1980s >> 1980 >> no-906-february-1980

Book Review: ‘The Russian Enigma’

Russia explained

‘The Russian Enigma’ by Ante Ciliga. Ink Links. £5.95 (paperback)

In 1940 an English translation of a book by a Yugoslav who had spent three years in the early 1930s in a Russian camp for political prisoners was published under the title The Russian Enigma. It has long been known to us as an interesting and useful account of the emergence in Russia in the twenties and thirties of a new privileged and exploiting class, ruling on the basis of state capitalism. Its re-publication, in an expanded form to include parts left out of the 1940 edition, is therefore to be welcomed.

Ciliga was a member of the Yugoslav Communist Party who went to Russia in 1926 and who got himself sentenced to three years in a “political isolator” (1930-33), followed by two years exile in Siberia (1933-35), for having supported the Trotskyist opposition to Stalin. He was eventually allowed to leave Russia at the end of 1935 and so survived to give this account of political and social life in Russia while he was there.

Ciliga entered prison as a Trotskyist but left it convinced that Russia was state capitalist (and not a “proletarian State” as Trotsky said) and that the Bolshevik bureaucracy was well on the way to becoming a new ruling class, exploiting the workers and collective farmers and enjoying definite economic privileges (special housing, shops, restaurants). In the end he also came to see that Lenin as well as Stalin and Trotsky was party responsible for the state capitalism that was evolving Russia. Most of the chapter where he describes his break with Lenin, entitled “Lenin Too”, was omitted from the 1940 edition and so appears here in English for the first time. It is good enough to be published as separate pamphlet—as it has been in France.

In the early 1930s political prisoners in Russia still enjoyed a special status and were allowed to discuss politics. Ciliga’s account of the discussions that went on in his camp make fascinating reading, as every aspect of “the Russian enigma” seems to have been explored: Was Russia state capitalist or a petty-bourgeois state or a “proletarian state”? Was the bureaucracy a class or a caste? Would it require a revolution to remove them or could this be done by reform?

Particularly interesting is the conversation had with a group of Mensheviks he came across in transit from one camp to another. He went up to them and asked why they wanted to restore capitalism in Russia. He goes on:

    “They were very much taken aback at first by the way in which I had stated the problem; then one of them answered, “It would be perfectly futile to wish to restore capitalism in Russia, for the good reason that capitalism, though in a modified form, exists there and has never ceased to exist”  . . . We were shown with abundant detail that the present system in Russia had preserved all the essential characteristics of capitalism” commodity production*, wages, exchange markets, money, profits and even partial sharing out of profits among bureaucrats in the form of high salaries, privileges and so on (p. 194).”

It would be interesting to know whether such ideas, which are the same as ours on this point, still circulate in Russia. Equally interesting—and equally correct—was the view expressed by a certain V. Smirnov on the Russian revolution:

    “There has never been a proletarian revolution, nor a dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia, there has simply been a ‘popular revolution’ from below and a dictatorship from above. Lenin was never ideologist of the proletariat. From beginning to end he was an ideologist of the intelligentsia. p. 280).”

Ciliga himself did not go this far and continued to regard the Russian revolution as having been in some way “proletarian” even though he had rejected both Trotskyism and Leninism. But his book is still important reading for anyone who wants to understand how State capitalism came to Russia.

Adam Buick

* We have corrected, on the basis of the French version, “production of goods” to “commodity production”—a good example of how the English translation is not always up to standard.

Leave a Reply