years has been the steady trickle of reviews by Trotskyists which explain that, despite my hostility to socialism, I accidentally offer a portrait of it which makes the reader feel a bit sceptical about capitalism too.  Through mighty feats of self-denial I have managed not to write in and say: yes, and isn’t it lucky the way that major rivers so often run right through the middle of cities?

For the record, I absolutely did intend Red Plenty’s USSR to function as a distorting mirror in which the reader would be able to recognise realities much closer to home in time and place.  It can certainly ‘be made to stand in as an elegy for capitalist plenty too’, as Henry puts it.  It wouldn’t be working if it couldn’t.  The backing for the mirror, as it were, is the historical USSR’s strange and genuine Americophilia: the angrily unrequited love of Khrushchev’s generation for the USA as they distantly understood and misunderstood it, the continent apart from the zero-sum rivalries of the Old World, where the ketchup came from, and the burgers, and the ice cream, and the roller coasters, and the Buick plants, and the Taylorist management techniques.  (All of which the Soviet Union imported.)  And I have strengthened the similarity as much as I can with small decisions of vocabulary and emphasis.  This USSR, written in English, is deliberately as American in nomenclature as I can make it, with a layer of distractingly explicit ideological speech stripped out of Soviet reality to reveal what apparatchiks calling each other ‘comrade’ can hide: that Khrushchev and co are, above all, managers.  Bloodstained ones, yes, but still recognisable mid-20th-century organisation men, working for a bureaucratised conglomerate so vast it stretches to the edge of their world (and denies them any guidance from an exterior world of prices).  I wanted it to be possible to read Soviet life as a kind of Dilbert cartoon printed all the way to the margins, a saga of corporate idiocy from which the citizens of the USSR never got to go home, because, with the firm and the country being coterminous, the management could pursue them 24 hours a day with bullshit about productivity and lean inventory management.  For that matter, it makes perfect sense to think of the gridlocked planned economy as following a parodically over-achieving version of the Toyota Way, where you go one better on just-in-time and arrive at always-too-late.

But I wanted something more disquieting than just a funhouse glass in which the Other was displayed as a dysfunctional exaggeration of Self.  That would be much too comfortable.  Instead I had in my mind as an ideal a kind of impossible mirrored surface in which, whatever you brought to the book, you’d see something to recognise, and something you hadn’t bargained for as well, which the recognition would entail.  I wanted anyone, with any variety of politics, to be able to see their own face looming dimly in the metalled surface of events.  So for a start I tried to eliminate as many as possible of the markers of my own views; and then, as a matter of literary ambition as well as of satiric reach, to try and make the human sympathy of the book for the characters as impersonally near-universal as I could, so you couldn’t as a reader track liking or warmth as a surrogate for authorial endorsement; and then, as an exercise in critical self-discipline, to try to see an irony for every conceivable assertion, an exception for every truth, a complication for every simplicity.  The Marxian utopia had to be genuinely attractive.  The Hayekian objection to it had to be allowed its full disruptive force.  Kantorovich’s work-around of the price mechanism had to have its beauty demonstrated.  I was trying to stitch together a sort of story that paid more attention than usual to the economic motives for human behaviour, but even there, I wanted my account of causes to be as broad and open as possible, and not to collapse without residue into any single one of the rival diagrams of economic behaviour.  Basically, I wanted to be awkward.  I could take advantage of fiction’s built-in tolerance of overdetermination, in which multiple possible causes for an outcome can be allowed to exist alongside each other without being resolved, or even given definitive weights.  Storytelling lets you bring negative capability into economics.  And this effort to stay plural in my understanding of the story, though it was a conscious discipline, didn’t feel as I was doing it like some willed suspension of a more naturally argumentative or analytical state.  My interest in the things I write about seems to be a narrative one, deep down.  Far more than as paraphraseable ideas, I tend to perceive material that excites me in terms of possible patterns of story; often ironic ones.  It would not be possible to overstate my incompetence at dealing with any of the science in Red Plenty in a quantitative or even genuinely abstract way.  Person after person who was kind enough to talk to me for the book encountered a mumbling, stumbling individual who, not being able to talk in the language of maths, had no way to convey the scribbled cloud of nouns joined by arrows in his head.

But of course the book is not opinionless, and the ironic reflections of the present it offers back are not universal, or anything like it.  It clearly channels its ironies within very definite bounds, and the non-fictional sections are blatantly partial in their shaping of Soviet historians.  You can tell the limits of my capacity for negative capability by who the book doesn’t work for, politically.  Conservatives can find their faces glimmmering in the mirrorball, and so can social democrats and independently-minded Marxists; but Trotskyists can’t*, probably because, of all the critiques of Soviet history, the one that doesn’t interest me at all is Trotsky’s.  I’m with Keynes, where Trotsky is concerned:

‘He assumes that the moral and intellectual problems of the transformation of Society have already been solved – that a plan exists, and nothing remains except to put it into operation.’

If you can’t even see that there’s a deep and rich unanswered technical question in the Soviet record, then all that’s left to talk about are the tedious differences between Stalin’s and Trotsky’s cults of will.  I think, myself, that the Bolsheviks in both their varieties were a bunch of murdering scumbags, who turned Marx’s bad habit of rhetorical contempt, via Lenin, into a warrant for ending arguments with a bullet to the skull, and who diverted what should have been the civilised history of 20th-century socialism towards atrocity and disaster.  But I do them the justice of taking them seriously, as conductors of humanity’s longest, largest-scale experiment in the non-market operation of an industrial economy: and that’s where there still something worth talking about.

Henry suggests that the relationship the book reflects back between Khrushchev’s dreams and those of the present must be ‘oblique’, because ‘the relationship between the Soviet Union in the 1960s and the capitalist system today is not directly obvious’.  I don’t think I agree.  What the relationship isn’t, is structural.  For all the historical cousinhood between capitalist and communist idylls, the quality they share isn’t a similar causal pattern of breakdown; it’s a deliciously parallel consequence of mistaking the map for the territory, of proceeding as if the system – either system – were fully specified, and could be reliably manipulated through its formalisations.  It’s a shared illusion of control, whether the control is to be exercised through Gosplan’s card indexes or through the Black-Scholes formula.  What I meant the book to indict by reflection, to satirise by reflection, was the whole family of schemes of dangerous perfection.  Here I find John Quiggin’s quotation of Oakeshott on Hayek fascinating, and very useful.  I hadn’t thought of it, but the implication is that a genuinely doctrine-less conservatism, some kind of little-platoons preference for the small and local and unsystematisable, perhaps a la Front Porch Republic but without the loony lucubrations on monarchism and contraception, would escape the mocking reflection, as would the ‘socialism without doctrines’ which is my politics too.

Oops.  Oh come on, though; of course it’s written from the left.  Why would anyone who wasn’t on the left have enough at stake, feel enough of a sense of unfinished business, to go picking through the rubble that was left when the 20th-century wind stopped blowing out of paradise, to see if there was anything there that was worth salvaging?  Despite the interesting suggestion that I might have written the whole 450 pages to put young Occupy activists off socialism – we bourgeois liberals are fiendish, and patient – I have to report that the Soviet model was already sufficiently dead not to need assassinating again.   If the book has an ideological objective, it is simply that I would like the issue of economic alternatives to become a little more prominent again.  As I’ve said in discussion with Ken Macleod elsewhere, I am almost entirely a nice, demand-managing, taxes ’n labour unions European parliamentary social democrat.  But the other little piece of me wants to know if we can’t, some day, do better than that.  I was charmed recently to see that Philly Socialists have decided to call their free-food-for-the-homeless operation ‘Red Plenty’.  They don’t need my permission, but they certainly have my blessing.

[* But for a Libertarian Trotskyist, on the other hand, it clearly works just fine.  Hi, Ken.]



Katherine 06.11.12 at 12:01 pm

I have certainly done my best to take my female characters seriously, and to make them something other than the orbital appurtenancies of the men:

That was the essence of my original question, so thanks.

I haven’t read Red Plenty yet, though it’s sitting on my coffee table, but on the evidence of the seminar, and your erudite response, I certainly shall.


Kieran 06.11.12 at 12:06 pm

being Crooked Timberized is only an early and individual manifestation of a good fortune that is shortly to become universal

I mean, look what it did for David Graeber.


JP Stormcrow 06.11.12 at 1:04 pm

so vast it stretches to the edge of their world (and denies them any guidance from an exterior world of prices)

The “value of everything, price of nothing” writ large I guess you could say.


JoshM 06.11.12 at 2:43 pm

Thank you for writing Red Plenty. I especially liked part four for the tragicomic dramatic arc that also illustrated the system. And I loved Zoya and Max.

The Soviet Union collapsed when I was 15. So for my whole adult life it has been easier to imagine the end of the world–probably through ecosystem collapse–than the end of capitalism (to quote Frederic Jameson). Planned economies are regarded as hopelessly utopian, but large scale geoengineering projects are seriously considered. This has always seemed unspeakably strange to me.

When I first chanced to hear of the economic calculation problem, and the “calculation debate” of the 1930s, I began to regard the history of the communist movement as a tragedy in which a portion of humanity had set itself a problem it was unable to solve. Few would have guessed (in 1918) that an essentially computational problem would prove to be a practical limit to the political realization of widely held Enlightenment ideals. It’s a story worth telling.

And it’s also worth keeping one eye on computational economics, to see if the horizon of the possible has changed. Generally I find that people either don’t know that there is an economic calculation problem, or they just assume that it can never be solved, as though its intractability was necessary rather than contingent. Not to beat a dead horse–well, yes, to do exactly that–I have long wished to find an independent assessment of Prof. Cockshott’s claim that detailed resource allocation problems can be solved in linear time by reformulating large sparse matrices as a series of “linked lists”. (Specificaly using iterative techniques like the “Jacobi and Gauss-Seidel” methods, plus some ideas from neural networks.) The footnote in Towards a New Socialism (p. 89) leads to a 1962 book by Richard S. Varga called Matrix Iterative Analysis. In a separate paper, The Application of Artificial Intelligence Techniques to Economic Planning”, Prof. Cockshott apparently ran computer simulations to test the technique, though of course I have no way of knowing how realistic the simulations were, etc.

In any case, thank you for writing such an engaging book, that also educates both about the history of the Soviet Union and about important concepts in economics and computer science.


Phil (a different one) 06.11.12 at 4:27 pm

Thanks for your thoughts Francis. Like Cosma I rushed out and bought the book when I heard about it, on the grounds that it could have been written for my interests. I found less technical content than I was expecting, but in its place a humane, beautifully written work about the impact of the Soviet system on the people who tried to make it work. Bravo.


Sandwichman 06.11.12 at 4:41 pm

The intractability of the economic calculation problem is overrated. Yes, the “economic calculation problem” is indeed intractable; but no, there is no economic calculation problem, actually. “The economy” is a “terministic screen” (to use Kenneth Burke’s phrase) built up from the symbols used to make sense of a reality that doesn’t correspond one-to-one with its representation. The economic calculation problem mistakes the map for the territory and thus at first views the matter of getting from here to there as too easy and then concludes it is impossible.

Stock-market prices acted back upon the world as if they were independent powers, requiring factories to be opened or closed, real human beings to work or rest, hurry or dawdle; and they, having given the transfusion that made the stock prices come alive, felt their flesh go cold and impersonal on them, mere mechanisms for chunking out the man-hours. […] And what would be the alternative?

Emil’s thoughts as he slogs along the dusty road to Magda’s village encapsulates the terministic fallacy at the heart of “central planning”: if stock-market prices compel real human beings to chunk out the man-hours, then the solution must be to throw the whole tractor into reverse! In Soviet Union, man-hours chunk out stock-market prices! But what if the meaning of those prices and those man-hours is only coherent within the particular ideological frame projected by the private ownership of property?


Plume 06.11.12 at 4:50 pm

I’m just starting your book and already love the quality of the prose. Looking forward to the entire ride.

Was wondering: Have you read Andrei Platonov’s (1899 – 1951) The Foundation Pit?. It’s one of my favorite novels, all time. It’s about the early days of the Soviet Union, written in 1929.

Platonov takes us some­where no other writer can. He cre­ates a new lan­guage, part peas­ant, part folk song, and part Soviet cog in the jar­gon of the state. He mixes folk poetry with non­sense and non-​​sequiturs that echo Dada with­out the fun. The char­ac­ters speak almost in rid­dles, if rid­dles could be formed that way, formed by break­ing up sen­tences like some­one ham­mer­ing rock. Platonov puts them together again, try­ing to build the new Soviet state, despite the cor­rup­tion, the bru­tal­ity, the insane bureau­cra­cies and the waste.

He believed in the ideal of communism, which meant he had to be highly critical of the Soviet State.

Platonov’s own story is tragic as well, and speaks to the terrible conditions for writers and artists who chose to dissent. Like Anna Akhmatova and so many others, this involved his own family.


Jim Harrison 06.11.12 at 5:43 pm

You obviously didn’t write Red Plenty as an allegory of the contradictions of contemporary political economics—that level of tendentiousness would have been Soviet indeed—but some of the parallels are pretty hard not to trip over, perhaps because they reflect historical realities. One that struck me particularly was your note about how the Reds destroyed the traditional universities and replaced them with institutes and academies dedicated to practical, materialist goals. The obsession with “improving” education while drastically narrowing its aim to vocational objectives sounds mighty familiar. The methods of No Child Left Behind are strikingly similar to the techniques employed in Brave New World to produce a reliable supply of tractable epsilons. Hostility to professors and teachers fits in as well. Ideologies in power are menaced from above by ideals and from below by facts and must suppress both, ergo the on-going war against an independent academic culture.


Marcus 06.11.12 at 10:52 pm

Much as I really liked your book and arguments and thoughts presented here, I still feel part of the cultural dimension of Soviet communism is lacking. Plenty and calculation are partly based on natural needs, but also on values that greatly influence what kind of choices are made. You made reference to the admiration for the USA and the kind of consumerist drive. I think these can be derived from conscious choices by Stalin and the Party in the late 1920s and early 1930s on art, consumerism and social issues concerning marriage and abortion. Choices then made permanent through the Purges.

But certainly a powerful competitor existed in Constructivism in the 1920s, in that it did not just provide funny paintings but also a different conception of consumption and social issues. One that according to Margaret Rose in her 1988 book ‘Marx’s lost aesthetic: Karl Marx and the visual arts.’ was more in line with Marx’s own thought. It’s an interesting counter-factual how something like that would work with a planned economy, or even the NEP economy in which it functioned.

What annoys me in the calculation debates is that it is in fact a secondary issue. Communism is the ability to truly use plenty well, which demands the ability for socialized critical thought in daily life. If you don’t get that right, you can plan whatever you will with the biggest computers, but you’ll just end up with a society where everybody is a fat cat and abuser of others. In fact you’ll likely end up worse than under capitalism.

Of course, this is not directly relevant for your book on the 1950s, since by then the dice had already been cast. Maybe you could write a prequel on the 1920s? ;)


gordon 06.11.12 at 11:38 pm

“When the USSR vanished, so with amazing speed in the 1990s did the entire discourse in which there were any alternatives to capitalism that had to be taken seriously”.

That’s certainly right.


William Timberman 06.12.12 at 12:18 am

Staring at the copies of Red Plenty and The Economics of Feasible Socialism Revisited on my virtual coffee table, the one thing that is finally clear to me is that any useful alternatives to capitalism which might yet come to exist will have to be invented. This is something that instinct has whispered in my ear for over fifty years, ever since I got my first shit job that paid next to nothing, had impossible rules, and was administered by a red-faced blowhard of a boss who was fond of delivering lectures to all on the morality of obedient labor. Outside the pieties of the American schoolroom, this was the promise of the future when I was fifteen. With all the fog of Wall Street or GOSPLAN blown away, it still is.

Of course we needn’t invent our alternatives from scratch. There’s plenty to be mined from a past which buries rather than destroys what adverse circumstance prevents it from deploying. What we need now is not so much an economics, but a politics of feasible socialism. The outlines of a mixed economy that might credibly do justice to everyone, yet avoid reducing the planet to an ash heap are certainly visible. What we can’t see is how to persuade people to bend their best efforts in that direction.

To be honest, I have no idea how to go about this, but I am hopeful that once everyone has gone up all the blind alleys currently on offer, they might return to the center of our discontents and see if there’s any signposts they might have missed. If and when that happens, we must be ready….


John Quiggin 06.12.12 at 2:52 am

A few thoughts on utopia – from an interview a few months ago. As I mention, there I was halfway through Red Plenty at the time, and had sent in my list of five books a little earlier, otherwise I would definitely have included it.


Sandwichman 06.12.12 at 3:10 am

Here’s the plan. It may not be perfect but unless somebody has a better one, criticism would be invidious. One amendment is due, given the antiquity of the “Catechism”. Instead of an eight-hour day, which was “unthinkable” 180 years ago, 20 hours weekly labor should now be more than “enough for any human being, and under proper arrangements, sufficient to afford an amply supply of food, raiment, and shelter, or the necessaries and comforts of life.”

Prince’s Tavern, Princess-street, Manchester,

Monday, Nov. 25, 1833. At a meeting called, at the above time and place, of the Working People of Manchester, and their Friends, after taking into their consideration—

That society in this country exhibits the strange anomaly of one part of the people working beyond their strength, another part working at worn-out and other employments for very inadequate wages, and another part in a state of starvation for want of employment;

That eight hours’ daily labour is enough for any human being, and under proper arrangements, sufficient to afford an amply supply of food, raiment, and shelter, or the necessaries and comforts of life, and that to the remainder of his time every person is entitled for education, recreation, and sleep ;

That the productive power of this country, aided by machinery, is so great, and so rapidly increasing, as from its misdirection, to threaten danger to society by a still further fall in wages, unless some measure be adopted to reduce the hours of work, and to maintain at least the present amount of wages:— It was unanimously Resolved,

1. That it is desirable that all who wish to see society improved and confusion avoided, should endeavour to assist the working classes to obtain ‘ for eight hours’ work the present full day’s wages,’ such eight hours to be performed between the hours of six in the morning and six in the evening; and that this new regulation should commence on the first day of March next.

2. That in order to carry the foregoing purposes into effect, a society shall be formed, to be called ‘the Society for Promoting National Regeneration.’

3. That persons be immediately appointed from among the workmen to visit their fellow-workmen in each trade, manufacture and employment, in every district of the kingdom, for the purpose of communicating with them on the subject of the above Resolutions, and of inducing them to determine upon their adoption.

4. That persons be also appointed to visit the master manufacturers in each trade, in every district, to explain and recommend to them the adoption of the new regulation referred to in the first Resolution.

5. That the persons appointed as above shall hold a meeting on Tuesday evening, the 17th of December, at eight o’clock, to report what has been done, and to determine upon future proceedings.

6. That all persons engaged in gratuitous education on Sundays and during the week days, be respectfully invited to make arrangements for throwing open their school-rooms to the working classes for two hours a day (say from one to three o’clock, or from six to eight, or any other two hours more convenient), from the 1st of March next, and that all well-disposed persons be invited to assist in promoting their education when time for such purpose has been secured to them.

7. That subscriptions be now entered into in aid of the fund to be raised by the working classes for the execution of their part of the proposed undertaking.

8. That another and distinct subscription be also entered into for defraying the expenses of the persons appointed to visit the master manufacturers, and for other general purposes.

9. That the workmen and their friends use their utmost efforts to obtain further subscriptions, and that all well-disposed females be respectfully requested cordially to co-operate in this undertaking.

10. That a Committee of workmen and their friends be now formed*, with power to add to their number, and to appoint a secretary and treasurer for the Manchester district of the Society, described in the second Resolution.

11. That this Committee be instructed to procure as soon as possible a convenient office in Manchester, which shall be called ‘The Office of the Society for National Regeneration.’

12. That circulars reporting the proceedings of this Meeting be immediately printed, and sent to the masters in every trade in the United Kingdom.

13. That such masters as may be disposed to adopt the proposed regulation for reducing the hours of work, and paying the same wages, are hereby respectfully invited to signify their consent by letter (postpaid), addressed to the Office of the Society in Manchester.

14. That the Catechism now read, entitled ‘ The Catechism of the Society for Promoting National Regeneration,’ be adopted.

15. That Messrs. Oastler, Wood, Bull, Sadler, and others, be urgently requested to desist from soliciting Parliament for a ten hours’ bill, and to use their utmost exertions in aid of the measures now adopted to carry into effect, on the 1st of March next, the regulation of ‘ eight hours’ work for the present full day’s wages.’

16. That the thanks of this Meeting are hereby given to the aforesaid gentlemen, for their long-continued invaluable services in the cause of the oppressed of the working classes, and especially in the cause of the children and young persons employed in factories.

17. That Mr. Owen be requested to establish Committees of the Society for National Regeneration, in every place or district which he may visit, especially in the Potteries, Birmingham, Worcester, Gloucester, Nottingham, Leicester, Derby, and London ; and that he be also requested to report to the Office of the Society at Manchester, the names of such individuals as will assist in the present undertaking.

18. That in the first week in January next, the working men in every district throughout Great Britain and Ireland shall make application to their employers for their concurrence in the adoption of the regulation of ‘ eight hours’ work for the present full day’s wages,’ to commence on the 1st day of March next.

19. That this Meeting earnestly appeal to their fellow-men in France, Germany, and the other countries of Europe, and on the continent of America, for their support and co-operation in this effort to improve the condition of the labourer in all parts of the world.


* The following is a list of the Committee:—John Fielden, Esq. M.P., Joshua Milne, Esq., George Condy, Esq., Messrs. John Travis, jun., I. W. Hodgetts, George Marshal), William Clegg, Joshua Fielden, Thos. Fielden, John Doherty, Geo. Higginbottom, James Tuvner, Win. Taylor, Phillip Grant, John Wyatt, George Scott, John Scott, Joseph Scott, Henry Greaves, John Broadie, Wm. Wills, and Robt. Owen, Esq.

The Office of the Society is No. 48, Pall-mall, corner of King-street. RIGHTS OF THE WORKING CLASSES.


Ken MacLeod 06.12.12 at 9:06 am

Hi, Francis.

[Waves back.]

I was about to bristle at your claim that Trotskyists are unable to see themselves in the mirror of the book, but having read the few Trotskyist reviews (the longest, predictably, is by Peter Taafe) I have to agree. I quite understand why you find the Trotskyist critique uninteresting if this sort of thing is all you’ve encountered. But if you find it likewise uninteresting as it was developed in major and minor works by Trotsky, Rakovsky, and Preobrazhensky, and by people who tried to learn from them like Mandel, Ticktin and (to be fair to the state caps) Tony Cliff, Chris Harman and Mike Haynes, then I don’t understand at all.


david 06.12.12 at 12:38 pm

O Sandwichman, why are you opposed to longer holidays? Surely the work hours in your scheme should be rationed out over a lifetime, or at least a period as long as is practicably manageable, rather than a week?


reason 06.12.12 at 1:21 pm

“where you go one better on just-in-time and arrive at always-too-late.”

What a brilliant line! I’m completely awestruck by the quality of writing here. Is this really a blog post?


peter 06.12.12 at 10:16 pm

JoshM at #4:

Even if the economic calculation problem were computationally tractable, this would still not help us to effectively centrally-plan an economy, since the problem is ill-posed. The preferences of potential purchasers (consumers and businesses) are in general not de-coupled from the decision-making processes of those purchasers, as mainstream economic theory implicitly assumes. In other words, consumers don’t in general start with pre-formed preferences which they then manifest in a purchase decision. Rather, their preference are formed in the very process of making their decisions, for example by trialling products before they commit.

Indeed, for so-called network goods, those where the utility a consumer receives from the good depends on the utilities that other consumers receive, a rational consumer will wait to see what decisions other consumers will make before he or she decides. You don’t want to be the only person in town owning a fax machine, for instance, since you then won’t be able to use it. Likewise, you don’t want to be wearing a sarong to business meetins when everyone else present is wearing a suit and tie. Preferences may be seen then as socially and collectively constructed as purchasers make their decisions. As a result, an important function of advertising is to allow target customers to see what OTHER customers think about the product or service before making their decision.

This emergent property of preferences means they are neither static nor decoupled from decisions. The emergent and socially-constructed nature of preferences is ignored by the economic calculation problem (as conventionally conceived), and thus the problem’s tractability would not be sufficient to support effective planning of real existing economies.


Maria 06.12.12 at 10:43 pm

In the radiant present, the best thing about these book events is being able to say, as JoshM does at 4 above, a simple ‘thanks’ to the author for writing such a wonderful book.

Reason @16; yes, we’re all a bit awestruck and will clearly have to raise our games in terms of writing standards, around here.


William Timberman 06.12.12 at 11:11 pm

Maria @ 18

I agree. It’s important not only to give thanks for works like Red Plenty, but to say thanks as well. So thank you, Francis Spufford. I only wish that I could thank every author who’s given us such remarkable treasures.


Matt 06.13.12 at 12:53 am

“When the USSR vanished, so with amazing speed in the 1990s did the entire discourse in which there were any alternatives to capitalism that had to be taken seriously”

I’m no fan of communism, and reading Nove’s great _The Economics of Feasible Socialism_ mostly made me think that it wasn’t a very desirable plan. When I read people like Carol Gould on “workplace democracy” it sounds awful to me. But nonetheless, if you can’t see that _something_ important was lost with the end of a real, existing alternative to capitalism, I wonder what’s wrong with you. Or, if you can’t see that there’s _something_ attractive in things like this:

I wonder what’s wrong with you. (I might add that quite a lot of the photos here look like they might have been in Ryazan in 1999, when I first started living there, if only a lot more traffic and garbage were added.)

Or, read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s old essay, “USSR: 22,400,000 square kilometers without a single Coca Cola ad.”, and not feel that _something_ was lost.

Of course, this isn’t to say, at all, that all things considered the Soviet Union was as good thing, only that anyone who doesn’t see what the attraction and good might be isn’t looking right.


Nine 06.13.12 at 4:10 am

peter @17

“The emergent and socially-constructed nature of preferences is ignored by the economic calculation problem (as conventionally conceived), and thus the problem’s tractability would not be sufficient to support effective planning of real existing economies.”

That sort of phenomenon is very amenable to solution by Business Intelligence and decision support/supply chain management systems – real extant corporations do it all the time. Whether it can be scaled to solve whole economies is a different issue as is the question of the desirability of a centrally planned solution when other solutions to the problem of plenty very likely exist.

BTW – Did Cosma ever respond to Prof. Cockshott ? I’d love to see the expert response.


Ken MacLeod 06.15.12 at 6:00 am

PS to my comment above, re the uninterestingness (to Francis) of the Trotskyist critique of the USSR: I get it now.


Francis Spufford 06.15.12 at 8:35 am

Ken – but I was just about to say: you have me rumbled, here, because my knowledge of the Trotskyist critique is much too second-hand. I’ve dipped into Ticktin, but I haven’t gone back and read the man himself, writing in serious intra-Bolshevik mode about economic issues, and I didn’t follow up China Miéville’s suggestions about educating myself in the ‘state-capitalist’ school by reading Tony Cliff etc. So I haven’t given it a proper chance, really. But I have to say that nothing I have read has contradicted my sense that this is a line of analysis which is primarily – well, I want to say ‘theological’, but as you know, I’m not averse to a bit of theology in other contexts. Scholastic? Metaphysical? Concerned, anyway, with determining the meaning of phenomena by the categories they can be placed in according to the political intentions behind them, and not very interested at all in empirical discovery of how a society’s structures are working.

While I’m here, and making my final bow, let me say one more thank you to everybody. I’ve never been read this way before. It’s been wonderful.


John Quiggin 06.15.12 at 9:12 am

Thanks to you too, Francis, both for the book and for your part in the event.


Ken MacLeod 06.15.12 at 9:50 am

Francis – ah, well in that case you may still find some of it interesting, and with quite a lot of empirical analysis. (Apart from anything else, The Revolution Betrayed is a very readable book.) What I thought you were implying (and what I thought I was agreeing with) is that a lot of the Trotskyist work on the USSR (etc) tends to attribute most of the problems to the absence of what Trotskyists call workers’ democracy, rather than to anything intrinsic in the institutions or mechanisms of planning itself. This gets samey after a while, especially when the while stretches from the 1930s to the 1980s.


P.M.Lawrence 06.17.12 at 9:31 am

I think, myself, that the Bolsheviks in both their varieties were a bunch of murdering scumbags, who turned Marx’s bad habit of rhetorical contempt, via Lenin, into a warrant for ending arguments with a bullet to the skull, and who diverted what should have been the civilised history of 20th-century socialism towards atrocity and disaster.

I think that’s only true in a negative way, in that they never acquired that respect for dissent or dissenters that elevates mere apathy into actual tolerance. But that left them starting from a position that was already historically present in Russia and Central Asia, one which wasn’t a break, and the various repressions built on that. Before Beria, Benckendorff.

Here I find John Quiggin’s quotation of Oakeshott on Hayek fascinating, and very useful. I hadn’t thought of it, but the implication is that a genuinely doctrine-less conservatism, some kind of little-platoons preference for the small and local and unsystematisable, perhaps a la Front Porch Republic but without the loony lucubrations on monarchism and contraception, would escape the mocking reflection …

To me, that is just precisely the essence of conservatism, famously encapsulated in Falkland’s 17th century “whenever it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change”. This leads its expressions to be protean, mere responses of form to the forms taken by other views, much as oil does not mix with water from any special quality of its own but from exclusion by water stemming from oil not having molecules that are actively hydrophilic. This gives behaviour as though oil molecules specifically sought each other, but there is no such mechanism. Add oil to alcohol and, seemingly perversely, it blends – until water comes along.

There is an irony here. Many who hold other views talk of “conservative ideology”, and are disgusted by what they take as its incoherence and inconsistency; in fact and in logic there is no such thing. The irony? On more than one occasion I have seen John Quiggin himself bring that analytical toolkit to looking at conservatism, and express just such a disgust because its adherents perversely won’t hold to a coherent ideology – which he then reads as a flaw of conservatism.

Why would anyone who wasn’t on the left have enough at stake, feel enough of a sense of unfinished business, to go picking through the rubble that was left when the 20th-century wind stopped blowing out of paradise, to see if there was anything there that was worth salvaging?

For the same reason that Albert Speer was interested in totalitarianism: geekish interest in mechanism writ large, unmoderated by any great awareness that it was writ in human flesh. And you can still see that strain at work in our own times and places…

By the way, when I was at Cambridge myself in the ’70s, I was the first ever to have read Une Histoire de la Turquie (par Colonel Lamouche, ancien instructeur de la gendarmerie Ottomane) in the fifty odd years it had lain undisturbed in the library of the Union; I know because I had to cut its pages.

JoshM, I have long personally suspected that a practical way to deal with changing circumstances in a Leontiev way might be, not to deal with each set of vectors and matrices as a one off, but rather to get new matrix inverses etc. from the old ones with the iteration X(n+1)= 2X(n)-X(n)AX(n); this lends itself well to efficient representations of sparse matrices.

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