Monday, July 8, 2013

Summary, Comparison, and Analysis of the Russian Constitutions of 1918, 1924, and 1936

I wanted to share a quick summary and comparison of the first three constitutions adopted by the Russian Soviet governments following the historic revolution of October 1917. Specifically, I want to draw attention to the apparent irony -- though, in actual fact, perfectly logical phenomenon -- that there is a direct correspondence between the extent to which the gains of the revolution were being undone by the Stalinist bureaucracy, on the one hand, and the re-crafting of the constitution, on the other, along increasingly "liberal" lines.

So, for instance, the 1936 constitution -- adopted at a time when Stalin's authoritarian reign of terror against the working class in general, and the original leaders and cadres of the 1917 revolution in particular [source], was at its height -- goes further than any previous constitution in reflecting the traditional liberal values often evinced in those of Western bourgeois-democratic republics, such as the rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

This, of course, accords completely with the modus operandi of constitutional democracy as it has appeared in the traditional capitalist Western countries, which use lofty promises regarding the sanctity of individual rights as a veil to hide the most brutally repressive practices, such as slavery, female disenfranchisement, genocide against indigenous populations, exploitation of labor, repression of political dissidence, oppression of socially non-conforming peoples, etc.

Thus, what we find is that as the actual social content of the Soviet system under Stalin moved further away from its emancipatory roots in the mass uprising of the working class -- and closer to the social inequality and repression characteristic of classical "capitalist democracies" -- the legal-juridical form of the Soviet system likewise came to closely resemble the constitutional framework of these capitalist democracies.

Gone from the 1936 constitution was the verbiage of the "dictatorship of the proletariat" found in that of 1918, with its statutory restrictions on the freedom of the "propertied classes" as a precondition for expanding the freedom of the "working class and poor peasantry." Gone was the right to immediate recall of all elected Soviet officials, and term limits of three months. In place of specifically class-based rights, Stalin had introduced the "universal" rights to a "fair trial" [!?] and freedom from "unreasonable search and seizure." [!!??] In place of Soviets which were both legislative and executive in function and directly accountable to the workers they represented, Stalin introduced the classical three separate branches of government -- Supreme Court, Executive, and Legislative/Parliamentary -- all of which, as in capitalist democracies, in reality served to place "checks and balances" on the democratic will of the majority.

Note the prevalence of deaths around the years 1936, 1938, and 1940. These were the years of Stalin's "purges" and "show trials" when he engaged in mass executions of the original leading figures in the 1917 revolution. These figures -- forged in the crucible of the democratic struggle for workers' self-emancipation -- represented one of the largest obstacles to Stalin's counter-revolutionary machinations and therefore had to be dispatched before the total subjugation of the working class by the Stalinist bureaucracy could be completed.


1918 Constitution of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (Adopted by the Fifth All-Russian Congress of Soviets, 10 July 1918 )

- [First constitution developed/ratified by the soviets following the revolution of October 1917].

- Characterizes the present moment as a "transition period" (i.e., "the establishment of a dictatorship of the urban and rural proletariat and the poorest peasantry in the form of a powerful All-Russian soviet authority"); the goal of this dictatorship of the proletariat being the abolition of "the exploitation of men by men and introduction of socialism, in which their will be neither a division into classes nor a state of autocracy." [i.e., the complete 'introduction' of socialism and eradication of capitalism remains aspirational -- as opposed to established -- at this point].
- Transfers all wealth, land, resources, etc., into the hands of the public.
- Liberation of former colonies of Russia; sovereignty and autonomy for oppressed nations.
- ... the exploiters should not hold a position in any branch of the Soviet Government. The power must belong entirely to the toiling masses and to their plenipotentiary representitives- the Soviets of Workers', Soldiers', and Peasants' Deputies.
- Furnishes material aid and means to all workers and peasants in the realms of publication, meeting halls, organization, education.
- Complete equality to all regardless of sex, race, language.
- Universal arming of the workers, disarming of the propertied class.
- The All-Russian Congress of Soviets is the supreme power of the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic.
- Congresses of the soviets are convoked by the respective executive committees upon their own initiative, or upon request of local soviets comprising not less than one-third of the entire population of the given district. In any case they are convoked at least twice a year for regions, every three months for provinces and counties, and once a month for rural districts
- The Soviet of Deputies is convoked by the executive committee upon its own initiative, or upon the request of not less than one-half of the membership of the soviet; in any case at least once a week in cities, and twice a week in rural sections.... Within its jurisdiction the soviet, and in cases mentioned in Section 57, NOTE, the meeting of the voters is the supreme power in the given district. Term of the deputy, three months.
- Voting prohibited for: employers of hired labor; capitalists/investors; private merchants and commercial traders; former agents of the police, gendarme & reigning dynasty.
- Voters who have sent a deputy to the soviet have the right to recall him, and to have a new election, according to general provisions.

1924 Constitution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (Ratified by the Second Congress of Soviets of the Soviet Union, 31 January 1924)

- [The 1924 Soviet Constitution legitimated the 1922 Treaty on the Creation of the USSR (30 December 1922) between the Russian SFSR, the Ukrainian SSR, the Belarusian SSR, and the Transcaucasian SFSR (including Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia) to form the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.]
- [In essence the 1924 Constitution's text is essentially the same 1922 Treaty re-written and expanded.]
- [It established the Congress of Soviets to be the supreme organ of state authority governing the whole of the USSR, with the Central Executive Committee (CEC) holding this authority in the interim.]
- [Represents a definite step toward the reconstitution of the old Russian empire which broke apart in the wake of the 1917 revolution, and which had been welcomed at that time by the Bolshevik-led Soviet government on an anti-imperialist basis, viz., the right of nations to self-determination and autonomy].
- [ ... the growing figure of Joseph Stalin pursued a "Socialism in One Country" (1924) agenda. This seemed to contradict Lenin's view on the right of nations to self-determination, as well as the 1918 constitution, which posited Russia's relations with neighboring socialist countries as one of federation based on national autonomy. In Spring of 1922 Lenin suffered his first stroke, and Stalin, still being a People's Commissar for nationalities gained a new official chair as the General Secretary of the Communist Party. Stalin argued that now that the Russian Civil War had concluded, that War Communism was now replaced by the New Economic Policy, it required a country whose legal de jure framework would match its de facto one, and re-organized the Bolshevik state into a single foreign entity. This included liquidating the many splinter Soviet governments and ... it created a new centralized federal government where supreme rule would clearly be in the hands of Moscow (*).]
- [While there is still here a degree of democracy, viz., the existence of local Soviet bodies which elect and constitute the higher Soviet bodies, there is clearly also a dramatic increase in centralized bureaucratic authority within the state apparatus compared to 1918]. 

- From the Introduction: "The years of the war have not passed without leaving their trace. The devastated fields, the closed factories, the forces of production destroyed and the economic resources exhausted, this heritage of the war renders insufficient the isolated economic efforts of the several Republics. National economic reestablishment is impossible as long as the Republics remain separated. On the other hand, the instability of the international situation and the danger of new attacks make inevitable the creation of a united front of the Soviet Republics in the presence of capitalist surroundings.... All these considerations insistently demand the union of the Soviet Republics into one federated state capable of guaranteeing external security, economic prosperity internally, and the free national development of peoples."
- Grants the "supreme organs" [see above] of the new USSR the power to: ratify treaties; modify internal/external borders; direct commerce with foreign countries; control the budgets of the member Republics; abrogate the acts of the Congresses of the Soviets and the Central Executive Committees of the member Republics contrary to the present Constitution.
- The delegates to the Congress of Soviets of the USSR are elected in the provincial Congresses of Soviets. Regular sessions of the Congress of Soviets of the USSR are convoked by the CEC of the Union once yearly.
- Between sessions of the CEC of the USSR, the Presidium of the CEC of the USSR is the supreme organ of legislative, executive, and administrative power of the USSR.... The Presidium of the CEC of the USSR has the right to suspend the acts of the Congresses of Soviets of the member Republics.
- Establishes a Supreme Court [members appointed by the Presidium] under the jurisdiction of the CEC of the USSR which: settles disputes between member Republics; rules on constitutionality of laws passed by member Republics; deals with charges brought against high government officials.
- Establishes the GPU [secret police] under the control of the CEC of the USSR, in order to combat "political and economic counter-revolution, spying and banditry".

1936 Constitution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (5 December 1936)

- [Known as the "Stalin constitution." Written by a special commission of 31 formed and chaired by Stalin].
- [Represents a codification of the total victory of Stalin's counter-revolution, the triumph of state capitalism in Russia embodied by the ruling Soviet bureaucracy].
- [Most "Westernized" of all the Constitutions, i.e., 'democracy' in the form of a parliamentary-constitutional republic, albeit based on one-party rule].
- [Whereas in 1924 Constitution, the "CEC of the USSR has the right to suspend or abrogate the decrees, acts, and orders of the Presidium of the CEC of the USSR," in the 1936 Constitution, the Presidium has been completely cut loose from any accountability and has extreme authority concentrated in its hands, i.e., can "annul decisions" of all other Soviet bodies ... akin to the Executive Branch/Presidency of U.S.]
- [Some experts argue that the original Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, ceased to exist as such, upon the adoption of the 1936 Soviet Constitution which greatly altered the internal arrangement and re-organised the USSR from a Union-based confederation, into a proper federal country. Instead of the Congress of Soviets, the new Constitution created a permanent parliament, the Supreme Soviet (*).]
- [For the first time, the role of the Communist Party was clearly defined. Article 126 stated that the party was "vanguard of the working people in their struggle to strengthen and develop the socialist system and is the leading core of all organizations of the working people, both public and state." This provision was used to justify banning all other parties from functioning in the Soviet Union (*).]
- [One historian writes of some of the changes around 'individual rights' in the 1936 Constitution as being purely propagandistic in character: "The decision to alter the electoral system from indirect to direct election, from a limited to a universal franchise, and from open to secret voting, was a measure of the confidence of the party in its ability to ensure the return of candidates of its own choice without the restrictions formerly considered necessary" (*).]

- Declares socialism "firmly established" in the USSR ("socialist state," "socialist system of economy," "socialist ownership of the means and instruments of production.")
- Permits the "small private economy of individual peasants and handicraftsmen based on their personal labour and precluding the exploitation of the labour of others"; the right of inheritance of personal property of citizens.
- Establishes USSR as a federal state comprising Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kirghistan, Moldavia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia.
- The highest organ of state authority of the U.S.S.R. is the Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R.
- Supreme Soviet consists of two [parliamentary] chambers, elected by the people according to regional area, for a term of 4 years; a law is considered adopted if passed by both Chambers of the Supreme Soviet.
- The Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, consisting of 42 members, is elected out of joint sitting of the two chambers; interprets laws, issues decrees; can dissolve the Supreme Soviet and call for new elections; appoints high commanders of armed forces; ratifies treaties; can proclaim martial law at any time anywhere throughout USSR; can annul decisions of member Republics of USSR.
- A member of the Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R. may not be prosecuted or arrested without the consent of the Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R.
- The Supreme Court of the U.S.S.R. and the special courts of the U.S.S.R. are elected by the Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R. for a term of five years.
- Grants citizens of the USSR economic rights to leisure, rest, education, as well as freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and the right to join trade unions.
- Right to fair trial, due process, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure.
- Grants "right" for "the most active and politically most conscious citizens in the ranks of the working class and other sections 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 is the leading core of all organizations of the working people, both public and state."
- Persons committing offences against public, socialist property are enemies of the people.
- Members of all Soviets ... are chosen by the electors on the basis of universal, direct and equal suffrage by secret ballot.  

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for this! Information regarding the 1924 Constitution is rather shady on the internet so this has been quite useful for my homework. :)