IT IS impossible to understand the essence of the Soviet system without constantly keeping in mind Lenin's psychology. In 1905 Lenin had dreamed and planned a revolution achieved by a minority group of "modern social-democratic Jacobins" or "professional revolutionists," but achieved as a democratic revolution -- a democratic republic oriented from the Socialist point of view in the interests of the working class. He held the classical Marxian concept of the Zusammenbruch, or breakdown of the capitalist order as a result of an international movement of the working class. Such a movement would be, according to Marx' and Engels' "Communist Manifesto" of 1848, "a movement of the tremendous majority." Marxism strove to assimilate the principles of democracy with dictatorship. Socialism or Communism was looked upon as a step which developed out of bourgeois democracy -- a fulfilment of democracy which would come in spite of the bourgeoisie. When he arrived in Russia in 1917, however, Lenin was planning a Socialist revolution, within the frame of democracy if possible, but in spite of democratic principles if necessary. His concept which had come into being during the World War held that the Socialist transformation of society need not wait for democracy to grow into Socialism. Under such a concept, the dictatorship of the proletariat became a flat negation of bourgeois-democratic principles.

Lenin arrived in Petrograd a month after the March Revolution had triumphed over Tsarism. The next day, April 4 (17), he appeared in the Workers' and Soldiers' Soviet with a report "On the task of the proletariat in the present revolution." Its content was summarized in ten "theses." The fifth of them read as follows: "Not a parliamentary republic -- a return to it from the Soviet of Workers' Deputies would be a step backwards -- but a republic of Soviets of Workers, Agricultural Laborers and Peasants' Deputies, throughout the land, from top to bottom."[i] The report and these theses were an extreme surprise even for the nearest of Lenin's partisans and friends. Many of them literally choked. One exclaimed publicly: "We expected to meet a disciple of Marx; we have heard instead a disciple of Bakunin . . ." Lenin's political ingenuity -- or even genius -- is clear from the fact that, although almost completely isolated even in his own group, he was not in the least discouraged by this reception of his opinions; and indeed, a few months later, after hard day-by-day fighting, he had reconquered his former adherents and at their head had overthrown the Provisional Government.

Lenin never forgot to remind his colleagues that Russia was a backward, agricultural, peasant country which had been shattered by an ill-fated war. But it was exactly for this reason that he favored starting the Socialist revolution there: more advanced lands would later help to complete it. Lenin's main idea, one may even say his obsession, was that Socialism is a negation of the bourgeois capitalist order; he did not think of it as a positive objective in itself. He frequently repeated the well-known phrase of Napoleon -- "On s'engage et après on voit." To this main idea Lenin and his partisans subordinated all human and social values -- human lives and the principles of democracy as well.

Historically speaking, the Soviets ("soviet" simply means "council"), which appeared in 1905 partly spontaneously and partly "methodically" -- that is, planned as a mass organized for a political struggle -- became in 1918 a machine for governing. The paradox is that this Soviet system was in fact called forth by the very weakness of the Russian Revolution and its need for an extremely rapid method of mass organization, and that after such an origin the system was described as possessing a kind of mystic virtue in itself; it became a "higher" form of democracy. In short, it was now asserted that history was moving from democracy toward Sovietism and not vice versa. From the time the Bolsheviks assumed power the Soviets became not only an instrumentum regni but also a symbol for those who dreamed of social revolution and Socialism.

At the Third All-Russian Soviet Congress, which assembled in the days of the forced dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, Lenin publicly announced: "As long as the revolution did not go beyond the framework of the bourgeois régime, we were for democracy. But as soon as we saw in the revolutionary current the first gleams of Socialism, we strongly and decisively took a stand for the dictatorship of the proletariat."[ii] A "merciless war" on the "miserable bourgeois-parliamentary republic" was declared from the Constituent Assembly platform by Bukharin, the official speaker of the ruling party and Lenin's favorite adherent. He controverted the "bourgeois idea" that a "people's will" or "common will" existed for bourgeoisie and proletariat: the will of the whole population in the last analysis is nothing other than the will of the ruling classes, he said.

The political literature of this time bristles with invectives against democracy: it is a "bourgeois lie," "a deeply reactionary idea," it means "ruin," "sabotage," it is a "call to pogroms," [iii] and so forth. Lenin himself used such vituperation freely. "Democracy is a form of bourgeois state," said he, "for which all traitors to genuine Socialism stand up." [iv] And he wrote: "The more highly developed a democracy is, the more imminent are pogroms or civil war in connection with any profound political divergence which is dangerous to the bourgeoisie." [v] Lenin identified the Soviet system with the dictatorship of the proletariat, which he repeatedly defined as "a rule won and maintained by the use of violence and unrestricted by any laws." [vi] For Lenin, the rule of the bourgeoisie with its "democratic republic, Constituent Assembly, popular elections, etc." was the extreme opposite of this dictatorship of the proletariat. When democratic republics and constituent assemblies appeared after the First World War in Germany and in Austria, Lenin treated them in this spirit. That was his last conclusion about democracy and he did not change it.


Though Lenin and his adherents ridiculed the petty bourgeois tendency to turn the Soviets into "parliamentarians," they were not able to deny that even a proletarian régime needed a representative body. Their constitution, therefore, had to provide for such an organ.

The "socialist character" of the Soviets was described by Lenin as consisting "first in this: that the electorate comprises the toiling and exploited classes -- that the bourgeoisie is excluded. Secondly in this: that all bureaucratic formalities and limitations of elections are done away with -- that the masses themselves determine the order and the time of elections, with complete freedom of recall of elected officials. Thirdly, that the best possible mass organizations are formed of the vanguard of the toilers -- of the industrial proletariat -- enabling them to participate actively in political life, to train them politically through their own experience." [vii]

This was the task as it appeared before the constitution was drafted. The political enthusiasm of the framers of the Soviet state was concentrated upon "ruthlessly suppressing all exploiters" and upon ensuring power "completely and exclusively" for the laboring masses, guided by the Bolsheviks (Articles 3, 7 and others of the constitution). The bourgeoisie was to be excluded from the work of building the state, hence the denial of universal suffrage. It was necessary at the same time to ensure the guidance of the laboring masses through their class "vanguard," the urban proletariat, as well as through the political vanguard and mouthpiece of the latter -- the Bolshevik Party. Hence the denial of the equal ballot and the granting of privileges to the urban population.

One vote, it was claimed, is equal to another only arithmetically or formally, not politically and socially. The representation in the Soviets, provided by Article 25 of the constitution of 1918, was on the basis of one deputy for each 25,000 electors in cities and for each 125,000 inhabitants in the country -- a scheme which favored the city workers over the peasantry at the rate of about five to three. But the vote of the worker in a small city or township was not equal to a big-city worker's vote. The town Soviets, the state farms (sovkhozy), the MTS (tractor stations), the plants and the factories located outside the town settlements, were represented at the Regional Congresses of the Soviets at the rate of one deputy for every 60 electors, whereas the village Soviets had one deputy for every 330 inhabitants.

The urban population was favored at the Congresses in two other respects. First, the constitution of the United Republics provided for direct representation of cities and workers' settlements at the higher Congresses of the Soviets. Secondly, the urban electors had double representation through their professional unions and political organizations. This was natural and logical, since the vote was regarded not as a function of a human being or of citizenship, but as a social function to be used in the interests of Socialism. From this point of view neither direct representation nor the secret ballot was necessary; and indeed, only the lowest local Soviets, urban and rural, were elected directly; all the rest were elected indirectly. The Soviet Constitution of 1918 and that of 1924 did not provide for balloting procedure. Formally it could be either open or secret. "As a rule, however," testifies Andrei Vyshinsky, "the Soviet elections were by open ballot." The instructions for elections to the Soviets were drawn up in the same sense.[viii]

"The keynote of the whole Soviet system," writes Professor G. S. Gurvich, the historian and one of the framers of the constitution of 1918, is to be found in the principle that the "working population is organized not according to artificial territorial divisions, but in productive units, such as factories, plants, enterprises, mines, settlements." [ix] The Soviet system, in other words, substitutes the "collective body in the form of productive nuclei, state institutions and enterprises and professional unions" for separate individuals as electoral units.[x] The electoral system of the Soviets was not limited to representation of "productive units" in the literal sense. Military units, fire brigades, the secret police, etc., also elected their own representatives as organized entities which function for the benefit of the public. The theoretical peculiarity of the Soviets -- la grande idée du règne, so to say -- was the substitution of a collective representation for an individual and "liberal bourgeois" one.

The technical reasons for the justification of the Soviet system were much more elementary. According to Lenin, the distinctive feature of the Soviets and the source of their superiority over a bourgeois parliament consist in the fact that "the Soviets are the direct organization of the toiling and exploited masses themselves, which helps them to organize and administer the state themselves in every possible way. . . . The Soviet organization automatically helps to unite all the toilers and exploited round their vanguard, the proletariat." It is "much easier" for the latter, massed and organized by the large enterprises, to prepare a slate and to control elections. Indirect elections to non-local Soviets made it easier to hold congresses of Soviets; they made the entire apparatus less costly, more flexible, more accessible to the workers and the peasants at a time when life was seething and a local deputy might have to be quickly recalled, Lenin explained.[xi]

To summarize, it may be said that for a score of years, from 1918 to 1937, the Soviet system was defended in theory and enforced in practice as a direct antithesis to democracy and as the denial of democracy. While democracy had originated and developed through recognition of individual rights of men and citizens, the Soviet system of the heroic phase of the Bolshevik's rule, on the contrary, remained silent as to these rights and laid emphasis on the collective right of laboring and exploited people. Throughout a century, democracy had fought -- with variable success in different countries -- for recognition and consistent realization of the universal suffrage; the Soviet system rejected the universal franchise, as well as the equal franchise with direct and secret ballot, and adopted a limited suffrage with unequal, indirect and open voting. In the democratic states, representation was based on elections from districts which did not have pronounced political characteristics; the Soviets prided themselves for twenty years on representation not of persons or citizens, but of groups and institutions which the ruling party recognized as coöperative and useful bodies. Thus the entire population was divided into constituencies which were more or less privileged, and those which had no privileges at all. Democracy invariably differentiated three branches of government, struggled against the concentration of the legislative and administrative branches in the hands of a single body, and insisted on the independence of the judiciary. The Soviet system, inversely, denied the principle of the separation of powers and that of checks and balances. One of Lenin's "theses," proclaimed at the VII Party Congress in March 1918 and emphatically repeated by his disciples, announced the "abolition of parliamentarism as characterized by the separation of the legislative and administrative branches and the fusion of administration with legislation." The Soviet system, representing a pyramidal structure, recognized the right of the elected to supervise and control the electors -- in spite of the formal right of the electors to recall their deputies; and it likewise provided for the control and supervision of the legislative branch by the executive.

Lenin despised democracy and frankly considered dictatorship a superior form of government. He found in his dictatorship all the advantages which democracy possesses in the eyes of its adherents, besides a multitude of other virtues. When attacking his opponents, however, Lenin sometimes tried to use their language and terminology. Even at such times the "democracy" of which he spoke kindly was not a form of government protecting rights and freedoms of man, but one which better protected the economic interests of unprivileged classes. This is the explanation for assertions made by Lenin, as well as other Soviet officials, to the effect that the Soviet system was "a million times more democratic than any bourgeois democracy; the Soviet Government is a million times more democratic than the most democratic bourgeois republic." [xii] Such references do not, of course, indicate that the Soviet system during its first 25 years was not, in substance and officially, the opposite of democracy and parliamentarism.


The official doctrine remained unchanged for twenty years. Following a temporary shift in the foreign policy of the Soviets, the approach to the method of Soviet representation and thereby of the Soviet constitution was modified. On September 18, 1934, the U.S.S.R. joined the League of Nations; and February 1, 1935, the Plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party decided to revise the constitution along more democratic lines. Molotov was entrusted with presenting this suggestion to the VII Congress of the U.S.S.R., which accordingly took steps to amend the constitution "in the direction of a further democratization of the electoral system by replacing the not entirely equal suffrage, indirect elections by direct elections, and the open ballot by the secret ballot." [xiii]

For this purpose the Congress appointed a Special Committee under the chairmanship of Stalin himself. The Committee was divided into 12 subcommittees, each of which was to study and to prepare recommendations on the various problems involved, such as "general matters," "juridical approach," "franchise," etc. Stalin was active in two subcommittees -- on "General Matters" and in the "Editorial Subcommittee" -- but, of course, his was the decisive word in the entire final draft of the new constitution. To use Vyshinsky's testimony: "The entire constitution as well as each word in it have been sealed by the genius of Stalin, the inspirer and the creator of the new constitution."

The draft was made public on June 12, 1936, and an "informal discussion" throughout the country resulted in more than 43,000 proposals of suggested changes in the draft.[xiv] Nevertheless, it was presented in its initial form to the VIII Extraordinary Congress with Stalin reporting. There could be no argument. Stalin's version was imposed. The Congress "unanimously" approved the text as presented, with a very few minor changes, recommended by Stalin. The new constitution was christened "Stalin's" and was to enter into force on January 1, 1937. Just as during the preceding two decades Lenin's comment and interpretation of the Soviet constitution was binding for every loyal Communist in Russia and abroad, so, since 1936 and to date, Stalin's interpretation of the sense and the aims of "his" constitution became compulsory for every Communist-minded person all over the world. This makes a study of Stalin's views and pronouncements on the new constitution deserving of special attention. Why had the Communist Party made such a drastic about-face in its attitude toward universal suffrage?

As reported by Stalin, and subsequently reproduced time and again in all Soviet and pro-Soviet writings, the main reason for this change lay in "the complete victory of the Socialist system in all spheres of national economy." In conformity with the economic changes, the class structure of the Russian society had also changed. The former exploiting classes had been abolished: landlords, merchants, kulaks, profiteers, usurers and other harmful elements had been liquidated. This does not mean that the U.S.S.R. had become a classless society. Not at all. "There remains the working class. There remains the peasant class. There remains the intelligentsia." But how different are these classes from the ones eliminated! The working class, the peasantry, after the "all-round collectivization" in the beginning of the 30's, and also the intelligentsia are entirely new classes, "emancipated from exploitation" and united together instead of being divided by inter-class struggle as in former days.[xv] If the economic contradictions are diminishing and even destroyed, and the distances between classes are growing less and even disappearing, there exists no reason for political privileges and discrimination. The new constitution should reflect the fact that Socialism has been achieved. It follows that one of the specific features of the new constitution should be "its consistent and thoroughgoing democracy" without reservations and restriction -- "all citizens have equal rights" . . . "it is not property status, not national origin, not sex, not office, but personal ability and personal labor that determine the position of every citizen in society."

The declaration of the rights of the laboring and exploited people disappeared overnight, and was replaced in the new constitution by a special chapter of "Fundamental Rights and Duties of Citizens." Representation of individuals from electoral districts took the place of the original Soviet system of representation of collective groups, in the constitution of the U.S.S.R. and in the constitutions of each of the 16 Soviet Republics which since 1940 have formed the Soviet Union. Members to the Soviets of the Union were to be elected by individuals in electoral areas set up on the basis of one deputy for every 300,000 of population. The members of the Second Chamber, called the Soviet of Nationalities, were to be elected in the various Union Republics (25 deputies for each Republic), Autonomous Republics (11 deputies each), Autonomous Regions (five deputies each) and National Areas (one deputy each). Disregarding the usual practice of "bourgeois" elections, the electors in the U.S.S.R. were to elect deputies to the Soviet of the Union (the first or the lower chamber) and the Soviet of Nationalities simultaneously.

Interpreters and glossarists of the new constitution have undertaken special studies to find in Lenin's writings a justification for such a drastic change in the party line. In this they have succeeded. It appears that Lenin himself admitted that "the disfranchisement of the bourgeoisie is not absolutely and necessarily a feature of the dictatorship of the proletariat;" therefore he refused "to guarantee in advance that the impending proletarian revolutions in Europe will all, or the majority of them, be necessarily accompanied by restrictions of the franchise for the bourgeoisie. It may be so . . . it probably will be so; but . . . does not enter as an essential condition in the historical and class concept 'dictatorship.'"[xvi]

This possibility, foreseen by Lenin, still does not cover the change of attitude not only in regard to universal franchise but also to the equal, direct and open ballot. It could not, moreover, justify the metamorphosis of universal suffrage from a tool of bourgeois exploitation into a beneficial instrument for a Socialist society. Throughout a century, Chartists, Syndicalists and Anarchists of all countries, as well as Russian Communists of every shade, were more than skeptical in regard to universal suffrage. And suddenly, in the middle of the 1930s in Russia, this traditional approach broke down. Universal suffrage was rehabilitated and triumphed over century-old prejudices. This triumph and recognition were, however, conditional; universal suffrage was accepted not in itself, but as a concomitant result of established Socialism.

The elimination of exploiters and of antagonistic classes did not, apparently, do away with the need for a dictatorship to guide society. The new Soviet constitution, described as the only thoroughly democratic constitution in the world, "does preserve the régime of the dictatorship of the working class, just as it also preserves unchanged the present leading position of the Communist Party of the U.S.S.R. . . . We Bolsheviks regard it as a merit of the Draft Constitution," said Stalin.[xvii]

The dictatorship, attributed ideologically and formally to the working class (Article 2 of the constitution), was combined with the recognition of universal suffrage on the basis of individual rights; in practice, however, the enforcement of the latter was subordinated to the needs of the dictatorship. Simultaneously, in the text of Stalin's constitution, the political monopoly of the ruling Communist Party was formally confirmed for the first time in Soviet history. The famous Article 126 provides that "the most active and politically conscious citizens in the ranks of the working class and other strata of the working people unite in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks), which is the vanguard of the working people in their struggle to strengthen and develop the Socialist system and which represents the leading core of all organizations of the working people, both public and state." And another Article, 141, reserved the right to nominate candidates to the Soviets only to "Communist Party organizations, trade unions, coöperatives, youth organizations and cultural societies."

In upholding the legalization of the one-party régime, Stalin argues in the following Marxian manner: "A party is part of a class, its most advanced part. Several parties, and, consequently, freedom for parties can exist only in a society in which there are antagonistic classes, whose interests are mutually hostile and irreconcilable. . . . But in the U.S.S.R. there are no longer such classes. . . . In the U.S.S.R. there are only two classes -- workers and peasants -- whose interests are, on the contrary, friendly. Hence there is no ground in the U.S.S.R. for the existence of several parties, and, consequently, for freedom for these parties."


Even if such reasoning is taken as irrefutable, it still does not explain why there is no ground in the U.S.S.R. for the existence of at least two parties, corresponding to the existing two "friendly" but nevertheless not identical classes of workers and peasants. At any rate, we may conclude, even if the dictatorship and the one-party régime do not violate the principles of democracy -- as Stalin and others insist -- the Soviet democracy is peculiar, indeed, unique. If the position of the Communist Party, which is noted for its iron discipline, party purges, expulsions, etc., remains unchanged under the new constitution, then only this party continues to enjoy the right of pre-election meetings, and it alone continues to have access to the printing press, to the radio, and to other means of protecting its policy. The non-Communist electors, as well as the non-Communist deputies, can act, and even exist, in such a situation only in so far as they are tolerated by the governing party. Under these conditions the elections of one-party candidates cease to be expressions of choice, and the universal suffrage loses its value and meaning.

In connection with the elections to the Second Supreme Soviet in February 1946, Pravda said that the distinctive feature of Soviet democracy consisted in the fact that the Soviet constitution "not only proclaims the universal suffrage, but also actually guarantees its realization by every citizen of the U.S.S.R." That Soviet democracy is "true democracy," was to be found in the fact that "democratic rights are realized in favor of the entire people and not only for some privileged part." [xviii]

When the admirers of the one-party system in the U.S.S.R. or elsewhere want to defend it against "some fervent political democrat" they also assert that such a system is necessary in order to educate "a mass of illiterate and oppressed peoples of diverse races and religions, among them primitive tribes," i.e., the system exists for these peoples, races, religions, tribes. It may be noted that the Tsarist as well as the Turkish Sultan's Governments also explained their autocratic régimes by the need of ruling over uneducated peoples.

It is sometimes said that the Soviets represent a "multiform democracy," or even, to be more precise, a six-fold democracy -- democracy of race, of economy, of education, of religion, of sex and of age. Those who explain Soviet democracy in these terms do not deny the absence of political democracy and civil liberties in the U.S.S.R., but simply disregard them. Montesquieu stated -- not referring, naturally, to the Soviet system -- Lorsque la souveraine Puissance est entre les mains d'un partie du Peuple, cela s'appele un aristocratie. There are many definitions of democracy. The classic definition, of course, is "government by the people." Although the Soviet Government may be "of" and "for" the people, its one-party rule can scarcely be described as government "by" the people, at least without doing violence to the common sense meaning of words. In the final analysis, perhaps, the fundamental feature of democracy consists in the belief that over a relatively short space of time the people as a whole are wiser than their temporary and occasional leaders. "The leaders pass and the people remain." Inversely, as corollary for every kind of a non-democratic régime, is the faith in the greater wisdom and ability of leaders -- Führers, Duces, "professional revolutionists," predestined to guide the peoples as did the religious shepherds in the past.

[i] Nikolai Lenin, "Collected Works." New York: International Publishers, 1929, v. XX, p. 108.

Nikolai Lenin, "Sotchineniia," 2nd Edition, v. XXII. Moscow: Gosizdat, 1929, p. 219.

[iii]Cf. Pravda, February 17, 1918.

[iv] "Sotchineniia," op. cit., p. 219.

[v] Nikolai Lenin, "Collected Works." New York: International Publishers, 1945, v. XXIII, p. 362.

[vi] "Sotchineniia," 3rd edition. Moscow: Gosizdat, v. XXIV, p. 466.

[vii] Nikolai Lenin, "The Soviets at Work," 5th edition. New York: Rand School, 1919, p. 39.

[viii] Andrei Vyshinsky, "Sovetskoie Gosudarstvennoie Pravo." Moscow: Academy of Sciences, 1938, p. 624.

[ix] "Osnovy Sovetskoi Konstitutsii," 5th edition. Moscow, 1926, p. 114.

[x] G. S. Gurvich, "Istoriia Sovetskoi Konstitutsii." Moscow: Socialist Academy, 1923, p. 60.

[xi] "Collected Works," op. cit., v. XXIII, p. 364-365.

[xii] "Collected Works," op. cit., v. XXIII, p. 365.

[xiii]Cf. Joseph Stalin, "Leninism." New York: International Publishers, 1942, p. 379.

[xiv]Cf. Sidney and Beatrice Webb, "The Truth About Soviet Russia." New York: Longmans, Green, 1942, p. 33. Beatrice Webb, in the last years of her life an enthusiastic admirer of Soviet Communism, gives the number of suggested amendments as 134,000.

[xv] "Leninism," op. cit., p. 382-383.

[xvi] "Collected Works," op. cit., v. XXIII, p. 372 and 387.

[xvii] "Leninism," op. cit., p. 395.

[xviii]Pravda, October 17, 1945. No. 248.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • MARK VISHNIAK, formerly Professor of Public Law in the Pedagogical Institute of Moscow and member of the Russian faculty of law in the Institute of Slavic Studies in Paris
  • More By Mark Vishniak