In Red Pletny, Spufford tells the story of a strange and wonderful moment at the end of the 1950’s when the Soviets had reasons to believe that within a generation they would have overtaken the capitalist west and won the Marxist utopia long awaited. This seems fanciful to us today for two reasons: firstly we know very little about the Soviet Union and so imagine that the bits and pieces of caricature we have picked up are accurate and secondly, we are constantly told that capitalism is the end of history and it is fanciful and unreasonable to imagine that any other way will ever be conceived.
In other words, this seems fanciful to us today because of our casual ignorance.
In the decade after World War II, the Soviet Union grew, in even the American estimations, at a rate of about 10% a year.
After defeating the Nazis, after the purges of Stalin, after the murderous New Economic Plan, after the invasion of Russia by the White Forces, after the 1917 revolution instigated by only a few thousand people and just a century after most of the population were effectively slaves, this transformation is the stuff of fairytale.
And Spufford is wise enough to root us down in the miraculous narrative by approaching the economic history of a country as if he is writing a novel. What we have in Red Plenty straddles history and fictional narrative and gladly falls head first into politics and philosophy and economics whenever there is need.
This approach isn’t some faddish innovation to avoid turgid economic history. It is fitting in the most appropriate way because the story of Soviet economics in that era was the elaboration of the modified Marxist vision that energised the whole nation. The USSR, no less than the USA, was a nation founded on a story it told itself about itself. With the emergence of computing, mathematicians in Russia slowly became convinced that the progress they had made thus far would now actually accelerate because they could enhance the natural superiority of a centrally planned economy through cybernetic efficiencies.
By fictionalising the historical, Spufford manages us to get down into the contradictions and compromises that people had to make on a day by day basis as they sought to achieve utopia. The tension between belief and unbelief in the Soviet project and the complexity of being in a topia that is destined to become utopia are drawn out beautifully without Spufford having to point at it. It is seriously classy, beautifully written and utterly fascinating.
Behind it all of course is the belief in progress, the cold rationalism that sought to be so unsentimental but ended up being a figment of the 20th Century’s collective imagination. Paragraphs like this stand out with potent clarity:
Electrons have no point of view. They form no opinions, make no judgements, commit no errors. Down at their scale, there are no opinions, judgements, or errors; only matter and energy, in a few configurations from which the whole lavish cosmos jigsaws itself together. Electrons move when forces act on their speck of negative electrical charge or on their infinitesimal pinpricks of mass. They do not choose to move; they do not behave, except in metaphor. Yet the metaphors creep in.
– Francis Spufford, Red Plenty, p. 108.
The metaphors creep in. The utopia is never realised.
Red Plenty features the finest description of cancer I have ever read and the most immersive description of childbirth I can remember. It moves with the momentum of a novel. It lingers with the thoughtfulness of a political theology.
Your Correspondent, He won’t let love disrupt, corrupt or interrupt him