Written by Ellis Ian Fields
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Wednesday, 25 August 2010

image for History Review: Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford

Ken Lucid writes:

In 1979, Leonid Vitalyevich Kantorovich shared the Nobel Prize for economics for his work on the optimal allocation of scarce resources.

He pioneered the technique of linear programming, having developed the first model in 1939.

Complete and utter bastard!

By the time I was taking O-level maths, linear programming was on the syllabus and I hated it. Just could not get my head round it. Mind you, there was a lot of O-level maths I couldn't my head round - I'm a historian, dammit. But I got a grade four pass. Not too shabby!

So, yeah - comrade Kantorovich figures in this book, which the author says is not a novel or a history. Why has the editor asked me to review it, if it's not a history? Well, it kind of is as the author has taken the Soviet economic model from the 1950's when it looked like it might just work and examines why and how it went tits up.

Thing is he does it through the eyes of real people (like Kantorovich, Krushchev and so on) in fictional situations and invented characters in real historical scenarios.

At one stage two colleagues are discussing Kantorovich's seminal book Best Use of Economic Resources. It "…is nice and simple with lots of demonstrations of how you can do linear programming on your fingers, or at least on the office slide rule," says one. Hah! Good joke - it never made it into my maths class!

It's complicated - you have to keep checking who's real and who isn't! But it's a good story.

Coincidentally, I've been reading a lot about Soviet history recently - Archie Brown's The Rise and Fall of Communism, was a big read. This is much shorter. But there's no pictures. Hammer & Tickle, by Ben Lewis, was a bit of a curate's egg.

My copy of Red Plenty might be worth a few quid too - the "R" in "Red" on the dust jacket is backwards! Look out for that if you're thinking of getting it in hard back.

Ken Lucid is Professor of Modern History at the University of Thames Valley East.

The story above is a satire or parody. It is entirely fictitious.

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