In the previous essay, the Stalinist era of Soviet history was juxtaposed against the concerns of the Founders as discussed in the Federalist Papers. In this essay, that same era is examined within the context of the United States Constitution as adopted and ratified, and to look at the “failures” of the Stalin regime vis a vis America’s system of constitutional governance.
But it might be a mistake to call Stalin’s reign “a failure,” per se. Certainly, it was a failure insofar as the adherence to democracy or the protection of individual rights. One can also say that aspects of Soviet policy as compared to the revolutionary goals of improving the lives of “the people” were abject failures.
But in terms of doing what Stalin and his comrades were intending to do regarding creating a state in which power was concentrated in the hands of a few? They were brutally successful at that. In fact, it was only Stalin’s death in 1953 at the age of 74 that brought an end to his proximate reign, and it was the chaotic aftermath in the wake of Stalin’s death (and the power struggle that ensued) that brought some reforms to the Soviet Union. It wasn’t any greater adherence to some kind of principle of individual rights and limited government.
Keeping in mind that the Soviet Union did have a series of “constitutions”—including one in 1924 and another in 1936, as Stalin had truly consolidated his power. While these constitutions claimed to guarantee some measure of rights (as well as outlining a series of social and economic entitlement programs), they left intact other political machinations guaranteeing one-party rule and the concentration of power in the hands of very few.
In fact, it was after the passage of the Soviet Constitution of 1936 that some of the bloodiest, most-horrifying years of Stalin’s reign began. The so-called Great Purge not only swept up millions of innocents, it also swept up many of the architects of the 1936 Constitution itself!
Two of the most-basic differences between our constitutional system and the Soviet system are the adherence to basic concepts of due process rights, as well as the assurance of open debate and the protection of dissenting views. The denial of both within the Soviet Union allowed for the government to use the military and secret police to brutally repress conflicting views as well as killing and imprisoning millions more in both secret prisons as well as a system of forced-labor prisons known as the “Gulag.”
The head of the secret police under Stalin, Lavrentiy Beria, was noted for saying, “Show me the man and I’ll show you the crime.”
In other words, we don’t need due process or a rule of law. If we want to arrest someone or otherwise suppress dissent, we can simply make them disappear by accusing them of a crime, and because we don’t need to actually prove that crime, they can be taken away.
It is worth noting that two American socialist activists, John Reed and Emma Goldman, both of whom were eager supporters of the 1917 Revolution (and were attempting to bring similar revolutionary fervor to the United States), became privately disillusioned with the direction of the post-Soviet era under first Lenin and then Stalin—most notably because of the lack of democracy in practice and the suppression of dissent.
Under the American system, power is diffused, checked and balanced. Under the Soviet system, especially under Stalin, power is concentrated—and the politics of the CPSU (Communist Party Soviet Union) ran through every element of daily life, with the Politburo (a central committee of the highest-ranking members of “The Party”) making policy and dictating that policy through the ranks of the Soviet bureaucracy.
Setting aside the secret police, at the time known as the NKVD (and later the KGB), the politics of communism (and adherence to party doctrine) also played a role in military command.
Under our system, the military is meant to be entirely free from the political machinery of our system—our military personnel are supposed to advance on their own merit, the military is an instrument of policy, and the guidance of that policy is balanced between the legislative and executive branches. The President is Commander-in-Chief, but only Congress can declare war, for instance.
During the Soviet era, not only was the military largely under the direction of the Premier (the Soviet leader, also known as the General Secretary) and the Politburo, but each individual unit was given a “political officer,” known as a “Zampolit,” who would ensure that Marxist-Leninist dogma was injected into military affairs, as well as recommend advancement or punishment for military members depending on their adherence to that dogma.
It is also worth noting that the abuse of power by the NKVD and the interference by the Politburo in military affairs led to Field Marshal Gregoriy Zhukov’s support of Nikita Khrushchev in his bid for power following Stalin’s death, since Zhukov was deeply concerned for what might happen should Beria, the head of the secret police, gain greater power under Stalin’s successor, Georgy Malenkov.
In the end, it is not only our Constitution, but the perspective in how we approach government and governance in the United States, that fundamentally sets us apart from any communist or socialist system—whether under Stalin or Krushchev or Brezhnev, or in Maoist China or Castro’s Cuba or North Korea led by a Kim.
We approach governance from the perspective that rights are naturally occurring in man and that power flows from the citizenry to the government, whose powers are carefully enumerated and tightly constrained. These other systems believe that government grants rights to their citizens, and that absent action by that citizenry, it is assumed that the government retains all power to act.
There were no checks on power in Stalin’s USSR—millions died or suffered as a result of it.
Andrew Langer is President of the Institute for Liberty, as well as Chairman and Founder of the Institute for Regulatory Analysis and Engagement. IFL is a non-profit advocacy organization focused on advancing free-market and limited government principles into public policy at all levels. IRAE is a non-profit academic and activist organization whose mission is to examine regulations and regulatory proposals, assess their economic and societal impacts, and offer expert commentary in order to create better public policies. Andrew has been involved in free-market and limited-government causes for more than 25 years, has testified before Congress nearly two dozen times, spoken to audiences across the United States, and has taught at the collegiate level.
A globally-recognized expert on the impact of regulation on business, Andrew is regularly called on to offer innovative solutions to the challenges of squaring public policy priorities with the impact and efficacy of those policies, as well as their unintended consequences. Prior to becoming President of IFL and founding IRAE, he was the principal regulatory affairs lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Business, the nation’s largest small business association. As President of the Institute for Liberty, he became recognized as an expert on the Constitution, especially issues surrounding private property rights, free speech, abuse of power, and the concentration of power in the federal executive branch.
Andrew has had an extensive career in media—having appeared on television programs around the world. From 2017 to 2021, he hosted a highly-rated weekly program on WBAL NewsRadio 1090 in Baltimore (as well as serving as their principal fill-in host from 2011 until 2021), and has filled in for both nationally-syndicated and satellite radio programs. He also created and hosted several different podcasts—currently hosting Andrew and Jerry Save The World, with long-time colleague, Jerry Rogers.
He holds a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from Troy University and his degree from William & Mary is in International Relations.