Most books and films about the USSR are epitomised by Solzhenitsyn’s , “Cancer Ward” (1966) and “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” (1962) and focus on the grim side of life in the Soviet Union concentrating on the abuse of human rights and the terror inspired by Stalin during the purges of the 1930’s. The hunting down and 1940 murder of Leon Trotsky in a Mexican bar showed the desperation of Stalin to quell any alternative narrative other than his own.
This grotesque era in Soviet history was a mirror image of the Nazi terror which was produced in capitalist and democratic Germany. The shooting of 26 Soviet factory workers in Novocherkassk (suppressed until 1991) was reminiscent of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre when 379 souls were massacred by the British Army at Amritsar. This brutal history was repeated in the UK in 1972 with the murder of 14 civilians by the Parachute Regiment on the streets of Derry/ Londonderry. According to the UN today, and every day the Global Capitalist system presides over the deaths of 21,000 people due to preventable poverty. That’s more casualties per day than occurred at Auschwitz at the height of the atrocities there in the summer of 1944.
My point is that there is no moral high ground in all of this. Whilst as a global community we tolerate and look the other way regarding things that we know to be unacceptable then we have little excuse to start pointing the finger at others.
It makes me laugh when I read reports (no doubt grossly exaggerated) of English so called football fans singing, “If it wasn’t for us, you’d be speaking French!“, when the real story of the Second World War was the unimaginable barbarism being visited on the USSR who suffered 20 million dead. Without the Soviet Union the Nazi cancer would have taken an unbreakable grip across Europe and we would have been forced to accept German hegemony. This was imagined in Robert Harris’ novel, “Fatherland” (1992) where Joe Kennedy was US President having succeeded in his stated aim to ally the UK and the US with Hitler via the intervention of the Pope (true but luckily it never happened).
Spufford’s book, “Red Plenty” is quite unlike anything I have ever read and is a brave effort to bring some rationality to the debate surrounding the post Stalin era Soviet Union.
The facts are this. From the mid 1950’s for roughly a 15 year period the USSR (as agreed by economists) was out performing the West in production right across the board. From industrial output to consumer items it seemed that by replacing Stalin’s stick of the Gulag with the carrot of, “how to get an ice cold drink to a guy relaxing on the beach” (Kruschev) the USSR was pulling ahead. In the current era the West is gripped with a fear of China’s economic strength, in the early to mid ‘sixties the same worries were present about the Soviet Union.
Some of the book contains quite lengthy analysis of the Soviet control economy and how it worked (production of viscose for tyres) but it is important for context as we are then party to the struggles of fictionalised factory managers, black marketeers and the wife of a CPSU official who can’t get pain relief for childbirth because her obstetrician tells her that the pain is a capitalist myth to slow down Soviet population growth.
The bit that stuck in my mind was a discussion around how valuable items are. In Capitalism value is determined by supply, demand and how much people are prepared to pay for it. This results in the cataclysmic failure here in the UK of the housing market. The extortionate vale of accommodation is a deliberate ploy, although they would never admit it, by a toxic cabal of developers, the debt industry and Government. Developers choke supply, the debt industry ensnares working people into a vicious cycle which is without end and Government benefits as home owners who got into the market in the 1990’s and before can bask in a wholly false sense of wealth.
The same twisted sense of value sees the leeches in the debt industry and politics trouser premier league footballer salaries whilst leading the rest of us over the financial cliff. Meanwhile health workers and others in jobs that produce real engagement with, and benefit to others see their take home pay trashed. How can it be right that a care worker be on the minimum wage but not get paid travel time? How can we allow vital local government workers to be on zero hours contracts? Workers such as bus drivers and local government employees in Hull are paid an absolute pittance whilst Councillors pocket unjustified “allowances” to impose, “compassionate cuts”. They then have the temerity to blame the Tories whilst voting in favour of cuts with not a whimper of action to oppose the disasters inflicted on their residents.
Value should be measured in benefits to Society regarding jobs, and cost of goods should be determined on need. I have to admit cluelessness on how we achieve the latter. But if we can construct systems to ensure we can destroy ourselves, and the planet in seconds then I’m sure we can find a way to escape the whirlpool of exchange of goods via the market setting the price of things.
“Red Plenty” gives us a tantalising glimpse into what could have been achieved in the USSR, and still could be aimed for in a Socialist society. But the real strength of the book is not just the theory; it’s the introduction of human nature warts and all into a fascinating philosophical debate via first class story telling.