Better Red Plenty than Green Austerity
As entertaining and refreshing as Francis Spufford’s collection of USSR-set short stories is, it is underpinned by a deep, green-tinted rejection of any striving for material prosperity.
In the Western imagination, the Soviet Union and the quest for material prosperity would seem laughable bedfellows. After all, the USSR was the Sputnik-launching superpower that couldn’t get decent food and clothes into the shops; a social system supposedly based on reason and rationality, but which was a world leader in the wastage of labour and resources. In Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, however, a different picture emerges.
A series of vivid short stories prefaced by factual historical background, Red Plenty is the fictionalised account of a brief burst of optimism that engulfed the Soviet bureaucracy between 1957 and 1963. In the East and West, the Soviet Union’s successful launch of Sputnik into space appeared to confirm that the planned economy would soon outstrip the achievements of Western capitalism. It was a time when dreams of mass material prosperity finally looked like they might be realised – not in the US but in the USSR. Moscow would soon out-glitter Manhattan, every Lada would be better engineered than a Porsche, and abundance for all was within easy reach. As the sleeve to Red Plenty announces: ‘Industry! Progress! Abundance!’
Spufford has a lot of fun smashing the preconception that the Soviet Union was somehow deliberately austere and grey in order to profess its proletarian authenticity. Throughout his crisply written short stories, Soviet leaders and the scientists charged with technically advancing their society come out with statements such as: ‘If communism couldn’t give people a better life than capitalism, then what is the point? A better life, in a straightforward, practical way: better food, better clothes, better houses, better cars and better planes!’ The fictionalised Soviet intellectuals in Red Plenty saw the competition with America as ‘a race to see who could do the best job at supplying the ordinary fellow on the beach with his cold drink’. This is a far cry from the shortages-and-queues image of the USSR, though that image was closer to the grim reality of Soviet life than the dream of abundance.
Nevertheless, it’s refreshing to see an acknowledgement of the fact that leftist politics was once committed to raising living and cultural standards rather than being the politics of the Luddites, Levellers and underdogs. There are also some great passages that accurately discuss the universalistic role that public intellectuals should play in a modern, progressive society. And in a phrase that would alarm today’s policy-wonkish advocates of social inclusion, the early Bolsheviks’ ambition is described as ‘an elite’s twentieth-century effort to raise lumpenish Russia high’ (though Spufford probably meant this as an insult).
There are some sly moments of levity as well amid the impressive historical detail. Discussing the importance of a world-class education system in the USSR, particularly when it came to science and technology, Spufford writes ‘nothing was dumbed down – except the Marxism’. But Spufford is no fan of Marxism, and only mentions the materialist content of Marxism in order to bury it – usually beneath a dung heap of anti-growth cynicism.
In the postwar period, conservative historians developed elaborate, but clumsily ahistorical, theories as to why Hitler and Stalin, the Third Reich and the Eastern Bloc, were all really the same. This was an attempt to discredit progressive social change. In Red Plenty there are no parallel lives balance sheets between Stalinism and Nazism. Instead, Spufford has fun arguing that it was 1950s America that was ‘most nearly trying to do the same thing as the Soviet Union’. Whereas Britain and France still had features of artisan craft production, it was America that fully utilised mechanisation and standardisation as a way of providing cheap goods to the masses. Hence Spufford’s Soviet characters are in awe of American society and industry. This was certainly true for many leftists at the time: Leon Trotsky surprised one American journalist by saying that the old Bolsheviks were ‘disciples of American mechanisation’.
Spufford’s impressive historical accuracy, though, is overshadowed by the fact that he uses his fictional snapshot of the USSR to launch a back-handed attack on the United States. It allows him to say, effectively, that the evil Empire and the empire of the Big Mac are as reprehensible as each other. So while the Soviet Union’s project of immense plenty for all is presented as mere fantasy, the actual material wealth of a country like America is also denigrated: Americans will pay the price sooner or later is the message here. And if Spufford wants to encourage us to regard the past ambitions of a developing society to raise living standards as a dangerous, materialist pipe-dream, then the implication is that China and India should accept progress-halting sustainable development today.
Far from indulging in Cold War nostalgia, Red Plenty provides a middle-class celebration of the fact that the competition over which social system could guarantee material abundance for all – popularly referred to as politics – has gone the same way as Trabant cars. But to Spufford’s irritation, it seems upstart countries such as China and India are still committed to economic growth and modernisation. As the mocking tone of Red Plenty tries to make clear, material progress is neither possible nor desirable. Surely, in the twenty-first century, Spufford seems to be saying, we need other criteria to judge human happiness. We’ve seen what happened to the Soviet Union – are we about to go the same way, albeit in rather more catastrophic circumstances?
Writing in the Guardian, Spufford argued that there are ‘lessons to be learned’ from the doomed ‘red plenty’ years. True, there are enormous aspects of Soviet society that have become anti-models for social development, but this isn’t what Spufford has in mind. As he puts it: ‘This shouldn’t be the kind of comedy in which we laugh from a position of comfy security at the fools over there. It should be the comedy of recognition we register, at this point in the early twenty-first century, when we’re in mid-pratfall ourselves. Our own economic arrangements are currently generating not one but two complete sets of disastrous unintended consequences. Our failure to price the externalities of our energy use is baking the climate; our romantic indulgence of financiers has imploded our finances.’ In other words, Spufford warns that, like the Soviets 20 years ago, we will also pay for the folly of our fairy-tale ambitions and attachment to growth.
To his credit, at least Spufford’s environmentalist leanings aren’t glossed over with a phoney love for socialism or a grandstanding hatred for multinational corporations. Beneath the jocular tone and patronising attitude to Soviet communism, Spufford’s disdain for Bolshevism is serious and hardened enough. He rehearses, for instance, the Western myth that October 1917 was not a social revolution but a coup d’état led by ‘a small collection of fanatics and opportunists who found themselves running the country’. He contemptuously talks about ‘Lenin’s brand of Marxism’ and makes the grave error that Stalin was simply the logical outgrowth of a peculiar Eastern type of Marxism. This is one green-endorsing writer who doesn’t pretend to have something in common with social progressives and, ironically enough, that is supposedly to be welcomed.
Spufford’s ambition, originality, comedic touch and commanding prose make Red Plenty an enjoyably eccentric set of short stories-cum-history sketches. It takes real skill to portray grim-faced Soviet bureaucrats and weave them into such a sparkling and illuminating narrative. But there’s something wearily familiar about the book’s cynicism, its loathing for politics and the struggle for the Good Society, and the green-tinted horror-story ending. Who’d have guessed that, 20 years on from the collapse of communism, its corpse would be revived in the name of putting ambitious, daring and experimental human endeavours in their place?
Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.
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