Constitution of 1918

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Adopted on July 10, 1918, amid violent civil war, the Soviet Constitution of 1918, the first charter of the new Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic (RSFSR), was described by Vladimir Lenin as a "revolutionary" document. It was, he said, unlike any constitution drafted by a nation-state. Nor was it derived, he noted, from any traditional Russian or Western juristic principles.

Unlike the three Soviet constitutions to follow (in 1924, 1936, and 1977), the 1918 constitution included the candid statement that absolute power resides in the "dictatorship of the proletariat," as embodied in the ideology of Marxism-Leninism and as specifically derived from the concept of socialist dictatorship developed in Karl Marx's major work, The Critique of the Gotha Program. The proletarian dictatorship is described in Soviet ideology as "power not limited by any laws." Although the constitution was proclaimed the "fundamental law of the Soviet State," the constitution was by no means seen as the only source of legal norms. The CPSU (b) Program and the decrees and orders of the Party Central Committee likewise were fully normative. So were decrees issued by the Council of People's Commissars.

Soviet constitutions thus reflected the fact that the Soviet state, the "superstructure" erected upon the economic "base," was the political expression of exclusive, one-party rule by the CPSU (b). Sub-sequent constitutions omitted specific reference to this dictatorship. Instead, they acknowledged, as did explicitly the last constitution of 1977, that the Communist Party was the "leading core" of all political and social organizations.

Other parts of the 1918 charter differed radically from previous or later constitutions of other states throughout the world. For instance, the 1918 constitution laid out the fundamental ideological goals of the Communist Party. One such goal was the building of a socialist society. Another was the promotion of world revolution. This wording was imitated in the charters of Soviet republics annexed into the union, which was officially proclaimed as the USSR in 1924.

The national legislative body established under the constitution was known as the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, described as the "supreme organ of power," despite the fact that most key legislation originated in the CPSU (b) bills presented to the congress were almost always passed and enacted unanimously. Moreover, the constitutionally empowered Central Executive Committee, that is, the perpetually meeting executive organ of the congress, was empowered, through its Presidium, to issue major decrees during the long interims between annual (later, less frequent) sessions of the more than two thousand-member plenary congress. Another governing body, the Council of People's Commissars, whose chairman was head of the government, or premier, likewise had the constitutional power to issue decrees.

In the congress served deputies of workers, peasants, and soldiers chosen and elected on single-list, nonsecret ballots from the provinces and other, smaller political-administrative areas of the RSFSR. In practice, the Congress of Soviets, like the USSR Supreme Soviet to follow as established in subsequent constitutions, became a "rubber-stamp," or pseudo-parliament whose powers were purely formal.

The first Soviet constitution of 1918 contained no formal listing of constitutionally guaranteed rights. Yet when the rights were eventually itemized in the 1936 constitution, the condition was inserted that the expression of all such rights by the populace must be "in accordance with" the principles laid down by the Communist Party. Constitutions in all sixteen (later fifteen) republics contained this provision, which, in effect, narrowed the expression of traditional civil rights.

See also: central committee; civil war of 19171922


Harper, Samuel N. (1949). The Government of the Soviet Union. New York: Van Nostrand.

Reshetar, John S., Jr. (1989). The Soviet Polity Government and Politics in the USSR, 3rd ed. New York: Harper and Row.

Towster, Julian. (1948). Political Power in the USSR 19171947. New York: Oxford University Press.

Albert L. Weeks

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Constitution of 1918

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