To those of you who know me, it probably comes as no surprise that I am interested in Communism. This doesn’t mean I’m a pinko sympathizer or another Alger Hiss (whose grandnephew, if I’m not mistaken, is an occasional reader of this blog). Rather, Communism (as it was realized in the Soviet Union, China, Yugoslavia and elsewhere in the 20th century) intrigues me as a political, economic and aesthetic project. It was, as the scholar James C. Scott has written about it, a test of high-modernist faith in the perfectibility of governance and social relations.
When seen in this light, it is perhaps less surprising that one of the central topics of post-Soviet history, at least outside of the former Soviet space, is whether Communism as it was (the Gulag system, the Cultural Revolution, the Yugoslav Department of State Security) is the same things as Communism as it might have been. Or, to employ the political science argot I hold so dear, were the horrors of 20th century Communism problems of structure or agency?
First, as Robert Service points out in his book Comrades, “Communism” as we knew it was not the only possible incarnation of “communism.” Communist (lowercase “c”) and socialist manifestos had been floating around Europe at least as early as the 1700s, but our understanding of Communism in the 20th century is dominated by variations on Marxist-Leninism (or Marxist-Leninist-Stalinism). In fact, the cardinal sin first of Tito, then of Khrushchev and finally of Gorbachëv was to imagine, and to differing degrees realize, heterodox varieties of communism. Had Communism been differently formulated, could it have worked?
But this question is not so interesting to me as the second, which takes Communism as it was at face value and asks again, what would it have taken for it to survive? (Not, I should stress, that I want it to have lasted longer.)
Too many authors to mention have analyzed why the Soviet project failed, and the convincing arguments are those that find inherent economic structural problems that rendered the Soviet state unsustainable (no credit to poor Reagan!). Poor incentives and an inability to accurately manage supply and demand left shortage, which engendered dissatisfaction. As Service writes, “The conclusion is inescapable that the failure of communist countries to satisfy the material wants of their citizens was a derivative of their Soviet-style order,” and, in short, this is what brought down the house of cards (363).
But the problem of having supply meet demand in a command economy is not entirely political. It is also technological, and what if the Soviets had enjoyed advanced computing? The Internet resolves many (but, I concede, not all) of the economic management problems the Control Economy faced. If (and this is a big IF) individual managers could be trusted to input data accurately, the major coordinating problem of Soviet economics could be solved. No longer would Red Accountants had to tabulate and calculate and communicate supply and demand figures by hand and by post, which was not only slow, but prone to errors and difficult to correct.
I don’t usually wallow in counter-factual history, but what makes this a fun case is that history reveals that Soviet computing (a fascinating subject unto itself) might have at least matched, if not surpassed, American computer were it not for the interference of literally a handful of ideological dunderheads in the Soviet scientific bureaucracy. In a paper by Slava Gerovitch, the leading historian of the subject, he suggests how close Sergei Lebedev (1902-1974), the father of Soviet computing, and his laboratories came to rivaling America’s dominance of cybernetics and computational machines. In 1954, one Nikolai Matiukhin even argued publicly that computers should be employed by the economic planners: “In a socialist society… the mechanization of planning with the assistance of computers can and should be pursued to the largest extent possible” (272). But Matiukhin was gainsaid by the generals.
For my money, though, the most interesting reflection on this subject is in fact Francis Spufford’s highly readable and very thoroughly researched novel, Red Plenty. The book is historical fiction but does not engage in re-writing history. Rather, he brings to life the people and ideas that fueled Soviet optimism in the 1950s: the post-war system was going to optimize, to provide.
This isn’t all daydreaming and academic contemplation, though. Although the Chinese are hardly “communist” anymore in any real sense, the state still controls large sections of the economy, and a major accomplishment of the ruling Chinese Communist Party has been to leverage technology to overcome some of the structural (economic and political) shortcomings of the Soviet Union. This raises serious questions not about whether China will continue to liberalize its economy, but about whether or not it has to.