Red Plenty, or why central planning failed

This week sees the publication of Red Plenty, Francis Spufford's marvellous new book about Soviet Russia in the early post-war years of optimism about what central planning could deliver to the people – and why the dream failed. I trailed it on this blog a while ago. There have been some positive reviews over the weekend, and Francis Spufford wrote about the book in the Guardian recently.

Before reading the book, I'd never have believed anybody claiming that an account of shadow prices, and the formal equivalence in a general equilibrium model of a centrally planned economy and a market economy, would make for a gripping read. But here is that book, which I devoured in a couple of sessions. It captures both the hopes and the inevitable, slow failure of central economic planning. It also gives an amazing flavour of life in the Soviet Union from the 1950s to the Brezhnev era, and is a terrific introduction to that 20th century epoch for younger readers who didn't themselves experience either the terrors of the Cold War or the way our own politics was constructed around how well – or not – the USSR's economy was performing. We forget now that up until the 1980s, the western economies and the Soviet bloc were widely believed to be performing comparably well. The USSR hollowed out from the inside, and the tight control of information and dissidence meant that the rest of the world had little idea about its failures.

The book starts with the Kruschev's famous 1959 visit to the United States following the American National Exhibition in Moscow earlier that year, when more than two and a half million Soviet citizens experienced the joys of American consumerism. (Here is quite an interesting US account of the exhibition.) Through several separate strands Red Plenty then follows the efforts to ensure the Soviet economy matched US achievements, and their inevitable unravelling as the political thaw which had followed Stalin's death gave way once more to repression and state oppression. The account explains brilliantly the political and cultural reasons, as well as the economic and purely practical reasons, for the relative success of markets and failure of planning.

I have just one gripe. When Faber sent me a proof copy of Red Plenty a few months ago, the book was presented as non-fiction. Now it's being billed as 'faction'. Why the hesitation about describing it as a novel? They should describe it as the historical novel it is, and enter it for next year's Booker Prize, for which it would surely be one of the strongest contenders. But never mind – buy it and read it, especially if you're off on holiday soon.

Here is the FT's review; here is the Observer's.

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