SOVIET-ERA AND COMMUNIST GOVERNMENTS

SOVIET-ERA AND COMMUNIST GOVERNMENTS

The Soviet-era Communist government was regarded as a dictatorship of the Proletariat. Participation in the government was limited to members of the Communist Party. Political power was concentrated in the Politburo of the Communist Party.

The Communist Party was organized according to Lenin's principal of "democratic centralism." In theory it was supposed to be made up elected officials in various units from the local to the national Party Congress level. In practice power flowed in the opposite direction. Delegates were generally selected from the top and voted in automatically by local and republic level. The top priority of Marxist-Leninism was to stay in power at all costs. The second was the that party was always right.

The Soviet Union was a single-party, bureaucratic, authoritarian state in which market economics was allowed to exist is some forms but many rights that were considered basic in democracies were denied. The ruling regime and party had near complete control over the government. Social stability and the unchallenged rule of the Communist Party were among the primary goals of leaders. The system of governance was a combination of centralism and federalism, with a certain degree of autonomy granted to local governments.

The later Soviet government was regarded as an authoritarian government not a totalitarian on like the one that existed under Mao and Stalin. Communist governments have traditionally been very opaque. It was difficult to see how decisions were made and how policy was shaped. What one usually saw was rubber stamps of decisions that had been made behind the scenes. A lack of accountability, systematic corruption throughout party ranks and the release of inaccurate statistics for political purposes were also characteristics of the regime.

Nomenklatyra ("Lost of nominees") was a system of specified ranks. It often was used to describe the Soviet-era party elite, the bureaucratic class. The new nomenklatura is an unofficial network of powerful bureaucrats, former powerful party members an military officers.

Communist Symbols

Soviet Flag: In 1889, the International Working Men's Association (also known as the First International) declared the red flag in commemoration of those who spilled their blood fighting for labor rights. The hammer is a symbol of factory workers and the sickle is a symbol of agricultural workers.

In 1889, the International Working Men's Association (also known as the Second International) was held to organize workers in all countries as a way of preventing war. May Day was declared as the international worker's holiday and the red flag was adopted as the worker’s flag in commemoration of those who spilled their blood fighting for labor rights. The "First International", an alliance of socialist parties formed by Marx and Engels, was a congress held in 1864.

"The Internationale" is a widely-sung left-wing anthem. It has been one of the most recognizable and popular songs of the socialist movement since the late 19th century, when the Second International (now the Socialist International) adopted it as its official anthem. The author of the anthem's lyrics, Eugène Pottier, attended the first Internationale. The original French refrain of the song is C'est la lutte finale / Groupons-nous et demain / L'Internationale / Sera le genre humain. (English: "This is the final struggle / Let us group together and tomorrow / The Internationale / Will be the human race.") "The Internationale" has been translated into many languages. It is often sung with the left hand raised in a clenched fist salute and is sometimes followed (in English-speaking places) with a chant of "The workers united will never be defeated." "The Internationale" has been celebrated by socialists, communists, anarchists, democratic socialists, and social democrats. [Source: Wikipedia]

Soviet-Era Leadership

The Communist Party leader was the head of government and held the office of either General Secretary, Premier or head of state, or some of the three offices concurrently—but never all three at the same time. The party leader was the de facto chairman of the CPSU Politburo and the chief executive of the USSR. The general secretary was the title of the head of the Communist party Secretariat, who presided over the Politburo and was the Soviet Union's de facto supreme leader. From 1953 until 1966, the title was changed to first secretary.

Usually the leader of the Soviet Union was referred to as the First Secretary, General Secretary or Chairman of the Communist Party. He was formally selected by the Central Committee but often emerged after power struggle with the upper echelons of the party that sometimes lasted several years. The Premier (Prime Minister) was usually someone different and was usually less powerful that the First Secretary. Sometimes the First Secretary was also the Premier, as was the case with Nikita Khrushchev.

The Politburo ruled the government and determined policy. It was comprised of 11 members and 8 candidates selected by Central Committee. Politburo means “Political Bureau.” The Politburo was made up primarily of long-time party faithful who had various titles which often had little relation to how much power they possessed. The Secretariat was the party’s chief executive body. It was comprised of a general secretary and 10 other members and was selected by the Central Committee.

The Central Committee had the authority to run the government between sessions of the Party Congress. It was comprised of 195 members and 165 alternates that met every six months and were technically elected by the Party Congress but in reality were picked in backroom deals by the Communist Party elite and rubber stamped by the Party Congress. Party Congress was comprised of about 5,000 members who met every four or five years. It technically elected the Central Committee and its members were said to have been elected but thus was all a show.

The 32-member Presidium acted between sessions of the Supreme Soviet (the Soviet legislature). Its members were chosen in a joint session of both chambers of the Supreme Soviet from among its members. The Chairman of the Presidium, the President, was the titular head of the Soviet Union. The Presidium also included 15 vice chairmen, 15 members and a secretary.

The Council of Ministers, which included the Premier and his deputies, was the highest executive organ. It was also appointed by the Supreme Soviet and was comprised of a chairman, three first deputy chairmen, eight deputies ad some 70 minorities or heads of organizations of ministerial rank. It's chairman was the Premier.

Communist Leadership in China

The primary leadership positions in China are: 1) the President; 2) the General Secretary of the Communist Party; and 3) the Chairman of the Central Military Commission, the de facto head of the military. China has a Prime Minister but he is generally regarded as the No. 2 or No. 3 person in power. He is nominated by the President and confirmed by the National People's Congress. The chairman of the National People's Congress is considered the No. 2 leader in China. These days the President is responsible for domestic and foreign policy. The Prime Minister is largely regarded as China's economic czar. He is responsible for economic policy.

In China, the presidency is often regarded as the weakest of the three primary leadership position. The leadership of the Communist Party is essential because the party rules the country. Leadership of the military is also essential because it provides the muscle behind the party. Both Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin retained the position of Chairman of the Central Military Commission as way of maintaining power behind the scenes after giving up the positions of president and party leader.

Some principal leaders have held all three primary leadership positions; some haven’t. Traditionally the three primary leadership positions and the Prime Minister job were held by different people. Under Deng Xiaoping, Hu Yaobang was party chief and Zhao Ziyang was prime minister and Lia Xian Nian was President . `To bolster his relatively weak position Jiang Zemin took the Presidency, Party Secretary and top military job, a trend continued by Hu Jintao.

Functioning of the Government Leadership

Under Soviet and Communist regimes, the selection of members and positions, the shaping of policy and the making of the decisions took place in a shadowy, mysterious world of the upper ranks of the Communists party. What went on was little understood by outsiders but was thought to have been characterized by alliance building, political purges, maneuvering against rivals and powers shifts among individuals.

The Communist government had no clear rules for succession. Richard Pipes wrote that “one reached the top through conspiracy and by concealing one’s aspirations to power....the population at large had as much influence in events as the chorus in a Greek drama.”

According to the Economist, "Communist Party officials function as a ruling class. They are a self-selected group accountable to nobody. They oversee government and industry, courts and parliaments...elections are allowed for 'people's congresses'—so long as the party does not object to the contestants...A party committee keeps watch within every institution of government at every level. The system was copied from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, but expanded in translation."

Central Committee

The Communist Party's Central Committee was made up primarily of provincial party leaders and important party members chosen from among the delegates at the party congress. It included the top leaders and important leaders from the party, the state and the armed forces. Elected with in the party for five year terms, the members met in a plenary session about once a year .

All major policy decisions were made at the top by the Politburo and the Central Committee. Technically, the central committee was “elected” by the delegates, but members were largely pre-selected by party elites. The Central Committee chose the ruling Politburo.

Political power was formally vested in the Central Committee and the other central organs answerable directly to this committee.Central Committee meetings were known as plenums (or plenary sessions), and each plenum of a new Central Committee was numbered sequentially. Plenums were held at least annually. In addition, there were partial, informal, and enlarged meetings of Central Committee members where often key policies were formulated and then confirmed by a plenum. The Central Committee's large size and infrequent meetings made it necessary for the Central Committee to direct its work through its smaller elite bodies such as the Politburo. [Source: Library of Congress]

History of the Soviets and Communist Seizure of Power

Soviet means “Council.” In the early 20th century, Social Democrats formed worker's councils ( Soviets) in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Led by representatives chosen by their members, they provided a kind of shadow government while the tsarist regime crumbled and took up revolutionary activity to weaken the tsarist regime. The Soviets were very successful. The St. Petersburg Soviet, led by Leon Trotsky, organized a general strike that brought the country to it knees in 1905. Nicholas II gave in to its demands. After the tsar abdicated real power was in the hands of thousands of local councils (the Soviets) that had sprung up all over the country. The Bolsheviks used a propaganda campaign to gain control of many of them.

The collapse of the monarchy left two rival political institutions--the Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet--to share administrative authority over the country. The Petrograd Soviet, drawing its membership from socialist deputies elected in factories and regiments, coordinated the activities of other soviets that sprang up across Russia at this time. The Petrograd Soviet was dominated by moderate socialists of the Socialist Revolutionary Party and by the Menshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The Bolsheviks took advantage of their sudden popularity and seized control of the Petrograd Soviet, chaired by Leon Trotsky, a Menshevik-turned- Bolshevik. The Petrograd Soviet was the most powerful council and it had a strong influence on the other Soviets scattered across Russia. After Lenin and the Bolsheviks outmaneuvered the Provisional Government in October 1917 to take control of Russia, the Bolsheviks and left-wing Socialist Revolutionaries declared the soviets the governing bodies of Russia and named the Council of People's Commissars (Sovet narodnykh kommissarov--Sovnarkom) to serve as the cabinet. Lenin became chairman of this council.

At the All-Russian Congress meeting in Petrograd on November 7, 1917 Soviets from across the country were made the ruling councils of Russia and they in turn were controlled by a "parliament" called the Soviet Central Executive Committee. Local soviets were able seize power from the government relatively easily. Some fighting occurred in Moscow and other cities but within a week the Bolsheviks were firmly in control. Scheduled elections were held in November. More than half the male population voted, with Kerensky's rural Socialist party taking 55 percent of vote and Bolsheviks taking 25 percent. When the Constituent Assembly, comprised of representatives elected in November, met in January 1918 it was disbanded on its first day by the Bolsheviks, ending Russia’s short-lived experiment in parliamentary democracy.

A Council of People's Commissars, headed by Lenin, became the government. In the first days of the regime, the Constituent Assembly was closed as the leaders of rival parties such as the Kadets and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries were murdered. In December 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, the Soviet Union) was established by the leaders of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks). It was comprised of the four entities: the Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian, and Transcaucasian republics. By the late 1930s, there were 11 republics, all with government structures and ruling communist parties identical to the one in the Russian Republic. The 15 Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs) that existed at the time the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 were established by 1940.

Soviet-Era Legislatures

Soviet bloc and Eastern European countries generally had a unicameral or bicameral legislature with deputies (representatives) from Communist Party or parties affiliated with the Communist party. Deputies were technically elected to four year terms and legislature met once or twice a year.

The Soviet legislature was called the Supreme Soviet. Soviet means “Council.” The Supreme Soviet was the Communist equivalent of a parliament. It was comprised of two chambers: the Soviet of the Union (Council of the Union) , with 791 members; and the Soviet of Nationalities with 652 members. The deputies (representatives) came from the 15 Soviet republics (25 from each), the 20 autonomous republics (11 from each), 8 autonomous regions (5 from each) and 10 national districts (1 from each). The Soviet of the Union was composed of one deputy for every 300,000 people in the general population. Deputies were elected to four year terms and each house met twice a year.

The Congress of People's Deputies was established in 1988 by constitutional amendment, the highest organ of legislative and executive authority in the Soviet Union. As such, it elected the Supreme Soviet, the Soviet Union's standing legislative body. The Congress of People's Deputies elected in March-April 1989 consisted of 2,250 deputies. The congress ceased to exist with the demise of the Soviet Union.

Communist legislatures were rubber stamp organization, democratic in name only, with little power. They were made up of obedient deputies who without fail voted the party line. The deputies were invariably Communist Party functionaries, although technically they weren't required to be, and were not democratically elected. There was little or no opportunity for debate and members didn’t dare challenge proposals of the leadership.

The 32-member Presidium acted between sessions of the Supreme Soviet. Its members were chosen in a joint session of both chambers of the Supreme Soviet from among its members. The Chairman of the Presidium, the President, was the titular head of the Soviet Union. The Presidium also included 15 vice chairmen, 15 members and a secretary.

The Council of Ministers, which included the Premier and his deputies, was the highest executive organ. It was also appointed by the Supreme Soviet and was comprised of a chairman, three first deputy chairmen, eight deputies ad some 70 minorities or heads of organizations of ministerial rank. It's chairman was the Premier.

Women generally made up less than 20 percent of Communist party members. Few women sat on the Central Committee and none were in the Politburo.

Party Congresses and Plenums

Soviet-era Party Congresses were comprised of about 5,000 members who met every four or five years. They elected the Central Committee. The representatives were selected by the local and regional party congresses. The Party Congress was arguably the most important event on the political calendar because it was the showcase event for the Communist Party and the Communist Party was the most powerful institution. Party Congresses formally ratified laws, established policy, affirmed leadership positions and selected members of the Central Committee and Politburo. Important speeches were given. The main meetings were televised nationwide.

Party congresses put their stamp of approval on policies and candidates already vetted by the Central Committee. Most decisions were made before the congress during months of negotiating between the members of the Central Committee and the Politburo, with intense rounds of deal making taking place in the weeks before the congress began. During the congresses endorsements were often made with a show of hands or affirmative shouts.

Central Committee meetings were known as plenums (or plenary sessions). Each plenum of a new Central Committee was numbered sequentially. Plenums were generally closed door meetings that last for around four days, They could be very important. Plenums were generally held amidst tight security and heavy secrecy. No one except the participants knew what went on there. Policy rubber stamped at Party Congress was often shaped during the plenums. The content of the meetings was kept tightly under wraps. There were no details in the press about the agenda or discussion just some vague statements about broad topics. Whatever information was released was released after the meetings are over. Plenums that endorsed five year plans, held every five years, were important political events.

Elections and Political Parties

Voting age: 18.

There were "free" elections but people who were not members of the Communist party were not allowed to run. Voting usually didn't take long. Each postcard-size ballot often had only one name on it. Sometimes two party members ran for the same office.

The only parties were the Communist Party or parties affiliated with the Communist party. Opposition parties were not tolerated

Soviet-style election campaigns consisted of making a poster with your identity card picture on it and sending flowers and meeting with the “right” people. Voters received a carnation the first time they participated in an election.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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