What Is the Communist Party?
The Communist Party is the only formal political organization permitted by the Soviet constitution. All control of political and economic life in the Soviet Union is centered in its hands. It is the ultimate source of power, the brains of the government, the unifying bond in a land of endless diversity.
The constitution of 1936 gives citizens the right to unite in various Communist-led organizations—trade unions, cooperative associations, youth, sport, and defense organizations, and cultural and scientific societies. All of these may nominate candidates for election to the soviets. But it does not permit the formation of political groups other than the Communist Party, which it describes as “the vanguard of the working people in their struggle to strengthen and develop the socialist order.” Stalin himself stated in 1936 that the constitution did not alter the position of the Communist Party.
The Soviet Union is thus a one-party state and this in fact means a one-party dictatorship. While citizens who are not party members may be elected to government bodies, the Communist Party controls all major legislative and administrative organs, and loyal party members occupy many responsible political and economic posts. The party formulates all important policies—which are then carried into effect by the legislative and administrative machinery of the state. No conflict can therefore arise between government and party, although the two are not formally merged.
According to 1938 figures the Communist Party, whose organization and functions are not described by the constitution, had approximately 2,500,000 members out of a total population of 170,000,000. The number had risen to 4,600,000 by 1943. The relatively small membership is due, in part, to the rigid requirements for admission, in part to the searching control exercised by party officials through periodic investigations.
The real seat of power
The nucleus of party organization is the party unit, which must include not less than three party members and may be formed in factory, village, or office. The party units elect delegates by secret ballot to a series of party organs, reaching the top of the pyramid in the All-Union Party Congress, the supreme organ of authority. This body, according to the party statutes, is to meet every 2 years. However, there has been no full-dress Congress since 1939.
Between sessions the Congress delegates its powers to a central committee, which it elects by secret ballot. The central committee, composed of 71 members, in turn elects a secretariat, an organization bureau (Orgbureau) which is entrusted with administrative functions, and a political bureau (Politbureau) of 9 members. The Politbureau is concerned with formulation of party policies and is the real source of authority and power in the Soviet Union.
The members of the Politbureau are named by secret ballot in the central committee of the Communist Party. But in practice their selection is determined by Stalin, secretary-general of the party since 1922 and himself -a member of the Politbureau. While Stalin occupied no important post in the government until 1941—when, like Lenin in the early years of the regime, he became premier—he has long exercised a decisive influence on both party and government policy.
All fundamental problems of party and government policy are first threshed out in the Politbureau, whose meetings are not open to the public. Such far-reaching developments as the Five-Year Plans, the “liquidation” of the kulaks, and the project for revision of the constitution, originated not with the organs of the Soviet government, but with the Politbureau of the party. There they were actually formulated by Stalin and his closest associates. This predominance of the party over the government, as already pointed out, means that the is and can be no political conflict between them. All leading Soviet officials are members of the party, while the majority of the members of the Politbureau occupy responsible govern merit positions.
The “party line”
The statutes of the party provide for freedom of discussion regarding controversial questions. Once a decision has been reached, however, party discipline demands the cessation of discussion. Thereupon, all party organs, as well as Communist groups in nonparty organizations (soviets, trade or professional unions, and cooperative associations), must immediately give effect to party rulings or, in common parlance, follow the “party line.” Dissenters of both Right and Left—for example Rykov and Trotzky—have been severely punished. It would be less than honest if we failed to mention Russian secret-police terror, purges, and concentration camps. The Soviet political system, then, is very different from our own. In contrast to our two-party system, with free expression of political opposition by the minority party, the Russians have a one-party dictatorship. It permits a considerable range of economic and cultural autonomy, but does not tolerate political opposition.