A space for open discussion and blogging among communists and radicals.
Democracy, Elections, and Parties in Past and Future Socialist States.
Elect good people to do good things, 1953
by Andrei Kuznetsov
This following article isn't necessarily an essay- or is at most a rough draft of one that may be used at a future point for different purposes. However, it has been one that has been on my mind for some time in various shapes and forms, and one that I hope to dissect later in my personal professional career. After a long discussion yesterday with a comrade about the question- in which they challenged my heretofore positions on the subject- I hope this essay itself can spark some good discussion. I should also like to note that much of what I say is based on my current knowledge of the subjects at hand, so if at any point I am incorrect in facts or data, PLEASE by all means correct me so that I may make any necessary edits!
IT should be common sense (or is it?) that the communist goal within socialist society is to utilize the state as a democratic tool for exercising the proletariat's power and the emancipation of all humanity. In any exercising of state power, voting and elections will be part of that democratic process. But how have those elections worked in past socialist societies? What do we want elections to look like in the next wave of socialist revolutions? Where does the one-party state (or the dominant party state, the model which I more or less lean toward) system that has notably characterized Marxist-Leninist theory for the past 100 years come into play? Before I build on my own personal ideas of the future, let's get into how elections worked in past the main past socialist nations: the USSR and revolutionary-era China.
Male and Female Workers: All to the Soviet Elections! (1929)
Allow me to begin with explaining the de jure aspects of Soviet electoral law: According to the 1918 Constitution of the RSFSR Article 3-A, the Soviet people directly elected their local leadership, which in turn elected their leadership, all the way to the Congress of Soviets. In 1936, this was replaced with a Constitution that allowed for direct elections on all levels, from local, to republic, to All-Union.
Up until the 1930’s, it was not unusual- such as in the 1924 and 1929 elections- for there to be multi-candidate elections. Indeed, there were in fact instances of the Left Opposition and even the Russian Orthodox Church running candidates against the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. However, by 1936- with the Great Purge in full swing- it became “unwise” for citizens to stand for election against the general line of the Party, and thus the standard model of one-candidate elections was cemented.
Soviet electoral nomination rounds followed this formula: the local electorate would nominate a group of candidates. Meanwhile, the local government appointed an election committee to approve the candidates and supervise the election process. The election committee was a key element in the nomination round: the local government was already dominated by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, thus those who were appointed to the committee tended to be Party cadres themselves. While technically independent candidates could stand in elections, the election committee makeup almost always acted as a shoe-in for Party candidates and independent candidates tended to be from CPSU-led organizations such as the Komsomol, the trade unions, or the Red Army.
After the nomination round, the voting process could go two ways:
-The first involved voters being given a ballot with the candidate’s name on it and boxes to check either "Да" or "Нет". If the candidate got 51% or more "Da's", he or she was elected to the post. Conversely, however, if the candidate received a majority "Nyet's", another candidate was to be nominated in their place. However, the factor of the CPSU's candidates all sharing a general identical line on the majority of issues made variety somewhat scarce in most situations. While this gave the people some choice in the matter of individuals, one must think: how far did this really go in terms of true choice?
-The second, and far more common method. involved voters being given a ballot with the election committee-approved candidate's name on it. In order to vote "Da", one would simply drop the slip into the ballot box. However, in order to show one's disapproval of the candidate, a voter had to step aside and write such, in somewhat clear view, thus nullifying the principle of the secret ballot. Being seen voting "Nyet" for a Party candidate could be quite dangerous: it could put your career, social status, Party membership, and freedom on the line.
A ballot for the 1947 RSFSR republic-level general elections, in which Soviet citizen Ivan Burylov
wrote "komediya" - [a] comedy or [a] farce - in opposition to the candidate standing for election.
Comrade Burylov was sentenced to 8 years in the Gulag for spoiling his ballot and "obstructing
Because this second form of voting became the norm in the Soviet Union, elections- even during the period of actual socialism and the rule of the proletarian class- were reduced to a mere formality, with the Party winning 99% of the vote in every election.
(For more information of elections in the Soviet Union, see:
-Fitzpatrick, Sheila. 1999. Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s. New York: Oxford University Press.
-"State and Society Under Stalin: Constitutions and Elections in the 1930s," article by J. Arch Getty in Slavic Review, Vol. 50, No. 1 (Spring, 1991).
-Brown, Dan. "Soviet Local Government". Russia Today magazine, a pro-Moscow magazine from 1946.)
The persons we are most satisfied with have been elected, 1953
I will admit my knowledge of democratic process in the People's Republic of China under Mao Zedong is much more limited than that under the Soviet Union. However, I will give what I know for everyone to consider:
Several years ago I read about the election of local committees in William H. Hinton's Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village. In it, I recall that there was a electoral process similar to the early Soviet one in which local candidates were nominated and elected to the local village committees, who in turn elected the local region committees, et. al. The first all-China post-Revolution election, however, did not occur until 1953, which required the number of candidates to be equal to the number of seats needed to be filled (which, I gather, means that an election for a single seat meant a one-candidate election). However, while I have found a breadth of information on pre-1949 and post-1979 general elections, elections to legislative bodies outside of the Revolutionary Committees of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution seem to be rather scarce.
I do know that there is some significant contrast between the Soviet and Chinese models, however. For one thing, the Chinese model was (and is still) a multiparty one thanks to the United Front and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Committee. While revolutionary China was still a dominant party system, political parties such as the Revolutionary Committee of the Koumintang, China Democratic League, and the Chinese Peasants' & Workers' Democratic Party were allowed to stand in elections under the United Front coalition ticket. Although the United Front was led by the Communist Party (and thus allowing the United Front to always gain 100% of the vote), and China still possessed the same form of election committees that the Soviet model did, the fact that CCP-aligned parties were allowed to have a voice in the system, often achieving significant amounts of seats in the National People's Congress, allowed for some ideological "breathing room" in the opinion of some scholars.
The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution also brought about the Revolutionary Committees, which overthrew the local and regional legislative branches and brought about direct democratic procedure [note to audience: did this also include multiple candidates? I have read conflicting reports.] and acted as a realm of struggle between rival factions of Red Guards and Party tendencies. While it cannot be denied that the struggle between the Red Guard factions eventually became violent, the United Front parties were suppressed, and the Revolutionary Committee model was far from perfect, the experience of democracy under the Cultural Revolution is something to be learned from- particularly incidents such as the Shanghai Storm of 1967 and events in Tibet- in future models of socialist states.
The Vanguard Party & Future Democracy, or, Where Am I Going With This?
Mao casting his vote in the 1953 general elections. What will this look like after our revolution?
So where am I going with this? Why did I rant so long about the past? Well, let me (finally!) get to my point before I open up questions for the comments section:
Personally, I believe in the need for a revolutionary, Marxist-Leninist party to be in command of any future socialist project. I believe that the communist road must be led by a communist party. As a Maoist, I agree with Mao in his belief that "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun," and thus I believe that the vanguard party must control the armed forces of any socialist state. I do not believe that non-Marxist or revisionist parties should be allowed to take control of the state, which would dismantle proletarian rule.
However, I personally am torn between the one-party model or the dominant party model: the comrade I discussed the question of elections and democracy with yesterday said that he believes that the masses will, broadly, not rally around a programme of a one-party state or of single-candidate elections. I will say though: I certainly agree that the primary Soviet model (model #2, i.e. having to publicly demonstrate your opposition to the candidate in writing) will result in elections being stripped of democracy!
The comrade also reminded me that in The State & Revolution, at no point did Lenin discuss the need for a one-party state, and that Lenin offered the Left S-R's a position in any post-Civil War government (unfortunately, Fanny Kaplann felt otherwise, and thus the one-party system resulted out of necessity). There is also the point that Lenin never truly formulated the idea of democratic-centralism in the modern Marxist-Leninist sense, which could result in the aforementioned dilemma of multiple candidates putting forward nearly-identical platforms.
Anyway, enough of my rambling. Here I put my questions to the floor:
1) How should democratic elections be held in future socialist societies? How shall the state supervise and enact them? Will we have things such as election committees, or something else?
2) Should we strive for a one-party state like the USSR, a dominant-party state (with a party-led united front) like China, or multi-party state of a new type?
3) In a one-party or dominant-party state, should multiple candidates be allowed to run in opposition to each other? Would it be helpful, or would it be divisive, to have communist party candidates run against fellow communist party candidates?
4) If other parties are allowed to exist, especially outside a party-led united front, how do we keep revolutionary communist politics in command within a state?
Let's put our heads together, and let's have fun with this one...