Peter Petroff July 1936

New Constitution of the U.S.S.R.

Source: Labour, July 1936, p. 266-67;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

After the October Revolution when the “Soviet System” became the form of government in Russia it was hailed as the embodiment of certain important new principles.

The Soviets were to combine legislative and executive power, the separation of which was held responsible for the growth of a powerful bureaucracy in democratic countries.

The Soviet Constitution was to give effect to the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” as a class. It, therefore, gave a preponderance to the working class and excluded the remnants of the upper class from active citizenship.

It was believed that the election from step to step in the Soviet pyramid would do away with professional politicians and bring the experienced local administrator into the central governing bodies; that public work would be done by public men, not by officials.

In the period of “Socialist Reconstruction” it was held the State would have different functions to perform and for this the Soviet system would be more suitable.

However, it happened not for the first time in human history that an “ideal” Constitution was put on the Statute Book, but not carried into life. Like the French constitution of 1793, the Soviet constitution, in 1918, was adopted when the power of the Soviets was on the point of vanishing.

The totalitarian One-Party-State developed and the dictatorship of the proletariat narrowed down to a dictatorship of the Communist Party.

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The new Constitution sweeps away many of the principles on which the Soviet System was based, but it firmly establishes the One-Party-State and declares the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – now merely a bureaucratic machine – to be “the leading kernel of all organisations of the working people – public as well as State ones” (cl. 126).

The Russian Revolution, following in the footsteps of the great French Revolution that had proclaimed the “Rights of Man,” had formulated the “Rights of the Working People” in a preamble of the Soviet constitution of 1918. This revolutionary tradition is now eradicated.

The Soviet constitution of 1918 proclaimed the principle of internationalism, – the “Stalin Constitution” as “Pravda” terms it – declares: “The defence of the fatherland is a holy duty of every citizen of the of the U.S.S.R.” (cl.133)

Using the old phraseology of the time of the Revolution, the new constitution tries to retain the fiction that all power belongs to the Soviets. It insists that the Soviet Union is “a Socialist State of workers and peasants” (cl.1) and that “all power in the U.S.S.R. belongs to the working people .... represented by the Soviets of deputies of the working people.” (cl. 3).

The Soviet Union claims to be a Socialist State: “The economic basis of the U.S.S.R. is the Socialist economic system, and the Socialist property of the means of production” reads clause 4. But it is a peculiar kind of “Socialism” indeed! For clause 12 proclaims: “In the U.S.S.R. there is realised the principle of Socialism from everyone in accordance with his abilities, to everyone in accordance with his labour.”

And this Socialist principle is further defined in clause 118. “The citizens of the U.S.S,R. have the right to work – the right to receive guaranteed work with remuneration of their labour in accordance with its quantity and quality.” Thus, payment by result, the system of all-round piecework now prevailing in the Soviet Union, is sanctioned by the constitution and represented as a new Socialist principle! A system of State property, production of commodities, buying, selling, wages – in a word: State capitalism is here simply labelled Socialism!

The great French Revolution had declared private property sacred. Stalin, imitating, declared public property sacred. The outcome was the law of August 7, 1932, punishing small theft of public property with ten years penal servitude! Now this principle is embodied in the Constitution: “Persons violating public, Socialist property are enemies of the people” (cl.131).

The new Constitution introduces a fundamental change in the framework of political administration.

The Soviet Congress with its Executive Committee disappears. The number of Federal Republics composing the Soviet Union is increased to eleven. A new legislative body is created: the “Supreme Soviet (or Council) of the U.S.S.R,” elected for a period of four years. In consists of two houses with equal rights: the “Council of the Union” and the “Council of Nationalities.”

The “Council of the Union” is elected by the citizens of the U.S.S,R. – one deputy for every 300,000 of the population.

The “Council of Nationalities” consists of deputies appointed by the Supreme Councils of the Federal and Autonomous Republics and by the Soviets of the autonomous provinces.

A Bill becomes law when approved of by a simple majority in both Houses. Sessions of both houses begin and end simultaneously. There are to be two Sessions every year.

Each House elects its President and two Vice Presidents; joint meetings of both houses are presided over by these in turns.

The Supreme Council of the U.S.S.R. appoints in a joint sitting with both houses “The Council of the People’s Commissars” as an executive organ (fallaciously described as the Government), and further the “Presidium of the Supreme Council of the U.S.S.R.” consisting of the President of the Presidium, four Vice-Presidents, a Secretary and thirty-one members.

This Presidium will be the institution which – Stalin permitting, concentrates all power of the State to its hands.

The “Presidium of the Supreme Council of the U.S.S.R.” calls The Supreme Council of the U.S.S.R. into Session; interprets the existing laws issuing appropriate orders; dissolves the Supreme Council in case of disagreement between the two Houses and calls new elections; carries through plebiscites on its own initiative or on the demand of one of the Federal Republics; annuls decisions and orders of the Council of the People’s Commissars of the U.S.S.R. and of the Councils of the People’s Commissars of the Federal Republics if they do not correspond to the law. In the time between Sessions of the Supreme Council of the U.S.S.R. the Presidium dismisses People’s Commissars and appoints new ones. It appoints and dismisses the high command of the armed forces; declares a state of war in case of an armed attack on the Soviet Union between Sessions; declares general and partial mobilisation; ratifies international treaties; appoints and recalls ambassadors.

The Presidium retains its mandate until a newly-elected “Supreme Council of the U.S.S.R.” has formed a new Presidium.

The Constitution of each Federal Republic corresponds in the main to of the Union. However, their Supreme Councils consist of only one House.

There are three types of People’s Commissariats. Those of the Union having no Federal counterparts: Defence, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade, Transport, Post, Water Transport, Heavy Industry; those of the Union having Federal counterparts: Food Industry, Light Industry, Forest Industry, Agriculture, Soviet Estates, Finance, Internal Affairs, Justice, Health. Those of the Federal Republics having no counterpart in the Union: Education, Local Industry, Communal Enterprise, Social Welfare.

The local government remains the hands of local or district Soviets elected directly by the population for two years. The principle is laid down that organs elected by a Soviet are responsible both to the electing Soviet and to the next higher authority (cl.102)

The principle of elected judges is accepted in the new constitution. Proceedings in courts are to be public, in the language of the respective districts, leaving the accused free to use his native language. The public prosecutors are appointed from above and are given rather much power.

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The most important change introduced by the Constitution is the new franchise system.

Undoubtedly direct elections and secret ballot are a great progress and; universal and equal suffrage is to end the differentiation between town and country and the disenfranchisement of certain groups of the population.

However, the article dealing with the franchise system is very incomplete. It is not clear whether the elections to the Supreme Council of the U.S.S.R. are to be held in one day or spread out over a long period as is the practice to-day. Nor is there any indication where and how the elections will take place – in the places of employment (as at present) or in the districts of residence. There is no mention of a register of electors!

The right to put forward candidates is reserved to “the public organisations and societies of the working people: organisations of the Communist Party, Trade Co-operative Societies, youth organisations and cultural societies” (cl.141). As in Russia, all these societies are merely appendages of the Communist Party; this means that no oppositional candidate can be nominated. Thus, in spite of the window-dressing, the One-Party-State remains secure.

Sex equality and equal rights for all nationalities are, of course maintained.

Another achievement is the recognition of immunity of arrest for deputies. However between Sessions, permission for their arrest can be given by the Presidium of the Supreme Council of the U.S.S.R. (cl.52) which means in reality the Government may not arrest a deputy without the permission of the Government.

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The rights and duties of the citizens are defined in a special chapter of sixteen clauses.

The right to work, to material security in old age and illness, and the right to medical assistance and to education are proclaimed in the Constitution, also the right of political asylum for foreigners. The inviolability of the home and the person is recognised, no arrest are to be made without the court’s warrant or the sanction of the public prosecutor

The Constitution prescribes: “In conformity with the interests of the working people and in order to strengthen the Socialist regime, to the citizens of the U.S.S.R. is guaranteed: Freedom of speech, of press, of meeting, of procession and demonstration” (cl.125) “the right of coalition in public organisations: Trade Unions, Co-operative Societies, youth organisations, sport and defence organisations; cultural and technical and scientific societies, but the most active and conscious citizen from the ranks of the working class and other strata of the working people- combine in the Communist Party of the U.S.S.R.” (cl.126)

Thus no political organisations apart from the official Communist Party are allowed, As the Communists are to play the part of the “leading kernel of all organisations of the working; people” cl.126), the freedom of organisation, speech and coalition is clearly limited to supporters of the official point of view.

In a totalitarian One-Party-State which demands of its subjects not only obedience but active support, the citizens would rather require freedom from compulsory attendance at meetings and demonstrations or from the duty of repeating official slogans.

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The liberty of a people can never be safeguarded solely by a paper constitution. It depends on the actual balance of power within the country. Under State capitalism the citizen is to such an extent dependent on the State that his power of resistance against lawlessness of a dictator, illegal practices of a bureaucracy is paralysed. This cannot be altered by clauses of a paper constitution. Only when he gains a firm support in independent, democratic organisations wielding some economic power – Trade Unions, Co-operatives and other societies – his power of resistance can be strengthened and on this depends the liberties of the people

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The Project of the new Constitution has been published for general “discussion” and will be accepted by the Soviet Congress which is to meet on November 15 1936.