“Red Plenty“, by Francis Spufford, is a historical fiction quasi-novel about the rise and fall of the Soviet dream in the 60s. One of the underlying themes of the book is Soviet cybernetics, and that developing field between mathematics, economics and computer science (someone would now call it operations research) that should have made it possible to build a glorious alternative to capitalism. Production quantities, and the whole economic system, would be optimized according to rigorous mathematical methods — calculemus!, somebody had said a few centuries earlier. Needless to say, the plan didn’t exactly succeed.
The tale is mainly told from the perspective of true and fictional protagonists of the era, from Khrushchev and Kantorovich to young scientists and party members. For the nerdiest souls, there’s plenty of additional details and references in the endnotes, and each section has a short historical introduction. Spufford even manages to slip in the occasional Soviet joke1. Good stuff.
As an appetizer, here’s an extract from the first chapter. We see a young Leonid Vitalevich Kantorovich, on a crowded tram in Leningrad in the late ’30s, about to figure out what will later be called linear programming2. I was hooked right from the start.
The grey blur of the winter daylight had vanished. The family would be worrying about him, starting to wonder if he had vanished too. He should go home. But he groped for his pen and began to write, fixing in extended, patient form – as patient as he could manage – what’d come to him first unseparated into stages, still fused into one intricate understanding, as if all its necessary component pieces were faces and angles of one complex polyhedron he’d been permitted to gaze at, while the light lasted; the amazing, ungentle light. He got down the basics, surprised to find as he drove the blue ink onward how rough and incomplete they seemed to be, spelt out, and what a lot of work remained.
And now, on the tram, he was following his thought into implications, into what he was suspecting might be a world of implications. Clearly, the world had got by quite well until now without this idea. In the era before half past two this afternoon, the people arranging the flow of work in factories had been able to do so with a fair degree of efficiency by using rules of thumb and educated intuition, or else the modern age would not be as industrialised as it was: would not have trams and neon, would not have airships and autogyros thronging the sky, would not have skyscrapers in Manhattan and the promise of more in Moscow. But a fair degree of efficiency was very far removed from a maximum degree of efficiency. If he was right – and he was sure he was, in essentials – then anyone applying the new method to any production situation in the huge family of situations resembling the one at the Plywood Trust should be able to count on a measurable percentage improvement in the quantity of product they got from a given amount of raw materials. Or you could put that the other way around: they would make a measurable percentage saving on the raw materials they needed to make a given amount of product.
He didn’t know yet what sort of percentage he was talking about, but just suppose it was 3%. It might not sound like much, only a marginal gain, an abstemious eking out of a little bit more from the production process, at a time when all the newspapers showed miners ripping into fat mountains of solid metal, and the output of plants booming 50%, 75%, 150%. But it was predictable. You could count on the extra 3% year after year. Above all it was free. It would come merely by organising a little differently the tasks people were doing already. It was 3% of extra order snatched out of the grasp of entropy. In the face of the patched and mended cosmos, always crumbling of its own accord, always trying to fall down, it built; it gained 3% more of what humanity wanted, free and clear, just as a reward for thought. Moreover, he thought, its applications did not stop with individual factories, with getting 3% more plywood, or 3% more gun barrels, or 3% more wardrobes. If you could maximise, minimise, optimise the collection of machines at the Plywood Trust, why couldn’t you optimise a collection of factories, treating each of them, one level further up, as an equation? You could tune a factory, then tune a group of factories, till they hummed, till they purred. And that meant […] that you could surely apply the method to the entire Soviet economy, he thought. He could see that this would not be possible under capitalism, where all the factories had separate owners, locked in wasteful competition with one another. There, nobody was in a position to think systematically. The capitalists would not be willing to share information about their operations; what would be in it for them? That was why capitalism was blind, why it groped and blundered. It was like an organism without a brain. But here it was possible to plan for the whole system at once. The economy was a clean sheet of paper on which reason was writing. So why not optimise it? All he would have to do was to persuade the appropriate authorities to listen.
He could help to do that. He could help to make it happen, three extra percent at a time, though he already understood that it would take a huge quantity of work to compose the necessary dynamic models. It might be a lifetime’s work. But he could do it. He could tune up the whole Soviet orchestra, if they’d let him.
The General Secretary is entering the third hour of his speech to the Party Congress when the comrades from the organs of security suddenly swoop and arrest a group of American spies in the audience. ‘Brilliant work!’ says Brezhnev. ‘But how did you pick them out?’ ‘Well,’ say the KGB men modestly, ‘as you yourself have observed, Comrade General Secretary, the enemy never sleeps…’. ↩
The anecdote is thought to be true. It also reminded me of a similar story about the Italian physicist Ettore Majorana, who was said to have his best ideas during his morning tram commute: “La mattina, nell’andare in tram all’Istituto, si metteva a pensare con la fronte accigliata. Gli veniva in mente un’idea nuova, o la soluzione di un problema difficile, o la spiegazione di certi risultati sperimentali che erano sembrati incomprensibili: si frugava le tasche, ne estraeva una matita e un pacchetto di sigarette su cui scarabocchiava formule complicate. Sceso dal tram se ne andava tutto assorto, col capo chino e un gran ciuffo di capelli neri e scarruffati spioventi sugli occhi. Arrivato all’Istituto cercava di Fermi o di Rasetti e, pacchetto di sigarette alla mano, spiegava la sua idea.” (from “La scomparsa di Majorana”, L. Sciascia). ↩