The New Russian Constitution
Will it make any difference?
At the end of November a Special Soviet Congress met to adopt, with a few amendments, the Draft Constitution drawn up by committee under Stalin and published earlier in the year. All sorts of people have placed it on record that in their view the new Constitution is an epoch-making event. That the Russian ruling clique say so is not surprising – after all, they drafted it. That many experts on constitutional law say so, too, is not important, for they are commonly prone to judge laws from the academic standpoint of the lawyer, unaware of or indifferent to the fact that the constitutions only have meaning, in systems of society where class antagonisms exist, in the light of their use as instruments for the contending classes. That a number of foreign commentators have hastened to assure us that this is a “Socialist” constitution would be interesting if it were not that the individuals concerned are all of them persons notorious for their opposition to Socialism and for their efforts to impose on the working class a modified form of capitalism, such as that favoured by the Fabians and the Labour Party. What, then, is the significance of the new Constitution? Does it mean a new and different Russia? Why was it introduced? And what effect is it likely to have?
Russiais not a Socialist country – its low industrial productivity and the non-Socialist outlook of the vast majority of its population do not bring such a thing within the realms of present possibility. It is based on various forms of state capitalism. Goods are produced, not for use only, but for sale at a profit. Industry is carried on largely on lines familiar to us in the Post Office and other State-capitalist organisations outside Russia. The Russian Government borrows from investors (mostly Russian citizens) hundreds of millions pf pounds for investment in industry, and pays them a high rate of interest on their investments; this payment to the investors being the first charge on industry. Inside the industries there are the same kind of gradations of pay as in capitalist industry generally from the mass of workers on or about the bare subsistence level at the bottom up through numerous grades to the very favoured few at the top who can enjoy the most pleasant and interesting work and live on high standard of comfort and luxury. The comparison between Russian State capitalist industry and British Post Office is an appropriate one, because Lenin, who would have been horrified at the present trends in Russia, used the Post Office as an illustration of the policy of the Communists. He pointed out that Communist policy, of the period before Communism became possible, would involve putting the whole of the officials, engineers, clerical staffs, etc., on the same level of wages as the industrial workers. The Russian Government long ago abandoned all pretence of this.
We may then ask the question whether the new Constitution means going back to Lenin’s conceptions, and thus abandoning Stalinite policy of increasing the inequalities between the favoured few and unprivileged many. There is no doubt about the answer. Neither the Constitution nor Stalin gives the slightest indication of any such reversal of policy. Those in control in Russia intend to maintain the economic foundations of Russian industry and agriculture essentially as they are at present.
FREEDOM TO AGREE WITH THE GOVERNMENT
The admirers of the Constitution who claim to be democrats, have singled out as its most gratifying feature the promise of freedom of speech, freedom of meetings, freedom from arbitrary arrests, etc., contained in articles 124 to 128. They certainly read well (except for one omission, which makes them farcical, anyway, and of which we shall have more to say below). There is, however, one circumstance which demands that we wait and see before hailing these promises as evidence that Russia is going to turn over a new leaf. The circumstance is that an almost identical promise was made in the 1918 Constitution, in articles 14 to 16. Nobody has given any reason why the Russian Government’s promise to observe these rights in future should be treated with any more respect than the broken promises of the past, for they have been consistently treated as scraps of paper.
The fatal omission referred to above is that there is no promise to allow non-Communist political parties. Stalin’s Government has stated explicitly that it intends to maintain rightly the existing practice which forbids the existence of any political party in Russia in opposition to the Communist Party, in opposition, that is, to the ruling clique. As Bukharin happily phrased it many years ago: “There is room in Russia for any number of political parties, provided that one of them is in power and the others in prison.” (Bukharin since then has managed to fall foul of the ruling group and perhaps does not think that this arrangement is so pleasant as it looked when he was in favour.) So the Russian Government will continue to prevent the Russian workers, or any minority of them who want to do so, from forming the equivalent in Russia of the Labour Party, the S.P.G.B., or any other party which differs from the official party, the Communist Party. Such a prohibition makes the promise of freedom of association of little account, even if the Government intended it to mean something. For so long as it can be enforced it also reduces to a farce the talk of democratic elections to the newly constituted Russian Parliament, although, ultimately, opposition to the official policy may become so strong that it cannot be ignored or suppressed.
Stalin has given his explanation why this prohibition must be maintained. Here it is, taken from the official report of his speech on November 25th, 1936 (The Draft New Constitution, Anglo-Russian Parliamentary Committee. Price 3d.):-
“I must admit that the Draft New Constitution really does leave in force the régime of the dictatorship of the working-class, and also leaves unchanged the present leading position of the Communist Party in the U.S.S.R. …. Several parties, and consequently freedom of parties, can only exist in a society where there are antagonistic classes whose interests are hostile and irreconcilable, where there are, say, capitalists and workers, landlords and peasants, kulaks and poor peasants, and so on. There are only two classes in the U.S.S.R., workers and peasants, whose interests are not only not antagonistic, but, on the contrary, are amicable.
“Consequently, there is no ground in the U.S.S.R. for the existence of several parties, and, therefore, for freedom of such parties.” (Pages 20-21.)
The gist of the argument is that in Russia there are only two classes but only one class interest, because the two classes are not antagonistic. The first criticism of this statement is that it dismissed the cleavage of interests between peasants and workers, and it leaves out of account, as if they did not exist, the elaborate arrangements by means of which an officially favoured minority of the Russian citizens can enjoy a very high standard of living, which stands in increasing contrast with the conditions of the great majority. In this, and in the investment system, and in the laws which permit the inheritance of property, Russia is facing a progressive differentiation into classes. Why did Stalin nowhere refer to this important aspect of Russian life?
Again, if Stalin’s statement really fit the facts he need not waste his time telling foreigners about them. All he has to do is to tell the Russian workers and peasants. Surely, if the facts are as he says, they believe him and accordingly not have the slightest wish to form opposition political parties, for these would be useless and purposeless. In other words, if Stalin’s statement is true, there is no need to forbid the formation of opposition parties, because nobody would want to form them; who do, therefore, believe them necessary; and who, therefore, reject Stalin’s specious argument.
As against all this unconvincing pleading by the Communists, the complete answer is that the workers in Russia are quite capable of knowing, or of learning by experience, whether, they want non-Communist organisations. Stalin’s argument would only carry conviction if he were prepared to place his views before the Russian workers and leave it for their own judgment freely to decide whether they wanted such organisations or not. His action in forcibly preventing their formation shows that he does not believe that the Russian workers agree with his statement.
Certain other aspects of the new Constitution deserve brief mention. Apart from the prohibition of opposition parties, the Constitution follows the lines of Republican democratic constitutions in other countries as regard the actual machinery of elections. Thus it institutes direct election of representative form of the constituencies to the two chambers of the central “parliament” (named the Council of the Union and Council of Nationalities), and abandons the indirect system of election used in the Soviets under the old constitution. Then the Central body was appointed, not by the electors directly, but by a body of delegates who were themselves appointed by still other delegates, and so on down to the mass of the population themselves. Direct election is, of course, far superior to the indirect system, as was argued by the S.P.G.B. eighteen years ago, when the Bolsheviks and their blind worshippers were extravagantly praising the wonders of the Soviet system. One of the criticisms they used to make about the Parliamentary system in Great Britain was that the constituencies are far too big. Now we find that the Russian Constitution is based on constituencies of 300,000 population i.e., about four times as large as the average in this country. Another feature which they used to ridicule was basing the elections on a geographical area instead of workers grouped in the factory where they worked.
Then the Communists used to argue that the area basis is artificial, “like a slab of cold pudding.” Now, after eighteen years, they had to admit the truth of what the S.P.G. B. said at the time: that the democratic parliamentary system is superior from all points of view.
IS IT FOR WAR PURPOSES?
The question remains why the Russian Government introduced the new constitution, apart from the fact that it will probably be a more efficient administrative machine. That it gives equal representation to workers and peasants, whereas the old system gave town workers more representatives on the Soviets than they would have been entitled to on a population basis, suggests there is a desire to obtain more active support from the peasants then has been obtained in the past. This harmonises with a second suggestion that one motive of the Government is to gain all the support it can for a possible was of defence against Nazi Germany. At home the grant of the Constitution would encourage the population to rally to the Government, while abroad the Russian Government could more easily gain allies if the governments of the countries concerned (France, England, America) could represent to their populations that Russia is now a parliamentary democracy and therefore a fit and proper ally in a was against fascist countries. While this seems very plausible, it is stated by an American journalist, who is usually well informed about Russia, Mr. Louis Fischer, that Stalin had begun the work of re-drafting the Constitution as long ago as 1931, before the Nazis came to power in Germany. On the other hand, even if Mr. Fischer’s information is correct, we do not know that the new Constitution is the kind of thing Stalin had in mind in 1931, when he contemplated a revision.
Regarding the future, it may well be that the new Constitution will eventually provide the Russian workers with a useful instrument with which to organise for the achievement of Socialism, even though at present it forbids independent working-class organisation. It would not be the first time that changes introduced by the rulers with one purpose have been turned to the advantage of the ruled in a way not foreseen.