Soviet democracy

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Soviet democracy (sometimes council democracy) was a political system in the Soviet Union, in which workers' councils called soviets (Russian for "council"), consisting of delegates, formed organs of legislative and executive power. The soviets begin at the local level and onto a national parliament-like assembly. According to Vladimir Lenin and other Marxists, the soviets represent the democratic will of the working class and are thus the embodiment of the dictatorship of the proletariat.


The process begins when the workers of a city elect their local soviet. This body holds both legislative and executive power for that city. The idea is identical to that of the Paris Commune. The local soviets choose their delegates for their district soviet. These district soviets in turn elect their provincial soviet. Lastly, the provincial soviets then choose their delegates for the regional soviet. Each soviet has legislative-executive power over the territory it governs.

This elective process of a group of soviets electing the council above it continues until the national soviet, which is the supreme governing body of the nation. In the USSR, Until 1936 the national soviet (at that time the Congress of Soviets) was not elected by the regional soviets, but rather by the district soviets. Each district soviet elected and sent a number of delegates to the national soviet that was appropriate to accurately represent its population.[1] But following passage of the 1936 Soviet Constitution the Supreme Soviets became directly-elective as well. However, in the rest of the Eastern Bloc, the Soviets were always directly elected, while China and, until 1992, Cuba, still use the hierarchical electoral system.

Each large soviet (including some larger locals) elects a small executive committee. This assembly deals with the day-to-day affairs of the territory that its soviet governs. The executive committee is subservient to its soviet, its actions must be in accordance with the soviet's legislation, and it only operates during times when the soviet is not in session.[2] This method is likely borrowed from Athenian democracy.

Proponents argue that this form of government is a method through which the dictatorship of the proletariat can be exercised in large populations. Soviet democracy is democracy by proxy.[3] The theory is that members of the soviets, being close to those workers or lower soviet members that they represent, can thereby accurately translate the people's decisions into legislation, and be more responsive than a centralized parliamentary democracy. Ultimately soviet democracy is based on direct democracy, especially with its advocacy of recallable delegates.[4]

History in Russia and the Soviet Union[edit]

The first soviets, also called workers' councils, were formed after the Russian Revolution of 1905. Lenin and the Bolsheviks saw the soviet as the basic organizing unit of society in a communist system and supported this form of democracy. The soviets also played a considerable role in the February and October Revolutions. At that time, they represented a variety of socialist parties in addition to Bolsheviks.

In post-revolutionary Russia local workers' soviets would elect representatives that go on to form regional soviets, which in turn elect representatives that form higher soviets, and so on up to the Congress of Soviets. Later the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union would become the highest legislative body of the entire country.

After Lenin's party, the Bolsheviks, only got a minority of the votes in the election to the Russian Constituent Assembly, he illegally disbanded it by force after its first meeting, arguing that parliamentary democracy could not fairly represent the workers since it was in practice dominated by the bourgeoisie, that the proportional representation did not take into account the SR split, and that the Soviets (where the Bolsheviks did get a majority) more accurately represented the opinion of the people, which had changed as shown in the elections to the Soviets between the time of the elections to the Assembly and the first meeting of the Assembly. He also explicitly stated that democracy did not include those considered bourgeois.[5]

After the revolution, the Bolsheviks had to defend the newly formed government in World War I and the Russian Civil War. According to some critics, many of the effects of the wars on the new Soviet government may be part of what led to the decline of soviet democracy in Russia (due to the authority the state took on in war time) and to the emergence of the bureaucratic structure that maintained much control throughout the history of the Soviet Union.[6] Some believe that one key blow against soviet democracy occurred when other revolutionary socialist soviets other than Bolshevik soviets were disbanded in a series of coups d'état because workers returned non-Bolshevik majorities as early as March 1918.[7] Lenin argued that the Soviets and the principle of democratic centralism within the Bolshevik party still assured democracy. However, Lenin also issued a "temporary" ban on factions in the Russian Communist Party. This ban remained until the revolutions of 1989 and, according to critics, made the democratic procedures within the party an empty formality, and helped Stalin to consolidate much more authority under the party. Soviets were transformed into the bureaucratic structure that existed for the rest of the history of the Soviet Union and were completely under the control of party officials and the politburo.[8]

Elections in the Soviet Union[edit]

Military delegates at the Congress of Soviets of the Soviet Union

The electoral system of the Soviet Union was based upon Chapter XI of the Constitution of the Soviet Union and by the Electoral Laws enacted in conformity with it. The Constitution and laws applied to elections in all Soviets, from the Supreme Soviets of the USSR, the Union republics and autonomous republics, through to regions, districts and towns. Voting was secret and direct via universal suffrage. Voting took place after six weeks of campaigning. Candidates were nominated by the organizations of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the trade unions, the Komsomol, cooperatives, public organizations, and military units.

It was often the case that a single approved candidate stood for each seat and could usually count on a good 99% of the votes. Due to this, Western critics have argued that the elections to the Soviets were not free and fair, unlike the elections to the Assembly. They have also underlined that the citizens used the elections to make public their concerns. Citizens sometimes used the furnished paper ballots to write requests for particular public services. For example, the 1985 elections to an Omsk soviet included instructions to move the airfield farther from the city center, construct a new music center, and build parking facilities for invalids. Subsequently, the Omsk soviet took steps to provide these services, all of which had the approval of the relevant party authorities.[9]

Vanguard Party[edit]

As he surveyed the European milieu in the late 1890s, Lenin found several problems with the Marxism of his day. Contrary to what Marx had predicted, capitalism had strengthened itself over the last third of the 19th century. The working class in western Europe had not become impoverished; rather, its prosperity had risen. Hence, the workers and their unions, although continuing to press for better wages and working conditions, failed to develop the revolutionary class consciousness that Marx had expected. Lenin also argued that the division of labor in capitalist society prevented the emergence of proletarian class consciousness. Lenin wrote that because workers had to labor ten or twelve hours each workday in a factory, they had no time to learn the complexities of Marxist theory.

Based on his observations, It has been argued that Lenin shifted the engine of proletarian revolution from the working class to a tightly knit party of intellectuals. Lenin wrote in What is to be Done (1902) that the "history of all countries bears out the fact that through their own powers alone, the working class can develop only a trade-union consciousness." That is, history had demonstrated that the working class could engage in local, spontaneous rebellions to improve its position within the capitalist system but that it lacked the understanding of its interests necessary to overthrow that system. Pessimistic about the proletariat's ability to acquire class consciousness, Lenin argued that the bearers of this consciousness were déclassé intellectuals who made it their vocation to conspire against the capitalist system and prepare for the dictatorship of the proletariat. Lenin also held that because Marx's thought was set forth in a sophisticated body of philosophical, economic, and social analysis, a high level of intellectual training was required to comprehend it. Hence, for Lenin in 'What is to be done', those who would bring about the revolution must devote all their energies and resources to understanding the range of Marx's thought. They must be professional activists having no other duties that might interfere with their efforts to promote revolution. However, Lenin never repeated the arguments in 'What is to be Done' and most of his writings bear out his belief that the working class, supported by its party, could bring about revolution and then rule, as the majority of society, in a socialist system.

The Communist Party of the Soviet Union continued to regard itself as the institutionalization of Marxist–Leninist consciousness in the Soviet Union, and therein lay the justification for the controls it exercised over Soviet society. Article 6 of the 1977 Soviet Constitution referred to the party as the "leading and guiding force of Soviet society and the nucleus of its political system, of all state organizations and public organizations." The party, precisely because it was the bearer of Marxist–Leninist ideology, determined the general development of society, directed domestic and foreign policy, and "imparts a planned, systematic, and theoretically substantiated character" to the struggle of the Soviet people for the victory of communism.[10]


Milovan Djilas wrote of the nomenklatura in his book The New class, and that it was widely seen (and resented) by ordinary citizens as a bureaucratic élite that enjoyed special privileges and had simply supplanted the earlier wealthy capitalist élites. The nomenklatura referred to the Communist party's authority to make appointments to key positions throughout the governmental system, as well as throughout the party's own hierarchy. Coextensive with the nomenklatura were patron-client relations. Officials who had the authority to appoint individuals to certain positions cultivated loyalties among those whom they appointed. The patron (the official making the appointment) promoted the interests of clients in return for their support. Powerful patrons, such as the members of the Politburo, had many clients. Moreover, an official could be both a client (in relation to a higher-level patron) and a patron (to other, lower-level officials).

Because a client was beholden to his patron for his position, the client was eager to please his patron by carrying out his policies. The Soviet power structure essentially consisted of groups of vassals (clients) who had an overlord (the patron). The higher the patron, the more clients the patron had. Patrons protected their clients and tried to promote their careers. In return for the patron's efforts to promote their careers, the clients remained loyal to their patron. Thus, by promoting his clients' careers, the patron could advance his own power.

Some Marxists, such as Ernest Mandel, have criticised Djilas and the theory of state capitalism: "The hypothesis that the Soviet bureaucracy is a new ruling class does not correspond to a serious analysis of the real development and the real contradictions of Soviet society and economy in the last fifty years. Such a hypothesis must imply, from the point of view of historical materialism, that a new exploitative mode of production has emerged in that country. If this were so, we would be confronted, for the first time in history, with a “ruling class” whose general behavior and private interests (which of course dictate that behavior) run counter to the needs and inner logic of the existing socio-economic system. Indeed, one of the main characteristics of the Soviet economy is the impossibility of reconciling the needs of planning, of optimizing economic growth (not from an “absolute” point of view, but from within the logic of the system itself) with the material self-interest of the bureaucracy."[11]

Constitutions which implemented soviets[edit]

In the USSR[edit]

1918 Constitution[edit]

The first constitution, the 1918 Soviet Constitution, described the regime that assumed power in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. This constitution gave broad guarantees of equal rights to workers and peasants. It denied, however, the right of social groups that opposed the new government or supported the White armies in the Civil War (1918–21) to participate in elections to the soviets or to hold political power.

Supreme power rested with the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, made up of deputies from local soviets across Russia. The steering committee of the Congress of Soviets—known as the Central Executive Committee of the Congress of Soviets—acted as the "supreme organ of power" between sessions of the congress and as the collective presidency of the state.

The congress recognized the Council of People's Commissars (Sovet narodnykh kommissarov, or Sovnarkom) as the administrative arm of the young government. The Sovnarkom had exercised governmental authority from November 1917 until the adoption of the 1918 constitution. The constitution made the Sovnarkom responsible to the Congress of Soviets for the "general administration of the affairs of the state." The constitution enabled the Sovnarkom to issue decrees carrying the full force of law when the congress was not in session. The congress then routinely approved these decrees at its next session.

1924 Constitution[edit]

The 1924 Soviet Constitution legitimated the December 1922 union of the Russian SFSR, the Ukrainian SSR, the Byelorussian SSR, and the Transcaucasian SFSR to form the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. This constitution also altered the structure of the central government. The constitution divided the Central Executive Committee into the Soviet of the Union, which would represent the constituent republics, and the Soviet of Nationalities, which would represent the interests of nationality groups. The Presidium of the Central Executive Committee served as the collective presidency. Between sessions of the Central Executive Committee, the Presidium supervised the government administration. The Central Executive Committee also elected the Sovnarkom, which served as the executive arm of the government.[12]

1936 Constitution[edit]

The 1936 Soviet Constitution, adopted on December 5, 1936, and also known as the "Stalin Constitution," redesigned the government. The constitution repealed restrictions on voting and added universal direct suffrage and the right to work to rights guaranteed by the previous constitution. The constitution also provided for the direct election of all government bodies and their reorganization into a single, uniform system.

The 1936 constitution changed the name of the Central Executive Committee to the Supreme Soviet of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Like its predecessor, the Supreme Soviet contained two chambers: the Soviet of the Union and the Soviet of Nationalities. The constitution empowered the Supreme Soviet to elect commissions, which performed most of the Supreme Soviet's work. As under the former constitution, the Presidium exercised the full powers of the Supreme Soviet between sessions and had the right to interpret laws. The chairman of the Presidium became the titular head of state. The Sovnarkom (after 1946 known as the Council of Ministers) continued to act as the executive arm of the government.

1977 Constitution[edit]

Like the 1936 constitution, the 1977 Soviet Constitution used direct election of all government bodies and used the name "Soviet" for certain of these bodies.

Outside the USSR[edit]

Constitutions of Eastern-bloc States[edit]

Similarly to the USSR, the Constitutions of the Warsaw Pact states implemented bodies equivalent to soviets de facto. However, the National Parliaments were not formally integrated into the system.


The 1953 Yugoslav Constitution introduced the idea of self-management in a way to establish legal foundations for workers' control over enterprises and expand local government power.

1948 Constitution of Italy[edit]

The system was partially implemented in Italy at the Adoption of the 1948 Constitution and gradually abolished in the 1990s. Originally, the chief executives (Governors in Regions, Commissioners in Provinces, and Mayors in Communes), and assessori (members of the executive) in all three levels of italian local government, were elected by the relevant local council; direct election of local chief executives and appointment of assessori by them, was substituted in the Provincial and Communal levels in 1993 and in the Regional level in 1999. The Italian Communist Party's manifesto included expading this pseudo-soviet system into a full soviet system by introducing worker's councils.

See also[edit]


 This article incorporates public domain material from the Library of Congress Country Studies website

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  8. ^ See note regarding Library of Congress Country Studies. Chapter 7 - The Communist Party. Democratic Centralism
  9. ^ See note regarding Library of Congress Country Studies. Chapter 8 - Government Structure and Functions
  10. ^ See note regarding Library of Congress Country Studies. Chapter 7 - The Communist Party
  11. ^
  12. ^ "О преобразовании Совета Народных Комиссаров СССР в Совет Министров СССР и Советов Народных Комиссаров Союзных и Автономных республик в Советы Министров Союзных и Автономных республик" 15 марта 1946 года [On Reforming the Council of People's Commissars into the Council of Ministers, and the Councils of People's Commissars of Union and Autonomous Republics into the Councils of Ministers of Union and Autonomous Republics, 15 March 1946]. Legislation of the USSR 1946-1952 (in Russian). World and Market Economy - Collection of Articles on Economy, Igor Averin. Retrieved 3 October 2010. 

External links[edit]

Anti-Soviet works on Soviet democracy[edit]

Soviet and pro-Soviet works on Soviet democracy[edit]