The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) was the founding and ruling political party of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The CPSU was the sole governing party of the Soviet Union until 1990 when the Supreme Soviet annulled the law which granted the CPSU a monopoly over the political system. The party was founded in 1912 by the Bolsheviks. The party was dissolved on in August 1991 soon after a failed coup d'état. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The Soviet constitution contained the provision that the CPSU was the "leading and guiding" force in the Soviet political system, the justification for its monopoly of power. The CPSU was organized on the basis of democratic centralism, a principle conceived by Lenin that entails democratic and open discussion of policy issues and the requirement of unity in upholding agreed policies. The highest body within the CPSU was the party Congress, which convened every five years. When the Congress was not in session, the Central Committee was the highest body. Because the Central Committee met twice a year, most day-to-day duties and responsibilities were vested in the Politburo, the Secretariat. +

The CPSU, according to its party statute, adhered to Marxism–Leninism, an ideology based on the writings of Vladimir Lenin and Karl Marx, and formalized under Joseph Stalin. The party pursued state socialism, under which all industries were nationalized and a planned economy was implemented. Before central planning was adopted in 1929, Lenin had introduced a mixed economy, commonly referred to as the New Economic Policy, in the 1920s. After Mikhail Gorbachev took power in 1985, rapid steps were taken to transform the economic system in the direction of a market economy. Gorbachev and some of his allies envisioned the introduction of an economy similar to Lenin's New Economic Policy through a program of perestroika, or restructuring, but the results of their reforms contributed to the fall of the entire system of government. +

The Communist Party is highly secretive, intensively bureaucratic and concerned first and foremost with self-reservation. Paul Theroux wrote in the late 1980s: "The Communist Party was like a Masonic order, just as mysterious as a brotherhood, possibly sinister, and just about as unenjoyable — -you had to be chosen, and the most supine and robotlike yes-men were the likeliest candidates." Staunch Communists pepper their speech with expressions like "class enemy" and "counter-revolutionary".


Founding of the Communist Party

In March 1918, the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (the Bolsheviks) officially was renamed the Russian Communist Party and the capital of the new Communist state was moved from Petrograd (St. Petersburg), where tsarist sympathies remained strong, to Moscow. Moscow was also father away from central Europe and viewed as safe from a German attack. The Bolsheviks (the majority faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party), a revolutionary group led by Lenin, seized power in the aftermath of the October Revolution of 1917.

The Communists took over the Russian government and created a dictatorship. University of London historian Geoffrey Hosking described it as "a new kind of imperial regime" which "rested on nothing more substantial than its own internal discipline." The Communists aimed to overhaul Russia’s economic and political systems. They took over the ownership of all land and assumed control over all industry, but they kept in place tsarist institutions such as the secret police, the Siberian labor camps and authoritarian rule for their own purposes.

As important as Lenin's activities were to the establishment of the Soviet Union, his legacy to the Soviet future was perhaps even more significant. By willingly changing his policies to suit new situations, Lenin had developed a pragmatic interpretation of Marxism (later called Marxist-Leninism) that implied that the party should follow any course that would ultimately lead to communism. His party, while still permitting intraorganizational debate, insisted that its members adhere to the organization's decisions once they were adopted, in accordance with the principle of democratic centralism. Finally, because the party embodied the dictatorship of the proletariat, organized opposition could not be tolerated, and adversaries would be prosecuted. Thus, although the Soviet regime was not totalitarian when he died, Lenin had nonetheless laid the foundation upon which such a tyranny would later arise. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Lenin wanted to achieve his goals as quickly as possible—no easy task. To achieve his goals he relied on suppression and brutality. Victor Chernov said: "Lenin was a man with a one-track mind. For that reason, his moral sense has been dulled. Lenin's socialism is a blunt socialism; he uses a big ax where a scalpel is needed."

Lenin based his goals on a rather unbalanced interpretation of Age of Enlightenment. He wanted to create a new society by reeducating and remodeling people in severe and brutal form of social engineering. His mode was later adopted by Mao and Pol Pot. One slogan found at a gulag read: “With an Iron Fist, We Will Lead Humanity to Happiness.

Lenin was committed to a one-party, one ideology self-preserving state. Lenin biographer Richard Pipes wrote, "Bolshevikism was the most audacious attempt in history to subject the entire life of a country to a master plan. It sought to sweep aside as useless rubbish the wisdom that mankind had accumulated over millennia. In that sense, it was a unique effort to apply science to human affairs: and it was pursued with the zeal characteristic of the breed of intellectuals who regard resistance to their ideas as proof that they are sound."

In December 1925, after the Soviet Union was created and Lenin had died, the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) was renamed the All-Union Communist Party (Bolshevik). In October 1952, under Stalin, the All-Union Communist Party (Bolshevik) became Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU); name of Politburo is changed to Presidium.

Communist Party, Organization and Power

While the Communist Party largely abandoned Marxist economics theory it retained its rigid Leninist structure. The top priority of Marxist-Leninism is to stay in power at all costs and maintain stability. A popular expression in the 1950s was “The party is the hands and the people are the feet."

The Communist Party was organized according to Lenin's principal of "democratic centralism." In theory power was supposed to be rooted in elected officials in various units from the local to Party Congress level and spread from the bottom to the top. In practice however power was rooted in the Politburo and Central Committee and flowed in the opposite direction. Local officials and Party Congress members were selected by the Central Committee and people that answer to them. They voted on the local and republic level in accordance with the leadership's wishes.

The party was represented in every village and every large or medium-sized enterprise in the country. The scope of its actions and concerns is much greater than that of its traditional predecessors.

Communist Party Members

About nine percent of the population were members of the Communist Party. In the Soviet Union about 20 percent were women and three percent were local party leaders. There were about twice as many members in the Young Communist League in the Communist Party. Perks for the Communist elite included money, travel privileges, dachas, right of children to enter university without passing exams, and access to food and products not available to ordinary people.

Party members were in a sense the heirs of the traditional gentry. They were a power-holding elite, dispersed over the whole country, and served as intermediaries between their own communities or units and the nation. They were recruited from the population at large on universalistic grounds of "merit," and they claimed authority by their mastery of an ideology that focused on government and public order. The ideology was contained in books, and party members were expected to be familiar with the basic texts, to continue studying them throughout their careers, and to apply them in concrete situations. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The differences between the traditional elite and the party are obvious. Party members were supposed to be revolutionaries, be devoted to changing society rather than restoring it, come from and represent the peasants and workers, and be willing to submit themselves totally and unreservedly to the party. On the whole, party members were distinctly less bookish and more military-oriented and outwardly egalitarian than traditional elites. Party members were preferentially recruited from the poor peasantry of the interior, from the army, and from the ranks of industrial workers; intellectuals usually found it difficult to enter the party. *

Not all party members held state jobs: some held village and township-level positions, and many armed forces enlisted personnel join the party during their service. (Indeed, a chance to join the party was one of the major attractions of military service for peasant youth.) Party members direct all enterprises and institutions and dominate public life and discussion. Anyone with ambitions to do more than his or her daily job or work in a narrow professional specialty must join the party.

The Communist Party carefully screened prospective members before admitting them and then sent them through a rigorous indoctrination program. Only a select few were allowed into the upper echelons of power. One woman told Theroux, "It is very hard to be a member. You don't volunteer. You have to be asked to join the Party. You must first act very well and leave a good impression. Do your work diligently—work overtime, study be obedient."

Joining the Communist Party

In universities and work places, promising members of the Communist Youth League were chosen to be members of the Communist Party. The Communist Youth League was the equivalent of the Young Pioneers for high school and university students. Most high school students joining for social reason and because they are required to. See Communist Youth League.

Party membership tended to be very selective. According to AP: “Applicants for party membership need recommendations from current members and his or her company or work unit leader showing a strong degree of party loyalty, plus “good behavior." They also have to submit essays expressing support for the party. [Source: AP, June 24, 2011]

Candidates were supposed to demonstrate their zeal, devotion to party principles, and willingness to make a total commitment to the party. Ideally, membership was a complete way of life, not a job, and selection for membership depended more on assessment of an individual's total personality and "moral" character than on specific qualifications or technical skills. Party members were the intermediaries who linked enterprises and communities with high-level structures, and they could belong to more than one organization, such as a factory and a municipal party body. Party membership was virtually a requirement for upward mobility or for opportunities to leave one's original work unit. [Source: Library of Congress]

The Communist Youth League was often an important stepping stone to joining and advancing in the Communist Party. It was the equivalent of the Young Pioneers for high school students. Most high school students joined for social reasons or because they were required to. In universities and work places, promising members of the Youth League were chosen to be members of the Communist Party.

Advancing in the Communist Party

While young people in the cities were often cynical about Communist Party rhetoric young people in other parts of the country often took it seriously and considered it an honor to join the party. Young people selected to join were often among the best and brightest.

The career of ambitious Communist officials was not unlike that of officers in the American military. Ambitious young officials were rotated through a series of management posts, punctuated with mid-career training at party schools. They were evaluated at the end of each command post, which determined whether they advanced or were sidetracked.

Party officials usually advanced their careers by attaching themselves to a high-up official. Loyalty and discipline were valued more than party virtues than ability or creativity. In recent years, members of the Communist Party have been required to repeldge their allegiance, a move that has been extremely unpopular with officials who thought their promotion would be based on economic performance that than political subservience.

Communist Politicians and the Cadre System

Communist officials were known as cadres. A cadre is defined by the Oxford University Press Dictionary as “a small group of people trained for a particular purpose or profession." Senior cadres were overwhelmingly male. The party and government cadre system was the rough equivalent of the civil service system in many other countries, The term cadre referred to a public official holding a responsible or managerial position, usually full time, in party and government. A cadre did no necessarily have to be a member of the Communist Party, although a person in a sensitive position almost certainly had to be a party member."Source: Library of Congress]

Communist Party politicians portrayed themselves as serious and loyal to the party. At party meetings they were shown lined up in rows, dressed in the same dark Western suits, clapping in unison to speeches by their leaders. They tended to give away little about their personalities, their personal and private lives, and their views on policy matters. Many Communist leaders were former engineers, trained to build from a plan.

Every leader at virtually every level had to be appointed, approved or otherwise sanctioned by the Communist Party. The goal for ambitious politicians and officials was to win a place on the Central Committee, with this leading to a governorship of a province or a post as a regional party secretary, with the aim of ultimately making it to the Politburo. The central authorities "most effective instrument" was "the power to appoint and dismiss governors, party secretaries and regional army commanders." Maintaining power was often a balancing act between rival factions A Communist ruler must lead as a first among equals. "He can't just issue edicts," one diplomat told Time magazine. "he has to marshal a consensus."

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."

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.

Last updated May 2016

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