Recently I have read an article on Maxpark.com that claimed that Stalin wanted to introduce competitive, alternative elections in the USSR while the regional secretaries were strongly against the idea and pushed for a "great purge" of 1937 so to secure the positions after the new constitution of 1936 was introduced.

Some background. Following the constitution of 1926 the deputies were elected by the working collectives rather than by a popular vote. This was done so that the bourgeoisie could not participate.

The "stalinist" constitution of 1936 was the first to introduce the voting principle similar to the capitalist countries: the deputies were to be elected based on territorial principle. The newspapers of the time described the forthcoming voting as alternative and Stalin himself made a speech underlining the importance of the possibility of "revoking" a deputy, which as he claimed, was absent from the law of capitalist countries which made the deputies completely independent from the voters during their term.

The article claims that the secretaries were very much in fear about them to loose elections and pushed for political purges which they hoped to control.

Note also that Stalin was behind many other ideas that made the USSR more like other capitalist countries: he pushed for re-introducing military ranks, scientific degrees, reconciliation with the church, abandoned the idea of the world revolution, disbanded Comintern, renamed Red Army into Soviet Army, substituted the political commissars in the army to the commanders.

  • So what exactly is your question? Commented Mar 3, 2013 at 17:22
  • @Felix Goldberg Was Stalin the one who pushed for the territorial (civil) principle and competitive/alternative elections instead of elections by the working collectives (labour principle), effectively removing the dictatorship of proletariat.
    – Anixx
    Commented Mar 3, 2013 at 17:25
  • But did alternative elections ever take place at all in the Soviet Union? Commented Mar 3, 2013 at 18:03
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    And I take it that the one who was most afraid of being repressed was Stalin, right? LOL Commented Mar 3, 2013 at 18:44
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    What kind of answer do you expect here? Alternative elections were not implemented and government position on them was pretty much clear. Do you expect somebody to bring some kind of personal interview with Stalin regretting unfulfilled dream of universal elections? I believe in its current form question is not answerable. Commented Mar 5, 2013 at 7:10

2 Answers 2


Revolution in a backward country
It is true that in many ways Stalin reverted to the "old capitalist ways". However, there is a deeply communist rationale for such policies, which have nothing to do with the desire to establish a western style liberal democracy.

The problem lies in the fact that Marx and collaborators developed their theories for a developed capitalist country, such as were at the time France, Britain, the United States and to some extent Germany. In the logic of historical materialism: all these countries had already experienced the bourgeois revolution (i.e., transition from a feudal system to the capitalist mode of production), characterized politically by the establishment of a parliamentary liberal democracy and universal suffrage. Communist/Socialist revolutions were expected to take place in these countries, because (among other things):

  • the proletariat formed the majority of the population in these countries
  • the existing capitalist production relations were sufficiently developed (in Marx' opinion) to provide for the whole population, after the nationalization of industry (i.e., to implement the famous principle "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs".)

Russia did not satisfy these conditions - the majority of its population were peasants, who wanted to have land as their personal property, its industry was poorly developed, and its proletariat was small and lacked sufficient consciousness for transitioning to the Communism. Thus, Russia needed to go through the development of Capitalism, just as the western countries did in the XIX-th century. Marx did allow for the possibility that Russia transition direct to Communism, but only under the condition that there is simultaneous Socialist revolution in Europe.

That the Communist takeover in Russia would be accompanied by a Europe-wide revolution was indeed the expectation, seen as a precondition for the survival of the Communist regime in Russia. When this didn't happen, they indeed had to modify the theory, but introducing a concept of the Communism in a single country, and rolling back many of the sweeping communist reforms adopted in the early years after the revolution.

Since the Russian Communist didn't intend to give up their power, the transition to the Communism was supposed to pass through a prolonged period of the Dictatorship of the proletariat (Marx and Engels had postulated that such a period might be necessary, but they never spelled how long it could take). During this period the proletariat gradually develops the capacity to manage large-scale industry, while destroying the capitalist way of life.

The New Economic Policy was an even more explicit (although abortive) attempt to rush Russia through the capitalist stage of development. This problem was dealt with on a much large scale and in a longer period of time in China - even more agricultural country than Russia at the moment of revolution. In China, likewise, various attempts for quick transformation to Communism had failed (Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution, etc.), so that it eventually reverted to Capitalist society, although under the guidance of the Communist Party and in the conditions of supposedly non-antagonistic coexistence of classes.

A good reference here is Marxism after Marx by David McLellan.

Council system vs. Parliamentary democracy
Marxism opposes western-style parliamentary democracy, as a system which guarantees nominal, but not real equality. Indeed, people more privileged by birth, education, intelligence, physical strength or beauty, communication skills and other characteristics necessarily get bigger share of the pie in a liberal democracy, despite the seeming equality of rights. What is seen as main problems are:

  • the parliament (or elected government) is not representative of the real producers of the value (value as viewed by Marx, but not by the mainstream western economists)
  • once elected, the elected representatives are not responsible to the voters until the next election, and therefore subject to corruption (i.e., becoming tools of the capitalist class in exchange for material favors or help in getting re-elected.)

Marxist alternative is the Council system (Soviet is just the Russian word meaning Council.) Councils are formed at workplace, and exist on different levels - with representatives of lower councils elected to serve at higher levels. The council can recall their representative at any time - which is supposed to remedy the problem of corruption.

Introducing the council system was one of the key elements in Russian Communists trying to rush in the advent of Communism. It also had a convenient side effect of giving legitimacy to the claim that the elected National Assembly has been superseded by a more democratic system, and thus dismissing the Assembly (where the Bolsheviks didn't have majority.) Kautsky covers this in many details in his Dictatorship of the Proletariat, pointing also the arbitrariness of inclusion and exclusion from councils. Lenin's response The Proletarian revolution and the Renegade Kautsky mainly disputes whether Kautsky's view really represents Marx, although acknowledging the basic facts (Lenin's attempts to justify the Bolshevik measures as greater level of freedom and justice seem obsolete in historical perspective.) Finally, the council system as a form of "government" was apparently developed in details by Gramsci in his Prison notebooks.

Thus, return to the elections based on territorial principle constituted a reversal of a major Communist achievement. On the other hand, preserving the right of recall was supposed to soften the magnitude of the reversal (However, it is not clear whether this recall could be immediate, as in the council system, or via new elections, as, e.g., often practiced in the US.)

If any phrasing above appears too sympathetic to the Communist case, it is purely accidental. My only goal here is to provide a more informed opinion on the subject.

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    Well, in practice, the right of recall was only on paper (I really do not know but if it ever was put in action, it happened only to the representatives in disfavor of Stalin, like Yezhov). The concil system before Stalin's reforms also did not work.
    – Anixx
    Commented Aug 28, 2023 at 13:16
  • You make it sound like NEP was an "explicit" attempt to massage practice into the Marxist theory. Rather than, as it was, a desperate attempt to revive a totally ruined economy, abate hyperinflation and starvation. Most revolutionaries (Stalin in the first place) despised it from the outset. But Lenin likely understood he risked truly massive revolts. Ideologically, China's case is arguably different and closer to what you're describing (although, as is well known, Deng Xiaoping has witnessed NEP and could draw from its experience).
    – Zeus
    Commented Aug 29, 2023 at 5:29
  • @Zues I don't think there is really a contradiction here. Marxist theory has many weak points, but it does require high level of wealth in order to transition to communism. So the disastrous economic situation was expected from either Marxist or Western economics point of view, and the capitalism was the only way forward from either point of view as well. Deng Xiaoping probably took this into account, but he also had many Chinese failures to learn from. If I am not mistaken, China had never eradicated private production in agriculture (unlike Russia with collectivization and dekulakization.)
    – Roger V.
    Commented Aug 29, 2023 at 8:33

Basically, this is a lot of tosh. This, ahem, quaint theory is a nice specimen of the modern neo-Stalinist cottage industry. Reality was much simpler: the purges were ordered and organized by Stalin; no alternative elections were ever held in the Soviet Union (till the late 1980s when the system was in its death throes). This was of course by design - the party and Stalin were not willing to relinquish their monopoly of power.

The neo-Stalinists try to rewrite history in various ways. In this particular instance they try to argue that Stalin had nothing to do with the purges and that the "party elites" organized them in order to stimy Stalin's liberal reforms. This is really rich...

One simple question can clear up all this smoke and mirrors: if the "elites" were behind the purges and if they organized them against Stalin - why didn't they just purge Stalin himself?

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    Guess it made for a better propaganda. Commented Mar 4, 2013 at 0:13
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    "the purges were ordered and organized by Stalin." None of the post-archival histories of the sociology of the purges suggests this. Nor do they suggest that the purges were organised by "party elites." The sociologies I've read suggest that the purges were organised and supported at all levels of the party (from top to bottom) and amongst pro-party individuals. (Ðilas, Fitzpatrick, Solzhenitsyn, etc.). And that they weren't organised to stymie liberal reforms, but ensure the economic position of newer party members against older party members. Commented Mar 4, 2013 at 0:15
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    @SamuelRussell: Do you mean to say the purges were not initiated by Stalin? Commented Mar 4, 2013 at 0:36
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    and without the knowledge and approval of the Leader (Stalin that is) nobody'd dare purge anyone of any power. Or do you suggest someone in the armed forces decided to purge all the officers who were potentially not 100% loyal to Stalin on his own authority, and similar at all levels of the system? Maybe in remote areas a local party boss would order a few people murdered he considered potential rivals to his position, but nothing on the scale and at the high levels as did happen would ever pass muster had it not been approved by Stalin himself.
    – jwenting
    Commented Mar 4, 2013 at 7:04
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    Nice discussion, but when you think about purges, consider that Stalin's USSR was not orwelian, there was no TV in every house, even telegraph and radio in 1937 was still covering tiny parts of huge USSR. Moscow newspaper would arrive in some cities days later and others month later, small towns were connected to the others by country-roads and industrialization was only taking place, so horses. When you think about almighty dictator, note that he was just a small body in kremlin.
    – exebook
    Commented Mar 5, 2013 at 5:09

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