The Illiberal Tide
Why the International Order Is Tilting Toward Autocracy
NO student of the internal structure of the Soviet power can overlook the way in which every part of the Soviet Government machine is paralleled in the machine of the Communist Party. The supreme organ of the Soviet Union is the General Congress of Soviets, which elects the Central Executive Committee, which in turn elects from among its members the Praesidium, de facto the highest executive organ of the Union. The Communist Party pyramid is similarly constructed. The General Congress of the Party corresponds to the General Congress of Soviets; the Central Committee of the Party corresponds to the Central Executive Committee of the Soviets; and the Politbureau, which leads and dictates to the Party, corresponds to the Praesidium. Every grade of the Soviet structure has a similar parallelism in the Party structure. Is this mere coincidence? Let us examine the matter a little more closely.
Outside of Russia, the Council of People's Commissars has been long considered as the real government of the Soviet state. Actually it occupies a very subordinate position. "The meetings of the Council of People's Commissars," declared Ossinsky at the eleventh Congress of the Party, "are attended not by the Commissars themselves, but by their deputies, irresponsible people who are not supposed to know much about politics. What is the result? The Politbureau of the Party is the decisive factor. The Council of People's Commissars has always been disregarded, even in dealing with matters of secondary importance. If orders have been given that a question should be decided in such and such a way, the Commissars have nothing to say."
In numerous cases the decisions of separate Commissars and of the whole Council of People's Commissars have been repealed. It is true that usually the Central Executive Committee or its Praesidium, theoretically the highest assemblies of the State, have gone through the form of vetoing them. But it is an open secret that in these cases they have been used as mere instruments for conveying the will of the Central Committee of the Party. This was plainly stated in the report of the Central Committee to the ninth Congress of the Party; Krestinsky was not guilty of any indiscretion when he declared: "When a decision of the Council of People's Commissars must be repealed or suspended, the Central Committee of the Party does it through the Praesidium." It will be remembered that Chicherin and Krassin signed a draft treaty with Italy. It happened, however, that Lenin, recovering for a while from his illness, attended the meeting of the Politbureau at which the question was discussed. He declared himself against the agreements; and its fate was sealed. "Although we realized," Zinoviev told later, "that it was awkward not to honor the signature of our authoritative representatives, nevertheless we passed a resolution to this effect, with which Lenin concurred." The Council of People's Commissars, meeting at a later date, was confronted with a fait accompli.
That the Politbureau -- the guiding spirit of the Central Committee -- is, in a sense, the highest organ of the Soviet realm, appears from the conflict which arose between the Central Executive Committee of the Union and the Central Committee of the Party over the question of the Workmen's and Peasants' Inspection. The word "conflict" is, perhaps, a little out of place here. The Central Executive Committee prepared and submitted to the Council of People's Commissars its own project for this institution, but was immediately rebuked by the Central Committee, which was studying the same question. "This," says Krestinsky, "is not an interference with the work of the Soviets over a trivial matter, but a supervision of their activities by the Central Committee, which indicates to separate departments and institutions their respective rights and jurisdiction. This function is among the Committee's immediate duties."
It is plain, then, that the Central Committee of the Party enjoys the right of supervision over Soviet institutions and also the right of interpreting the Soviet constitution in the matter of delimiting the respective jurisdictions of the various Soviet organs. Of course, it may be argued that this right is not derived from the constitution itself and that it is a breach or violation of the constitution. This opinion, however, is hardly valid. Article I of the Fundamental Laws provides that "the present constitution has for its purpose . . . to guarantee the dictatorship of the proletariat." In order to understand this fundamental proposition let us find out what the legislator meant by the term "dictatorship." The works of Lenin will give us an answer. "The scientific idea of dictatorship means nothing else than a power absolutely unlimited, restricted by no laws or regulations, and based on violence."[i] And again: "The translation to socialism will inevitably be accompanied by the dictatorship of the proletariat; but the dictatorship of the proletariat through the organization of all proletarians is impossible, because not only in Russia, one of the most backward capitalistic countries, but in all other capitalistic countries as well, the proletariat is still so divided, so debased, and occasionally so corrupted, that the dictatorship cannot be effected through the organization of the proletariat as a whole. It can be brought about only by the small vanguard imbued with the revolutionary energy of its class. . . . It so happens, therefore, that the Party counts among its members the vanguard of the proletariat and that this vanguard brings into effect the dictatorship of the proletariat."[ii]
The Soviet constitution, therefore, is not an act of self-limitation on the part of the dictatorship, by the enactment of a body of laws binding on it, but on the contrary a guarantee of an unrestricted dictatorship -- to be specific, of the dictatorship of the Party. This is why the Communist Party, its Central Committee or the Politbureau are none of them referred to in the constitution; they are above the constitution; they are the power which has given the constitution, which interprets it and, if necessary, alters and repeals it. The constitution is a body of laws dictated by the Party to the outside world, but not binding on itself. Accordingly, the Soviet constitution does not mention those who are the real holders of dictatorial powers but merely describes the auxiliary machinery through which they operate, the "complex system of pitch-wheels," to use the expression of Lenin. Here lies the key to the understanding of the whole system of the Soviet Government.
Comparison may help us to elucidate the points which are still obscure. It is known that Italian Fascism in many instances has adopted the methods of the Bolsheviks in building up its system of statecraft. The Fascist dictatorship, however, has recently taken on new forms different from the Bolshevik pattern. On September 20, 1928, the Grand Council of the Fascist Party accepted a project by which it is converted into one of the highest institutions of the State. Henceforth no changes in the constitution can be made without consulting the Grand Council; it is now an important consultative organ whose opinion has to be sought on "all political, economic, and social questions of national importance." It may appear, at first sight, that the Fascists have been more logical and straightforward than the Bolsheviks, who did not dare to proclaim the Politbureau a part of the state machine of the Soviet Union. But this would be an erroneous conclusion. By fitting the Grand Council into the constitutional frame-work of Italy, the Fascists have ipso facto limited its powers. It is now one of the several governmental institutions with a definite jurisdiction, and therefore powerless outside it. This is in contradiction with Lenin's view of dictatorship. Then, by making the Grand Council a part of the State machinery, the Fascists have been compelled to regulate its membership. The Grand Council cannot now, as was the case before, be reëlected by a Congress of the Fascist Party at any time without restriction as to the number and qualifications of members. Finally, the Premier appoints the secretary of the Party and the members of the Party's Board of Directors, and he convokes the Grand Council for the discussion of questions falling within its jurisdiction. In other words, the element of party dictatorship is considerably weakened here in favor of the dictatorship of the Prime Minister, a purely personal dictatorship. This rather complex system of relationships and mutual limitations is unknown to the Soviet constitution. It leaves to the Communist Party and its leading organs complete freedom of organization and action, but clothes their decisions with the powers of supreme sources of law.
It is easy to find examples of the binding character of Party decisions. The most important turning point in the life of Soviet Russia -- her transition to the New Economic Policy -- was marked by the issue of a document of primary importance, the Rules of the Council of People's Commissars on the Enforcement of the New Economic Policy, dated August 9, 1921. This document, which is signed by Lenin in his capacity as President of the Council of People's Commissars, and countersigned by officials of that body, from the opening paragraphs leaves no doubts as to its real origin: "The tenth Congress of the Party and the All-Russian Conference of the Party have laid down the fundamental principles of the new economic policy." The policy of the Government, therefore, is dictated not by the Soviet "parliament," which is the General Congress of Soviets, but by the Congress and Conference of the Communist Party. And the Government feels itself so much a part of the Party that in its official pronouncement it issues orders not merely to the Soviet employees, but also to the members of the Communist Party. "Party and Soviet workers," says the Rules, "must take the most decisive measures . . . for absolute and effective compliance with the directions issued by the Communist Party."
A reader unfamiliar with the subject may perhaps object that all this was due merely to the "personal union" between the Soviet Government and the Party in the person of Lenin -- President of the Council of People's Commissars and at the same time head of the Politbureau and of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. The reply is that the document was an official one which bears the imprint of the whole Council of People's Commissars. We have further evidence to the same effect in a number of legislative and other official Soviet documents.
The most colorful among them is, perhaps, the one dealing with the fate of the Central Control Commission of the Communist Party and of the Commissariat of the Workmen's and Peasants' Inspection. The decisive factor here again was the personality of Lenin himself. Seeking the unification of the leadership of the Party, Lenin got the idea of replacing the Central Committee by two organs: the Politbureau -- the brain of the Party -- and the Organization Bureau -- its muscle. Under these conditions the membership of the Central Committee could be increased without danger because its plenary sessions would assume the character of small conferences; in order to emphasize this character of the plenary sessions he added to the membership of the Central Committee the whole Central Control Commission, whose duties were to check over the membership of the Party, to remove undesirable elements, to examine books, and to administrate Communist justice through special Party courts. Having thus created a kind of "second chamber" within the Party, Lenin proceeded to establish a similar organ in the Soviet administration. He found here the remains of the former State Audit Department, which had been re-named the Workmen's and Peasants' Control and later the Workmen's and Peasants' Inspection. "The Commissariat of Workmen's and Peasants' Control does not enjoy today even a shadow of authority," wrote Lenin," everybody knows that it is in a hopeless state and that nothing can be expected from this Commissariat under the present conditions."[iii] And he started a long and intensive campaign for the complete reorganization of this institution which, it was hoped, might be turned into a special organ for clearing the whole state machinery from every vestige of bureaucracy. In his opinion, this task was all-important. His plan was to amalgamate into one institution the Central Control Commission of the Communist Party with the reorganized Commissariat of the Workmen's and Peasants' Inspection. The complete rebuilding of the machinery of the Soviets on the principle of maximum efficiency and economy, its transformation into an ideal instrument for carrying out the industrialization and the electrification of the country, the merciless elimination of all parts useless or inadequate -- "such are the high aims," writes Lenin, "which I hope will be achieved by our Workmen's and Peasants' Inspection, such is the reason for my scheme to amalgamate one of the most authoritative Party organs with a mere People's Commissariat."
Lenin naturally realized that the proposed fusion of a State department with a Party organ was pure nonsense from the point of view of recognized standards of law. His answer to the question how far such a fusion was admissible was truly remarkable, perhaps even more so than the plan which his statement tried to justify. His approach to the problem was very simple. "Why not, indeed, combine the two organs into one if this meets the requirements of the moment? Did anyone object against the fact that a fusion of this kind has existed in the Commissariat for Foreign Affairs from the very beginning and has met with great success? Does not the Politbureau discuss from the point of view of the Communist Party a great many small and big problems of international relations, the moves of foreign powers and our countermoves, to defeat their -- let us say -- tricks, not to use a stronger expression? Is not this elastic combination of Soviet and Party elements a source of strength to our foreign policy? I believe that a method which has taken a strong footing in our foreign policy and has gained such a degree of recognition that its application is no longer challenged in this field, will be at least as suitable -- and I believe that it will be much more so -- if applied to the whole of our State machinery."
This is a good point at which to emphasize that the usual excuse of Bolshevik diplomacy -- that the policy of the Government must not be confused with the policy of the Communist Party -- is obviously false. Lenin's evidence certainly carries weight. And he informs us that it is in the realm of foreign policy that the "elastic combination of Soviet and Party elements . . . has gained such a degree of recognition" that it is now a matter of mere routine. His testimony may be of some profit to "innocents abroad" who still accept as true every explanation of Chicherin in this connection.
But another point is still more important: the assertion of Lenin that the "elastic combination of Soviet and Party elements" must be enforced from top to bottom of the Soviet State machinery. This explains the desire for a closer parallelism between the structure of the Soviet Government of the Communist Party and the search for more convenient and flexible channels through which the energy of the Communist Party might be infused into the Soviet machinery. The link between the two organizations ceases to be a purely de facto one; it is no longer a question of "personal union." It takes shape in the amalgamated institutions of the Soviet-Party type, in the complex official combination of the two organizations.
After what had been said the reader will not be surprised to hear that in January, 1926, the Chairman of the Supreme Council on National Economy, M. Derzhinsky, issued an order directing the presiding committee of a conference on the rebuilding of industrial capital " to organize its work in accordance with the decisions of the fifteenth congress of the Party." Nor will one be surprised by the fact that the order does not even mention what party: there are no other books, but only The Book; there are no other parties, but one and only one Party, because when a party becomes the essential brain and soul of the State machinery, there is no longer room for another, just as there is no room for two governments or two States within the same territory.
Similarly, one will not be surprised to hear that the Central Committee and the Central Control Commission of the Communist Party directed twenty members of the latter to carry on an investigation in order to find out how far the "decisions of the Party were adhered to by the Soviet organs" and to "take the measures they may think necessary;" and furthermore that the Central Executive Committee of the Union empowered "those comrades to remove undesirable state employees and to prosecute them in the courts, as well as to issue orders binding on Soviet organs."[iv]
Nor is there anything to surprise us in such facts as that on October 1, 1927, over the signature of M. Yanson, Secretary of the Central Control Commission, appeared the decision of the joint session of two Party organizations (Central Committee and Central Control Commission) and one Soviet organ (Council of People's Commissars) ordering the reduction by 20 percent of the expenses of management of all the coöperative societies of the Union; that the plenary session of the Central Control Commission of the Communist Party "has approved the proposed plan of work of the Commissariat of the Workmen's and Peasants' Inspection for the year 1926-1927;" that in February, 1927, the plenary session of the Central Committee empowered the Central Control Commission of the Party and the Workmen's and Peasants' Inspection, a State institution, to "prosecute in the courts" persons who refuse to comply with the prescribed reduction in prices; that in April of the same year Shiryakov, Secretary of the Central Control Commission, issued in the name of his committee, as well as in the name of the Workmen's and Peasants' Inspection, a circular order which directed "the heads of all Government departments" to observe certain rules in sending officials abroad, and threatened them in case of non-compliance "with merciless punishment in accordance with the principles of Party and Soviet justice."
Not without good reason, indeed, has the Central Control Commission been nick-named the "inter-party Cheka." Since its fusion with the Workmen's and Peasants' Inspection it occupies an almost dictatorial position among other State institutions. On September 11, 1928, was published the resolution of its third plenary session, which shows that it issues orders not only to the Workmen's and Peasants' Inspection, and the Central Bureau of Trade-Unions, but even to so important an institution as the Supreme Council of National Economy. A year earlier, on August 9, 1927, the joint plenary session of the Central Committee and of the Central Control Commission directed the Workmen's and Peasants' Inspection, jointly with the Control Commission, "to prosecute and punish all persons and institutions, whether Soviet or belonging to the Communist Party, who are using measures of repression against people criticizing the evils of bureaucratism, irrespective of the form this criticism might have taken," and also to prosecute them in court "taking special care that they should receive maximum sentences and that the action against them should not be dropped." The Soviet lawyers themselves, for instance M. Boryan, commenting on these decisions, admit that "from the point of view of bourgeois jurisprudence they present a hopeless mixture of State and Party elements," that they undermine the very foundation of the independence of the courts, and that "from the point of view of bourgeois jurisprudence the decision of the plenary session of a Party has no legal force and cannot be considered as having binding power until it has been embodied in a law issued through the usual channels. . . . Bourgeois lawyers will be unable to understand how a Party congress may decide on the methods to be followed by the Workmen's and Peasants' Inspection, and even more, issue orders on questions of national importance; they will imagine that the congress of the Party has usurped the prerogatives of the State."
Of course, the complex system of combined Party and State institutions might have been built up by a variety of methods. No definite policy in this respect was followed by the Soviet leaders at the beginning, and the legal situation was extremely confused. The guiding principle was the principle of expediency. Even Lenin had to admit that, "The relationship between the Party and the Soviets is highly abnormal; we all agree on this point." But it would be a mistake to interpret this admission as indicating the recognition of the necessity of drawing a line between the sphere of jus publicum -- the Soviet institutions -- and jus privatum, -- the Communist Party. It shows a mere desire to introduce a certain uniformity in the relationship between Party and State institutions. The loose and intricate system of hierarchy and subordination between the various bodies necessarily created a tendency to apply directly to the last authority, that is, the Politbureau.
Lenin, even after he realized the "highly abnormal" relationship between the Party and the Soviets, did little to eliminate its causes. He continued to defend the principle of the immediate participation of Party organs in legislation and State administration. "As long as we, the Central Committee of the Communist Party, are responsible for the administration of the country, we shall never give up our right of 'shaking up' " -- that is, appointing, dismissing, and transferring State employees. And then "naturally, all important questions shall go to the Politbureau."[v] What is wrong in the situation, in the opinion of Lenin, is that every unimportant little problem is carried to the Politbureau. But still it is not easy to find a way out of this difficulty because "we have only one ruling party, and you cannot forbid members of the Party to make complaints. This is why the Council of People's Commissars has to forward almost everything to the Politbureau." What is to be done? Lenin could suggest nothing but such half-measures as "to relieve the Politbureau and the Central Committee from unimportant matters and to put the work of responsible leaders on a higher plane . . . so that the People's Commissars should be responsible for their work, and would not be obliged to go to the Council of People's Commissars first and to the Politbureau after," etc. etc. All mere pious hopes.
Stalin, who succeeded Lenin, altered merely the shape of the link between the Party and the Soviet organs. Leaving alone the amalgamated institutions, where he had gained a strong footing even in the days of Lenin, he devoted his energies to the development of Communist "cells" and to the increase of their influence upon the work of the whole State machinery.
The Communist "cells" have passed through three distinct periods. At first, they were not recognized as having administrative functions. "You are concerned with the political education of the masses, and not with economic questions and problems of organization," was the usual rebuke they received from the heads of departments.[vi] The second period began with "the energetic interference of the Moscow Committee of the Communist Party to change the attitude towards the 'cells.' " At the end of 1926 the People's Commissar for Finance, Bryukhanov, called a conference to which the members of the Commissariat for Finance, heads of Government departments, and members of the bureau of the "cell" were invited. The "cell" is now entering into the third phase of its development. It has become a State institution, in fact a state within the State. The bureau of the "cell" receives reports from the heads of Government departments and issues directives to them; it examines plans for the reorganization of the machinery of government, discusses schedules of salaries, rations the consumption of raw materials, controls expenditure, makes provisions for the improvement of industrial methods, etc. In fact, the authority of the "cell" in Government institutions is such that since January, 1927, the Central Committee has made it partly responsible for the work of that institution: in addition to the head of the institution (a member of the Communist Party) "the whole 'cell' shall be responsible to the Party for disorders, inefficiency, and abuses, and in particularly important cases may be punished by the Party."
The Communist "cells" are the feelers spread by the Communist Party through all the institutions of Russian public life, not only in Soviet organs, but also in Trade-Unions, coöperative organizations, and so on; they are an official agency without the participation of which no important change can take place; they are officially responsible for the working of the administration. Members of the Communist Party are responsible in two different ways: as members of the institution with which they are connected, and as members of the "cell." They are all within the jurisdiction of the Politbureau. They simplify the task of the Politbureau in the exercise of its dictatorship by relieving it of the burden of relatively unimportant questions and by allowing the Politbureau to concentrate on matters of general policy. What Lenin attempted to achieve by amalgamating separate organs of the Soviet administration and of the Communist Party has now been achieved along the whole line of the Soviet State machinery, from top to bottom.
Yes, from the very top. The highest legislative assembly of the Soviet Republic is the Central Executive Committee, above which towers its Praesidium. At its peak is a single person, Kalinin, whom the Soviet press likes to describe as the "All-Russian village elder," using a nick-name dear to the heart of the peasants. Kalinin, in accordance with a statement made by Lenin, "personifies the supreme power of the Soviet Republic." His position is roughly similar to that of the President of the United States. And then it appears that being a member of the Central Executive Committee, of which he is also chairman, Kalinin is within the jurisdiction of a special Communist Party "cell" of the Central Executive Committee! In Pravda of February 9, 1927, we find for instance the following remark: "The bureau of the 'cell' has recently requested the Chairman of the Central Executive Committee, Comrade Kalinin, to submit to a meeting of the Party a report on the work of the Central Executive Committee." We learn from the same article that "heads of departments always comply with the demands of the 'cell';" that "there is no instance of a refusal by a head of department to present a report to the 'cell';" that the "secretariat of the Central Executive Committee invites the secretary of the 'cell' to take part in the deliberations of that body when questions of improving the management of an institution are discussed;" and, finally, that "autonomous republics and territories are represented in our 'cell.' " So even the autonomous parts of the Union are subject to the iron discipline of the Communist Party.
The supreme power of the State is a mere prisoner of the "cell." The circle is now closed. All the agencies of the Soviet administration, like the web of a gigantic spider or the circles of Dante's inferno, center round the Politbureau.
It is perfectly clear that the Soviet rule must be defined as an oligarchy. This begins to be understood even outside Russia. But few are aware abroad that Lenin, who never refused to meet a difficult situation and did not mince his words, once himself pronounced the odious word as a challenge to the opposition. With epical serenity he made the following statement: "The dictatorship is effected by the proletariat organized into Soviets and guided by the Communist Party. . . . The Party is led by a Central Committee of nineteen members elected by the congress, while the current work in Moscow is transacted by still smaller committees, namely the Organization Bureau and the Political Bureau which are elected at a plenary session of the Central Committee and have five members each. We have, therefore, a real oligarchy. In no institution of our republic can any important question of general policy or organization be decided without receiving previously the directives of the Central Committee of the Party."[vii] And when attempts were made at the ninth congress of the Party to use the remark of Lenin in a sense favorable to the opposition, the following interesting apology came from his orthodox follower, Yakovlev: "The criticism we have just heard may be summarized in the statement that the country is governed by an oligarchy, a small clique, which has usurped power in the Party and now runs the whole show. Against such methods of criticism every member of the Party ought to and I believe will protest. Let us be logical. If we raise the question of an oligarchy within the Party, then we shall have to raise another question, that of the Party oligarchy which has seized power in the country. For the oligarchy of the Party which has so long led the Revolution you of the opposition intend to substitute another oligarchy, just one grade below. If this is the question you raise, we certainly prefer the oligarchy of genius to the oligarchy of mediocrity. But if you raise a question of principle, then you must be logical and admit that our country is now governed by the Party which you are pleased to call an oligarchy."
The whole system of the Soviet State institutions is imbued with the idea of the oligarchy of the Communist Party, and this has received official recognition. This gives the Communist Party the position of a real ruling party in a sense unknown to the western world. The Party is officially represented in every Government institution, but its sphere of competence is not defined; like ancient castes, it extends to the whole field of statecraft, with the Soviet machinery serving as a mere tool for distributing the political energy which emanates from it. This is a system of caste autocracy by a party, or oligarchical absolutism.
[i] Lenin: "Sobranie Sochineni" ("Works"), 1925, Vol. XVII, p. 361.
[ii] Ibid., Vol. XVIII, Part I, pp. 8-9.
[iii] Ibid., Vol. XVIII, Part II, p. 128.
[iv] Pravda, April 30, 1925.
[v] Lenin, "Sobranie Sochineni," Vol. XVIII, Part I, pp. 64-65, and Part II, p. 48.
[vi] Pervushin, in Pravda, January 6, 1927.
[vii] "Sobranie Sochineni", Vol. XVII, pp. 138-139.