Below are 3 selected quotes from the Guardian review of Red Plenty on August 6, 2010. Also, I read ALL the many comments, quite a few relevant also below. This comment section was the most mature I have ever encountered to a post. Even the biased and angry comments were informative, as to their wrlds. The spread and contrast of ideas expressed below, is itself a phenomenon of human ideas emergent.
——————– GUARDIAN REVIEW
President Kennedy’s aide Arthur Schlesinger wrote a White House memo sounding the alarm over “the all-out Soviet commitment to cybernetics”. While the Soviet moment lasted, it looked like somewhere which was incubating a rival version of modern life: one which had to be reckoned with, learned from, in case it really did outpace the west, and leave the lands of capitalism stumbling along behind.
The USSR’s pioneering computer scientists were heavily involved, and so was the authentic genius Leonid Kantorovich, nearest Soviet counterpart to John Von Neumann and later to be the only ever Soviet winner of the Nobel prize for economics. Their thinking drew on the uncorrupted traditions of Soviet mathematics. While parts of it merely smuggled elements of rational pricing into the Soviet context, other parts were truly directed at outdoing market processes. The effort failed, of course, for reasons which are an irony-laminated comedy in themselves. The sumps of the command economy were dark and deep and not accessible to academics; Stalinist industrialization had welded a set of incentives into place which clever software could not touch; the system was administered by rent-seeking gangsters; the mathematicians were relying (at two removes) on conventional neoclassical economics to characterize the market processes they were trying to simulate, and the neoclassicists may just be wrong about how capitalism works.
But if the horrible society of the Soviet Union left any legacy worth considering, if a pearl were ever secreted by the Soviet Union’s very diseased oyster, this is it. And so follows the oddest implication of the Soviet moment. It may not be over. It may yet turn out to be unfinished business. For, from the point of view of “economic cybernetics”, the market is only an algorithm. It is only one possible means of sharing out and co-ordinating economic activity: a means with very considerable advantages, in terms of all the autonomous activity and exploration of economic possibilities it allows, but not the only one, and not necessarily the best either, even at allowing autonomy and decentralization. In the 20th century, devising the actual apparatus for a red plenty was an afterthought to the ideology. In the 21st century, it may be the algorithm that appears ahead of a politics to advocate it. In which case, the contest of plenties will be on again. And every year our processing power increases.
————————- COMMENTS IN GUARDIAN
farfrom 6 Aug 2010 17:50 0 1 They produced a highly educate population , the result was that few wanted to actually produce stuff, food and work in factories , so these jobs fell to the less talented. So shoddy goods were produced and and the cabbages were left unpicked in the fields . Somewhat like the British and Americans now who are closing down the factories and borrowing money to buy factory products from Asia. The soviets had institutes to research just about everything. These were easy jobs for life, most of what was produced were papers, the content of which was frequently garbage , however the Americans used to obtain them one way or another and scrutinize them for the rare gem . Such as stealth technology for aircraft. Whether living conditions are better now for the majority is doubtful , One person from there said conditions were best under Brezneff.
is69eh6t8j9p 6 Aug 2010 19:19 0 1 What a particularly shit feature – a bit like writing about the lives of Jews during the twentieth century without bothering to mention the Holocaust. Get one thing absolutely crystal clear – the Soviet Union was the turning point in the war against Hitler. I believe that every single concentration camp except for Dachau was liberated by Russian troops. Eight million of Hitler’s eleven million casualties were due to taking on the USSR, who themselves lost thirty million. These sorts of events are almost beyond comprehension today. We tend to think of the Cold War as a time when the West and Russia, both tooled up with nukes, would never actually fight because of M.A.D. (Mutually Assured Destruction). However, during the period when only the U.S. was a nuclear power, policy was called Massive Retaliation, which planned for the radioactive destruction of China and Russia together, forcing Stalin to go nuclear too. Sputnik, Gagarin, Leonov, and Tereshkova was not mindless propoganda, but genuine technological achievements which symbolised the pride and rebirth of a devastated nation. The world was different then – everything changes – but Francis Spufford owes his life to the USSR he despises so much, displaying not a shred of intellect or compassion to judge so smugly and quickly.
Nanome 7 Aug 2010 0:11 0 1 Oh dear, mention the USSR and you get a rant and a rerun of WWII! Just to get back on thread, what Spufford appears to me to be saying is that the dreams of universal justice and plenty that inspired the likes of Kruschev and Gorbachev were undeliverable because the only half way efficient production and distribution system available was the market. Now, however, he seems to be saying, we have the mathematical and computing tools to run a system without money. Given the World Wide Web, the exponential increase in processing power, the rise of parallel computing, and the leaps and bounds in database power and management, he might just be right. Perhaps those of us with some knowledge of the relevant technologies should stop arguing about who won the war and start building the model?
grumpyoldman 7 Aug 2010 0:16 1 2 And let us not forget that the extent to which my generation benefited from the existence of the USSR, in all its brutality and insanity. As long as there was a possibility, however remote, that the Soviet model might actually succeed, as long as capitalism was terrified of the spread of communism, then the onus was on capitalism to outdo communism’s economic and social model. This actually favored social-democratic solutions to the problems of the post-war period. Those solutions may be summarized as the post-war settlement, which brought enormous benefits in health, education, and living standards to the people of Western Europe, and the United States. With the collapse of Communism, free market fundamentalism, which had been brewing since the seventies, seized its opportunity and became virtually the only game in town. The result has been a huge shift to the right, whose chickens are now coming home to roost. The current assault in the US and in Europe on the last vestiges of the post-war settlement, the huge increases in inequality, the waste, the lunatic resource wars, the wholesale pollution, the barmy sacrifices being imposed on the working and middle classes by a tiny global elite, are just the beginning of really unpleasant times ahead. History will look back at my generation in the West and say, in Harold McMillan’s immortal words, “You never had it so good.”
FrankLittle 7 Aug 2010 1:54 1 2 The Soviet Union was just a mirror image of America, albeit a state capitalist one. It had an elite, a middle class and of course a working class, the chances of a Soviet worker buying a luxury item were the same chances that a poor working class American had, virtually nil. Soviet citizens bought goods on the black market, the American poor steal. America had it’s ‘class’ enemies in the reds, commies and trade unionists, while the Soviets ranted on about kulaks and saboteurs, America had it’s hatred of the blacks and it’s indigenous people, while the Soviet union used the Jews to blame for it’s economic problems, not all Americans hated blacks, not all Russians hated Jews, some blacks became part of the Elite in America, some Jews became part of the elite of the Soviet Union. The soviets withdrew the party card from it’s dissidents, America withdrew the credit card i.e. left wing critics of capitalism in America would find it very difficult, if not impossible, to find a job, has would their equivalent in the Soviet Union. Both societies were corrupt, in the Soviet Union there was the officials to bribe, while in America, Mafia corruption was rife amongst the politicians and the police, graft was normal practice. The main difference was that where America drew all it’s wealth exploited from it’s satellites in the rest of the Americas to the centre, the Soviets spread theirs around, the satellite countries of the Soviet Union had health care, subsidized housing, education, subsidized art and leisure facilities etc, maybe if the Soviets had truly learnt the lessons of the ‘market’, they would have left the majority of the people in their satellite countries in absolute poverty as America did in say Ecuador and Brazil. For those Americans who do not see the rest of the Americas as ‘satellites’ then that brings me to the power of ‘propaganda’, both America and the Soviet Union became experts at distorting facts in the interest of their world view and both spent vast amounts of money on it. For those who point out that in the World War II, Soviets traded with the Germans before they invaded, so too did the Americans until they lost shipping and Japan attacked Pearl Harbour. It was once thought that machines could be used to benefit mankind, mankind is still waiting, so ‘economic cybernetics’?
Salongvaenster 7 Aug 2010 3:45 0 1 This article/extract is, I suppose, some kind of progress, in that while trashing the Soviet “experiment”, it does, at least, make a case for trying to see things through Soviet eyes and does not smack of unreconstructed, neocon triumphalism and self-congratulation at capitalism’s having “won” the Cold War (jibes about “ugly suits” notwithstanding). Personally, I think the degeneration of the Russian Revolution into the corrupt mess that the Soviet Union became is one of the big issues of the last 100 years. Unfortunately it seems to have become an ideological battleground where the waters have got incredibly muddy – Robert Service, for one, seems to have a made it his mission to shaft Lenin and Trotsky in his biographies of them. Even in more balanced works, though, despite increased access to new sources and information, the ever bigger tomes with ever more details seem to shed less light than ever on the whole story. The key question as to what went wrong, is skated over and the blame conveniently attributed to individual villains (Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin – take your pick according to your politics). From what was at base a humanistic attempt to create a fair and just society, the Russian Revolution very quickly descended into a quagmire of violence and retribution as the forces of reaction (the Whites and their foreign allies, UK, US etc) began their “terror” against the upstart Bolshevik government, not least because of the example it gave to the hungry and dispossessed outside Russia. As ever in wartime, liberties and concern for the foe went out of the window as the Bolsheviks fought for their very existence – the mentality produced by the Civil War and the material destruction that followed in its wake left Russia worse off than it had been under the Czars. Trotsky himself said the Bolsheviks had saved the Revolution, but destroyed Russia in the process. In such a state, the window of opportunity for power-hungry “fixers” ( such as Stalin), while not inevitable, became much more likely and with the fears among some in the Politburo that Trotsky would become another Bonaparte, due to his position and popularity, it is not surprising that the outcome was what it was. Ghastly as the development was, there are still many lessons to be learned from what subsequently happened in the Soviet Union. For anyone who cares about alternatives to the irrational and wasteful system laughingly called the “market economy”, the history of the Soviet Union can offer food for thought. Depressing though it is, by trying to understand why the high hopes of 1917 were dashed in the years that followed and ended up in what Trotsky called the “irresponsible tyranny of the bureaucracy over the people” , it may yet help us in some way to move beyond an economic system in which 80% of the world’s population are living in poverty, while at the same time vast sums of capital and vast sums of labour stand unemployed side-by-side in the industrialized world. Capitalism – a rational system or what? Let’s hope more articles/books like this appear to challenge the conventional wisdom on what actually happened in the Soviet Union.
NapoleonKaramazov 7 Aug 2010 4:09 Contributor 0 1 Jesus Christ, I really don’t have much wisdom to add on this. I simply stayed up past my bedtime reading this, and after finishing it I was too tired to make any analysis. I still think people ought to read it before commenting though. Any ‘analysis’ I can make is just hackneyed and cliched. Yes, Soviet technology was at it’s white heat, but at the same time there were millions who were literally peasants. Many were ironically like indentured labourers of the feudal era, there was no free movement from them. I suppose you could say that it was just cosmos based Potemkin village. Of course many offspring of peasants were turned into scientists and engineers. What it also explains is why nostalgia for the USSR is so strong in Russia and the former USSR, particularly among the elderly. I think there is a clear difference in age. Those who passed through adolescence/early adulthood in the 80s Soviet Union are less happy about it, those who reached maturity in the 60s are. What happened after the collapse was an unforeseen tragedy of course. The introduction of shock therapy, the collapse in provision of public services. What woulbe truly revolutionary if a historian interested in Russia, instead of going over the Soviet crimes again and again which we know everything about, focused on the the mass deaths due to the chaos of the 90s- I would reckon the figure could be anywhere between 10-25 million people who died needless deaths to to unemployment, suicide, collapse of health and social care provision alcoholism, drug addiction, sex trafficking, organised crime, the bastard oligarchs etc. Not to mention media stereotypes of Russians which make me want to explode. So too do mail order brides. When in the 13thc the Mongols swept across the Eurasian landmass, they would carry off the womenfolk of the defeated enemy- now the modern equivalent is boorish and vain western men assuming they have a ‘right’ to a Svetlana or Natasha, and they see themselves as saving them from a life of poverty. Although to be fair, many of these Russian brides can be gold diggers- all I can say is good on them, if a man is such a loser that he needs to buy a wife off the internet, he deserves everything heaped against him.
JordiPujol 7 Aug 2010 5:06 0 1 A fascinating, thought provoking, read, thank you. I do think, reading some of the comments, that people really need to accept that the Soviet Union was not an attempt to give effect to Marx’s ideas. I suspect the logic is that if the Soviet Union equals Marxist experiment and the Soviet Union failed, then Marx was somehow “wrong”. Nothing however could be further from the truth. Marx’s analysis continues to offer incredible insight into and understanding of the economic forces that we are all subject to. If for example the British middle classes want to understand why they are finding it increasingly difficult to hang on to the things that their parents took for granted, why they are increasingly exposed to the uncertainties and insecurities that used to be the preserve of the working classes, they should read their Marx! Just going back to the Soviet Union, Lenin seized power in a putsch; the proletariat couldn’t have seized power in a revolution, as they didn’t really yet exist in what was still to a very large extent a peasant society. The United States and Russia were two huge land masses which had to be industrialized if they were to be global superpowers. The US had the Civil War to decide what economic model was going to be used to achieve that and chose free market capitalism. Stalin chose central planning and he industrialized the Soviet Union in an astonishingly short period of time. The human and other costs were of course horrendous. Instead of having his own version of the American Dream to motivate people, he found it more effective to use terror. However, neither Lenin’s seizure of power nor Stalin’s industrialization were Marxist experiments.
JorgeyBorgey 8 Aug 2010 3:11 0 1 I really enjoyed the article. However, if Soviet-style Communism died in 1990, Laissez Faire Capitalism died in 2009. We haven’t realized yet, it’s just that we believe our own propaganda, unlike those canny Russians! Now we have a system not based on production or job-creation, but the constant cycling of capital, that does nothing but further impoverish the poor, and enrich the already wealthy. The 2008-2010 Credit crunch was not due to over-production, or due to Keynesian employment-induced inflation – but due to people profiting out of nothing other than cycling of capital; making money out of money, without creating any finite or constant or productive.
boiledonions 8 Aug 2010 11:17 0 1 This is a superb article and this is the first time I’ve read all the comments. I enjoyed the ones I disagreed with as much as those with which I did agree. I agree with many the many posters who have urged other posters to actually read the article. It is not a rosy affectionate recollection of how wonderful life was in the Soviet Union. It stresses that the Soviet Union was responsible for appalling crimes against humanity in terms of both psychological and physical brutality. Probably to avoid the kinds of comments that have been levelled against the article anyway. The reaction against this article is very interesting and reminds me of something John Major said: “we should understand a little less and condemn a little more”. This is, of course, a ridiculous sentiment. We should all seek to understand things in their complexity while reserving value judgements. I think there are two very valuable things that come out of this article. The first is that history is quite complicated, and the second is that you can draw comparisons between the Soviet union and modern technological capitalism. As much as I would like to get drawn into a debate about whether or western democracy is all that democratic and who killed the most people, Sovietism or capitalism, this is not the point of the article. The main point of this article is that for a few years, there was a belief on both sides of the wall that the Soviet union would outstrip the West in terms of material wealth. The article tries to locate the source of this erroneous belief. The comparison here is that many in the West have a unquestioned belief in the ability of our economic system to continue to supply us with wealth and security. Just as the belief in the Soviet system was wrong, perhaps our belief in our economic system is wrong. Even a cursory look at our economic system would suggest that it’s deeply flawed: “the neoclassicists may just be wrong about how capitalism works.” Nevertheless, it’s worth a detailed look and possibly an overhaul. As a side-note, like many East Germans I long for the world in which my parents lived: North London of the eighties, a time when my father worked in a job earning only an average wage but could afford afford a house and a car and holidays and my mother had the choice to stay at home or go to work. That now seems like a time of unbridled opulence.
augiemarch 9 Aug 2010 16:40 0 1 In the interests of trying to understand how we’ve ended up where we are today . . . ‘At any fine museum of natural history — say, in New York, Cleveland, or Paris — the visitor will find a hall of ancient life, a display of evolution that begins with the trilobite fossils and passes by giant nautiloids, dinosaurs, cave bears, and other extinct animals fascinating to children. Evolutionists have been preoccupied with the history of animal life in the last five hundred million years. But we now know that life itself evolved much earlier than that. The fossil record begins nearly four thousand million years ago! Until the 1960s, scientists ignored fossil evidence for the evolution of life, because it was uninterpretable. I work in evolutionary biology, but with cells and microorganisms. Richard Dawkins, John Maynard Smith, George Williams, Richard Lewontin, Niles Eldredge, and Stephen Jay Gould all come out of the zoological tradition, which suggests to me that, in the words of our colleague Simon Robson, they deal with a data set some three billion years out of date. Eldredge and Gould and their many colleagues tend to codify an incredible ignorance of where the real action is in evolution, as they limit the domain of interest to animals — including, of course, people.’ Lynn Margulis [Worth reading, ‘What is Life ?’, a book she co-wrote with Dorion Sagan.]
JoeChip 9 Aug 2010 20:09 0 1 Mixing a couple of blogs in our ‘left wing’ newspapers – does anybody think our beloved leaders are Aliens? Thatcher with that weird accent was suspect. Reagans hair was also v dubious. In Euroland Berlesconi is permanently in for facial corrections. Sarkozy looks like a character from yer proper Marx (Groucho) films. Merkel has a distinctive ‘waxy’ ‘Tussauds’ appearance. Blair had a slightly schoolboyish manic silly appearance. Cameron another ‘not quite correct’ waxed look. Additionally his ‘coalition’ group all speak with an odd accent unshared with the rest of their country. Look at the Generals – funny spotted uniforms and berets. No genuine General would adopt such bizarre garb – where all all the twiddly bits and medals, the insignia and little coloured rectangles and the buttons! The USA has recently displayed most of the non humans. Look at the unfinished face of Cheney and that non terrestrial slanted mouth. What about Bush? a definite rush job there for all to see. No Humans can garble garble. The list goes on, McCain, Sarah Palin, – how unreal can these ‘things from space’ be? These creatures will fight against any sensible political future for humankind. Marx/Lenin/Trotsky – vilify them. The environment – inconsequential. Get the Oil. Blow the tops off mountains. Strip the Forests. Air and water pollution. Poison the Oceans….no worries they will all be aboard their flying saucers before long – we’ll be left arguing without doubt!
augiemarch 16 Aug 2010 1:20 0 1 Every now and then, you read a book, that shows you that the English language is alive and kicking . . . that far from having run out of having anything decent to read, there is another branch, another voice. For me, it is always about how you come about a book, that matters, almost as much : I have been skimming the papers for months now, without reading anything of interest, and then I came across the above article last Saturday. It enticed me, yet upon reflection, it does not the book justice. I would have read the book in one hit, were it not for the fact that i am a full-time, stay at home father to a 9 month old baby, and now that I’ve finished it, I’m left with that familiar feeling when you’ve read something highly original. It felt like I was reading a book written 50 years before the events it covers, rather than the reverse. Thank you Mr. Spufford, I’m not sure if when I read another one of your books, I will be left with this feeling, but I hope I do. I also hope the book gets translated into many other languages . . . especially for the benefit of Asian readers. Nice one.
Vornoff 26 Aug 2010 0:58 0 1 Nice article. May be one of the best short accounts of the Soviet history by a Western author I’ve ever read in terms of objectivity and knowledge of the subject. BTW as to cybernetics the SU had many great computer scientists besides Kantorovich (who was rather in optimization theory) including Alexey Lyapunov, Nikolay Brusentsov etc. The greatest genius of Russian mathematics Andrey Kolmogorov made many contributions to this field. Yet the SU was very week in application of their theoretical works or pilot samples to broad use.