Stalin’s communist constitution: Making repression and murder the ‘law of the land’

Stalin’s 1936 constitution made repression and murder the law of the land in the Soviet Union. And The New York Times raved about it.

Ian Ona Johnson in Dissident:

Stalin’s Constitution

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.”

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1 thought on “Stalin’s communist constitution: Making repression and murder the ‘law of the land’”

  1. One could say the NYT was so, uh, open-minded that its brain fell out, but that would be far too kind.

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