‘Red Plenty: Inside the Fifties’ Soviet Dream’ reviewed by Philip Cunliffe


Red Plenty: Inside the Fifties’ Soviet Dream

Faber & Faber, London, 2010. 448pp., £16.99 hb
ISBN 9780571225231

Reviewed by Philip Cunliffe

About the reviewer

Philip Cunliffe is Senior Lecturer in International Conflict at the University of Kent. …

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Although the sub-title of Spufford’s book references the fifties, most of the book is in fact set in the sixties, as the Soviet state sought to follow through on the promises and hopes of the fifties. That promise was exemplified in a speech given by Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev at the 22nd Communist Party Congress of 1961, in which he made the astonishing commitment to build the fundaments of communism in the USSR by 1980 – in other words, within a generation. The book’s chapters are organised in order to provide a broad social cross-section of this brief but forgotten ‘Soviet Dream’ of progress and plenty. In so doing, Spufford reminds us that the Cold War was a competition counted not only in the numbers of nuclear warheads and tanks churned out, but also in everything from city planning through kitchen design down to household consumer goods and statistics on labour productivity. In the fifties, Soviet economic growth made it seem that the USSR might still win on the front of delivering material abundance to the masses: ‘Moscow would out-glitter Manhattan, and every Lada would be better engineered than a Porsche’.

Far from the Cold War propaganda image of the USSR as the totalitarian antithesis of the USA, in Spufford’s recounting we see a Soviet elite fascinated by the productivity of the US economy and its astonishing capacity to deliver mass consumption: Khrushchev enthuses about a Soviet duplicate hemburger to deliver hearty food to the masses, while the Soviet science cities thrown up in Siberia replicate US suburbs with their spacious houses designed for privileged scientists and technocrats. Icons of Soviet technology and design – such as the party bosses’ notorious ZiL limousines – were shamelessly copied from Cadillacs and Packards. All the while, the Communists themselves did not believe that they lived under communism: they saw themselves as a society in transition, but one with a definitive purpose and direction – heading towards utopia.

Here Spufford offers us a snapshot of Stalinism arguably at its most beguiling: when it seemed capable of progressive and gentle reform. For the fifties’ Soviet dream was founded on a USSR undergoing rapid post-war economic recovery, confident in its military might, newly minted space technology and still steeped in the authority of its victory over fascism. At the same time, Stalin’s austere and remote leadership had been replaced by the globe-trotting Khrushchev projecting an image of jovial buffoonery while revealing glimpses of reform, flexibility and, most tantalising of all, historic vindication for the horrors of Stalin’s rule: the limitless abundance of communism to be achieved within his peoples’ very own lifetimes.

The heroes of Spufford’s Soviet dream are an entire generation of peasants brutally torn off the land and propelled on an astonishing ascent in the breakneck process of Soviet industrialisation:

The economy needed whole categories of trained people to spring into existence in the twinkling of an eye: teachers, nurses, doctors, chemists, metallurgists, pharmacists, electricians, telephonists, journalists, architects, designers, book-keepers, aviators, car-drivers, truck drivers, locomotive drivers, and engineers, engineers, engineers of every description.… You could go work as a foreman in a textile plant in 1935, and be the commissar for the whole textile industry four years later: that was the fairytale rise of Alexei Nikolaevich Kosygin.… You could be an ex-coal miner with a gift of the gab … and go in two years from semi-literate rural apparatchik to deputy mayor of Moscow. (86-7)

Each chapter offers an imagining of real and fictional individuals chosen to represent the builders of the Soviet dream, comprising an elite technical intelligentsia of geneticists, mathematicians, engineers, scientists, economists, cybernetic planners and bureaucrats. We see their rise and fall as they go from struggling to build the dream to trying to salvage it as the Soviet growth machine fades and sputters, and as the party bosses quietly ditch Khrushchev’s extraordinary promises in favour of a limited but stable standard of living.

These chapters are interspersed with others covering those living at the apex, interstices and edges of that dream – morally compromised writers, the wives of upwardly-mobile functionaries, shady fixers whose ingenious bartering on behalf of Soviet enterprise compensates for the shortfalls in national industrial planning… Khrushchev himself twice makes an appearance – first on an official visit to the USA in 1959, flying in a Tupolev so large there is no American airport stairway tall enough to disembark its passengers. The second time is in 1968: as Soviet tanks roll into Prague, Khrushchev whiles away his days as an aimless pensioner in his garden, long ousted from power and sliding into ever deeper doubt over the fate and promise of the Soviet system.

With its innovative conception and design, Spufford’s book is clearly seeking to offer us something more than fiction. Spufford chooses to call his book a ‘fairy-tale’ and indeed he begins the book by recounting old Russian fairy-tales about magical kingdoms of plenty where people are freed from drudgery and enjoy limitless supplies of food – cake, bread and butter, sour cream and gruel … the Russian peasants’ land of milk and honey. Although Spufford notes that any modern supermarket can deliver more food than even the magical self-replenishing tablecloth of Russian folklore, the implication of his own fairy-tale is that the dream of ever greater abundance is as ineradicable as human fantasy itself, and perhaps has still not been achieved.

In truth Spufford’s book is too well and extensively researched to really be a latter-day fairy-tale. Indeed part of the fascination of the whole book lies in its fictionalised portrayal of complex economic and social debates stemming from the practical problems involved in constructing and running a country in the throes of industrialisation – but without being able to rely on markets, prices and capital. Spufford’s book also appeals in its quaint, even camp aspects. Spufford evidently relishes the meticulous evocation of a remote era of unabashed confidence in material progress and social transformation based on scientific ingenuity, technology and industrial expansion. This view is, Spufford seems to suggest, as charmingly naïve as a Russian peasant’s fairy-tale. The book’s dust jacket – with a phoney Cyrillic-style font, visuals of sleek trains and tall buildings – looks like a cross between a Soviet propaganda poster and an old science-fiction short story magazine cover. From this perspective utopia can only be the future of the past.

But perhaps it is us jaded postmoderns who are the truly naïve ones. As Slavoj Žižek observes, today we luxuriate in imagining the end of the world sooner than we would imagine a society that has transcended capitalism. On this reading, perhaps it would be more generous to read Spufford as offering a peculiar brand of ‘virtual history’: a ‘what if?’ scenario based on a historic moment structured around the dream, if not the possibility, of utopia. Instead of the standard conservative fodder of virtual history – what if Hitler had won the Second World War? what if the Confederacy had beaten Abraham Lincoln’s Union? – here we have a speculative ‘what if?’ of Soviet Russian history: what if the Reds had succeeded in overtaking the West, as Khrushchev had predicted? What if they had managed to avoid a few key planning errors, and had listened instead to the unheard of innovations proposed by the earnest cyberneticians depicted by Spufford? Or, going even further, what if they had actually achieved utopia? What if the tyranny had been blessed and vindicated with a happy ending?

The USSR was even less capable of achieving communism than the Confederacy was of defeating the United States. If Spufford does not quite give a succinct answer for the inevitability of the Soviet collapse, he is good at showing how the profound dysfunction of Soviet society impacted on individuals, quite apart from the brutish authoritarianism of Soviet government itself. Focused on his characters’ lives, he can show the pervasive web of informal networks of goodwill and corruption on which people became reliant in order to compensate for living in a society governed by the arbitrariness of bureaucratic tyranny.

But Spufford’s reflections on the possibility and nature of utopia – perhaps the most alluring aspect of the book, a question both charming and utterly serious – is held back by the undertow of his cynicism and anti-Marxism. Spufford’s success in portraying a humanly believable Stalinist dream shows that the caricatures of Cold War propaganda are more easily sloughed off than prejudices about Marx. This is not least in Spufford’s uncritical acceptance of the mutation of Marxism under Stalin from a doctrine regarding the necessity of communism in the world’s capitalist heartlands into a crude ideology of industrial catch-up for backward countries competing with those capitalist heartlands.

There are only a few moments when Spufford touches on ideas that could have deepened the ideas in his book. In one chapter Spufford stages a drunken philosophical debate at a house party in a newly-built Siberian science city of the early 1960s. A mathematician argues that plenty is an ‘intrinsically vulgar idea’ (original emphasis), ‘like a bucket of plaster of Paris you want to pour over people’s heads’. This is because real human needs are never generic but ‘always specific’: ‘No one ever feels a generic hunger or a generic loneliness.’ His opponent, a sardonic intellectual, argues that plenty is not designed to abolish unhappiness, but rather to abolish avoidable suffering, which precisely is generic – he gives the example of painkillers being good for all headaches.

According to the intellectual, whatever residual suffering remains after the abolition of avoidable suffering can be left to the tragedians and the playwrights: ‘Plenty will let a truly human life begin.’ The mathematician retorts ‘“Let human life begin”? What d’you think we’re living now for God’s sake?’ (174-5) But Spufford takes us away from this interesting debate, letting the intelligent but cynical mathematician have the last word. Both of Spufford’s debaters here share the same view of plenty – as generic gunk to be poured over essentially passive recipients. Spufford’s views of plenty seem to be shaped not only by peasant fantasies but also by his misreading of Marx’s famous few words about communism from The German Ideology: ‘to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind …’ For Spufford, this unnecessarily coy vision of communism is a ‘soft-focus gentlemanly idyll’ (82) – a more genteel version of the peasant fable of glutted contentment and idleness.

But Spufford has excised the second half of the quote from Marx: ‘… without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic’. Marx’s string of examples are not designed to illustrate indifferent or substitutable leisurely pursuits, but to indicate that individuals would be able freely to choose their activities without being limited either by scarcity or by pre-allocated roles in a class hierarchy or a division of labour. Marx’s premise is of an active individual choosing deeds that satisfy them beyond the needs of survival.  

Yet the very conceit of Spufford’s book forces us to take the bureaucrat’s view of the provision of plenty: the recipients of plenty are a morass of consumers, and the only question from this perspective is how most efficiently to minister and provide for the voracious needs of this indifferent human agglomeration. Here Spufford would have benefitted from another famous Marx quote, this time from the Theses on Feuerbach where Marx explicitly rejects doctrines ‘bound to divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society’:

The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of changed circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that the educator must himself be educated.

Perhaps we have gone beyond the fantasies of peasants across the millennia. The supermarkets and improvements in agricultural productivity that have abolished hunger in the Western world are better even than the fantastical self-replenishing tablecloths of Russian folklore. But we are far from realising Marx’s vision of communism and plenty – and for that, we could still do with some visions of utopia. And in any case, Ladas are still not engineered as well as Porsches.

5 June 2011

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