Weekend Reading: Cosma Shalizi (2012): In Soviet Union, Optimization Problem Solves You
Weekend Reading: Rosa Luxemburg (1918): The Russian Revolution: The Problem of Dictatorship

Weekend Reading: Daniel Davies (2012): New Ideas From Dead Political Systems

School of Athens

Daniel Davies (2012): New Ideas From Dead Political Systems:

Back in the days before I had realised that a guy who takes five years to deliver a simple book review probably ought to rein in the ambition a bit when it comes to larger-scale projects, I occasionally pitched an idea to publishers of management books. It was going to be called “Great Ideas From Failed Companies”, the idea being that when you have the perspective of the entire history of a corporate story, you’re probably going to get a more honest appraisal of its strengths and weaknesses, and that although companies like Enron, Northern Rock and Atari clearly had major problems, they quite likely also had some good points too, or how did they ever get so big in the first place?

Obviously, carrying out a similar exercise on failed social and political systems is a bit of a minefield, since most social and political systems which have been tried and failed have tended to take down a hell of a lot of innocent lives with them as they did so. I don’t think anyone but the most studiedly mindless (and tasteless) contrarian would bother to ask the question “but what did the Nazis get right?” at any great length[1]. But there’s always a temptation to do so with Soviet communism.[2] It killed quite a lot more people than Nazism but (for the most part, and after the 1920s) in a less obviously criminally insane way, and as a system it does have the characteristic that lots of people and countries at various times did want to have a go at it for themselves, more or less of their own free will. Which is why one of the big draws of “Red Plenty” is the promise to take us, as the subtitle of my edition reads, “Inside the Fifties Soviet Dream”, or even to help us learn “lessons from the Soviet dream“.

But this cheque never really gets cashed by the book. “Red Plenty” isn’t, or at least not directly, a book about the Fifties, Gargarin and the years of 7% growth. Only two of its chapters are set before Sputnik; one is a vignette of the career of Kantorovich as he was starting the work on linear programming, and the other is set out in a recently famine-stricken rural area of the sort that never really had the boom in the first place. By the time the action gets going in Red Plenty, the dream is basically over. Some of the characters seem to realize this and some don’t; as always the economists are the most romantic and least realistic of characters, persisting way up into the 1960s with the dream that the underlying model is basically sound, and a few technical changes will make it possible to achieve the vision of plenty. Elsewhere across the system, people cheat and swindle, do what they must do to survive, and often fail and get crushed by the system, in a terribly realistic and human way which is all the more elegiac because we know how it all turned out.

I’m fascinated (as in the Greece choose-your-own-adventure post we ran a while back) with this approach to history – in many ways the novelistic method gives a much truer picture of what it must have been like than a simple recitation of facts and acts. Nearly all of Spufford’s characters, even most of the baddies, are not acting out of sheer cackling evil; they’re trying to find a way through a set of constraints and incentives put in front of them, often making decisions that are morally shitehouse and obviously so, but always explicable as decisions that you can see a normal person making. The massacre at Novocherkassk, for example, appears in a normal history book as a senseless atrocity. Which it was, of course, but Red Plenty helps you think your way into it and it becomes an at least slightly comprehensible senseless atrocity (the very long reports of inquiries, such as those into Bloody Sunday and the Stockwell shooting also have this characteristic). And then of course, there are one or two characters who are just pure and simple motiveless bastards. Because they exist too.

It makes me wonder what a sort of prequel to Red Plenty which did actually deal with the go-go-Gargarin years would be like. A lot of the dysfunctional behavior described in the Soviet system of the Khruschev years (particularly the gaming of targets and the wheeling and dealing between factory managers for spare parts) would have totally different mood music if we knew that it was leading up to the triumphs of industrialization, saving the world from Hitler and the Space Race, just as a lot of the behavior in “The Right Stuff” and “Patton” is actually pretty unforgiveable when you consider it in isolation from the overall project. But I don’t think that such a book would actually be an honest work. As I hinted above, the novelistic first-person-shooter approach to history is so potentially powerful that you have to be careful about the sort of character and system you’re humanizing, and the sad truth of Soviet communism is that the only honest way to write about the “Fifties dream” is in a way which makes it clear it was a great big lie, and that the only lesson from that system is not to do that again.

Because, as the book makes clear, there was no bloody great economic miracle. The Soviet economy grew because of the vast increase in resources thrown at it; there was an enormous increase in investment, much of it highly suspect in its productivity. There never could have been a golden future of plenitude and consumption just the other side of the hill, because the economic growth and the repression of domestic consumption were the same thing. It was all a con game.

And in my view, the original mistake made was the one which is also covered wonderfully in the chapter on the visit to the World’s Fair – the decision to adopt America as the competition. It just makes no sense for Russia in 1950 to be thinking of the USA as its benchmark for performance. It’s like a small town football club deciding that they’re going to regard Manchester United City as their rivals. If Russia had been judging the improvements in output and living standards by reference to Spain, or Ireland, there might have been more sensible and realistic decisions made. But comparing to the USA was immediately setting an impossible goal to achieve. And comparing against the USA also meant that the Soviets had to be unduly wedded to having their own economic system and tactics – after all, if you started using market prices, you would end up with similar allocations of resources to those used by the USA, and given the massive difference in initial endowments, this would have written defeat into the numbers. In order to have a nonzero chance of overtaking the USA, the USSR had to use different tactics, and this fact was a major psychological obstacle to ever realising that those tactics were fundamentally – even mathematically – mistaken.

So although I like the idea, I don’t think that there are any really great ideas to be learned from the Soviet system, and “Red Plenty” is basically correct in finding the whole thing to be similar to one of those rather depressing Russian fairy tales in which the moral is “try not to be an idiot all your life”. A better world is, and was, possible – but this wasn’t it.

[1] At short length, the answer is “monetary policy”. The rather embarrassing introduction to the first German-language edition of the General Theory is quite thoroughgoing in its endorsement of Hitler and Schacht’s adoption of broadly Keynesian policies. So now you know.

[2] The exercise is probably best carried out by someone who, like Francis Spufford, has never been a Communist themselves. As Mark Steel notes in his autobiography “Reasons to be Cheerful”, on the subject of old Stalinists constantly finding themselves post-1989 in conversations where they ended up backsliding into wondering whether there weren’t a few progressive elements, Communism is like smoking in this way, you’ve really just got to give it up cold turkey.

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