In 1936, Stalin unveiled a new constitution.
The New York Times enthused: “Today, when the democratic-bourgeois cause is on the defensive…the proposed new Soviet Constitution brings it unexpected aid and comfort.” The document in question promised broad civil liberties and economic guarantees to all Soviet citizens. It received a rapturous response from many in Europe and the United States who thought it compared favorably with America’s constitution, particularly in light of the Great Depression.
But what did this new constitution really mean for life in the Soviet Union, especially considering the fact that the country was, at that very moment, descending into the savage political persecution of Stalin’s Great Purge? And why did a man as uninterested in legal niceties as Stalin put so much work into writing a constitution?
To understand law in the Soviet Union, it is necessary to start with its revolutionary founder. Vladimir Lenin—who had studied law as a young man—argued that bourgeois law was merely a means of repression of the proletariat. As such, a revolutionary dictatorship would use violence, not the law, to maintain power. And once the revolution was firmly ensconced in power, law would be nothing more than an “organ of power of the proletariat” and “an instrument for inculcating discipline.” In practice, this meant a primitive and utilitarian sort of “justice” with few norms, little standardization, and no legal protections for potential victims.
But where Lenin saw the law as a tool of limited importance that would “wither away” along with the state, his successor Stalin came to a different conclusion. By 1929, party and state in the USSR were growing in strength rather than disappearing. And if the law could be used as a tool of state power, Stalin intended to use it to its fullest.
Stalin repurposed Lenin’s vaguely defined term “socialist legality” to redefine the place of law in Soviet society. In particular, he established a legal system with its own formal rules—which would legitimize and standardize, to a degree, the application of violence. But, as was repeatedly made clear at the time, such a system of law was always to come second to “party policy.” In Lenin’s own words, “when law hinders the development of a revolution, it must be abolished or amended.”
In practice, “socialist legality” was a shoddy façade hiding Stalin’s vicious deployment of state power against society. During Stalin’s Great Purge, the closest thing to due process most people experienced was a secret trial at the hands of a “troika” of three NKVD officials who served as a collective judge and jury. While Stalin’s secret police constantly sought documented confessions from the arrested, this did nothing to provide due process, or to slow the rate of executions or arrests. Given the huge numbers arrested, any notion of legality could be little more than rudimentary. The only exceptions were cases of national significance, when it was deemed necessary to stage a theatrical demonstration of “socialist legality” in the form of a show trial.
This was the context for the constitution of 1936. As scholar J. Arch Getty has shown, Stalin, who served as chair of the constitutional commission, personally invested great time into the project. After over a year of meetings and negotiations, the document came into force on December 5, 1936 amidst considerable international fanfare.
The Constitution was portrayed, including by Stalin himself, as a model for the “Progressive World.” It guaranteed freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly. It provided an economic bill of rights guaranteeing national healthcare, social security, free education, and other social benefits—though these rights were expressly held only by workers, not the entire public. The Constitution also supposedly “liberalized” the Soviet electoral system. To that point, elections had been indirect, voter rolls limited to certain classes, and with voting ballots made public. After the Constitution—in theory—universal suffrage was restored, the secret ballot introduced, and direct elections to various political bodies introduced.
In fact, as Getty has shown, the central purpose of the new constitution was to further centralize power in Moscow. The first post-revolutionary Soviet constitution had given considerable autonomy to the Soviet Union’s republics. Stalin sought to eliminate these alternate centers of power and reorganize the state bureaucracy accordingly. The other legal and electoral changes made in the 1936 constitution were entirely cosmetic. The pledge to open and contested elections remained in place only from December 1936 to October 1937, when the Central Committee decided to return to its single-candidate, Communist-only electoral position. A few brave souls had publicly evinced interest in contesting the 1937 elections; with the change in the Central Committee’s position, most disappeared into the maw of the Great Terror.
None of the other guaranteed rights—economic, social, or political—were honored at the time or afterwards. As had already been stated publicly by Soviet state officials, Soviet law came second to the rule of the party and the exigencies of power. In fact, the Constitution marked the intensification of the purges, which intentionally trampled on all possible legal norms in the name of the extermination of traitors, saboteurs, and enemies of the state.
To what degree were these various legal measures a utilitarian exercise to strengthen the Communist Party’s hold on power? While the political usefulness of “socialist legality” is clear, most of Lenin’s and Stalin’s concepts on the place of law in a socialist state were well-founded in Marx’s own writings. In the words of Martin Krygier, “Marx’s thought offered… considerable support to the repressive, ideological and purely instrumental uses of law and the rejection and destruction of the rule of law, which were characteristic of communism.” For Marx, the rule of law for a proletarian state should have no other end than the suppression elements hostile to the revolution. To that idea, Lenin and Stalin were faithful adherents.