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The Quest for Red Plenty

The failure of economic planning in the Soviet Union does not mean that effective socialist economic planning will never be possible.

A rising star in the Party bureaucracy visits his fiancée on a collective farm. Everyone sits around toasting the bride and groom with glasses of grain alcohol. The bride’s grandfather raises his glass to “Christ and his saints”—he is either too senile to realize that this kind of ideological deviation could create trouble or too cantankerous to care. The young bureaucrat reassures everyone that he doesn’t mind drinking to that. “It’s what my grandfather would say.” He’s lying. His grandfather was Muslim. But it puts everyone at ease. The more they talk, the more the young man realizes that the farmers’ wages are a joke and the empty shelves at the village shop are the punchline.
Another couple, an ambitious young woman and her boyfriend, are tasked in their role as Party youth activists with visiting an exhibition of American products in Moscow and arguing with the guides about capitalism and racial injustice in the South. The woman gets genuinely angry and takes things too far in arguing with the American host. She ends up ruining her career in the Party.
A fixer who makes his living arranging transfers of goods between state enterprises so that everyone can fulfill their quotas playfully calls himself a “servant of the Plan.” He moves around the edges of the official economy, trading favors and being paid off by all sides. A policeman who knows the fixer is too well-connected to be arrested—but too despised for anyone to care much about what happens to him—beats him and leaves him in the snow.

The main character in Francis Spufford’s novel Red Plenty isn’t a person. It’s the centrally planned economy of the Soviet Union. You may be skeptical if I tell you that a 450-page book about economic planning is a good read as a novel—but it is. Sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, Spufford is very good at what he does, and the story of this central character emerges from a patchwork of stories about human beings. All of these episodes feel like lovingly crafted literary short stories. What are essentially historical essays read like dreamy Russian fairy tales.

The most important part of the character arc of the planned economy is the story of a group of mathematicians, economists, and computer engineers who think they’ve found a high-tech fix to the many pathologies of the Soviet economy—a way to automate elements of the planning process, crucially the setting of prices, so that what’s jokingly referred to at one point in the novel as “USSR Incorporated” can rationally coordinate production with fine-grained consumer preferences without having to retreat to the market chaos and brutal inequality of a capitalist economy.

It all takes place within the context of the “Khrushchev Thaw,” a period of liberalization initiated after Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev denounced the crimes against humanity perpetrated by his predecessor Joseph Stalin. Khrushchev hoped that his program of “peaceful co-existence” with the West could transfer the confrontation between the superpowers from the realm of costly military brinkmanship to that of economic competition to see whose system could deliver a future that nations around the world would want to join. As Khrushchev told then Vice President Richard Nixon in the famous “kitchen debate” at the American National Exhibition in 1959: “Let’s compete! Who can produce the most goods for the people, that system is better and it will win.”

The technocrats’ quest to achieve “red plenty” through more rational economic planning could only take place against the background of that thaw—both because of state officials’ relative openness to new ideas in the period and because the regime needed to find a way to fulfill Khrushchev’s constant promises that the Soviet Union would not only catch up to but “overtake” the prosperity of the West. (“We will bury you!”) Khrushchev had told Nixon that the Soviets would wave at America as they passed it.

But the story is a tragedy. The thaw was temporary, and the next decades would see the total collapse of the brief Soviet dream of a bountiful luxury communism that would deliver a superior standard of living.

In Red Planty, Spufford pulls no punches in his portrayal of the disturbingly authoritarian features of even Khrushchev’s USSR—and he repeatedly calls the reader’s attention to the genuine horrors of the Stalin era. Nor is the 1950s Soviet economy portrayed flatteringly; the economic dysfunction of “USSR Incorporated” is the central problem that all the book’s small human stories swirl around. Considering all this, the most surprising thing about the novel is that it never feels anticommunist. When the “red plenty” dreamers envision something better, Spufford wants you to dream with them.

Marxist criticism of Soviet repression—what would later be called “anti-Stalinist” Marxism—is a tradition that goes back much further than Joseph Stalin’s ascendance to the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Within months of the Bolshevik seizure of power in Petrograd in 1917, Rosa Luxemburg wrote a pamphlet criticizing their authoritarian tendencies.

“[S]ocialist democracy,” Luxemburg wrote, “is not something that begins only in the promised land after the foundations of socialist economy are created.” It is not “a Christmas present for the worthy people who have, in the interim, loyally supported a handful of dictators.” Democracy, she explained in her polemic against Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky, is the whole point.

Trotsky had written that “as Marxists we have never been idol worshippers of formal democracy.” But Luxemburg replied: “Surely, we have never been idol worshippers of socialism or Marxism either.” Agreeing that socialists have never been “idol worshippers” of “formal democracy,” she explained that this does not mean socialists see democracy itself as unnecessary or a mere formality:

All that that really means is: We have always distinguished the social kernel from the political form of bourgeois democracy; we have always revealed the hard kernel of social inequality and lack of freedom hidden under the sweet shell of formal equality and freedom—not in order to reject the latter but to spur the working class into not being satisfied with the shell, but rather, by conquering political power, to create a socialist democracy to replace bourgeois democracy—not to eliminate democracy altogether.

Several years later, when he started to see how bad the state he’d helped to create was becoming, Trotsky himself became an oppositionist.

My own great-grandfather, Morris Field, was part of the long tradition of socialist dissent against Stalinism. An early leader of the United Auto Workers, Morris was what was then called a “Lovestonite”—one of the American adherents of Nikolai Bukharin’s opposition faction within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. (The name came from Jay Lovestone, General Secretary of the Communist Party USA before he was expelled—for siding with Bukharin and for holding the heretical view that America’s political conditions were sufficiently different from the ones that had prevailed in Tsarist Russia to necessitate a very different socialist strategy.) My memories of Morris are vague—I mostly remember him telling me and my older sister Ukrainian fairy tales while the rest of the adults talked about politics in the other room. From what I can now tell about the Lovestonites’ politics, though, they agreed with Luxemburg about socialist democracy. So do I.

But what is the relationship between the lack of democracy and the economic dysfunction portrayed in Red Plenty? The Soviet working class’s lack of democratic control over the machinery of the state was objectionable in and of itself, but does it explain the poor economic results?

Luxemburg predicted that the problems that would confront the Bolsheviks as they attempted to construct a socialist economy couldn’t be solved if socialism was “decreed from behind a few official desks” instead of arising from what was learned through the “experiences” of the masses. But it’s far from clear what the road-not-taken would have looked like in practice. To see the problem, imagine an alternate history of the Soviet Union where the USSR’s basic economic model was grafted onto a democratic political system, complete with a robustly independent civil society, a free press regularly airing a wide range of opinions, and real multi-party elections. Whichever party won a majority in that year’s elections to the Supreme Soviet would form a government and appoint the head of the state planning office known as the Gosplan.

I don’t doubt that the most horrifying decisions made by the planners would have been avoided in this version of Soviet history. In the 1930s, if Stalin had had to worry about whether he’d win the next election, and hadn’t liquidated his critics before they convinced anyone, the USSR probably wouldn’t have been selling Ukrainian wheat on the foreign market to buy heavy industrial machinery while Ukrainians starved. But in this timeline, would the day-to-day frustrations of citizens trying to spend their paychecks at grocery stores in the 1980s have been much different? I have my doubts.

As Leonid Kantorovich and the other “red plenty” visionaries realized, the problem was technical and not just political. Before 1917, the few Marxists, anarcho-syndicalists, or other socialists who bothered to spell out the details of a future socialist society tended to focus on how factories and farms would be managed by committees elected by the workers, or how the committees would coordinate with each other. All too often they neglected the question of how the coordinating committee that made high-level economic decisions would know what to produce, and how those products would then find their way into people’s homes. A major problem with the Soviet economy, where prices were set by administrative fiat, is that workers were disenfranchised not just as workers and citizens but as consumers. As Jacobin editor Seth Ackerman put it, the citizens of Soviet-bloc nations “experienced the paucity, shoddiness and uniformity of their goods not merely as inconveniences; they experienced them as violations of their basic rights.”

illustration by john biggs

To some socialists, even the word “consumer” might smell like capitalist propaganda. But it’s a bad mistake to underestimate the importance of delivering people the goods and services they want to consume.

Socialists spend a lot of time critiquing the workplace and thinking about how it can be restructured. Workplaces under capitalism are petty tyrannies. That can and should change in a better system. But even jobs done under the fairest conditions—working at a collectively-owned and democratically self-managed farm or factory or office or grocery store—involve time spent doing tasks one wouldn’t necessarily choose were it not for the need to make a living. Some people love their jobs so much that they hate days off. But most people put the highest value on the time they spend off the clock. That time is spent doing things like going out to the bar with friends, playing a board game, privately browsing the shelves at a bookstore, looking for the next fat novel to immerse oneself in or just sitting on the couch watching Netflix with loved ones.

Like it or not, outside of work people spend their lives, to a great extent, as consumers. If that sounds shallow, so be it, but all the aforementioned leisure activities are also examples of consumption—of beverages, of board games, of books, of movies and TV shows. To paint an appealing picture of a global socialist economy, it matters not just that there is collective ownership and democratic worker self-management at the bars and the board game manufacturers and the bookstores and the publishing houses and the studios and the streaming services. It’s also important that there be a reasonable system for coordinating what they produce to fit extremely specific preferences of all the billions of consumers.

This question might sound trivial to socialists who live in societies suffering more from massive economic inequality and workplace authoritarianism than from a dearth of consumer products. But the history of the twentieth century shows us that we’d better care about delivering the goods if we want to build a durable alternative to capitalism. The lack of attention to the problems of satisfying consumers’ demands is a major reason why, even after the Soviet political system had become far more liberal, Soviet workers showed little inclination to resist the restoration of capitalism in their “workers’ state.”

I​​n the ’50s and ’60s, some in the Soviet Union believed that cybernetics—roughly, the study of automatic control systems—offered a way to solve the problem of efficiently coordinating production with consumer preferences. Given a sufficient amount of data about both ends of that equation, Soviet computers could spit out rational prices that could play a structurally similar role to the one played by prices in capitalist economies. No more empty shelves at the grocery store. No more reliance on the black market. And all without losing the upsides of economic planning.

So: Would the cybernetic solution have worked? A key scene in Red Plenty points to a reason for skepticism.

Emil Shaidullin, an economist pushing that solution, is smoking a cigarette outside of a committee meeting with Maksim Mokhov. An open-minded but deeply realistic bureaucrat, Mokhov is skeptical about Emil’s argument that automating the price system would generate the desired “optimal prices.”

“You want to take our discretion away,” Mokhov complains. “You want the plan targets for ten thousand enterprises to come straight out of the computer. And then there’d be no way of correcting errors.”

Shaidullin claims that these errors wouldn’t arise in the first place given optimal prices. Mokhov doesn’t buy it.

“They’re only as good as the data they’re based on. If I understand correctly, they’re based on the efficiency of an enterprise’s equipment. In other words, they depend on managers submitting completely truthful information about what their enterprises are capable of. Speaking as somebody who has been trying to get them to do just that for nearly thirty years, I have to say it strikes me as a trifle unlikely that they’ll change their ways just because you’ve sent them a new form to fill in.”

That scene is set in 1965. Since then, capitalist corporations around the world have vastly increased their profits partly through use of mathematical tools pioneered by real Soviet technocrats who are characters in Red Plenty. The algorithms have gotten unfathomably more advanced in the last 57 years. It’s less clear, though, that anyone has devised a convincing solution to the problem Mokhov points out about enterprise managers’ incentives—and it’s far from obvious that those incentives would go away if the managers were either answerable to elected workers’ committees or directly elected.

Since the Soviet Union’s founding, the problem of how a government could effectively plan the economy had vexed Soviet technocrats and invited serious critique from bourgeois economists. Some free market critics argued, starting in the 1920s, that it was simply impossible for the state to decide what to produce. Ludwig von Mises declared that a centrally planned socialist economy was literally ‘impossible’ because no one institution could do the necessary calculations to sort it all out.

It’s easy to see why von Mises’s ideological successors believe that the economic experience of the Soviet Union and similar nations vindicated their side of this “socialist calculation debate.” And the painful truth is that, at least to some extent, it does.

The good news is that the experience of the last several decades of social democracy shows us beyond any shadow of a doubt that some sectors of the economy deliver better results when they’re planned outside of the market. State-planned healthcare sectors in culturally and economically similar Anglophone countries, for example, outperform their marketized American equivalent. Brits and Canadians live longer. Fewer of their children die as infants. Their rate of “mortality amenable to health care” is lower. (That one is stats-speak for the rate at which people die when they would have lived if they had gotten the health care they needed, or if they had gotten it sooner.)

Even if the consumer goods sector is different, quite a bit of the economy—healthcare, education, energy, telecommunications infrastructure, and banking are a good starting list—can and should be subject to economic planning outside of the chaos of the market. But is that where it ends? Is our ability to reshape the world economy in accordance with socialist values limited to the kind of maximalist socialist democracy that Robert Heilbroner called “slightly imaginary Sweden?”

I don’t think so, for two reasons. First, we should separate out the question of markets from the question of capitalist ownership structures, especially when we think about the kind of socialism that we’d be able to achieve “five minutes after the revolution” without waiting for either a further moral revolution to create more honest factory managers or a technological revolution so some God-like Artificial Intelligence system could figure it all out without any human managers with bad incentives having to correctly fill out forms. If we need price signals and firm failure to avoid replicating the problems that afflicted the consumer goods sector of the Soviet economy, the firms can at least be worker-owned, and the financing can come from grants from nationalized banks, with the funding provided by progressive taxation to cut down on economic inequality between the worker-owners of more and less capital-intensive industries. A model like this can be found in mathematician David Schweickart’s book After Capitalism, and another with many similar features appears in economist Yanis Varoufakis’s speculative novel Another Now. (One like it is also the basis of a book called The Blueprint, which I am writing for Verso with Bhaskar Sunkara and Mike Beggs.)

Should this kind of socialism, though, represent the outer limits of our imaginations? Maybe not. At least some of the problems with capitalism would continue to exist in a form of socialism that still included a substantial role for market mechanisms. Worker cooperatives, for example, would continue to have bad environmental incentives, even if we hope that at least some of those incentives could be counteracted by interests of worker-owners in not seeing the communities they live in polluted. And it would certainly be reasonable to hold out hope that better regulations would emerge from a political process that didn’t include the outsize political influence of a wealthy elite.

This brings us to the second point, which is that progress won’t and shouldn’t stop with the end of capitalism. As Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski argue at the end of their book People’s Republic of Walmart, we can think of market socialism and socialist planning not as discrete and incompatible alternatives but as a spectrum. How far we can travel along that spectrum toward a completely planned economy without replicating the problems of the Soviet economy is for now an open empirical question. It’s entirely possible that new technological developments will open up new ways to take more chunks of the economy outside of the market without unacceptable reductions in dynamism and efficiency.

I expect that there would be intense political debates in any future socialist democracy about how far along the markets-versus-planning spectrum it would even be desirable to go. Different and competing values would have to be balanced. It’s not just that many people would be wary of the prospect of either being disempowered as consumers like their Soviet forebears or forced to spend their lives in endless meetings if they wanted to have any input on exactly which cuisines should be served by a new restaurant under construction or whether the whiskey produced in the nationalized distilleries should be smoky or smooth or whether the nationalized publishing houses should be putting out more romances or more techno-thrillers. Any factions of future socialist citizens wary about turning more private worker cooperatives into parts of a coordinated economic plan might be motivated by entirely different concerns, ranging from the question of how to safeguard political diversity and the independence of civil society if the media were entirely nationalized to the issue of resources that might be wasted if inefficient enterprises couldn’t be weeded out by market competition. (Interestingly enough, Yanis Varoufakis suggests that firm failure within competitive markets could be replaced with randomly selected juries empowered to shut down poorly performing enterprises.)

To the extent that all of these concerns could be persuasively addressed, though, there may be good reasons that a great many people in a socialist society would argue for moving as far as possible in the direction of greater economic planning. An important part of why socialists have always wanted “social” control of the economy is that under capitalism there’s a sense in which even capitalists don’t really rule—they’re pushed around by the sort of market pressures that Karl Marx called a “blind power” governing our lives. And if the citizens of this socialist future, unlike their Soviet predecessors, democratically control the state, the extension of state economic planning is the extension of democracy. Even a worker cooperative disenfranchises all the people in the broader community who don’t work there—but who may nevertheless be impacted by the cooperative’s decisions.

I don’t know how relevant the technical problems that consume the characters in Red Plenty would be in such a society. The “information” problems that were supposed to doom socialist planning may have looked intractable in the 1960s—but we just can’t know how they’ll look by, say, the beginning of the twenty-second century. I don’t know how far along the planning spectrum the people of the future would choose to go. But I would dearly love to find out. The planners of Red Plenty struggled with the problem of how to provide abundance for all without taking on the considerable disadvantages that come with market economies. They might not have found the answer. But we shouldn’t abandon the quest.

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