Lessons from the Soviet experience are vital for the working class to win the battle of democracy
On November 7, 1917, the working class of Russia overthrew the rule of the capitalists and landlords and established its rule in alliance with the toiling peasantry. The Soviets of workers and peasants took power into its own hands. The Bolshevik Party led the Russian working class in carrying out this historic act.
The first Constitution of the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic (RSFSR) was adopted by the fifth All Russian Congress of Soviets in 1918. It declared that Russia was “a republic of Soviets of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ deputies. All the central and local powers belong to these Soviets.” It declared that the Russian Soviet Republic was organised as a “free union of free nations, as a federation of free national republics.” This Constitution legalised all the decrees passed by the revolutionary government in the direction of eliminating the exploitation of persons by persons.
Inspired by the example of the workers and peasants of Russia, other nations oppressed by Tsarist rule joined this free union of free nations. The Constitution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) of 1924 reflected this reality.
The Soviet State was an organ of the dictatorship of the proletariat – that is, the rule of the toiling majority of people led by the working class, with its vanguard party at the head. It was a political power of those who labour, a power to eliminate all forms of exploitation of persons by persons, and to pave the way for the creation of a classless communist society. It guaranteed freedom and rights for all the toiling people while denying anyone the “right” to exploit other people’s labour. This was a new kind of democracy, proletarian democracy.
Democracy is a form of political power, a form of class rule. In the present epoch, either there can be bourgeois democracy or there can be proletarian democracy. Ever since the Bolshevik party led the working class of Soviet Union in establishing proletarian democracy and building socialism, the imperialist bourgeoisie of the world has spared no venom in vilifying Soviet democracy and the socialist system.
There is an acute clash today between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat over the question of democracy. At the heart of this struggle is the question: who or which class should dictate the course of society? Should it be a class that stands at the head of a minority of exploiters, or should it be a class that leads the exploited and oppressed majority of people?
When the bourgeois class rose to the position of leader in society, it established various forms of power including parliamentary democracy, in which an elected body was vested with supreme decision-making power. Different sections of the bourgeoisie formed their respective political parties and competed with one another for control over the elected body. The majority of people, the workers and toiling peasants, were completely excluded from this process of representative democracy.
As capitalism grew, so did the size and strength of the working class. The necessity to wage a united struggle against capitalist exploitation induced the working class to develop into an organised force, to establish their unions at the workplace, and over time to establish its own political parties and demand that the process of representation be extended to include the toiling majority of people.
In the beginning of the 20th century, universal adult franchise was a progressive demand of working class and of the women’s movement. It had not been achieved anywhere. In the United States of America, those who had no property, or had black skin or were of female gender were excluded from the right to vote or be nominated for election.
In Russia, soviets of workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ deputies emerged in the course of the revolutionary struggles led by the Bolshevik Party. They emerged as organs of class struggle against the Czarist regime. They were in the forefront of the struggle for the overthrow of the Tsarist regime. Having overthrown the Tsarist regime, the question was posed whether the Soviets should take power, or whether they should hand over power to a bourgeois parliament.
Within the soviets, the Bolsheviks argued that the soviets must take power in their hands. The Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries opposed this course of action. The Bolsheviks succeeded in persuading and winning over the majority of workers, peasants and soldiers in support of the slogan: All power to the soviets! The October Revolution, when the working class and its army stormed the Winter Palace, translated this slogan into material reality.
The 1918 Constitution provided constitutional guarantee to the right of the electorate to recall the one they elected at any time. In no capitalist country has this been done until today. While the right to vote has been extended to all, all other rights are confined to the elite group of elected representatives.
The Bolshevik Party successfully led the class struggle and achieved the complete construction of the economic base of socialism, through the rapid development of socialist industry and collectivisation of agriculture. Enormous strides were achieved in social and human development, without any interruption or crisis of any kind. By the thirties, there was no longer any private property in the means of social production, hence no economic base for class exploitation.
The 1918 Constitution had disenfranchised the members of the exploiting classes. In 1936, the peoples of the Soviet Union thoroughly discussed and adopted a new Constitution, which recognised that there no longer existed any exploiting classes in the country. There were only friendly classes of workers and cooperative peasants, and a stratum of people’s intelligentsia. The new Constitution extended political rights to all adult citizens, without any discrimination based on class background.
The 1936 Soviet Constitution laid down the basis for a political process in which candidates would be selected by the electorate. Every kind of people’s organisation in the constituency – be it a local branch of the communist party or a workers’ union, peasants’ association, women’s organisation, student group or youth club, could nominate its candidate for election to the legislative bodies. All nominations would go through a lengthy and detailed selection process, with the electorate being enabled to express its opinions and exercise its rights. The selection process would result in a final shortlist of candidates approved by the electorate. Only then would the final voting take place, among the shortlist of candidates selected by the people.
All those elected would constitute the legislative body, which would exercise collective decision-making power, without any split between ruling and opposition camps. The executive power would have the duty to ensure that the decisions of the legislative body are implemented. It would be answerable and subject to recall by the elected legislative body. Members of the legislative body would in turn be subject to recall by those who elected them.
Elections actually took place in the Soviet Union according to this process, soon after the adoption of the 1936 Constitution. The Bolshevik Party led the struggle to establish and consolidate the new political process, by raising the level of mass consciousness and overcoming the resistance to change on the part of entrenched interests within the Soviet party and state. This struggle got interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. After the war was over, and the economy and infrastructure had been reconstructed, the agenda of consolidating the new political process ought to have received the attention of the Party. However, the Khrushchevite revisionists who assumed the leading positions in the fifties succeeded in postponing this agenda indefinitely. They replaced it with a different agenda, aimed at depriving the working people of power and concentrating decision-making in the top echelons of the revisionist party leadership.
By the decades of the sixties and seventies, the capitalist system had been restored in the economic base, while the political superstructure retained the appearance of Soviet power. In reality, all power was concentrated in the hands of a new revisionist bourgeoisie. The mass discontent which grew among the people, with the political process that deprived them of any say in public affairs, was manipulated by a section of the bourgeoisie to do away with all vestiges of socialism. Gorbachov unleashed capitalist reforms in the name of Glasnost and Perestroika, paving the way for Yeltsin to carry out the final destruction of the Soviet state and proclaim a classical capitalist democracy in its place.
Summing up the experience of the rise and fall of Soviet democracy, it can be concluded that a modern democracy of the proletariat must vest sovereignty in the hands of the people as a whole. It must guarantee to every adult member of society the right to elect and be elected, which means to have a decisive say in the selection of candidates. It must ensure that executive power is accountable and subordinate to the elected legislative body, which in turn is accountable and subordinate to the electorate.
Communists must reject the theory and practice of ‘party rule’, be it through the ballot or the bullet, and be it by one party or by different parties exchanging places periodically. History has shown that party rule is a form that serves to maintain the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie as the content of power.
Vesting supreme power in the hands of one party or coalition that commands a simple majority in the legislative body, with the other elected members making up an ‘opposition’ camp, is a state form and political process suitable for the dictatorship of the capitalist class, which is naturally split into rival camps. The working class, on the other hand, is characterised by the unity of its class interest and singularity of its class aim of eliminating all forms of exploitation and oppression. Its rule requires the elected body as a whole to be responsible and accountable to the electorate for all decisions and their execution, without any split between ruling and opposition camps. It requires a political party to play the role of enabling the electorate to exercise supreme power by holding elected deputies to account.
The central question concerning political power is where sovereignty, the supreme decision-making power, resides. Old forms of power, such as parliamentary democracy, facilitate the old content, the dictatorship of a minority of exploiters. The new content – the dictatorship of the proletariat, the rule of the toiling majority – requires a new form of representation. Modern institutions and a political process are required that do not vest sovereignty in the hands of a party or coalition of parties, but in the hands of all adult members of society who have the right to elect and be elected.
These are conclusions that have emerged from summing up the experience of the rise and fall of Soviet democracy. Communists must contest the assertion of imperialism and the bourgeoisie that there is no alternative to multi-party representative democracy. We must champion the struggle for ushering in proletarian democracy, with a Constitution that vests sovereignty in the people.